I haven’t discussed the ideas contained in this essay much on the site mainly because I was saving them for what has turned out to be one of the several books I’m supposedly working on writing (but shhh!—I shouldn’t discuss that goal publicly, for reasons that will become apparent at the end). However, I feel my hand has been tipped somewhat by a recent blog entry on Chroniques Sataniques in which The Devil’s Fane received mention in the context of a discussion of the debate within modern Satanism between theistic/esoteric and atheistic/rationalistic approaches to Satan. In fairness to my esteemed French colleague, I myself forced my hand somewhat on this issue by tweeting about my disappointment with a recent post by European Satanist Léonie666 who blogs on the site Femme Diabolique. The post in question discussed the author’s lifelong atheistic Satanic path and how, because it was simply no longer feeling right to her, she chose to abandon it and adopt instead a theistic stance to Satan as being “real in some sense.” The author affirmed that both Satan and Lilith “are ancient and wise entities and…they are real.” In the brief Twitter conversation that followed with the author of Chronicles Sataniques, Darth Manu, I commented that, while I do not wish to put myself in the position of telling others how to live their Satanism, for me personally “a key part of what make [sic!] Satanism…distinctive and fundamentally new is lost when it becomes theistic.” The purpose of this post is to put some meat and flesh on the barebones of that statement and explain just what I mean by asserting that a key distinctive of modern Satanism is lost when one turns to a theistic approach. It’s all about externalization.
LaVey and Rejecting Externalization
In The Satanic Bible, in the section entitled “The God you save may be yourself,” LaVey writes pointedly against the tendency of human beings to project parts of their own interior mental and emotional lives—things like fears, desires, and moral concerns—out into the void in the form of externalized divinities. I’ll quote liberally from that section here:
ALL religions of a spiritual nature are inventions of man. He has created an entire system of gods with nothing more than his carnal brain. Just because he has an ego, and cannot accept it, he has to externalize it into some great spiritual device which he calls “God”. God can do all the things man is forbidden to do—such as kill people, perform miracles to gratify his will, control without any apparent responsibility, etc. … If man insists on externalizing his true self in the form of “God”, then why fear his true self, in fearing “God”,—why praise his true self in praising “God”,—why remain externalized from “God” IN ORDER TO ENGAGE IN RITUAL AND RELIGIOUS CEREMONY IN HIS NAME? … If he hates himself, he searches out new and more complex spiritual paths of “enlightenment” in hopes that he may split himself up again in his quest for stronger and more externalized “gods” to scourge his poor miserable shell. (pp. 44-45)
Elsewhere, LaVey writes similarly:
The Satanist knows that praying does absolutely no good—in fact, it actually lessens the chance of success, for the devoutly religious too often sit back complacently and pray for a situation which, if they were to do something about it on their own, could be accomplished much quicker!
The Satanist shuns terms such as “hope” and “prayer” as they are indicative of apprehension. If we hope and pray for something to come about, we will not act in a positive way which will make it happen. The Satanist, realizing that anything he gets is of his own doing, takes command of the situation instead of praying to God for it to happen. Positive thinking and positive action add up to results.
Just as the Satanist does not pray to God for assistance, he does not pray for forgiveness for his wrong doings. In other religions, when one commits a wrong he either prays to God for forgiveness, or confesses to an intermediary and asks him to pray to God for forgiveness for his sins. The Satanist knows that praying does no good, confessing to another human being, like himself, accomplishes even less—and is, furthermore, degrading.
When a Satanist commits a wrong, he realizes that it is natural to make a mistake—and if he is truly sorry about what he has done, he will learn from it and take care not to do the same thing again. If he is not honestly sorry about what he has done, and knows he will do the same thing over and over, he has no business confessing and asking forgiveness in the first place. (From “WANTED! God dead or alive,” p. 41)
In still one more passage concerning masturbation and perceived “sexual sin,” LaVey writes:
The Satanist fully realizes why religionists declare masturbation to be sinful. Like all other natural acts people will do it, no matter how severely reprimanded. Causing guilt is an important facet of their malicious scheme to obligate people to atone for “sins” by paying the mortgages on temples of abstinence! …
…[T]he perverted moral code of the past must be exposed for what it is: a pragmatically organized set of rules which, if rigidly obeyed, would destroy us! Unless we emancipate ourselves from the ridiculous sexual standards of our present society, including the so-called sexual revolution, the neuroses caused by those stifling regulations will persist. Adherence to the sensible and humanistic new morality of Satanism can—and will—evolve society in which our children can grow up healthy and without the devastating moral encumbrances of our existing sick society. (From “Satanic Sex,” pp. 73-74)
What these lengthy passages demonstrate is that Satanism as LaVey articulated it rejects the phenomenon of externalizing in the form of moralizing high gods and repressive moral codes what are properly humankind’s own internal concerns and favors instead accepting full personal responsibility for the working out of one’s own fears, desires, and morality.
