This is a long-overdue response to John L. Crow’s post about Satanism and scholars of religion. And by overdue I mean by almost two years. John L. Crow (whom I met briefly at the American Academy of Religion’s Annual Conference in Atlanta last November) had written asking for my thoughts way back in December 2014. At the time I was preparing for my research trip in Norway, and then life and work got in the way, and this year I’ve been ill, and well, academics have no good excuses for these kinds things, but here we are, and I can haz ideas.
So, with apologies to John for the delay, here are my thoughts on the experience as a scholar of religion actively focusing on religious Satanism in relation to the broader context in which Satanism is discussed in popular, religious, and academic forums alike.
Allow me to begin with a relevant passage from John’s post. He writes:
Satanism is treated differently by both academics and the public at large. This point was made apparent to me a few semesters ago when a couple of my colleagues asked me to give a one day lesson on religious Satanism as part of their world religions courses. I kept the history brief, focusing mostly on institutional Satanism, looking at the atheistic Church of Satan and the theistic Temple of Set. At the end, I also talked about the ways Satanism is constructed by Christian churches and the way this construction is projected upon Satanists. To illustrate the point, I showed a portion of an interview between Bob Larson, Zeena Schreck, daughter of the founder of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey, and her husband, Nicholas Schreck, founder of a satanic school of magic called The Werewolf Order. The interview can be seen here on YouTube. What becomes apparent in the interview is that Larson’s conception of Satanism is quite divergent from the kind of Satanism that the Schrecks articulate. Numerous times Larson says what Satanists can and cannot do based on what he imagines are the rules by which Satanists live and practice. He says in satanic weddings, brides cannot wear white to which the Schrecks reply, why not? Larson claims that all Satanist believe something because it is in The Satanic Bible to which the Schrecks reply, it does not matter what it says in the book, and Satanists can do and believe what they want. Larson uses his understanding of Christianity as the basis of his approach to Satanism and he is repeatedly shown to be in error. Larson is not unlike many who approach Satanism, whether they are in the media, law enforcement, or scholars of religion. The way Satanism has been portrayed by Christianity colors the narrative, regardless of what the facts demonstrate. There are significant differences between the various kinds of Satanism but there is a scarcity of American religious studies scholars who can or will engage in any public discussion about these differences, a task that they frequently perform for other religions.
To answer this query about reception to Satanism studies in academia (specifically religious studies), allow me to begin with anecdotes.
In my department, I have received strong support from the faculty at large, the chairs, my doctoral committee and supervisor. From the early stages, way back in my undergraduate degree, I wrote an honours thesis on Church of Satan rituals. It was well-received, and I was encouraged by my supervisor, Dr. Donald L. Boisvert, to pursue the topic in graduate school. For financial and personal reasons, I stayed at the same university for all my academic degrees [barring a semester abroad at NTNU in Norway, to work with Dr. Jesper Aagaard Petersen].
As such, I can state that Concordia University has never even hinted at having an issue with my topic. The department of religion demonstrates their support by suggesting me for scholarships, writing letters of recommendations, offering teaching gigs, expressing a genuine interest in my atypical research, and a regard for my personal well-being (an undervalued asset to doctoral success). I am the recipient of three major awards: the departmental graduate fellowship, the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Société et culture (FRQSC) [in name only], and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). The Concordia news department wrote a piece on my first academic publication in 2010 (Death and Dying the Satanic Worldview), which was picked up internationally. I have been a media contact for various stories on Satanism and Witchcraft, and even received a letter of commendation from the President and Vice-Chancellor, Alan Shepard [it’s framed and hanging in my office, because in moments of frustration and fatigue, it makes me feel like I’m PhDing LIKE A BOSS].
I have been fortunate. But in all of the above, the support I received was from people who know and interact with me personally—they have witnessed my work ethic, delight in teaching and helping students, involvement with graduate committees and events, and genuine intellectual curiosity. My point is that it’s not accidental support. There was already a certain amount of trust established between me and my department before I entered the PhD programme. This relationship is not circumstantial, but pivotal. It allows me to work independently (with the welcome kicks-in-the-ass) en tandem with the rigorous standards of departmental doctoral research. To be clear, my supervisor has challenged theory and methods, impressed the need to substantiate claims, and demonstrated a tough but fair approach as I proceed towards completion. But there has never been a voiced concern for the topic. If there have been objections or reservations to my research among faculty, they were not explicitly or subtly expressed to me personally.
