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Is Satanism "Pagan"?
by Diane Vera

Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005 by Diane Vera. All rights reserved.

Is Satanism "Pagan"? That depends on how you define the word "Pagan."

  1. "Pagan" (capital P)  vs. "pagan" (small p)
  2. Satanism, Paganism, and Christianity
  3. Satanists and the Pagan community (capital P)
  4. Satanists and the "greater pagan community" (small p)
  5. How Pagans (capital P) can legitimately distinguish themselves from Satanists

  1. "Pagan" (capital P)  vs. "pagan" (small p)

    The word "pagan" (lowercase p) has traditionally been used, for centuries, to mean anyone who is not Christian, Jewish, or Muslim -- and, yes, the word "pagan" in this sense does include Satanists It also includes atheists.

    On the other hand, "the Pagan community" (capital P) is a specific modern Western religious subculture which does NOT encompass everyone who is not Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. For example, the vast majority of Hindus have no desire whatsoever to be part of "the Pagan community." They already have their own community, with a genuinely ancient tradition and lineage. Likewise most practitioners of the African Diaspora religions. Likewise most practitioners of traditional American Indian spiritualities. And so on. As far as I am aware, most people in these communities do not wish to be identified as "Pagan" or even "pagan," since the word "pagan" is a traditional Christian insult.

    The "Pagan community" (capital P) includes, among others:

    1. Wiccans
    2. Practitioners of other forms of Witchcraft similar to Wicca
    3. Earth-worshippers (with a modern ecological perspective)
    4. Pagan Reconstructionists (those who aim to revive an actual ancient European or Middle-Eastern religion, based on actual ancient writings and archeological findings)
    5. Practitioners of various eclectic combinations of the above

    One could sum this up by saying that Pagan (capital P) religions are modern Western religions which all involve, in varying degrees, (1) honoring ancient pre-Christian deities and (2) reverence for the Earth and/or for natural forces. Some forms of Satanism do fit this definition, but many do not.

    See also the American Heritage Dictionary definition of Neo-Paganism:

    Any of various religious movements arising chiefly in the United Kingdom and the United States in the late 20th century that combine worship of pagan nature deities, particularly of the earth, with benign witchcraft.

    The "Pagan community" overlaps heavily with, but is distinct from, the occult/ceremonial magick community, from which Wicca historically drew much of its inspiration.

    A key point is that "Paganism" (capital P) can be defined in a positive sense -- in terms of what it is, rather than in terms of what it is not -- whereas "pagan" (lowercase p) has only a negative meaning (not Jewish, Christian, or Muslim). "Pagan" (capital P) means something much more specific than just "not-JCI." Therefore, one can reasonably say that most forms of Satanism are not Pagan (capital P).

  2. Satanism, Paganism, and Christianity

    Many Pagan Witches have said, in their not-Satanists disclaimers, that Satanists are "Christian" - and therefore not "pagan" even in the broadest sense.

    However, Satanists are not Christian. Calling Satanists "Christians" or "Christian heretics" is an insult to both Satanists and Christians. Neither Satanists nor Christian theologians consider Satanism to be "Christian" or a "Christian heresy." A Christian heretic is one who identifies as Christian and reveres the Christian God but holds unorthodox theological beliefs. With only a few very rare exceptions, Satanists do not identify as "Christian" or revere the Christian God.

    Furthermore, the vast majority of theistic Satanists do not derive their theology solely from Christianity but look to various non-Christian sources too, both more ancient and more modern. And, for those who remain Satanists for more than a few years, Satanism is much more than just rebellion against Christianity.

    Far from being mere "inverse Christians," many theistic Satanists are either polytheistic or pantheistic. Some equate Satan with one or more ancient gods such as Set, Enki, Pan, or Shiva. Others do not equate Satan with any pagan deity but just revere Satan as one of many gods from various pantheons. There are also some folks who don't beleive in Satan as an entity at all and who revere an entirely pre-Christian pantheon, but who identify as "Satanists" because they agree with a lot of Anton LaVey's ideas.

    For more about the notion that Satanism is a "Christian heresy," see Is Satanism a "Christian heresy"? Is Satanism "Abrahamic"?.

