Modern American Satanism: The Church of Satan Vs. The Satanic Temple
The formation of organized religious groups gathered in public praise of Satan is a fairly recent development in American history. In a world where people living right outside Boston less than 400 years ago were straight-up murdering people for imagined communion with the devil, it makes a lot of sense to lay low.
To better understand how Satan worship moved closer to the mainstream, let’s explore the histories and philosophies of both Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan – which reached its zenith of influence in the 1960s and ‘70s – and the contemporary political activism of The Satanic Temple. But first, the author of this article has to get three things out of the way:
- I am not a Satanist: I cannot speak with personal knowledge on any of these matters. I am merely an enthusiast fascinated by Satanism.
- There is no one dominant group: While the Church of Satan and The Satanic Temple (or “CoS” and “TST,” respectively) are the two most visible instances of organized Satan worship, they are by no means the only. This will not be comprehensive; I just want to focus on two prominent groups that I find particularly interesting.
- Satanists celebrate individualism: … by taking inspiration from the image of the devil as the ultimate rebel. A Satanist’s practice is about what speaks to them, what works for them, and what helps them aspire to their potential. I can only aim to describe the most common overlaps in Satanists’ worship. Glad we discussed all this!
First Off, Anton LaVey Was a Bizarre Creep
Born Howard Stanton Levey on April 11, 1930, the founder of CoS famously known as “Anton Szandor LaVey” was a big-time dweeb. A former carnie under the name “The Great Szandor,” a former paranormal investigator, and a former burlesque house organist, LaVey failed at a lot before developing his own religion.
LaVey’s self-declared “Anno Satanas” kicked off in 1966 with the founding of CoS. A black house at 6114 California Street in San Francisco’s Richmond district provided his home and headquarters. The first hint that something was wrong with LaVey came when he named this structure “The Black House.”
That lack of creativity also shows in his wholesale rip-off of the iconoclastic philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, and H.L. Mencken in his codifying of a Satanic belief system. His dishonesty extended to constant lies about and embellishments of his autobiography, including the bizarre claim that he had an affair with Marilyn Monroe. He called himself “The Black Pope” with the same energy as a dude editing his own Wikipedia page that was deleted for violating the notability guideline. He promoted law and order, was anti-drug, and hated rock music. In other words, LaVey was awful.
A portion of the 1993 documentary Speak of the Devil–in which LaVey sought to dispel myths about Satanism in collaboration with director Nick Bougas–really drives home how corny he was. In a re-enactment, LaVey shares the story of his adopted lion Togare, narrating footage of the man-beast duo’s daily routine while pretending to be his own pet. It is horrid.
The video ends with a notice that – following complaints from his neighbors – LaVey gave the lion to The Birds actress Tippi Hedrin in 1967. As I watched the clip, I tried to remember where I had heard of a lion named Togare before, and seeing this text at the end of the segment confirmed for me that LaVey’s former pet would become the star of one of Hollywood's strangest films: Roar, or that goofy family comedy where the actors were subjected to nonstop lion attacks on and off camera. If you have never seen it, consider it a counterweight to the awful footage I just made you watch.
The Satanic Bible
The richest summation of LaVey’s Satanic philosophy came in 1969: The Satanic Bible. In an introduction to the book, CoS leader Peter H. Gilmore describes it as, “A common sense, rational, materialist philosophy, along with theatrical ritual techniques meant as a self-transformative psychodrama.” His description regards the book way too highly. LaVey is more modest about the book’s origins, claiming he’s simply giving a name to tendencies found in human nature. “The basics of Satanism have always existed,” he claims in the book. “The only thing that is new is the formal organization of a religion based on the universal traits of man.” The “organization” the book provides is almost entirely written in colorful language that Darkseid would describe as “too much.”
An example: “The old literature is the by-product of brains festering with fear and defeat, written unknowingly for the assistance of those who really rule the Earth, and who, from their hellish thrones, laugh with noisome mirth. The flames of Hell burn brighter for the kindling supplied by these volumes of hoary misinformation and false prophecy.” LaVey might have a few screws loose, but he writes a solid diss track.
