In his 2014 book Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic that I wrote about last time, author Matthew Stewart is keen to trace a latter-day Epicureanism that he argues provided “heretical origins” to our own nation’s struggle for independence. He follows this tenuous thread as it weaves in and out of European philosophy, finding one of its toughest and most conspicuous fibers in the radical philosophy of seventeenth-century Dutch thinker Baruch (a.k.a. Benedict de) Spinoza.
Perhaps a clue as to just how much of a real connection exists between two philosophers—Epicurus and Spinoza—otherwise worlds, even millennia, apart can be gleaned from the strong condemnation with which contemporaries met the ideas of each thinker. We’ve already seen in previous essays in this series the scorn and vituperation heaped on Epicurus and his ancient successors in Classical and Late Antiquity.
Spinoza, meanwhile, both earned a declaration of ḥerem and excommunication at the age of just twenty-three from his native Portuguese-Jewish community in Amsterdam and featured on the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books. A double vilification on charges of atheism from two different faith traditions? That’s a feat truly worthy of Epicurus’ posterity.
What Spinoza really taught, however, proved more of a naturalistic pantheism than pure atheistic denial of God. “The greater our knowledge of natural phenomena,” he wrote, “the more perfect is our knowledge of the essence of God (which is the cause of all things).” Earlier in the same paragraph, Spinoza had enthused: “…[A]ll natural phenomena involve and express the conception of God as far as their essence and perfection extend.”
English poet, physician, and amateur theologian Richard Blackmore complained of Spinoza’s approach to divinity that it “saves the Name [of God], while it subverts the Thing.” He argued that Spinoza “Declares for God, while he that God betrays,” in that the Dutchman’s identification of God with nature effectively reduces the theistic conception of Godhead until it is either unnecessary or even altogether non-existent. Accordingly, Blackmore reviled Spinozistic philosophy as a “labour’d Scheme of impious life.”
Blackmore could have had no inkling, of course, of just how impious a scheme of life this European Neo-Epicureanism would one day at least partially inspire. Almost three hundred years after the pious Englishman’s writing, the High Priest of a bunch of self-appointed actual Satanists in America, Peter L. Gilmore, would begin his list summarizing “a typical individual’s journey from observing reality to declaring himself a Satanist” with the exact same Spinozistic commitment to pan-naturalism: “Nature encompasses all that exists.”
Midway into Gilmore’s list, which appears in the the essay “What, the Devil?” in the collection entitled The Satanic Scriptures, the reader finds a bald declaration of Epicurean influence: “I live to maximize the Good for myself and those I value. At all times I remain in control of my pursuit of pleasure. I am an Epicurean.” The word Epicurean recurs some eight times over the course of The Satanic Scriptures, including the phrases “my Epicurean comrades” and “the skeptical Epicurean atheism that is our axiomatic philosophy.”
In Stewart’s analysis of the conflict between Blackmore and Spinoza, the chief problem to which radical philosophers—and by extension, Satanists—oppose themselves is the tendency, so evident in conventional religious writing like Blackmore’s, to exalt God above nature rather than to seek Him within the natural world.
Conventional piety renders the concept of God literally supernatural. Traditional religio thereby concomitantly effects a belittling of nature and natural phenomena as inert and mechanical at best or, at worst, downright base.
It is surely no coincidence that the continuation of Gilmore’s first bullet point in his list of Satanic awakening is the realization that “There is nothing supernatural in Nature.” This point is followed in quick succession by a second realization that “The spiritual is an illusion. I am utterly carnal.” Nature is all, and all nature is matter.
Wonder or fear?
At one point in his discussion, Stewart appears to credit the disconnect personified in Blackmore v. Spinoza to a fundamental difference in individuals’ customary reactions to the world of experience. He writes that Spinoza’s pantheism “arises everywhere among those who find in the world more cause for wonder than fear.”
Seen through the lens of the discussion thus far in this series of blogs about Satanism as religion, Stewart’s pithy comment belies a surprising depth and explanatory power. The purpose of this post and that to follow will be precisely to plumb that depth and tap that explanatory power.
When I introspect into my own habitual reactions to the world around me, I realize they are characterized by a mixture of these two responses—wonder and fear—not just one or the other. And I don’t simply indulge each in succession, either, but both together, quite often simultaneously. I suspect the same is true for most of you, my readers.
So what exactly is Stewart after by insisting on a seeming strict dichotomy between the two when characterizing the divide between conventional religious thinkers like Richard Blackmore and radical naturalistic philosophers like Baruch Spinoza? Is the distinction he draws false? Somehow facile and overly reductive?
