Satanism is a social and/or political expression as well as a religious articulation. It can include a literal or symbolic worship of Satan, the enemy of the Judeo-Christian God, and its beliefs are based primarily on the rejection of or opposition to traditional Christian beliefs and values (1).
According to some scholars, “Satanist” applies to a very restricted list of organizations such as Satanic churches and its members (2), and it is often perceived as the substitution of the mainstream norms of dominant society with antithetical ones (3). These antithetical behaviours and practices include hedonism, permissive sex, or indulgence in activities often labeled taboo or deviant by conventional society. According to Michael Aquino, the founder of the Temple of Set, Satanism is,
“a social gesture of outrage against what was felt to be the hypocrisy of conventional society, particularly in terms of its religious values” (4).
Some notable efforts of the group are its activism on the issues of separation of church and state, challenging the placement of Christian monuments in public spaces, opposing the idea that the United States is a “Christian nation”, and more.
Satanism’s Negative Public Reputation
Although researchers hold “established” Satanism to constitute a legitimate religious expression, Satanism in general has been the recipient of much negative public and lay opinion. A major reason for this is because it is deemed occult and therefore the antithesis of traditional religious views (5). This view was strengthened via the excessive negative media attention given to the movement in the late 1980s and 1990s that contributed to the perceived existence of a Satanism threat (6). According to scholars Jenny Reichert and James T. Richardson,
“The moral panic concerning Satanism that swept America in the late 1980s and early 1990s closely resembled the “religious cult” scare of the 1970s and 1980s that arose with the development of certain new religious movements. Both scares led to defining participants as misguided, mentally unfit or evil, and both were viewed by some as threats to the moral fabric of society and to family life. Groups were accused of spreading false teachings and seducing young people away from their normal and expected career paths” (7).
Such views were encouraged by the mass media, such as the newspapers, tabloids, and talk shows, as well as by conservative religious groups who focused on the purported anti-social or criminal activity of Satanists. These alleged activities included instances of graffiti, animal mutilation, vandalism, and allegations of kidnapping, rape, child abuse, and sacrificial murder (8). Four major social movements made known their opposition to Satanism during the 1980s: fundamentalist Christianity, the anti-cult movement, child protection movement, and victim/survivor movement.
However, academic and scholarly views on the religion have been quite different. Most sociological discourse has viewed Satanism as harmless and that the negative views are based more on ethnocentric prejudice than on actual encounters (9). According to Arthur Lyons, a researcher who has conducted studies of various Satanic groups, the allegations of violent crimes such as sacrificial murder or ritualistic child sexual abuse are “urban legends” without a factual basis (10). Sociological research has generally represented Satanism as a harmless, law-abiding alternative religion.
Some other religious traditions and practitioners have also been called Satanic. For example, witchcraft, paganism, and New Age Spirituality have too been lumped into the same boat.
“Satanic Establishment” and “Satanic Underground”
The term “Satanic Establishment” is used to refer to the respectable forms of Satanism, whereas “Satanic Underground” denotes the reputed criminal elements of Satanism (11). Some Satanic groups have obtained a level of social legitimation through an embodiment of respectable expressions of their beliefs. An example of this type of Satanism is the Church of Satan which is usually very visible and highly structured. The Church of Satan has officially condemned illegal activity and has taken a law-abiding stance (12).
However other “underground” manifestations of Satanism have included reputed participation in antisocial or criminal behaviour. The activities of these individuals or groups are less structured and lack the organizational dimensions of the Satanic Establishment. To date, most sociological work on Satanism has concentrated on the Satanic Establishment, whereas the media has centered mostly on the Satanic Underground. Although there have been accounts of abuse, such as accounts of sexual abuse of children and ritualistic animal sacrifices, little objective evidence supports claims of an increase in Satanist practice of illegal activities.
