American Gods, Belief, and Academic Definitions of Religion

Or, How Neil Gaiman Reflects Contemporary Theories in Religious Studies

First, my credentials (not that I’d need any for blog posts); I am a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion and Cultures at Concordia University. I have taught undergraduate courses titled Witchcraft, Magic, and Religion and Cults and New Religious Movements in North America; published on my specialty of religious Satanism; won multiple academic research grants and awards of excellence; and generally sit in an area of scholarship where I study weirdos of all kinds (said with great affection).

This informal essay attempts to highlight the academic theories of religion as echoed in the television show American Gods (based on the Gaiman book of the same title). Examining narratives in popular culture is a means for revealing the concerns and interests of its audience: what concepts and themes do people consume, absorb, and then manifest, and why?

Disclaimer: I have not (yet) read the book. Gaiman’s works (unsurprisingly) have overlaps with my academic interests, as they often reflect similar concepts and ideas that rest in the tension between contemporary popular culture and new religious movements—especially those groups and persons of the self-identified “magical” kind. As I’m currently trying to get through my doctoral comprehensive exams, I have to get super tight with Judith Butler before I can enjoy things like reading for pleasure. So, a copy of American Gods is currently waiting for my time and attention, as it stands on my bookshelf in good company, next to a small collection of miniature witches.

Holtzmann’s there in case things go awry.

Ok. To begin, please indulge me in a brief pedagogical exercise. In my very first lecture, on the first day of class, I often ask students to call out defining traits of religion. Let’s do this now, as a group. Go ahead. Mentally think them at me. I’ll wait.

In the dozens of times I’ve asked this of an audience, they produce these characteristics, that, put together, we (popularly) conceive of as “religion.” I usually write them on the blackboard as I hear them:

Rituals/rites of passage

Community/church                          God/divinity


Leader/founder                    Book/scripture

I then stand before the classroom, point to these words—these supposed traits of religion—and ask one revealing question:

“What religion does this look like?”

After a pause, one brave person will answer “Christianity” or “Monotheism.” And this is the moment that demonstrates my point: we perceive these particular traits as defining “religion” because of the influence of Christianity in the Western world. By defining religion solely this way, we are, in fact, reinforcing the notion that Christianity is the only legitimate way to be religious.

Whether we are individually religious or not, Christian or not, is irrelevant. Broadly speaking, we absorb the concepts of our enveloping society. As Christianity has a distinct impact on Western thought (among other things), we have accepted its own internal definition of “religion,” and then (inappropriately) imposed it on other worldviews and religions. The result is that when we encounter religions that are missing these characteristics, we dismiss them as illegitimate or not real religions, despite intentions to understand other worldviews on their own terms.

This is also a problem in the academic study of religion.

In his book, Empire of Religion, David Chidester claims that the history of the academic study of religion is actually invested in the concerns and interests of the colonial empire by upholding the supremacy of (Protestant) Christianity, despite scholarly claims to objectivity. Chidester notes that early anthropologists, following pre-existing colonial merchant routes throughout the British Empire, encounter domestic religions, and deem them primitive, savage, and magical, as opposed to the enlightened, refined, and spiritual religion of Europeans. These early studies bifurcate human history, positioning (Protestant) Christianity[1] as the pinnacle of human civilization.

This history is embedded within higher education. We (the scholars) deem ourselves as having overcome and addressed this bias. However, if we still define religion in ways that apply accurately solely to Christianity, where it is an awkward or harmful framing otherwise, then we are, in fact, still advancing (Protestant) Christianity’s purported supremacy.

And this brings me to Neil Gaiman and the concept of “belief” in American Gods. Using “belief” as the rubric for what is considered religious behaviour is a modern(ish) phenomenon, and limited to the Western world. The Vikings would never have said, “I believe in Odin,” anymore than the ancient Israelites would have said, “I believe in Yahweh.” Ancient religions are imbedded within daily life and practice. The separation between what you do everyday and an ultimate claim—a “belief”—originates from a Christian theological development (and that idea was influenced by early Greek Platonic philosophy, but that’s a lecture for another occasion). In modern times, we have come to understand religion as equal to belief, without challenging the foundational premise. Is “belief” truly equal to all religion? Or is it, as I suggest here, yet another conceptual framework prejudiced by the history of the colonial empire and its interests?

