Will the real satanists please stand up
In another post I commented on the recent school killing in Krugersdorp, where a pupil killed a fellow pupil with a “Samurai sword”. Several media reports of the incident mentioned “satanism”, and some newspaper headlines and placards featured “Satanism” quite prominently.
If one reads the reports, however, the “satanism” aspect of the stories seemed to evaporate into vagueness, and the use of the term in headlines was merely media hype to sell newspapers. While one expects such things from the Daily Sun of “Zombie stole my soap” fame, even quite respectable newspapers were splashing the “satanism” angle on the Krugersdorp killing story.
One commenter on the original post said that most South Africans are clueless about what LaVeyan Satanism is really about. That’s probably quite true, but is also irrelevant, since, to be fair, none of the media reports that I saw had mentioned :LaVeyan Satanism at all. Perhaps I’m also one of the clueless ones, since, to my knowledge, LaVeyan Satanism started as a kind of parody religion, like Kibology, or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I was interested to see that the Wikipedia article on parody religions doesn’t mention La Veyan Satanism, so perhaps they take themselves more seriously nowadays, but I was interested in the implication in the comment that LaVey, who co-opted the term “satanism” for his religion, had somehow also acquired a kind of copyright on it. Though Anton LaVey was the founder of the Church of Satan, the claim that he was the founder of “Satanism” is rather far-fetched, since the term was in use long before he was born. It’s a bit like the American firm that claimed copyright on the term “rooibos tea”. It is one thing for people to complain when trade names, like Xerox and Kleenex, slide towards becoming generic terms, but quite another when they lay claim to generic terms as if they had copyright on them.
Satan is a figure in Christian mythology and theology, and, to some extent, in Jewish and Islamic theology as well, though I’m not sufficiently familiar with their teachings to say with any certaintry how he is regarded in those religions. But the Christian understanding is fairly clear. To begin with “the satan” is a noun rather than a name, and refers to a legal official, one who brings an accusation in a court of law. The word “satan” means “accuser”, as does the Greek “diavolos”, from which the English word “devil” is derived. In modern legal systems the nearest equivalent is the Public Prosecutor. The primary function of the satan is to accuse people of crimes, and in Christian narratives he does this in the heavenly court (see Job 1-2 and Zechariah 3).
To cut a long story short, in the Christian narrative, Satan is an angel, an employee, who coveted the judge’s job, and led a rebellion, in part because he thought the judge (God) was too soft on criminals. He was a martinet for God’s justice, but overlooked God’s mercy. He overreached himself when he demanded (and got) the death penalty for God’s only sinless son, Jesus Christ. In the lowest court, before Annas and Caiaphas, he got a guilty verdict, which was confirmed in the High Court before Pilate, but in the supreme court of appeal (in heaven, not in Bloemfontein) the verdict was thrown out, and the sentence reversed (by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead) and Satan, in addition to losing his case, lost his job, and was thrown out of court by Michael, the heavenly bouncer-in-chief (Rev 12). As a result “there is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”, “for the accuser of our brethren has been cast down”.
There’s more to it than this of course, and this is a very much over-simplified, not to say simplistic account. But basically for Christians the satan is an ambitious public prosecutor who tried to usurp the judge’s job, whose operating principle was that it is better for the innocent to be punished than that the guilty should escape. For Satanists (of the ordinary, not the LaVeyan variety) he is seen as a figure of power. Those whose ambition (like that of the satan) exceeds their integrity have seen him as one who can help them achieve their ambitions, and that is basically what satanists are.
If LaVey’s followers want to call themselves “Satanists”, they are free to do so in a society that has freedom of religion, but that doesn’t overrule the earlier use of the term. If a group wanted to start a “Church of the Serial Killer” they would be free to do so, but then they shouldn’t claim that their religion is being slandered when multiple murderers who are not members are referred to as “serial killers”.