When European explorers invaded far-flung areas of the non-European world (or let’s just call it the world, shall we?), they quickly discovered that the terms and concepts of religion, so familiar and dear to themselves, constituted their own kind of terra incognita when compared to the lifeways and spiritual practices of the peoples they encountered. In the so-called New World, in Africa, in farthest Asia, Europeans often denied that the cultures they found and immediately disdained had anything in the way of religion at all. They were looking for religion on their own terms and, finding nothing quite like it elsewhere, assumed the people were simple, lacking in spiritual (as well as cultural) development, and therefore ripe for the bringing of religion (not to mention civilization) “proper.”
In Euro-American societies, religion—most often designated by some reflex of that original Latin term religio—has long constituted an institutional phenomenon and, as a social institution, has been able to claim certain societal privilege. Acknowledged religions enjoy legal and, usually, political status and claim the ability to command “respect,” if not outright obedience, from both other institutions and individuals.
Since the founding of the Church of Satan in 1966, organized Satanists have self-consciously sought to claim for themselves the label and mantle of religion, despite their obvious and distinct differences from traditional religions, including a not-so-subtle desire on the part of most Satanists to subvert and even outright combat traditional religious ideas and practices. For Satanists, claiming the mantle of religion is not just a cheeky way of getting the goat of traditional religions like Christianity that enjoy such privilege in a Western cultural context, but also a means of competing for status and social capital in an environment where the title of religion conveys real benefits. In recent years, the volume and intensity of the ensuing cultural conversation about the propriety of Satanists claiming religion have only increased, in direct proportion to the degree to which religion and so-called “religious liberty” have become flashpoints for an out-and-out battle between a de facto pluralistic civil society and more parochial religious identities and practices that want a de jure reflection of their own social constructions of reality.
Here, I begin a multi-part series addressing Satanism qua religion: to what extent(s) does that label fit and in what way(s) is it possibly a mighty stretch? These questions prove especially relevant to my own narrow conception of Satanism, insofar as I have explicitly argued contra most of the usual ways in which self-described Satanists tend to think of their beliefs and practices as meriting the title of religion. It promises to be a interesting and twisting ride through some current religious studies, etymological history, the Hellenistic philosophy of Epicureanism and its reception both among contemporaries and in subsequent tradition, and some modern psychology like Learned Helplessness Theory and Compensatory Control. Because this one is a monster, in an uncustomary veering away from my usual practice I’ve decided to break this lengthy discussion into multiple chunks for easier reading, rumination, and (hopefully) digestion. If you’re up for an initial morsel of this promised banquet, click here to access the first course. If you’ve already downed that one and are still hungering for more, click here for course number two. If you need a brief intermission amid the courses, click here for the entremet all about prominent artists turned abuser and how to exercise reverse dominance against them.