Now, even though Anton LaVey and the Satanic Bible he published in 1969 are far from faultless on so many different counts, I find in this one key idea contained within what appears to be among the most original portions of that pastiche of a work, the “Book of Lucifer,” the germ of a truly revolutionary religious idea. Of course, in his personal life and in the Church of Satan which he founded, LaVey did not realize the full, logical extent of his idea nor allow it to do the complete, distinctive work of which it is capable. If he had, he would never have so flirted with, nor allowed his organization to court, racist fascist sympathizers (nor possibly have been one himself!). In my own Satanic system, I give pride of place to a more thoroughgoing and radical working out of this rejection of externalization, applying it not simply to notions of external divinity, but also to externalized identities, even to externalized conceptions of self.
To some fairly powerful extent, externalization comes naturally to human beings, most likely as a result of our constant striving to extend beyond our own physical and mental limitations. American cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker made this striving to overcome the limitations of our “creaturely” natures and mortality the key to human emotional life and development and the very basis of all of human material, artistic, and religious culture in his Pulitzer Prize winning 1973 book Denial of Death. Sociologist Peter L. Berger’s 1967 work The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion had made much the same point: humans externalize their own rational, emotional, moral, and artistic faculties and abilities as part of a quest to construct a “sacred canopy”—the well ordered society—beneath which to take shelter from, and in defiance of, death. This insight has likewise formed the basis of the highly influential social psychological theory known as Terror Management Theory that is concerned with the evolutionary purpose and drive behind the impulse toward religion and religion-like worldviews.
The idea likely also forms a key part of the motivation behind what is essentially a hidden premise in the so-called Ontological Argument for the existence of God formulated by the 11th century CE Archbishop of Canterbury, Saint Anselm. The one famous deductive argument for God’s existence in traditional philosophy of religion, the Ontological Argument hinges on the notion that, since God is defined ontologically as “a being than which nothing greater can be conceived” and, as such, clearly exists in thought, then God must also by logical necessity actually exist in the external world (or above/beyond it?), for “to exist in reality…is greater” than merely existing in thought or conception alone. I tend to think that the large numbers of people who attempt live significant portions of their everyday lives in the guise of “real” vampires, lycanthropes, characters from J.R.R. Tolkien, and what have you are acting on this same basic assumption: that magical living “in the real world” is inherently more attractive and more meaningful than merely doing so in thought and imagination alone. Why just read the Harry Potter books when you can go out into the “real” world and actually live them, after all?
In my former life as a linguist, I specialized somewhat in language and culture documentation, the subfield of modern linguistics devoted to theorizing and realizing the compilation of large-scale audio-visual archives of the cultural and communicative practices of minority speech communities whose languages, traditional knowledge, and ways of life are increasingly threatened with extinction in the modern world. I even co-wrote a book on the subject with colleagues. In that book, you’ll find among the chapters I authored one which argues that such documentation—like oral story-telling, writing, photography, digitization, and a whole host of other common human cultural practices—is little more than the externalization of memory so as to permit it to continue in existence well beyond the hard-and-fast bounds imposed by mortality, individual personhood, and cultural & linguistic attrition.
A veritable host of philosophers, psychologists, cognitive scientists, and other specialists from Daniel Dennett to Ara Norenzayan to Michael Gazzaniga and beyond have repeatedly emphasized that much of what we attribute to the domain of religion arises, at its most basic, from the evolutionarily ingrained human tendency to see agentive causality behind phenomena of unseen and unclear etiology, combined with our powerful abilities in theory of mind. A hominid in the evolutionary environment that heard a rustling in the underbrush and immediately assumed (and prepared for!) a human-like intelligence belonging to an unseen, intelligent causal agent behind the disturbance would have a clear survival advantage over one who either failed to attend to the sound/movement altogether or immediately dismissed it as the working of the wind and nothing more.
The point of all this is just to say: clearly our tendency to externalize comes quite naturally and, in many cases, has demonstrable benefits for us personally, culturally, and as a species. However, as with so many of our other prewired cognitive tendencies, externalization also comes with a steep price.