I don’t think so. I imagine that what Stewart’s disjunction means to hint at is the same basic bifurcation in human behavioral tendencies discussed by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his 2013 book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. There, much the same disconnect appears under the rubric of neophilia v. neophobia.
Aided by the work of psychologist Robert R. McCrae, Haidt in fact credits the basic divergence between the (in)famous “culture war” combatant camps of “liberals” and “conservatives” to this selfsame divide. And he traces it not from some recent political development or other, but rather to deep evolutionary origins.
Haidt argues that, as early and enthusiastic omnivores, our distant ancestors had to strike a skillful and precarious balance between two competing, often contradictory, motivations for behavior: a basic attraction or openness to novelty versus a fundamental aversion to it. Psychologist Paul Rozin famously referred to this confound as the “omnivore’s dilemma,” years before food-writer Michael Pollan borrowed the term for the title of his best-selling 2006 book.
See, on the one hand, given an ancestral environment where sources of sustenance are many but regular access to any one source often proves unstable and unpredictable, a basic willingness to try out new foods and new technologies for obtaining them would make a lot of sense as a survival strategy.
On the other hand, potential new comestibles and potent potables could turn out to be rotten or otherwise poisonous. What’s more, novel technologies, whatever their ultimate helpful aim, often have a way of getting early adopters hurt, or dead.
So there you have it: fear versus wonder. Excitement at new possibilities v. dread at the prospect of potential sources of contagion, sickness, injury, and death.
While everyone may experience some degree of both attraction to and wariness of novelty, Haidt maintains that individuals differ in favoring one strategy over the other as their primary or default setting. All things being equal, some simply tend to rush headlong with wonder running roughshod over the shrinking promptings of fear. Others, meanwhile, more instinctively pull back in terror, letting fright reign in whatever raging horsepower their hobbled sense of wonder may manage to put out.
And again, it would make good evolutionary sense for any given society to have a mixture of individuals with these competing, basic, knee-jerk factory settings. Neophobes can act as a kind of early-warning detection system for society at large, policing the health, safety, and integrity of both individuals and the collective. Neophiles, meanwhile, can serve as a vanguard, constantly pushing the envelope in search of novel lifeways in order to expand society’s and individuals’ behavioral repertoires and, with them, chances for ultimate survival.
Since stimuli don’t come marked with clear instructions for handling, however—no hazmat labels in nature!—these two camps must forever battle it out with one another at every point. For each Thymoetes hurrying enthusiastically into the apparently deserted Greek camp on Trojan shores to discover a massive offering for Minerva and urging that it be brought within the citadel, there must be a conservative Laocoön, decrying madness and declaiming to his fellows his deep-seated fear of foreign “gifts.”
Our modern “culture wars,” then, sound merely the latest repetition of an echo reverberating throughout human history. The perennial struggle plays on between those who view new possibilities of being and behaving with sheer wonder or excitement and those who shun them out of equal-but-opposite existential angst and palpable terror at all the dangerous possibilities lurking latent therein.
Religio and Fear
Within this timeless struggle, the role of traditional religion—religio in the etymological sense I’ve been discussing all along—clearly aids and abets the side of fear over wonder, neophobia over neophilia.
Spinoza, like Lucretius before him, locates the genesis of conventional religion in the impulse toward fear as a response to the wider world of human experience. At the outset of his monumental Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, the radical philosopher points out that so much of what passes for conventional piety rests essentially on fear:
“…[I]f anything happens during their fright which reminds them of some past good or ill, they think it portends a happy or unhappy issue, and therefore (though it may have proved abortive a hundred times before) style it a lucky or unlucky omen. Anything which excites their astonishment they believe to be a portent signifying the anger of the gods or of the Supreme Being, and, mistaking superstition for religion, account it impious not to avert the evil with prayer and sacrifice. Signs and wonders of this sort they conjure up perpetually, till one might think Nature as mad as themselves, they interpret her so fantastically. … Superstition, then, is engendered, preserved, and fostered by fear.”
(Side note: I have some critical thoughts on the use of the problematic term superstition here, but I’ll save those for a future post. Suffice it to say for the moment that superstition serves merely as a derogatory designation for any disfavored religion, while the title of religion itself is reserved for approved religiosity.)
What are traditional religionists so afraid of? I believe a significant clue to the answer to this question lies in the very same religious poem by Richard Blackmore in which the physician, poet, and armchair theologian attacked Spinozistic philosophy while exalting his own conventional piety.
Book four of Blackmore’s work Creation—the third book of which contains the harsh vituperation of Spinoza quoted above—opens with a refutation of Epicurean philosophy on the grounds that it cannot conquer one fear in particular: the fear of death.
