The Problem with Satanists: A Problem of Meaning

“Our apparitions, the things you know us by, are simply childish. Beneath it is all dark, it is all spreading, it is unfathomably deep; but now and again we rise to the surface and that is what you see us by.”

Virginia Woolf
To the Lighthouse

So now The Satanic Temple (TST) is contemplating taking legal action against Netflix’s new show The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina for the temerity of its creators to fashion and depict a near-replica of TST’s infamous Baphomet statue in the lobby of the fictional Academy for witches that the titular character attends. Coming fairly quickly on the heels of controversy surrounding TST’s decision to undertake a lawsuit against Twitter for viewpoint discrimination that provided at least some of the “free-speech” related fodder for the recent splits and schisms within the upstart Satanic organization, this news prompts some reflection on my part. And in this reflection, I’m not simply wondering whether TST will likewise seek to sue the creators of the graphic novel pictured here whose cover sports an image of the same “copyrighted monument” prominently front and center.  IMG_7043

TST gained so much of its early bona fides from its high degree of litigiousness in pursuit of equal rights for adherents of even despised religions and toward bolstering the hard-fought “wall of separation” between Church and State. In so doing, it positioned itself early on in contradistinction to the Church of Satan (CoS), the original atheistic Satanic group which TST has repeatedly criticized for doing nothing concrete to support the cause of public Satanism. Nonetheless, these new moves on TST’s part seem to situate the organization much more closely alongside its nemesis than I imagine the group would be comfortable admitting. After all, CoS has also spent much of its time, energy, and social capital over the years complaining about and (at least in word) pushing back against popular (mis)representations of Satanists in media and the public eye. 

I’m not saying it’s unimportant how the population at large views or thinks about Satanists—far from it. Rather, I want to suggest here that the fraught issue of competing conceptions of what Satanists are and do stems from a much more fundamental place than mere representations and misrepresentations in pop culture.        

The Democratization of Satanism

When I look back from my limited perspective over the history of modern atheistic Satanism, I shall always view the activity of TST as incredibly important. Not in the way that members of the group like to see themselves and their organization as being important: for allegedly effecting real social change. In fact, I’ve seen precious little of that as a result of their activity. No, I choose to see TST as important for the way that it seemed to open up modern atheistic Satanism and really democratize it, spreading it well beyond the confines of the usual Satanic echo chamber, at least for a time. 

In an article unfortunately published on the garbage site Breitbart, TST National Council member Greg Stevens seemed to suggest much the same of his group, seeing the emergence of TST as symptomatic of the “democratization of information” on the internet, occasioning painful ideological splits within “even well-established groups” that “are struggling to maintain an identity and prevent it from being usurped by activists who seek to change or abuse labels.” Of course, the bitter irony is that TST itself has recently fallen victim to this same process, one to which, perhaps unexpectedly given its own origin story, it did not take so kindly. 

While this democratization of Satanism has had some real salutary effects on Satanism as a whole, I fear it has also brought along a key challenge that could, if left unchecked, prove the undoing of modern atheistic Satanism as a valid and viable independent category of thought and analysis. To wit, so many new voices and faces have flocked to the banner of Satanism and claimed it for their own, proudly donning the mantle of “Satanist,” that the word Satanist itself is in danger of semantic bleaching: that is, the process by which a word or expression loses concrete meaning due to over-broad and generalized use.       

How Words Mean

The nineteenth-century German philosopher, logician, and mathematician Gottlob Frege first proposed the schematic ideas about word meanings that have become one of the foundations of the modern field of semantics. According to Frege, words mean something by virtue of two essential functions they serve. 

First, words point to objects and entities in the external world and label them. This function of word meaning is called reference, and the individuals and things to which referring expressions point in this way are called referents (a word that is confusingly homonymous in modern English with the term reference itself!). 

Second, words come packaged together with an implicit list of traits and characteristics that must be instantiated in any individual or entity to be designated by the label of the word. This function of word meaning is called sense. Sense is what lets speakers of a language know whether, in any given instance, a label has been properly applied to an individual or object. It’s like an instruction manual for the correct use of the word that doubles as a field guide whenever you’re out and about in the world in search of a referent on which to slap the label. If I point out a car to you and call it a tree, sense is what causes you to disagree with me and assert instead that the object is properly designated as car and not tree. 

