Serpent

Full Disclosure: Not Talking to the Reverend Joel Ethan about the Church of Satan

Note: This was an interview done last year for Vice, who decided at the last moment not to run it. Out of respect for the interviewer who seemed genuinely interested, and then disappointed, we won’t name names, but it should be noted that journalists working for Vice have often approached us and asked for our time, our efforts, our attention and we’ve graciously responded with whatever we could, only to have them not show up to appointments, flake on guest list RSVPs, and shelve interviews. At this point we are wary of dealing with Vice, and offer our half of the interview here as it may be of interest to readers.

There was a question about how I found the CoS:

Curiosity and luck, mixed with some chance. Long ago I found a copy of ‘The Satanic Bible’ on a friend’s bookshelf and, having coming from a very religious family, was immediately drawn to it. I thumbed through a few pages and was struck by the frankness and common sense of what I was reading. I made a mental note to actually read it and then promptly forgot. Later I received a copy of The Devil’s Notebook as a gift, and devoured it in an evening. I remember thinking Oh, so I’m a Satanist—less of a ‘I want to be this’ and more of ‘I already am this and didn’t know what it was called’ kind of realization. Prior to the Church of Satan, the term “Satanism” was only used as an attack by herd minded religious people and then in 1966 Anton LaVey comes along and uses the label for his atheistic, individualist philosophy. In a way, taking the worst thing someone can say about you and self applying it before they get a chance is pretty disarming, and I thought that was incredible. I picked up his other writings when I could and found them just as inspirational and encouraging. Satanism by definition attracts the people who didn’t fit in elsewhere and I’ve never been much of a joiner and so didn’t even consider signing up at the time. Many years later I realized how much I’d benefitted by incorporating this philosophy into my life, and how hard the Church of Satan had fought to define the term Satanism and spread the ideas and decided to join as my way of paying respects where they were due.

There was a comment noting that we don’t worship Satan, that we embrace ourselves, flaws and all, and a question about how someone with low self esteem might benefit from our perspective:

I should clarify here that we don’t worship anything—we’re atheists. And that’s a great point, because Satanism is directly saying those negative traits are not negative at all. The Nine Satanic Statements lays that out very clearly. For me, I realized very early on that I didn’t really click with most of the kids in school or other social settings, I spent a lot of my childhood feeling like I wasn’t good enough. I’m sure I’m not the only one with that story but when you are in it you feel very alone. LaVey’s writings presented the idea that the things about me others considered flaws were actually my strengths. That my individually was powerful in its own right and I didn’t need to waste time or energy on those I didn’t like, or who didn’t like me. I found the idea of Satan as the ultimate outcast provocative and exciting. Here was a philosophy laying out the argument that I didn’t need to try to fit in, or be ashamed of who I was—contrary to pretty much every other narrative I’d ever encountered—that I was my own god. Satanism embraces the rejected, stands up and screams “Hell yes right we’re outcasts!” and holds up the symbols and ideas that most look down on as its champions. Satanists take pride in who they are, discard all notion of having to live up to someone else’s contrived standards and view not being like everyone else as positive. This was very empowering for me to read and I imagine it might be for others as well. It’s one thing for a friend to tell you it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, it’s another thing entirely for an established philosophy to champion an idea like that.

There was a comment about being different and what “fitting in with the herd” might mean, with an example of being an outsider but still liking something like Sex and the City, and questioning if a Satanist would look down on someone for that. The question was about being different enough, or not:

This is a common misconception usually furthered by people who don’t know what Satanism is but want to use elements of it to shock others or to define a style. In fact there is no one way that a Satanist is “supposed” to be. The exact same thing could be unthinking and banal to one person yet thoughtful and exciting to another. It’s the motivations and cause that are in question. If someone likes Sex and the City for no reason other than that lots of other people do and so therefore they just follow along and like it too, then yes that would be a bit herd-y. But if they like Sex and the City because they relate to the characters, find the story compelling, and like the social commentary woven through it then it really doesn’t matter how many other people like it or not. It’s more about making conscious decisions for yourself first and foremost. The truth is Sex and the City is actually a fantastic example because there’s many Satanic elements to it. The most obvious of course would be Samantha who fully embraces her carnal nature and isn’t ashamed of what others might think of it. In many ways Charlotte embodies some of the Satanic ideas of crafting your own world—she knew the life she wanted and wasn’t going to let other people (Trey’s mother) get in the way of that. And Big punching Petrovsky is the perfect example of Satanists who protect those we love and refuse to turn the other cheek. And that scene made us, the audience all cheer even though “society” might frown upon the concept of revenge—we all knew he had it coming and deserved it. I may have just gone a little too deep into Sex and the City land but I hope you see what I’m getting at even though that is just an example. Being a Satanist means not giving a shit what someone else thinks is thoughtless or banal, but rather finding the things you enjoy and (so long as they are legal and involve only consenting adults) diving deep into them, surrounding yourself with them and enjoying them to the fullest. Being an atheist means accepting that this life is all we have and you only get this one go at it, being a Satanist means you’ve decided to enjoy every bit of it that you can and won’t let anyone else’s notions of what you should or shouldn’t enjoy get in your way. Satanists share a common philosophy about life but other than that are all very different people with individual and often conflicting interests, politics, passions and styles.