Only conventional piety and faith in a transcendent, supernatural God, Blackmore writes, can stand up to the grim specter of the grave:
“Thy Force alone, Religion, Death disarms,
Breaks all his Darts, and every Viper charms.
Soften’d by Thee, the grisly Form appears
No more the horrid Object of our Fears.”
And you know what? Twenty-first century research into the social psychological theory known as Terror Management would seem to have provided some quantitative evidence to belatedly back Blackmore up on his contention.
A 2003 study, for instance, found that when participants in an experiment read an article that touted remarkably consistent near-death experiences from “over 600 separate people,” including “even avowed atheists,” they afterwards expressed markedly less harsh judgments of perceived moral transgressions. They also displayed a considerably lower tendency to strive for self-aggrandizement through material gain.
Both of these observed effects appear consistent with increased mental and emotional quietude as a result of the subjects’ having read an essay which provided ostensible “scientific” evidence of the existence of the sort of literal afterlife promised in conventional delayed-return religion.
By contrast, those participants who had read an essay that contained an equal-but-opposite argument against the existence of a literal afterlife tended to offer harsher moral judgments and to express increased desire for material gains, suggesting they had found no increased inner peace. Indeed they appeared rather to have stumbled into even greater mental and emotional turmoil.
Similarly, a 2009 Terror Management study showed that priming certain participants with thoughts of their own mortality functioned to increase their belief in God and the notion of divine intervention. And this effect obtained even when the vocabulary and labels of conventional religion used to present the theistic concepts in question belonged to a traditional religion alien to that of the practitioner’s own.
In other words, thoughts of death increase the pull a certain subset of people feel toward conventional religion in general, as well as their reliance upon it. But here’s the rub: the subset of people in question were all already conventionally religious. Traditional piety only seemed to serve this prophylactic function in the study for people who professed conventional religion prior to participating in the experiment.
By contrast, those who professed no prior traditional religious affiliation did not express greater belief in or attraction to notions of divinity and divine agency as a result of the experimental procedure. And this lack of effect obtained irrespective of the conventional religious language used to present the concepts.
Non-believers appear deaf to the siren song of traditional religion when facing their own mortality. Indeed, a 2018 meta-analysis of Terror Management studies found generalized anxiety over thoughts of one’s own demise to be lowest among two key groups: the very religious and the very irreligious (i.e. atheists). It was the poor undecided agnostics in the middle who displayed greatest angst over time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near.
So when committed conventional religionists push ability to overcome fear of death as a prime motivating factor for the central importance to life of traditional religio, we can be forgiven for entertaining the suspicion that their religion is hawking more than just a putative cure for what ails. It’s actually a key vector for the very affliction itself.
Fear of Death and the Social Order
Sociologist Peter Berger’s 1967 book The Sacred Canopy posits that “[e]very human society is, in the last resort, men banded together in the face of death.” That is, the basic motivation behind “the ordering power of society” (of all society, not just men in Berger’s gendered language) is fear of death.
Berger calls this ordering power by the suitably grandiloquent Greek word nomos, literally ‘law.’ He commends the act of “surrender of self to the ordering power of society” or nomos as it “entails a transcendence of individuality.” He feels this surrender is necessary in order to have something that “bestows sense” on the life of the individual, even “on is discrepant and painful aspects” like death.
See, for Peter Berger, life itself stands in need of justification: for the fact of death and for the apparent senselessness of present toil in service to delayed returns. Living demands theodicy. Nomos naturally “implies [such] a theodicy…as a meaningful reality.”
Not surprisingly, Berger writes openly and unabashedly about how delayed-return religion legitimates nomos and, via the process of externalization, identifies the social order on earth with a cosmic one. In this way, opposition to earthly nomos takes on the supernatural significance of the demonic:
“To go against the order of society is always to risk plunging into anomy. To go against the order of society as religiously legitimated, however, is to make a compact with the primeval forces of darkness. To deny reality as it has been socially defined is to risk falling into irreality, because it is well-nigh impossible in the long run to keep up alone and without social support one’s own counter-definitions of the world. When the socially defined reality has come to be identified with the ultimate reality of the universe, then its denial takes on the quality of evil as well as madness. The denier then risks moving into what may be called a negative reality—if one wishes, the reality of the devil.”
In Berger’s writing, we see a classic description of the delayed-return lifeway and worldview par excellence. We see, too, the point of view I’ve written about before that the figure of the devil or Satan embodies a quintessential spirit of negation and destruction of delayed-return living and believing.
