In this long series of posts on Satanic religion as I see it, I’ve argued for Satanism as a kind of contrareligion (contrary religion?). Its principal aim: to unpack and dismantle sociologist Peter Berger’s “sacred canopy” and all similar neophobic, endocentric constructs of delayed-return worldview and religiosity.
I’ve argued that this essentially destructive enterprise is necessary for the constructive purpose of freeing up individuals’ neophilic experience of exocentricity. Doing so opens the way for a richer, more vital existence and a more empathetic participation in daily life on this manifold and highly variegated planet.
At the personal level that was the focus of the penultimate piece, this project means releasing one’s anxious grip on circumstances and self rather than tightening it. It requires letting go of the need and the desire for internal control over externalities, particularly other people.
For those who aren’t natural narcissists or sociopaths, this practice comes easily enough when circumstances prove favorable and no expectancy gaps open up to swallow your intention whole. But in a world that presents near constant resistance to our designs and aims, the felt need for power over rather than simply empowerment within reasserts itself even in the psychology of otherwise untroubled individuals.
In adversity, no matter whether profound or trifling, we tend to scour circumstance for the meaning of the gaps separating us in our current experience from the world as we would have it be. Real suffering and both mental and physical anguish accompany feeling ourselves trapped in the world merely as it is, absent (and even despite) our willing otherwise.
At such times, we tend to invoke the exercise of internal control (even if fictive) so as to close gaps resulting from nonfulfillment of our expectations or, failing that, simply to cover them from view. Lacking personal control has been shown experimentally to increase illusory confidence in a controlled and meaningful world as evidenced by increased perceptions of false patterns in noise, of phony correlations in stock market performance, of alleged conspiracies, and of the objects of general superstitions.
There is a certain element of make believe to traditional religion that flourishes in the face of societal instability and collapse. Witness the rise of faith healing in ravaged Venezuela, where economic catastrophe has left hospitals and doctors without the medicines and means to treat illness. Or the burgeoning interest in witchcraft in this increasingly plagued country over the course of the past three years.
Control and Its Discontent(s)
Independent researcher Gregory Paul’s controversial work correlating traditional religiosity with signs of societal dysfunction like rates of homicide, suicide, and teen pregnancy has advanced the argument that popular, delayed-return religion best prospers amid adverse social and economic conditions. The curious apparent negative correlation between the strength of delayed-return religion and the quality of life of the populace in its thrall hinges on what goes in the academic literature on the subject under the moniker of the Uncertainty Hypothesis.
By virtue of its rootedness in the idea of putting off fulfillment even in the face of present and future uncertainties, delayed-return religion functions by providing a means of so-called “compensatory control.” That is, it holds out promises of control vested in externalizations amid situations of material uncertainty where personal control is low or even entirely absent.
Similar to what I have written about in previous posts in connection with the 2009 Terror Management study of people with high so-called “personal needs for structure” (PNS), religion as compensatory control offers protection for individuals’ belief and confidence in a supervised and non-random world “by imbuing their social, physical, and metaphysical environments with order and structure when their sense of personal control is threatened.”
One study of the Uncertainty Hypothesis involving correlation and regression analysis of one hundred-fourteen countries (controlled for Communism and Islamic religion, as both of these factors adversely affect reported incidence of non-belief) found that religiosity declined when social development (as measured by agricultural employment and enrollment in post-secondary education) and both income and health security increased.
It’s no wonder, then, that religious conservatives like Republican U.S. Representative Mark Green of Tennessee see secular government with a strong focus on social services as antithetical to traditional religion. Green remarked before a church group in 2015:
“The person who’s in need…they look to the government for the answer, not God, and I think in that way government has done an injustice that’s even bigger than just the creation of an entitlement welfare state. In this setting, I’ll share the story, I think it interrupts the opportunity for people to come to a saving knowledge of who God is.”
Studies into religion as a form of compensatory control have found that a strong socio-political system can and does serve the same need for externalized guarantees of control as delayed-return religion. Lower levels of personal control correlate strongly with both traditional religiosity and higher support for governmental control.
