December 14, 2009

What Atheists Could Learn From Satanists

Baphosimb.gifEnough procrastinating! It is time for the third part of my series on atheism and Satanism. In the first part, I tried to clarify some of the more common misconceptions about Satanism, making sure we could start with a common reference point. The second part dealt with the relationship of Satanism to atheism and also to anti-theism. In this part, I'll examine the question of whether Satanism offers any lessons for atheists.

I suppose I already tipped my hand in one of the previous posts in this series by stating that I would "even make the shocking suggestion that we atheists could learn something from the Satanists." While this remains true, I am by no means suggesting that atheists should embrace Satanism.

In a way, it makes sense to think of a (LeVeyan) Satanist as an atheist who is intensely anti-theistic and has embraced the power of confrontational imagery and ritual (Note: Again, I am referring to the Church of Satan variety of Satanism in this series). The Satanist has embraced the power of symbolism, aesthetics, confrontational imagery, and ritual. While many atheists bristle at the very idea of ritual, the Satanist has recognized that many people seek the community and ritualism offered by organized religion. Rather than encouraging people to simply ignore these needs, Satanists provide an alternative. Could there be lessons here for atheists?

The Power of Ritual and Ceremony

One lesson concerns the power of ritual. Many people, including many atheists, appreciate ritual and ceremony. Try watching military ritual with which you are unfamiliar. I don't know about you, but I certainly appreciate the beauty and power of it even if I cannot pretend I understand it completely.

By refusing to acknowledge the role of ritual and ceremony, we let a fairly common benefit of religion go unmet in our community. Many ex-Christian atheists miss this and report that it is one of the things that make them still want to attend church periodically. Satanists, whatever else we may think about them, have learned how to use ritual to meet these needs quite effectively.

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Satanists use ritual strategically to bond members together, helping them feel that they are part of something. Do some Satanists actually believe that their rituals are somehow magic? Perhaps, but this does not appear to be a necessary or even particular common belief.

If you think that all atheists are opposed to ritual, I'll merely mention the growing popularity of atheist de-baptism rituals. Many people hunger for this sort of thing, and it is quite possible that the atheist movement has been wrong to resist it for so long.

Church and Community

I am one of these atheists who would rather be punched in the face than set foot in a Christian church. I'll admit that some of what I've heard about the Unitarian Universalists sounds appealing (especially the promise of atheist women), but I cannot get past the church aspect. Even if it is a very different sort of church, I have a strongly negative reaction to the thought of anything even remotely like church. But I realize all too well that this places me in a small minority even within the atheist community.

Satanists recognize the importance of community in a way that many atheists have been slow to embrace. Rather than traditional churches, they tend to hold informal gatherings at each others' homes. Obviously, this form of organization and community would be quite easy for any group to utilize. I'd be willing to bet that you've heard of atheists holding solstice parties. Satanists do the same thing.

Granted, I see more atheists coming together to experience community now than I used to. But there still seems to be considerable resistance among our ranks to even admitting that community is a good thing. Virtually all successful groups and movements have figured out how to do this. I'm not sure we are really that different.

Embracing Anti-Theism

anton-lavey-black.jpgSatanists are vehemently anti-theistic and seem to have few qualms about admitting it. It seems to me that many atheists share the anti-theistic sentiment but conceal it because they are afraid of being labelled intolerant. I can tell you that this is something with which I have struggled for some time. I won't pretend to have resolved the struggle completely, but I do tend to see it a bit differently than I used to.

When accused of intolerance toward theism, I am fairly quick to respond with some version of the following:
Damn right I'm intolerant of religion! I'm also intolerant of rape, child sexual abuse, racism, torture, and a whole host of other social ills.
When the accuser protests that these aren't equivalent, I take that as an invitation to teach them about the effects of religion. The point is simply that we've hidden for long enough and all it has accomplished is enabling religious atrocities. I think the Satanists have the right idea by embracing anti-theism. The stakes are too high to hold our tongues.

Why I Am Not A Satanist

This is somewhat difficult to answer as briefly as I want to here. There are many reasons, and each is more complex than the reasons I would offer to explain why I am not a Christian. The short version is that I am not a Satanist because I do not find the additional trappings that distinguish Satanism from atheism to be necessary for my happiness or my efficacy as an opponent of religion. I am an atheist, an anti-theistic atheist even. However, I am open to learning what I can from others with similar goals.

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