Book Note: La Carmina’s “The Little Book of Satanism”

La Carmina, The Little Book of Satanism: A Guide to Satanic History, Culture, and Wisdom (Ulysses Press, 2022). (Amazon; Bookshop)

La Carmina “is an award-winning alternative travel/culture/fashion blogger, author of four books, journalist and TV host.” She reached out to me a few weeks ago to ask if I’d be interested in reviewing her new book, The Little Book of Satanism. Of course, I was happy to review it. (And I wasn’t told how I should review it, so everything I say here is my opinion.) On this blog, I’ve reviewed biblical studies scholarship on the development of Satan in the Jewish and Christian Bibles and modern religious studies scholarship on contemporary Satanism. In my “Religion in the United States” class, I teach a lesson on American Satanism. It’s always my goal to represent religious movements as fairly as possible, so reading La Carmina’s book provides me with a resource that explains Satanism from a perspective that practicing Satanists would recognize. If you want to understand Satanism, its history, and what draws people to it, I highly recommend this book.

First of all, it’s short at a little over 130 pages of content. It’s very readable; very accessible to all audiences. You don’t need to know anything about Satanism to jump into it.

After the Forward by Lucien Greaves, one of the co-founders of the Satanic Temple, La Carmina provides a brief history of the development of the figure of Satan, going back to predecessors in, for example, Zoroastrianism and the Hebrew Bible and Satan’s emergence in Judaism and Christianity. La Carmina explores the various names given to the Devil; artistic depictions; and symbols associated with Satan.

Part 2 summarizes how the figure of Satan evolved from the Middle Ages to the present, highlighting the influence of Dante’s Inferno, the concept of exorcisms, and European and North American Witch Hunts. By the end of this section, La Carmina notes on p. 56, “By now, a theme has emerged: it is always ostracized out-groups who are targeted as Satan’s bedfellows.” And this will become part of the motivation of modern Satanists. On p. 61, we read that some of the events in the past (e.g. “the Affair of the Poisons”) have led to many Satanists, “striving to defend reproductive rights and disempowered minorities.” Part 2 continues with a look at John Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost and its influence, as well as other writers who are classified as “Romantic Satanism,” viewing Satan as a rebel against tyranny.

This last part is key. Satan’s “meaning” changes. Rarely Satan is seen through the lens that most Christians see this figure through. It could be argued that while the same word/name is used, as Wittgenstein would show us, the “language-game” isn’t the same. This isn’t to deny the intentionality of the use of the word/name “Satan” but to say “Satan” doesn’t mean to everyone else what it might mean to you!

Part 2 wraps up with a hoax (“the Taxil Hoax”), a couple of groups, and a major figure, Aleister Crawley, who influenced what Satanism would become. Part 3 continues the history of Satanism but with a focus on modernity. We meet groups like the Process Church of the Final Judgement and the Church of Satan (CoS), the latter led by Anton LaVey out of San Francisco, and the group that marks the birth of modern Satanism as we know it. It would seem to me that when most people think of “Satanism” they think of the CoS and “LaVeyan” Satanism, specifically. La Carmina’s exploration will help clear away cartoonish ideas that people may have about LaVey and his movement. Satan’s place in pop culture (e.g. Rosemary’s Baby), association with serial killers in the 1960s, and the Satanic panic round out this era and Part 3.

Part 4 focuses on Satanism in the 21st century. The Satanic Temple (TST), founded in 2013, dominates this section. La Carmina discusses their origin, ideologies, and activism, as well as what makes them a modern religion (e.g. rituals and holidays). For those interested in the trajectory of modern Satanism, this will be the most important chapter. (No offense to the CoS but TST is the most prominent representative of Satanism today!)

The Conclusion glimpses Satanism in a global context, looking at other “dark” figures (e.g. Santa Muerte; Yama) who have received similar veneration, both metaphysical and symbolic, and La Carmina predicts that this new religious movement will continue to spread.

Again, if you’re interested in a fair presentation of modern Satanism, and if you want to know what this movement is about without all the posturing that can occur when Satanism is discussed, this is a great place to begin.

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Recently read: Laycock’s ‘Speak of the Devil’

Joseph P. Laycock, Speak of the Devil: How the Satanic Temple is Changing the Way We Talk About Religion (Oxford: OUP, 2020).

