The name of the Church of Rational Satanism (CoRS) would seem to imply, via the linguistic principle of markedness, the existence of irrational or at least non-rational Satanism. Personally, I’ve always taken the phenomenon of so-called theistic Satanism—you know, the folks who believe in and worship an existent being named Satan—as exemplary of a non-rational, faith-based strand of the religion. The CoRS’ recent blog post criticizing the seven fundamental Tenets of the Satanic Temple (TST) suggests to me that that particular organization finds TST to be one group-level exemplar a specifically irrational brand of Satanism.
It’s somewhat ironic, then, to find the critique that CoRS offers at one point taking issue with the phrase “in accordance with reason” in TST Tenet #1. The author asks about those words: “meaning what exactly? If you can justify not acting with compassion and empathy because it fits with your views, then is it fine to do so?” Since the CoRS includes in the very name of the organization the word “rational” and bills itself as a collection of specifically “rational Satanists” who “know what it means to be truly enlightened in par [sic!] with…true worldly views that can be backed up with reason, science, logic and cold hard facts,” I wouldn’t have expected them to balk at the term “reason.” What I find equally telling is the way that they develop this particular criticism.
The post’s critique on this point about “in accordance with reason” continues as follows:
“So essentially this sentence says nothing other than be nice when you feel like it or be an arsehole as long as you can justify it. Isn’t that what people generally do anyway, act how they feel justified to do?”
Here as elsewhere in the objections the CoRS offers, the author seems most concerned with a perceived failure on the part of the Tenets to definitively and exhaustively determine member behavior. It is as though the writer of this post considers Satanism, or at least his own “rational Satanism,” to entail specific behavioral commitments that supplant or supersede individual behavioral choice. And that strikes me not only as a particularly dangerous idea in the abstract but a uniquely dangerous one in a Satanic context, as it would seem to undermine what I would argue is just about the only principle on which all other self-described Satanists—of all stripes, both theistic and atheistic—can actually reach consensus: namely, the centrality of individual behavioral choice, all else being equal.
In what follows, I will first expose this behavioral entailment idea lurking behind the criticisms that the CoRS offers, and then I will present an explanation of why I suspect they wish to advocate such a notion and why their advocacy of it places them squarely in conflict ideologically with TST. In short, I charge CoRS in their critique of TST’s Tenets with attempting, yet again, to mansplain Satanism to a group that, through its multiplicity and manifold diversity, simply refuses to accept that Satanists are or have to be any one particular kind of animal as far as belief and behavior are concerned. Since TST frequently engages in high-profile, concerted political action toward specific ends, the idea that the organization could, in fact, be anything less than totally unified in a Borg-like hive-mind seems to provide too great a potential paradox for people to accept. However, I would argue that this apparent paradox only seems paradoxical because its beholders already subscribe to far too set a notion of what Satanism is and is all about than the reality of Satanism on the ground can actually justify. Satanism and Satanists are many things, but one thing they most definitely aren’t is “one thing.”
The idea that Satanism, correctly construed, obliges a single behavioral standard shows itself in the CoRS’ criticisms of TST’s Seven Tenets in two chief ways. First, many of the critiques offered center on charges of vagueness or ambiguity in the wording of the tenets. Second, some of the critiques charge TST with hypocrisy in failing to live up to or abide by the letter of the Tenets in one or more specific instances. Taken together, these two lines of critique seem to suggest that CoRS feels Satanists should, firstly, have no doubt about how to construe their own principles such that they can confidently foreclose on the possibility of multiple behavioral paths lying open for the taking and, secondly, never actually behave in any way that either doesn’t strictly adhere to or falls below the standard of the letter of their own, unambiguous principles. I wish to show that both of these ideas are absurd.
