Try doing serious scholarly study of the New Age, Satanism, and fringe beliefs and practices in general, and you face significant challenges. In academia as elsewhere, you’re wise to follow the cutting edge if you want anything like job security. Be original, but stick with larger trends, say something useful for and about the majority, and you’ve got a head start on a career. Insist on fringe, and that’s where your career will often stay, languishing, withering and dying a completely predictable death. Professors, advisers, scholarship committees, universities, publishers all imply the same thing, or will tell you outright: “Don’t waste our time, or your mind, on ____ .” I heard this as an undergrad myself.
Why should a Satanist care? Because we can always learn more, because self-knowledge is an admirable Satanic goal, and because another set of comparatively objective eyes on our worldview may reveal insights we ourselves have overlooked, but which we can certainly use.
Add to a problematic subject matter the fact that funding for the humanities has never been generous, and continuing cuts mean scholars of Satanism, like the more visible English majors who attract most of the running jokes, must choose carefully if they’re to pursue their interests as a profession.
It’s no surprise, then: if you’re fortunate enough to actually have institutional support, as doctoral candidate Cimminnee Holt relates in a recent blog post, it’s much easier to study Satanism academically. She notes,
… the support I received was from people who know and interact with me personally—they have witnessed my work ethic, delight in teaching and helping students, involvement with graduate committees and events, and genuine intellectual curiosity. My point is that it’s not accidental support. There was already a certain amount of trust established between me and my department before I entered the PhD programme. This relationship is not circumstantial, but pivotal. It allows me to work independently …
Intriguing! To the extent that Holt captures a generalization about scholars of Satanism, we may note that they start to resemble some of our Satanic ideals: people of an independent streak who perceive that their own nature, identity and integrity may end up carrying them against the flow of mass consciousness, people who can actually identify and invest in worthwhile relationships over time, and people who value the freedom that results from conscious, active choice.
A second reason Satanists should care about scholarly study of Satanism is quite simply that a better-informed public will leave us alone. Fewer Satanic Panics, fewer attempts to indict Satanists for acts ascribed to us by an ignorant public and perpetrated by the mentally ill, or the fringe of our fringe.
Holt acknowledges, however, that even academia can bare its irrational streak. While most of the time her presentations elicit interest, intellectual curiosity and stimulating engagement, sometimes the subject itself sends even supposedly educated folks off the deep end:
At the dozen-or-so conferences at which I have presented a paper on Satanism, wherein I am a stranger to most, I’ve had the odd scholar behave in a combative and hostile manner during the question period, aggressively challenging me because how I describe Satanism directly contradicts their (mis)understanding. In the post-panel conversations, the objections are some version of these three things: LaVey really did believe in the devil; even if he didn’t, Satanism is by default evil and cannot be redefined; or my personal favourite, Satanism is an offensive [italics in original] religion and shouldn’t be studied. This type of scholar appears so repulsed by my topic, they cease all conversation. And once, even, someone refused to sit at the same breakfast table as me, declaring that Satanism was the “enemy of the church” and exposed the cross around their neck as a measure of what I can only assume was protection (against what is unclear, as Satanism does not view other religions as enemies, and instead views them as largely irrelevant—which is, perhaps, the more offensive claim).
Holt’s observations here seem to me to point to several productive directions for research. I know some of these have already been tackled academically, but they still have juice in them:
- How important is belief to definitions of religions like Satanism? Academics and others have already made the distinction between orthodox religions like Christianity, where belief looms larger than practice, and orthopractic religions like Judaism or Islam, where belief, while still important, often yields to praxis or actions. Do atheistic and theistic strands of Satanism differ as much as either observers or practitioners think? How does Satanic belief manifest in practice, and vice-versa? How useful are the categories themselves to an accurate description of Satanism? Is belief truly a tool for Satanists to wield at their pleasure? Is this in fact something new or a long-standing but fringe or underground belief? Is the intentional manipulation of belief the true and only Satanic magic that Satanists have? Is Satanic freedom the central animating myth of Satanism today?
- Can or should Satanism be “redefined” or redefine itself at will? What does the label or category “evil” actually mean for Satanism, as well as for the academic study of Satanism? What could it mean? Is its “evil” in fact of a very culturally specific kind? Does this cultural specificity limit or circumscribe possible futures of Satanisms (plural intentional)? Are Satanism and Christianity co-dependent?!
- If Satanism is “offensive,” how much does LaVey’s old truism still hold — that “Satan has kept the Church in business all these years”? How much does a sense of that offense animate Satanic pride and self-identification?
- To what extent does Holt’s comment “Satanism does not view other religions as enemies, and instead views them as largely irrelevant” stem specifically from the Church of Satan and not from emerging theistic Satanist practice and belief?
- Are any or all of these even the best places to look for ways to study Satanism academically?
I’ll be exploring this further in coming posts.
Image: Modern Satanism.