The past two years I’ve taught a class called ‘Religion in the United States’. My broad focus has been the presentation of how Americans have designed, interpreted, and implemented the concept of ‘religion’ in the public square. In some sense, the class could be classified as religious studies, American history, political science, and sociology. Underneath this broad focus, and the variety of subjects of which it could be a subset, is that cherished concept of ‘religious freedom’.

When I teach about ‘religious freedom’, I’m inclined to be positive toward the idea. Religious intolerance hasn’t had a good track record. But I’m also inclined to be disappointed. A cursory examination of American religious history reveals that ‘religious freedom’ has meant, usually, religious freedom for the majority. In this country, that has meant a variety of things—for example, Protestants lorded over Catholics—but it has never meant ‘non-Christians’.

Joseph P. Laycock’s new book Speak of the Devil may seem to some to be argument ad absurdum when it comes to religious freedom. (Why use the Satanists as exemplars?) But in fact, the Satanist may be the most interesting case study available. There’s no religion out there that makes people as uncomfortable with their own claims regarding religious freedom as the Satanists.

When it comes to matters of the separation of church and state, the Satanists confront our presuppositions and expose biases. Do we want ‘prayer in schools’ to include the right of state-employed teachers to lead a prayer? Many Americans might say ‘yes’. But what if the teacher was a Satanist? They’re unlikely to maintain the firm ‘yes’. The most natural side-step is to deny that Satanism is a real religion but then we get into tricky territory of asking who gets to define real religion. The courts may be wrestling with this but the IRS has been clear that Satanism, at least in the form of The Satanic Temple, is a real religion.

In Laycock’s book his main focus is The Satanic Temple, though Chapter 2, ‘Origins and History of The Satanic Temple’, and Chapter 4, ‘The Satanic Reformation’ (and other parts of the book), remind people not only of the influence of Anton LaVey and the Church of Satan, but also of ‘the writings of Romantics such as Blake, Shelley, and Byron’ (p. 88) who represented Satan not as the baddest-baddie but as the rebel with a legitimate cause (with God being the omnipotent, cosmic-bully). These two chapters will help readers see how The Satanic Temple is uniquely Satanist, when contrasted with the more libertarian, Ayn Rand type Satanism of the Church of Satan, but also traditionally Satanist when rooted in the aforementioned presentation of Satan found in the Romantics.

Now, for many of my students, it has been disappointing to hear that Satan is a myth, or a symbol, for most Satanists. In other words, few Satanists believe they are worshipping a real, metaphysical being. This may lead some to think that Satanism is a parody religion rather than a real religion. Laycock addresses this misconception is Chapter 5, ‘Religion or Trolls: How The Satanic Temple is Changing the Way We Talk About Religion’ when he examines The Satanic Temple through the lens of Catherine Albanese’s ‘four c’s’ framework (religion defined as a ‘creed’, a ‘code’, a ‘cultus’, and ‘communities’, all four being possessed by The Satanic Temple). While some theorist argue that a religion must embrace some form of the supernatural (see Christian Smith, Religion: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters), most theorist—including past versions of the Supreme Court of the Unite States—don’t. Therefore, as my students have learned, so readers will see that Satanism qualifies as a religion by most scholarly and legal metrics available.

My favorite chapter in the book is Chapter 6, ‘Satanic Bake Sales: How The Satanic Temple Is Changing the Way We Talk About Evil’. In this chapter, Laycock writes about how Satanists ‘appropriate the discourse of evil’. In other words, they identify with a symbol (Satan) that many equate with evil but they do so in ways that most equate with good—bake sales, charity, care for the poor, defending marginalized groups, etc. These actions scramble our categories of ‘good and evil’ (especially when we see ‘good’ Christians doing terribly oppressive, racist, bigoted things). This chapter will challenge the linguistic, philosophical, and religious ideologies of the reader more than maybe any other chapter in the book.

Anyway, this isn’t a review; just a report. I enjoyed this book. I found it as intellectually stimulating as anything I’ve read in a while. And if you haven’t seen, I had a chance to interview Laycock several days ago. It’s well worth your time but don’t just watch the interview, get the book, and read the book. If you are interested in definitions of ‘religion’, how religion is practiced, questions about ‘religious freedom’, and the like, you’ll find this book is well worth your time.