One possible “tl;dr” summary of many, if not most, of the CoRS criticisms boils down to the complaint that the Seven Tenets use lots of abstract words like “empathy,” “compassion,” “justice,” “unjustly,” “belief,” and “nobility” that are, at best, vague in the linguistic sense of leaving one or more important parameters for filling out their ultimate meaning un- or under-specified and, at worst, ambiguous in the linguistic sense of simultaneously admitting of multiple distinct meanings. And so the post poses critical questions like:
“Who gets to define ‘justice’? what [sic] if the group as a whole does not reach an agreement on what a just action is? Do you have to follow in toe [sic!] with what the unelected ‘leaders’ decide is the just action?”
“[W]ho defines what is unjust? The individual? The group?”
The unspoken assumption behind these questions is clearly that it is unacceptable for there to be any degree of “play” in the meaning of such principles, as well as that, should such wiggle-room nonetheless manage to survive, there should be no disagreement whatsoever about who is empowered to pin the meaning down and remove all ambiguity. All values must be defined in advance of the communication! they seem to want to say.
Yet one key idea of Relevance Theory, a prominent theory in the subfield of linguistics called Pragmatics that has to do with actual language use in context, holds that all linguistic communication is crucially underspecified for meaning. Listeners and readers must always attempt to recover speakers’ and writers’ intended messages by filling in not just aspects of meaning generally agreed to be relative to immediate context—like the referents of pronouns or deictic expressions, something linguists call by the fancy title of “saturating the indexicals”—but also by resolving any vagueness, ambiguity, or polysemy in the content words. What makes technical prose so different from poetry, in Relevance Theoretic terms, is the fact that the former genre attempts to itself do as much of this work as possible for the listener or reader in advance of the communicative event by choosing words and expressions with extreme care so as to limit or even eliminate vagueness, ambiguity, and polysemy. Poetry, on the other hand, thrives on presenting the hearer with precisely an open-ended, vague, ambiguous, and polysemous communication, deliberately choosing words and phraseology that will lend themselves to creating a kind of kaleidoscopic cascade of multiple meanings and potential conclusions that forever remain just a little aloof in a playful sort of way. Strive though they may to differentiate themselves from poetry on this count, even technical prose and explicit instructions fall far short of complete and total clarity, as the numerous memes and videos of people taking such writing to comic literal extremes demonstrate.
A couple of the criticisms seem to stem from a feeling that TST is hypocritical in failing to live up to or abide by its own principles. For instance, the post complains that the author has had personal experience of TST leaders not only not admitting mistakes and asking forgiveness when wrong as per Tenet #6, but rather covering up, deleting, or explaining away their errors. In a similar vein, the post’s author charges that TST members and leadership have violated their own Tenet #4 by encroaching on the freedom of others to express disagreement with TST itself and by pretending to speak for “every Satanist that is not a member of TST” who may or may not agree with that organization’s views. These criticisms obviously reflect negative personal experiences or history with TST. Indeed, I’ve heard through the virtual rumor mill that one or more of the CoRS leadership are former TST members, who may therefore be speaking through these criticisms to their personal grudges against the organization.
In seeking to understand these criticisms more abstractly, however, I find it instructive that the post’s author introduces his theme of TST hypocrisy from the very beginning by taking issue with the wording “strive to act” in the first Tenet. He writes:
“The use of the word ‘strive’ suggests that you are going to fail on many an occasion but it’s ok as long as you tried.”
Again, the hidden assumption behind this critique seems to be that those Satanists who don’t open themselves up to such criticism never fall short of their own behavioral standards. Thus, they needn’t bother with stating that they “strive” to do X, Y, or Z, as they always attain their aims and do exactly and precisely as they intend to. Or rather, given the first line of criticism discussed above, as someone else intends for them to do.
As he nears his peroration in discussing Tenet #7, the CoRS author of the blog post takes aim at the idea that the Tenets are not hard-and-fast rules mandating a single, clear path of conduct. He writes:
“So now these are just guidelines and don’t really need to be followed or can be ignored whenever you feel like it. Sounds like a good get out clause if you’re hypocritical…. My wife however read it more as it’s ok to break the written rules or the given word/promise if it’s in the spirit of compassion, wisdom and justice. The problem is that the spirit of something is not the thing itself….”
