The Cycle of Scapegoating: Media and the Blame Game

The concept of scapegoating comes from the ancient Israelite ritual of the Day of Atonement, which designated one goat for blood sacrifice for Yahweh, and another to be sent out into the wilderness, its literal disposal meant to symbolically remove sin. Though this ritual has historical precursors (see link), the modern day etymology of the word “scapegoat” is derived from the goat sacrifices: to deflect blame by projecting fears unto others. Jews themselves were often victims of this concept, blamed for Jesus’ crucifixion, infant mortality in medieval times, and the most glaring examples of Nazi Germany, among other.

Within my focus on all things involving Satanists and Witches, there are multiple circles of scapegoating directed at and emerging from these contemporary groups and individuals, as accusations of child abuse, tension with popular and theological perception, and struggles for legitimacy all converge in a confusing mess of circulatory deflected blame.

To unpack this a bit, it is first important to state that there are multiple individuals and groups self-identifying as Witches and Satanists, all with different understandings on the nature of evil. However, three large groupings can be joined together for the purposes of this blog entry: Neo-Pagans/Wiccans, the firmly atheistic Church of Satan, and the loosely affiliated individuals and groups of Theistic Satanists, called spiritual, esoteric, or traditional Satanists [though I do note some inaccuracies with wikipedia, the pages are meant for the reader to get a basic idea]. All have wild rumours associated with their ideas, and most popular depictions and understandings of them are grossly misconstrued.

A typical scenario for scapegoating begins with an incident picked up by the media, usually a criminal act in which there were elements deemed “satanic.” These “satanic” elements can be anything from a pentagram drawn on the wall or floor to simply having a heavy metal band’s poster on the wall. The word is used in media copy to generate interest and titillate/horrify their audience; rarely is there actually anything satanic about the particular crime.

However, when media report on a imprecise “satanic” incident, they will often quote an equally hyperbolic reaction from someone echoing popular misconceptions. The formula goes like this: “There was an X satanic crime. Clearly we have moved away from God, and witches are to blame.”

The fallout from this type of claim then begins a cycle of scapegoating, which usually follows a pattern described by Diane Vera, a self-described polytheistic azazalian spiritual Satanists. The pattern goes like this:

Christians blame Witches—>Witches blame Satanists—>The Church of Satan blames theistic/spiritual Satanists—>Theistic/Spiritual Satanists deny.

That is, in the process of denouncing the crimes, the immediate reaction is to then pass blame along to another group. For example, if a lone teenager kills an animal and the media reports it as “satanic,” there will invariably be a quote from a Christian group claiming that witchcraft is rampant. Neo-Pagans/Wiccans then respond, “Witches are not to blame. Only Satanists sacrifice animals.” To which the Church of Satan claims, “We don’t believe in Satan or the Devil because we’re atheists. Animal sacrifice is anathema because there’s no real devil to sacrifice to. Theistic Satanists are to blame because they believe in a literal devil.” Theistic Satanists in turn, decry this type of scapegoating, claiming that, though they believe a satanic entity, it is not considered “evil,” because that is a Christian concept.

Vera ends her cycle here. And though I agree with her assessment, I would actually add one more, and close the scapegoating loop by suggesting that theistic/spiritual Satanists, in turn, blame Christians, i.e. if you think Satan is evil and wants you to kill animals, that makes you a Christian heretic, not a Theistic Satanist.

Christians blame Witches—>Witches blame Satanists—>The Atheistic Church of Satan blames Theistic Satanists—>Theistic Satanists blame Christians.

And on and on it goes.

Here’s the Cycle of Scapegoating represented in a nifty graph:

The larger point I am trying to make is that scapegoating reflects the struggles for legitimacy within a larger society that makes little distinctions between these groups and individuals, which are in reality rather different religions. They may use similar nomenclature (witchcraft, magic, etc.), but their foundational ideas are quite different, and sometimes diametrically opposed. Though they are all functioning within a Western context and responding to its concerns and ideas (and can certainly find points of contact), the scapegoating tactic is actually a legitimizing tatic. It is method of establishing an authoritative voice for their religion, attempting to define themselves by rejecting popular misunderstandings and deflecting accusations to the very groups that muddy the waters of these definitions. The larger population has little insight into the differences and regularly conflate and skew their foundational ideas; scapegoating is then a reaction to these conflations.

All of these religions denounce and decry animal sacrifice (even the ancient Jews, as they stopped practicing animal sacrifice after 70 c.e.) and criminal activity, though unstable individuals cannot be accounted for. Scholars (and journalists) are best to avoid the hyperbolic claim that if one individual from a fringe religion behaves criminally that that act is indicative of the entire religious body. The logical fallacy becomes obvious when we apply it to larger, conventional religions. By those faulty extrapolations, Christianity is responsible for most crimes (i.e. if most people incarcerated are Christians, therefore most crimes are caused by Christianity): a false conclusion and misleading claim, despite being statistically accurate.

Why did I write this blog post, you may ask? I’m researching articles for my upcoming Witchcraft, Magic, and Religion course, and still come across unchallenged scapegoating claims, wherein the author-scholar repeats the claim without critique. Chances are that if the group you’re studying says, “That’s not us. That’s ___,” that that group ___ presents an opposition to the first group’s reputation in the public imagination. The claim deserves an outright debunking at most, or a cautious footnote in the least.

