Satanism is a broad spiritual tradition, commonly described by practitioners as antinomian and left hand path, which includes many variations on a few central themes. Modern Satanism draws its philosophy almost exclusively from the Church of Satan formed by Anton LaVey in 1966 in San Francisco and has almost nothing in common with historic forms of Satanism such as the medieval Middle Eastern cults of Shaitan, Ahriman, and Melek Taus or the Renaissance period hellfire clubs and black masses.
The Church of Satan draws heavily from Aleister Crowley and is largely atheist, hedonist, and nihilist. Because they believe in nothing, neither an afterlife nor any kind of higher spiritual power, there is a strong focus on enjoying the present moment and personal empowerment. In practice they are often highly individualistic to the point of selfishness and can take hedonism to an unhealthy extreme. They also make a fundamental misunderstanding of Crowley's philosophy of Do What Thou Wilt, to mean "do whatever you want".
The Temple of Set was founded in 1975 as a more spiritual counterpoint to the Church of Satan, focusing on self discipline and individual spiritual practice to lead to a personal evolution they call Xeper. Satan is taken as a literal being they call Set and equated with the force of "spiritual dissent" and antinomian power which has existed throughout human history in a number of different guises or "deific masks". Set is seen as a spiritual guide to lead one on the quest toward Xeper rather than a god to be worshipped.
Satanism post 2000 takes influence from both but is largely divided into a more atheist faction and a more spiritual faction. All seem to be plagued by fuzzy thinking, a tendency to copy each other and misappropriate concepts from other religious philosophies without understanding the nuances, and a deep misunderstanding of the fundamental nature of reality.
Apart from a few fringe groups such as the Order of Nine Angels, modern Satanism eschews violence and the caricatures of Satanism that have been offered by the media such as human sacrifice. At their best they have a valuable message about rejecting conventional morality and obedience for obedience sake, thinking for oneself, personal evolution, spiritual alchemy, and truly reflect an antinomian spirit. However too often they fall into superficialities, breaking the rules for the sake of breaking the rules, regurgitating the thoughts of others instead of truly thinking for themselves, and falling in love with their own mystique of the lone black magician dressed in a hooded black robe performing "forbidden" rites.
Because Satanism is an offshoot of a larger occult and pagan movement which emerged from groups such as the OTO, Golden Dawn, Theosophy and organized witchcraft in the early part of the 20th century, there are a lot of common practices, language, and symbology shared between them. However modern Satanists have an unfortunate tendency to either misunderstand the terminology of their predecessors or else redefine the terms without explaining the new meaning. Broad terms such as black magic, antinomian, left hand path, as well as more specific terms such as Goetia and Qlippoth are used in myriad different ways by different authors combining into a mish-mash of confusion.
For example there is a strong focus on "attaining godhood" promulgated by several groups. However none of them offer an example of a "living god" or truly explain what this means, so it comes off as a meaningless catchphrase. Much of this comes from the Temple of Set and its focus on Xeper in the form of spiritual evolution, which could be considered a path to godhood, but the original concept seems to have been lost and distorted along the way. Other distortions abound. The "annihilation of the self" is another concept that gets floated around frequently in the context of the right hand path of light and "uniting with God" as contrasted with the dark left hand satanic path of self empowerment. This is such a confused tangle of half understood concepts it's difficult to know where to begin untangling it.
If "the church" and organized religion is taken to be the "right hand path" they are rebelling against, where in the Bible or any church teaching does it talk about "uniting with God" or "annihilation of the self"? What does that even mean? These satanic groups seem to be standing in opposition to a strawman they themselves created. The only mainstream religious traditions which talk about uniting with God are Buddhism and Hinduism, both of which are much more closely aligned with the left hand path than Christianity. Does uniting with God equal "annihilation of the self"? On what basis would such a claim be made? There seems to be some type of conflation of ideas. Self negation in the form of social conformity following rules handed down by men who claimed to be following God's will is conflated with actually following God's will and thus seeking to "unite" with God? The train of logic is too tortured for me to follow.
Another thing which is never really explained is what is the difference between a Satanist using a magic ritual to invoke Satan, Lucifer, Set, Samael or some other "dark" god and an ordinary pagan doing a magic ritual to invoke Lugh, Diana, Mercury, Horus or some other "light" god? Or even a Christian praying to Jesus or a Jew to Yahweh? What is it that makes one left hand and self empowering and the other right hand and self annihilating?
