4 Ways America's Satanic Panic Never Really Ended
Like any compelling, original idea, Satanism has survived to contemporary times in forms that have shifted and changed to fit into the zeitgeist. Like most ideas in contemporary times, Satanism has been absorbed into the public discourse in ways that are sometimes fascinating (but usually super-depressing) reflections of The Way We Live Today.
Rise of the Nones
In recent years, the Salem-based organization The Satanic Temple has claimed exponential growth, reaching membership levels of more than 300,000 congregants in its 9 years of existence. How have their ranks swelled to such a degree so rapidly?
One answer is that America’s increasing secularization is encouraging people to seek alternatives to traditional religion. Pew Polling tracks the number of “nones” – those with no religious affiliation – in America. That number went from 16% of those surveyed in 2007 to 29% in the most recent results released in December 2021. In addition, the survey found that, “Roughly one-third of U.S. adults (32%) now say they seldom or never pray, up from 18% who said this in 2007.” While the majority religion of the U.S. is still Christianity, more and more individuals are turning away from popular religion, and new means of understanding spirituality like TST appeal to them.
For the unfaithful, the place in their lives normally filled by religion is occupied by friends and family, as 80% and 78% of respondents respectively answered in a 2019 Vox First Person and Morning Consult poll. With the increasing political polarization of recent years, tribal political identities might also have taken the place of religion. We will know if that’s accurate when and if priests start assigning “10 ‘Our Father’s and 15 ‘Own the Libtards'" as penance in confession.
Secularism has created fertile ground in which Satanism can thrive, but – sadly – it’s also given Americans an opportunity to embrace pursuits more nonsensical than Christianity.
Crypto Boosterism: The New Cult of Mammon?
Since nothing is more American than being obsessed with money, the boosterism behind cryptocurrency – fueled by the zealousness of “crypto bros” – has become its own kind of religion over the past 15 years. Satoshi Nakamoto – a pseudonym which might represent multiple people – published the whitepaper “Bitcoin: A Peer to Peer Electronic Cash System” in 2008 and mined the first coin in 2009. The concept of cryptocurrency was largely ignored until the online black market space Silk Road went into operation in 2011 with the need for less traceable currency. From there, cryptocurrency has taken off to the point where it is a $2 trillion industry, with El Salvador adopting bitcoin as its official currency in 2021 (and thus earning the dubious distinction of “first nation to wholeheartedly link its fortunes to what is likely a colossal grift”).
The fervor that some supporters have for cryptocurrency has encouraged some outsiders to think of crypto bros as a cult. While their reach is significantly wider than most cults (As of April 2021, 14% of the U.S. population owns bitcoin), they require the dominant system of traditional currencies to collapse in order to succeed, giving them the sheen of a group obsessing over the apocalypse. Message boards for cryptocurrency supporters often promote magical thinking that avoids all criticism since bad news or doubt about currency’s future is linked to a loss of potential value. In this form of zero-sum capitalism, crypto bros live in a world where everyone who has bought into the system will be rich and everyone outside of it should (as a popular meme goes) “have fun staying poor.”
Although those who hold cryptocurrency see their potential wealth as going “to the moon,” crypto insiders like Dogecoin founder Jackson Palmer have explicitly labeled cryptocurrency fandom as a “get rich quick cult” to “extract money from the desperate and naive.” Creators like Palmer would stand to benefit from continuing to pretend that cryptocurrency is a panacea for ills like inequitable banking access and racist financial policies. The fact that he has turned his back on this “cult” goes to show that cryptomania is no true counterpart of religion, because at least the latter requires a system of morality.
In an odd connection to Satanism, the excitement and enthusiasm of the crypto bro community is often compared to another group helping to drive a modern version of the Satanic Panic. As software engineer Stephen Diehl explains, “Both have doctrine passed down by a mysterious unknown founder, puzzle-solving, and internet meme culture and lots of predictions about politics/economics that are completely unfalsifiable. They’re both rooted in this ideology that claims to oppose a common enemy: corruption and untrustworthy intermediaries, and both see the internet as the way to finally eradicate those problems in some great apocalyptic event.”
And with that, it’s time to talk about QAnon.
When “Trusting the Plan” Makes You Act Like a Dumbass
I’ve had to encounter some pretty sad subjects in writing a series about Satanism in America. I read that fear of Satan and witches led to religious persecution being intimately entwined in the fabric of American religion. I learned about how the Satanic Panic actively ruined lives for no other reason than ignorance. I had to talk about Anton LaVey’s whole “low-testosterone dungeon master” persona in not one but two articles.
However, the saddest part of this entire series has been wondering how much I’d have to explain to the reader regarding QAnon. If you know about this, you’re either a sad bastard like me who wants to actively follow our country circling the drain of paranoia or you’re a true believer who is certain (absolutely certain) that Jewish space lasers and Black Lives Matter are doing critical race theory to our children. There are no winners when we acknowledge QAnon’s existence, but it must be done since they’re never going away.
QAnon stemmed from posts from the user “Q Clearance Patriot” on online message board 4chan. This poster claimed to be a government insider named Q who shared cryptic dispatches reigniting Satanic Panic-era fears of Satanic Ritual Abuse against children. However, stoned metalheads and put-upon preschool workers aren’t the focus of QAnon ire; they claim that political, business, and entertainment elites are actively abusing children, often citing the ludicrous statistic that 916 children are trafficked for Satanic purposes every hour. Their evidence is either “baked” – a term meaning fabricated and promoted through the power of belief – or the lack of evidence is used as proof of a powerful conspiracy. Recently these sentiments have been mainstreamed through the #SavetheChildren movement, a foolproof means of defending against criticism since disagreement looks like apathy to children’s suffering.