I think that author’s wife clearly has a better understanding of the Tenets on this point than he does. Nonetheless, because of what he perceives as a total behavioral license written directly into the wording of the Tenets, the author concludes that the “short and very brief” words of TST as embodied in the seven principles should be disregarded in favor of judging the organization solely on the merit (or lack thereof!) of its actions. And on that score, the author finds TST sorely lacking. He writes:
“In that case we should take TST only by their actions and not by what they say or write because words are hollow. In my opinion their actions show them to be childish fools upset and acting out at the more dominant religion in their countries, namely Christianity, as they seem to be very sympathetic towards most others if they mention them at all. … With no official texts or collaborative work but a group of vague, non-committing sentences we have nothing more than a reactionary cult group of followers who do the deeds of their leaders.”
Here, dear readers, lies the rub.
Like the Church of Satan (CoS), to whose name in initialism form the CoRS’ own is suspiciously similar, the CoRS takes issue with the political action of TST, judging it to be just so many “stunts to get media attention highlighted on [sic] the issues.” What this whole critique ultimately boils down to is a desire to stake a claim as to who has, in the words of CoS’ Twitter account description, “defined Satanism.” There is self-righteous anger and indignation here over an upstart organization that has been able, through its publicly visible actions and statements, to seize much of the media narrative around who Satanists are and what Satanism is all about and to shunt it off down a radically different track than that on which such notions have previously chugged along. And then, after all that, TST has the gall to put forward a vision statement in the form of Seven Fundamental Tenets that “leaves everything to individual judgement and then a huge grey area when it comes to being accountable.” Not to mention “the fact that in not one of these tenets is there a mention of Satan or even the Romantic era of Satanism they claim to be inspired by.” TST and its members aren’t just “no true Satanists”—however that’s supposed to be defined—they’re also traitors to the cause for not paying due homage to “The Master” Satan himself by including his name somewhere in the Tenets.
OF COURSE a group exemplifying what Temple of Set founder Michael Aquino called “a philosophy of the individual” leaves much, if not quite everything, up to the individual! Who or what else should things be left up to? As I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog, Satanism distinguishes itself from traditional religion—all traditional religions, not just Christianity—by rejecting the idea of embodying deonticism. Satanism, however you define or understand it, does not specify some code, whether simple or elaborate, of either “thou shalt”s or “thou shalt not”s. It does leave important matters up to individual interpretation because the individual is the fundamental unit of Satanic thought and concern. Unlike traditional religions, all of which rely on one or more externalized sources of value, Satanism in most all its forms locates ultimate value within the individual who alone retains the power to act in the world and the responsibility for so acting.
As an undergraduate in college, the book Situation Ethics by Christian philosopher Joseph Fletcher radically changed the way I viewed the challenge of morality. Fletcher argued passionately for consequentialist ethics, claiming unashamedly that not only is it the case that the ends always justify the means, but that there are no means justifiable by anything other than the ends which they serve. Fletcher rejected traditional Christian views of morality as so many automata: mere calculuses or algorithms designed to take input in the form of a specific problem that they then run through some particular set of absolute, apodictic deontic principles to return a definite behavioral output to the individual for any given situation. This is not a morality, which necessarily requires a thinking, feeling agent with a choice between alternatives; it is an automaton.
Based on the criticisms leveled against TST’s Tenets in their most recent blog post, I would be given to the suspicion that the CoRS, at least as represented by this one author, subscribes to an automaton view of Satanism. He niggles about individuals having to work out for themselves the meaning of the Tenets and then faults individuals for behaving in ways that seem inconsistent with the vision embodied in the Tenets. What he seems to most want, therefore, must be a Borg-like Satanic automaton, one whose thoughts, words, and behaviors all lie safely and predictably locked down within rigid, algorithm-like principles that can be considered “rational.” Personally, I can think of no greater evil nor hell for a religious organization of any kind, let alone a Satanic one, than that. Such prevailing conceptions are precisely why I fled traditional religion for Satanism in the first place. What the CoRS author has presented here isn’t a rational Satanic critique of TST, but a rigid dogmatist’s carping about a group that refuses to be rigidly dogmatic.
