Religious But Not Spiritual: Modern Satanism in the Atheist Community

Religious But Not Spiritual: Modern Satanism in the Atheist Community September 25, 2017

We’re coming up on what I consider a very special date in history. This Saturday will mark the 10 year anniversary of the recording of ‘The Four Horsemen’ video in which Christopher Hitchens, Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris discussed the rise of Atheism. The video represents an interesting turning-point in the secular community and I think is one of the most influential videos of “New Atheism”. September 30th is also coincidentally International Blasphemy Day in commemoration of the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons in 2005.

Those events definitely set the tone for ‘what atheism is’ over the better part of my 20s and 30s.  The salient point being, as Hitchens would say “Religion Poisons Everything”. Indeed, it’s interesting how words like theism and religion are used interchangeably in the Horsemen video. Hitchens’ book title, perhaps more than any other, has lead to what I consider an unfortunate dogma within the Atheist community. Is religion really the issue? Our species, after all, seems pretty hard-wired for it. But to many Atheists acknowledging any positives of religion is almost its own kind of atheistic heresy.

This dogma has made it difficult for the Atheist community to reconcile non-belief with the kind of community and outreach that are typically provided by religion. There have been fits and starts. Atheism+ was 2012’s fizzled “new-wave” which tried to meld progressive ideology with Atheistic identity. Unfortunately for the plussers as it turns out there are a lot of atheists who simply aren’t progressive but ardently defensive of Atheism as an identity. Conversely, the apolitical Sunday Assembly is an earnest attempt to provide religion’s sense of spectacle, but their neutral stance on positive belief claims renders them ineffectual as a way to marshal support for secular causes. Humanists have achieved a certain level of success, but their efforts to put a joyful and inoffensive face on non-belief continues to come off rather benign.

Put simply: Atheism, in and of itself, lacks ethos
Gustave Doré c. 1866, Public Domain
Gustave Doré c. 1866, Public Domain

At the same time, modern Satanism had been going about it’s business out of the public eye since the death of Anton LaVey in 1997. This left Satanism’s influence on culture largely relegated to early internet chat rooms, bulletin boards, rock music, and with a few exceptions a largely obscure arts culture. This time of subdued publicity and interest in Satanism is not hard to understand. The Satanic Panic was still very fresh in everyone’s collective mind in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

During the Panic anything even remotely subversive was labeled Satanic and people were obsessed with imagined notions of some grand Satanic cult conspiracy. “Satanic” was a rhetorical cudgel used to shun and ostracize. False accusations were many, levels of hysteria were high. It made absolute sense, at the time, for adherents of a religion based on self-empowerment and fulfillment of personal goals to say ‘maybe I should keep this to myself’.

But as a metaphorical figure Satan is nothing if not one to buck the system and challenge the status quo. It’s this ethos of Satan as the adversary of a tyrannical deity that I think is the driving factor of renewed interest in Satanic thought and philosophy. Perhaps more than that though, is what Satanism provides that mere Atheism cannot. Regardless of whether we’re talking about the The Satanic Temple, the Church of Satan, or any of the other numerous Satanic organizations out there Satanists make positive belief claims rooted in a narrative that has largely been thrust upon them.

To quote Michelle Shortt, Chapter Head of The Satanic Temple-Arizona at a recent speaking engagement for Freethought Arizona:

“We believe the concept of worshiping something above you is antithetical to being a Satanist. So we worship no gods, we have no masters and we simply use the metaphor of Satan as a character that we model ourselves by, a figure that stands up to arbitrary authority against all odds. So we believe that is something very noble on the part of Lucifer and we see god as tyrant … when people call us evil, what does that really mean? You have people at the pulpit who are molesting children and they’re considered good because they’re religious but they’re calling us evil. We take that, we take the position of the scapegoat and we wear it proudly … if you stand here godless, you’ve probably been considered a Satanist before. You’ve been demonized by your own community … we own up to the label that we’ve been given, and we call ourselves Satanists.”

I don’t say any of this to try and convince you

Satanism definitely isn’t for everyone. I’m well aware of the fact that many of my Atheist friends (and for that matter other Satanists) think that The Satanic Temple is merely political theater masquerading as religion. Others don’t feel a need for our rituals or psychodrama and just find the whole thing silly. That’s fine. I’m not trying to sell you on it. But there are many in the Atheist community who say “all religions are bad”. As we approach Blasphemy Day and I reflect on this past decade, I’m struck by how to some Atheists it is a sort of blasphemy of its own to claim otherwise.

I welcome your discussion in the comments but please see our comment policy on the About page. Play nice.

Photo:  Gustave Doré/via wikimedia


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