The phrasing of religion as synonymous with “belief” is a methodological problem in the academic study of religion. We have taken a theological development from the Christian Nicene creed (you know the one that begins, “I believe in one God, the Father almighty,” etc.) from the fourth century, which is in turn compounded by the Lutheran claim of “sola fide” (by faith alone) in the fifteenth century, and then applied it as the standard by which to investigate all religious behaviour, in hilarious, confusing, and destructive ways.

We tend to ask, “What do they believe in?” when trying to understand a foreign culture. I like to tell the story of my brother’s deployment to Japan, wherein he was handed a pamphlet of information on Japanese culture, written by American corporations for their business executives. It stated: the Japanese people do not have any religion. Now, I do not know the method by which this data was gathered, but I am willing to bet that someone surveyed Japanese businessmen and asked them, “What do you believe in?” To which they likely replied, “Nothing.” This then gets understood as Japan having no religion.

But it’s the wrong question.

The question itself is burdened by the entire history of Western culture, which (erroneously) posits that religion is equal to belief. Consider instead asking, “Why do the Japanese people build temples? What is the significance of the Shinto rituals? How do they celebrate rites of passage?” And other types of questions that do not necessarily rely on a Western construction of organized religion.[2]

We even hilariously apply this concept of “belief” to wildly inappropriate areas: we say incongruous things such as, “I believe in science,” as if this statement is secular and contradicts religious worldviews. It does not. No scientist claims to “believe” in his or her work. Science is a method, a tool. It cannot be reconciled with what we conceive of as religion (in any of its forms). [Scientism, however, could certainly be viewed under this rubric.] We have adopted a phrase from one system (Christian belief) to inaccurately explain another (the scientific method) because they are in conflict in popular discourse.

“Belief”—that abstract, Christian, and central notion of religious behaviour—should not be retroactively considered when trying to understand the Vikings, Indigenous traditions, or anything divorced from contemporary Christian theological developments.

And this is where American Gods does an interesting thing. In its depictions of the old religions, it doesn’t quite explicitly state that the concept of “belief” was central (again, I have no idea if Gaiman’s descriptive words in the book had this implication). It does, though, present the dying gods as seeking adherents who “believe” in them in order to revive and reclaim their popularity. Shadow’s journey throughout the first season is to be slowly manipulated by Wednesday to eventually declare, “I believe.” “Belief” is central to how the gods seek power. So while I challenge the idea that Vikings in the Iron Age “believed” in Odin (they didn’t; the concept didn’t exist), it would certainly be appropriate for Wednesday to seek “believers” in modern times because Shadow has absorbed the narratives of Western culture that does equates belief with religion (as we all have).

Not only does Gaiman have Wednesday adapt to the conceptual framework of contemporary humans (i.e. “belief”), he also advances that modern society has shifted its definition of religion to echo another modern academic theory: that is, our society’s most “religious” behaviour is that which most occupies our “time and attention,” as Media claims. She continues with my favourite quote of the season:

The screen is the altar. I’m the one they sacrifice to. Then till now. Golden Age to Golden Age. They sit side by side, ignore each other, and give it up to me. Now they hold a smaller screen on their lap or in the palm of their hand so they don’t get bored watching the big one. Time and attention, better than lamb’s blood. (Media in American Gods)

Indeed. The television screen-altar is placed in prominence in most American homes. An alien anthropologist would look at the artifacts in our homes and claim that viewing images on screens is our primary religious activity. We’ve enlarged these home screen-altars to cinematic proportions, centralized them as our social and solitary focus, replicated smaller screen-altars to Media in other rooms, and now carry these hand-held screen-altars and incorporate them into our daily rituals.

Our obsession extends to celebrity itself. Famous people are Media’s priestly class, a means to access the divine, and we, the laity, offer our time and attention for a glimpse at the promised Good Life. We worship the cult of celebrity. We take their opinions—uninformed, decidedly amateur, and manufactured by publicists as they are—as gospel, as somehow more weighted than authorities and specialists. To be clear: celebrities are allowed to have opinions like anyone. But the general public is incapable of distinguishing informed opinion from unqualified opinion.