But the funny thing is, I don’t actually think the CoRS as an organization conceives of Satanism in this rigidly dogmatic way. Or rather, on the subject of dogma, the organization seems to want to have its cake and to eat it too. In another blog post of theirs about the place of dogma within Satanism, a different author writes:
“The Neoteric guidelines and averments in the Rational Satanism paradigm do not classify as dogma as they have no set meaning, they can be interpreted in many ways as they are introduced in to the individuals system [sic!], but once they have been interpreted by the individual to complement their way of thinking then they will have a set meaning, thus becoming dogma but only on an individual level, this strips out any systematic conformity in the Rational Satanic system as the dogma that applies to each person’s system will in some way be inherently different, but still using the framework of the Rational Satanic system to grow on a personal level.”
The CoRS doesn’t have a rigid dogma, but their principles, when internalized by the individual, become dogma on an individual level. And because this individual-level dogma is embodied within distinct and different people, it can never rise to the macro-level of “dogma” as traditionally conceived. So what you’re left with, then, is an organization without centralized macro-dogma but made up of individuals who, on the basis of some putatively rationalistic system, have become internally micro-dogmatic. Yeah, that sounds about right given the tenor of the TST-critique post.
At the end of the day, I just think it infuriates alpha types that an organization can exist and achieve real results without presenting much of a unified front enforced through dogmatic pronouncements and rigid principles. What I see here is the envy of a parochial group in perceived competition with another group that stubbornly refuses to conform to expectations about what such groups should be and how they should operate and behave. At the same time, I suspect there’s more than a little frustration at the fact that TST does have a perceptible group culture of sorts, such that behavior and even speech within the organization are not completely tolerated along “anything goes” type lines. You can say and do things as a member of TST that place your future standing with and within the group in jeopardy. In this way, for better or worse TST doesn’t differ much at all from most any other human group I’ve been a part of.
Reason and Rationality
Before I go, I want to leave a final word about rationality. If you’ve read the work of moral psychologists Joshua Greene and Jonathan Haidt or of neuropsychologist Michael Gazzaniga or of cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, you’ve doubtless come away with the conclusion that our human rational faculties comprise a late evolutionary overlay on top of a mental makeup which consists of a plethora of mental modules that, for the most part, operate almost entirely subconsciously. Our outward behavior—both overt action and affective response—usually precedes our conscious awareness, and our reasoning and linguistic capabilities come online after-the-fact to craft a coherent narrative of self that explains our behavior to both ourselves and others on the basis of limited awareness and information. In this sense, responsibility is, quite literally, our ability to respond to others and provide an accounting for ourselves ex post facto.
Before we are rational creatures, we humans are emotional and affective creatures of ingrained pre-wired habit. This is precisely why those logical Vulcans on Star-Trek are so damned inhuman! It is also why the project of constructing a Satanism that is entirely “rational” as a response to a group of historically related religious movements that place the focus and locus of value squarely on individual human beings seems so misguided. Rationality is just one part of what makes us human—and a fairly small one at that. The core of my own Satanism, which consists largely in unashamed enjoyment of the intense pleasure and inherent worthiness of being “just a human” and living a life of simple physical and intellectual fulfillment in the here and now while fighting for others’ right to do the same, doesn’t require all that much in the way of rationalizing. Indeed, as a carnal Satanist, avoiding having to rationalize away my pleasure-seeking nature is kind of the point. In this way, I think it’s entirely correct that the first Tenet places the concerns of compassion and empathy before the final proviso “in accordance with reason.” My reason tempers my passion, and, even as a Satanist, I am not an entirely rational being.
This blog is not, in any way, officially affiliated with The Satanic Temple (TST), nor does its author speak for that organization in any way, whether officially or unofficially. The thoughts and opinions expressed here—as well as the responsibility for any faults in their conception or expression—belong solely to the author.