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This whole blog is a weird gig. I’m a Satanist, the only Satanist on a non-religious channel of an interfaith website. I find myself in a situation where the channel I’m on doesn’t agree with my having a religion, on a platform owned by people who don’t particularly care for the religion I have chosen. In a civilized world under profession on my 1040 I would just write ‘it’s complicated’.

So I want to Talk About Story

It’s not uncommon to hear atheists question a religion’s validity based on the factuality of the events that play out in that religion’s mythology. This comes up whenever someone questions the historicity of an actual Joshua of Nazareth, or more snarkily as “New York is real, so do you believe in Spiderman?”.

If you’re reading this you’ve probably heard something like that. Maybe it was Harry Potter, or Luke Skywalker, or Bilbo Baggins but the central idea is there. If it’s fake, and the adherent knows it’s fake, what exactly is separating their religion from a fan-club?

The answer mostly has to do with sincerity and (to a lesser extent) tax evasion. As I am not an accountant, I want to focus on the sincerity part.

Satanists Get a Bad Rap for Being Non-Theist

Recently, my friends at The Satanic Temple Arizona adopted a stretch of Interstate 10 as a clean up project. Make no mistake, this is a calculated maneuver. By demonstrating the willingness to do the work, and by citing Satanism as the inspiration that drives them, TST-AZ is pushing back against the narrative that non-believers have no morality or ethics. But, and this is a big but, they are also pushing back against the idea that religion shouldn’t be that motivating factor.

Since TST-AZ’s adopt-a-highway made the news it’s been interesting to watch the reaction, which has been largely supportive and thank you for that. What is telling though is the (frankly far too long) comment threads I’ve read between theists and atheists about what Satanism actually is. Theists tend to default to thinking that Satanists worship Satan in the same way they worship god. That is wrong. Atheists on the other hand, tend to default to saying that Satanists are ‘just humanists’ who are ‘just using Satan as a metaphor to mess with the religious.’ That too is wrong. I have a very particular issue with the word ‘just’ in that context. I don’t speak for everyone and I wouldn’t want to; but it’s important that other non-theists understand … no one is just doing this because Satan is expedient.

Once There Was a Man Named Joseph Campbell

Literature nerds will have heard that name before. Some of you love him; some of you hate him. Either way you can’t deny the effect he’s had on storytelling because you’ve seen it. Youtube is full of videos pointing out how our culture’s most popular stories like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings map to Campbell’s theory. Joe was a comparative mythologist and he wrote a book called “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” in which he lays out a basic story structure that, he believed, all stories follow. (He was also a devout Christian and would probably be a little off-put by what I’m about to do with his theory. Oh well.)

Campell’s Hero’s Journey. Image credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia

Basically the gist of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is this: A character (the protagonist) has  circumstances that send them on a quest. They find some sort of catalyst to send them in the right direction, they meet a guide, face challenges, acquire the thing they sought, change, and return having changed. That, for the most part, is every story you’ve ever read.

Yes, Satan … and Jesus Too

For people who don’t hang out with literature and are just part of modern culture it’s pretty easy to see how Jesus fits Campbell’s structure; he’s even got epicycles. Most people don’t think about it but Satan fits that too. In our culture’s prevailing mythology Satan (by way of John Milton):

  1. Realizes he’s working for a tyrannical dictator
  2. Rebels (the war in heaven)
  3. Is cast out into an unfamiliar place (hell)
  4. Meets allies and cohorts (the denizens of hell [this would be the Abyss part of Campbell’s chart])
  5. Devises a solution
  6. Struggles to journey from Hell to Earth
  7. Finds Eden
  8. Returns to god’s presence, having changed, and is therefore capable of causing change, which he does by convincing humans to eat of the tree of knowledge.

Keen eyed writing geeks will notice that this 8 point structure based on Campell’s Hero’s Journey was developed by Dan Harmon of Community and Rick & Morty fame. But the general idea goes back a long way and at least some of us think the reason for that is because there’s something inherent in the human condition that makes a story recognizable as a story. It’s the narrative, metaphor, and parable that make these stories compelling. To Satanists, that narrative is best represented by Satan’s quest from heaven to hell to Earth. Christians look to the stories of Jesus. All of this is fine so far. Where we seem to run into trouble is when people start believe those stories literally happened.

So If You Admit It’s Fake Why Call It Religion?

We live in a world where there are self-identified adherents to Jediism, so let’s not pretend this isn’t without precedent. However, it’s a fair question to ask what makes adherence to a set of values expressed in a story a religion instead of just a run-of-the-mill fandom. That is a complicated question. In law, we’ve settled on the phrase ‘deeply held beliefs’, but there’s certainly more to it than that. I like the Muppets but I don’t call myself a Hensonist. I think, and I’m speculating at this point, that it has a lot more to do with a shared understanding of what the story represents.

This leads us into interesting territory, because now what we’re really talking about is the nature of truth claims that are only testable in the context of ‘how humans act … mostly’. It’s sociology and anthropology, not a harder science like chemistry or physics. Sure, there are factions of atheism that claim emotional responses are just chemistry at work, and that might even be true. But is calculating the chemical interactions of the entire population really the most efficient way to explore those feelings? I say no. We’re into the realm of art, not science. Much of the atheist community ignores art and symbolism, preferring to stick to hard facts. But that’s not everything we are and I think that ignoring our … let’s call it “non-logical processing and output” leads to real world problems. We are intellectual creatures, but we’re emotional and intuitive ones too.

We actually do this all the time. When you throw a ball to a friend playing catch part of your brain is doing extraordinarily complicated physics equations. You don’t think “I need to throw this ball with x lbs of force at y angle to hit target z”. That math is done on the backend. You also don’t think “I love person x because if I do y then z” … if you do you’re a monster.

So one can say, to a Satanist certainly (to some members of other religions not so much), that these stories that add value to our lives are fake and made up. They are made up; I’m not arguing that. They are definitely stories though, and to say they’re fake is akin to saying that a painting isn’t beautiful because the image it depicts never really happened. What stories do (the good ones anyway) is provide a framework through which we contextualize our experience to one another, a shared syntax through which we can communicate feelings, and a community of like minded people with whom we can collaborate to achieve our objectives.

A few months ago in an interview Lucien Greaves said “never let your activism be artless”. Ultimately what makes Satanism a religion, and makes religions religions instead of mere fandom or parody, is that sense of artistry which engages with the emotional part of what we are as humans. Don’t get me wrong, facts and reason are terribly important and should never be denied. But what I see from many in the secular community is an almost dogmatic adherence to the idea that logic and intellectualism demands the repression of emotion and feeling, which sounds to me like the polar opposite of a theist denying facts because of their faith.

FOR INFERNAL USE ONLY Jack Matirko was raised in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, but it didn't take. His projects include The Left Hemispheres Podcast, The Naked Diner Podcast, and An Ongoing and...