November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
March 1, 2012
“So, what do you guys and gals actually believe?” I asked a neo-druid priestess in Greensboro, North Carolina.
“That we are our own gods and goddesses. We are our own inner light that shines through when we answer only to the authority that is ourselves.”
I asked her how she grounds authority in herself. How does one only answer to themselves in such a way that they can be sure they are not simply buying into our present cultural epoch that has constructed a deity out of the individual? Was she a Unitarian?
She informed me that it “happens through close attention to the rhythms discovered though the natural world. Our authority is our mother earth. It is to her that we come and to her we shall return. Our authority to ourselves is only truthful when we listen to her, as we are from her, and we are her.”
“So what exactly does that look like?” I asked. “What exactly does this mean in regards to how you actually live?”
“We live free of all things that would attempt to blind us to who we really are, of who we are supposed to be.”
“Free spiritual beings living in harmony with nature, who are at one with the forces of the universe.”
I almost told her that I wanted to be a Jedi, too, but at this point, I needed her to give me at least one answer that actually meant something. Pressing on I asked, “Again, what does that look like?”
“Well,” she pointed to herself, “I guess it looks like this.” She was smiling, wearing her requisite love bead bracelets, crystal-laden hemp necklace, and a number of tattoos in fetishized foreign languages on her bare arms and legs, which were unshaven to prove that she would not sculpt herself in the image of men—unless such men own stores that carry bracelets, necklaces, crystals, or any other fashion wear commensurate with her “dissident” way of life.
I continued to push for a more precise response. “Well, what exactly,” pointing to her, “is this?”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“OK, let me take a different approach. Just answer this question: What did you do yesterday? Give me a moment-by-moment synopsis of your daily routine.”
Sparing you the details of her trip to the toilet (I shit you not), she informed me that she had visited a record store, another store for some incense, a coffee shop that “was not Starbucks,” a thrift store for some new clothes that were not new, and spent the day deciding where to place her new tattoo. She showed me a sketch of a circle with two parallel vertical lines vertically through it. She then confessed to not finishing a book review for one of her classes because, as she put it, “the real world has so much more to offer.”
“Like buying stuff,” I asked.
“I mean, basically, it seems to me, and please correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re just a typical college kid who doesn’t do their work and really enjoys shopping. I don’t see how your way of life is even remotely different from anyone else. If anything, it is the exact opposite of offering an alternative to what you referred to as ‘Westernized’ teachings. Your spiritualized antireligious faith fits perfectly in the system. You make a wonderful capitalist; you just accessorize differently from the Christians.”
She sat there with her eyes shut and a strange look on her face—like she was constipated (based on what she had previously told me, it was highly unlikely). She was kind of grimacing; it looked like she was trying to wish me off the planet. I couldn’t tell if she was taking it in or if she was having an acid flashback. Either way, I genuinely wanted to help her be the kind of interesting person she was desperately trying so hard to be. I told her that my interest with her posse of neo-pagans was due to my hope that they were going to present an alternative to the nonsense currently consuming all of us. I suggested that we were all being duped into thinking there was some sort of out and expressed my concern that, contrary to her best intentions, she was actually being trained to be exactly what she was claiming she didn’t want to be. She was being trained to fit within the system by purchasing her rebellion. This lovely, hairy druid was a picture-perfect example of what it means to be owned by a system that deceives us into thinking we can escape being owned. It is, forgive the pop culture reference, the matrix being the matrix. The matrix dupes us into thinking we can see our way out of the matrix by spiritualizing Eastern religions or—in her case, a religion from antiquity—as a possible way out. The fact that the matrix encourages us to do this, in order to escape it, is further proof that we are only falling deeper and deeper into the matrix precisely because we think we have somehow escaped it.
I love that film, even the third one.
She told me I was a very pessimistic person, that she would not stoop to my level of cynicism, and that I was being reductionistic.
“Name one thing,” I challenged her, “that is not reducible to the market.”
Are you ready for the one thing she named that is not reducible to the market? Are you sure? Please, make sure you’re ready. Okay, I think you’re ready. Here is the one thing she told me is not reducible to the market: love.
It would be impossible to tell you how hard I laughed as I thought about the millions of movies, magazines, books, comics, poems, songs, plays, television shows, commercials, advertisements, Internet matchmaking websites, ad nauseum ad infinitum, not to mention the second most important spending day of the year, Valentine’s Day. This was one funny girl. Watching me writhe in pain, I daresay it would be an understatement to suggest she was annoyed with me. She told me I needed to “stop looking for the bad in everything.”
I asked her if wearing crystals would help me be more positive, and, if so, how much would they cost?