    Many of the same Pagans who are so fond of saying that Satanism is "Christian" (and therefore not "pagan") will nevertheless regard, as "pagan" or even "Pagan" (or, at least, "meso-Pagan") the African Diaspora religions, which are syncretizations of Christian and non-Christian ideas -- as are most forms of Satanism. In fact, one of the Yoruba gods -- Exu/Echu/Elegwa/Ellegua/Legba -- is traditionally identified with Satan in some variants of some of the African diaspora religions. He is so identified by the practitioners themselves, not just by Christian missionaries, although this has apparently become less common in recent decades due to re-Africanizing trends.

    Other Pagans are more purist about the definition of "pagan" (lowercase p). Some would say that Thelema and even the African Diaspora religions are not "pagan" because of their incorporation of Christian-derived names and personae -- even though the African Diaspora religions, unlike the modern Pagan religions, actually have a genuine, centuries-old continuous initiatory lineage descended directly from pre-Christian cultures.

    However, if one is going to define "pagan" as "utterly free of Jewish/Christian/Islamic influence", then no one in the modern Western world can possibly qualify as "pagan," no matter what the names of one's gods.

    Certainly Wiccans, for example, could not qualify. Wicca is not, by any means, completely independent of Christianity. On the contrary, it is based on a deliberate de-Christianization of a lot of themes that Christianity derived from older sources. Obvious examples include the dying and rising god, the Trinity, the virgin birth, the "cakes and wine," and the holidays. No doubt one of the reasons for Wicca's growing popularity is the familiarity of so many of its themes to people of Christian background, transplanted out of the sexually guilt-ridden context of traditional Christianity.

    The very idea of drawing a hard-and-fast line of demarcation between religions or between pantheons is, itself, one of the central themes of the JCI tradition. It's not unique to the JCI tradition. But, as far as I can tell, the majority of traditional non-JCI religions have a natural tendency to pick up ideas from other religions, especially the religions of people who are perceived as especially powerful or wise for whatever reason. Thus, for example, the traditional religion of China and most other East Asian countries is a mix of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and older nature worship. Likewise, the African Diaspora religions' incorporation of Christian elements is not at all inconsistent with the attitudes of most genuinely ancient non-JCI religions. (For that matter, even the JCI religions themselves have borrowed lots of ideas from other religions and worldviews, despite a tendency to deny this.) The very idea of rejecting a JCI concept merely because of its JCI origin is, itself, a JCI-inspired idea.

    All people who grew up in a Christian society are inevitably going to be influenced by Christianity, in various different ways and to varying degrees, whether consciously or unconsciously. And, as a barometer of how Christian-influenced a person is, Satanists tend to regard subtle, unconscious influences as more significant than such obvious things as the names of one's gods. Thus, just as Wiccans tend to perceive Satanists as "Christian," so too Satanists tend to perceive Wiccans as "Christian." Both are partly right and partly wrong. The whole "more non-Christian than thou" game, whether played by Satanists or by Pagans, is an exercise in subjectivity. Different aspects of Christianity are significant to different people.

    Satanists and Wiccans are both post-Christian. So too is the entire "Pagan community" (capital P), not just Wicca. We just deal with it in different ways, that's all. To escape Christian influence completely is both impossible and pointless.

    As I mentioned earlier, the word "Pagan" (capital P) means something much more specific than just "not-JCI." Therefore, Pagans (capital P) can easily distinguish themselves from Satanists without any need to claim that Satanists are "Christian." For example, Pagan Witches (capital P, capital W) can say, "Pagan Witchcraft is not Satanism. Satan is not part of the pantheon of Wicca or other forms of Pagan Witchcraft." Similarly, Asatruari can say that Satan is not part of the Norse pantheon, Hellenists can say that Satan is not part of the Greek pantheon, and so on.

    It is also correct to say, more generally, "The idea of Satan is derived from Judaism and Christianity, whereas Pagans (capital P) aim to revive more ancient religious concepts." (Note: This is different from saying that "Satanists are just Christian heretics" or "Only a Christian would believe in or worship Satan.") However, this statement by itself does not exclude all Satanists from the category "Paganism," because many theistic Satanists also revere one or more anciently-worshipped pagan deities in addition to Satan.