Social psychologist Ara Norenzayan has written pointedly about how strong secular social welfare states can ultimately displace delayed-return religion almost entirely. Religion and a strong state thus prove something of competitors in the battle for the hearts and minds of those in the midst of material uncertainty. North Korean Juche and fundamentalist Christian evaluations and critiques of it, anyone?
Meanwhile, an analysis of European social data from 1970 through the late nineties demonstrated that calls for Christian involvement in public life and government came generally loudest and most frequently in countries where Christian religiosity was numerically most on the decline (though still in the majority). Just recently, I read a new piece in The Atlantic highlighting the way that American Evangelicals have clung—and continue to cling—to President Trump because they feel themselves, their religion, and their WASPy way of life in existential crisis but for the strong protection and favoritism—the “sacred canopy,” if you will—that the Trump administration has provided.
All of this comes to a head, then, on an obvious point. As I’ve discussed in other posts within this religion series, delayed-return religio—tying society and individuals up in knots—provides the very underlying affliction for which it then also promises a cure. Not only does delayed-return religion arise to combat feelings of helplessness and meaninglessness caused by putting off fulfillment in exchange for expected future reward amid uncertain and uncontrollable circumstances. It in fact achieves its greatest strength and most unwavering adherence the more material circumstances prove unfavorable and apparently hopeless.
The trite Alcoholics Anonymous dictum to “let go and let God” provides the perfect illustration of this phenomenon. The more one’s situation in life proves untenable, the more one is urged to cease trying to combat circumstance through one’s own resources and means and instead to rely on the promise of externalized control from religion. Surrender, submission, letting go: these are customary buzzwords of traditional religiosity.
And then there’s the passionate pursuit of “transcendence” so characteristic of delayed-return religion. In its most virulent form, this passion takes the form of morbid fascination with short-circuiting the threat posed by mortality by emotionally detaching from carnal existence and emphasizing death of the self or ego by choice in order to facilitate some fictive rebirth or purer existence. How unimprovable must one hold the conditions of daily life on planet earth to be in order to positively long—and actively strive—for states like nirvana, Sufi fana, mystical death in Christ, kenosis, and similar delayed-return notions that parse out to “extinguishment,” “emptying,” or “dying before death”?
British psychologist Kevin Dutton has even noted the close parallels between the states of mental and emotional detachment aimed at in certain forms of Buddhist practice and those similar states that already exist as a daily baseline in the minds of individuals categorized as classic psychopaths. Hardly the modern model of healthy, high-functioning individuals. Or is it, in our increasingly delayed-return world? Dutton has much of interest to say on this point.
Offering illusory belief and faith in a fictively ordered world, along with similarly illusory “spiritual” practices as a means of allegedly overcoming helplessness in the face of the obvious epistemological danger observable facts present to this faith…promising emotional strength through detachment and personal empowerment through fictive or literal death of all that makes an individual individual…reveling in power and prestige anchored by social systems that celebrate the achievements and behavior of those who evidence more than their fair share of psychopathic traits to prey upon the flocks of the faithful…. Delayed-return religion would ultimately seem to do nothing so well as engineering a state of what psychologist Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness.”
Traditional Religion and Learned Helplessness
Seligman’s work on learned helplessness began in the late 1960s with rather cruel experiments involving dogs in electrified cages. One group of canines in the experiments suffered electric shocks through their cages, but could stop the shocks by pressing on a lever. Another group similarly experienced shocks, but could do nothing themselves to put a stop to their suffering.
When both groups of dogs were later placed in “shuttlebox” cages divided into two parts separated by a short barrier which they could jump over in order to get to the side of the apparatus that was not electrified and delivering shocks, the dogs from the group that had previously learned to press a lever to cease their suffering wasted no time in leaping the wall to escape to safety. Those dogs that had learned there was noting they could personally do to control their own plight, however, simply lay down passively and whined in the side of the cage where they were continuously receiving the voltage. Such was the pattern of behavior that Seligman dubbed “learned helplessness.”
