In a missive addressed to John Adams on August 15, 1820, a seventy-seven-year-old Thomas Jefferson responds to a “puzzling letter” he had received from the elder Adams the previous May dealing with weighty philosophical and spiritual topics like “matter, spirit, motion etc.”
In answer to his correspondent’s complex “croud of scepticisms [sic]” which proved so unsettling that they reportedly kept the younger of the two former Presidents up at night, Jefferson wrote simply of his own quiet assurance of a “habitual anodyne” to which he feels “obliged to recur ultimately” when it comes to thorny and troubling questions of epistemology and the existence (or not) of an external reality:
“‘I feel: therefore I exist.’ I feel bodies which are not myself: there are other existencies then.”
As Australian philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith notes in his 2016 book Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, ability to mark the distinction between the limits of one’s own being and the beginnings of “other being” itself marks the most primal form of self-awareness, present even in the motions of an earthworm.
Hard wired to recoil when touched by an outside entity, yet living within the earth where locomotion requires pushing through soil, the earthworm benefits from an internal feedback loop to help it clearly distinguish those touches on its skin resulting from its own self-caused motion and those that result from entirely “other existencies” impinging on its body. Without such a loop and basic self consciousness, earthworms would remain forever hunkered in place out of fear.
In his rewording of Descartes’ famous dictum that launched a thousand philosophies of mind, Jefferson evinces that he is, by contrast, an empiricist and committed to a materialist view of the world, just like Epicurus in whose philosophy the American statesman found so much intellectual inspiration.
According to this outlook, we experience an external, physical world through our senses, trust in the validity of that experience, and thus intuit external reality as embodied in “other existencies.”
Disdaining The Matrix
Personally, I have never had much patience for the philosophical quagmires that result from intellectually masturbating to the “ultimate nature” of reality, as if our experience of reality were somehow not ultimate enough.
The nagging suspicion that immediate experience of a physical external world isn’t enough proof of its reality and existence is precisely the quintessential and enduring mind-fuck of delayed-return thinking and living.
When your every quotidian routine amounts to self-abnegation in the service of vague and hazy future rewards or even a future (after-!) life taken for granted as being of higher value than the present one, it’s no wonder you plod through daily existence unconvinced of its reality and inherent meaningfulness.
Maybe it’s all a simulation in some massive computer or…or the daydreams (nightmare?) of a particularly sadistic adolescent god or…ooh! a shared drug-induced hallucination or mere probation in preparation for something grander or…Who cares?!?! Beyond the simple intellectual exercise and pure entertainment value of considering amusing possibilities that bear but little on day-to-day living, that is. (I really did enjoy the first of the Matrix movies.)
At the end of the day, though, I feel my body as distinguished from other bodies and believe what I’m experiencing is real because it feels real. Nuff said.
The same goes for my entirely compatibilist conception of so-called free will, yet another idea under assault in the Matrix franchise. I feel like I can and do regularly make real choices that impact my life and those of others, and that’s all that really matters for me in order to assume full moral responsibility for the course I appear to chart in life. I need no more “elbow room” than that. After all, morality is a function (not to mention facilitator) of social interactions, not of mind, belief, or dogma.
As Jefferson wrote to Adams: “on the basis of sensation, of matter and motion, we may erect the fabric of all the certainties we can have or need.” Shemhamforash and amen!
Retreating from this certainty into the infinite regress of speculation on the possibility of self-delusion, that fleeting experiences of déjà vu somehow betoken “glitches in the Matrix” that holds us all anesthetized in parasitic sleep—these are nothing more than reflections and refractions of our own fragmented, modular mental make-up.
As Michael Gazzaniga first theorized decades ago, one single, late-to-the-party network in our brains is linguistic and rational in nature. And this “Interpreter” module cannot introspect into a whole host of crucial areas within the black box of our mind and motivations.
We feel like the proverbial “ghost in the machine” because the part of us that confabulates an often error-prone ex post facto story of self from disparate and usually incomplete data sets sits, like Jonathan Haidt’s metaphorical rider, atop a massive elephant that represents some ninety-nine percent of our mental processes. The hulking behemoth beneath that part of us we think of as “us” is largely un-self-conscious, but nonetheless determines a great percentage of our behavior, quite apart from any gesticulations or other activity on the part of its conscious rider.
The one way in which we can and do exert at least some control over all this unseen machinery under the hood (or beneath our ass (?), to stay with Haidt’s metaphor) is by altering the story of self we generate after the fact to bring it more in line with the realities of both the external world and our own neurophysiological make-up.
When we talk of traditional religious ideas like “make your will like the will of God/Nature/the universe,” what we’re really talking about is being more accepting of the fact that there is much to ourselves that we do not and cannot control. We should concentrate instead on what we can control: our story of self and how it interfaces with both our own less conscious selves and other selves, conscious and unconscious, out there in the external world.
