Hot on the heels of the success of his best-selling 1970 Christian prophecy book The Late Great Planet Earth, Dispensationalist author Hal Lindsey came out with a sequel in 1972 entitled Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth. Lindsey attributed his motivation to pen the follow-up to years spent during the 1960s working for Campus Crusade for Christ on the West Coast, where he claimed to have “witnessed a paradigm shift in thinking.” “Students began to shift from rejecting all things supernatural to believing in the phenomena of the occult,” Lindsey writes of that time. He continues by noting:
“They still rejected things supernatural in Christianity, but they blindly accepted supernatural experiences associated with the practice of the occult. National news magazines, TV shows, movies, all began to reflect the acceptance of the supernatural in the occult. The movie The Exorcist broke the ice for that genre of film. Now we see occultic subjects all the time in film and TV. Anton LeVey [sic] and others began openly talking about worshiping Satan. This led to my writing Satan Is Alive and Well on Planet Earth in 1972.”
Fast forward more than four decades, and 2018 seemed to present a bumper crop of Satan-related film and TV fare. Two high-profile television shows with Satanic themes and imagery even provoked two equally high-profile Satanic organizations to action, both issuing statements opposing what they felt were Hollywood misrepresentations of their religion onscreen. One even filed a lawsuit against the film company, claiming copyright infringement.
What made the ensuing spectacle particularly interesting, according to entertainment writer Alison Foreman, was the fact that the two major Satanic groups have had a long-standing war of words with one another over their respective Satanic bona fides and what Satanists should or should not be doing to represent their religion in the public eye. The groups find themselves in a two-front war over the questions of what Satanism is and how it should be represented in public: simultaneously taking action against both fellow Satanists and non-Satanists alike.
In the conclusion to her article, Foreman suggests that this internal lack of cohesion among and between Satanists makes it difficult for the wider Satanic movement (if you’re willing to admit that such a thing actually exists) to gain traction on the issue of crafting an appropriate public representation Satanists can live with. She writes:
“For practicing Satanists to effectively fight back against decades of cinema-fueled Satanic panic and find realistic portrayals of their faith on screen, history suggests they will need to present a consistent, united philosophy for beginners to latch onto.”
Of course the irony is that, within their respective Satanic religions, each group already has more or less of “a consistent, united philosophy for beginners to latch onto.” It’s just that credits for these distinct Satanism 101 courses definitely do not transfer from one Satanic school of thought to the other.
Diversity and Unity
The past decades have seen an especially large proliferation in the number and diversity of self-styled Satanists. Doubtless, the leveling presence of the internet has played a large role in this “democratization” and spread of Satanism. While such a democratization has had some real, salutary effects on Satanism as a whole, bringing the religion more out of the closet than ever before, it has also brought along a key challenge to the integrity and coherence of modern atheistic Satanism as a valid and viable category for thought and analysis.
To wit, so many new voices and faces have flocked to the banner of Satanism and claimed it for their own, proudly donning the mantle of “Satanist,” that the word Satanist itself is in danger of semantic bleaching: that is, the process by which a word or expression loses concrete meaning due to over-broad and generalized use.
While it may seem fine and dandy for a religion of absolute individualism to permit the ultimate in self-determination when it comes even to the application of the very labels of the religion itself, this extreme pluralism in practice actually creates an acute problem of meaning plain and simple.
How Words Mean
The nineteenth-century German philosopher and polymath Gottlob Frege fretted over word meanings too. And part of what got him worried about the problem of meaning was, naturally, his concern over what parts of European history Chinese people do and do not know.
In particular, it occurred to Frege that a Chinese person who didn’t know that Schleswig-Holstein, the northernmost of modern Germany’s sixteen states, was ever separated from the nation of Denmark, which at various points in history had held that territory, might not be able to understand the sentence After Schleswig-Holstein was separated from Denmark, Prussia and Austria quarreled. To such a person, the whole sentence would come unraveled right at the start, with a dependent temporal clause that made no sense, as it seemed to point to a historical event that never occurred.
Of course, this individual would be able to know, just from the description in the sentence, what such an apparently non-existent event would have entailed were it ever to have happened. It would have been an event of the province of Schlewig-Holstein, situated along the border of Germany with Denmark, ceasing to be considered Danish territory and beginning to be something else, most likely German…or Prussian, in the case of this era of history.