In a world that never ceases to frustrate human aims for survival and fulfillment of desire by its very unpredictable, chaotic, unstable, and epistemologically intractable nature, externalization provides a way of positing something stable, predictable, knowable, and even controllable. It can thus act as a powerful intellectual and emotional narcotic, metaphorically binding to receptors of pain and anxiety over a world we didn’t create and cannot control and not only reducing our feelings of powerlessness, but even positively bolstering feelings of self-worth, self-importance, and internally based control. And if you can convince yourself that what is powerful, capable, stable, knowable, and worthwhile lies external to individual human beings and human lives, then you can (and likely will!) leverage that externalized value over individual humans—their wills, bodies, and lives—in order to further your aim of forging a stable, controllable, orderly, and knowable world around yourself.
This is what everything we have historically recognized as religion or religious—from sympathetic magic to totemism to the sacred/profane dichotomy to the universalizing deonticism of revelatory religion—depends upon. We anesthetize ourselves to the pain of knowingly attempting to convince, cajole, or force the world and other sentient beings around us to behave as we would have them do by making constant recourse to some externalized greater good or source of ultimate value, which is inevitably nothing more than our own fragile desires for a more lasting and orderly world of existence with a positive (and even powerful) space in it assured for us writ large. Because we credit the motivation to something external to self, however, we don’t have to shoulder full responsibility for the inevitable violence that attends the working out of this manner of stable world-building. We see this phenomenon in traditional religion, in what anthropologist and political scientist James C. Scott calls “High Modernist” authoritarian state planning, even in the relatively more benign realm of self-help, positive thinking, and New Thought-related movements that so often tend toward their own sorts of victim-shaming and -blaming behaviors.
What I see as the radical and radically new promise of Satanism as envisioned in at least germinal form in the writings of LaVey is a complete and total rejection of this externalizing tendency in the realm of our moral dealings with others. By defining “the Devil’s fane,” or the domain of Satanism and the Satanic, as the very corruptible flesh in which move “the sinews of Satan,” LaVey set up a radically de-centralized system. As I’ve written before, “the Devil’s fane is…all bodies, a vast network with no center, no sanctum at all.” Ultimate value, if any such there be, lies solely and inextricably within individual human beings—all of them. And, by extension (at least for me as a vegan), within individual embodied wills of all sorts, not just human beings. Anti-absolutism is thus built directly into the worldview as a necessary component of its ontology. There can be no strong-arming or outright coercing of other’s wills and bodies without violation of the very basic ontological assumption of the religion/philosophy itself.
Notice that this potential for problematic externalization doesn’t merely arise in cases of theistic Satanism. What allows the very atheistic Church of Satan to proclaim themselves police and arbiters of the concept and applicability of the label Satanism itself is precisely their externalization of the religion in the form of the man Anton LaVey, his historically central role in the creation of modern atheistic Satanism, and his written oeuvre, along with that of current Church hierarchy. By developing the idea of rejecting externalization to the logical extent that I have here, I clearly move well beyond LaVey the historical figure, as well as any and all of the trappings he surrounded himself with and that have served to carry forward his legacy into modernity.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Your theistic conception of Satan is not at all serving in the capacity I have written about here: as some externalized value with which to beat others and the world around you into submission. It’s purely for your own, personal empowerment and spiritual satisfaction. Perhaps it’s just a form of imaginative play to enrich your everyday experience and provide a new interpretive lens through which to view life. The power of an external Satan or Lilith or Lucifer or whatever feels real to you and conceiving of it as externalized renders your personal practice of Satanism more meaningful, somehow deeper and richer (much like play-acting at being a vampire or a character from Tolkien renders your experience of those fantasies equally deeper and richer, no?).
And I say back to you: that’s how it starts. Such is the beginning of the self-deception by which you can come to believe in “real” magic, “real” dangerous exceptionalism by virtue of increased proximity to some external value, and “real” legitimate claim to the exercise of power over others. As ironic as it would seem, consider my approach the Satanic equivalent of the Rabbinic principle from Pirkei Avot 1:1 of seyag la-Torah, or a “fence/hedge around the Torah.” That is, it serves as an external bulwark shoring up what is of supreme value—the freedom and sovereignty of individual will and inviolability of the individual body—and serving as an early-warning system to prevent unlawful incursion even before it has really gotten going on the way to posing a critical threat.
Your external Satan et al. may just be the embodiments, incarnations, or quintessences of the heretical spirit, and I would agree that Satanism is primarily concerned with universalizing particularity itself rather than with pushing a certain universalized particular. However, in reifying and hypostatizing the spirit of individuality or of putting all ideas to the test or of human progress or what have you, you pull away from the radical earth-, human-, and individual-centeredness of LaVey’s conception and his unique privileging of the carnal and material over the spiritual and intellectual. It’s not the spirit of heresy we’re after, elevating it to the heavens like some immaterial Platonic Ideal Form or Idea, but actual heresies formulated by living, flesh-and-blood beings here on earth. Not to mention, there are clear personal benefits to this high degree of rejection of externalizations, beyond mere theoretical niceties.