We can first learn about the innate biases of our mental make-up and how they are weaponized in social orders created and legitimated by religio. Then we can alter our self-narratives and the situations in which we place ourselves in such a way as to consciously oppose our evolutionary makers, as true Satanists always should, by fighting prewired tendencies toward groupishness.
The key to realizing the necessity of this opposition to our bio-evolutionary and socio-evolutionary “makers” lies in recognizing that everyone’s Matrix is different: we all come from, operate within, and reflect the biases of not only distinct cultural matrices, but even individual, genetically and habitually determined matrices.
How many reported experiences of deconversion from traditional religion start from the realization that, had we but been born with some different set of facticities of genetics, geography, and history, our innate and cultural biases would work identically—still privileging sameness while proscribing difference—but tend in novel directions? The definitions and compass of in-group and out-group would change, but the basic polarity would remain the same.
A feeling of hollowness, of lack of identity and the ultimate interchangeability of individuals and lives plagues this realization in a way somewhat reminiscent of the scenario explored in the 1998 film-noir sci-fi flick Dark City, where humans are the imprisoned pawns of a mysterious race of godlike beings known as The Strangers who shuffle people, lives, and the very architecture of reality itself about each night during “the Tuning.”
And this feeling is only exacerbated by a delayed-return social order and way of living that privileges later over now, others’ plan(s) over one’s own, and the societal roles we inhabit (if we’re so lucky) over us, the individuals who inhabit them.
So we arrive back at that nagging feeling of the fundamental irreality of reality all over again!
The main point, though, is that what can help to break us out of our restricting matrices and the disempowering feeling of constantly exchanging one set of polarizing biases for another as we move from locale to locale, culture to culture, and family to family is an awareness and appreciation of two key facts.
First, hearkening all the way back to psychologist Julian Jaynes’ book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind and its theory of bicameralism first published in the year of my birth, the gods, mystic realms, “pure consciousness,” and “ultimate reality” we swear up and down exist outside of ourselves really result from two sources entirely internal to ourselves.
In the first instance, they are merely shadows cast by the tiny light of our Interpeter mental modules shining out over the dark and hidden contours of our massive, unlit elephant minds, doing its damnedest to make sense of the shapes sketched in the hazy penumbra.
In the second instance, they are phantom suspicions born of our latent awareness of just how little we truly know and perceive of the external world at any one moment compared to how much we, and others, come to later know and understand. How much more must exist, then? Now that’s a question on whose riptide one can quite easily get carried away.
By the way, regarding this point, puh-lease don’t talk to me of your transcendent interpretations of Plato’s cave allegory. His quest—or perhaps that of his teacher, Socrates—may be understood as primarily a prolegomenon to a proper theory of the semantics of abstract nouns, which need place no demands on metaphysics whatsoever, thankyouverymuch. He (they?) may not have thought of it in that way, but I’d like to think we’ve collectively learned a thing or two in the more than two millennia since.
The second key fact that can help break us out of biases and disempowering feelings of our own and others’ irreality is prompted by the open-ended question of just how much more there is to know about the world. See, what really does lie outside of ourselves and our limited epistemological frame is an almost incomprehensibly vast universe characterized, right down to its basic ontology, by alterity, difference, or, in Jefferson’s words, “other existencies.”
The first of these facts leads to the conclusion that, even though we exist under severe epistemological constraints which are most assuredly frustrating, we shouldn’t be duped into the error of overcompensation by positing the existence of unlimited mind external to ourselves. Such a monument to frustration can only ultimately prove even more frustrating, not to mention dangerous, as it strips the humanity from an entirely human mental function. When we externalize ourselves in that way, the monstrous result is positively inhuman and inhumane.
The second of these facts leads to the conclusion that a basic outward orientation is necessary in order to appreciate the richness and diversity of the universe all around us. Guided by Jefferson’s turn of phrase “other existencies” that I keep quoting, I shall term such an outward-facing outlook exocentricity.
Immediate-Returnism as Exocentricity
As you might have expected if you’ve been a reader of my blog for any time at all, the fancy term exocentric derives from the field of linguistics, an area of study near and dear to my blackened and shriveled heart.
As a linguistic designation, exocentric describes any grammatical construction whose function is to connect two distinct and different elements with entirely separate functions, neither one of which can be substituted for the whole construction.
Examples of exocentric grammatical constructions include whole sentences, verb phrases consisting of a verb and its objects, prepositional phrases consisting of a preposition and its objects, and the like. The exocentricity of these constructions is what puts their constituent elements into their syntagmatic or syntactic relation. Exocentricity involves the relationships of complementation and predication in grammar.
