AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL VIEW OF SATANISM
Editor of the journal Religioni e sette nel mondo, Professor of philosophy and religious studies at the Dominican Philosophical Studium of Bologna
SECTS AND SATANIC CULTS—2
The attention given recently by the mass media to some episodes more or less directly tied to the world of Satanism is a symptom and effect of a morbid curiosity exhibited today by many with regard to the occult in general and also to the satanic in particular. All the more urgent then is the necessity of acquiring clear and significant tools for discerning the cause and the forms of this phenomenon. This is necessary also in order to understand its relationship with contemporary culture and the subjective motives which lead people to let themselves become involved in, or attracted by, this dark world.
First of all, we need to specify that the term Satanism embraces a broad plethora of phenomena, with a thousand faces and numerous facets. Here we will limit ourselves to an examination of only some of the more significant examples, capable of bringing to light its principal characteristics for the purposes of an anthropological analysis. More precisely, our anthropological view of Satanism has the intention of dealing with two distinct problems, which are closely connected and can throw light on each other. On the one hand, we will present some elements which can help to identify the image of man that emerges from the context of satanic teaching, and on the other hand, we will describe some of the subjective motives of those who approach the world of Satanism.
The anthropology of some Satanists
A perusal of the most significant and widespread works of recent and contemporary Satanism clearly brings to light a "Promethean" vision of man, manifesting itself in his exaltation and divinization. "You shall be as gods", promised the ancient tempter, and the promise has remained unchanged for those inspired by him today.
Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), undoubtedly the inspiration for many contemporary satanic authors, makes explicit the link between the exaltation of man and rebellion against God, particularly against the God of the moral precepts with which Crowley had been raised in a fundamentalist sect. "There is no law", Crowley writes in his Liber legis,"except 'do what you will'.... Be strong, O man! Desire and enjoy all things of the senses and ecstasy: do not fear that any God will reject you for this. Every man, every woman, is a star, if he finds his own true will; otherwise he is a slave, and slaves will have to serve. Let mercy be excluded: all who have compassion are damned! Kill and torture, spare none!".
Anton Szandor La Vey (born in 1930) is of the same line of thought. His Satanic Bible (Avon, New York, 1969) begins with nine satanic affirmations, a sort of hymn to the human desire of psychophysical self-gratification at whatever cost. This holds with regard to oneself ("Satan represents indulgence instead of abstinence. Satan represents vital existence instead of vacuous spiritual dreams"), with regard to others ("Satan represents revenge instead of turning the other cheek"), and above all with regard to God and his moral norms ("Satan represents man as nothing more than another animal, sometimes better, but more often worse than those who walk on four paws, because, by the pretext of his 'divine intellectual and spiritual development', he has become the most vicious animal of all. Satan represents all the so-called sins, to the extent they lead to physical, mental and emotional gratification").
Already in this manifesto of Satanism the symptoms of a profound rebellion against religion in general and against Christianity in particular clearly emerge. As one continues to read The Satanic Bible, one meets with a little chapter significantly titled: "Wanted! God dead or alive", in which any type of relationship with God, to whom men turn only for relief from physical evil and pardon for moral evil, is deemed nonsense. The negation of the role of God is the satanic condition for the fulfilment of man, in the sense that the Satanist has no need to bow his head before anyone and must find in himself all the resources necessary to create his own happiness on earth. "All religions of a spiritual nature", writes La Vey, "are inventions of man", a sort of projection into infinity of his frustrated desires, of all that man would like to do without being able to. On the contrary, "the Satanist believes in the complete gratification of his ego"; he lives his life "like a party", without denying himself any satisfaction and without cultivating that useless love for every man which the Satanist holds impossible and absurd: "You cannot love all; it is ridiculous to think that you can do so. If you love everyone and everything you lose your natural capacity for selection. Love is one of the most intense emotions experienced by man and hate is another. Attempting to experience love indiscriminately is very unnatural. If you are not able to experience one of these emotions, neither will you succeed in fully experiencing the other".