I have written numerous times before on how we should, and indeed must, reorient our notions of identity away from externalized bases like blood & soil essentialisms and the facticities of birth and even personal experience and toward a view of identity as pure recreation. I champion such a program because viewing identity claims as anything other than purely personal play with expressives creates immediate solidarity with others who claim a similar external basis for identity, which in turn lends itself to corporate group formation and all the evolutionary ugliness of biased fairness, in-group empathy, and out-group dehumanization and violence that externalized identity breeds like a cancerous cellular bloom.
Much the same thing happens within organizations that permit the urgency of their message and freshness of their vision to become corrupted by institutional pressures, whereupon they begin to place the sanctity and integrity of their “brand” higher in importance than the interests of individual members. The externalized corporate identity becomes the license leadership cites in quashing the freedom of individual members both to dissent and to express that dissent within the organization.
In a society like our own, drawn on what anthropologist James Woodburn and social psychologist Leonard L. Martin term “delayed-return” lines where social and political capital adhere either to commercialized and marketed personal “brands” or to externalized societal roles temporarily inhabited by a changing succession of individuals but whose power and authority stem from the externalized ideas behind the roles and offices themselves, the same potential exists for abuse of individuals by recourse to externalization. In exercising dominion, those inhabiting such offices or living at the epicenter of popular brands usually cite their job titles, educational credentials, official accolades, personal name recognition and notoriety, or any number of other externalized, symbolic evidences of authority over individuals beneath them in the hierarchical system. Do you have any idea who you’re dealing with? Do you know who I am? What the power of my position/office/brand is? I have X amount of money/houses/cars/famous movies/underlings & henchmen at my disposal/etc. Therefore, Bend. To. My. Will. The #MeToo and similar movements constitute precisely reactions against these potent externalizations and refusals to continue to buy into that particular system of societal abuses underwritten by externalization itself. The on-going series of revelations and push-backs against sexual abuses affecting religions from literally every major stripe of modern Christianity to Buddhism both in the U.S. and abroad represent a similar phenomenon.
Philosopher Aaron James defines the asshole as one who “(1) allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically; (2) does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and (3) is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.” Externalization, along with societal recognition and protection of it, contributes signally, perhaps in the lion’s share, to the feelings of entitlement and immunity against considering others’ moral reality that make assholes the monsters they are. I would add to James’ theorizing that assholes need not solely exist at the individual level. Institutions, too, may play the asshole, and organized religions have long proven themselves institutional assholes to beat the band.
While we’re at it in this vein, let’s not forget money, the externalized source of value par excellence, and the experimental work of behavioral economist Dan Ariely that has shown quite clearly how market norms interfere with social norms and contribute to making people act in ways that are more selfish and less considerate of others. As the proverbial “root of all evil,” the externalized value of money and the action of lusting after it continually underwrite some of the worst abuses against human lives, sovereign wills, and inviolable bodies known to human experience. Yet there’s an even more personally relevant motivation for stripping identity of externalization.
Working within the framework of so-called Symbolic Self Completion Theory, psychologists Robert A. Wicklund and Peter M. Gollwitzer have written about how the drive to configure identity on the basis of visible, external symbols can lead to virtue signaling and its opposite corollary of shaming and denigrating those who don’t share such signaling, to hyper-commercialism and over-consumptive materialism, and to simple shallowness and superficiality. What’s more, in contradistinction to much of the advice in performance- and goal-related fields that we should share our goals and plans with others in order to build community and help ensure accountability for actually accomplishing said goals and plans, Gollwitzer and fellow researchers have found in experimental studies that those who verbally share their goals with others are actually less likely to act intensively so as to achieve (and to actually achieve!) them than those who play their plans closer to their chest. In effect, sharing with others in advance of completion provides a palpable and premature sense of already possessing the aspired-to identity based in accomplishment, and this externalized accomplished self satisfies in advance the individual’s drive to attain. In regards to my own flagging book-writing projects, by publicly declaring myself to be writing Satanic books, I give rise to an externalized book-writing self-conception and can prematurely be, and even enjoy reputation as, the book-writer that I fancy myself to be without actually acting upon my desire to write and publish books and accomplish the very real feat that should form the basis for the identity-claim to begin with. We are and become what we do, but talking about what we want to be and become can stand proxy for action, relieving some of the urgency of the pressure to act. To quote a favorite line of mine spoken by Sean Connery in the 1993 film adaptation of author Michael Crichton’s 1992 novel Rising Sun: “Deep, isn’t it?”