To glimpse this fact in operation yet again, consider how Christians of many different denominations hold that one must undertake certain sacraments of their religion, like baptism, while still living on the earth in order to guarantee salvation in the hereafter. Dare to die before you can, in the words of recently deceased progressive Christian author Rachel Held Evans, “seal the deal,” and off you go “straight to the Devil.”
Hell is the punishment for dying outside the purview of Church-approved, entirely delayed-return, covenants and contracts. “Ultimate evil” as represented by Satan is, first and foremost, fear of mortality itself and all the possibility of ruin and utter dissolution of delayed-return planning for some uncertain future that death entails.
When your life is structured by delaying fulfillment for a hoped-for future outcome that could possibly come entirely to naught under the heavy hand of unforeseen circumstances, then you inevitably fall prey to the persistent feeling that Thoreau wrote about in Walden when he expressed a fear of dying without ever having truly lived:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
But whereas Thoreau finds his deliberate living within nature and away from conventional human society, traditional delayed-return religionists discover it in the intensely social construction of nomos, a stable order of society legitimated by religio and arrayed for combat and ultimate victory against all anomy or “lawlessness.”
This anomy may be embodied and represented on the human level by any who fail to conform to the prevailing delayed-return way, particularly those who refuse to toe the line of some conventional morality deemed ordained by religion. At a cosmic or ideological level, of course, it is represented by that symbol of ultimate evil, the Devil themself.
It’s no coincidence that Peter L. Berger was not only a sociologist, but also a Protestant theologian, having been born in Austria to a family that converted from Judaism to Christianity and then promptly fled to British Palestine in order to escape Nazi persecution. There, amid fellow Christians, Jews, and Muslims, Berger learned a religious pluralism that nonetheless remained firmly rooted in delayed-return religiosity itself, a phenomenon that continued to fascinate him throughout his adult and scholarly life.
Ernest Becker’s 1974 Pulitzer-Prize-winning book Denial of Death similarly presented the thesis that all of human society constitutes an elaborate defense mechanism against the specter of death. As appraised by philosopher Sam Keen in the book’s foreword, Becker’s work advances the idea that “the main task of human life is to become heroic and transcend death” and that “every culture must provide its members with an intricate symbolic system that is covertly [or overtly!] religious.”
Becker’s idea naturally lends itself to the principal conclusion of Terror Management Theory that worldviews shore up our symbolic defenses against death anxiety. Not surprisingly, Becker’s book, published in 1973 and awarded the Pulitzer two months after the author’s own death from cancer on March 6, 1974, provided one of the main inspirations for Terror Management Theory itself.
Thus, vigorous defense of our worldview against contradictory views is, in both Becker’s view and that of Terror Management Theory, a basic existential necessity. As Keen writes: “…[I]deological conflicts between cultures are essentially battles between immortality projects, holy wars.”
And to what basic position on life does Sam Keen attribute the first of four notional strands that he maintains make up Becker’s core approach? Why, the proposition that, in his words, “the world is terrifying.” When fear trumps wonder, individuals’ felt need and resolve to erect and defend an encompassing, protecting structure—Berger’s “sacred canopy”—grows hard as iron.
Order and Fragility
As author Stephen Greenblatt tells it in his own 2012 Pulitzer-Prize-winning book about post-Humanist European Neo-Epicureanism entitled The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Christian Humanist Thomas More subscribed to the same basic outlook as Berger and Becker even as he penned a sharp social satire entitled Utopia of an imaginary, more immediate-return society that he confabulated as a foil for the corrupt and vicious sixteenth-century England he knew from personal experience.
Informed by Amerigo Vespucci’s observation of Native Americans encountered in the so-called New World—to wit, “Since their life is so entirely given over to pleasure, I should style it Epicurean”—More structured his visionary Utopia as an Epicurean paradise in service to the public good and pursuit of happiness. Private property was abolished, lest striving for self-aggrandizement through material wealth should lead to inequality, resentment, and crime. All basic necessities were provided for and working hours were minimized, thus freeing individuals to seek their own satisfaction on their own time.
However, More’s Utopians nonetheless prescribed harsh penalties, including even slavery, for any who denied Providence and the afterlife. More believed that an overarching providential design reflected in the structure of the universe with the promise of an afterlife of rewards and punishments was required in order to maintain discipline and regulate pleasure-seeking within his Utopian society.
Like traditional religionists of all stripes, More’s Utopians believed that conventional religio was necessary in order to guarantee the bonds and binding obligations of public trust. Without such religio, More seems to accept that a Hobbesian “war of all against all” will prevail among humans because, after all, “the world is terrifying.”