The illusion of the self-divinization of man through rebellion against God is also cultivated on the ritual level. The principal feast for the members of the church of Satan is their birthday (given that "every man is God"), and the collection of satanic rites as a whole is presented as a series of psychodramas aiming at liberating its initiates from the unconscious heritage of their previous Christian religious membership in general, and of the Catholic religion in particular (cf. The Satanic Rituals, New York, 1972). The blasphemous profanations of Christian rites are carried out for the most part in the context of a ritual calling for both heterosexual and homosexual actions, regarding which La Vey candidly stated that the sexual gratification is undoubtedly enjoyed, but is not to be sought "for its own sake". Although La Vey emphasizes several times that these rituals have the character of psychodramas, there remains nonetheless an ambiguity typical of Satanism. On the one hand, belief in God, in Jesus Christ, in the Church, in the sacraments and in their salvific value is denied, but on the other hand, God is directly addressed (in order to affirm that he does not exist), as is Jesus Christ (in order to offend him), and consecrated hosts are often used in order to be profaned during the rituals. In this way all the contradictions of this "rebellious faith" are manifested, in which the negation of God can be considered simply as a concrete form of satanic hatred towards him, and not vice versa.
Subjective motives of those who approach the world of Satanism
From an analysis of the anthropological elements presented above, it is clear that the central element in the identity of Satanism is the absolute exaltation of the self, connected with a radical rebellion against the divine in general and of the God of the Bible in particular, coupled with a substantial rejection of every commonly accepted ethical norm. Reference to the biblical perspective is unavoidable, and the interior experience of Satanists cannot be understood unless seen from the viewpoint of a strongly antagonistic relationship with the God of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.
Let us begin then by trying to imagine the possible results of a crisis of faith badly resolved, and by hypothetically supposing that the principal reason for this crisis is tied to the inability to accept the experience of physical evil and to live serenely one's own relationship with those moral norms showing the characteristic steps of the Christian path towards God. Unfortunately, this is a recurring situation which, fortunately does not generally result in involvement with satanic practices, but which can be the starting point for understanding those who do reach such an extreme point. The primary datum for our reflection is that a situation of interior crisis usually does not remain forever in an acute state, but tends rather to stabilize itself in some way, so that we can take into consideration various theoretically possible hypotheses in order to arrive at what interests us.
A first way to escape the crisis of faith mentioned above is that of a more complete conversion to Christ, accepting his "easy yoke" and asking pardon for having temporarily abandoned it. A second possibility is for man to come out of the situation of interior travail by refusing even to think about (theoretical or practical atheism) that God who, if he existed, would be responsible for a world in which there is room for suffering, as well as being the source of those ethical norms which are seen to lead to so much discomfort. A third possibility can take the form of believing as one pleases in a god of one's own making, forged for personal use and consumption, in order to consent to one's wishes and to forbid only what one willingly allows to be forbidden, a god with whom one can speak if desired, as desired and when desired. In any case this is not the God proclaimed by the Church (this phenomenon occurs both individually and in the numerous sects which offer a sort of supermarket of the sacred). A final possibility is the one more properly called satanic: a final result of the religious crisis outlined above, which is neither conversion, nor a more or less explicit form of atheism or agnosticism, but a radical rebellion against the God of the Bible, whether done in explicit adoration of Satan understood as a personal being, or reduced to his invocation or evocation in order to attain benefits, or limited to a more or less symbolic use of satanic doctrines and rites in order to free oneself from the residue of one's own faith or simply of one's Christian culture.
The Satanist's is a "reverse act of faith", in which he expresses his personal belief in this cosmic, dissolving and destructive force, of which man is at once master and slave. The human frustration of one who fails to fulfil himself in a society that seeks to base itself on order and justice (values in full harmony with the Judaeo-Christian mentality) runs the risk of exploding in uncontrolled and extreme forms. Satanism seems to offer an alternative and an opportunity to frustrated spirits or to those who are ill with some form of acute egolatria, through an absurd reversal of the dominant religion, identified as the source of one's own unhappiness. This is accomplished by appealing to God's adversary, since the God of faith does not seem to guarantee the earthly happiness which is sought, or at least not in the ways and times desired.
In this context one can well understand the desire to acquire a more or less absolute power over oneself, over other men and over things, and for this reason Satanism involves the belief in some form of ritual magic which has the power to propitiate occult forces, whether they are clearly and directly identified with the Satan of the Bible, or are conceived in a vaguer impersonal way, but nevertheless connected with the dark side of the cosmos and of life, or are only seen to be vital cosmic forces opposed to an ordered and solar vision (which in the Judaeo-Christian tradition is represented by God, the Creator of heaven and earth).