At this point, she told me our conversation was over because she didn’t “need to be subjected to antagonistic people.” I apologized for coming across as such a jerk, I just wanted to help her see that her claim to be “spiritual, not religious” simply meant she was owned by that religious institution known as capitalism, and that we are all just targets of marketing schemes designed to convince us to sacrifice at its chief temple—the mall. It’s who owns us. We’re all shoppers. We shop for mates, friends, clothes, food, entertainment, and religions, as well as various forms of spirituality. Spirituality is a very conducive form of life to free market capitalism because what it means to be spiritual is whatever you want it to mean—which means the market will dictate what you need to purchase in order to be authentic to your own inner self. It’s a vicious circle.
It does, however, have me thinking: If I were Satan, how would I best trick people into giving over their bodies for something that so succinctly takes on the vices of the seven deadly sins? What would I need to create in order to turn greed into a virtue? What would I need to invent that could bind together people of any nationality, creed, or faith in such a way that they could agree that such a thing was worth dying and killing for? What would I need to create that would be an unquestionable good that all of life can be reduced to? That is, what would I have to design in order to thoroughly own the human race?
And then, like a flash of lighting from the heavens, I saw Satan fall. I made my way over to investigate, and in the rubble, I found a lone book. It was Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.
* * *
By positioning the writer of The Wealth of Nations between neo-druidism and Satanism, I am, of course, not suggesting Smith was a druid or a Satanist. Rather, I am suggesting that druids, Satanists, and Christians, for that matter, differ very little in how they respond to the economic system that runs the world. I’m no longer sure that there is enough difference between these groups, outside of clothing apparel, to suggest anything other than common ownership by this socioeconomic politic. I’m no longer even sure that the “big” differences between these groups are really that big.
Likewise, the first thing I discovered in my conversations with Satanists is that they are a whole lot like Christians. By this, I mean many things. First off, they are a highly schismatic bunch. Just as Christianity is divided into countless denominations (who cares that St. Paul claims unity to be the chief factor amongst Christians?), Satanists too are quite divided on what form proper worship requires. In some ways, this simply has more to do with the way Satanism has developed in the modern West. By modern, I am referring to the ideology known as modernity or classical liberalism. Satanists may trace their roots back to the first-born creation of God, Lilith (Adam’s supposed first wife), or any number of high-ranking Egyptian gods, but, just like all of us, they cannot deny being subject to the philosophical and cultural indoctrination that trains us to think of ourselves primarily in hyperindividualistic terms. Schisms are a philosophical necessity of our age. The divide between Satanists, however, takes two very strong forms: first, there are those Satanists who believe in the existence of Satan (theistic Satanists), and, second, there are those Satanists who do not believe in the existence of Satan.
I know. Strange, right?
Just like Christians, there are some Satanists who believe in Satan and some who do not; most Satanists scoff at the idea of an actual fallen angelic creature. In quite possibly the holiest of all texts for many Satanists, The Satanic Bible, Anton LaVey argues that most “Satanists do not accept Satan as an anthropomorphic being with cloven hooves, a barbed tail, and horns.” LaVey argues that such a notion is nothing more than a grandiose invention created by the religious hierarchy of various faith traditions to maintain some sort of order over humanity’s natural desires. Satan, LaVey continues, is not a god, a demigod, nor a fallen angel; Satan represents a force of nature that is natural to all humans that religions, Christianity in particular, have attempted to tame or domesticate for its own expansion. LaVey came upon this notion while he was pulling double duty as an organist in carnivals and tent-show revivals. On Saturday nights, LaVey found many pious men, both young and old, lusting after the women dancing at the carnival. He would see these same men on Sunday mornings repenting to church leaders for acting on their sinful desires. Saturday night would roll back around, and present were the same men. Sunday morning proved to be a repetition of the previous Sunday. And so on and so on.
The church, argues LaVey, is doing great harm by attempting to repress what is nothing more than the natural desires of humans. Like any other animal, we are merely acting upon our biologically driven desires for self-fulfillment. This can take the shape of sex, greed, lust, or gluttony—all of which, claims LaVey, are natural. These natural impulses are what make humans human, yet the church considers them to be vices. In this regard, the church is the true adversary of humanity—Satan, if you will—as it attempts to suppress what is only natural to being human. To clarify exactly what Satanism represents, LaVey constructed “The Nine Satanic Statements.” I cite them in their totality, with a bit of running commentary, for your own spiritual (or material, as the case may be) edification:
As I first examined these core principles, I couldn’t help but think, “Wow, he sure likes Ayn Rand.” He also appears to like exclamation points, but we won’t hold that against him.
Basically, this credo is nothing more than modern political philosophy delivered by a guy with an insatiably narcissistic desire to be noticed (Look at my piercings! Look at my tattoos! Look at my scary goatee! Look at me! Look at me!) and a love for really, really bad music. On this latter point, every person I could find—including various sorts of “High Priests” or “Priestesses” and some low-ranking pawns who practiced their devotion to Satanism or the Temple of Set through the Internet—loved some hybrid form of death metal/glam rock/indie-infused compost.