What’s particularly intriguing for the present discussion, however, is that Hobbes’ gloomy view of human nature as requiring reigning in by an encompassing socio-religious order is predicated on the basic assumptions that all humans: 1) are forward-looking and concerned equally, if not more so, with satisfaction of their future desires over their present ones; and 2) naturally seek the advantage of anticipation by proleptically mastering others, whether through force or wiles, before those others can prove themselves one’s own masters.
That is, both More’s and Hobbes’ worst fears of ugly human nature requiring the domestication of a religio-social order rest on a thoroughly delayed-return view of human nature itself. Their view requires that humans be essentially future-oriented, something immediate-return hunter-gatherers most certainly are not.
More longs for an immediate-return paradise, but he falls short of fully envisaging it because he cannot but base it on delayed-return premises.
My father used to practice law with yet another man who couldn’t see past his own deep delayed-return commitments. Though the fellow professed a devout and vociferous Christian piety of love and forgiveness, he one day nevertheless opined to me that, if it could be definitively proven to him either that Jesus never lived as recorded in the Gospels or that Jesus lived but was never resurrected and hence was not divine, he might as well turn his back on civilization and begin raping, murdering, and thieving with abandon. Under such dire circumstances, he bemoaned, life and all morality, Christian or otherwise, would have lost all meaning.
I think I just stared back at this adult when he spouted this nonsense at me, mouth and mind agape at such a bald and ugly declaration coming from the apparently bloodthirsty maw of a supposedly educated and esteemed professional who, believe it or not, would later go on to become an elected judge. How could anyone hold to such a view, much less an elected official in charge of administering justice?
Looking back on that moment now, however, I realize it was most likely especially because this individual held to such dark views of humanity and society that he nursed aspirations toward judgeship to begin with. That is, I believe his fear of the ultimate nihilism of a broken “society” of lawlessness and lack of all restraint leading inevitably to violence and death reinforced for him not only the absolute necessity of his religion, but also of firm civil authority.
A 2009 Terror Management study of the divergent responses to death-thought anxiety from people with high and low so-called “personal needs for structure” (PNS) drew some intriguing conclusions that I believe bear importantly on this issue. This study found that individuals with high PNS meet the threat of death with stable or even bolstered adherence to and reliance upon their personal thought structures. Here, the term “structure” refers to stereotypes, prototypes, scripts, religious narratives, and the like that all serve as easy heuristics to facilitate individuals’ understanding of the world in clear, orderly, and, most importantly, prejudged ways. At the same time, high PNS individuals were found to generally eschew novelty and dread change.
In this way, high-PNS-ers’ need for structure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The ineluctable attraction they feel toward the idea of a stable world order standing strong against the perceived threats posed by novelty, change, and mortality leads them to lean ever more heavily on structure, rules, and a system imposed on external reality.
Recall what I wrote before about how literal architect of High Modernist authoritarian city planning, Swiss-French designer Le Corbusier, exalted the despotism of “the Plan” above all other values, including those of individual human lives. He was clearly a high-PNS individual.
Unsurprisingly, Le Corbusier also thought that the “social epic,” as he referred to the perceived heroic struggle to erect a stable and lasting social order and reflect it in monumental architecture, “will necessitate a discipline.” After all, he asked rhetorically, “Is there anything more pitiful than an undisciplined crowd? … Have you ever tried playing chess without rules? Or a game of football? Even the tiniest kid on the block will make an effort to master the rules of a game, for they are what give meaning to his actions, an interest to his movements….”
For Le Corbusier, life without “the Plan” threatened meaninglessness and a lack of interest in the same way as Berger thought a life without nomos stood in need of theodicy to “bestow sense” on the “painful and discrepant aspects” of the life of the individual. Interest, for Le Corbusier, derived from following a pre-determined plan, that of his own High Modernist architectural design.
Meanwhile, low-PNS individuals in the 2009 Terror Management Study referenced above responded to concerns about mortality with an increased willingness to explore novelty. The nihilistic threat posed by death drove them to simply plunge freshly into the messy diversity of the natural world around them.
As you can see from the rhetoric of both Le Corbusier and my father’s misguided religious lawyer-judge friend, one of the principle arguments high-PNS, neophobic individuals advance in support of their essentially authoritarian agendas is what I call “the myth of the fragile society.”
This is the mistaken conviction that, left to their own devices without overarching externalized structure, humans will engage in Hobbesian war of all against all instead of, say, defaulting to Jane Jacobs’ “sidewalk terms,” that I’ve discussed so many times before.