The entire QAnon philosophy is rife with the greatest hits of conspiracy theory. Beliefs about organized organ harvesting date back to medieval texts accusing Jewish people of using Christian children’s blood in rituals. Similarly, QAnon adherents believe that part of Satanic Ritual Abuse stems from elites’ need to harvest adrenochrome from the bodies of children; adrenochrome is a substance readily available online that prevents bloodclotting but does not cause you to live forever or hallucinate as these nutjobs claim. Key figures in QAnon’s theories like the Rothschild dynasty and George Soros nod to the anti-Jewish sentiment in the DNA of these claims.
In this system, Q is a prophet, but President Donald Trump is god. all of his incompetence during his four-year presidency (and there was a lot of it in case you forgot) is “4D chess” meant to provide cover for his war against Satanic pedophiles. The central dogma is that Trump is conducting an investigation that will lead to child sex traffickers and Satan worshippers being arrested en masse. Honestly, their belief that Trump could accomplish anything without being a white guy born into wealth is the truest sign of their delusion.
American Notions of the Antichrist
While QAnon may label Trump a savior of kidnapped children and a brilliant tactician, another epithet sometimes directed toward Trump offers an additional lens through which the general American public discusses Satan. Along with countless other public figures, Trump has been discussed as the antichrist.
The naming of the antichrist is – according to scholar Robert Fuller Jr. – a uniquely American obsession that started around the turn of the 20th century. The devastation of the two World Wars and the return of the Jewish people to Israel made religious dimwits think the Apocalypse was at hand. In Christian lore, the antichrist is the son of Satan just like Jesus is the son of God. As the end of the world approaches, the antichrist will rise to power as a charismatic leader promoting one world government. Following the Rapture, he will lead the world into the second coming and armageddon. After delving deeply into QAnon, I have to admit that Armageddon sounds pretty appealing to me.
The antichrist plays a role in American culture pretty similar to that of Satan. The existence of an antichrist provides America with innocence by showing that everything bad that happens in the country is someone else’s fault. As Fuller notes, the antichrist is often the other; “Jews, labor unions, blacks, socialists, Catholics, and liberal government leaders” have all been accused of playing the part in the past. Politicians are often favorites for accusations of being the antichrist; in the past, JFK, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump have all been accused, which is the only time they’d be said to hold something in common.
As a side note, do you remember when it was shocking (and not just taken as a given) that 13% of the country thought Obama was the antichrist?
A particular obsession of those focused on the antichrist is identifying the Mark of the Beast. In the Bible’s Book of Revelation, readers are warned against one figure described as both “the beast from the earth” and “the beast from the sea” whose mark is the number 666. While the mark has in the past been described as a barcode or a microchip, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a new and more insane interpretation. Some evangelicals describe the COVID vaccine as the mark, citing the biblical description that “no man may buy or sell” without the mark. Thanks to the brain-rot merchants at Fox News and OANN, that equates to a vaccine passport that allows entry to business. Pastors often dispel links between the vaccine and the mark of the beast by noting that the mark must be willingly accepted and not administered through subterfuge. This is disturbing because it doesn’t acknowledge that the real problem is believing that the antichrist, the mark of the beast, and other superstitious B.S. are valid.
Y’all, this article has me way too depressed to end this section with a succinct verbal button. Just enjoy “The Number of the Beast” by Iron Maiden while I drink bourbon and rally to finish this:
I want to end this series on a light note by sharing one of my favorite appearances of Satan in my most treasured medium: comic books.
There are lots of examples of Satan in comics. Mike Mignola’s Hellboy is the most popular direct visual reference, but mainstream comics also borrow Satanic imagery with characters like Ghost Rider and Daredevil. In a graphic medium, Satan is almost always going to be literal. No two ways around it. So whenever Lucifer appears in comics, we’re most often going to be looking at a red dragon-goat-looking dude growling and spewing fire.
My favorite literal interpretation of Satan comes in the long-running Image Comics series Savage Dragon. For almost 30 years, Erik Larsen has continued to put this comic out on a (kind of) monthly schedule with his own writing and art. The book focuses on Dragon, a finned, green amnesiac who ages in real time, joins the Chicago PD, becomes a government superhero, visits other multiversal dimensions, destroys other multiversal dimensions, and dies more frequently than I care to remember.
One of those deaths provides a tale for the atheists and agnostics among us. In Savage Dragon 31, an enemy sells her soul to the devil to have Dragon likewise condemned to hell. Within the first two pages, a butt-ass-naked Dragon bites off his archnemesis’ finger and spits it with such force that it blows a hole through his head. Like most things that happen in Savage Dragon, it answers the question, “What if Jack Kirby, but with gore and boobs?”
At one point, the devil shows up to fight God for souls. Satan kicks God in the nards, but ultimately gets his ass whooped by the Almighty, who declares, “Don’t f*** with God!” In the letters page, Larsen describes this fight as Satan and God’s “first major funnybook brawl.” I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s certainly the most badass.
From the beginning, Dragon isn't having any of it. “I’d like to thank you both for contributing to the most vivid dream I’ve ever had,” he taunts. “It was an outstanding job, really. You couldn’t have been more thorough. This hell is really hellish.” Dragon is in the middle of a battle between forces with the power to create and destroy worlds, and he denies them the power of even admitting that they exist. If we could all engage matters of religion in general and Satanism in particular with Dragon’s amused detachment, we could avoid all manner of persecution, panic, and violence. As in all matters, the world would be so much better if we all just read Savage Dragon comics instead.
You can check out the rest of this series here:
Top image: JessicaGirvan/Shutterstock