An edited version of this article was published in Smith Journal volume 25.
Thanks to a sharp-witted Twitter presence, the Church of Satan is experiencing something of a resurgence. And did you know they don’t even worship the devil?
Joel Ethan is 40 years old. He likes watching movies, travelling, and spending time with his family. He works for a non-profit in the environment sector, is proud of his career, and pretty happy with his lot in life. He’s polite, intelligent, and a good conversationalist.
Ethan is also a Satanic Priest. “But no-one calls me ‘Reverend Joel’,” he’s quick to point out. “There are other Satanic Priests who everyone calls ‘Reverend’, but we each have our own manifestation of the formalities.”
Based somewhere on the U.S. east coast (he won’t give his exact location for privacy reasons), Ethan acts as spokesperson and publicist for the Church of Satan in his spare time. He’s just one of a growing number of card-carrying Satanists around the world. And though the Church doesn’t release membership figures, there is evidence the second coming of Satan could well be upon us.
Thanks in large part to a shrewd, sharp-witted and emoji-strewn Twitter account, the Church has gained followers that might have otherwise never taken a stroll down the Left-Hand Path.
Run by a slew of senior Satanic clergy (they won’t reveal exactly who’s behind the account), @ChurchofSatan routinely takes down those who are ill-informed on the good word of the bad lord. On any given day, in fact, you’ll find them shrugging off ignorance in a surprisingly good-natured manner:
“If you’re a Satanist, do you still say bless you? This is a legitimate question lmao,” writes one Twitter user.
The Church replies: “An excellent way to convey a serious inquiry is to end your question with ‘lmao’”.
Another postulates: “Well, from my point of view, Satanism is an atheist cult, not a religion.”
The Church retorts: “No one cares what you think. We’ve been a recognised religion for over half a century.”
A third proposes: “There’s no religion that allows homosexuality (not even a single one).”
The Church counters: “Satanism does.”
And so it goes.
Far from despairing at the volume of sometimes abusive, often oblivious, occasionally idiotic tweets the Church has to respond to, Ethan finds it all pretty amusing. “We're Satanists, so we already have a fairly poor opinion of most of humanity,” he says. “The interactions we have on Twitter match up pretty well with the way we see the world. Society is quite a circus, but we always find a way to enjoy ourselves.”
It seems to be a winning strategy; despite having only a fraction of the resources or historical legacy, the Church of Satan has over 177,000 followers. By contrast, the Church of England’s Twitter account has just 82,100.
Ethan started on the sulphur-laden when he borrowed a copy of The Satanic Bible from a classmate in high school. The origins of the bible can be traced back to 1966, the year in which one Anton Szandor LaVey founded the Church of Satan. The bible, written and published by LaVey – a San Francisco-based occultist and successful organ player – came three years later, and forms the very foundation of his Satanist religion.
More a philosophical framework than a sacred text, the bible is said to draw inspiration from the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, Ragnar Redbeard and Ayn Rand, and has since turned countless hordes onto the idea of Satanism.
It’s sold over one million copies since release, has been translated into multiple languages, and has never gone out of print. “Prior to 1966, the term ‘Satanism’ was a general accusation flung at anyone Christians didn't like – be they pagans, scientists, homosexuals, other races and even other Christians,” says Ethan. “It was a label they slapped on someone to justify whatever horrible thing they wanted to do to those people, with no clear definition or basis in reality. LaVey was the first to clearly define the religion and self-apply the label ‘Satanism’.”
The simplest way to describe Satanic beliefs, writes LaVey in The Satanic Bible, “is indulgence instead of abstinence.” He adds that people often mistake compulsion for indulgence, and says there’s “a world of difference” between the two. “If everyone had a particular time and place for the purpose of indulging in their personal desires, without fear of embarrassment of reproach, they would be sufficiently released to lead unfrustrated lives in the everyday world,” he continues.
