I know two fellow self-identified Satanists from conservative religious families whose Facebook posts inadvertently outed them to kith and kin as Satanists. One of these friends was already using a pseudonym for his Facebook account and merely fell victim to his homophobic brother’s attempted smear campaign after he had chosen to come out to his family as queer. He’s still unsure of how his sibling—clearly not the intellectual light of the family—was able to find out his Facebook alias. My other friend was, at the point when her activity log betrayed her, still using her own given name for her account. Too many left-hand-path-leaning posts had raised family members’ suspicions to the point that they began questioning her about it all. When she posted about this family pressure in a private group of Satanists to which we both belong, seeking advice about what she should do, one of the respondents reported the same problem with her own feed and family. Both my friend and her respondent have since created additional Facebook accounts under assumed names solely for the purpose of freely expressing their Satanic identities.
My own Facebook universe has changed dramatically over the eight years of my using the service, tracking right alongside shifts in my interests and the real-life communities I am a part of. There was a time when I was an active Mormon—even if I never truly believed in the literal truth of God, a divine Jesus, the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, or that the bevy of old white men who are in charge of the Church had a direct pipeline of communication to heaven. Still, my wife and I were sealed “for time and all eternity” in the Dallas, Texas, Temple, and a vast majority of my Facebook crowd at the time were also faithful Mormons from either the old ward we had left back in my home state of Georgia or our new ward out here in Texas. In the four years or so since we left the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and had our names officially expunged from all Church records, I have let go of all but five of our old Mormon friends, and three of those have since stopped being faithful Mormons themselves. Around the same time that we decided to leave the Church, I completed a Master’s Degree in Applied Linguistics at a small graduate school in south Dallas which—though officially accredited—serves in large part as the educational arm of an international organization devoted to training up Evangelical Christian missionaries to go out into far-flung regions of the earth and work with minority language communities to translate the Bible into their “heart languages.” In my two years as part of that program, I gathered a number of Facebook friends from the ranks of my fellow students at the school, all of them either current Christian missionaries or missionaries-to-be. In the years since graduation, however, the majority of those people have also left my Facebook orbit—or rather, I should say, I have cut the majority of them loose myself.
Now that I identify as a Satanist—don’t sneer, Joseph Smith’s ideas about the human potential for exaltation and those of Satanic humanism have more in common than you might suspect—I sometimes worry about what my Facebook activity has begun to look like to family and non-Satanist friends. As you might have gathered, in all my time on Facebook, I have continued to use my real name and have my privacy settings dialed in to a state of gentle relaxation. In DEFCON terms, my status of alert is…well…not alarmed. I am forty years old and have long since grown past feeling the need to apologize to others for expressing my identity. The older I get, the less I care about other people’s approval of what I believe and do. At least that’s what I tell myself. I also take to heart LaVey’s messages in The Satanic Bible and The Devil’s Notebook that Satanists should free themselves from the bonds of hypocrisy and get past the need to don Goodguy Badges whenever possible (though I’m sure LaVey would personally accuse me of wearing plenty of such badges!). I neither care for “the cacklings and carpings of the righteous” nor do I know of or care to trouble myself in finding any “secret places of the earth” to call my own in this overpopulated world. So I’m stuck with simply going ahead and proudly proclaiming “I AM A SATANIST!” and letting the virtual chips fall where they may. Plus, I’m just too lazy to bother with a second Facebook account. I already curse the one I have for sucking away so much of my time and vital energy.
Still, though, complete openness about such things is difficult to practice in polite society. I once took my kids to another child’s birthday party, and while my wife watched the girls bouncing away on oversized trampolines and hurling themselves headlong into vast pits of multi-colored foam, I suffered through an arduous conversation with another parent who didn’t waste much time honing in on the Luciferian sigil in pewter against an obsidian stone around my neck. I am not a Luciferian in the official sense, but the symbolic figure and sigil of Lucifer do adequately embody my personal Satanic philosophy. Plus, that particular symbol isn’t as recognized or alarming as, say, the Leviathan Cross or an inverted pentagram. When the other dad asked about the symbol on my necklace, at first I hemmed and hawed.