And this is the fascinating thing about word meanings that so exercised Frege’s imagination and thinking: the same individual can both know what this event would have to be in order to have happened, but would also reckon the clause containing mention of it as so much nonsense because she believes the event described never in fact occurred.
It seemed to Frege, then, that words and combinations of words can come to mean something in at least a pair of distinct ways. He would later formalize his intuitions about this forking path to meaning by arguing that most words possess two different kinds of meaning.
First, words point to things external to the speaker, “out there” in the real world, that answer to the name supplied by them. The label tree points to things in the world that answer to the name of tree and not to things that answer to other names, like dogs or chairs or automobiles. Clauses like After Schleswig-Holstein was separated from Denmark point to events of that northern province leaving Danish political control and not to events that answer to other descriptions. This type of meaning, Frege called reference. The things and events in the real world to which so-called referring expressions point are called referents (a word that is confusingly homonymous in modern English with the term reference itself!).
Second, though, if you’re going to go around pointing at things with your words, you had better have a good idea what the entities that answer to any given name must be like in order to merit that label. You can’t very well go around pointing out the trees when you haven’t got the foggiest idea about what a tree is like. As soon as someone’s pointed out enough trees to you, you could start to put together a composite picture in your head of what a thing must be in order to be considered a tree, and, as soon as you’d managed that feat, you would have arrived at the second component of word meanings: sense. Sense is like the information contained in a phone book: it gives you the necessary clues about a word’s applicability in order to be able to go out into the world and locate the specific objects and entities that word points or refers to.
Now, imagine for a moment what would happen if no one had such a phone book, or rather if the phone book everybody had contained some names without any additional identifying information to help you locate them: no addresses, no phone numbers. How would go about finding those people or things? If you actually did go out into the world and found something you thought might be they, how would know whether or not you were right? Ultimately, whatever would have guided you to find whatever specific people, places, or things you managed to find would lie entirely within you and you alone. So even if everyone in the world noticed the exact same name with missing info and set about finding that one individual or business, they would most likely never all arrive at the same actual person or place out in the real world. Rather, each would lay claim to something different, something that spoke, for whatever reason, to them individually and idiosyncratically. In the words of Frege:
“…[W]hen we say ‘the Moon,’ we do not intend to speak of our idea of the Moon, nor are we satisfied with the sense alone, but we presuppose a reference….”
If all the word moon means when I use it beneath the stars is drawn entirely from my own ideas, without also having both sense and reference to things external, you wouldn’t even know to look to the sky as I was speaking, let alone point to anything shining up there in the vastness of space.
Referents In Search of a Sense
To adopt this prevailing theory of word meanings derived from Frege and current in the field of modern Semantics, we might complain that the word Satanist has an overabundance of referents—actual individuals in the real world who claim the label as self-identification—but no coherent sense: no detailed description of physical traits, behavioral characteristics, or religio-philosophical principles which might enable us to decide whether, in any given instance, the label is correctly applied to a potential referent. Without a clear sense, we have the standard Socratic problem of being unable to provide an answer to the general question of what a Satanist is beyond merely pointing out specific individual Satanists.
Notice, the problem is not that the word Satanist is completely devoid of sense. Those who take the title on themselves clearly mean something by it more than simple self-identification. For each of them individually, something has to be and behave in a certain way in order to qualify for the status of Satanist. And whatever the qualifications are that make one a Satanist, they’re different from those that make one a Christian or a Buddhist, say. It’s just that there’s no clearly defined, generally agreed upon set of such characteristics as there usually is for a given word within a unified speech community that individuals who concur in their self-indentification as Satanists can all point to.
People tend to fill in the resultant void of meaning at the core of the title of Satanist with whatever their own particular tastes and proclivities impel them to. As my friends in the Missouri-based Ordo Sororitatis Satanicae or ‘Order of the Satanic Sisterhood’ have written pointedly:
“Stating that one is a Satanist informs nothing. It tells no one anything of importance. Because the world is lazy, because most people would rather be told than seek evidence and answers for themselves…claiming one is a Satanist leads most people to assume certain things which are frequently untrue. No one appreciates having to continually explain themselves. But neither can such an exercise be eschewed; not in defense of position or practices, but because the pervasive default excuse of the masses is ‘no one told me…’.”
Christians, of course, will resort to their macabre fantasy of the Anti-Christ, the ultimate negation and destruction of the works of their God. If Jesus died on the cross at three in the afternoon, then Satan must roam the earth at three in the morning: the so-called witching hour. If God said Don’t eat the fruit, then Satan plies you with By all means, go right ahead and chow down! If the first creation was light, then Satan’s every impulse must be toward utter darkness. Satan answers God’s omnibenevolence, or universal good will, with omnimalevolence, or universally willing only evil.
Fantasy author Jacqueline Carey treated fans to such a vision of evil in her 2003 novel Kushiel’s Avatar, which features a civilization drawn on the lines of worshipers of the evil principle of Ahriman or Angra Mainyu in ancient Zoroastrian Persia. Carey includes in her narrative a humorous inversion of the standard Zoroastrian threefold path to morality consisting of “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds” to the equal, but opposite, “Ill Thoughts, Ill Words, and Ill Deeds.” The dedication her evil doers make to their god of utter evil is said to involve the drive “to destroy that which is good and pure; to kill what one loves the most,” all part of an effort to rid themselves of conventional moral impulses toward cherishing anything living. One thinks in this connection of the anguished figure of Kylo Ren from the 2015 Star Wars film The Force Awakens, begging the ghost of Darth Vader, by which he is haunted like some twisted Hamlet, to help strengthen his resolve to resist ever more resolutely the “pull to the light” and shore up his flagging resolve to kill his own father.
However, if we can manage to look past the apparent lapse of logic in positing a being said to be the personification of complete and total negation and destruction, yet who nonetheless manages not to engage in the ultimate nihilism of self-annihilation, we realize that the leader of this evil empire in Carey’s work actually enjoys inflicting pain and harm. He gets off on it sexually. He is a sadist or a sadistic hedonist, which, as irony would have it, makes him pretty much the sort of being most Satanists take the God of the Old Testament to be: a creator who appears to delight in the torture and “testing” of his creation. He commands Abraham to kill his own precious son and permits his henchman Satan to put Job to trial by killing the unusually pious man’s herds, servants, and even children, then taking all the man possessed and even afflicting him bodily with sickness and disease. When the New Testament God, like Abraham, gives his only begotten son and actually lets him die a painful death, despite Jesus’ pleas for help, we are reminded yet again of the dedication to Angra Mainyu in Carey’s novel: “to destroy that which is good and pure; to kill what one loves most.”
Particularly rabid Christians, of course, also defy logic and common sense in their insistence on the conspiracy-theory idea of a global world order of secret Satanists—perhaps the Illuminati—an order said to run literally everything on this planet but which, counterintuitively, has no apparent criteria or processes for formally joining up, employs people without their knowledge or conscious participation, and has no overt rituals or other celebrations. When you think about the way modern, Christian-nationalist Evangelicals commonly regard President Trump as the literal fulfillment of a divine prophecy and attempt to defend their faith in him against critics by arguing “God can use anybody. He used the harlots. It’s all about what God can do. God can do this. God can use this man,” you realize that this conspiratorial view of Satan and Satan’s world order in fact savors more of the Christian view of the omnipotence of their own God than anything else. Yet again, the worst fears of such true believers represent the shadowy inverse of how and what they believe about their own moralizing high deity.
Without a coherent sense, though, we self-described Satanists have no real tools with which to combat Christian misinterpretation of what it is we are and do.
The word Satanist is no more meaningful these days than a personal name, telling the hearer no more information about the person who chooses it than that the individual has a personal association with it. And should the hearer “object” to a speaker relaying his or her name by saying something like “You don’t seem like a [insert name here]; I knew a [insert name again] once, and you’re nothing like him/her,” both parties to the communication would be immediately aware of the fact that each is discussing merely his or her own ideas about the name in question, their own personal associations with it and nothing more.
Should two such people actually disagree over the use of the name, as over the use of the word Satanist without a coherent sense, their dispute would take on the flavor of what philosophers and semanticists call a “faultless disagreement,” the kind of apparent “debate” that often breaks out when people argue over aesthetics and personal tastes not shared by all parties to the discussion. When the core of the controversy hinges on whether chocolate or vanilla is the tastier flavor of ice cream, the impasse will persist indefinitely, neither party able to make recourse to principle or data in order to convince others of the truth of their own particular point of view.