There was a comment about lack of aesthetics as one of the Nine Satanic Sins, and asking about how colors or images which might start out a individual, become associated with Satanism, then become embraced by Hot Topic or someone like Bam Margera and then suddenly kids all over the place look the same way, at what point does individual aesthetics blend with herd mentality:

That’s an excellent question but rather multifaceted so let me break it apart a bit and address the separate issues one at at time.

Regarding certain symbols and colors being prominent in Satanism, there are two important things to note here. First, humans are wired for pattern recognition, which is why branding in general works so well—when Anton LaVey created the Church of Satan 50 years ago he picked bold symbols and colors to make an impact, and the fact that people are still attracted to the visuals speaks to just how striking they are in their own right and we can only expect classic, attractive aesthetic elements to continue to find an audience going forward. Secondly, echoing my previous point, there’s no way Satanists are supposed to look. Unlike other religions or subcultures where participants are expected to conform to a style or vibe, Satanists are encouraged to look however they want, in whatever situation they want. To say that same thing from a different perspective, Satanists look like everyone else because they are everyone else. The black clad, pentagram adorned Satanist is a bit of a stereotype which in reality makes up a very small percentage of actual Satanists. Maybe more of those who run in creative circles, less of those in professional ones—which I’ll speak to more in a moment. The reality is that a cross-section of every day society probably tracks more closely to what Satanists look like than any cliched, dramatized depiction.

On Margerafiction, which is now my favorite word of 2016, this brings up a good point which is that style is constantly in flux. What is trendy now is different than what was trendy five years ago and is different than what will be trendy five years from now. That some aesthetics that have been traditionally associated with Satanism have become trendy only confirms that these are powerful visuals that speak to people for one reason or another, and it’s expected that they would come into fashion at some point in time. Ten years ago in 2007’s The Satanic Scriptures, Magus Peter H. Gilmore predicted as much and noted that real Satanists would either outdo the copycats in quality and cut, or move on to something else just as eye-catching that the herds will pick up on years down the line.

In Satanism we have something called Lesser Magic, which is essentially the positioning and presentation a Satanist might use to influence the world around them. People do this subconsciously all the time—someone dressing up to make a good first impression during a job interview or a bartender wearing a low cut shirt in hopes of attracting extra tips would be two obvious examples. Formal language vs casual or slang usage in different situations is yet another. As constant students of the human condition, Satanists take note of these details and their results and use them to their benefit on a regular basis, and fashion plays a huge piece of that in practice. This has been core philosophy since the very beginning: LaVey’s 1971 book The Satanic Witch detailed specific colors that might be used in situations to influence dominant men, and the newest addition to the canon, Johnson’s The Satanic Warlock published just this year lays out the looks of several archetypes that men might employ in certain situations to tilt the scales in their direction. In some situations presenting yourself as the everyman might be more beneficial, whereas other situations might call for a more dignified presence.

Satanists as a whole have no real concern about how trends will impact their personal style because they aren’t locked into anything that can’t be adjusted. Satanists are just as likely to look like punk rockers as they are college professors. A black metal band dressing up in glasses, v-neck sweater vests and khaki pants wouldn’t really pull off the impact they were going for, so they dress the part for the audience to get the reaction they want, and Satanists use the same logic in presenting themselves to the world. It’s a safe assumption that most people who interact with Satanists have no idea with whom they are dealing unless we decide it’s advantageous for us to clue them in.

