Friday, 13 September 2013

Satanism's Ethics (Are Kind of Boring)

Today's post will be my six-hundred and sixty-sixth, according to Blogger (this may be untrue in that I think Blogger counts unpublished posts, and I have a half dozen or so unpublished posts). In light of this, I will write about Satanism.

I can't recall the first time I realized that Satanists were 1) real and 2) people, though it was probably around my fourth year of undergraduate. I recall hearing a very touching story that a human resources worker at Queen's University told to my Christian fellowship about a student who was complaining about the struggles of undergraduate university; when the student said that she thought she was losing her faith, the HR worker asked what faith that was, and the student answered, "Satanism." The HR worker then proceeded to treat her with sympathy and compassion, despite knowing that this student prescribed to a worldview deliberately built in opposition to the HR worker's own beliefs. Somehow this story went a long way to normalizing Satanism for me.

That being said, at the same time Satanism seems really weird to me, because it embraces the metaphysics it opposes; unlike atheism, its vehement rejection is a kind of affirmation in that, although it flips all of the moral values, it nonetheless maintains the cosmological beliefs. (Also, it is amply and inaccurately represented in movies, especially in the 90s and early 00s.) So when I made myself a course-reader style package of miscellaneous materials one summer, I include some readings about Satanism from a Religious Studies/Anthropology anthology I got out of the library. I thought this religion-of-conflict might have yield some interesting insights into religion and/or culture. And what I learned is this: Satanism is actually kind of boring.

I'll be more specific, because I suppose certain aspects of Satanism are not so boring, and I'm sure there are Satanisms, so maybe certain varieties of Satanism are more intellectually robust. What I find to be so boring about Satanism, as described and examined in Edward J. Moody's "Urban Witches,"  is its core ethical system. Moody writes that Satanist virtues are simultaneously defined as 1) that which Christianity considers a sin and 2) natural human motivations:
The seven deadly sins of Christian teaching--greed, pride, envy, anger, gluttony, lust, and sloth--are depicted as Satanic virtues. Envy and greed are, in the Satanic theology, natural in man and the motivating forces behind ambition. Lust is necessary for the preservation of the species and not a Satanic sin. Anger is the force of self-preservation. Instead of denying natural instincts the Satanist learns to glory in them and turn them into power.1
Because of its emphasis on desires that are "natural" to some universal "man," these Satanic ethics remind me of what I call the Polonius virtue, the idea that acting authentically (or true to yourself) is a moral good. I've never found the Polonius virtue convincing because 1) it is not something I intuitively feel, 2) I've never encountered a justification of it, let alone a persuasive one, and 3) I do not believe in a coherent or stable self to which one might be obliged (and this last one's pretty lethal to any chances I might have of adopting the Polonius virtue).

The most interesting move that the Satanists make regarding morality is linking definitions 1 and 2 and explaining why what Christians call sins are actually virtues:
Satanic novices are taught that early church fathers deliberately picked on those aspects of human desire that were most natural and made them sins, in order to use the inevitable transgressions as a means of controlling the populace, promising them salvation in returning for obedience.
Were it not for this explanation, it would seem mighty convenient that everything Christians condemn is actually praise-worthy. The explanation itself is actually a not too different from things Christopher Marlowe was (probably falsely) accused of having said in the early modern period.2

I don't know why I was expecting something more interesting than this. I guess I thought that if anyone had a really wild and unexpected morality, it would be Satanism, but it turns out that it fits right in there with genetic determinism, pop-psychoanalysis, and what Walter Truett Anderson calls neo-romanticism (think hippies and New Agers), movements with an emphasis on the interior self as the source of morality and truth. It also has some things in common with existentialism, but it reminds me more of genetic determinism and pop-psychoanalysis. I presume more conservative Christian writers would say that it's boring because everything that's not the truth limits God, Creation, and humanity, or because anything that derives morality from the self cannot be as rich as something that derives morality from an institution/tradition/wellspring of all Being. But I'm not going that route: certainly there are lots of belief systems I consider to be factual wrong but still well-worked out and internally compelling (for instance, Nietzsche's immoralism). Satanism isn't that.

I suppose it's as pertinent to ask why I think this is boring as it is to ask why it is boring. I think it's boring because it has no room for growth or improvement. It's static and non-dynamic. The Christian vision (or, anyway, my Christian vision) of ethics involves a person striving to better themselves through action; it's not just that my past actions become increasingly more ethical, but that I change as a result of my actions. That self to which Polonius ethicists would say that I am obliged is shifting; how do I authentically act out a shifting self? Or how do I act out an internally conflicted self? Satanists seem to want to locate authenticity in desires and impulses, but these are not always consistent: I have impulses of charity as much as I have impulses of greed, and what of my desires to inhibit other desires? Authenticity to a certain self seems doomed or nonsense unless that self to which I am authentic is a deliberate self, that is, the self that I want or will rather than the self that I have. This kind of authenticity is not just more interesting but also quite simply possible, which can't be said for regular-old Polonius ethicism. I think there's still a lot of debate concerning what kind of self I ought to cultivate, though. Christians are already on top of this idea, but I'm sure Satanists could construct a more intellectually rigorous ethics on this model as well (if some haven't already constructed it); in order to do so, however, they could not appeal either to a dubious historical account of Christianity or to inherent desire any more, which means that they'd have to build a whole new set of justifications for the sort of authenticity to desire that they've been espousing. (Nietzsche would likely make a decent starting point for that kind of work.)

EDIT: I'm also kind of surprised that the justification given for lust is reproduction. That sounds, well, exactly like Christian doctrine about sexual attraction: it's good if it leads to reproduction. The Satanists aren't adding the corollary (it's bad if it doesn't), but even so, this similarity is striking. In other words, if Satanists define "lust" simply as "those feelings which are necessary for reproduction," then they have a really tame idea of what lust is, and don't seem to understand how the churches are using the word.

1  Of course, since this and one other article are the sources of my understanding of Satanism, and these articles are old enough, what I'm writing here may not apply to Satanism generally, or to the Satanism of any particular individual you (reader) may know. All of what I say applies only to Satanism as I, through Moody, describe it.
2  It's actually possible that Marlowe did say a number of the things that the Baines Note accused him of saying, but at the time he did so he was a spy for the English government, acting out the role of traitor and conspirator in order to gain information. So, in a sense, the government was condemning him for doing what it was paying him for doing. Little wonder if Marlowe did become seditious.

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