“Oh, it’s just a necklace I got from France,” I said dismissively, expecting my interlocutor to abruptly change the subject. But nope! He persisted. “Yeah, but what’s the symbol on it all about?” There was edge to the tone of his question, something I immediately identified as accusatory, though I was probably just projecting my own discomfort and insecurity.
Internally, I cast myself about in a hand-wringing frenzy, unsure of how much I should say, especially at a kid’s party and still within possible earshot of other parents chatting about their children, lawn care, exercise routines, and recent sporting events. My interrogator, though, had been a philosophy major in college and had spent the recent months reading about “scientific” approaches to topics usually reserved for pseudo-science or new age spirituality. He had questions for me about how new research into Near Death Experiences (NDEs) he cited might cause me to rethink or change my worldview at all. So, it obviously didn’t seem to concern him that we should be talking the occult and paranormal in the midst of the juvenile party atmosphere. Plus, I thought, a real Satanist wouldn’t shy away from admitting his true nature and sympathies. LaVey certainly wouldn’t. After all, it was just that sort of freedom that made—and still makes—Satanism so ineluctable for me. So I told him.
“It’s a Luciferian sigil. I’m a Satanist.” Though I’m pretty certain my voice dropped a few decibels when I fessed up. What was I so afraid of? Why was this simple admission of religious leanings—in America, no less, where religion has always hung from folks’ shirtsleeves—so tough to make?
As cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach argue in their new book The Knowledge Illusion: Why we never think alone, the great evolutionary strength of human beings has always come from the fact that we inhabit communities of knowledge. In essence, we rely for the lion’s share of our store of knowledge not only on the physical world around us and our own bodies (What’s the weather like today? Walk outside and find out!), but also the many other human minds to which we have constant access in the communities we are a part of. We access others’ knowledge so seamlessly and rely on it so heavily that we often don’t realize the true borders and boundaries between what actually lies inside our own heads and what knowledge comes from our community. An easy way to test this is to ask yourself whether you truly understand the workings of some simple device you use everyday, like a zipper. Rate your own knowledge of zippers or similar everyday devices and then try to set down in writing an actual step-by-step, detailed explanation of how those devices work and perform the function for which they were designed. (Hint: with zippers, you can’t just say “There’re these teeth and this doohickey pushes them together as you zip it up.” That won’t cut it.) You’ll probably find you have less detailed knowledge of such devices than you at first thought. The real knowledge of these machines lies outside of your own head and is simply “out there” in the knowledge community at large. You can do a simple web search to find out the details you yourself may lack, but you probably didn’t at first realize the true demarcation line between what knowledge about these devices you yourself command in minute detail and what knowledge you have access to only because it’s in your knowledge community. This arrangement isn’t a bad thing, by the way, not totally, at any rate. If you actually took the time to become personally expert in all the mundane things you rely on day to day, you’d never get anything accomplished because you’d be too busy studying up on what makes the things you need to work with work! Out of necessity, we limit our personal expertise to a fairly narrow subset of domains and rely on our communities of knowledge and the world around us for the rest.
In chapter eight of their book, Sloman and Fernbach write about a former Christian evangelical named Mike McHargue who left his faith and church behind when he began reading popular articles about science and discovered that his religious beliefs put him at odds with much of mainstream scientific knowledge. McHargue now hosts a podcast under the moniker Science Mike, covering questions on topics of both science and how to reconcile scientific knowledge and inquiry with faith. Science Mike still counts himself as a Christian, though not of the fundamentalist, literal Bible-believing stripe he grew up with. In one podcast episode, Science Mike took a question from an individual who had likewise fallen out of step with his church community on questions of science and wondered how he could continue to live as a member of that community while being at odds with it on questions such as evolution. Science Mike’s advice was:
“Do not live at odds with your community. You are a time bomb right now, because at some point you won’t be able to pretend anymore and you will speak honestly and there will be massive collateral damage and fallout in your church. It’s time to move on. It’s time to find a faith community that believes as you believe. When that happens, you’re going to lose relationships. Some people cannot agree to disagree, and those relationships can become abusive. There’s a lot of pain, because there are some people who are dear to me that I can’t talk to anymore…It is not possible for us to have the relationship we once had. It’s rough. I’m not gonna lie. It’s rough.”
