When you try to pin it down as far as meaning is concerned, the term religion often seems something of a chimera or even cypher, telling you more about the proclivities and concerns of the would-be definers than about any supposedly objective state of affairs in the external world. If we adopt the traditional so-called “correspondence” semantic theory derived from the work of nineteenth-century German philosopher and polymath Gottlob Frege, then the set of practices and realities to which the word religion has been used to point or refer is nearly as boundless and varied as the human imagination itself.
Scholars and students of the academic discipline of religious studies delight in pointing out the undeniable religious aspects of phenomena not traditionally regarded as religion proper, like fantasy role-playing games and heavy metal culture. This type of discovery of religion where you least expect it has turned into something of an cottage industry within academic religious studies of late. Going back to the work of sociologists like Durkheim and Peter Berger, religions are seen as systems of social order and the agents of a social construction of reality (whence their inevitable politicization). They can and do arise wherever humans come together for concerted identity and action, not simply being restricted to what happens in traditionally recognized “places of worship” like churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples.
Coinciding with this recent emphasis, the vogue in the academy has been to trace obsession over the contested use, applicability, and definitional requirements of the word religion to specific Euro-American cultural realities. Writing of the translation of the word and concept of religion in 18th and 19th century CE Japan, Williams College associate professor of religion Jason Josephson-Storm remarked:
“Tracing out the twists and turns of ‘religio’ and its descendants, a diverse array of scholars from Talal Asad and Jacques Derrida to Daniel Dubuisson, Jonathan Z. Smith, and Tomoko Masuzawa have all repeatedly demonstrated that ‘religion’ is not a universal entity but a culturally specific category that took shape among Christian-influenced Euro-American intellectuals and missionaries.”
The need to define and defend a coherent sense of the word arose in the context of specific legal, political, and educational struggles within the Western world in which “religious” and “secular” interests had (and continue to have) a stake.
The United States stands within a historical tradition of polities in which the category of religion and those able to claim membership within it have enjoyed special deference and enhanced social and political capital. Baltimore County, Maryland, recently sought to hire private attorneys for a spate of lawsuits the County Council is facing from religious groups over its enforcement of zoning laws, restricting the building or expanding of various places of worship within residential areas. In commenting on the cases, a Washington, D.C., attorney representing four of the five congregations in question remarked that the county’s system for adjudicating zoning issues for religious groups “doesn’t afford [religions] the respect that they deserve in terms of their role in our society.” In 21st century America, the working out of this putative respect owed to religion has led to renewed interest in and focus on the concept and legal workings and limits of “religious liberty.” This program has even made of the ability to claim the word religion a gateway to special consideration under the law and exemption from legal provisions that are binding on otherwise similar individuals and groups not recognized as religious.
Traditional Satanism as Religion
Eager to have a critical voice and skin in the game of the struggle over separation and respective powers of church and state, Satanists have striven with increasing effort and concentration on claiming the term religion for themselves and their activities. Unfortunately from my point of view, for many Satanists the question of How is Satanism a religion? is not too terribly difficult to answer in a very traditional way. The choice of major modern Satanic groups to include words like church, temple, and synagogue in their names should signal an ironic reversal of the role traditional elements of religion play (or rather don’t play) in their respective Satanic paths, much in the manner of the phrase “the Devil’s fane” as I have developed it on this site. The reality on the ground, however, is that their choice puts into specific relief just how closely aligned most Satanic groups are to traditional notions of what constitutes a religion.
