SATANISM (Religious Movement)

Accusations of Satanic worship or activity have been levelled against others (real or imagined) for centuries. Although rarely tested against the kind of evidence to be expected in modern law courts, they have frequently led to acts of violence against the accused. In the past it was equally rare to find people claiming or admitting to being Satanists unless they had been subjected to torture. However, there are now some self-identified Satanist organizations.

The classic accusations of Satanism are those that were rife in certain periods of European Christian history against Jews, heretics, lepers, and others. Putative refusal to be properly Christian led to accusations of serving a devil who opposed God and godliness. The character of this tempter and corruptor of humanity evolved dramatically within European Christianity alongside fears about and persecution of minority populations. If nascent Christianity had denied creative power to the devil and made it illegal to accuse others of witchcraft (understood here to be the ability to harm others by magic), medieval Christianity became ‘a persecuting society’ in the eleventh century (Moore, 1987). Magic was now accepted as a real possibility and threat. Opposition to Judaism provided the language for alleged gatherings or ‘sabbats’ of Satan-worshippers.

The transition from the medieval to early modern period was marked by an increased popularity of the notion of a ‘pact’ made between the devil and his worshippers, exchanging the individual’s eternal ‘soul’ for this-worldly material benefit. This is part of a wider concern with more mundane, perhaps religio-political, commitments illustrated by the rise of various ‘Congregations’ and ‘Covenants’ throughout this transitional period, and an increasing number of accusations made by one kind of Christian against another. In the days leading up to the French Revolution and the Enlightenment various libertarian social currents were manifest in clubs and gatherings that adopted the trappings of Satanism to provoke and satirize polite society. It has been alleged that the Black Mass (inverting or reversing Christian liturgy and symbols) was celebrated by aristocrats in this era.

In the 1890s a hoax that spread across Europe alleged that Freemasonry was a front for a Satanic conspiracy in which human sacrifices and sexual perversions were committed. While this scare reiterates earlier themes, those accused may represent a new target: Esoteric movements. Within the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn but creating a style unwelcome by the Order, Aleister Crowley (see Crowley, Aleister) made playful use of accepted images of Satan to attempt to provoke radical rethinking and imagination. His legacy survives not among self-identified Satanists but among esotericists and among those willing to accept his projected image at face value.

More recent scares involving allegations of Satanism include the spread of a conspiracy theory in 1990s asserting that children were likely to be abused and sacrificed by teachers and care-workers with the collusion of Satanic law-enforcement agents and others (see Richardson et al, 1991). Contemporary witchcraft eradication movements in various parts of Africa (including South Africa and Nigeria) elaborate syntheses of

Christian notions about the devil and traditional African understandings of harmful magic. Their current form often implicates educationally and economically successful elites as beneficiaries of a Satanic pact. These and all accusations about Satanism tend to say more about the accusers and changes in their surrounding society than about any Satanic reality. They are interesting as social movements but only background to explicitly self-identified Satanism.

In the context of an expectation of the imminent demise of Christianity, rather than in opposition to Christianity itself, Anton LaVey founded the Church of Satan in California in 1966. This did not require belief in, worship of or obedience to an actual entity beyond the individual Satanist. Rather, it used the image of an archetypal rebel and opponent to provoke people to attempt radical self-awareness, personal growth and individualism. That is, the Church was a self-religion (see Self-religion, the Self, and Self) using the form of esotericism and Satanism to generate change. Although LaVey disestablished the Church of Satan in 1975, it continues in the form of a loose network of individuals inspired by its image and ethos. However, some former members took a new direction following a revelation from Set, sometimes otherwise understood to be an ancient Egyptian deity or as Satan in a complex misunderstanding, that led Michael Aquino to found the Temple of Set. Temple members (Setians rather than Satanists perhaps) are divided about whether Set really exists or not (officially he does) but agree that their aim is to ‘become’ (a Temple buzz-word) more fully individual human selves. The Temple aligns itself more fully with more traditional esoteric movements in its teachings about magic but maintains LaVey’s stress on the need for transgressive performance to inspire change.

Satanic organizations publish voluminously within the Internet, but remain a small minority. Estimates alleging that 10 per cent or more of any population are Satanists are wildly inaccurate, the truth being that there are probably fewer than 100 Satanists in, for example, Britain. This does not include those teenagers who claim to be Satanists in a phase of adolescent rebellion but, almost without exception, make no contact with any group.

In short, there are two kinds of Satanism. There are accusations that reveal something about the accusers and wider society but are rarely based on truth. These perennial polemics have now, within a more secular and pluralist world that is perhaps more accepting of satire and sinister postures, been met by self-identification by a very small minority as Satanists. For such people, Satanism is a self-religion that utilizes sinister self-representation and transgressive performance to discover and fulfil individual self-identities. This Satanism is not about anti-social and cosmic rebellion but a means of self-affirmation.

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