The central concept of the black brotherhood of the black lodge, that union with God/Goddess is annihilation of the self is a lie, an assumption that the individual and God cannot both exist simultaneously, an assumption made by those who lack the courage to explore outside their own limited ego. If they had, they would have discovered that the ego, the limited self, is an illusion of perspective, much like the horizon, and the truth is that Self is unlimited. The boundary between self and God, ego, cannot be defined because it doesn't exist as anything other than a trick of perception. The truth is that in union with God/Goddess, the individual loses nothing and gains everything. The 1st law of thermodynamics holds true in the spiritual world. Consciousness can neither be created nor destroyed, but only change forms. The wave-particle paradox of quantum mechanics likewise holds true in the spiritual realm. Consciousness can exist in a superposition encompassing both an individual form and a collective form simultaneously.
A great deal of modern Satanism seems to revolve around cultivating a certain aesthetic: erudite, cultured, iconoclastic, undogmatic pursuers of knowledge, and liberation from the shackles of religion along with a penchant for the color black. In many ways modern Satanism is simply an aesthetic masquerading as a spiritual philosophy with a great deal of focus on darkness, gothic style, skulls, graveyards, and all things "spooky". For some it becomes an illusion, a game of dress up where they can show off to one another and try to impress one another by using obscure occult terminology and talk of summoning demons in graveyards or other taboo acts. For others it is an escape from a mundane reality where they are powerless into a fantasy world where they are a powerful black magician commanding an army of demons. For others it is a path to fame and fortune, publishing books and youtube videos to create an army of followers they can convert into a revenue stream based on selling others access to "forbidden knowledge" and occult secrets.
There is also a fascination with Goetia and Qlippoth. Both of these have the cachet of dark "forbidden magic" which modern Satanists seem to find so appealing because earlier traditions of ceremonial magic and witchcraft advised against such practices, with good reason. Among modern satanic groups Goetia is frequently described as summoning of demons to perform service to the magician or to grant him some "dark knowledge". This is in line with the language of the original grimoires from which the practice originates, and is especially appealing to the type of misfit outsider that turns up so often in occult groups of all stripes. Rejected by mainstream society he (almost always male) seeks self validation by becoming a black magician with access to magical power to summon demons, smite enemies, win material rewards, and gain the social validation of a peer group of likewise self styled magicians.
A more sophisticated understanding of Goetia and demons is presented by Luciferian, Michael Ford, who draws from earlier work on the subject by psychologist/magician Christopher Hyatt and some chaos magic writers such as Phil Hine. He presents goetic demons as subsumed or repressed aspects of the human psyche, Jung's "shadow", that part of us which, being socially unacceptable, therefore is denied and rejected. This in turn draws from an earlier Buddhist tradition of Chod, which teaches compassion for the demons of the world and within oneself. This is a valid path to self-knowledge and understanding, leading to a healthier and more integrated self. On the magical path, self knowledge is the true quest.
The Qlippoth is the Hebrew hell. The term comes from Qabalah and refers to God's first attempt at creation which was unstable and broke apart. Modern Satanists present this as simply a "dark" tree of life, drawing from Kenneth Grant's body of work in which he imagined the Qlippoth as the "nightside" tree of life accessible through the not-sephiroth of Da'ath. This is based on a misunderstanding of the tree of life, which already contains balanced forces of light and dark and is in no need of a shadow or night side.
Modern Satanists present the Qlippoth as some mystical shadow world which a magician can visit through astral travel, guided visualization, or self-hypnotic pathworking to gain wisdom from "dark" spiritual beings such as Samael and Lilith. The reality of the Qlippoth is that it is the personal hell in which many millions of broken and abused people live trapped right here on planet Earth who are eager to spread their suffering and draw others into their own endless cycle of addiction, violence, and abuse. On the spiritual plane it is the Buddhist hell of hungry ghosts, inhabited by broken and incomplete spirits, vampires like the Sumerian lilitu who have no sustaining life force of their own and are forced to live a parasitic half-existence feeding on the life of others. The only wisdom such beings possess is the wisdom that comes from great suffering, and the only teachings they have to offer is the sharing of suffering with others. As the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for.