It’s as though those with high PNS and an underlying neophobia were entirely unaware of or unwilling to admit the cooperative principle in human interaction, what Jacobs’ describes as “almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves…enforced by the people themselves” (p. 32).
Of course, Jacobs observed this kind of spontaneous self-regulatory cooperation in real life within messy, chaotic, busy mixed-use urban areas of the sort most high-PNS neophobes wouldn’t be caught dead in, much less choose as places to make their home.
Yet this sort of natural cooperation also prevails within the clean, orderly world of Game Theoretic computer simulations that might be more up the alley of folks with a high need for structure. But no! They’ll have none of it.
Instead, pushers of the fragile-society myth insist at all turns that human and animal cooperation is all but impossible without external controls in place to underwrite and guarantee it. Nature is simply too naturally “red in tooth and claw.”
They likewise maintain that any degree of non-conformity with imposed norms threatens confusion and mistrust or, in a word, Berger’s anomy. So when Japan’s Supreme Court in January of this year upheld a law that requires transgender individuals wishing to have their gender changed on official documents like birth certificates to first undergo sterilization, the unanimous four-judge panel said that the move was necessary in order to “reduce confusion in families and society.”
Similarly, when Alabama Public Television refused this week to air an episode of the children’s cartoon show Arthur featuring a same-sex wedding, the station defended its decision on the grounds that “[t]o air ‘Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone’ would betray that trust parents have in the station” (emphasis added).
Also just this past week, U.S. Catholic Cardinal Raymond L. Burke issued a statement asserting the Christian morality of resisting “large-scale Muslim immigration,” defending this point of view by arguing that Islam “by definition believes itself to be destined to rule the world” and that Muslims who have immigrated into Western European nations like France, Germany, and Italy are “opportunists” who “resist the authority, the legitimate authority, of the state.”
In seeking to provide additional support to his claims, Burke even referenced Breitbart reporter Raheem Kassam’s 2017 book No Go Zones whose entire self-appointed raison d’être is to investigate whether what has widely been acknowledged as a patently false FOX News claim that certain areas of European cities have been set up by Islamic immigrants as Sharia-governed hostile fundamentalist enclaves can, in fact and in some rarified sense, nonetheless be somehow wrangled into proving true of areas in both Europe and the United States.
That is, the book is intended to make what even its own author regards as an initially false, fear-mongering charge stick and convince readers that “Western Democracy” is already under direct, and dire, threat. Any good researcher knows that when you set out to find evidence for a foregone conclusion, you cannot help but to accomplish just that.
Meanwhile, the global religious leader of Cardinal Burke’s Catholic Church, Pope Francis, himself recently told thousands of young faithful at World Youth Day in Panama that it is “‘senseless and irresponsible’ to view migrants as a blanket threat to security.” In response to questions regarding American President Donald Trump’s own border wall proposals, the Pope made the telling statement that “[i]t is the fear that makes us crazy.”
Death, Fear, and Satanists
So where does all this leave us Satanists? Where do we fall along the whole fear-wonder/neophobia-neophilia divide? Obviously I believe a quick answer to these questions would hold that we trend more in the directions of wonder and neophilia than their alleged opposites. A more complete response on the issue, however, is, as you might expect, somewhat more complicated than that.
While most self-described Satanists in general display a greater degree of neophilia and less of a fear-based approach to life than those of more conventional religious bent, not all Satanists are equally neophilic or wonderstruck. Which is, perhaps, just as things should be when it comes to so diverse a bunch as self-described Satanists, many of whom in fact deny the concept of human equality itself.
In particular, I believe that LaVeyan Satanism—OG Modern Satanism, if you will—proves a might more neophobic and reactionary on the basis of fear than other forms of modern atheistic Satanism, like my own for instance.
It has been said of Anton LaVey’s work that it was “a product of its time.” I would counter that, in many ways, LaVey’s thinking seems specifically developed in order to oppose ideas prevalent at the time of the Church of Satan’s formation in the bottom half of the Age of Aquarius.
LaVey’s book The Satanic Witch, for example, has been described both as “a guide to finding the right husband” and “a deliberately reactionary commentary on the feminist and unisex movements of the 1960s and 1970s.”
Thus, for all its touted neophilic early embrace of homosexuality and transgender identity, LaVey’s Church of Satan maintains what is, in many ways, a rather neophobic stance to wider experience of certain kinds.
I believe you can see as much reflected in LaVey’s argument that the Satanist should cultivate precisely the sort of “total environment of…choice” where one is afforded not only “[t]he freedom to insularize oneself within a social milieu of personal well-being” but perhaps more importantly “[a]n opportunity to feel, see, and hear that which is most aesthetically pleasing, without interference from those who would pollute or detract from that option” (emphasis added).
