Atheistic satanists are the activist-minded pranksters we need
Listen, I’m about as religious as one of those votive candles with Pete Davidson on them, but I have enough knowledge to get the gist that Satan is the big, bad villain. When I think of Satanism, I think pentacles, blood drinking, goat skulls and a lot of — and I mean so, so much — black lipstick.
You can imagine my surprise then to learn that Satanists in practice are often empathy-driven, science-loving, political activists who like pranking homophobes and religious zealots. Being so deeply misunderstood, and in many cases, hated, Satanists really do not have to go so hard, but they do.
What is Satanism?
Contrary to popular belief, and my own pop-culture-riddled brain’s previous understanding, Satanism is not really about deity worship and occult magic. While Satanism is a group of beliefs based on Satan, most practicing Satanists are actually atheists.
Historical Satanism has a lot more ties to calling women witches when they chose to speak a coherent thought than it does to any real group. The religious practice of Satanism is a relatively new concept, dating back to the founding of the Church of Satan in the U.S. in 1966.
Prior to the church’s establishment in the 60s, Satanism existed only in a relentless game of Christian finger-pointing rather than in an actual, organized religion. Calling someone a ‘Satanist’ was a tool used by Christian groups to ‘other’ people and cast them out — think of it as a sort of historic, religious cancel culture, but with a lot less evidence and a whole lot of soap boxes.
Today, there are two groups of self-identified Satanists: the smaller and less popular theistic Satanists — and yes, these are indeed the devil-worshippers which have you clutching for your pearls — and the much more popular atheistic Satanists who look towards Satan as a figure representing certain human traits.
Focusing on the latter, it seems all those accusations of Satanism finally struck home, because the modern Satanic religion was born in America out of a desire to find community outside of Christianity, and more importantly, as a proverbial fly in the ear to certain religious fanatics.
The two largest institutions within Satanism are the Church of Satan and the Satanic Temple. The former, and smaller Church of Satan, focuses on self-indulgence, kindness “to those who deserve it” and “responsibility to the responsible.” The latter, the Satanic Temple, is a religious and political activist organization that plays a large role in representing modern Satanism.
The Satanic Temple puts a focus on separation of church and state, and has a habit of using satirical attacks against certain Christian groups whom Satanists declare interfere with personal freedoms. Atheistic Satanists in general do not believe in Satan as a real figure, but instead view Satan as a metaphor; one who promotes rationality, skepticism, autonomy and curiosity.
Generally, Satanists don’t view Satan as some mighty, all-powerful deity worthy of worship. Rather, Satan is viewed more as a literary hero, constantly pulling pranks and asking hard questions, who makes you want to throw up your hands in laughable defeat, saying, “Oh Satan, you’re incorrigible.”
What we get wrong about Satanism
How is it that we go from a playful, albeit sometimes slightly mischievous, religion of Satanism to the occult, blood-thirsty, truly evil depictions of Satanism in popular culture and media?
Well, the first reason could be that shows like “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” would be a lot less interesting if, instead of presenting demonic goat figurines, they had to portray the reality of Satanism: trolling far-right groups or performing ‘pink mass,’ a ritual used to try to turn Westboro Baptist Church members gay from the grave. But let’s be real — I think most people would watch the crap out of a show like that.
A more likely reason for the dark and deranged image given to Satanism has a lot more to do with misconceptions from people outside the religion than from the actions of those participating in it.
Looking at the etymology of the word “Satan,” we learn that it wasn’t meant to signify a proper noun or a person, but was an ordinary word used to describe something adversarial. Satanism, and the idea of Satan worship in general, really only became a thing in the 19th century. Before that, in a period from the 1600s to 1800s, Satan was, for the most part, ignored by Christian theology.
Satanists really only came about because Christians kept giving the name to non-Satanists. In answer, a few plucky individuals decided to establish organized Satanism; thus making Satanism, in many ways, into a very long-winded practical joke.
The religion is far less concerned with worshipping a horned, fiddle-playing master as they are with getting under the skin of some of the, we’ll call them, fervent Christians. And I dare say, it does seem to be working.
What Satanism gets right
If you want to understand how Satanism is truly a source of chaotic good, look no further than the work the Satanic Temple is doing right now in Texas.
Following the recent passing of Senate Bill 8 in Texas, making it illegal for someone to get an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, the Satanic Temple is offering membership and religious protections to anyone looking to get an abortion.
As the organization says on their website, “[We] encourage any member who resides in Texas and wishes to undergo the Satanic Abortion Ritual within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy to contact The Satanic Temple so we may help them fight this law directly.”
Regardless of your feelings on abortion, it’s clear that the Texas law was enacted by those who hold a religious belief about life beginning at conception. It is somewhat brilliant that the Satanic Temple is using the same arguments of religious conviction to help protect those women who would be disadvantaged by the bill.
As the Satanic Temple says, “Beliefs should conform to one’s best scientific understanding of the world. One should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one’s beliefs.”
In this way we see the beauty of Satanism. Whether it’s protecting reproductive rights, encouraging “benevolence and empathy among all people”, providing a sense of community to LGBTQ members who have felt ousted by Christianity, helping combat Islamophobia by creating community programs or simply local churches volunteering to pick up trash weekly, Satanists are doing good work.
It’s amazing how the reality of Satanism is somehow more interesting than the mystic and cultish reputation it seems to have: they’re a group of individuals so fed up with organized religion they decided to create their own, seemingly out of spite. Satanists are the petty do-gooders that the world needs more of, and I’m here for it.