Satanism as Total Environment: Drafts from the Thesis Proposal

“Satanists are born, not made.”
—Anton Szandor LaVey (Occultist, 1930-1997 C.E.)

“Christians are made, not born.”
—Tertullian (Christian Apologist, ca. 160-235 C.E.)

When Anton Szandor LaVey makes his declarative statement that, “Satanists are born, not made,” he is responding to two discourses: it is a challenge to Christian paradigms as well as a proclamation for autonomy. First, it is a direct inversion of the early Christian theologian Tertullian’s claim, “Christians are made, not born” (Apol., xviii). Tertullian is addressing the notion that one has to learn how to act as a Christian in the world—Christianity is something that is taught, understood, and then applied. Tertulian, as one of the early church fathers writing in the Christian patristic era, was addressing the new and ever-developing concerns of Christian communities: how to live, dress, and act, adjusting one’s behaviour to reflect Christian identity. LaVey, writing in the 1970s and responding to broad historical threads of Western-Christian ideas that began with Tertullian, inverts the proclamation as an exaltation of the sovereign self—drastic changes are not required to be a Satanist. What you are, how you behave, your natural tendencies and predispositions, are all that is needed to live “satanically” in the world. You do not have to learn to be a Satanist: you were born that way. Despite LaVey’s claim that Satanism resonates with one’s preexisting dispositions, he also distinguishes that Satanism is natural to only a select few. “We are looking for a few outstanding individuals,” claims the Church of Satan website, an “alien elite” of outsiders, iconoclasts, and radicals, that resonate with the symbol of the original rebel-hero, Satan.

As members of the Church of Satan consider themselves naturally inclined to satanic ideas and practices, they view the entirety of their lives as Satanism in action; there is no distinction between theory and practice, ideal and reality, satanic and un-satanic. Satanism is considered a lived religion, where everyday life is a new opportunity to achieve their goals, maximize potential, and enjoy life’s pleasures. Living satanically is viewed as an inherent trait, wherein individuals describe a resonance with Satanism upon first exposure to its prime literature. Hence, the label of “Satanist” is adopted to represent preexisting principles and behaviours. This thesis investigates Satanism as an actively lived religion: how members of the current Church of Satan define and undertake Satanism as an applied religion via principal themes; how Satanists use and understand magic, ritual, and esotericism; how they employ Satanism in their personal and professional lives; and how their worldview engages with the broader social context from which it emerges. The Church of Satan is born within and responds to both secular and religious discourses in Western culture, as it self-identifies as religious, yet also critiques traditional religious values and institutions. Their distinctive approach to religious identity reflects the shifting demands of contemporary society—at once echoing modern discourses, yet interpreting them in a particular manner.

This thesis uses a theoretical tenet of Satanism to examine the entirety of the satanic worldview—the concept of Total Environments (TE). LaVey’s statement on Total Environments is part of a document titled: “Pentagonal Revisionism: A Five-Point Program” (1988), which outlines pro-active mandates that answer the demand for applied Satanism (versus efforts to explain what Satanism is not, i.e. child abuse, church burning, devil worship, etc.). Number five of the five-point plan reads:

The opportunity for anyone to live within a total environment of his or her choice, with a mandatory adherence to the aesthetic and behavioral standards of the same privately owned, operated and controlled environments as an alternative to homogenized and polyglot ones. The freedom to insularize oneself within a social milieu of personal well-being, an opportunity to feel, see, and hear that which is most aesthetically pleasing, without interference from those who would pollute or detract from that option.

That is, a prime mandate of Satanism is for each Satanist to proactively create their own world, and have their desires mirrored and manifest in the sensorial experience. It is a mandate for constructing a physical as well as social environment: the chosen aesthetics are simply an extension of one’s worldview. One of the ways to achieve this is to emphasize creating a total environment of their choosing: it is a reflection of what is considered their “true nature,” and this nature, by default is considered “satanic.” (Again, we are reminded of LaVey’s claim, “Satanists are born, not made.”)

The concept of TE echoes theories on contemporary self-religions. Self-religions posit themselves in opposition to perceived imposed and indoctrinated religion: it is a choice they make as sound, consenting adults with the aim of self-awareness and self-improvement (Helaas 1991). Self-religions are categorized as New Age movements, and though Satanism has relaxed affiliations with these religions, it diverges in significant ways. The Church of Satan emerges partly as a response to the hippie counterculture new age movements, by co-opting the challenge to the status quo, but also demanding a more rigorous self-awareness, one based on social Darwinist pragmatic approaches to life, not idealistic or romantic concepts of what the world and self should be, but instead a harsh examination (and acceptance) of how the world and the self actually are. As such, their notion of Total Environments is one that accepts the realities of the perceived “true self” and extends it outwards. Satanists consider their entire lives a total environment, as everything they do and are is constructed in alignment with their notion of selfhood. The material environment—the sensorial aesthetics of their ritual chamber, dress, home, car, etc.—is deliberately designed to showcase and thus manifest the will.

How Satanists understand and apply the notion of Total Environments is thus a springboard for examining their worldview en toto.