To make it nice and clear what CoS Satanists think about their object of worship, LaVey outlines The Nine Satanic Statements:
1 - Satan represents indulgence, instead of abstinence!
2 - Satan represents vital existence, instead of spiritual pipe dreams!
3 - Satan represents undefiled wisdom, instead of hypocritical self-deceit!
4 - Satan represents kindness to those who deserve it, instead of love wasted on ingrates!
5 - Satan represents vengeance, instead of turning the other cheek!
6 - Satan represents responsibility to the responsible, instead of concern for psychic vampires!
7 - Satan represents man as just another animal, sometimes better, more often worse than those that walk on all-fours, who, because of his “divine spiritual and intellectual development,” has become the most vicious animal of all!
8 - Satan represents all of the so-called sins, as they all lead to physical, mental, or emotional gratification!
9 - Satan has been the best friend the church has ever had as he kept it in business all these years!
A running theme in these statements is an imperative to assert one’s will over others and make one’s desires manifest in the world. As a key tool for making dreams into reality, strength is prized. “Death to the weakling. Wealth to the strong!” is a common refrain for LaVey. Strength frequently yields violent language and metaphors in the text. “Hate your enemies with a whole heart, and if a man smite you on one cheek, SMASH him on the other!; smite him hip and thigh, for self-preservation is the highest law.”
However, LaVey’s basic goal in founding a religion appears to be hedonistic. He declares, “Life is the great indulgence–death, the great abstinence. Therefore, make the most of life–HERE AND NOW!” He loves pleasure as much as he loves caps lock. While it’s good that LaVey’s Satanism is inclusive of all sexual orientations and practices in pursuit of gratification, the reader is left with the strong notion that LaVey only started a religion as a means of getting to have sex. When called out, he basically admits as much.
LaVey promotes sexual pleasure in his writing, but – as is common with no-swag adults – he seems to be dim on women’s sexuality. Someone should have prevented this man from trying to describe female psychology, because he gets real judgy real quick. “It is an established fact that the nymphomaniac (every man’s dream girl and the heroine of all lurid novels) is not sexually free, but is actually frigid and roams from man to man because she is too inhibited to ever find complete sexual release.” Here LaVey is telling on himself by basically proposing that a woman who is disappointed in him must be broken.
(Let's stick a pin in LaVey’s misogyny for a few days, as you’ll see further examples of that when I delve into his approach to Satanic rituals during future installments of the series.)
The one point of LaVey’s philosophy that I dig is the fact that he sees one’s birthday as the highest of all Satanic holidays. As a person who forced his friends to attend elaborate celebrations of his birthday annually for years until I suddenly lost interest in that foolishness the moment I turned 33, I am a fellow traveler with LaVey. I don’t see eye-to-eye with him on much else, though.
The Satanic Temple, Meanwhile, Is Very Different
Formed in response to the evangelical politics of post-9/11 America, TST was founded in 2013 by Lucien Greaves and Malcolm Jarry to organize events protesting calls for Christian prayer in Florida schools. From there, TST executed events and happenings that promoted a separation of church and state in U.S. public life while protesting the encroaching threat of Fundamentalism. To foil attempts to put religious monuments on government property, they maintain an elaborate statue of pagan idol Baphomet that they offer to donate to offending municipalities; since the First Amendment discourages the government from showing a religious preference, both statues must be displayed if one is displayed, often discouraging the public Christianity from taking place.
Check out this judgemental news report discussing the practice from an ABC affiliate in Michigan. Come for the strategic promotion of keeping religion out of government, stay to laugh at newscasters and religious leaders fretting about it in scandalized tones.
For my favorite TST demonstration, look no further than “The Pink Mass.” This was the moment when Lucien Greaves became a personal hero of mine.
