Despite its resurgence in popularity as a result of the activities of The Satanic Temple (TST), Satanism is still a very widely misunderstood concept. It’s a subculture that values diversity of opinion and individualism. So (as has been occurring with increased frequency as of late) many Satanic groups are reluctant to exclude people who claim to believe in the existence of a literal, supernatural, entity they call Satan.
This trend, I think, is a mistake to allow to persist. It is as much a mistake for practical reasons as it is a betrayal of intellectual honesty. That isn’t the fault of any organization or their adherents, though some are clearly more culpable than others.
The Source of Mystical Thinking in Satanists
All varieties of Satanic thought have their own prescriptions for how to deal with claims of theism, supernaturalism, spiritualism, and other unverifiable chicanery. In the Church of Satan (CoS), they suggest ‘not giving your opinion unless it is asked for’ and employ a lot of talk about only suspending rationality within ‘the ritual chamber’.* Essentially they say you are free to believe crazy unscientific stuff on your own time (but it isn’t mandatory), just keep it locked away in a special room and don’t let your crazy out to play in the real world. They go on to say that once you’re done playing at magic in your ritual chamber that you should forget about it and trust that whatever you did will somehow have a tangible effect on the real world through, as Salman Rushdie would call it, ‘a process too complicated to explain’. (Yes, I’m referencing Rushdie’s children’s fairytale and not The Satanic Verses. Buckle-up.)
LaVey’s Unfalsifiable Conceit
The problem with LaVey’s concepts of ‘greater magic’ and ritual are twofold. The first is that he proclaims that one must, if one performs so-called magic, recognize that it worked. This is essentially insisting that one commit a cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. That is to say, just because you did a thing it does not follow that the thing you did is responsible for some unrelated thing happening afterwards. Calling such flawed logic ‘supernormal‘ instead of supernatural doesn’t fix that problem.
Consider as an example: Suppose you have a big job interview this afternoon and you’re nervous about it. So, to relax yourself, you masturbate in your bathroom before leaving for the interview. You then get the job. The act of you masturbating did not influence the universe to make your future employer more receptive to choosing you as the best candidate for the job. You did not, upon orgasm, send your energy out into the ether and bend reality to your will to subtly influence events through mysterious means. You had a wank and may thus have been more relaxed or appeared more confident than you would have been if you hadn’t. You also can’t know whether you would have gotten the job anyway if you didn’t do any of that, which makes any claim of effect completely untestable. LaVey, however, insists that you accept that it was indeed the case that your 5 years of undergrad, MBA, and letter of recommendation from your previous employer were insufficient and it was that last minute tug-job that truly clinched the gig for you. It is, to put it bluntly: pure superstitious nonsense.
There Is Nothing ‘Magical’ About It
The other problem with LaVey is that he makes ritual experience entirely unfalsifiable as a matter of practice. Since such ritual is to be done in private, one is not to discuss their ritual practice in the wider world and ‘keep it in the chamber’. This takes advantage of several flaws in human cognition. If you perform a ritual and achieve your desired result, then you are to attribute success to that ritual. If you perform a ritual and fail to achieve your desired result, then you did something incorrectly. If you try to ask someone what went wrong you’re told it’s because you didn’t suspend your skepticism hard enough, that you did something incorrectly, misinterpreted a teaching, or some other nonsense that puts the blame on you and not the method. LaVey was clever, and took advantage of the same blindspot that makes people remember the hits and forget the misses at a John Edward performance.
I suspect that criticizing LaVey like this will draw ire from some people in the CoS camp, but the sheer truth of the matter is that a man in his mid 30’s wrote a book that is full of information that is either obsolete, misleading, or wrong. That’s not to say there aren’t some good insights and advice in LaVey’s books, people who are interested in Satanism should read them. But over 50 years since the publication of The Satanic Bible its magical language, obfuscation, and psychological theory that has just plain been demonstrated to be incorrect are a distraction at best and intentionally deceptive to continue to advocate at worst.
This brings us back to Theism
On one hand, the kind of willingness that leads people to include theists and magical thinkers of all stripes in Satanic groups is just a function of demographics. There just aren’t a lot of people willing to call themselves Satanists, and fewer who do so in public.
