Satanism and Scholars of American Religion

John L. Crow

This week the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision has brought Satanism into the national conversation, again. Satanism has been in the news repeatedly over the last year for a variety of reasons. Looking at the news coverage has allowed me to identify something I have been struggling to articulate. This something is a problem I have noticed in the field of religious studies, one that is specifically American. To explain this, I must make a brief digression. I earned my master’s degree in Europe and this has afforded me the opportunity to look at the differences between the ways certain religious subjects are engaged in continental religious studies versus American. After years of observation and discussion with a variety of colleagues I have come to the conclusion that, in general, American religious studies scholars struggle to engage with the religious tradition of Satanism. When I write Satanism, I mean a large variety of religious phenomena including religious Satanism, Satanism as articulated by Christians, and Satanism as constructed and represented by the media. Recognizing that there is a difference is one of the issues that rarely gets highlighted in any discussion about Satanism. The point, regardless of the type of Satanism, is that scholars of religion rarely examine the history, cultural role, or the way Satanism is practiced in the contemporary religious marketplace of America. Because of this they are ill equipped to address the tradition when issues arise in public debate, such as the recent Satanic Temple press release.

Just to be clear, I am not really interested in Satanism itself. I am interested in the way people, in particular religious studies scholars, conceive of the tradition, study it, talk about it, or more often, ignore it. For instance, after the Hobby Lobby decision, numerous media, blogs, and news reports consulted scholars of religion for a variety of perspectives. This week’s coverage of the Satanic Temple’s press release about religious freedom has resulted in many news reports too. And while there are plenty of legal professionals who are quoted in the reports, I have yet to see one include anything from a scholar of religion. When Christians are involved, scholars of religion have a lot to say. When Satanists are involved? Silence.

Satanism is treated differently by both academics and the public at large. This point was made apparent to me a few semesters ago when a couple of my colleagues asked me to give a one day lesson on religious Satanism as part of their world religions courses. I kept the history brief, focusing mostly on institutional Satanism, looking at the atheistic Church of Satan and the theistic Temple of Set. At the end, I also talked about the ways Satanism is constructed by Christian churches and the way this construction is projected upon Satanists. To illustrate the point, I showed a portion of an interview between Bob Larson, Zeena Schreck, daughter of the founder of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey, and her husband, Nicholas Schreck, founder of a satanic school of magic called The Werewolf Order. The interview can be seen here on YouTube. What becomes apparent in the interview is that Larson’s conception of Satanism is quite divergent from the kind of Satanism that the Schrecks articulate. Numerous times Larson says what Satanists can and cannot do based on what he imagines are the rules by which Satanists live and practice. He says in satanic weddings, brides cannot wear white to which the Schrecks reply, why not? Larson claims that all Satanist believe something because it is in The Satanic Bible to which the Schrecks reply, it does not matter what it says in the book, and Satanists can do and believe what they want. Larson uses his understanding of Christianity as the basis of his approach to Satanism and he is repeatedly shown to be in error. Larson is not unlike many who approach Satanism, whether they are in the media, law enforcement, or scholars of religion. The way Satanism has been portrayed by Christianity colors the narrative, regardless of what the facts demonstrate. There are significant differences between the various kinds of Satanism but there is a scarcity of American religious studies scholars who can or will engage in any public discussion about these differences, a task that they frequently perform for other religions. 

Another problem with the studying of Satanism in American religious studies is illustrated by the response my colleagues and I received after I finished the lessons. I saved some time for a Q&A and one of the first questions I received from a student was, “why do you know so much about Satanism?” To this day I have taught world religions over a dozen times, presenting myriads traditions. Never once have I been asked why I knew so much about Buddhism, or Hinduism, or Islam, or Zoroastrianism. But a single class on the history of religious Satanism raised suspicion about me and the motives for knowing about Satanism and teaching the class. Later one instructor told me that the class accused her of trying to convert them to Satanism by inviting me to give the lesson to them. Why is it that Satanism evokes such suspicion? I’d like to say that these students are unique, but they are not and their sentiment is easily found in the field of religious studies. I have had a number of conversations with people who were either directly advised not to study Satanism academically, or chose not to because of indirect pressure from those in the field. The reality of this is illustrated by the location of the prominent scholars on Satanism in the field of religious studies. None of them are in America. They are all in Europe. If we look at Oxford’s recent volume, The Devil’s Party: Satanism in Modernity, of the twelve scholars, only one teaches in America, Eugene V. Gallagher, a prominent scholar of New Religious Movements. The rest are from or teach in Northern Europe, mostly Scandinavian countries. While a number of the scholars in the book examine Satanism in a European context, seven of the essays look at aspects of American Satanism, many focusing specifically on the founder of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey. Why is it that European scholars of religion have more to say about religious Satanism, a religious tradition that emerged in America, than American scholars of religion?

In particular to the Hobby Lobby essays this week, I want to highlight The Atlantic’s essay because it demonstrates the differences in the way Satanism is approached by the media. After explaining the press release and its meaning, the essay begins to question whether the Satanic Temple is really Satanic. Emma Green, the author, notes that the founder of the Satanic Temple “isn't actually much into Satan worship” and thus she questions his sincerity. The essay ends claiming that the juxtaposition of the beliefs of Satanists, correction, “alleged Satanists” against those of Evangelical Christians is “farcical.” While the essay cites multiple legal scholars, nowhere does Green cite a specialist on Satanism or any scholar of religion. Why would she? Clearly she knows what real Satanism is, and what real Satanists look like. The fact that the original Church of Satan was atheist, like the Satanic Temple, and that they did not believe in a real supernatural being called Satan, and that their rituals were both cultural satire and political criticism, like this week’s Satanic Temple press release, is ignored. Perhaps if Ms. Green consulted a scholar of religion, she might have found out that the Satanic Temple is acting a lot like the Church of Satan did fifty years ago. But she did not consult a scholar of religion. She, like Bob Larson, assumed she knew what Satanism was and thus was capable of making her determinations about who is a sincere Satanist and who is only an alleged one. Would she have done this if the subjects were Christian, Muslim, or Jewish?

