John L. Crow, Concordia University, and Satanism Scholars

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.

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.