February 17, 2014

Satanism: The Next Dangerous Idea

Satan
Satan, as drawn by Gustave Doré, in John Milton's Paradise Lost.
Many religious believers have viewed atheism as a dangerous idea for as long as there have been religious believers. While there have certainly been exceptions, many religious individuals have discouraged others from seriously considering atheism. They perceive it as a threat to their worldview, their privileged status in society, and perhaps even to their eternal souls. They would prefer that their children never hear of atheism, as they fear it may have a corrupting influence. Atheists should remain silent, know their place, and keep their doubts to themselves. Religious believers should not be curious about atheism; they should steer clear of it.

To some degree, the perception of atheism as a dangerous idea may be starting to change. We atheists have made it clear that we are not willing to remain silent; we are speaking out. Thanks to a number of books about atheism and the availability of atheist-oriented material on the Internet, it has become much easier for people to encounter atheism. Someone who is curious about atheism can find many great atheist websites, blogs, podcasts, and videos in mere seconds. The genie is out of the bottle. While many religious fundamentalists continue to see themselves as being at war with atheism, secularism, and much of the modern world, some religious moderates have shown signs of growth in their willingness to acknowledge that atheists exist and have the right to express ourselves.

Unfortunately, there is at least one other dangerous idea, one that actually seems capable of uniting many religious believers and many atheists in opposition to it. They do not want to acknowledge it, remain largely ignorant about it, spread misinformation about it, demonize its adherents, and seek to silence them. Much like used to be the case for atheism, this idea should not be explored or discussed. What idea is so dangerous that it could possibly unite many religious believers and many atheists in this way? Satanism.

For many religious believers, Satanism is the real enemy. Much of their opposition to atheism may even be due to their assumption that anyone who does not share their god-belief must be a Satanist. And since both theistic Satanists and non-theistic Satanists reject many aspects of religious traditions and oppose the monotheistic god, it makes some sense that many Christians, Jews, and Muslims would perceive Satanists as enemies of sorts. The theistic Satanists may share their god belief but choose to worship an alternative figure. The atheistic Satanists do not share their god-belief and are often anti-thestic. I'm not addressing the issue of whether religious believers are correct (or incorrect) to view Satanism as dangerous; I'm merely suggesting that the fact that many of them do is understandable.

I have a more difficult time understanding why so many atheists seem to regard Satanism as a dangerous idea. The primary arguments I have heard in defense of this viewpoint are as follows:
  1. Religious believers keep linking atheism and Satanism, so we atheists must distance ourselves from Satanism as much as possible in order to improve our public image and gain social acceptance.
  2. Satanism is silly, stupid, or [insert other petty insult of your choice].
  3. Satanists worship the Satan, and this makes them no better than religious believers who worship gods.
I do not find any of these arguments to be even remotely compelling. The first is the one you are most likely to hear from more knowledgeable atheists, and this is part of why it has always bugged me. It seems manipulative and reminds me of how some members of minority groups have become bigots once they gain a little status, willingly transitioning from persecuted to persecutor without recognizing the hypocrisy. Sure, we'll join the majority in trashing someone else in exchange for a few more scraps from the table! No thanks.

I'm also not a fan of the notion that we should suppress ideas which may lead others to form inaccurate impressions of us. This is not how education is supposed to work. I cannot reconcile such an approach with freethought, and I'd rather tackle the inaccurate impressions directly.

The second argument isn't really much of an argument at all, but I can imagine that it could be relevant if someone was going around trying to convince atheists that they should become Satanists. In such a scenario, I could certainly imagine an atheist saying, "No thanks, I think that stuff is silly." That would be a perfectly acceptable response. Aside from that, I'm not sure how this argument is even relevant to whether Satanism should be actively discouraged or suppressed. I'm also not sure who is going around trying to convince atheists to be Satanists.

The third argument is the one I am most embarrassed to hear from atheists because it is based on simple ignorance. Some Satanists do indeed believe in god(s) and worship Satan (i.e., theistic Satanists). Their numbers appear to be tiny in comparison with the Satanists who are atheists and who neither believe in gods nor worship Satan (i.e., atheistic Satanists). Contemporary organized Satanism appears to be predominately atheistic. These atheistic Satanists are no more likely to worship a literal Satan than you are. Like you, they do not believe in any sort of literal Satan. And so this third argument reflects ignorance of Satanism and suggests that the person speaking has not bothered to invest even a little effort in understanding the subject.

I have received a fair amount of criticism for writing about Satanism from time-to-time, and most of it has come from other atheists. But like any other subject I write about, I write about it because I find it interesting. As a freethinker, I reject the notion of dangerous ideas. I'm not willing to set certain topics aside and try to prevent others from exploring them if I would otherwise have an interest in doing so. For centuries, atheism was a dangerous idea. Now that this is slowly starting to change, I am not eager to see some atheists going along with religious believers in the perspective that Satanism should remain a dangerous idea.

This post was inspired by the Angry Atheist's interview with Lucien Greaves. Greaves is the spokesman for The Satanic Temple, which you may remember from their recent efforts to erect a statue in Florida and a holiday display in Florida.

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