The separate treatment of Satanism becomes most evident in the reaction by the media and scholars to the recently announced and then canceled black mass, which was to be hosted by the Harvard extension school. The black mass has a complex history that goes back allegedly for centuries. To follow-up on the success of The Satanic Bible, Anton LaVey released The Satanic Rituals in 1972. It contained a series of rites and ceremonies, the most central was a version of the black mass called “Le Messe Noir.” The LaVey mass is constructed, like most black masses, to insult and parody versions of the Christian, particularly Catholic, Eucharist ceremony. What is important about this event is that while Drew Faust, the President of Harvard, upheld the value of free speech and public debate regarding its performance, she dismissed the mass itself, calling it “abhorrent” and “denigrating the Catholic Church” and “highly offensive to many in the Church and beyond.” In contrast, however, we do not see Dr. Faust denouncing other religions, such as Protestant Christianity, who denigrate the Catholic Church, calling its transubstantiation claims magic and its celebration of Christmas as pagan, claims that have existed for centuries and which the Catholic Church finds offensive. Why are Satanic insults “abhorrent” but not Protestants insults? Harvard hosts the Pluralism Project, a project “to consider the real challenges and opportunities of a public commitment to pluralism in the light of the new religious contours of America.” Shouldn’t the black mass be accorded the same religious consideration as other religious ceremonies highlighted by the Pluralism Project? Diana Eck, in her book, A New Religious America, writes of a new vision of American pluralism, one in which myriad traditions co-exist and how the stories of different religious traditions are the story of America. Is Satanism, its history and its story, part of that vision? Why do Satanists lack a seat at the table of Harvard’s Pluralism Project?

The answer to all of this is that scholars of religion in America are deeply ambivalent about Satanism, and much of this ambivalence comes from the field’s theological history and the theological commitments of its members. American scholars of religion are frequently uninformed about religious Satanism, and more importantly, due to a variety of reasons, mostly theological, do not consider Satanism a “real” religion or a religion worth study. Satanism shares many of the same problems as the traditions in the field of New Religious Studies. However, it has the added burden that, unlike other traditions studied and engaged by the field of NRM, Satanism rarely has anyone clarifying and educating about its historical background or place in American religious practice. Our field repeatedly attempts to portray itself as secular and independent of theology, particularly Christian theology. But the ambivalence about Satanism brings into focus the ways in which theology still shapes the field of religious studies, especially in America. Ultimately we need to ask ourselves. Are we theologians or are we social scientists? Sadly, when the topic is Satanism, the field, as a whole in America, looks more like the former than the latter.


Anonymous said…
You're right on target with these observations, John. And I think it may be a wider North American phenomenon, not just confined to the United States. A colleague in the Religious Diversity in North America PhD program here at Waterloo accepted an incoming student who wanted to do a history of Satanism. Soon rumors were flying around the school that my colleague was a Satanist, and board members even got wind of it and expressed concern. He had to put up with years of half-serious "jokes" that he was a Satanist from people who not only wouldn't have made similar comments about Christianity or Judaism, but who wouldn't even have talked to him in the halls--all they "knew" about him was he was the Satan guy, and that made him acceptable for comment by strangers. Then when a colleague was called as an expert witness in a trial that involved Satanism and drew on my first colleague's research, it was reported in the news that he was "a practicing Satanist."

All of that said, some of what you described is common to those of us who include teaching on minority religions, not just Satanism, even though it is most extreme in the case of Satanism. While you may not have been asked about your personal connection to Hinduism etc, I have frequently been asked in class about my religious beliefs or background.
John L. Crow said…
Jeff, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I am asked by my students every semester about my personal religious background and I always decline to answer. I explain that upon placing a religious label on me, students begin to filter my lessons through that label. "He just says that because he's ..." If I do my job well then what religious background I have, if any, should make no difference. Yes, this ideal is hard to achieve, but that does not mean we should not keep trying.
Unknown said…
John, this is great. The trend that you picked up on about the prominent suspicion around your motives for teaching Satanism is particularly curious. Perhaps it's an implicit recognition of the powers of Satan?

Makes me think of a point that David Morgan made in Visual Piety--that iconoclasm is, in a way, an ironic acquiescence to the powers of the very thing that such iconoclasts claim to be not real/legitimate...that the strong reaction against certain material representatives/embodiments is a kind of incongruous recognition of the reality of the very things that are sought to be undermined.

Perhaps there is less fear of learning about Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, etc., because there is a deeply embedded assumption about the theological impotence of these religions?
Anonymous said…
That's exactly how I handle it too, John. However, on the final day of class, I typically let them raise the question again. I don't tell them about the communities I'm embedded in, I make them guess. I use it as an exercise in a) identifying clues as to religious identity and b) realizing the difficulty of deciphering such clues. So for every guess, I make them explain why they made that guess. Come to think of it, this whole exercise (and the associated questions it raises) might make a good blog post.

Popular Posts