In conclusion we would like to make some critical remarks both with regard to every form of sensationalism, especially typical of the media (which sometimes make use of the devil and Satanism, naming it deliberately or mistakenly only to increase their own ratings) as well of those authors who define the phenomenological category too narrowly so that to speak of Satanism in the strict sense, they require a true and explicit veneration of Satan understood precisely as the adversary of the God of the Bible, excluding from the group of satanists those who invoke Satan to make use of him instead of to serve him. It is clear that, if understood in this way, Satanism in fact would hardly exist, nor could certain founders of sects which define themselves as Satanist be legitimately called so. But above all, we do not see the reason for this concern to defend against the accusation of Satanism those who do not turn to Satan in an explicit or direct way. The sensationalism of the media and the attitude of those who see devils everywhere however, creates a needless confusion in the minds of many, and prevents Satanism from being seen for what it basically is: an extreme example how people who are very poor in religious and human values can reach the point of employing a type of contact (real, presumed, or even only imaginary) with the Prince of Darkness, in order to exalt their own ego and proclaim themselves to be absolute masters of good and evil.
In anthropological terms, it seems that we can consider the radical rebellion of which we have spoken as a sufficiently significant element common to the different forms of Satanism, whether this rebellion takes the form of an explicit adoration or veneration of Satan in order to serve him, or whether he is sought in order to be used for those earthly purposes which the biblical Satan offers to men as the ultimate goal of their existence, or whether he is used as a symbol in a sort of psychodrama that aims at achieving a total rebellion against the God of the Bible for the purpose of cultivating the illusion of being better able to enjoy the good things of this world.
Among other things, we could reasonably hypothesize a sort of inverse proportionality between explicit faith in Satan understood as a person and the degree of publicity that a satanic sect is disposed to seek. It is not surprising if exponents of a symbolic and rationalistic Satanism publish books and pamphlets, appear on television, and other media, and acquire considerable publicity in various ways (assuming that the publicity is fully truthful and is not simply the public side of a Satanism that also takes on forms which aim at creating a more real contact with the Principle of Evil in the pleasing obscurity of the private realm). On the contrary, it is not difficult to suppose that satanic groups which are more explicitly dedicated to authentic satanic invocations prefer darkness to light, and obscurity to spotlights.
The analysis of publicized Satanism (more accessible to the scholar because of the availability of the sources) is useful, nevertheless, for better understanding what is more hidden, because their published texts also influence those who make use of their texts, giving them a sense which in a certain way is different from that claimed by the authors. We can even see a certain conceptual continuity between the radical rebellion against the God of the Bible and the rebellious desire of not wishing even to credit that God with the fact that the Scriptures are the source of the knowledge which enables us even to speak of Satan, who is there described as the adversary of God. The Satanist can decide to rebel even against this debt and proclaim the total independence of his own vision from that of the Bible, while continuing to nourish his own creed and rites with elements actually taken from the Christian faith.
On the other hand, it seems difficult even to hypothesize a complete and total substitution of God with Satan as the object of that adoration which is prescribed by the first commandment. This is because, as St. Thomas observes (cf. Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 78, a. 1), he who chooses evil never chooses it "in itself" and "in so far as" it is bad, but always because (erroneously or sinfully) some semblance of good (in so far as one is dealing with an adulterated, depreciated, materialized good...) is seen in it. Consequently, we are led to think that even the adoration of Satan understood in a personal sense, as a matter of fact and despite more or less sincere declarations, is never a pure adoration as though it were a sort of contemplation of the evil of Satan as such. Perhaps we can think of it as a kind of perverse veneration of the devil, in which one hopes to gain certain benefits from him, or to use him as a model for the rebellion against God which the Satanist himself hopes to achieve. The desire for this rebellion is therefore the true subjective drive of the attitude proper to the various forms of Satanism: whether it prefers to conceive of Satan as a real person (perverted spiritual being and perverter of the Christian faith), or it conceives of him as an impersonal reality with characteristics that oppose him to the Christian concept of God (matter and energy), or it simply uses him as a consciously anti-Christian symbol for the exaltation of the self. The true object of adoration for the man who gives himself to satanic practices remains always and in any case his own ego, with its disordered desire to create a completely earthly happiness without recourse to the help of God, but counting only on his own natural abilities, or at the most on those of someone ready to offer himself as an accomplice to such a humanly desolate and perverse scheme.
Weekly Edition in English
5 February 1997, page 10
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