  3. Satanists and the Pagan community (capital P)

    Are Satanists "Pagan" in the sense of being naturally a part of the "Pagan community"? Some of us are, but many of us probably are not. Even if there weren't so much Pagan hostility toward Satanists, many Satanists still would probably not fit in very well with the Pagan community. which espouses some specific beliefs and values that are different from the beliefs and values espoused by most Satanists (though there is more overlap than most Pagans are willing to acknowledge). For example, many Satanists don't revere "Nature" in quite the same way that many Pagans do. There do exist quite a few Satanists who do revere "Nature", but who think of "Nature" in harsher terms than most Pagans do. Also, many Satanists don't find the typical Pagan public ritual to be very congenial.

    But these differences are only relative, not absolute. There are quite a few Pagans who are not Satanist at all but who would agree with the typical Satanist critique of "fluff-bunny" attitudes regarding "Nature." There are also quite a few Pagans who, if anything, have an even stronger dislike of the typical Pagan public ritual than many Satanists do. There is even a whole large category of Pagans, i.e. Reconstructionists, who emphatically reject the ceremonial magick-derived format of the typical Pagan public ritual, in favor of rituals more closely resembling what's described in the actual lore of some particular ancient culture. (Some Reconstructionists would even regard the typical Pagan public ritual as bordering on outright blasphemy.) And, as I pointed out earlier, quite a few theistic Satanists are either polytheistic or pantheistic, just as many Pagans are.

    The most significant dividing line between Satanists and most Pagans is simply that many (though not all) Pagans are deeply uncomfortable with Satan. It isn't just that most Pagans "don't believe in" Satan - a "disbelief" which, in many cases, requires a fundamental inconsistency in the Pagans' own theology. (See Satan as gate-opener: Satan and modern Western polytheism.) More significant than mere "disbelief," many Pagans have never bothered to look below the surface of the Christian view of Satan as "the Evil One." Furthermore, even if they were to examine the Christian idea of "Evil" (See Satan and "Evil" in Christianity (and Satanism)), and even if they were to realize the absurdity of believing in just about every god in just about every religion in the entire world with the sole exceptions of Yahweh and Satan, most still would have no desire to revere Satan. And many would still be terrified of being associated in any way with the majority religion's boogeyman.

    There do exist some people who identify as both Satanist and Pagan (capital P). But, to me, it seems highly unlikely that such people will ever be a majority among either Satanists or Pagans.

    I was recently asked, by one Satanist-Pagan, why I didn't think it likely that large numbers of Pagans might eventually follow the example of some of the African Diaspora religions and adopt Satan into their pantheon. My answer: The African Diaspora religions and the Western Pagan community are not in parallel situations. The African Diaspora religions have a genuine, continuous lineage back to an actual traditional polytheistic religion into which various aspects of Christianity and Western occult tradition were incorporated. On the other hand, the Pagan community does not have such a lineage and consists almost entirely of converts from Christianity and Judaism. If a person from a non-dualistic polytheistic background has suddenly been forced to profess Christianity, it would make perfect sense for that person to include Satan in one's pantheon. On the other hand, very few people from a Christian background are likely to feel comfortable having anything to do with Satan.

    The inclusion of Satanic elements was apparently more common among earlier generations of Pagan Witches, hardy pioneers that they were. (See Satanism and the History of Wicca.) But it is likely to become less and less common (proportionately speaking) as the Pagan scene continues to grow. The Pagan community has been growing rapidly and seems to be on the verge of becoming a new mass religious community -- a substantial rival to Christianity.

    For Pagans to to exclude Satanists on the alleged grounds that Satanism is "Christian" is sheer hypocrisy, given that these Pagans' own residual Christian programming is precisely what makes a lot of Pagans feel so uncomfortable with Satan in the first place. It would be much more honest for the more Satan-phobic Pagans to say something like, "Most Pagans and most Satanists are both post-Christian, with many of the same cultural roots, but most of us Pagans are still freaked out by Satan even though we theoretically don't believe in Satan."