As celebrities are now our Priests and Priestesses of Media, we envy their position and influence. We voraciously devour their social media productivity. We fantasize about attending parties of the glitterati. We imagine ourselves as their romantic partners to such an extent that we get angry or sad depending on the status of this famous stranger’s romantic situation. We make ridiculous things called “The List.” The List, for those unaware, are names of famous people that you’d be permitted to shag if you met them in real life, with your partner’s (and presumably the celebrity’s) consent.

I cannot fathom making such a list. Even if I were, my so-called “list” of people I’d be permitted to fuck would never consist of something so banal as celebrities. If I’m going to imagine the impossible I’ll fantasize about book characters, mythical creatures, and sex that defies the laws of physics and the limitations of the known universe.

Provided my creativity is the only constraint, then, yes, I’d fuck the entire cast of American Gods ONLY IF they were actual gods and demigods. It would be my duty as a scholar of religion.

First on my list, is, naturally, Bilquis, because who doesn’t want to be all up in this exquisite cosmic vagina for all eternity?

Second, Mad Sweeney, because we all have a crush on Mad Sweeney.

I’ll be in my bunk.

Third, Media, because Gillian Anderson as David Bowie incites my bisexual impulses.

Media could transform into virtually anything I’ve ever seen on screen, like a Holodeck for sexual fetishes. Could Media also morph into the 1970s Hammer Film aesthetic? Because I have a vampire lesbian orgy fantasy that’s been with me since Ingrid Pitt.

I demonstrate my own obsession with celebrity here: images on screen are often our initial exposure to true arousal. The first time you saw something depicted on television or film that stayed with you, that marked you, is an aesthetic that remains in your personal repertoire of erotic tendencies—as highly idiosyncratic and individualized as they are, the experience of claiming that your first true crush was a television or film character is common.

Media as depicted in American Gods, though, is far more that simply our modern obsession with famous celebrities. Media represents a visceral provocation by images. For example, the first time I saw a 1970s lesbian vampire on screen I had a distinct, uncontrollable, and decidedly pleasurable reaction, far before I understood the concept of “bisexuality” or even had any mature, adult woman insights into my own grown-ass desires. And now when I see Mad Sweeney flex his muscles I think, “Oof. Pornstache got thick.” And I sigh a little, hypnotized by the beauty and sheer maleness of his body.

It is this immediacy of experience that has positioned images and the unruly feelings they provoke as a historical threat to Western monotheistic religions. It is not an accident that these religions warn against “idols” and “false” depictions of the divine. Images—especially the unsanctioned kind—incite wild emotions, they are perceived as rooted in base reactions of the body, reactions in direct conflict to loftier, intellectual, or spiritual ideals (i.e. “beliefs”).

So it’s fascinating that while Wednesday, the older god, clings to “belief” as a method to regain influence, Media, as the new god, presents herself as a series of iconic images, as they are a carnal means of manipulation and power. In their own way, Wednesday and Media are reflecting different theories of religion, the old and new, and the tension between them.

As the older religions withdraw (a debatable claim; also a topic for another time), so does our understanding of religion as “belief.” Newer religions tend to focus far more on the immediacy of experience, and centralize the human aspect and its potential (the divine plays a secondary role).

So if I were going to investigate modern notions of religion in western society, I would look at its obsessions, its common narratives, and its recurring themes and concepts. Media then emerges as the new religion. How would I apply theories of religion to television narratives as if they were canonical scripture? How would ritual theory explain people’s behaviour with screens (altars), as a means to access their divine (celebrities)? When someone fantasizes about attending a Hollywood party, is that their version of a heavenly afterlife reward for sacrificing their time and attention?

I don’t (yet) have answers. I have to get through the dissertation first. Maybe that’ll be the post-doc.

Love in procrastination,



[1] In this schema, those awfully ritualistic and peculiar Christians—Catholics—are also viewed in a similarly negative light.

[2] Yes, I acknowledge that in order to study foreign cultures and have your research read by a broader audience, scholars write in European languages and concepts. Post-colonial critique attempts to address some of these issues. I have no idea how successful we are just yet.