There were then comments about existentialism and the fear of, when faced with infinite choices, making the wrong one. It was noted that this forces people to accept and know what they actually like, and want which maybe too much for some people who would be quicker to just follow someone else lead. The question was if the freedom of Satanism was ever scary to me, and what I might suggest to others:

Given that existential anxiety is a rather personal thing, experiences might not translate well from one person to another but I assume anyone who actually cares about the output, or results of their actions likely has some level for panic when considering options. For me, I realized, this dread didn’t come so much from having choices as making the right choice—if I only have two choices then I’ve got 50/50 odds of making the right one, which is doable. If I’ve got unlimited choices those odds aren’t stacked so well in my favor and hiding in the corner with a blanket over my head maybe sounds like a better option. As a religion based on rational thought and understanding of the world, Satanism would suggest that those options exist whether you acknowledge them or not, so limiting them in your head is just self deception. But perhaps more important, we say that “Satanism demands study, not worship” which is a way of accepting that none of us have everything all figured out already, and always have room to learn and grow. In this context, that might suggest making the right choice isn’t as important, because even a wrong choice is an opportunity to learn something and improve for next time. Do I like this thing? I don’t know, but I can try it out and see, and if I don’t then I can just move on to something else with a better understanding of who I am and what I like. I think the world would be pretty boring if I already knew everything I liked, so I embrace a philosophy that allows me to discover new things everyday should I choose to. Or not if I don’t. So in many ways the (self inflicted) pressure to always do everything right disappears because there’s no false assumption that we have everything figured out already - we should always be learning and studying the world around us. I found accepting that to be very freeing, and less stressful than mental paralysis over making the right choice every time.

The final question was about part of The Satanic Bible excerpted from the 1890’s text Might Is Right which contained racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and white supremacist statements. The question was about Social Darwinism, hatred of weakness, and how important the notion of not giving a shit about other people was to the CoS. Specifically the ask was if a member of the CoS could still possess and act with social conscience:

That’s correct, one part specifically, the Book Of Satan, borrows heavily from Redbeard’s Might Is Right. This is a practice common to most religious texts, which rather than being solely written by one person are collections and evolutions of earlier works. All belief systems are in some way based on re-framing existing concepts. In building on his ideas, LaVey found useful threads in many places and wove them together to form a cohesive philosophy. He very specifically removed any racist, sexist and anti-semitic parts from anything he included because those didn’t fit with the philosophy he was crafting. LaVey himself had a secular Jewish background and the earliest photos and videos of the church show all races and genders represented, including transgender members in the late 60’s so I think it’s safe to say that the Church of Satan has been a more tolerant and accepting place since its inception than many other religions are to this day. It’s also worth noting that LaVey saw women as incredibly strong which is why he dedicated his entire second book The Satanic Witch to detailing exactly how much more powerful women are than their male counterparts. But to your question specifically, there’s a world of difference between not giving a shit about what others think of you, and not giving a shit about others. As well as a difference between making an observation of how the world works, and advocating for that. For example, you could include texts on gravity in a description of the world without advocating for it, rather simply observing it exists. Point 7 in the Nine Satanic Statements that we’ve already discussed says that “man is just another animal, sometimes better, more often worse than those that walk on all-fours” so applying observations of nature and animals to humanity is perfectly in line with that. Common assumptions about what is weak and what is strong are typically simplistic and erroneous. Nietzsche (in some parts also an inspiration for LaVey) also observed that Nature abhors actual weakness and so to be in harmony with it one must celebrate what has strength, but one must see what that truly is. A reed bending in the wind is stronger than a stiff tree that resists and breaks — it has a sort of tensile strength that is the “right” for survival when powerful winds blow. Satanism is pragmatic, not idealistic, and we recognize that there is far greater strength in a culture that advocates tolerance and diversity since the possibilities for joy and productivity amongst its citizens is a strength that can cultivate intelligence, art and technology. And being our own Gods means each of us choose what benevolence means and where to apply it - as opposed to being forced into something we might not agree with - such as so called “progressive” Christians whose donations to their churches end up funding anti-abortion or anti-lgbt efforts. We reject the idea that humans are selfish to the point of self-destruction unless forced to be otherwise. There are several high ranking church officials involved deeply with human rights and environmental conservation on a global scale - not because they feel obligated to because an imaginary friend told them to or will punish them if they don’t, but because they know the kind of world they want to live and raise children in and choose to invest their time and efforts ensuring a favorable outcome. I think the push for a progressive, individualism supportive society is a clear and common theme in all of the canon works.