Shifts in our interests and beliefs often make it difficult to continue to share meaningful experience with the communities we once aligned ourselves with. As we move on in the way we see ourselves and our worlds, so sometimes we find ourselves forced to move on from once cozy communities that still insist on the way of seeing, thinking, and believing we formerly knew but have grown beyond. We chalk up the pain of saying good-bye under such circumstances to growing pains.
As Science Mike alludes to in his answer, though, when we cannot fully move on and leave relationships with old communities with which we’ve significantly fallen out of step, the continued relationships can become abusive. This most often happens because the communities in question are our own families, and try as we might to believe otherwise, bonds of blood and familial affection rarely break for good and all. There’s almost always an ineluctable pull back to them, like the invisible, awful gravity of a gas giant. This sort of thing can also happen because the community in question is the local community in which we reside, and we don’t have the will or wherewithal to simply pick up residence and move elsewhere. And why should we, after all, just because we’ve come to believe different things or to practice different religions, or no religion at all? In a pluralistic, modern society, people should be able to believe and act freely so long as they don’t directly impinge on the will or bodily autonomy of others, right? Unfortunately, not everyone sees it that way.
Not only does not everybody believe in such freedom, but many actually believe those who seek to exercise freedom in this way should be punished. What’s more, they’re willing to go out of their way in order to exact that punishment. A 2011 study found that, in a game where the players could punish perceived unfair behavior by the other participants, those who had been exposed to a subconscious religious cue and who had reported on a questionnaire before playing that they had donated money in the past year to a religious organization were significantly more likely than players who had simply been exposed to the religious cue to punish their fellow players’ behavior, even though to do so caused them to incur a personal cost. People with faith-based commitments are not only more likely to punish what they perceive as anti-social behavior, but they’re likely to do so even if punishing such perceived offenses costs them personally. Ensuring conformity to their own community’s standards of belief and practice through punishment of infractions is that important to them.
So it should perhaps come as no surprise that some religious posters on social media opine that self-identified atheist parents should have their children taken away from them. Or that approximately 20 children were in fact removed from their parents’ custody in Rochdale, UK, in 1990 when Social Services were called in following the complaint of a young boy to his teachers that he was dreaming of ghosts, the deaths of babies, and both children and sheep held in cages. Coming on the heels of a spike in cases of alleged Satanic ritual abuse (SRA) in the United States and followed by a series of conferences pushed in the UK by what the papers reported to be “fundamentalist Christian evangelists” from the States who came to school British social workers in so-called “Satanic indicators,” the British Social Services thought they had to do with a similar ritual abuse ring and raided the families’ homes with the police. The children were relocated and held in children’s homes for anywhere from three to, in some cases, ten months. A court ruling in 1991 found that the investigations had been flawed and based on untrue allegations and improper interview techniques (false memories!). The city council of Rochdale has since apologized to the families victimized in the scare, though the victims also filed suit against their town for negligence in the conduct of the investigation. Similar cases swept other areas of the UK in the period from 1988 to 1991.
As a father to two young girls myself, cases like these make my blood run both hot and cold: hot because I seethe with anger at the injustice of it all and cold as I contemplate people in my wider community here in over-the-top religious Texas discovering my own Satanic philosophy and practices. (FYI, you nosey bastards: I’m not a theistic Satanist and most definitely do NOT practice any form of ritual abuse against anyone or anything, my own kids included! Hell, I hardly practice any rituals at all, whether abusive or benign! And I’m a fucking vegan, for Christ’s sake! So your pets are safe as well.)