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.

Academic Writing: Or, How to Avoid Being Sick Over Your Laptop

My writing process is thus:

1: Vomit words on a page.
2: Leave it for two weeks.
3: Re-write everything.

Or, as my friend Erik Östling puts it, the old “puke and revise” method.

Much of academic writing is taking two separate ideas and merging them together. A basic formula could be: here’s this one dudette’s theory on something religion-related, and here’s this religious group behaving in ways I find interesting, so my job is to see what is gained or lost by applying this theory to the practice. Does it fit well? Why or why not? What insights can we glean from the group’s practice? How could the theory be revised? Etc.

It’s simple enough. Good scholarship does this kind of thing seamlessly.

The problem, is that academics are rarely marrying just two ideas (that’s for undergrads [P.S.: I love teaching undergrads.]), but are instead trying to present a seamless disscussing on one topic by weaving in multiple theories, discourses, and ideas in a way that does not leave the reader confused, angry, and unwilling to fund, publish, and work with you.

I am obsessive. Before beginning to write I collect mass amounts of data before I get a clear idea of what it is I am actually trying to do, overwhelming the issue and confusing myself for days, before I finally streamline my thoughts. The eventual clarity is a glorious euphoria: Oh this is what my paper’s about!!!

The current problem under review: how do you write a thesis proposal on the Church of Satan, which incorporates two separate fields of study, western esotericism, and media/material culture studies? That is, how do I look at the material culture of these Satanists in a way that corresponds to similar studies on magical groups, without the study reading as disjointed?

For those unfamiliar, it is somewhat rare to study contemporary ritual/magical groups in terms of material culture. First, because modern magicians simply are not as studied, and second, because when they are, they are usually studied under the rubric of western esotericism (not material culture).

There is always overlap between fields. The issue, is that when you go cross-disciplinary, your methodology requires refining to adapt to the tug-and-pull of different disciplines, in a way that benefits the particular study best. The proposal I put together at the beginning of my doctorate is no longer completely relevant, as I’ve refined my approach. It’s now time to put it all together.

That’s where I’m at. I’m not yet certain how to do this. And I have a thesis proposal (over)due.

Lucky for me I can vomit on my blog.

Magic: A Brief (Ongoing) Discussion of the Term

Magic is a Western word, born out of the western context. You can read its semantic use in popular discourse from the Oxford Dictionary Online. Note its common applications: as manipulation of events, as adjective, as verb, etc.

Its use within the larger western discourse of religious studies, though has nuanced definitions. It begins with the Greek encounter with Zoroastrian priests and their perceived esoteric skills, wherein magi comes to mean the foreign, mysterious, and occult. It retains this notion of specialized arcane knowledge to the current day, but has also developed other threads along its journey.

Most relevant to me, is the history of how scholars have studied magic. It begins with a Protestant discourse that retroactively applied the term to all things not Christian. Though the word itself predates the early anthropologists, we, in the academy, are most influenced by the first scholars to study “magic” with a social scientific (not theological) methodology. Magic could be:

    1. “Primitives” in foreign areas. Early anthropologist traveling to exotic places and labelling all indigenous practices as magical. Max Warwick presents an excellent discussion on his cross comparison on how the term is applied in studies in Oceania and Africa. For example, some chroniclers use it to denote malevolent practices, while for other cultures it is considered good. In yet others, magic is neutral, but the intent of the skilled person depends on how it is viewed. As these European writers use western language and discourse to describe the foreign ideas, terms like “magic,” “witchcraft,” “sorcery,” “spells,” and “curses” have a wide-range of meanings and applications, with little to no discussion of nuance, and no systematic standard between and among the European writers. Marwick advocates for scholars to define their terms for each study (For group A “magic” is considered evil; for group B is it not, etc.).
    2. Peasants, and their superstitions, sometimes based on older pagan ideas, or simply viewed as more common, a low culture as opposed to high culture. Much of what was considered not part of the practice of civilized elites was denounced as “magic.”
    3. Rival Christianities: your form of Christianity is clearly inferior to mine, and therefore magical, if not satanic. To which the response is an equally emphatic: No, your form of Christiniaty is clearly “magic,” and thus false.
    4. As early European anthropologists viewed civilization as the pinnacle of an upward trajectory model, they also retroactively applied the term magic to previous monotheistic religions, not solely pagan practices. Under this rubric Judaism (with its “archaic” ritual sacrifice) is magical, as are those funny types of Christians [Catholics]. Echoes of this remain within academic discourse, wherein the assumption that anything “ritualistic” is more base, carnal, and not in keeping with the Protestant ideal of internal, direct communion with god. The implication is that anything done with the body, the material, and the carnal is corrupt and inferior.

