Update: Radio-Canada and Some Awfully Nice People

You can listen to an audio of my interview here with Patrick Garneau on “Pourquoi pas dimanche?” on Radio-Canada, June 5th, 2011.

It was a great experience. They were extremely friendly and curious, and very gracious for my occasional mishap with the French language; I was quite nervous, actually, as my usual French vocabulary does not extend to academic terms.

I read a study on polyglots that claimed a little bit of alcohol can sometimes ease the inhibitions of speakers of second languages. I can confirm that, as a beer on a terrasse erases my hesitations when speaking French.

But somehow tipping a bottle at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning seemed ill-advised.

Merci à l’équipe de “Pourquoi pas dimanche?”!

Feminist Hermeneutics Are Somehow Not As Titillating

Derek Abma, from Canada.com, was also in contact with me regarding my research. He asked for a spokesperson from within the Church of Satan. Since I cannot ethically provide that information, I informed him that he must ask the Church of Satan administrators directly. I also sent an email to the administrators informing them that I had spoken with Mr. Abma. I do not know if direct contact was ever made. Mr. Abma’s piece here contains an interview from Scott Robb, a self-identified Satanist from the Canadian-based Satanist Church.

He is, however, not a member of the Church of Satan.

In order to help explain what this means, I will reprint a section of my study’s methodological approach:

My initial research into the Church of Satan began in 2006 with a short paper designed to illustrate the inherent problems in conducting Internet research on New Religious Movements [NRMS]; inconsistencies, contradictions, schisms, mudslinging, inaccuracies, and inflammatory accusations from journalists, ex-members, anti-cult groups, and various critics of NRMs all contributed to a murky and overwhelming area of research. There are scarce academic sources for reference on the CoS, and the few existing scholarly works are surface studies based on Satanic Literature, Internet research, and pan-Satanism sources (Lewis 2001, Petersen in Lewis and Petersen 2005). The Church of Satan website, commenting on James R. Lewis’ efforts at Internet research for a “Census of Satanism”, states that, “we think it worthwhile that true Satanists should steer clear” as Lewis involves other groups that self-identity as Satanists that are unrecognized by the Church of Satan (Church of Satan, Pages/News44, 2010). There are a number of these disparate groups that self-identity as Satanists. The great majority of these factions are theistic Satanists, that is, they believe in the existence of a spiritual Satanic entity. As such, they are diametrically opposed to the atheistic stance of the Church of Satan, which views Satan as a symbol and as a metaphor for how they see themselves. As far as my research has ascertained, theistic Satanists are primarily (although not exclusively) active on the Internet, as opposed to physical assembly, have several unorganized divisions with multiple nuances of how the entity of Satan is perceived and understood, and have ephemeral philosophies that are influenced by the writings of Anton Szandor LaVey and other occult authors (Lewis 2001, xiv). As such, the various theistic Satanic groups are omitted from this paper because their understanding of ritual, death, and the afterlife is then atypical of members of the Church of Satan.

Scholars of New Religions Movements (such as James R. Lewis), as well as theistic Satanists, have tended to refer to the Church of Satan as LaVeyan Satanism to distinguish it from theistic Satanism (2001, xiii-xiv). It is, however, significant to note that members of the Church of Satan do not self-identify as LaVeyan Satanists but simply as Satanists. Since the Church of Satan was the first organized Satanic religion, founded and based on the book The Satanic Bible by Anton Szandor LaVey (first published in 1969), the members of the Church deride the need to use labels applied by external social scientific categories or their theistic Satanic detractors (Gilmore in Shankbone 2007).

Current High Priest of the Church of Satan, Peter H. Gilmore, explains, “We don’t think [theistic Satanists] are Satanists. They are devil worshippers, as far as I’m concerned” (Quoted in Shankbone 2007). Perhaps more delicately phrased, the Church of Satan concludes that since they were first to codify Satanism as a religion, they hold the rights to the moniker of Satanist and the strong symbolism and responsibilities attached to the label. As James R. Lewis writes in his book Satanism Today: An Encyclopedia of Religion, Folklore, and Popular Culture,

“However one might criticize and depreciate it, The Satanic Bible is still the single most influential document shaping the contemporary Satanist movement. Whether LaVey was a religious virtuoso or a misanthropic huckster, and whether The Satanic Bible was an inspired document or a poorly edited plagiarism, their influence was and is pervasive” (xiv).

For these reasons, within this essay the terms Satanism, Satanic, and Satanist will refer solely to members of the official Church of Satan, as established by Anton Szandor LaVey, and systematized in the prime text, The Satanic Bible.

Mr. Robb claims to be an ex-member of the Church of Satan, and left to begin his own church. Given that my study included solely Church of Satan literature and interviews, I cannot vouch for Robb’s statements as I have not studied pan-Satanism. I do not protest Mr. Robb’s inclusion in the piece, but I do object that it is unclear that my study is outside the auspices of Mr. Robb’s comments. It is the equivalent of asking a Baptist to comment on Catholic dogma. Although I fully understand that journalists who are not engaged in the academic study of religion would not necessarily be able to distinguish this nuance.