Scholars have also acknowledged that the practices of the Satanic Establishment, despite still deliberately diverging from the dominant society, are more similar to the mainstream than is commonly thought (13). They find it necessary to conform to conventional behaviours such as, for instance, avoiding the use of drugs and the excessive use of alcohol, and they make their organizations accessible to non-members. Their publications and practices are also open to public scrutiny and formal sanction. Moreover, the Church of Satan has an official membership list that provides for communication and networking among members. Although the Satanic philosophy advocates hedonism and self-centeredness, the Satanic Establishment practices this within the confines of the law, which is partly why social panic about Satanism has decreased substantially since the mid-1990s, as reflected in the decline of media attention and the number of legal cases involving allegations of Satanic practice (14)
Satanism’s Primary Text(s)
The musician and occultist Anton Szandor LaVey (1930-1997), the central figure of the Satanic movement and the founder of the Church of Satan, authored The Satanic Bible (1969) in which he put to paper the teachings and rituals of his church. This text is considered by Satanists an authoritative work although it is not viewed as divinely inspired like some sacred texts of other religions. The Satanic Bible’s major purpose is to present alternative ideologies and practices to mainstream Christianity through its secular humanistic philosophy and its teachings on human beings only having one life that they ought to live hedonistically. For instance, The Satanic Bible renders the person as god if she so wishes: “The Satanist feels: ‘Why not really be honest and if you are going to create a god in your image, why not create that god as yourself?’” It further states that “every man is a god if he chooses to recognize himself as one” (15). According to the High Priest of the church,
“Each Satanist is his or her own “god” and is thus free to develop a subjective hierarchy of values meant to enhance their lives and those of the people, objects, and ideas they chose to cherish” (16).
The Satanic Bible also places emphasis on indulgence over abstinence, rational self-interest over altruistic sacrifice, activity in this world over dreams of a future existence, to “do unto others as they do unto you,” to respect the rights of others and to protect children and animals. LaVey at no point teaches that Satan is an actual supernatural being but instead views him as a symbol. Satan is a symbol of rebellion, which is a clear play on the biblical myth of Satan’s rebellion against God, as well as a symbol for intelligent criticism, personal liberty, and pride in oneself.
Several other important texts have been authored by LaVey’s hand on the philosophy of Satanism. These include They are The Satanic Witch, The Satanic Rituals, The Devil’s Notebook, and Satan Speaks. Another important book is The Church of Satan by Blanche Barton. This work provides readers a detailed history of the organization and lists the Satanic films, photos, music, and books that have played significant roles in the movement’s historical development.
Satanism’s Concept of Deity
Reichert and Richardson explain that modern Satanism is broad as it,
“spans the field from organized religion in the strictest sense, with structured doctrine, practice, hierarchy and community, to an atheistic, self-centric, individualistic philosophy. Many Satanist groups are inspired by Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, founded in the late 1960s, though many contemporary Satanists are not members but navigate both theistic and secular components of what is widely considered a “self-religion” (17).
Most Satanists hold a relatively casual societal attitude toward the spiritual and the supernatural. Many, if not most, Satanists are atheist and the Church of Satan does not believe that Satan is a literal supernatural being. Some Satanists, whom one can refer to as “theistic Satanists” (although the Church of Satan rejects this term as a description of Satanists, and calls such persons “devil-worshipers” rather than legitimate Satanists), do believe that Satan is an existing spiritual entity. Those members of the church who do not believe in the supernatural can be called “atheistic Satanists.” Some Satanists are dualists in that they believe Satan represents the god of evil, equal in power and importance to the god of good. Despite this apparent diversity, the unifying aspect to Satanists is that Satan’s attributes are defined within the framework of opposition to Christianity and perceived hypocritical theistic religions. Belief in Satan, whether as a symbol or as a real entity, is attractive to some people because within the movement devious behaviour is tolerated or even encouraged, which provides members with a feeling of identification and relief from feelings of alienation from the societal mainstream.
According to The Church of Satan, they are not a congregational religion and they do not have set activities, meetings, or contacts (18). It is not a “church” in the sense of a physical building, but rather denotes a body of people who all share an adherence to the same religion (Satanism). The Church of Satan does not require conducting ministers or official sacred relics, because the information for its rituals is contained in The Satanic Bible. However, the church does help to facilitate the meeting of like-minded Satanists, as well as manage online private spaces for members, such as exclusive internet forums. The Church of Satan claims not to be evangelical because it would rather people join the movement by their own accord than through deliberate missionary efforts of pursuing them. The current High Priest is Magus Peter H. Gilmore, who is easily identifiable in light of his mage-like beard and almost entirely black clothing. Gilmore is assisted by his wife, the church High Priestess Peggy Nadramia.