For the purposes of the present, non-linguistic discussion in this post, let the term exocentricity refer to the basic Left-Hand-Path orientation toward difference and the separateness of distinct, self-existent entities, as well as to an attitude or function of “syntactic” connection or linking between them.
The existence of distinct individuals within shared space, as on the earth, is necessarily exocentric in this way. Exocentricity of this sort is also a stable characteristic of immediate-return ways of thinking and interacting with the world.
Immediate-return societies usually have “few verbalized rules of behavior” and often “no single, clear idea of a moral order” because of their innate exocentric orientation away from perspectival absolutism. As social psychologists Leonard L. Martin and Steven Shirk explain:
“In a society that values equality as highly as immediate-return societies do, there can be no single, correct version of events or values. After all, if the values of one person are considered correct, then a different set of values held by another person must be incorrect. This dichotomy implies inequality, which is actively avoided in immediate-return societies.”
Because this characteristic of immediate-return social organization and operation appears to lead to lack of social cohesion, with frequent shifts in allegiances, alliances, and the make-up of groups, it is usually viewed by delayed-return outside observers as contributing to “cultural instability.”
Nonetheless, orientation toward “other existencies” in terms of variant points of view and behavioral norms provides its own kind of stability as a bedrock, foundational principle of immediate-return living. At the end of the day, what you can count on is individuals going their own way.
This same non-absolutist, exocentric orientation also forms a foundational principle of my own modern atheistic Satanism.
Exocentricity vs. Endocentricity, the Sublime, and Solipsism
Naturally, the opposite of the immediate-return emphasis on what I’ve called exocentricity is…hold on a minute while I grab another Greek prefix from my fancy verbal toolbox…endocentricity. That is, being oriented within rather than without: not toward what Jefferson called “other existencies,” but principally, or even solely, to one’s own.
In the realm of grammar from which I have taken my terminology on this point, endocentric refers to the function of modification in which, when elements combine to form a new whole, that whole is of the same type as at least one of the constituent elements. This is the grammatical relationship of attribution.
The endocentricity of endocentric constructions functions to place them in a paradigmatic, as opposed to a syntagmatic, relation with one another. Each is able to be substituted in place of the other. Endocentricity is thus meme-like or self-replicating in its behavior.
Remember that famous Emo Philips joke about one Baptist attempting to convince another not to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge? Via question and answer, the two split religious hairs all the way down to five different attributes on which they are in total agreement in their shared Christianity before arriving at a distinction in the sixth modifier, whereupon the would-be rescuer hastily turns angry inquisitor, shouting “Die, heretic!” before himself pushing the other to his death.
What is ontologically endocentric simply cannot function exocentrically. If it fails to produce a new structure of the same type as its major constituent element, the only other option is ungrammaticality in the descriptive, as opposed to prescriptive, sense. Such ungrammaticality cannot exist in a linguistic system: speakers never produce it, save by slips of the mind and tongue, and, should they ever encounter it “in the wild,” simply will not accept it as well formed. Ungrammaticality of this sort is fundamentally unintelligible. It cannot be.
The whole point of the previous post about differing responses to the Sublime between those with a more neophilic, wonder-based outlook on life as opposed to those with a more thoroughly neophobic, fear-based reaction was that the latter meet moments of the Sublime by projecting their own internal mental structures and need for rules and systematicity onto the external world in an effort to contain, constrict, and control it. They do this precisely so as to ward off moments and elements of the kind of ultimate unintelligibility discussed in the previous paragraph.
In their frightful world of feeling inadequate to the dangers lurking around every bend, such individuals take from experiences of the Sublime a prophetic charge to fix everything, life and humanity alike, by laying down a single, stable, and inflexible law of living and demanding submission, conversion, and obedience to it.
The problem with such an arrangement, of course, is solipsism: submitting the breadth of the world to the narrowness of one’s own conceptions, rather than the other way around.
Now, the concept of solipsism is a difficult one in modern Satanism, largely because of how Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey used and abused the word in his writing (of course!).
On the one hand, LaVey warns against solipsism, naming it as the third of his so-called Nine Satanic Sins. In his discussion of this point, he essentially recapitulates the fifth of the Nine Satanic Statements and argues that Satanists should strive to “Do unto others as they do unto you” rather than attempting to live by the much vaunted Golden Rule.
LaVey holds that this latter approach is folly because Jesus’ particular moral dictum is the product of a solipsistic view of social interaction. You project your prosocial values onto others and assume they are likely to be as concerned with kindness, consideration, and refraining from harm as you are. Furthermore, you must additionally assume they are equally capable as you of putting their values into specific action.