It’s no coincidence that modern torture techniques often involve engineering a scenario similar to Seligman’s dog experiments. Positive and negative treatment are meted out at random and not in accord with anything the people being tortured can do to improve their situation. This cruel caprice quickly leads to a psychological breaking of individuals and diminishment of their hope and resistance as they learn there is nothing they can do to help themselves. In their reinforced helpless state, victims become entirely dependent on their victimizers. Some even develop Stockholm Syndrome.
The ultimate effects of learned helplessness resemble the way in which individuals who have suffered criminal assault can often, through Fundamental Attribution Error, come to blame themselves for their own victimization.
There are obvious parallels, too, to what psychologist Melvin Lerner first observed during the course of his original experiments in the 1960s into the effects of the Just World Hypothesis. When participants were forced to watch as others received electric shocks, unable to do anything to prevent the apparent injustice of the suffering they witnessed, they came to eventually blame the victims and believe that their plight was justified and even deserved.
As author Adam Kotsko covers somewhat in his 2016 book Prince of This World, much of Judeo-Christian religion has traditionally concentrated on finding and promoting theodicic meaning for suffering as merited and, even more perversely, meritorious. Suffering as part of God’s plan (or at least through His permissiveness with Satan) is redemptive, educative, purifying, and so forth.
Moreover, as I’ve also discussed previously, delayed-return religion seeks to remove the onus for reverse dominance from individuals by encouraging stoicism in the face of adversity and reliance upon “divine justice” for redress. It thus contributes to a general docility, domestication, and pacification of people under duress, while soothing with delayed-return promises their tendency to slide into depression in the face of learned helplessness.
Indeed, Seligman came to his work on learned helplessness from a prior concentration on the very causes and symptoms of depression itself. Synthesizing the findings from both lines of his professional investigations, he would go on to suggest that a large part of the pathology of depression depends on individuals’ attributional or explanatory style in the face of what poet William Earnest Henley once called “the fell clutch of circumstance.”
This is not to say, of course, that depression does not involve physiological causes or that individuals suffering depression somehow bear ultimate blame for experiencing it. Rather, Seligman’s work merely pointed a way to the conclusion that, in many cases, how individuals have learned to view, frame, and categorize their negative life experiences plays a large role in whether or not they tend to let adverse circumstances send them plunging headlong into the downward spiral of bleak rumination that so characterizes depressive thinking.
In particular, Seligman found that individuals prone to depression evince an explanatory style which encourages them to view their suffering as global (the cause of negative events obtains on a large scale and may affect a wide variety of outcomes), stable (the cause persists across time), and internal (the cause is at least partly assigned to factors within the person: I’ve done something wrong, didn’t do something I should have, etc.).
Not coincidentally, traditional, delayed-return religion rather specializes in peddling causal explanations for the present, troubled state of reality that are precisely global (some universal evil or fundamental delusion holds the world in its thrall and will only be finally vanquished at some future point, after much suffering that individuals alone are powerless to stop), stable (one must wait and endure: until the second coming or through countless cycles of birth and rebirth on the way to moksha/nirvana or until some final battle or…), and internal (Follow the Eightfold Path! Repent and Accept Jesus! Abide by the Rule of Three! Or else!).
Yet, paradoxically, Seligman and a colleague found in 1993 that individuals from more “fundamentalist” religions (Calvinism, Orthodox Judaism, and Islam) scored higher in general optimism, hopefulness, and, in a word, happiness than those from the “moderate” religions of Conservative Judaism, Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Methodism, on the one hand, and those from the “liberal” traditions of Unitarianism and Reform Judaism, on the other.
Another scholar criticized the finding for not sufficiently disentangling the degree to which “fundamentalist” attribution of negative events to externalities rather than to personal responsibility may have impacted the “happiness” scoring. The commenter suggested that more fundamentalist religious traditions may, in fact, just be more egoistic and less likely to have a balanced, unbiased view of causality as it relates to self than other religions.
Seligman and his colleague responded by unpacking the data a bit, finding that individuals from the faith traditions coded as “fundamentalist” and “moderate” both appeared less likely to attribute failure to themselves rather than to external agents. “Could it be…Satan?” (All three groups of religious traditions were consistent in their internal attribution of positive life experiences.) The fundamentalists still emerged ahead of the rest of the pack, however, in terms of general hopefulness and less overall hopelessness. How to square these conclusions?