Satanism’s Rituals and Practices
Satanic beliefs may be expressed through a variety of practices that are mostly conducted by individuals in their private space or in small groups. These include activities considered deviant or forbidden by the social mainstream, as well as parodies of more traditional religious rites (19). An example of parody is the altered ritual of “Black Mass”, which is essentially a mockery of the Catholic communion ritual, turning crucifix crosses upside down, and reading the Lord’s Prayer backward. There are also volitional rituals the church describes as “self-transformational psychodrama” (20). Its purpose is to release the practitioner from his unwanted emotional baggage that is hindering joy in his life. These rituals are not acts of worship of any higher power or deity. In The Satanic Bible, LaVey outlined three basic types of rituals: Lust, Compassion, Destruction. Each of these rituals has its own type of psychodrama that intends to release one from his emotional baggage. The Lust ritual has the goal of relieving sexual frustration through the fantasizing of an ideal sex partner. The Compassion ritual attempts to rid the practitioner of feelings of inadequacy so that success in one’s chosen activists can be achieved. The Destruction ritual aims to release the practitioner’s fury against anyone who has unjustly wronged him or her. This can include saying a classic curse, sticking pins in an effigy of the person, or venting one’s anger in a litany.
There are no statistics on the total number of Satanists globally although they exist in several countries. This lack of knowledge is because the question of their demographics has been rarely investigated (21), although some scholars say that the Church of Satan’s members are mostly aged 25 to 50, white, and middle-class, with a number of professionals included (22). When asked the question of its constitutive, The Church of Satan explains that “All that we will say is that we have members in just about every nation on the planet, and the membership has always grown as the years pass” (23).
1. Bodemann, Michal. 1974. “Mystical, Satanic, and Chiliastic Forces in Countercultural Movements: Changing the World-or Reconciling It.” Youth and Society 5:433-447; LaVey, Anton Szandor. 1969. The Satanic Bible. New York: Avon; Taub, Diane and Nelson, Lawrence. 1993. “Satanism in Contemporary America: Establishment or Underground?” The Sociological Quarterly 34(3): 523-541.
2. Carlson, Shawn and Gerald Larue. 1989. Satanism in America: How the Devil Got Much More Than His Due. El Cerrito, CA: Gaia. p. 11.
3. Bodemann, Michal. 1974. Ibid.
4. Aquino, Michael. 1988. Transcript number W373 from The Oprah Winfrey Show, February 17. New York: Journal Graphics. p. 3.
5. Taub, Diane and Nelson, Lawrence. 1993. Ibid. p. 524
6. Reichert, Jenny and Richardson, James. 2012. “Decline of a Moral Panic: A Social Psychological and Socio-Legal Examination of the Current Status of Satanism.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 16(2): 47-63.
7. Reichert, Jenny and Richardson, James. 2012. Ibid. p. 48.
8. Noble, Julie. 1988. Satan Worship: Obsession Causes Concern.
9. Bainbridge, William. 1978. Satan’s Power. Berkeley: University of California Press; Truzzi, Marcello. 1972. “The Occult Revival as Popular Culture: Some Random Observations on the Old and the Nouveau Witch.” The Sociological Quarterly 13:16-36.
10. Arthur, Lyons 1988. Satan Wants You: The Cult of Devil Worship in America. New York: Mysterious Press.
11. Taub, Diane and Nelson, Lawrence. 1993. Ibid. p. 525.
12. Alfred, Randall. 1976. “The Church of Satan.” In The New Religious Consciousness, edited by Charles Y. Glock and Robert N. Bellah, 180-202. Berkeley: University of California Press; Truzzi, Marcello. 1974. “Nouveau Witches.” The Humanist 34(5):13-15.
13. Alfred, Randall. 1976. Ibid; Taub, Diane and Nelson, Lawrence. 1993. Ibid. p. 530.
14. Reichert, Jenny and Richardson, James. 2012. Ibid. p. 46.
15. LaVey, Anton Szandor. 1969. Ibid. p. 96.
16. Dread Central. 2016. Exclusive: High Priest Peter H. Gilmore and High Priestess Peggy Nadramia Talk the Church of Satan. Available.
17. Reichert, Jenny and Richardson, James. 2012. Ibid. p. 49.
18. The Church of Satan. About the Organization. Available.
19. Alfred, Randall. 1976. Ibid; Lyons, Arthur. 1970. The Second Coming: Satanism in America. New York: Dodd, Mead; Rhodes, H.T.F. 1974. The Satanic Mass. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel.
20. The Church of Satan. Ritual and Ceremony. Available.
21. Taub, Diane and Nelson, Lawrence. 1993. Ibid. p. 525.
22. Alfred, Randall. 1976. Ibid; Moody, Edward. 1974. “Magical Therapy: An Anthropological Investigation of Contemporary Satanism.” In Religious Movements in Contemporary America, edited by Irving I. Zaretsky and Mark P. Leone, 355-382. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
23. The Church of Satan. About the Organization. Available.