Though LaVey uses his discussion of solipsism as a Satanic sin in order to indulge yet another proof of the falsity of notions of basic human equality (a point on which we most definitely disagree), I essentially concur with him that the Golden Rule, however formulated, does reflect the binding and knotting tendency of delayed-return religio that I’ve been writing about thus far in this series. As such, it is inherently solipsistic in something like the traditional sense: presuming to order the external world according to one’s own scruples.
As a result of his intriguing notion of solipsism as a social sin, LaVey is able to argue that Satanists should cultivate precisely the sorts of “total environment” where they are afforded “[t]he freedom to insularize oneself ” and “[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” that many would naturally associate with philosophical solipsism.
And his equivocation enables him to do this seemingly without opening himself up to charges of obvious hypocrisy. LaVey seems to be wanting to have his proverbial cake and eat it too on the issue. His charge to Satanists is precisely to cultivate solipsism for its antisocial aspect and avoid it for its allegedly social (or prosocial) aspect.
I reckon that LaVey’s idiosyncratic, double-edged use of solipsism is precisely the sort of impish and deliberately equivocating misuse of a word and the philosophical concept it usually denotes that we should expect from the founder of a truly Satanic religion. Oh Anton, you tricky old goat!
Meanwhile, the real world outside of LaVey’s rarified Satanic elitism amply demonstrates for us all the concrete dangers of solipsistic total environments and the threats they pose to a balanced, accurate view of the external world.
Numerous news outlets have now covered how the distortional right-leaning Fox News Network and both the Trump Whitehouse and the man himself are locked in a feedback loop, each feeding off of, and confirming, the other’s delusions. Fox has acted more like an unofficial propaganda arm of the Trump administration than an independent, if conservative, news network. The President, meanwhile, gets the pleasure of having his own warped view of the world reflected back to him and amplified to such a degree and among such a vocal and politically empowered demographic that it in effect becomes the new reality.
Moreover, from Poland to Hungary to Germany to France, England, even the Netherlands—not to mention, of course, our own little insular nation—the politics of whole countries have trended in this same Trumpian-cum-Fox-News direction: closed off, fantastically self indulgent, and grossly abusive toward “other existencies.”
We clearly do not want those in charge of governance in this or any other nation to follow LaVey’s advice as to total environments in terms of the media they consume, the ideas they entertain and propagate, and the policies they seek to enact!
Even if politicians manage to restrict their use of such environments to their private lives (which was really LaVey’s likely intent with his concept to begin with: wrap yourself in a soothing cocoon of your own making and pretend nothing outside exists), the experience of social media polarization with which we’re all intimately familiar probably means to teach everybody that having godlike ability to create insular and insulating echo-chamber environments in one area of our personal lives inevitably spills out into our expectations as to how the rest of our realities should operate.
How could omnipotent gods with total power over their immediate environments ever learn to content themselves with anything less than totalizing and godlike power in some other area of life? How could they possibly cope?
This rhetorical question forms the perfect segue to the next movement in this symphonic exploration: a consideration of the concepts of exocentricity and endocentricity as they relate to the creation of culture and the all important human concern of play.
Exocentricity, Endocentricity, and Play
Psychologist Peter Gray writes about how, when it comes to religion and stories about gods and natural phenomena, immediate-return hunter-gatherers appear to experience little-to-no cognitive dissonance or internal conflict over differing versions of the same story, nor over stories that conflict with empirical knowledge about natural causes and effects.
An individual may, at one moment, offer an explanation for the non-appearance of stars in the sky during the daytime as being due to the brightness of the sun blocking them from our sight. In the next moment, however, this same person will spin a mythological tale of the stars as cosmic insects that crawl up into the sky at night where they shine down, only to return by day to sandy burrows deep within the earth.
Such immediate-return hunter-gatherers likewise express no concern over children marrying into other groups and adopting different beliefs or customs. They tend, rather, to view all religiosity and even cultural practices as kinds of organized play. “To leave one band and join another, with different religious practices,” Gray writes, “is in this sense like leaving a group who are playing one game and joining another who are playing a different game.”
While these groups hold their own cultural practices and stories of gods and origins as important, special, and even “sacred” in some sense, they don’t let their own commitments inhibit open experience of other stories and other value systems.
It is the inherent and important exocentricity of immediate-return ways of living and thinking that lends itself to this sort of playful attitude toward cultural and interpersonal differences.
Not All Play is Created Equal, However
In his 2015 book Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds, Religious Studies scholar Joseph Laycock similarly privileges the concept of play when it comes to human religiosity. Laycock scaffolds his discussion with the ideas of Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, French intellectual Roger Caillois, and American sociologist of religion Robert Bellah, all of whom emphasize the central importance of the concept of play to human culture and social evolution, particularly in the domain of religion.