Speakers don’t often reach complete and total agreement about the necessary subcomponents that comprise the sense of any particular word. Yet they do tend to agree broadly on the majority of characteristics necessary to a word’s meaning. For instance, even though the word unicorn doesn’t have reference because the mythological and fabulous animals don’t actually exist, we do have general agreement on the sense of what an animal would have to be like in order to qualify for designation as a unicorn…except, I find, for one key sticking point. There’s persistent confusion between the mythological flying horse called Pegasus and unicorns, to the point where people will actually disagree over whether unicorns can—or even have to—have wings in addition to the characteristic horn growing from the middle of their forehead. If you don’t believe me, just Google “do unicorns have wings?” to find the robust discussion of the subject on everybody’s favorite tool and time waster, the internet.  

Referents in Search of a Sense

I would argue that the word Satanist presents a mirror image to unicorn. Instead of a word with clear sense but no referents, Satanist is a word with a plethora of referents—countless individuals who now claim the title—but absolutely no clear sense.

This problem arises in other religious traditions as well to some degree or other: witness the sectarian squabbling in most any mainstream “religion.” But for Satanism—perhaps because of its relative youth and the relatively higher degree of democratization, such as I spoke about earlier, than has characterized other, more centralized religious movements—the problem seems more acute and pervasive.

Nowadays everyone’s repeating “I’m not telling you how to Satan” and “Don’t tell me how to hail Satan” like they’re mantras. The result, in Frege’s terms, is that the word Satanist has become a vociferous jumble of referents in search of sense. In this sense (pardon the pun), it is simply the case that modern atheistic Satanism is suffering from an acute problem of meaning, and it is this basic issue with the concrete meaning of the term Satanist that gives rise to the fits we Satanists have to go through when explaining ourselves to others, whether non-Satanist outsiders or even our fellow Satanists.

An Over-Broad Movement

Faced with the unenviable task of having to come up with a scholarly framework in which to accommodate the enormous amount of variation in modern Satanic movements and thinking, the authors of the 2015 book The Invention of Satanism concluded simply that “Satanism is not a single movement with the single voice of doctrine, but a ‘milieu’ with a multiplicity of debating voices” that may have in common merely “the intentional act of declaring oneself a Satanist” rather than “any specific point of view.” Different words, but there’s the key problem poking out plainly again for all to see: plenty of referents but no unified sense. 

If Satanism really is, as so many Christians™ seem to most fear, the bare, embodied spirit of fractiousness and dissolution, then we’re all doing a bang-up job of it so far. Congratulations! If, however, we as Satanists individually mean to signal something more by claiming the label Satanist than the mere intent to so self-label, then we’d better get to work crafting at least some kind of sense for the word. Unless, of course, you particularly enjoy all those conversations about Satanism that have you endlessly repeating the refrain “I’m a Satanist, but…” to an increasingly suspicious and disinterested audience who already feel they have a pretty clear sense of what the word means.

That’s right, boys and girls, Christians™ and healthy (or maybe not so healthy) consumers of pop culture already have a pretty unified idea about what the key indicators of Satanism are. We all know them: torture, killing, animal abuse, child abuse, sexual abuse, blasphemy, blood rituals, heavy metal music, goats, black clothing, self-harm…stuff like that. While some of those elements— the majority, really—are way off the mark and dangerously so, others hover pretty close to the truth. I’m thinking of things like blasphemy, blood rituals, heavy metal music, goats, and black clothing. But notice how those are really more a part of Satanic aesthetic choices than anything else. As irony would have it, we could all probably agree much more readily on matters of aesthetic taste than actual substantive ideas about what Satanism is. I get the sense more and more as time goes on that this is precisely what happened in the case of TST. 

Still, with large Satanic groups imploding, far-right Nazi factions claiming Satanic themes and imagery, Christian-led Satanic panics never far over the horizon, and the ceaseless barrage of Dominionist attempts to make America the theocratic nightmare of Margaret Atwood’s worst imagining, we desperately need to forge a sense for this problematic word Satanist that can both capture some of the natural diversity within Satanism, but also provide structure and clarity enough for actual practicing Satanists to be able to fend off—through recourse to Satanic beliefs, ideas, and principles—attempts by racists, authoritarians, and Christian “spiritual warriors” and moral panickers to co-opt, corrupt, and smear Satanism’s good name (such as it is!) and the even better work real Satanists are doing out here in the world. We can’t just be content to remain a dysfunctional collection of referents in search of a sense. Satanism needs depth as well as breadth.

Need for a New Look

It seems like we’re all more than overdue for a principled new look at this unruly old word Satanist. And it is to this pursuit that I have dedicated the book I’ve been writing steadily (if lackadaisically) on for the past two-to-three years. If I can get my sorry ass to just write past and through the current blocks and difficulties I’m having in polishing off a key section of the narrative, this is a conversation I hope to begin having with folks in print of some kind in the new year.       


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