That is, for much of contemporary history, “magic” is informed by what Christianity claims it is not. Even as what-it-is-not is ephemeral, contested, and constantly in flux according to the socio-politico-religious influnces. What is considered “Christian” in one time/place/context could be considered heretical in another. No discussion of magic can ignore the history of Christianity and how it self-defines: the two are intertwined.

In the modern context, we have yet another use of the term, with the emphasis on technologies used to create magical illusions that tie into the discourse on science versus religion, with magic taking on this hybrid type of non-status. Magic as illusion by the exceptionally scientific. It is entertainment and wonder for a general population, performed by skilled scientists. To be a stage magician is still to manipulate the natural world, yet with the audience suspending disbelief in order to engage with the wonder and awe of the event.

Still, in the case of stage magic, there is an amphasis that it is not religion, not miracle. To believe that stage magic is miracle puts one in the camp of the delusional, unscientific, and guillible (much like the current anti-religious discourse in the western world). Complicating things further, is that many of the earliest scientists engaged in ideas that modern scientists consider pseudo-science or occult magic (see John Dee). Some of theses sciences were fully endorsed and funded by the Church. Some scientists also fuelled the idea that they held supernatural powers (Nichola Tesla was known to encourage rumours of his magical abilities).

Contemporary self-identified magicians (of which there are many types) also contribute to blurring the categories, by claiming that the effectiveness of magic is a science not yet explained by current methods (echoing Arthur C. Clarke’s statement: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”). Magic, within these groups and individuals, can be anything from harnessing biological and psychological techniques, to manipulation of spirits and/or demons via ritual to do your bidding, to an understading that magic is performative and cathartic in and of itself, without requiring deeper supernatural explanations.

In the convoluted ven diagram of Religion versus Magic versus Science, there was and continues to be much overlap.

How do I, then, propose to study and write a dissertation on magic, a thing that has no clear definition?

Well… stay tuned.

Transposing Vodou: Haitian Spirits in the (Virtual?) Diaspora

Alexandra Boutros, in her article, “Virtual Vodou, Actual Practice: Transfiguring the Technological,” examines the intersection between virtual interaction and Vodou practice, and how practitioners navigate technology and popular depictions. She writes: “digital technologies—the possibilities and limits generated by the interaction between technology and technology use—shape manifestations of Vodou in the digital public sphere” (2013, 239). That is, there are now practitioners of Vodou who have no national or genealogical connection to Haiti and thus Vodou, but who nevertheless have become immersed in its virtual community.

Boutros argues that popular depictions of Vodou, despite often being wildly inaccurate, are also the initial draw for the virtually curious.[1] Because of this, Vodou practitioners that have initial contact online may or may not interact with Haitian practitioners; the demographic has expanded far beyond a connection to Haiti. Boutros writes:

Vodou is a fluid and orthopraxic religion in which multiple voices from multiple geographic centers can potentially address the constitution and the constituents of the religion. This multi-vocality maps itself onto the workings of new media, where social networking and software publishing practices seem to create an all-access public sphere. (2013, 241)

Boutros states that the intersection between religion and technology is often framed negatively; technology somehow dilutes or diffuses the notion of an “authentic” religious experience (and yet again, we bump up against the idea that “legitimate” religion is solely defined by an inwardness and sincerity). Yet there are many religions developing an online presence in the face of the overwhelming amount of virtual interaction increasing in the modern world. Examples range from; Ask The Imam and Catholic virtual confession app for smartphones, to new religions such as pagan technomysticism, and even religions that are born online through chatrooms, such as therianthropy (do watch the short video below, it provides a succinct description of how this fascinating movement emerged).

Boutros examines how these virtual spaces intersect with religion, but I would like to back up a bit to look at how grounded (quite literally, in many ways) Vodou is with Haiti in the first place, in order to then to consider Boutros’ comments.

Karen McCarthy Brown (perhaps best known for her book Mama Lola) writes in her article, “Staying Grounded in a High-Rise Building: Ecological Dissonance and Ritual Accommodation in Haitian Vodou,” that when Africans were enslaved in Haiti their homeland became spiritualized (1999, 82). Practitioners wishing to call upon their spirit ancestors draw a cornmeal veve on the ground of temples or shrines, directed at specific spirits. Veve are considered a passageway through the “watery subterranean world they call Ginen” to a spiritual African homeland (81). The veve’s intersecting lines have cosmological meanings, as McCarthy Brown writes: “It is both a crossroads, the ritually accented place where two roads meet at right angles, and a map of the cosmos itself; both a reference to an intimate corner of human-scale space and a cosmogram” (1999, 82).

Veve Erzulie
Veve Legba

McCarthy Brown argues that the first migration (from Africa to Haiti) transformed Africa into a mystical homeland, one accessible via rituals and the spirits. The second migration (from Haiti to North America) again transformed Vodou practices (it itself a mix of indigenous, African, and Catholic sources; the indigenous Taíno population did not survive colonialism). Haiti, as the geographical location of the spirits, becomes transposed in various ways throughout the diaspora. McCarthy Brown describes Haitians who smuggle small amounts of Haitian soil back to their new residences, but even with access to the soil, certain practices such as pouring libations to the spirits presents a problem in such dense concrete clad cities as New York. She writes:

It is impossible to say how many times and in how many different ways the people who serve the Vodou spirits have to experience the impenetrability of the ground in New York City before they begin to feel that the spirits are starving, and they themselves are slowly being drained of life energy; in New york is it hard to keep believeing that “from up here to down there, in Ginen they hear,” when Ginen is so palpably inaccessible. (1999, 85)

The dilemma of “feeling rooted” then prompts a variety of practices that transpose Haiti in New York and other North American cities. One example is where a Priestess placed a tub to collect the water, rum, and perfume libations that were poured to the spirits. She then bottled the liquid in small containers, which practitioners took home to then spread the “bath” on their skin over three days, without washing, in order to absorb the liquid. The porousness of skin has replaced the absorbency of the earth. McCarthy Brown observes: “In theory, at least, one could feed [the spirits] as well through the skin as through the earth” (86).

Haitian Vodou, then, literally inhabits the earth, and this has cosmological, practical, and even national implications in the diaspora. Boutros is addressing the next step: from Africa to Haiti to North America to the virtual world. She states that as Vodou has become more publicly visible and acceptable, as well as its legal recognition in Haiti, has opened up the secretive and guarded religion to the public sphere (240). As non-Haitians become interested, their connection the earth in Haiti in then negotiated in various ways.

These individuals have no genealogical or geographic connection to Haiti, the cosmological center of Vodou, and they often “find” Vodou not initially through direct contact with Vodou practitioners, but through mediated representations that instigate a desire to seek out more information. (240)

When such individuals become interested in Vodou, it creates somewhat of a clash between those that view Vodou as inherently connected to Haiti, and newcomers without the genealogical or geographic connection. As Boutros quotes one online practitioner, commenting on non-Haitian practitioners:

I can’t argue that my experience of [Vodou is the same as] someone who grew up in a household where the spirits were served regularly. . . My problem with a lot of these sites . . . is that there is very little acknowledgement of that difference. Sometimes that difference can be opportune. I remember some of the things that I didn’t understand about the spirits, and that makes it easier for me to explain things to people like me: North American new-age-types who did not grow up in a culture that served the spirits. But it’s important to be honest about difference and ignorance. ( in Boutros 248)

The concerns over authenticity are then negotiated in two areas: first, in the connection to Haiti as the cosmological centre, and second in terms of how this connection is mediated via technology. This technology is developing its own notions of “space”:

Online religious practitioners often amend the term to talk about cyberrituals and cyberspiritualities, and more mundane concepts such as cybertalk and cybermalls pepper everyday speech. This vocabulary points to a hybridized conception of cyberspace as a terrain that blends the virtual and the actual, making durable links to tangible geographies and undercutting the notion that cyber-identities are free-floating entities with no connection to “real life.” (Boutros 2013, 249)

We may eventually view virtual spaces as benign to the religious experience, its integration into our everyday lives becoming so commonplace that it is no longer considered a threat to our perceived notions of “authenticity.” But as a new technology, is it yet another medium to navigate our religious experiences (such as texts, rituals, images, sounds, our own bodies, and other media). The experiential is always at the centre of how we self-define our religious notions, and virtual interaction is yet another way to mediate that experience: discuss, dissect, advise, consult, and promote our ideas.

[1] It is interesting to note that there is a significant amount of members of the Church of Satan who were also drawn to seek more information because of depictions of Satanism in the media, films, and heavy metal music. This differs somewhat from pre-Internet members, who sought information through occult bookstores and/or various New Age types of activities and groups, wherein pamphlets, leaflets, periodicals, newsletters, and bulletins produced by various Satanists for various purposes (magic, fiction writing, essays on Satanism, promoting a particular local cabal to national members, etc.). The difference is the initial level of commitment and certainly the ease of access. Some Satanists of the older generation lament that what they call First Phase Satanism (an overly enthusiastic and sometimes misguided interest in Satanism) is on the increase with virtual interaction, whereas before, it took a certain amount of genuine effort to actually write a letter, partake in a cabal, or attend an information session.

Boutros, Alexandra. 2013. “Virtual Vodou, Actual Practice: Transfiguring the Technological,” in Jeremy Stolow, ed. Deus in Machina: Religion, Technology, and the Things in Between. New York: Fordham Universty Press: 239-259.

Brown, Karen McCarthy. 1999. “Staying Grounded in a High-Rise Building: Ecological Dissonance and Ritual Accommodation in Haitian Vodou,” in Robert A. Orsi, ed. Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press: 79-102.

Research and Academia: Or, what the hell am I doing here in Norway, anyway?

There are two main reasons for my presence in Norway.

The second reason, is that studying in a different academic environment other than my home university demonstrates to potential employers that I have international experience. My bachelor, master, and (in-progress) doctoral degrees have all been at the same university. The reasons for this are a combination of funding (I worked full-time throughout my bachelor and master degrees, in a job that was not guaranteed elsewhere), support for my research (my department has been openly encouraging of my fringe research from the start), and domestic logistics (I have animals. They are as important to me as children, and uprooting them is a serious consideration).

By studying abroad for a half a year it shows I can adapt to new academic environments. Doctoral candidates are in this odd liminal space, where we are often part-time faculty, yet still students earning our degrees. We are considered professionals, but professionals that are in the process of building our careers. My portfolio now includes specialized research abroad.

The first, more significant reason for being here in particular, is to study under Dr. Jesper Aagaard Petersen. We are examining two thematic currents: the very broad category of Western esotericism, and the more specific modern religious Satanism. My dissertation focuses on one of the self-identified religious Satanic groups, the Church of Satan. Satanism is born within and responding to contemporary popular notions, while also reinterpreting ideas from occult and magical discourses. That is, Western esotericism informs how modern Satanists think and act. My work with Dr. Petersen investigates the relationship to, tension with, and reinterpretation of these historical arcane ideas into modern religious activity.

Now here is the Most Important Reason for me being physically in the same space as Dr. Petersen: when we met for the first time we had a general conversation about our plan here and discussed esotericism and Satanism, and it was the first time, ever, in a dozen years as an academic, that I had had a long conversation with a scholar that knows the field more than I do.

I cannot emphasize enough how important this is to the process of academic learning. Being able to bounce ideas off of another scholar, even if, especially if, you disagree is an integral part of advancing as a critical thinker. My supervisor at my home university has provided necessary and unflinching critique of my work (he never holds back, and I’ve eaten humble pie a few times!), but Dr. Petersen can catch problems with my work that might not be seen by scholars that do not know my field. Between my home supervisor and the host supervisor, I have a critical balance of feedback.

To put it bluntly, I’m looking forward to arguing. And being a nerd about all the weird stuff that interests me.