Laycock also discusses at length a key problem with play of this sort: it can, and in fact tends to, be corrupted. Corruption of play means that “the frame of the game is lost, and what was once voluntary becomes compulsory.” While Laycock does not discuss this phenomenon in terms of delayed-return cultural systems (because that’s a theoretical lens with which he is unfamiliar), corruption of play is precisely what happens within totalizing delayed-return contexts.
That is, when delayed-return outlooks and concerns structure cultural and religious “play,” it quickly takes on a totalizing character that swallows whole both awareness that there exist other frames of reality outside that of the game and the fact that the particular form of play being engaged in is itself just another game. The play becomes the reality, and the reality becomes all-encompassing in the manner of Peter Berger’s Sacred Canopy:
“Religion…serves to maintain the reality of that socially constructed world within which men exist in their everyday lives. Its legitimating power, however, has another important dimension—the integration into a comprehensive nomos [or ‘law’] of precisely those marginal situations in which the reality of everyday life is put in question. … The reality of everyday life, therefore, is continuously surrounded by a penumbra of vastly different realities. These, to be sure, are segregated in consciousness as having a special cognitive status (in the consciousness of modern man, a lesser one) and thus generally prevented from massively threatening the primary reality of fully awake existence.”
In the above passage, Berger is writing specifically of dream versus waking states, but his thoughts are applicable as well to the dreamlike or even, depending on perspective, nightmarish irreality of “other existencies” that inhabit (or rather are relegated to) the margins of delayed-return society.
I mean the kinds of other ways of being and living that many in the so-called “Western world” are only just beginning to be more fully “woke” to: color, queerness, trans experience, assertive cultures from the “Global South” refusing to accept subaltern status, and the like. All of these are, in one way or another, denied their full moral reality on equal footing within the dominant, central narrative of social reality in our massively delayed-return state-level societies.
Indeed, our dominant forms of corrupted play, whether religious or political in nature, seek either to assimilate or to destroy both variant forms of play and the non-conforming players engaged therein. The endocentric nature of delayed-return constructions of social order and reality leads us to assume that no other orders or realities can exist or be valid.
Corrupted play is therefore not just another type of organized play. It threatens the very possibility of continued multifarious play itself.
Certain delayed-return cultural interests, like physical alteration of the natural environment in the service of economic gain and persistent climate-change denial as a means of countering challenges to such continued alteration and economic plunder, similarly threaten the very possibility of continued play.
As a result, I would argue that adoption of climate-denial perspectives and beliefs is not merely an act of “leaving a group who are playing one game and joining another who are playing a different game.” Rather such moves present real and present dangers to all of our collective human patrimony of play, as well as to the plethora of different pleasurable games we all currently purport to pursue on this shared planet which is itself necessary to support our very existence.
If human culture boils down to play of one sort or another, then the planet constitutes our shared game-board. The problem is that some of our games have, either as their chief aim or at least as acceptable collateral damage in the service of some other aim, the degradation and destruction of that board, as you might naturally expect if some players regard the present, physical world as essentially unreal or of secondary importance behind some world yet to come.
A quite similar point can (and must) be made about racists, racial supremacists, ethnonationalists, homophobes, transphobes, TERFs, violent religious zealots, and pretty much anybody else philosophically committed to denying the moral reality and basic humanity of whole classes of fellow human being. These forms of degraded “play” set out not to destroy the collective game board, but rather to decimate the ranks of possible game players.
Again, when the goal is the restriction, rather than maximization, of play and players, we’re talking about a corruption of play instead of the pleasant diversion of the untainted real thing. If play itself is desirable, such corruptions must not be allowed to fester.
For these reasons not all play can be permitted or countenanced by the rest of us. Reverse dominance against corruption of play and corrupted players is a must. Unlike grammar, where endocentricity and exocentricity complement one another, in the real world the former can threaten the very existence of the latter.
The Importance of Exocentricity to a Rich Experience of Life: A Personal Reflection
I want to conclude this somewhat rambling essay with a personal reflection on the value and necessity of exocentricity that will itself serve as a good segue to the next installment in this series of posts on Satanism and religion. The topic of that piece will be how binding delayed-return religious commitments act in such a way as to limit personal experience of the richness of external experience. And this experience-blocking acts to the detriment of the individuals so blocked.
In order to prime the pump of thought somewhat along these lines, I want to spend a moment at the tail end of this piece considering how one of my entirely non-religious (in a conventional sense, at any rate) religiones acts as a limiter of my personal experience and what I have chosen, as a Satanist, to do about it.
Some of you may have picked up from elsewhere on my blog or its associated Twitter account that I’m an ethical vegan. That is, my veganism stems first and foremost from a moral concern to avoid causing undue pain, suffering, and death to sentient beings. It is not primarily a quest for personal health or dietary healing.
Because animal products are deeply embedded in most every aspect of our modern culture, however, right down to the growing of nearly all vegetables available for sale in both conventional markets and through community-supported agricultural co-ops (blood-meal, bone-meal, and fish-emulsion, anyone?), I recognize that almost no one’s veganism will ever be complete and total.
One hundred percent veganic agriculture is possible, but still relatively rare unfortunately. And even if you manage to find and make use of such and scratch that particular itch, there’s still the issue of non-vegan, animal-tested medicines and vaccines which are at present the best options in treating and preventing communicable diseases that can ravage human populations. Animal products and plights find their furtive ways into our consumptive practices in a myriad of unexpected, usually entirely hidden—and not all totally bad, manners.
In view of these facts, I merely maintain that every decision to opt for a more, rather than a less, vegan alternative, even if not completely free from any and all animal inputs, is a morally and environmentally desirable one to make. Being vegan is not about perfection. So slow your roll, you phalanx of anti-vegans eager to catch us out on “slip-ups” and impugn our commitment to the cause.
As I’ve written before, perfection is an inhuman standard. And once you convince yourself to hold humans up to an such an impractical benchmark, no matter the basis, you become capable of some deeply inhumane attitudes and actions toward human beings, both yourself and others.
My veganism, however, does prove limiting when it comes to my personal experience. Before going over to the dark green side, my wife and I would often eat at local Korean restaurants where we enjoyed octopus, squid, sundubu jjigae, dwaeji bulgogi, kimbop, bibimbop, and more. We would frequently do our grocery shopping at the nearby H-Mart store, where we bought kimchi by the bucket, as well as pork belly, seafood, and, of course, copious quantities of gochugaru and gochujang, the traditional Korean red-pepper flakes and paste.
Very little in traditional Korean food is vegan, right down to the ubiquitous anchovies or shrimp paste in conventional kimchis. Now I must either make my own kimchi or locate one of the few more expensive varieties of store-bought that actually are vegan (and invariably don’t taste as good as the “real thing”). I similarly make my own dwaeji-bulgogi from soy curls and accompanying banchan using only vegetables, but it’s just not the same, not the least reason being that all this happens in my decidedly non-Korean North American kitchen.
So much of what made our previous experiences so meaningful and fun stemmed from the fact that they took place in local Korean enclaves, where, for at least a few hours, it felt as though we had left U.S. soil and entered truly foreign territory. As vegans, we’re cut off not just from the foods we once enjoyed, but from some of the unique cultural experiences and interactions with Korean people centered on food as well. Food customs and commensality are, after all, one of the primary expressions of any given culture.
When I was still in grad school for linguistics, one of my profs and mentors once confided in me that he, too, had, at a former time in his life, been a committed ethical vegan. However, after many years, he felt compelled to leave his veganism completely aside.
The reason for that decision stemmed from his marriage to a Japanese woman and constantly feeling that his vegan commitment severely limited his interaction and involvement with both Japanese culture more broadly and his Japanese in-laws and extended family-in-law in particular.
Veganism got in the way in a manner he found too restrictive, too damaging to interpersonal relationships (including that with his own wife!). It also left him feeling cut off from novel and exciting experiences in a foreign culture in which veganism has traditionally never been “a thing” and is still proving slow to catch on.
Something quite similar happened in the 2011 documentary Vegucated when filmmaker Marisa Miller Wolfson convinced three “meat- and cheese-loving New Yorkers” to let her take them through a course in vegan indoctrination and transformation and then film the whole thing in exchange for their commitment to give it the old college try.
One of the trio of subjects, a young hispanic woman, had the greatest trouble in the bunch with her new vegan lifestyle for much the same reason as my linguistics prof. Her Honduran and Peruvian parents cooked traditional, animal-laden food and didn’t understand their daughter’s interest in giving it all up. Moreover, when she traveled to visit extended family back in her family’s Central and South American homelands, she found herself cut off and alienated from familiar experiences with relatives.
Yet despite feeling limited by my veganism and notwithstanding the damage it’s caused to my (always rocky) relationship with dear old mom (who just has to pass vocal judgment on the way I’ve chosen to eat and live, with the result being that we simply don’t talk anymore, not for going on two years now), I remain steadfast in my overarching commitment to it, in part because it implicates my Satanic religiosity.
As a Satanist, my highest (indeed only) moral value is universal sovereignty of embodied will and inviolability of bodies that house such will.
My veganism is thus a religio, a binding commitment and a religious scruple that in fact limits my choice in a whole host of situations.
Yet I largely tolerate its limiting impact on my behavior because, for one thing, this scruple, this bond, links me not with some externalized and inhuman idea, but with thinking, feeling, sentient beings who are embodied wills in their own right. For another, it’s one I’ve arrived at on my own rather than having it imposed on me arbitrarily as a result of culture and upbringing (whence why I don’t impose it on my own children). Finally, it permits me the opportunity to revisit and renew or reject my highest moral commitment every day in every choice I make as to my own nourishment and sustenance.
But because I don’t hold my veganism as a “sacred” value stemming from some externalized and inhuman source of value, I simply don’t get hung up about totalizing compliance one hundred percent of the time.
I may occasionally inadvertently consume non-vegan food because of lazy, inattentive, or just plain deceptive food vendors and waitstaff. If I do, I don’t stress or get mad about it. I even sometimes just really want a slice of the cheese pizza I’ve ordered for my non-vegan kids, or a bite of the buttery (vegan buttery, that is!) pasture-raised scrambled eggs I’ve prepared for them, or maybe some traditional kimchi with my tofu bowl in an atmospheric local Korean eatery. So I indulge: without guilt, without shame, and without misgiving.
Moreover, I would never expect other people I’m around who don’t share my commitment to veganism (or can’t monetarily afford to indulge in what is inevitably the privilege of such a scruple) to curtail their own eating habits just because they’re keeping my company, nor to submit to vocal moralizing on my part about what they should or shouldn’t be doing with their consumptive and ingestive practices.
Of course, if they come to dine as guest in my home, the food on the table will be vegan, but, other than that: they make their choices, I make mine, and we coexist.
All of this naturally opens me up to charges of inconsistency and maybe even hypocrisy as regards my not-so-scrupulous veganism, so let’s consider these issues for a moment before calling it a day.
Exocentricity and (In)Consistency
When Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in “Self Reliance” that “[a] foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines,” he was specifically referring to culturally expected “reverence for…past act or word” and advocating for freeing oneself from such shackles, even unto the “sin” of self-contradiction and the social stigmata of being misunderstood.
In general, however, Emerson correctly intuited that delayed-return societies live and thrive according to the endocentricity of reverencing and recapitulating the past: past heroes, past events, past teachers, past doctrines—tried and true approaches to familiar struggles.
In the face of the truly unprecedented, of course, this approach naturally breaks down. Yet it is the necessary habit of delayed-returnism to deny that such failures are possible and to stubbornly maintain the consistency of that denial even while in the throws of annihilation.
Non-absolutist exocentricity, meanwhile, requires flexibility, and flexibility entails a certain inconsistency. To riff for a moment off the Latin etymology of the word consistent, exocentricity demands that one often stand apart from, rather than together with, past stances. And what could be more Left-Hand-Path than that?
Neophilia commands that we embrace newness, the unaccustomed, that for which we are, by definition, unprepared by prior experience. Such embrace can be scary and uncomfortable, to be sure, but it is absolutely necessary if we are to realize the benefits of enlarging and enhancing our behavioral and experiential repertoires—which is, after all, the chief advantage neophilia has to confer as a basic survival strategy.
It is in this sense that I begin to wonder about how, etymologically, in both the Koine Greek of the New Testament term hamartia and the Biblical Hebrew of the Old Testament vocable ḥēṭ’, “sin” consists in the fault of “falling short of” or “missing” some idealized mark set by a supposedly external God.
If, as I’ve argued throughout this series, the thought structures we impose on the world of experience really are our gods, gussied up in the trappings of externalization, then sin is, by definition, a failure to be consistent to an imposed ideal. It’s a form of inconsistency.
Now, it’s easy to understand how those who favor delayed-return approaches to life and thought would deride inconsistency as folly while urging—nay, even demanding—consistency to their externalized ideologies and historical legacies reflected in a vigorously defended present social order.
Yet the words hypocrite and hypocrisy persist as frequent terms of abuse in both the Christian New Testament and Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible. How does this unexpected apparent agreement happen to arise between two groups otherwise seemingly diametrically opposed to one another?
Delayed-returnists level charges of hypocrisy against one another largely as a gambit to demonstrate the untenability of one ideological structure in preference to another: their own. The Satanic approach to hypocrisy, meanwhile, as evidenced in LaVey’s Bible, is to cease to recognize certain behavioral standards as worthy or appropriate at all, thereby freeing oneself to act as one will without having to worry over inconsistencies.
You see, the hypocrite is not merely internally inconsistent between professed scruple and observed outward behavior, but also crucially denies such inconsistency or attempts to argue it away as unimportant. A true hypocrite still judges inconsistency a bad thing, even as she indulges it. Hypocrisy conceived of as sin implies the importance of repentance as a means of overcoming and potentially ending both inconsistency and its denial.
Because a Satanist is nothing if not an unrepentant sinner to beat the band, the Satanist accepts and freely indulges inconsistency without falling into hypocrisy by openly acknowledging and even embracing her inconsistency under the vicissitudes of self-will in the moment and ultimate insouciance in the face of social judgment.
In this sense, when progressive, heartfelt Christians urge acceptance of the idea that “we are all sinners” and continue to admonish that Jesus called primarily sinners (Mark 2:17) and therefore we must all begin our honest approaches to one another by fully accepting our collective and mutual sin (read: inconsistency), I can actually find some limited agreement with them.
The possibility for true and open human engagement really does start from recognition and acceptance of our various hypocrisies because hypocrisy betokens inconsistency, and inconsistency signals an openness to change. Beginning from hypocrisy in this way opens us up to the possibilities of exocentricity, at least in theory.
It also entails a collective striving on all of our parts to leave hypocrisy behind as an immature or inauthentic stance to life, a point on which both Christians (as well as traditional religionists of other stripes) and Satanists would agree.
The more I read progressive Christian authors like Kathy Escobar espousing ideas like “Jesus doesn’t call us to a life of ascent where we move further and further away from the things of this world. Rather, I believe he calls us to a life of descent, of downward mobility, where we move down into the trenches of real life, real pain…,” “Jesus embodied downward mobility and calls us to the same,” “Humility stems from a theology of brokenness, an honest acceptance of pain in our own lives and in the lives of others,” and “Embracing a theology of brokenness also breaks down the divide between ‘us and them’ and ways we remain protected from other people,” the more I am struck by the niggling feeling that they are open to sharing an acceptance of inconsistency with us Satanists, at least initially.
Perhaps in this fact lies the possibility of our being able to find some common ground on which to build the basis of rapport with our traditional opponents, the Abrahamic monotheists…if, that is, you, as an independent Satanists, judge such a state of affairs desirable.
The chief distinction between Christian (progressive or otherwise) and Satanic approaches to this problem, of course, revolves around whether the antidote to hypocrisy and method of freeing the individual from its inauthenticity lies in the idealization of attempted forsaking of all inconsistency and denial of same in favor of adherence to the consistency advocated by delayed-return religion or merely denial of the opinion that indefinite inconsistency is necessarily a bad thing.
For the Christian, both inconsistency and its denial are equally bad. For the Satanist, it’s the living in denial part that constitutes the problem (see Nine Satanic Statements no. 3).
However accepting of inconsistency progressive Christians like Rachel Held Evans and Kathy Escobar may be in welcoming all to their table, there is still, at the end of their pious workday, the ultimate consistency of Christ in their teachings and strivings that functions to bind their ragtag, motley communities together. This is a fact which cannot be denied, nor its importance minimized.
Enforced consistency is a tool of social order. What progressive Christians seem to be arguing for is a looser sort of order, one with less gatekeeping and more acceptance. But there is still some gatekeeping and border control. After all, Jesus himself said in John 10:7 “I am the gate for the sheep.” It’s just that progressive Christians usually disavow the role of gatekeeper for human beings in this lifetime, preferring to leave judgment up to God.
Meanwhile, the Satanist is set on opposing social order, so what does she care for others’ consistencies? They are all externalizations born of fear, which is paralyzing, like an earthworm with no self awareness and no internal feedback loop. Let inconsistency reign freely.
This approach of ultimate acceptance of inconsistency also holds out promise for resolving one of the key conflicts currently (hell, for a while now) ripping at the seams of the macro-“community” of modern Satanism: the fact that many members and leaders within large, recognized bodies of Satanists instantiate a kind of reverse hypocrisy.
Unlike the usual sort of hypocrisy which consists in professing consistency while actually living inconsistent with one’s avowed values, this reverse hypocrisy involves individual Satanists openly disdaining consistency in word, but in deed secretly embracing it and even demanding it of others admitted to their Satanic fellowship. This is Satanic gatekeeping.
By letting Satanic acceptance of “sin,” of inconsistency, have free reign, however, we have a hope of forsaking the internecine ideological warfare that further fractures an already fragile and fractious set of folks.
At any rate, to return to the image of Plato’s cave invoked above: if one doesn’t allow for at least a little inconsistency through enlargement and enhancement of behavioral possibilities, then in the words of Emerson “he might as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.” Though Emerson is assuaged in his inconsistency by an assurance of the transcendent unity of being with which I cannot hold, I can nonetheless find broad agreement with him on this one point.
Let us leave the caves of our own nervous minds and enter the external world of “other existencies” where not one is consistent with another and yet all are linked and connected in a single syntagm of shared existence and self-will.