In this sea of love, however, there have been a view sore spots.
At the dozen-or-so conferences at which I have presented a paper on Satanism, wherein I am a stranger to most, I’ve had the odd scholar behave in a combative and hostile manner during the question period, aggressively challenging me because how I describe Satanism directly contradicts their (mis)understanding. In the post-panel conversations, the objections are some version of these three things: LaVey really did believe in the devil; even if he didn’t, Satanism is by default evil and cannot be redefined; or my personal favourite, Satanism is an offensive religion and shouldn’t be studied. This type of scholar appears so repulsed by my topic, they cease all conversation. And once, even, someone refused to sit at the same breakfast table as me, declaring that Satanism was the “enemy of the church” and exposed the cross around their neck as a measure of what I can only assume was protection (against what is unclear, as Satanism does not view other religions as enemies, and instead views them as largely irrelevant—which is, perhaps, the more offensive claim).
My reaction to most of these incidents are a patient, bemused eye-roll. The rare scholar simply does not want to be convinced. The irony is, there is plenty to be offended by within satanic thought (separation of church and state; critique of theistic dogma; social-Darwinist worldviews; liberal sexual attitudes; no mandate for charity or good will towards fellow humans; libertarian(ish) political leanings; rejection of the idea of a “basic goodness” of humanity, instead viewing most humans as neutral reactionary fools, easily subject to mob mentality; etc.) if one bothered to understand it on its own terms. They object to Satanism for what it is not, instead of what it actually is. This is their failing. And more than a little lazy.
Now, lest my readers imagine that I am constantly confronted with rude academics, I must emphasize that these are small and occasional (if still consistent) occurrences, easily drowned out in the sea of overwhelmingly positive reactions to my research, wherein scholars are curious, delighted to learn something new, and be challenged on their assumptions. My personal anecdotal evidence suggests, then, that Satanism has a titillating draw, where scholars are largely supportive of the unconventional topic, taking an interest in a new avenue of intellectual pursuit, with only minor objections.
I was hesitant to even bring up these negative incidents publicly given that they are so trivial, but ultimately they are important, because they reflect the popular (which is heavily influenced by the theological) understanding of Satanism. If scholars, as John L. Crow suggests, simply make little effort to understand the nuances of popular, theological, and religious discourses on Satanism, the people that are ostensibly obligated by their very profession to be critical of assumptions and stereotypes, then perhaps is it out of an implied devaluation of Satanism as a legitimate topic of inquiry. Religious studies departments are woefully lacking in research on fringe and marginal groups and topics. One of the reasons for this is lack of support; ideally graduates interested in new religions seek out faculty that can supervise them, which drastically limits their options. When your topic is more mainstream (even if you’re doing new approaches such as feminist, queer, or race theory) you have more options. If departments of religion fail to encourage—by funding and otherwise—topics that fall outside of more standard areas of research, then it becomes a paradox: are there lack of resources because there is no interest, or lack of interest because there are not enough resources? The answer is likely not an either/or, but instead a nuanced negotiation between multiple parties: university administrations (what they’re willing to fund), graduate caution (putting the “passion project” on the back burner until they receive their degree), faculty expertise (rejecting students if they cannot offer full support, even if they have no objection to an unconventional research area), and job prospects (I often ask myself how to market my transferrable skills to other areas, as being a “Satanism Scholar” does little besides get me curious glances).
Finally, and specifically as it relates to me, let’s be honest about one thing: Satanism is weird (said with the utmost affection for weirdos of all kinds). But it’s weird deliberately. Religious Satanism is constantly negotiating tensions with its popular reputation, law enforcement, media representations, and academia. One of the manifestations of this weirdness, then, is its reception in the academy to scholars who study it.
To be clear: this is not a lament. My fantasy business card proudly reads, “Scholar of Religion—Fringe Division.” Examining such an unusual topic and its reception is a study in and of itself, and I wouldn’t change it, as being in this ambiguous space of researching a topic that makes people uneasy from inside the reputable institution of academia has offered unique insights into my meta-specialty of Things That Make Us Uncomfortable.
So if you’re considering a strange topic, I say go for it, just recognize beforehand that you will have to do some careful convincing. But it’s worth it to be among the freaks. You won’t regret it.