It feels good, comfortable, natural, satisfying to assume an un- or at least less-bounded source of power or value outside of ourselves as the wellspring or ground of our own being and fulfillment in the world. However, this “leap of faith” opens up a veritable Pandora’s box of potential unpleasantness in terms of the ability of externalized values to justify and rationalize failure to attend to the full moral reality of individual sovereign wills and inviolable bodies. The unbounded will always trump the bounded, the limitless take precedence over the limited, the summum genus over the infima species. The history of religions and religion-like aspirational worldviews is positively littered with the carnage left in the wake of such externalizations rolling blithely over others who are equally committed to different, and opposing, externalizations, or to none at all.
What LaVey envisioned in The Satanic Bible, albeit in germinal form, was putting value and power back in the only place it naturally inheres and belongs: the bounded, limited, fragile, and decaying embodied individual. This move formed a radical reorientation in religious thought, which traditionally, in all its highly varied forms, has privileged the unseen over the seen, the immaterial over the material, the disembodied over the carnal, the “spiritual” over the earthly, the eternal over the ephemeral. I have written about a Satanic way of finding a mindfulness practice or of imbuing everyday existence with a sense of the sublime through simple carnality and sensuality. For atheistic Satanism, these are “spiritual” practices par excellence.
For the reasons outlined here, I also completely reject any language that seeks to compare personal empowerment through Satanism to any degree of “divinity.” This includes the idea of considering yourself “your own god.” The radical reorientation of Satanism away from externalization is such that these comparisons of limited humanity with supposedly un- or less-limited superhumanity or divinity merely have the effect of cheapening the very critical currency the new religion has sought to mint. In an ironic nod to St. Anselm, you, the actually existing human, are so much more and better than any mere god could ever be because you really do exist, right here and right now, even if no other being whatsoever conceives of you at all. You exist in reality and therefore need not overly concern yourself with all the many troublesome varieties of existence in thought. It is often the limitations imposed by our fraught self-conceptions in thought that act precisely to shrink the horizons of our existence and achievement in the physical, material world. God is an idea in search of the completion of existence, whereas you are already complete existence all by yourself.
I maintain that retreating back into theistic conceptions is tantamount to nothing so much as ceding the very hard-won territory modern atheistic Satanism has sought to claim for its own—the Devil’s fane—to the same negative and destructive impulses that have characterized religion and ugly identity politics from time immemorial. Real existence takes precedence over symbolic existence. Religious, political, and social regimes have been trying to convince us otherwise forever, and they are all entirely wrong, every one.
If Satanism is to erect some fresh, new, and exciting landmark on the religious landscape, I feel it must turn its back for once and all on what has characterized traditional religion for millennia: externalization. Without that commitment, Satanism is just some new and darker Wicca or Neo-Paganism or, worse, an inverted Christianity or Judaism or Islam, a Buddhism where Mara is redefined as your individual sense of powerlessness to alter your own destiny and nirvana consists in opening yourself up to the external power of Satan-Lucifer-Lilith and letting them work within you to achieve the results congruent with your true will or whatever it is that you apparently so desire. It’s a new High Modernism where the hypostatized value is some ideal of human progress or freedom rather than the present reality of actual human beings actually being free. It’s an empty word-game where Satan serves as mere cover term for any more ultimate reality and higher purpose than the one reality you can never ultimately escape in life—yourself—and the crushing existential weight of knowing that you and you alone can supply purpose to your life—or not!—as and how you and you alone see fit. Retreating into theism constitutes an escape from the Devil’s fane into a realm of immateriality and “hope” and “prayer.” Ugh. Not again. Never again.
If you’ve read down this far in this lengthy piece, hopefully you’ve also read around elsewhere on the site long enough and thoroughly enough to know that I’m not in the business of prescriptivism when it comes to Satanism. You may not see your Satanism in this essay; in fact, you may, all to the contrary, see your personal Satanism here attacked, rebuked, and rejected. Perhaps that’s because this is my Satanism, something that makes Satanism new, fresh, and exciting for me. It likely differs signally from your own and even that of Anton LaVey whom I take as the ultimate basis for many of my key ideas. I offer it here in the hopes that it gives you something to think about, maybe something you find fresh, new, and exciting as well. If you don’t, there ain’t a thing in the world wrong with that, either. Satanism is nothing if not particularity universalized, not a particular universal. Let’s us all just agree to leave that to more traditional religion, our natural enemy. Hail Satan and hail thyselves!