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.

Advertisement

Recently watched: “Hail, Satan!”

Next semester, I teach my “Religion in the United States” class, so I’m watching a few documentaries over the break to increase my knowledge and understanding. One of the topics I cover is American Satanism: both The Church of Satan and The Satanic Temple. The value of this particular subunit is that is stretches students to think critically about the concept of “religion”, what counts as “religion”, and what our motives are for labeling something a religion, denying that label, or dismissing a group as a “cult”.

Earlier this year, I read Joseph P. Laycock’s Speak of the Devil: How the Satanic Temple is Changing the Way We Talk About Religion (Oxford: OUP, 2020), which I reviewed on this blog (see “Recently read: Laycock’s ‘Speak of the Devil'”) and highly recommend, and I interviewed Laycock (see “Interview: discussing The Satanic Temple with Dr. Joseph P. Laycock”). Today, I’m watching “Hail, Satan!”. It’s R-rated, so won’t make it into my classroom, but it does get me thinking about something that parallels what another colleague of mine teaches when he has students read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good people are Divided by Politics and Religion. He has them think, based on Haidt’s writings, about why we find certain things immoral and then pushes them to explain it. An example might be incense, which has the “ick!” factor, but is hard for people to explain in terms of morality. Similarly, The Satanic Temple (as highlighted by Laycock in his book and discussed in our interview) causes many people more problems that the earlier founded Church of Satan because (1) The Satanic Temple is almost uniformly non-theistic (i.e. Satan’s valuable as a symbol but isn’t a metaphysical reality) and (2) The Satanic Temple, as the documentary highlights, wants to rectify the wrongs done to people during the “Satanic Panic” by doing widely recognized good deeds (e.g. collecting socks for those in need, especially those who are homeless).

What Laycock covers brilliantly in his book is covered quite well in documentary-style in “Hail, Satan!” This topic is a fascinating exploration of the boundaries of religious freedom, our interpretations of the First Amendment, and related topics. Whether one comes out of this discussion seeing Satanism as a legitimate religion, a mockery of religion, or whatever, the questions raised by The Satanic Temple need to be addressed by our society.

Related, for those interested in the development of the presentation of Satan in the Hebrew Bible, Jewish literature, and the Christian New Testament, see my quick summary of Ryan E. Stokes, Satan: How God’s Executioner Became the Enemy (Eerdmans, 2019): “Recently read: Stokes’ ‘Satan'”. Stokes does an excellent job covering a breadth of literature.

Next up, I plan on watching “I, Pastafari: A Flying Spaghetti Monster Story” which is available on Amazon. It’s 13+ rating means it could make it into circulation for my “Religion in Global Context” class where I introduce Pastafarianism and Dudeism as a way of introducing questions about the boundaries of the word “religion”.

Educating in the Era of COVID-19: Day 20

Today’s focus was lesson planning for my ‘Religion in the United States’ class. This week they’re learning about how religion can go wrong as they become acquainted with Jim Jones and The Peoples Temple and David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. Next week they’ll encounter Heaven’s Gate.

These three groups bring up interesting questions, so the second part of the week, next week, they’ll revisit the debate over whether we can ever use the pejorative ‘cult’ or whether it’s best to follow the example of the academy in using the label ‘new religious movements’. Then I’m asking them to think critically about their understanding of religions and religious freedom by choosing two case studies out of four options.

My students will be able to choose from this list:

  1. Should we tax the Scientologist?

Read the Los Angeles Times Op-Ed by Alex Gibney titled ‘Op=Ed: ‘Going Clear’ filmmaker: Scientology abuses its tax-exempt status’. Once you’ve read the article summarize Gibney’s argument in three sentences and then explain in three sentences why you agree or disagree with him (three beyond just telling me whether your agree or disagree):

2. Should Satanic imagery be allowed to put a statue of Baphomet on public land if other religious groups (e.g., Jews, Christians) are allowed to do so?

Watch Vice News’ video ‘The Satanic Temple’s Protest for First Amendment Rights’ (13:33). Once you’ve watched the video, summarize why a Ten Commandments monument has motivated The Satanic Temple in a single sentence, then explain the rationale for The Satanic Temple’s offer to put up a statue of Baphomet in two sentences, and then in three sentences tell me why you think The Satanic Temple has or doesn’t have a legitimate cause for putting up their statue:

3. Should the IRS have removed The Peoples Temple’s tax-exempt status?

Read the essay ‘To avoid another Jonestown, reform IRS church reporting policy’ by Annie Laurie Gaylor, the co-President and co-Founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Once you’ve read the article, summarize Gaylor’s argument in three sentences and then explain in three sentences why you agree or disagree with him (three beyond just telling me whether your agree or disagree):

4. Should the ATF have changed their approach to the Branch Davidians?

The Department of Treasury and Justice investigated the methods of the ATF and ‘determined that some tactics and decisions were poorly executed; and certain actions by ATF were criticized.  However, the September 1993 U.S. Department of Treasury Administrative Review concluded: “…the agency is made up of dedicated, committed and experienced professionals, who have regularly demonstrated sound judgment and remarkable courage in enforcing the law.  ATF has a history of success in conducting complex investigations and executing dangerous and challenging law enforcement missions.  That fine tradition, together with the line agents’ commitment to the truth and their courage and determination has enabled ATF to provide our country with a safer and more secure nation under law.”’ (Source

The ATF put together a testimonial video called ‘Waco at 25: as they remember it’. Watch the video and summarize why these agents feel they did their job well in three sentences and then explain in three sentences why you agree or disagree with them (three beyond just telling me whether your agree or disagree):

Notably, when my students studied the Scientologists, I emphasized how under the classification system of the IRS, they are considered a religion. Similarly, I point to the same stamp of approval being given to The Satanic Temple but also in my interview with Joseph P. Laycock he made the case for why The Satanic Temple should be considered a religion. When we came to The Peoples Temple, I asked my students if anything could’ve been done to stop what happened, noting that many feel the government didn’t do enough. When we came to the Branch Davidians, I asked my students if anything could’ve been done to stop what happened, noting that many feel the government did too much.

Day 19
Week 4
Week 3
Week 2
Week 1

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.

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: