Towards the end of Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche included a “Worship of the Ass” parable where many of the higher men who had followed the atheistic prophet felt that anything was better than a meaningless life, that ANY god was better than atheism, so they installed an Ass to be worshiped. Some people have interpreted this as the need to mock religion in the post-Christian era but, in the narrative, Zarathustra is furious and indignant, and the scene actually reminds us of Moses coming down from Mount Sinai and finding his people worshiping the bull. It seems like Nietzsche’s point is to remind us that we are all, in the end, “human, all too human”. Here, once again, Nietzsche was prophetic in his foresight. At least one tradition within modern Satanism reveres a deity associated with a donkey–a new religious movement known as the Temple of Set.
Pop-culture’s fascination with the archetypal rebel can be seen everywhere, from South Park’s recast of him as Saddam Hussein’s bitch to the incredibly popular–and not without reason–Lucifer series, which was once a Fox staple, now is cancelled there and will be taken up by Netflix.
Now that Christians have allowed our pussy-grabbing president to become the face of Christian piety in America, it should not surprise us that the hypocrisy of fundamentalist Christianity looks increasingly repulsive. The emergence–like froth in the ferment of that repulsion–of a mainstream atheistic religion known as Satanism, on the other hand, is taking many people by surprise. Two main factions occupy it: the Church of Satan and the Satanic Temple–whose feud is reminiscent of the petty feud between emos and Goths in South Park, and just as hilarious. In recent years, membership in TST has skyrocketed as a result of visibility gained from litigation and controversies related to the hegemony of Christianity in the public sphere and the use of public schools to indoctrinate children–which prompted TST to create an after-school Satanic club to compete with the “Good News Club”. Thousands of atheists have come to admire the activist tactic of taking up the sigil of the arch-boogieman to scare people, to have fun, and to educate society about the importance of the constitutional guarantee of separation between church and state. My review of Revolt of the Angels made me aware of the fact that The Satanic Temple considers this their main canonic work, and is part of what prompted me to write this blog.
In the 1960s the founder of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey, authored The Satanic Bible and appropriated and re-branded the philosophy of Ayn Rand in order to profit from his ideology of radical individualism, his theatrics (prior to this, he worked for a circus), and his cynical misanthropy. Like Rand–and Nietzsche before her–he misinterpreted natural selection and posited social Darwinism as the order of things in nature, which resulted in what Lucien Greaves calls a “fetishism of authoritarianism” that can be seen in LaVey’s Satanist cult to this day.
On the other hand, the Satanic Temple is a reformed, politically-engaged flavor of Satanism which rejects social Darwinism and argues–from game theory and other anthropological research–that there should be a place for compassion and kindness in Satanism. The line of argument here is identical to what we find in The Bonobo and the Atheist, and in other modern discourse that seeks to identify the natural sources of morality.
Satanism is Not a Nihilism
The pessimism and cynicism sometimes found among Satanists–which is perhaps justified if we read the many case studies and arguments made in the aptly-named book The Lucifer Principle–might lead us to think Satanism is merely a nihilist and existentialist religion, and maybe that’s one interpretation of it, but on the whole we would be wrong to conclude that. If one were to discern the philosophical identities of the various strands of Satanism, one would likely find that the Temple of Set is a Neo-Platonic religion, CoS is mostly influenced by Nietzschean/Randian thought (it claims Epicureanism as a source–but seems to misinterpret it by idealizing indulgence), and TST probably draws most heavily from Epicurean philosophy without giving it credit.
If the leaders of the TST were to ever gain a strong intellectual foundation as Epicureans, they’ll find that the best way to put forward a coherent case for compassion within their worldview–which accurately views humans as an animal species–is to root it in the Epicurean concept of natural justice, as articulated in the last ten of our 40 Principal Doctrines. Our contractarian theory of justice, and the expanded Onfrayan idea of the hedonic covenant, might appeal to their large libertarian base, and also most people underestimate the extent to which arguing from mutual advantage / mutual benefit helps to easily explain the utility of most common-sense moral decisions (not to mention difficult ones) made in any social context. They will also find that the concluding words in Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus furnish one way to interpret the principle of personal sovereignty. There, our Hegemon says that we will live like gods among mortals if we train ourselves to live a life filled with the pleasures that nature easily makes available, as explained in the middle portion of the epistle.