More Referents than Sense: A Common Problem in Religion
We should note that this problem of an imbalance between sense and reference when it comes to the agentive nouns that denote practitioners of various world religions is not unique to Satanism, not at all. Egyptian-Irish writer and speaker Salma El-Wardany gave a wonderful Tedx-Peckham talk during the summer of 2017 about her struggles as a liberated Muslim woman trying to navigate and mediate the various, competing, and equally confining conceptions people have put out into the discourse of what it means to be a Muslim in the modern world. One of the comments on the video expresses disagreement with El-Wardany over her liberal ideas about what a Muslim can and cannot be and do, lobbing the accusation that “she seems to want to make her own version of islam [sic].”
For most major religions, though—as well as the lion’s share of minor ones—there is at least a very general kind of sense on which speakers broadly agree, whether or not they are themselves practitioners of the religion in question or, if they are, whether they adhere to some specific sub-type or denomination over another. What is a Christian? At minimum: a follower of the teachings attributed to Jesus Christ. What is a Muslim? At minimum: one who has submitted to the will of Allah and regards Muhammad as Allah’s last and greatest prophet. On at least these vague points, all self-described Christians and Muslims can arrive at broad agreement. Even where such a general sense appears to be lacking, as perhaps with Judaism and Hinduism for instance, historical traditions and ethnic identities can be appealed to in order to provide some coherence.
What’s specially lacking in the case of Satanism, however, is even so bare-bones and general a sense to the word Satanist as any of that. In the case of specifically atheistic Satanism, you can’t even make a general statement to the effect that a Satanist is a follower of Satan or of teachings attributed to or put forward in the name of Satan. If Satan doesn’t exist as an external entity, but is only a metaphor or inspiration within the mind of the individual Satanist, then the notion can hardly be used to buttress the definition of the label Satanist itself without risking unacceptable circularity of reasoning.
Then too there’s the fact that other major religious traditions often have their own literary canons of sacred texts which provide them with at least as much unity as derives from uniformly claiming the authority and inspiration of Holy Writ, however divergently it may ultimately be interpreted. Growing up, a set of books I owned on major world religions took the physical form of a separate volume of translated sacred texts from each one.
Satanism, however, shares no such written tradition across its many different varieties and groups. Many Satanists may look to LaVey’s The Satanic Bible and other writings like The Devil’s Notebook as an oeuvre which they consider the first modern Satanic canon. Plenty of others, however, eschew LaVey completely, preferring instead to look to the tradition of so-called “Romantic Satanism” as embodied in Milton’s Paradise Lost and French writer Anatole France’s Revolt of the Angels, or even to their own, bare-bones lists of principles and guidelines which often read more like general secular humanism, devoid of any specifically “Satanic” references or content.
Despite their rather overt hedonism, Satanists can’t have their cake and eat it too on the issue of what, precisely, a Satanist is. They can’t continue to kvetch about Hollywood and Christian misrepresentations of their religion and simultaneously spend the majority of their time squabbling amongst themselves over mutually exclusive ideas and definitions of the concept. There must be at least some minimal coherent sense to the term Satanist for us all to latch onto, something that would help us better articulate to others what it is that outsiders so often get so wrong about us.
Elsewhere on this site, I argue that the necessary unity-in-diversity for this task may be found in the tendency of pretty much all Satanists with whom I am familiar to pull toward more immediate-return lifeways and worldview whenever these come into conflict with more delayed-return ones. Some Satanists pull only slightly more toward immediate-return than to delayed-return, desiring their own freedom of belief and sexual expression, but having no real commitment to egalitarianism and in fact preferring a social arrangement of meritocratic elitism with those of their own ilk at the top of the pyramid. Other Satanists, meanwhile, want more all-encompassing freedom within society: a fuller egalitarianism with minimal delayed-return power structures interfering with individual sovereignty of will and bodily autonomy. Yet we all tend to prefer at least slightly more immediate-returnism than delayed-returnism in the final analysis.
Thus, I would argue that a way forward toward resolving the philosophical and semantic aporia that lies at the blackened heart of modern Satanism is to insist on and further develop the sense in which Satanism is the religion of immediate-return par excellence.