If you watch some scary movies this Halloween season, you are going to see some Satanists. They are going to attempt to sacrifice babies and steal souls to gather great power or maybe even try to summon forth a physical manifestation of their dark lord. But what about the Satanist you might happen to meet in real life? Not that there aren’t any hardcore devil-worshippers out there, but odds are, you are more likely to run into a follower of atheistic strains of Satanism, whose world differs enormously from what you have seen on screen.
Theistic Satanists are those who believe in Satan as a very real and personal spiritual being and worship him accordingly. A quick perusal of horror movies shows quite a few with pesky devil-worshippers at the center of the conflict, from classics like Rosemary’s Baby, to more modern fare like The Reaping, The Lords of Salem, and The Last Exorcism. The central plot thread behind the paranormal activity in the vastly popular Paranormal Activity film series is the story of a familial demonic pact, and the inciting incident in the film Jennifer’s Body is an attempted Satanic virgin sacrifice gone wrong. This kind of portrayal of Satanists are often used in pop culture because their beliefs are easily fit into a neat and tidy box. This works well for creating villains that are easily understood by Western audiences who have largely grown up with simplistic black-and-white standards of morality in culture and society, which they then expect to see reflected on screen. Note: I in no way mean to imply that everyone IRL whose beliefs fall under the umbrella of “Theistic Satanism” spend all their time going around committing acts of ritualized violence and murder. Pop culture’s portrayal of followers of any faith tend to be hyperbolic and very one-dimensional.
It may surprise you to know a large number of Satanists do not believe in any kind of supernatural, spiritual entities. Atheistic Satanism sees Satan not as a deity, but rather as an archetype, a sign and symbol of revolt against hypocritical religious institutions. Taking its cue from the literal meaning of “satan” as the Hebrew word for “adversary”, this form of Satanism is a challenge, a rebuttal to the claims, beliefs, and practices of religion that its adherents view as contrary to human nature. To be a Satanist is to be, well, a devil’s advocate to a socio-cultural status quo that has been informed by antiqued religious doctrine. (For the remainder of the article, when I use the words Satanism/Satanist without qualifiers, I will be referring to atheistic Satanism unless otherwise specified.)
For my fellow Internet denizens, perhaps the most familiar Satanism-related activity of late is that of The Satanic Temple, thanks to their unique brand of shock-activism. They are widely known for their construction of a statue of Baphomet that is intended for the Oklahoma State Capitol lawn, in response to a monument of the Ten Commandments also being placed on this government property. Or perhaps you heard of their planned distribution of childrens’ materials in public schools after a Florida school district made a decision to allow dissemination of religious (i.e. Christian) materials. (For your very own PDF of “The Satanic Childrens’ Big Book of Activities”, click here.) The Temple’s mission as stated on the website includes such thoughts as: “The mission of The Satanic Temple is to encourage benevolence and empathy among all people. In addition, we embrace practical common sense and justice” and “As Satanists, we all should be guided by our consciences to undertake noble pursuits guided by our individual wills. We believe that this is the hope of all mankind and the highest aspiration of humanity.” A little different than baby sacrificing!
Atheistic Satanism really takes its pinnacle in LaVeyan Satanism, so named for one Anton Szandor LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan (est. 1966). LaVeyan Satanism is the earliest organized form and likely the most influential branch of atheistic Satanism, and the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably. LaVey’s philosophy (some may say his brand of Satanism is more a philosophy than a religion) can perhaps be succinctly described as “hedonistic humanism”, albeit much less optimistic and more self-serving than most connotations of humanism that are generally spoken of today. As LaVey spake in his seminal, and aptly titled, work The Satanic Bible, “Satan represents man as just another animal, sometimes better, more often worse than those that walk on all-fours, who, because of his ‘divine spiritual and intellectual development,’ has become the most vicious animal of all!”
Now, animalistic/carnal self-gratification may be paramount to Satanism, but this amoral hedonism does not preclude Satanists from acting in ways that would be perceived as in line with traditional standards of morality. In fact, the libertarian individualism at the heart of Satanism has as its corollary a strong, healthy respect for the freedom of those around you to do as they please. A quick glance through The Eleven Satanic Rules of the Earth will show this call to respect our neighbor’s own individual liberty as they should respect ours. However, it is also shows the Satanic tenet that infringing on another’s personal freedom will not be tolerated. For more concepts that inform a Satanic moral worldview, look through LaVey’s Nine Satanic Statements and this list of Nine Satanic Sins; for the most complete picture, of course, check out The Satanic Bible.
Using characters based on LaVeyan and related models of Satanism would be more challenging to writers and audiences because of their inability to be pigeon-holed into pre-conceived notions of morality. Now, frequently characters deviate from idealized notions of traditional morality; but I’d be willing to wager that people would be much more likely to rally behind a character who commits “immoral” acts, but has a traditional “moral center”—a good Christian dad who will kill in defense of his daughter, for instance. What about the opposite, someone with a very different, even at times antithetical, moral center doing so-called “moral” acts, such as a Satanist rescuing someone from grave danger? That might throw an audience member in for a loop of psychological dissonance they weren’t expecting, but would be invaluable in helping open their minds.
In short, I would love to see some Satanist characters in pop culture, doing what they do best: not sacrificing kittens, but rather challenging deeply held beliefs about the intersections of human nature and morality. Having a Satanist steal souls to bring about an apocalypse does nothing but repeat tired stories that enforce stereotypical portrayals with the bad guys in (metaphorical) black hats and the good guys in white hats. How about a Satanist father stopping at nothing to save his daughter from the clutches of a deranged serial killer? Or a Satanist standing up against a vampire clan because they’re threatening her territory and companions? Maybe I’ll just have to write these characters myself.