To some extent if you want to build a self-sustaining organization allowances must be made for difference of opinion. So, many groups are content to say anyone can be a member if they can rectify the beliefs of the group, as expressed by the organization, with their own personal beliefs. There’s nothing inherently wrong with saying ‘if you agree with what we’re doing and want to help with what we’re trying to do, then we don’t really care about much else’. Any civic or service organization would be foolhardy to turn away volunteer help, after all. That’s more or less how Unitarian Universalism works.
But religions are a bit of a different animal than special interest groups. Members of a religion should agree on what they think the facts of reality are irrespective of whether what they believe is accurate. So, as it applies to Satanism, we really need to settle this business in which people claim that they can believe in all manner of woo and spiritualism while still adhering to “one’s best scientific understanding of the world”. If what you believe does not comport with reality you will, on a long enough timeline, make poor decisions that betray your intentions.
“One’s Best” not “The Best”
Now, here we have an interesting point. When Greaves and Jarry (much as I consider them friends) contrived the tenets of TST they explicitly said that beliefs should conform to “one’s best scientific understanding”. One’s best, not ‘the best’. That is to say, people may believe wrong things because they don’t know any better, they should be forgiven for doing what they think makes sense because they have faulty evidence for their beliefs or have made a logical mistake. That is not an insult to their intelligence, it is an indictment of their education. This distinction is often conflated with TST’s tenet about compassion to suggest that if someone believes something that is demonstrably wrong, because they are unaware of (or dismiss) the evidence that proves it wrong, that it would be compassionate let them keep believing it rather than be mean and shatter their faith. But that’s basically saying ‘truth doesn’t matter’.
I, for one, fail to see how that is compassionate. Is it compassionate to let a cancer victim fritter away their savings on healing crystals and hokum tea treatments? No. Is it compassionate to allow AIDS epidemics to continue unabated because the Catholic Church teaches that condoms are sinful and that using them merits eternal torture? No. Where is the compassion for your fellow thinking and feeling human beings in allowing them to persist in unwitting ignorance? I don’t see it. I would say that to struggle for justice is to struggle to ensure that if people hold flawed beliefs that it is a duty to challenge those beliefs. Justice cannot exist if we don’t even agree on the facts.
Now of course Satanism does not proselytize as a matter of principle. I don’t particularly care if other atheists, nontheists, nones, or humanists understand the value and meaning behind why I call myself a Satanist. I certainly don’t care if they agree with the subjective experiences that have lead me to identify as one. So I don’t need to convince anyone to become a Satanist … but I will most certainly try and convince people to question their belief in deities, the supernatural, illuminati cult conspiracies, bigfoot, and other irrational claims that are unfounded. CoS likes to say that TST is an ‘atheist activist group’, and it is … but they’re still Satanists.
Lucien Greaves once said “I think if the theocrats are trying to bring us their vision, their revisionist vision, of a Christian nation it is very much our duty to bring them Hell.” I would go further. If spiritualists, ‘magic’ practitioners, superstition and woo peddlers, snake-oil salesmen, and grifters of any sort seek to distort fact and propagate fallacious beliefs as truth they do a great disservice to the human endeavor. They deserve our rancor; they deserve our objection. Silent complicity is not compassion, nor does it lead to justice. Those who have been taken in by hucksters, frauds, and even the well-meaning but poorly informed deserve compassion and understanding. Those who propagate it for their own gain should be exposed. These sentiments should be true for all people who value reason and truth. It doesn’t matter whether or why you call yourself a Satanist, Humanist, Atheist, nontheist, none, Skeptic, Mythicist, or Bright to say that it is right to want people to believe true things and not believe untrue things.
*Note: It is an interesting academic aside to mention here that LaVey’s prescription for ritual practice is, possibly, whence the name “The Satanic Temple” came from, as he wrote “The ‘intellectual decompression chamber’ of the Satanic temple might be considered a training school for temporary ignorance, as are ALL religious services!” Make of that what you will; I haven’t asked Lucien Greaves or Malcolm Jarry about it because I don’t think it matters much.