TST’s arguments on religious identity resonate with our arguments in favor of Epicureanism as a religious identity. They claim that atheism on its own does not affirm any values, that atheistic religions can be affirmative philosophical identities that inform the lives of adherents and give meaning to life, and that Satanism can be a model for “the religion of the future”: one that affirms the cultural traditions of Judaism, Christianity, or this or that heritage, but that is divorced from its supernatural beliefs. In fact, there are atheistic (or “cultural”) Jewish, Islamic, and Christian traditions out there. TST’s revisited definition of what it means to be a religion also resonates with arguments I’ve made on religion as a form of play or as a work of art, and with Raoul Vaneigem’s brilliant characterization of religion as having evolved from the usurpation of primitive play by ancient priests in order to employ Spirit as an enforcer of labor in early agricultural societies. Reinstating play within religion, while doing away with dis-embodied Spirit, therefore redeems religion from its historical complicities.
The Counter-History of Religion
Both Satanism and Epicurean philosophy posit a counter-narrative to the mainstream. They posit a counter-history of religion, and we a counter-history of philosophy. But ultimately, if Satanists understand the Platonic roots of Christianity, they will in the end echo Michel Onfray in earnest. After all, doesn’t the Gospel of John begin with the Platonic doctrine: “In the beginning was the Logos”? Speaking of counter-history, Lucien Greaves’ (the founder of TST) wrote a brilliant piece for Washington Post on the Christian roots of white supremacy. Religious fundamentalists desperately want to forget the racist history of Christianity, and indeed the history of Abrahamic religions is so bloody and violent that it’s not difficult to expose it using Michel Onfray’s methods of atheistic historiography. We are drowning in false narratives, and never before have we had a need as urgent to understand Onfray’s counter-history.
One observation bears mention here: it’s curious that the Judeo-Christian tradition chose to name the arch-enemy of its cosmology Lucifer, which means Light-bringer. This, by their own admission, would seem to entail a self-description as the cosmic and historical force of obscurantism–a fact which history certifies–and reinforces the perception that the Enlightenment and its humanistic values remain an existential threat to the church. The very first taboo in the Biblical narrative was not against evil or sin or abuse or violence, but against science, against the tree of knowledge.
The Adversarian and the Friendly Archetypes
One major distinction exists between Satanism and Epicurean philosophy. Satan means adversary, foe. Epicurus means friend, ally. Friendship is one the most cherished values of the Epicureans, while confrontation is a staple of the Satanists. Both engage in parrhesia–frank criticism–frequently using comedic methods, but Epicureans employ suavity while Satanists do not necessarily employ it. While it’s true that we can’t be friends to everyone and that we all play the roles of friend and foe in different social situations, the tension between these two modes is reminiscent of the tension between atheist militancy and ataraxia discussed in Atheism 2.1. Insofar as Satanic methods of activism, misanthropic tendencies, or morbidity generate perturbations or harm our meaningful friendships, a true Epicurean will stay away from them.
I believe that the adoption of this or that archetypal figure to guide us does have real repercussions in our lives, and that this choice must be carefully undertaken. We tend to see the world, people, and situations, through the lens of what is already familiar to our minds. The tendency to idealize the adversarian and contrarian spirit would presumably produce quite different interpretations of things than the tendency to idealize friendship and pleasure. One way to see the distinction is to understand Venus (pleasure) as the guiding principle and deity of Epicureans, as opposed to Satan–or the god of opportunity Mercury (the “Spirit” of the Market), if we are to assign to Satanism the guiding principle that belongs in Randian philosophy.
Another way to see the distinction is to understand the importance Epicureans place in not confusing the means (if by Satan we mean to signify the need to sometimes engage in contrarian behavior) with the end that our nature seeks, which is the motivating power of pleasure. To some people and in some circumstances, Satanism and Epicurean philosophy may be complementary, but to others–I’d venture to say most, if they are sincere Epicureans–this tension will be frequently impossible to reconcile. This, together with Satanism’s Randian DNA, provides the contours of the tectonic plate that separates the two traditions.