If you’re a Satanist loyal to the Church of Satan (which, in the Church’s view, is the only kind of Satanism), the aim is to embrace your carnal desires – as long as they cause no harm to anyone else, and don’t separate you from other things you enjoy in life – without guilt.
In the early 1990s, a young Ethan finished his friend’s copy of The Satanic Bible, and found his existing worldview aligns pretty closely with its Satanic philosophy. A few years pass and, after spending a little more time digging into LaVey’s church, he decides to join.
Members of his family were very religious, but he found more questions than answers in ‘traditional’ religion. “When I read LaVey, I was excited to find others had come to the same conclusions as me,” he says. “Satanists see life as the great indulgence and want to enjoy it to its fullest for as long as we can. We’re not nihilists or hedonists.”
The mainstream depiction of Satanism as a devil-worshipping, soul-selling, animal-sacrificing band of heavy metal-loving loonies, on examination of the facts, doesn’t appear to be all that accurate.
For a start, Satanists don’t actually even believe in Satan, which the Church describes as a “metaphorical projection of our highest personal potential” rather than an actual being. Satanists are atheists, first and foremost.
As with most established religions and philosophies, there are derivatives with differing takes on what it means to be a Satanist. But according to Ethan, there’s only one true Satanism – LaVeyan Satanism, as laid out in The Satanic Bible, as practiced by the Church of Satan. “There was no such thing as Satanism until we defined it in 1966,” he says. “There have been countless groups that have tried to use our language and imagery to further their own goals that have no connection to the religion of Satanism. If someone aligns with our philosophy and cites The Satanic Bible as their source, they are a Satanist. If they don't, they aren't.”
Most of the time, confusion between Satanic offshoots is a mere annoyance. But every so often, real reputational damage is done. A 2014 Vice documentary titled The Truth Behind Modern Day Satanism failed to distinguish between the Church of Satan and a group of Neo-Nazi-like theists known as the Order of the Nine Angles. “It’s terribly bad reporting to draw any kind of a connection between individualist atheists who reject all forms of collectivism and theist racists,” explains Ethan. “Worshiping a Christian character [the devil] requires acceptance of Christian mythology. But religious Satanism has been atheistic since day one.”
And then you have America’s ‘Satanic Panic’ of the 1980s and early 1990s. During this time, the Church came under fire for a slew of alleged criminal conspiracies and Satanic ritual abuse, including the alleged abuse of children in day care centres, which led to the longest and most expensive trail in American history. No convictions were obtained and all charges were dropped, and the FBI later issued a report that outright rejected all of the conspiracy theories pointed at the Church of Satan.
With all the bad press and negative connotations surrounding Satanism, you’d imagine the Church would save itself a bit of bother if it just rebranded to something more family friendly. Ethan contests that attracting more people to their philosophy isn’t really a concern. “The original definition of the term ‘Satan’ actually fits our philosophy perfectly, and has the added bonus of being an excellent filter,” he says. “It keeps the wrong people away, and attracts the right people. We're very happy with it, and that's why we think it's worth protecting.”
Anton Szandor LaVey died in 1997, but his church has arguably never been in better shape. It costs $225 U.S.D. to become a lifetime card-carrying member of the Church of Satan and applications (which include questions such as: “Tell us one of your favourite jokes” and “What are your food preferences?”) take a maximum of 16 weeks to process, or up to a year if you want to be an ‘active’ member, like Ethan.
On the subject of the membership fee, the church serves up a typically wry riposte: “We are emphatically not altruists. We’re Satanists, so we expect to be compensated for our time and efforts.”
As a counterpoint to critics who claim the Church is nothing but a money-hungry cult, the Church emphasises that you do not need to join the Church of Satan to be a Satanist – you must simply live in accordance to The Satanic Bible. The Church isn’t interested in actively seeking new members and, if you can’t afford membership now, it advises holding off until it makes financial sense:
“We don’t expect people to put aside important things in their life in favour of joining our organization,” the website reads. “Satanists abhor the idea of sacrifice.”