Well, in the words of a much earlier study into “prediction, control, and learned helplessness” from 1980:
“The religious convert who places his or her life ‘in God’s hands’ and the individual who volunteers for military service appear to be relinquishing control over many facets of their lives. Nevertheless, it seems that the predictable orderliness of military life or the solace of knowing that life’s traumata are part of an orderly plan may mitigate the development of learned helplessness in these persons.”
It’s no coincidence that a 2004 study found that the two highly internally correlated factors most predictive of individual support for military action in response to terrorist attacks were, first, “rightwing authoritarianism” and, second, “religious fundamentalism.” Both traits also positively correlated with that tell-tale delayed-return symptom Belief in a Just World (Surprise! Surprise!) and negatively correlated with a so-called “universal-diverse orientation”: that is, appreciating and accepting others’ differences and seeking contact with those different from oneself.
There is a militaristic sameness to religious fundamentalism and fundamentalist communities that seeks to create conditions of order, hermetically sealed off from messiness outside the system.
A 2002 study found that those who scored highest in religious fundamentalism evidenced higher levels of desire for definite knowledge and eschewal of ambiguity and a clear preference for order and predictability, a set of personality traits labeled need for closure in the literature. We might cheekily relabel these traits the need for close mindedness. Not coincidentally, dogmatism, authoritarianism, and prejudice go hand in hand with the “need for closure” complex.
Indeed, a 2010 study showed that a rather similar trait described as a “need for predictability in and maintenance of one’s worldview” was both generally highest among fundamentalist religious individuals and the most significant factor in predicting the appearance within fundamentalist communities of prejudicial homophobia, racism, and sexism.
Subjects highest in religious fundamentalism and prejudice on these three axes demonstrated a coupling of their so-called “preference for consistency” with lower-than-normal grappling with fear of being incorrect when choosing between alternatives. Religious fundamentalists, then, not only harshly penalize difference in their quest for predictability and control, but they also maintain higher-than-average levels of certainty as to the rightness of their own convictions.
Meanwhile, a large amount of research over the years, going back well into the twentieth century, has demonstrated that individuals’ images of God and self inform and depend on each other to a high degree. Modern Satanists like to claim “self-deification” and the concomitant conviction “I am my own God” as though these were somehow novel concepts, but, in a host of salient ways, individuals have always been their own gods. It’s just that few outside the ranks of acknowledged Satanists will openly admit it.
Those with a high, endocentric need for structure, consistency, and control to buttress their delayed-return lifeways fashion a mental god like themselves who zealously polices borders and punishes difference and divergence from “the Plan.” The strength of their conviction that they are right manages to hold at arms length both nagging self-doubt and twinges of depressive rumination on human powerlessness. Their religion provides such individuals with an all-encompassing, engrossing fiction of a controlled, dependable, orderly universe where there’s always a fight to occupy your time and mental energy, always an urgent, existentially critical cause to champion with utmost confidence.
At the same time, an externalized God provides for offloading personal agency and responsibility in a way that takes the edge off consistently emphasizing an internal locus of control in the form of personal acceptance of religious teachings and prescribed religious ways of life & thought.
A 2008 study found that subliminally priming experimental subjects with thoughts of God prior to action lead the believers among them to be less likely to attribute the disappearance of a string of letters from a computer screen when they pressed one or the other of two buttons as part of a lexical decision task to their own agency. That is, when primed with thoughts of God, believers were less likely to say that they themselves had caused a change in the computer display, as opposed to the computer itself, after they had in fact pressed a button upon deciding whether the string of letters they saw displayed onscreen was a word or not.
A 2012 study in which participants were consciously primed with thoughts of God prior to completing tasks designed to assess whether they engaged in active pursuit of their goals and effective resistance to temptations found that religiously primed subjects demonstrated greater negative views of temptations and enhanced resistance to them. Yet they also showed decreased active goal pursuit. In true delayed-return religious fashion, these participants showed enhanced abilities in self-abnegation and delaying of fulfillment through tempting foods but a lower propensity to actively pursue goals. And this, in a nutshell, is the Faustian bargain of traditional, delayed-return religion and the true measure of its ability to inculcate a form of learned helplessness.
