September 25, 2016

Mainstream Satanism


I found an interesting essay on my RSS feeder this morning. This came from John Beckett, a Pagan who blogs at Patheos. In this essay, he's writing about mainstream Paganism. On the surface, it's nothing to do with Satanism since it's written by a Pagan author who's discussing a Methodist schism, but if you look past the surface, you'll see something relevant emerge: hierarchy. In the example given by the author, the true schism in the Methodist church didn't begin with GLBTQ+ clergy, but instead began when the church leadership decided to let the laity have a vote in church policies. 

According to this example, the "problem" is that the democratization of Methodism has opened the religion to mob rule. This is a really engaging discussion for me, because on the one hand I think that strong hierarchy is necessary for maintaining structure, but I also think that an entrenched hierarchy falls into stagnation and becomes disassociated from the reality in which the lower stratified members exist. 

Is growth "necessary?" Well, no. It's not necessary to maintain growth for the sake of growth. After all, who knows how many Fozzy Muppets and Whackadoo Weasels you'll attract? But then, if you're not growing and aren't turning a profit in the marketplace of ideas, then don't complain when you see somebody else doing something you thought was your sole purview when you've decided that you won't cross your self-selected boundaries into the real things that real people really care about. 

Does this sound familiar to you? It sounds familiar to me, and it's what I feel like I'm seeing played out in the cold war between the Church of Satan and the Satanic Temple, neither of which wants to be identified with the other. Despite some common threads of independence, personal liberty, and opposition to authority, the Church of Satan and the Satanic Temple share very little in common and both of have foundational elements which cannot be reconciled. There will never be a grand Satanic unification between these two organizations.

On the Church of Satan side, we've got a lot of people (myself included) who are very proud to support the only organization to promote Satanism as codified by Anton LaVey. The Church of Satan has clearly defined Satanism for over 50 years, and its leadership and members have produced vast tracts of writing and hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of video and audio content that expand upon the religion and philosophy of Satanism. 

Having said that, though, one of the core principles espoused by the Church of Satan is alien elitism. The Church of Satan has said since the beginning that it doesn't care about having a large membership: we only want the most productive, successful, influential, and accomplished people to climb our ranks. And why not? One accomplished person is arguably worth more than 10 unaccomplished people. An organization built on the selection and promotion of the strong develops an adamantine core.

And then on the other side, there's the Satanic Temple which even though it's a scant two years old, has launched itself into popular consciousness by often times very effectively inserting itself into real situations that affect real people. Of course, doing so has necessarily polarized the Satanic Temple to the political left, and has resulted in the popular conception that the Satanic Temple's primary (if not only) interest is campaigning for social change - Satanism as a religion is rather difficult to find within their publicly listed literature. The way it appears to me, the Satanic Temple has done away with hierarchy and democratized its goals according to popular sentiment.

And is that necessarily wrong? In the marketplace of ideas, the Satanic Temple is supplying the demand. Power is as power does, and if the Satanic Temple is capturing public attention and leveraging the Satanic archetype for their own purposes. Power is as power does, and if the Satanic Temple is successfully steering the definition of Satanism in a new direction, then who am I to complain about it if I'm an alien elitist who who holds himself apart from the hoi polloi? I can't have it both ways.

Democratization of religion naturally expands boundaries, but will those boundaries retain their original form? Enforcing religious hierarchy conserves tradition and crystallizes definitions, but removes the organization from the flow of time and culture. Can there ever be such a thing as mainstream Satanism? Well, that's a bundled question. If you start from the premise that there is only One True Satanism™ and that it's a religion for the alien elite, then by its very definition it can never be mainstream, and if it ever were, then it wouldn't be Satanism. 

But like I discussed in Left-hand Tarot #22) Satanic Jihad, cultural appropriation isn't a "political evil," but a fact of life. People have been taking ideas, customs, and traditions from people for as long as people have existed. As a member of the Church of Satan, I have the power to control what I myself think, say, and do. And while I of course can choose to actively oppose organizations which I consider to be non-Satanic, what does that really gain me? I think that the only thing it gains me is time and energy given to Satanism, which is time and energy that I could have spent on myself. 

And while it sounds like a silly thing to say since I publicly identify as a Satanist, I don't consider that identification to be my primary identity. Like Popeye, "I am what I am and that's all that I am." Satanism occupies a big part of my world paradigm, but if something happened tomorrow and it became necessary for me to abandon public support for and affiliation with the Church of Satan, I wouldn't be devastated. I would still know who and what I am, and nobody and nothing can change that.

But getting back to the democratization of religion... If, like Mr. Beckett posited in the essay that I linked earlier, the "real schism" at play here is is the democratization of religion, then any organization which gives itself over to management by popular opinion will become diluted and follow not the core intention of the religion, but the surface desires of those who steer it. What's to be done about this? According to Mr. Beckett,
Maintaining our Pagan identity does not require clergy. It does require people who are intelligent, educated, experienced, and dedicated to their religion and to its long-term success. And it requires the respect of the practitioners – not to follow the “experts” blindly, but to carefully consider what they have to say, especially when dealing with challenging issues.
Mr. Beckett isn't a Satanist, but what he said here sounds thoroughly Satanic to my ears: we need respect for hierarchy and the accomplishment of others. Not blind obedience, but rational consideration of the facts. The democratization of knowledge is frequently criticized as putting wise men on the same level as wise guys. Does this hold true for the democratization of religion? Time will tell, and depending on which side of the debate you stand, time has already told.