I have written many papers on differing topics over the years, none as titillating as the Church of Satan, and I am aware why this “sensational” topic garners so much attention. There is a certain, understandable, journalistic salivation surrounding this whole thing. Part of me chuckles at the thought of asking reporters if they want to hear my comparative analysis of medieval exegetes and contemporary feminist hermeneutics on the book of Esther. Somehow I doubt that that conversation would make it into print.

CNN Coverage: On The Importance of Precise Terms

CNN has picked up the story, and rewrote their own piece. This reporter/blogger (Eric Marrapodi) has clearly actually read the original study. Refreshing.

I realize just how much of an academic I have become as I read through the viral internet commentary. For instance, Marrapodi uses the term “faith” to describe Satanism. This is an inaccurate use of the term. I do not mean to accuse Marrapodi of negligence, as he obviously did his homework. I am simply stating how much my own perspective has changed regarding the precise use of terms; my training has cemented the fact that I must use exact, clear, and appropriate terms for my study. “Faith” is inaccurate because there are no base presuppositions that Satanists are required to believe; there is no extraordinary claim that requires faith. There is simply a statement that, in all likelihood, there is no god, no devil, and no spiritual dimensions to humankind. I could not apply the term theology either, as there is no theos.

Dogma, philosophy, and that wonderful polyvalent social scientific word, worldview, are more appropriate to apply to Satanism.

If I have had seven years of higher education (so far, many more to come) wherein professors push you to become better by being critical, explicit, meticulous, and make absolutely certain that your claims are unambiguous, well defined, and properly supported, I realize just how much of a nitpicking snob I can be when I read misuse of terms, even when I have no other issues with the text; the CNN piece is fair and balanced and well written. Bravo.

Considering that I am a person who has lived in places with no plumbing, that I dropped out of high school at 14, and worked full-time as a nanny for a decade, I am constantly surprised as how my person has changed and become something entirely unexpected; from welfare brat to this bizarre place wherein my cloistered study in an area few people even knew existed is now on CNN’s website. Life is funny like that.

Read The Study: On The Standards Of My Discipline

If a student of mine handed in an ill-researched opinion piece, quoting various uncorroborated claims read on the internet, I would, perhaps surprisingly, choose not to fail them, despite that being an entirely acceptable reaction to such work. I would instead allow them the chance to correct their essay, hoping that they take the opportunity to learn. This would take more effort, time, and critical thinking. That is the point; good work is never lazy. It may be incorrect, inaccurate, or even a good but poorly executed idea, but the work – the critical analysis of a wide range of sources, comprehension of the topic, and careful, insightful critique – is a long, often boring, frustrating, and exhausting task.

This is not an easily satisfied demand in the age of the internet. Opinions are quick and ill-informed.

As I have been reading through some reactions to the article done by Beth Lewis, Sympathy for the Devil, on my recent publication, it is apparent that most commentators on various internet sites have not actually read the original study – even so-called “journalists” (though, simply having a blog does not make you a journalist). I will not name names, but I came across one particularly unprofessional piece, wherein the author plagiarized half of Beth Lewis’ text, interjecting her own heavily biased opinions on the Church of Satan, and no where citing that this work is, in fact, mostly authored by Beth Lewis. That particular unnamed person lists a BA in Journalism as her education. She has shamelessly discarded the standards of her discipline.

My duty, as I see it, is to first and foremost apply the standards of my discipline in a critical, comprehensive, and insightful way. I am a social scientist of religion, a scholar who still has much to learn and is excited at the prospect of going deeper, approaching my topics as thoroughly as possible. Yesterday I was interviewed by a local news anchor, Mutsumi Takashi, on CTV News. Takahashi had clearly actually read my original study, and, although the interview was very brief and general, she approached my study with curiosity and professionalism. One particular question has provoked part of my text here; she asked me if I liked my topic. Yes, admittedly, I do, and any scholar worth their degree should never cease to pursue topics they enjoy. The challenge is allowing your affinity to inform your work – to pretend that is does not is a lie – but not to be dictated by it. As soon as I am no longer being critical, then I am no longer a scholar, but a sensational pundit engaged in thinly veiled testimonials. Scholars need the challenge of tackling topics that interest them. We should be excited about our topics, as academic laziness is an intellectual death. Getting advanced degrees is hard work, for little pay, at the cost of many other things; I am still wondering if I should have become a carpenter.

Interestingly, sites that have reprinted the Beth Lewis story (verbatim, thankfully) are ones dedicated to scientific research:

Physorg.com

Labspaces.net

Redorbit.com

Science Codex

One on anthropology :

The Archeology News Network

And one dedicated to science fiction and fantasy:

Kalkion.com

Perhaps the Beth Lewis piece was reprinted on science news sites because of the Church of Satan’s atheistic stance, combined with their emphasis on critical thinking and separation of church and state. Most commentators to the article are addressing the news release, not the original study. Part of me (only part of me) wants to leave comments on these sites about their lack of research: read the original study, slackers! I can easily address criticism on my work directly, but addressing every second (and third, fourth, fifth, etc.) hand opinion gleaned from unsound sources is a waste of time, and it teaches nothing. It is what I would tell my students, and it is what I offer that vague and amorphous entity called the “Internet”.

From XKCD