The essentially neophobic character of LaVey’s “total environment” proposal is further reflected in the fact that his discussion of same in The Devil’s Notebook quickly segues into a defense of stratification and even includes the proposal that the “most people” who are described in dehumanizing terms as “locusts, part of a herd” should be rounded up for ghettoization within “space ghettoes.”
That’s right: you read that correctly. LaVey advanced a proposal for ghettos in outer space, as in the domain of Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon—both comparisons he draws explicitly in the context of his discussion of the space ghetto concept!
In the Foreward to The Devil’s Notebook, LaVey even likens the “herd mentality” he sought to counter through Satanic elitism to physical infection:
“My brand of Satanism is the ultimate conscious alternative to herd mentality and institutionalized thought. It is a studied and contrived set of principles and exercises designed to liberate individuals from a contagion of mindlessness that destroys innovation” (emphasis added).
So it is perhaps not terribly surprising to find in the one scholarly treatment of attitudes about death among Church of Satan-affiliated Satanists a somewhat conflicted stance on the Satanist’s ultimate mortality.
On the one hand, the Satanists author Cimminnee Holt interviewed evinced a clear concern with their post-mortem legacy. In the Terror Management literature—which is oddly absent from the article—there is well-known and well-worn contention over the question of whether the promise of a literal afterlife as envisioned in one way or another by all delayed-return religions takes precedence over that of a symbolic afterlife such as is hoped for by living on in the cultural memory of one’s peers and descendants.
Author Holt mentions this latter phenomenon explicitly, connecting it with the hope often found expressed in ancient epic poetry like the Epic of Gilgamesh that the hero will be able to leave to posterity a palpable legacy of lineage, architectural feats, and fabled heroic deeds.
Holt refers to this secular immortality with the phrase “applied eschatology,” derived, as she explains it, from studies of St. Paul and riffing off New Testament scholar C. H. Dodd’s turn of phrase “realized eschatology” to describe a state of living as if the eschaton or end times had already come to pass.
So Holt depicts Church of Satan Satanists as aiming for the good, busy, productive life, concentrating on “hard work, recognized accomplishments, and a conscious, self-aware methodology to achieving one’s aspirations.” These Satanists express the desire to “die with [their] boots on.” One even quotes Conan author Robert E. Howard, of whose importance to Satanism I’ve written before here, when expressing his desire to go out fighting.
Secular worldviews, like various forms of nationalism for instance, have been found in a host of Terror Management studies to help in buffering anxiety experienced at the contemplation of death. As social psychologist Leonard L. Martin describes Terror Management, its central tenant is simply “self-aggrandizement and perpetuation of the self” as a defense against mortality. Religious and non-religious (i.e. materialistic) means may both equally serve that end.
Secular views also prompt the same degree of defense against and denigration of competing secular worldviews as do traditionally religious viewpoints. The Church of Satan has certainly displayed a felt need to vigorously defend its own Satanic Weltanschauung—and indeed its purportedly unique claim to the title of Satanism and Satanic thought in general—from any and all outside critics over the years.
Yet, while the Satanists interviewed express a desire to ensure that they live their lives well and fully and that they leave some kind of tangible legacy behind in their wakes, they are careful to point out that rooting their desire for such a legacy in fickle public acclaim is a dead end.
That is, even though these Church of Satan Satanists adopt a secular worldview against the threat of mortality, seek reinforcement for that view within the Church of Satan group, and vigorously defend it against competing worldviews, they purport not to prize or otherwise value wider public acclaim.
Indeed, Anton LaVey, whose personal legacy is what gives the Church of Satan is raison d’être, worldview, and cohesion, wrote in The Devil’s Notebook that what motivated him in terms of both day-to-day vitality and symbolic immortality was the sure knowledge of his own public opprobrium and the delight he took in defying critics’ expectations as to his imminent death as a form of divine retribution:
“What keeps me going? What justifies my existence? That which sustains me is the knowledge that, were I to fall prey to trouble, to fail, to sicken, to die, it would please so many people that my strength is in my existence. … I refuse to sicken because it will make my enemies healthier. … I will never die because my death would enrich the unfit.”
Thus, while still arguing that undue fear and anxiety experienced over the prospect of death are unproductive, the Church of Satan Satanists described in Holt’s paper—as well as Anton LaVey himself—nonetheless seem to reflect a fairly traditional Terror Management stance.