I engaged a number of Satanists of various stripes in conversation, but I could never get over how unabashedly similar to everyone else these people were. Like the aforementioned druid, the only real difference I could discern was their love for the color black. Being a Mennonite, I’m okay with this color preference.
It doesn’t seem to matter if the Satanist in question believes in the existence of Satan or denies the literal existence of Satan. Akin to the Unitarians and most people of a modern persuasion, they are following their own pursuit of what makes them happy. As LaVey claims, a person should follow their own desires as far as they want up to the point that it brings another person harm—unless, that is, such a person wishes to be harmed. How is this any different from how John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau imagined modern politics? For that matter, how is this any different than the average Christian buying into the language and logic of modern politics latticed upon its grammatical framework of autonomy, rights, and the pursuit of happiness? Did modernity, while making belief in the devil less credible, not, in turn, create a society in which the logical outcome is LaVey’s understanding of Satanism? How is such a philosophy any different from how the average person lives her life? How is it any different from how the average Christian lives her life?
For instance, and in order to piggyback on LaVey’s creed, in his book The Black Arts, Richard Cavendish argues, “The followers of the Devil are intensely excited by and preoccupied with sensual pleasure and worldly achievement. They admire pride, strength, and force.” If you were to replace “the devil” with “Jesus in the United States” in the Cavendish quotation, would there be any denying that this is true? More than 75 percent of all people in the United States claim to be Christian. Such people purport to follow a king who said that his kingdom was not of this world. Yet, if such people follow a person whose kingdom is not of this world, what are they doing propping up an empire that has more than eight hundred military bases stationed throughout the globe? You simply cannot get any more “worldly” than that. This ever-expanding empire, made possible by the domination of natural resources protected by the world’s largest military, is the epitome of “pride, strength, and force.” When Cavendish claims that Satanists admire these cardinal virtues of nationalism, I just have to wonder how American Christians differ on the subject.
This is not the only place Cavendish seems to misinterpret the majority of Christianity’s practitioners. He claims that worshippers of the devil consider the Christian practice of self-denial and humility to be “spineless.” Again, what Christian has this person been observing? Self-denial is an absolute crime in our culture. If you start denying yourself material goods, you will end up destroying our very precarious economy. It is an absolute moral obligation of all citizens, Christian or not, to indulge their every whim, to buy the biggest house, to purchase a new car every four years, to shop for new clothes, accessories, games, et cetera, in short, to never be satisfied, to be perpetually in need of more, all in order to perfect the capitalist virtue known as greed. How dare these Satanists and black magicians accuse Christians of not fulfilling their moral obligation to perpetuate the American Way of Life! We can be preoccupied with sensual pleasure, worldly achievement, pride, strength, and force as much as anyone else! Indeed, I think we are close to perfecting it. Have the Satanists not paid any attention to the ease by which Christians participate in war? The obvious contradiction of Christians killing their enemies in the name of the God who tells them to love their enemies does not cause even the slightest feeling of discomfort for the majority of North American Christians. Have these Satanists ever stepped foot in a Christian Family Bookstore and counted the number of books glorifying war in their Christian Inspiration section? Next to books about so-called radical discipleship one will find such Christ-inspired literature as Lessons on the Battlefield, The Patriot’s Bible, and Walker, Texas Ranger’s soon to be classic, Blackbelt Patriotism—because, you know, Jesus was so obviously a fan of both the state (killed by it) and karate (taught nonviolence). In case reading is not your thing, there are also miniature solid gold crosses, encrusted with diamonds and draped with American flags, available for purchase for those needing to prove their faith and pride in a tribal god that has far more in common with Ares, the god of war, than Jesus, the Prince of Peace.
We are far better at worshipping your god than you will ever be.
Editor’s Note: Read more of Tripp York over at The Amish Jihadist, where he blogs regularly.
 This essay is adapted and condensed from the chapter “Denying the Devil,” in Tripp York, The Devil Wears Nada: Satan Exposed! (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 91–114. Reprinted here with permission from Wipf and Stock Publishers.
 LaVey, The Satanic Bible (New York, NY: Avon Books, 2005), 62.
 Ibid., 62–63.
 For a group that hates religious hierarchies so much, they definitely do not mind forming their own.
 Cavendish, The Black Arts (New York, NY: Perigree, 1983), 290.
 OK, in an effort to be charitable, perhaps he knows about Dorothy Day or Thomas Merton. It’s a long shot, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Tripp York teaches religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Virginia. He is the author of more than half a dozen books including, Third Way Allegiance, The Purple Crown, and Living on Hope While Living in Babylon. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming three-volume collection called the Peaceable Kingdom Series. An actor and a lighting designer, Tripp also surfs and spends his weekends shoveling elephant and giraffe poop.