The real gremlin in the gears of it all is that when you find yourself in the midst of personal suffering of whatever sort, the type of flawed global, stable, and internal attributional style associated with both depressive and traditional religious thinking proves mightily seductive, if not almost entirely ineluctable. So much of religious reasoning derives from or closely relates to our human prewiring for agentive causal reasoning combined with a high degree of egocentricity. Troubled circumstances all but force us back into sole reliance on this atavistic mode of thought.
Several months back, I endured a particularly terrible, horrible, no good, rotten week involving car troubles with a massive bill to fix, victimization by petty theft twice over, and personal injury whose effects lasted for more than a month afterwards. Throughout the course of it, I felt very tempted to wonder about the meaning of this series of bad events: Why was it happening to me? How long would it continue and how bad would it get? Was I being singled out for such ill treatment? Had I done something to deserve it? Who had ultimately brought it all crashing down upon me? Was some agent of greater-than-human scope and power at its hellish helm?
But even as I recognized that I was having these thoughts and acknowledged them, I didn’t latch onto them. In true popular meditation style, I didn’t identify with them personally, but merely let them have their say (neither agreeing nor disagreeing with them), while otherwise keeping on keeping on as best I could. In time, as my experience improved, my anxious grip on circumstance and concomitant tendency toward gloomy rumination eased up.
Throughout it all, I resisted the temptation toward profound learned helplessness by maintaining a view that the causes of my suffering (such as it was) were specific (limited to certain, particular negative events), unstable (one-offs and not part of any concerted conspiracy against me personally), and entirely external, but in a non-global and unstable way (either pure shitty chance or the work of bad actors just doing what they do). I didn’t do anything wrong. My bad situation was temporary. The bad actors were individuals and not part of some orchestrated plot. Literally everything wasn’t going to shit around me, despite appearances to the contrary.
Now, obviously, these are precisely the important conclusions about the problem of suffering that those in the midst of rather more real, horrendous, externally imposed suffering—such as, say, being held indefinitely in tortuous and squalid confinement within concentration camps—cannot justifiably reach. Delayed-return spirituality flourishes amid such circumstances precisely because the victims themselves and their material reality really are completely outside of their own control, even as the extreme, almost absurd, level of inhumane treatment meted out by tormentors who otherwise appear human forces a profound dissociation from humanity in specific and earthly existence in general.
Even basic bodily functions like alimentation and excretion are managed externally in prison and carceral camp environments because, as I’ve written about before, exercising dominion over another’s body is the most primal and complete form of control, designed more than for anything else to make individuals feel viscerally their own total lack of power as a means of compensatorily increasing that felt by the perpetrator. This is what animal cruelty is all about. This what rape, not entirely unrelated to animal cruelty, is also all about. This is likewise what the whole forced pregnancy movement in conservative, Dominionist-dominated state legislatures is all about.
Unfortunately, delayed-return religion and thinking are not only tailor-made to preserve hope amid abject suffering, but also to justify and even facilitate the abuse of others that causes such suffering to begin with. It’s the very definition of a “vicious circle.”
This is all why I, as a Satanist, advocate for social change, such as abolishing the carceral state apparatus, ending or at least radically curtailing border policing, demanding that sexual assailants learn not to objectify and victimize others rather than placing the onus on victims to manage their own potential victimhood, and so forth. Since I value universal sovereignty of individual will and ultimate autonomy-cum-inviolability of physical person above all other possible values, I naturally and actively champion a social order where these emphases are likewise privileged and respected.
My aim is to construct a world in which the biggest, baddest, most terrible, horrible, no good, rotten times individuals have to face are of the rather trifling sort I detailed from my own experience above, rather than entire lives being ruined or even outright lost because strongmen enjoy playing the hubristēs and exist at the top of a delayed-return social order that aids and abets their abject assholery.