A number of Satanist writers claim some spiritual brotherhood with Tantra, using Shiva and Kali as examples of the "satanic" dark forces. The reality is quite different. Superficially there are some similarities upon which to draw a comparison. Kali and Shiva hang out in cremation grounds, are associated with death and sometimes depicted as drinking human blood. Tantrics can be quite antinomian and are well known for practicing social transgression and breaking of taboos as part of their sacred religious rites. However the breaking of taboos is a small part of the overall tantric practice and is used for a greater spiritual purpose of liberating the mind and spirit, not simply to thumb their nose at society "Look at me I'm breaking your taboos, nah-nah, nah, nah-nah". Shiva and Kali are depicted in their dark forms as representatives of death as the great process of transformation, not simply to glorify death and darkness for their own sake but as symbols of a powerful spiritual reality that every human must face, which should be respected but not feared.
When one digs deeper than the surface there are further fundamental distinctions to be found. Tantra is the spiritual successor to shamanism and is a spirituality of the people, used for healing and good works. It is "of the people" in the sense that the tantric helps and benefits the tribe or people to which he or she belongs and is part of the people, neither better nor worse but simply different. The tantric is integrated with society in which he or she lives like the shaman before them. The modern Satanist by contrast is outcast from society, uses magical power for personal gain, and claims to be "elite", a self-imagined Ubermensch, apart from and above society and the common man. Additionally, the tantric is very much focused on "uniting with God" which the modern Satanist stands against and calls "annihilation of self" in blind exaltation of the individual and "free will".
The greatest failure of Satanism has been its failure to advance beyond criticizing and rejecting Christianity and conventional morality to creating a positive vision of spirituality and society. It has gotten stuck in the antithesis stage of Hegelian dialectics. There are a great many dogmas needing challenge in our world. A 2000 year old patriarchal based view of sexuality based on shame and repression that still somehow hangs on in a modern world that claims to be secular yet still treats sexuality as shameful, dirty, and dangerous. A reductionist materialism that claims that anything which cannot be measured by the tools of science we currently possess and tested in a laboratory simply does not exist, thereby negating all forms of spirituality. An economic dogma that posits anything which cannot be valued in monetary terms has no value, thereby turning the engine of capitalism to the destruction and despoilation of the environment and degradation of the human spirit.
Satanism has challenged some of these, partially challenged others, and let others pass completely unchallenged. Yet it seems to have gotten stuck in a worldview it claims to have rejected. Christian dogma is an inversion of a natural human morality, which values pleasure, including sexual pleasure, along with thinking for oneself, independence, creativity, and harmony with other forms of life and nature as a whole. Christian dogma labels all of these things as "evil" and claims "good" as suffering, sacrifice, and blind obedience to a God unseen, but spoken for by men of wealth and power. Satanism claims to reject this, but then wallows in the inverted worldview of the Christian by claiming to be "evil" and "dark" and laying claim to old Christian clichés like wearing all black and summoning demons. Paganism has done a much better job of reclaiming natural human morality as "right" and "good". Instead of simply accepting the labels and worldview handed to them by Christianity, modern pagans step outside the dominant cultural paradigm to create a new paradigm with values based on harmony with nature and spiritual forces. They have broken down the old duality of light and dark into phases of a cycle which complete and support one another as opposed to the old worldview of light and dark being a conflict between good and evil.
Rather than repeating the same error I have criticized in others, I will close this critical essay with a positive vision of Satanism. To begin, a few definitions.
All religion can be broadly categorized into 2 variants. Those of the right hand path, which posit God as an external being or force and those of the left hand path which posit God as an internal being or force. Every world religion has both a right hand path and left hand path variation. Generally the right hand path variant is the exoteric form which is presented to the masses and the left hand path variant is the esoteric form which is hidden to be revealed only to the select few. For Christianity the esoteric form is Gnosticism or Mysticism, for Islam the esoteric form is Sufism, for Buddhism and Hinduism both the esoteric form is Tantrism. Within Tantrism, there is a further division of left and right hand path, which delineates variations in specific forms of worship to either include or exclude sexual worship and taboo breaking. This may be considered the left hand of the left hand path.
A god/goddess is simply an aggregation of the divine energy which exists in all life and quite possibly all inert matter as well. The difference between man and God is one of degree rather than type. The relationship between man and God is like the relationship between a single cell in a human body and the entire organism. The divine energy is what humankind has variously labeled spirit, soul, and consciousness among others. The difference between a magician, seeker, tantric, shaman, mystic, etc and the mass of ordinary humanity is the purpose to which we put the spark of divine energy we possess. The magician seeks to cultivate and expand the particle of godhood he or she possesses, where the mass of humanity is content to leave it alone, inert and dormant. However, one need not ever have touched a magic wand or know the symbolic meaning of a pentagram to cultivate and manifest either the divine energy generally or the satanic energy specifically.
Antinomianism is an expression of criticism, opposition, and questioning of all dogma which is accepted uncritically by society in whatever form it takes. It is not blind opposition but considered and thoughtful as a part of the cycle of human ideation, where any new idea initially advances human thought but eventually becomes stale and weighed down with the baggage of distortion, political manipulation, and misunderstanding, eventually becoming unquestioned dogma which holds back further advancement. As when climbing a mountain, one must release one handhold to take the next, any idea, symbol, belief, or mental form eventually reaches the limits of its usefulness and must be released to be further refined. Only when an idea has reached a point of being so widely accepted as true that it is simply accepted as fact or common sense does it need to be challenged to clear the way for new ideas and a better, more accurate understanding of the world. Questioning and challenging simply for the sake of taking on a role or label of rebel is itself indicative of a lack of critical thinking.
As such, Satanism is a left hand form of spirituality which uses antinomian thinking and questioning to liberate the mind from dogmas and conditioned thinking which hold back humanity and the individual and thereby draw closer to God. A Satanist can be said to be becoming godlike in the sense of realizing the highest spiritual potential inherent in humanity.
What humanity labels as darkness is simply what humans find unpleasant to experience or think about. Death and decay are natural processes which support and enable life and are not truly dark. They are what enable life to continue advancing and evolving by clearing out the old, broken, and useless, turning it into rich, fertile soil in which new life may grow. True darkness is the spiritual darkness of ignorance, hatred, and oppression; that which blocks spiritual light. Light is spiritual wisdom, understanding, the flash of insight which reveals the true nature of reality free from illusion and delusion, distortion and conditioned thinking. As such the Satanist is not a servant of darkness but an agent and embodiment of the spirit of light, life, love and liberty.
The Satanist may be inspired by and learn from the past without being bound by it. Even the lies told about Satanists contain a germ of truth. As Lucifer is the bringer of light, so the Satanist bears the light of wisdom into the darkness of our world of ignorance. The Satanist does not look down on those still trapped by the chains of ignorance and superstition but demonstrates the satanic qualities of compassion and humility, remembering that each of us started out in the darkness of ignorance. The Satanist acts as guide to light the path of humanity toward a better future for all, as an elder brother or sister to humanity.
As Prometheus brought the gift of fire and technology to mankind, the Satanist honors him best by using these gifts wisely, guiding others to do the same. The Satanist also brings gifts to mankind, contributing to the community in which he or she belongs, as well as humanity as a whole, by challenging orthodoxy and bringing fresh insight to advance society and technology. The Satanist is not a social misfit and if these gifts are not welcomed by mainstream society, the Satanist can and should find subcultures, industries, and professions where these adversarial gifts are welcomed and respected as a contribution to a larger whole.
As healers and medicine women were called servants of Satan and burned, so the Satanist is also a healer, wise with herbs and natural medicines of all kinds, including sacred medicines. Yet having seen how humanity sometimes treats truth-tellers, healers and gift givers, the Satanist also possesses the wisdom to keep silent and the cunning to blend in as necessary, hiding in plain sight.
As the Devil is a distorted form of the Horned God Cernnunos, Pan, and Pashupati, so is the satanic path a pagan path of harmony with natural and spiritual forces, celebrating the cycles of the seasons, and wise in the ways of celestial cycles. Because the Horned God is highly sexual, so too are his children. The Satanist recognizes the sex force as the source of all life and creativity and as especially sacred to the Horned God.
As Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel, brings beauty, art, music, and culture to humanity, so are Satanists contributors to the various arts, rock and roll seems to be a popular choice but is by no means the only one.
As Satan is the oppositional force which is the mother of invention, the breaking down that leads to a stronger rebuilding, so are Satanists visionaries and rebels, not by choice but by nature. And as Satan is the Adversary, finding and exposing weakness, so are Satanists willing to confront weakness within themselves, striving for personal excellence.
As Galileo stood against the orthodoxy of his time, so too is the Satanist a scientist, and because he or she challenges science itself on its own orthodoxies, his or her work is groundbreaking and revolutionary.
As Shiva, the Destroyer, destroys all illusions and delusions, so the Satanist must likewise be free from delusion and conditioned thinking. As Shiva is the Original Yogi, so too the Satanist practices self discipline and sadhana, with the aim of freeing the mind from illusion.
A Critique of Modern Satanism and Alternative Vision