TST’s work in the courts has an equally notable impact on the necessary practice of separation of church and state. When the Supreme Court decided in 2014’s Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby Stories, Inc. that business owners are exempt from regulations when they disagree on religious grounds, TST began championing abortion rights as an issue of religious liberty. Conferred in 2019, their 501(c)3 status as an IRS-approved religion allows them to file challenges to restrictive abortion laws on behalf of women seeking to avoid onerous regulations. It makes sense since religions are just basically people with similar enough beliefs who like putting on robes, singing songs, and talking about other people they don’t like. TST basically turns the religious right’s weapons back on them, and their ingenuity in doing so is impressive.
Starr describes the practice of TST members as “open-source religion,” granting practitioners the opportunity to figure out how they can worship in the most fulfilling way possible. TST’s practice is also referred to as “Modern Nontheistic Romantic Satanism” for a few reasons. Let’s break it down:
Modern: Self-explanatory, so enjoy this song from The Modern Lovers.
Nontheistic: One aspect of agreement among TST Satanists is that–contrary to whatever the Louvin Brothers might say–Satan is not real. Their Satan is an allegorical figure seen as the first example of rebellion against corrupt power. According to Greaves, TST members selected Satan as their object of worship because he is “a mythological character who spoke to our values and embodied them.”
Romantic: Writings from Romantic Age authors like William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley heavily inform TST’s conception of Satan. John Milton’s Paradise Lost is usually cited as their key text. It portrays Satan as a debonair, fallen angel who rebels because he sees God as his equal and therefore unworthy to rule over him. In the most quoted line in the epic poem, Satan declares, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”
Satanism: Hail Satan!
LaVey described his beliefs with the Nine Statements, but TST managed to get the same task done with two less tries. Dear Reader, I present you with The Seven Tenets, a series of positive values members of the Temple hold dear:
1 - One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason. Humans are social animals who benefit from collaboration. We should be open to showing care for others as long as no one is harmed in the act.
2 - The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.Within this tenet lay the origins of TST’s interest in social justice. The social contract must be an agreement between the government and the governed. Religious bodies should not provide top-down rule over people, and the courts and politics are the primary means of preventing that from happening.
3 - One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone. People should be in control of their own bodies, full stop. Women should be able to receive abortions or use birth control. Sex workers should be allowed to earn a living whatever way they’d like. Using soft drugs like marijuana should not be stigmatized or criminalized. And all people should be free to embrace their sexual orientations; Greaves has cited that more than 50% of TST’s membership is LGBTQ because members “just don’t f*cking care” about an individual’s sexuality.
4 - The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo one's own. Verbal blasphemy and blasphemous symbols like inverted crosses, pentagrams, and even kissing Satan’s ass are key parts of religious practice
5 - Beliefs should conform to one's best scientific understanding of the world. One should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one's beliefs. Science and reasoning are superior alternatives to religious dogma. In addition, the scientific method is the most powerful way to gain knowledge. This tenet serves as the inspiration for Grey Faction, a sub-organization of TST that works to expose pseudo-science and conspiracy theories related to Satanism.
6 - People are fallible. If one makes a mistake, one should do one's best to rectify it and resolve any harm that might have been caused. This tenet is a strict rebuke of ideas like papal infallibility. Even TST leadership makes oopsies in this paradigm.
7 - Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word. The final tenet basically states that the above tenets are guidelines, not commandments that must be obeyed to the letter. TST members should be guided by what is right and not what was written by ancient dead guys.
Most importantly, TST boasts a characteristic I appreciate in any religion: “a solid no-proselytization guideline.” I sure do hate it when people preach at me, and I like that TST recognizes that. All these aspects and more make TST the more genuinely compelling form of Satanism in my estimation.
But let's turn back the clock a second. As Satanists started to get organized in the 1960s and ‘70s, the religious right rose to oppose them. With Fundamentalists securing civil and political power in the Reagan era of the ‘80s, the reaction would be swift, severe, and bonkers. Join us tomorrow for the Satanic Panic.
You can check out the rest of this series here:
Top image: Marc Nozell/Flickr