And no, you self-righteous edgelords whose fevered grumbling I can already hear at my back: in writing this last bit, I’m not merely preening myself on the laundry list of my “Good Guy Badges” so as to increase my public standing (with whom? My literal handful of readers? Ha!). Nor to assuage my own guilt over a privileged position in life. I may not be the pavement-pounding activist type, but I maintain political engagement and actively seek the states of affairs I desire.
In all frankness, I think that many Satanists’ use of LaVey’s concept of the “Good Guy Badge” to demonize and stigmatize any level of aspiration for societal improvement beyond the strictly individual and personal is yet another form of learned helplessness inculcated by a rather traditional-adjacent form of religion.
Anything that seeks a priori shut down of individual resolve and action for change for the betterment of situations should be immediately suspect as part of a concerted plan to tutor those already suffering victimization in the dubious ways of learned helplessness. Since such helplessness comes as part and parcel of sheltering beneath “sacred canopies,” even Epicurean-inspired Satanic ones that seek “the proper poised detachment for the self-deified,” programmatic Good-Guy-Badge stigma and enforced withdrawal into the self alone are also appropriate objects for being dismantled and packed away as part of truly Satanic contrareligion.
I hope this extended look, over the course of nine long essays, at Satanism as religion and contrareligion has provided some food for thought. Satanism and Satanists being what they are, I expect few will agree whole-heartedly with the positions and opinions advocated here. But hopefully all will find some cause to take a moment to reflect on their personal construction of Satanic (contra(ry))religion and find new resolve to make of it something more than the usual caricaturish figure Satanism has cut for so long now.
In preparing this post, I found the term contrareligion for its title in a passage from a book entitled Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition, written by dean of the Rabbinical program at Hebrew College in Boston, Massachusetts, Arthur Green. The paragraph from which the term comes begins by asking (rhetorically): “How, indeed, can one live after Eden, after Cain?”
From a Satanic point of view, we might parse this double-headed query to mean: how can humans continue enduring the struggle of life amid the violent (mis)handlings of vengeful delayed-return religion and then the further violence wrought by human beings seeking dominance?
Green continues his rumination in the passage by observing:
“‘Cursing and blaspheming’ is certainly one understandable response to that question, a path chosen by many. The early generations, according to the rabbis, discover idolatry, a form of contrareligion, one that blasphemes by its very acts of worship. You need something to worship in a world like this.”
At the end of the day, significant evidence from psychological studies suggests that pure strength of conviction in one’s personal belief system—not whether it’s religious or not, theistic or not—proves the surest defense against sliding into depression amid adverse material conditions, conditions which, after all, often lie outside of our individual power to control overmuch.
At the same time, though, those selfsame studies also indicate that one well documented, additional source of psychological distress leading to depression for marginalized individuals like atheists, LGBTQ+ folk, and racial & ethnic minorities is negative perceptions among outsiders, perceptions that have an insidious way of hardening into realities as negative-perception-holders with social power tend to engineer situations of real material suffering for those they demonize.
And the cause of this particular source of suffering—in a word: groupishness—is one that very much lies within human power to control and even eliminate. “Eden” and “Cain” are entirely human constructs and, as our own creations, likewise fall subject to demolition by humans.
In the age-old conflict of interest between group strength and individual liberty, strong-armed cohesion beneath some “sacred canopy” or other versus freedom to dissent and stand out in the rain, anything that I would ever recognize as lying properly within the intellectual tradition of Satanism must always come down firmly on the side of the latter.
Unfortunately, many of the loudest, most noticeable calls for individual liberty these days come from the Cains of the world, those descendants of the original angry agriculturalist already in positions of delayed-return privilege and power, seeking freedom for themselves and those most similar to them to persist at the pinnacle of hierarchical social systems, where they can marshal the cohesion and conformity of lower echelons to continue supporting and enduring top-down predation.
The Satanist’s commitment to personal freedom must always side with the individual liberty of the marginal, especially, to be who and how they are, without additional trials and tribulations attendant on persecution from without or above. Satanism resists the corruption and manipulation of the powerful—both “Eden” and “Cain,” religion and strongmen, institutional and personal assholes alike—seeking their own personal freedom to continue victimization at the expense of others’ liberties.
It is in this sense, more than any other, that Satanism remains the contrary religion, as well as a proper contrareligion.