Those with theistic leanings who view Satan as a higher power or external force or being that can be worshiped, invoked in prayer, and even called down upon enemies can safely dub their religiosity religion in exactly the same way as most of what has historically been recognized as religion continues to be so acknowledged. Having “established places of worship” and a “recognized creed and form of worship” (emphasis added) constitute two of the criteria listed by the Internal Revenue Service in its guidelines on the attributes required for entities recognized as “churches” for the purposes of tax law. In his 2016 magnum opus Satanism: A Social History, Italian scholar of new religious movements Massimo Introvigne leads his definition of Satanism with the requirement that it entail, first and foremost, “(1) the worship of the character identified with the name of Satan or Lucifer in the Bible” (emphasis added). His additional requirements are that it be undertaken “(2) by organized groups with at least a minimal organization and hierarchy” and “(3) through ritual or liturgical practices” (p. 3). Theistic Satanists are perhaps the prototype of this kind of Satanism, and Introvigne’s definition would likely have little-to-no difficulty passing muster under even the most notional and popular definitions of religion that tend to assume, in line with Abrahamic faiths, that the phenomenon always ineluctably boils down to belief in and worship of a higher power within organized groups that have established ritual and liturgy.
In lacking the ability to appeal to a higher power as the object of adoration or worship, self-professedly atheistic Satanists perhaps fail this chief notional criterion for religion among the general populace in much of the post-Abrahamic world. Yet scholars of religious studies have been saying for much of the past century, if not longer, that the “varieties of religious experience” include many more modes of construing and defending “the sacred” than mere theism. A key impetus behind this opening up of the conception and definition of religion among modern scholars of religious studies has been provided by the work of anthropologists like Clifford Geertz, sociologists like Emile Durkheim and Peter Berger, and psychologists like Jonathan Haidt and Ara Norenzayan. Atheistic Satanists who (1) form cohesive groups that rally in Durkheimian “collective effervescence” around shared symbols like statues, copyrighted logos, and publicly visible figureheads; (2) engage in popular ritual involving music and performance that tend to throw Jonathan Haidt’s “hive switch”; and (3) use their corporate identity forged in these ways to structure their self understanding, their directed action in the world, and both their opposition and sense of opposedness to/from outside groups have no difficulty defending a conception of themselves and their activity as religion as the term is currently understood on the more complex and nuanced academic level. Plenty of recent scholarly work from the likes of Joseph P. Laycock and Cimminnee Holt is now appearing with the aim of treating the various kinds of modern atheistic Satanism in the context of “new religious movements.”
What About My Satanism?
Given what I’ve argued in the recent posts on (a)theism within Satanism and the intimate connection between diabology and anthropology, combined with my general and oft-observed antipathy toward group formation and corporate identity, however, the question naturally arises for me: In precisely what valid sense is Satanism, as I see it, a religion? First off, not only do I reject theistic belief; I also eschew any and all conception of “the sacred” and both “collective effervescence” and cohesive group formation. Secondly, I personally tend to fear, rather than cherish, experiences that throw “the hive switch” like concerts, rallies, collective religious observance, sports spectator- and partisanship, mob activity of any type, for any purpose, toward any end. The collapse of individuality and critical distance in such moments delivers a deathblow to something I feel is absolutely required for the Satanist to mount resistance, rebellion, and critique. Finally, for me, worship entails an attitude of submission on the part of the worshiper, as well as reverence and adoration for a higher entity or power. Modern Satanism, as first set down in The Satanic Bible by Anton LaVey, is a strictly atheistic religion, meaning that it has no use for gods or goddesses. I very much continue in that tradition and recognize no higher power outside of individuals’ sovereign wills. As a result, I maintain that there is no possibility of worship within Satanism in anything remotely approaching the traditional sense: not of the Devil/Satan/Lucifer or of anything else. Of course, we could argue about the ultimate etymology of the term worship and its Anglo-Saxon connection to considering something worthy (which might be adapted to an explicitly atheistic context), but I feel that any such attempted rehabilitation would prove a wasted effort, as even an atheistic “making-worthy” of something consecrated as an object of “worship” would be wholly and fundamentally out of keeping with and alien to the rejection of externalization that I feel must be a key component of Satanism in order to make of it something fresh and new.
So, basically, I have explicitly rejected all of the usual bases on which Satanism, as I have explicated it, could be considered a contender for the title of religion. Have I painted myself into a corner? Maybe. But then again, maybe not. More on that to come in Part II.