That is, they clearly aren’t motivated by fear of death to the degree of delayed-return religionists, yet they clearly aren’t entirely unbothered by it either. They strive after a symbolic or metaphorical immortality won through accomplishment and reputation, even if merely one of ill repute.
These Satanists seem to occupy a predictably “third-side” position, then, in the debate between neophilia & neophobia and fear versus wonder as a default reaction to the wider world of human experience.
To pull this discussion back a little bit in the direction of Epicurus, author Matthew Stewart credits that particular Hellenistic philosopher with a similarly ambivalent attitude toward mortality and metaphorical immortality. Stewart writes: “The story really begins with Epicurus, who in a curious coda to his resolutely mortalist reflections cracks open the door ever so slightly to an oddly metaphorical notion of immortality.”
In the summary of his philosophy expressed in epistolary form in the Letter to Menoeceus—a work recently quoted in the context of a discussion of death and Satanism by French colleague Adversaire666, author of the blog Chronicles Sataniques—Epicurus promised his addressee that, by mastering Epicurean precepts and living the Epicurean life, he would be able to “live as a god among people. For people lose all appearance of mortality by living in the midst of immortal blessings.”
That is, similar to the attitude toward death expressed by Church of Satan Satanists in Holt’s article, Epicurus maintained that, by living the good life here and now, one could proleptically realize the blessings of immortality. This concept is very much in line with LaVey’s key phrase “life after death through fulfillment of the ego” that prompts Holt to coin the phrase “applied eschatology” after Dodd’s “realized eschatology” in the first place.
In the particular portion of The Satanic Bible that bears that phrase as its title, LaVey touts personalized heroism in the face of death, living vitally while fighting for earthly existence to the bitter end, such that the ego refuses to die “even after the expiration of the flesh which housed it.”
Yet he nonetheless cannot escape a certain fear of death itself. He writes: “[T]o those who have experienced all the joys life has to offer, there is a great dread attached to dying. This is as it should be.”
In his own Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus employs a bit of definitional sophistry to argue himself and his followers out of ultimate fear of dying. He maintains that death should pose no source of dread to the living because, when it finally comes, there will be no more existent “us” to feel the pain and anguish of its grip. While we yet live, meanwhile, death has, by definition, not yet come, and—here’s the telling part for the present context—“life holds no terror.”
It is the yearning after a certain immortality that makes the mortality of life unendurable, Epicurus maintains. Relinquish that struggle in order to simply concentrate on living well and fully right here and right now, and you will already be as a god. In this way, Epicurus’ view of death may prove even more immediate-return than Anton LaVey’s, if only by a little.
For my own part, I clearly desire to go on living somewhat through my ideas and writing. Yet my more proximal thorough commitment to living well (read: sensually, physically) almost always trumps that longer-range desire. Accordingly, I fail to actually work, especially on the books that I see as the primary vehicle for my imagined metaphorical immortality.
I reckon I either haven’t yet mastered Epicurus’ whole “[w]hen we say…that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality” bit, or it’s merely the case that the unique contribution from my form of Satanism is to skew even more wholly toward immediate-return to such a degree that I leave little lasting monument to posterity.
After all, there are no published authors among immediate-return hunter-gatherers; no famous architects, painters, intellectuals, or much of anything else of lasting import beyond merely the fact of their immediate-return existence. And that, for them at least, is enough. The argument of social psychologist Leonard L. Martin and my form of Satanism alike is that we would all find more contentment in life if we could only master such a lesson.
But then again, maybe Satanism was never truly about contentment to begin with. Maybe its true heart lies more in the ambivalent struggle: for the good life, for a legacy, for belonging, for justice, for freedom, even just for struggle’s own sake.
The possibility of ever truly living in real contentment, completely free from struggle, pain, and mental anguish, is an ideal, an Epicurean one it turns out. But maybe one of the clearest core ideas of Satanism is that Satan represents nothing so much as the death of ideals, that and the absolute freedom from fear in the face of such a demise. A core premise of the delayed-return world in which we all live and have been inculturated is attachment and fidelity to ideals.
Perhaps it is the core disillusionment of the death of ideals that gives the religion of Satanism its hard edge, but also its ultimate resiliency and power. Maybe here more than on any other single point, the Satanist parts ways with whatever similarities may have bound her together with mere Epicureans.
True to a religion of irreligio and untying the knots that bind, we Satanists find ourselves expelled from yet another idyllic garden: this time, the one Epicurus owned and taught in on the outskirts of a hostile Athens. Yet we do not face this state of self-exile with terror hanging heavy on our hearts, but with wonder, excitement, vigor.