Educating in the Era of COVID-19: Day 11

This week will be the most unique one since we went to online learning. I’ve asked several scholars and/or religious practitioners if they’d be willing to do interviews with me on topics they research/religions they practice. (This is the beginning of something I hope to do with some frequency, even when we ‘return’ to our ‘new normal’ after this pandemic.) My first interview was great. I talked with Dr. Joseph P. Laycock, assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University, and the author of Speak of the Devil: How the Satanic Temple is Changing the Way We Talk About Religion, about Satanism in the United States and the two predominant groups: The Church of Satan and The Satanic Temple. My students in my ‘Religion in the United States’ class will learn about Satanism next week, so I’m excited to share this interview with them.

Today, I’m interviewing Fr. Kevin R. Daugherty, regarding the Convergence Movement, which brings together aspects of what might be consider Pentecostal spirituality with the liturgical practices found in traditions like Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism. Then I’ll talk with James F. McGrath, the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature from Butler University, about the Christian doctrine of the Ascension.

Otherwise, the routine is taking shape. I upload assignments, meet with students using Google Meet, grade assignments, and do it again. We didn’t try synchronous learning as a response to the pandemic but it does appear likely that my summer school class, ‘The Hebrew Scriptures’, will be online and synchronous in June. So, I’m brainstorming ways to make that a great class in spite of the unfortunate circumstances.

Week 2
Week 1

Interview: discussing The Satanic Temple with Dr. Joseph P. Laycock

In an effort to make the most out of the move to online education, I’ve begun reaching out to scholars and/or religious practitioners to see if they’d be willing to be interviewed about their research and/or beliefs. Since my ‘Religion in the United States’ students are learning about the Scientologist this week and Satanist next week—both being groups that challenge conventional definitions of religion—I thought I’d reach out to Dr. Joseph P. Laycock of Texas State University. Laycock is an assistant professor of religious studies who focuses on new religious movements and American religious history. His newest book, Speak of the Devil: How The Satanic Temple is Changing the Way We Talk About Religion, is excellent. I wanted my students to be able to hear directly from a scholar and I was thrilled that Laycock agreed to participate.

My students will watch this interview as part of their homework next week. But I want to share it now for those who might be interested. As a preview, here are the seven questions I asked him:

  1. Please tell everyone why I’m talking with you about this topic. What do you research and how did Satanism become one of your interests?
  2. One of the first things I tell my students about Satanism—and it’s something that find somewhat surprising—is that most Satanist don’t actually believe that Satan is a real, metaphysical being. Instead, he’s more of a symbol. Can you explain what Satan symbolizes for most Satanists?
  3. I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area, so I’ve known the name ‘Anton LaVey‘ and I’ve known of the Church of Satan (CoS) for years. Can you explain why LaVey and his CoS is important to understanding Satanism in the United States?
  4. In your excellent book, Speak of the Devil: How the Satanic Temple i Changing the Way We Talk about Religion, you focus on a new group of Satanists: The Satanic Temple (TST). Can you explain what TST is and what’s their mission and purpose is?
  5. Last year when I taught my class on American religion, I showed my students the graphic that can be found on TST’s website that juxtaposes their identity with that of the CoS. What would you say is the most important difference or differences between these two groups?
  6. In Chapter 6, ‘Satanic Bake Sales’, you wrote about a fascinating concept. You walk about how Satanists wrestle with the best way to appropriate ‘the inverted order’ or ‘the discourse of evil’. What does this mean and why are these concepts important for understanding TST (or even Satanism in general)?
  7. Some people dismiss TST, and even COS, as ‘fake’ religion or a mockery of religion. My students have read J.Z Smith’s article ‘Religion, Religions, Religious’, so they get the gist of why the word ‘religion’ can be tricky but can you explain why it’s problematic to dismiss TST or COS as a ‘fake’ or ‘mock’ religion?

You can watch the (unedited…because I haven’t developed that skill set yet) interview here:

Educating in the Era of COVID-19: Week 2

Another week in the books. Another day sitting at home. Another opportunity to worry less about whether we’ll resume this school year and to worry more about whether next school year will be delayed. I’m handling the anxiety of the pandemic well but I worry for those who aren’t. I worry about my students who can easily fall through the cracks if we don’t keep up with them day-to-day. I worry about the financial stability of my government, employer, family-members, friends. But overall, all things considered, I’m doing good.

Next week should be a good one. I’m interviewing several scholars and practitioners about their work including Joseph Laycock (Satanism), Kevin R. Daugherty (the ‘Convergence’ Movement, i.e, liturgical Pentecostals), and James McGrath (the doctrine of the ascension). A few others are being lined up or have been lined up for the weeks ahead. I’ll share my interviews here will permission.

Day 9
Day 8
Day 7
Day 6
Week 1