Anyway, this weekend, when I attended an event hosted by the Austin Chapter of a prominent Satanic organization that included several musical performances and an Unbaptism ritual and then allowed myself to be photographed with a group of fellow Satanists from the Dallas area, I didn’t necessarily want to draw undue attention to myself. Sure, I’ve “taken the black” and have that durn sigil dangling in bright silvery metal against an obsidian background at my throat—and I had a Satanic sticker and button adorning the messenger bag slung across my back—but, other than all that, I was maintaining a low-ish profile. Two others of our group got tailed by security when they returned to their hotel at 2 or so in the morning Saturday because they “looked suspicious,” so our fears are not unfounded. Still, though, I said “yes” when the person who took the group selfie asked if she could tag me in the pic on Facebook. Of course, her account is under an assumed name. Almost as soon as I responded affirmatively, I regretted the decision and then second-thought my regret, followed by feeling shame for my second thoughts. I briefly considered (and almost succumbed to) un-tagging myself in the posted photo, but finally decided not to. What the hell! Why was I suddenly so petrified of being seen by non-Satanist family and friends on Facebook wearing my now-usual all black in a dive bar in Austin with an ashen inverted cross painted on my forehead? Why?
Well possibly because three of my Facebook friends are former colleagues from the missionary grad school—two of them are on faculty there—with whom I co-wrote a book about language documentation. I know these people well and have worked with them closely over the years, but while they and their religious beliefs and practices have changed relatively little in all that time, I’ve experienced the religious and philosophical equivalent of tectonic shift and upthrust of fresh mountain ranges. When I interact with them now, I feel like I’m shouting over jagged peaks and across plunging valleys in between us, even if my colleagues’ words and actions have given me absolutely no reason for assuming such separation between us.
Possibly also because my mother, though a secularist and an atheist, is one of the most judgmental people I have ever met. When I told her my wife and I were going to get baptized into the LDS Church way back when, she intimated that we had been somehow brainwashed and stated that she didn’t even know who I was anymore. Possibly because she saw something in my posts or a post I had liked or been tagged in on Facebook, she sent me a text while I was in Austin that read simply: “Where are you and why are you there?” Again, she hasn’t taken me to task over suspected Satanic activity betrayed by my Facebook log, but I feel as though she might at any moment, and I don’t want to have to go there with her, not because I’m afraid of doing so, but simply because I tire of her having yet more reasons to wag her mental finger at me, tsk-tsking inaudibly in the silence between us.
So I’m not actually as free as I’d like to pretend from the cackles and carps of those in my community, I reckon. Or really—and here’s the very proof of what LaVey was writing about—I’m not as free as I’d like pretend from the demon of my own self doubt. My servile fear in this area is almost entirely of my own manufacture. I am a slave to my dread of others’ reactions to my religious and philosophical self-expression and a hypocrite for my desire to have them go on believing one way of me while I myself plow off toward the left-hand path in relative secret (from them, at least). In short, in this way, I’m a bad Satanist.
If Sloman and Fernbach are right, modern humans have at their backs the better part of somewhere between 50,000 and as much as 200,000 years as modern homo sapiens of relying on communities of like individuals to store ever more complex knowledge about their world and how to get along in it. Yet, in privileging the ethos of a perpetual cosmic outsider whose loner status as self-exile was earned through open rebellion against the Author of It All, Satanism naturally attracts and cultivates those who stand on the fringes or even altogether outside of the larger communities to which they would otherwise belong. In resisting the pull of the unreflective majority, we oppose ourselves to nationalisms, religious dogmas, racial ideologies, binarities of gender, simple bullying. We take up the fool’s errand of striving after all knowledge, open and arcane, seeking both to live lives of indulgent fulfillment and to become self-experts in as much as we can master without madness—or maybe even unto madness. And so as Satanists, we situate ourselves not across the fateful Rubicon, but up to our necks right in its powerful riverine flow. In deciding to pass the point of no return and embark on the left-hand path, we Satanists oppose the currents of our community and even our species. And someone capable of being comfortable with all that, of withstanding that kind of monumental onslaught, is a thing of danger indeed.
There’s a reason Satanists don’t bother with fear of the dark or of what may lurk there. We carry inside all and more than any such shadows could ever muster, quelling the raging tempests of shame and guilt better than any mere Son of God ever could—or at least learning to like living with the guilt and doing what we please all the same. We let our activity—and the logs of such activity—freely reflect our pleasure and passion and lust for a self-fulfilled life. At least, that’s the theory, at any rate. We’re getting there. Work in progress. Baby steps. Rosemary’s Baby steps.