  4. Satanists and the "greater pagan community" (small p)

    Some people have been trying to turn the Pagan community (capital P) into a "greater pagan community" (lowercase p) which would include not only Western post-Christian Pagans but also traditional Hindus, Buddhists, etc. It would also include some post-Christian Westerners who don't fit in well with any of the religions which for the past several decades have called themselves Pagan (capital P), but who nevertheless have participated in the Pagan community for lack of any better place to hang out.

    Some of these latter folks are trying to turn the Pagan community into "the greater pagan community" (lowercase p) in the hope that they themselves can then fit in better. These non-Pagan pagans include some Satanists.

    They also include quite a few non-Satanists, many of whom will insist that Satanists are "Christian" in order to exclude Satanists from even the broadest sense of the word "pagan," i,e. "not JCI." To these people, "not JCI" means not merely "having a religion other than Judaism, Christianity, or Islam," or even "not worshipping the JCI God," but rather, "not using any JCI-derived names or personae whatsoever, even in an otherwise thoroughly non-JCI context." To be consistent about this one-drop rule, some will exclude Thelemites, other ceremonial magick users, and the African Diaspora religions from the category "pagan." Others are not so consistent.

    I personally have no great attachment to the label "pagan." I'm just irritated at any increase in the number of different kinds of people who feel compelled to call Satanists "Christian" or "Abrahamic" in order to gerrymander their own personal religious identity.

    As it was explained to me by one Western post-Christian "pagan" (who, in his case, has no religious identity other than "pagan" in a purely negative sense), excluding Satanists from the category "pagan" helps him convince liberal and middle-of-the-road Christians that "pagans" really worship the Christian God under a different guise. In other words, the point of claiming that Satanists are "Christian" and that "pagans" are totally non-Christian is actually to kiss up to Christians and to convince them that "pagans" are more Christianlike than we Satanists are.

    That's one reason why the "more non-Christian than thou" game is so annoying. It is fundamentally two-faced.

    To such people, I will insist that Satanists are indeed pagan (lowercase p).

    If they really want to be purist about their non-JCI-ness, then they should stop defining themselves in relation to JCI, even in a negative sense. When asked what your religion is, answering "I am pagan" -- and defining "pagan" as "not JCI" -- doesn't just mean you belong to a religion which happens to be non-JCI. It means you are defining yourself in terms of a rejection of JCI, using a JCI-centric word.

    No wonder such pagans get asked, "Do you worship Satan?" No wonder thay get asked that question even by middle-of-the-road Christians, not just by hardcore fundies of the sort who imagine that even atheists worship Satan.

    To those who call themselves "pagan" for sheer lack of any better label, here's my suggestion: Start an "unlabeled spirituality" community/movement, for people who don't fit in with any currently well-known positively-defined religious category. While "unlabeled spirituality" is a negative term too, it is at least a much more neutral negative term than "pagan" (lowercase p), and it refers to a much more specific group of people. Better yet, if you tell people, "I have an unlabeled form of spirituality," I can guarantee you that the next question out of most people's mouths won't be, "Do you worship Satan?" (You might still get that question from hardcore fundies, but not from middle-of-the-road Christians.) Nor is an "unlabeled spirituality" movement likely to attract the attention of very many Satanists, if any.

    For those who still want to put together a larger "community" consisting of a motley collection of minority religions that have almost nothing in common except that they aren't Satanism, I would suggest calling it "Right Hand Path" or something. I personally am not fond of the whole idea of "Right Hand Path" vs. "Left Hand Path." (See LHP and RHP: What Are They?) However, "RHP" is a category from which nearly all of today's Satanists do exclude themselves; so, if you're desperate for a good excuse to exclude Satanists from some group of yours, you are unlikely to get much if any argument about it from Satanists if you call your group "RHP." And, since hardly anyone calls oneself "RHP" anymore, you have a perfect opportunity to reclaim the term and redefine it to mean whatever you want.

    As I said, I personally have no great attachment to the label "pagan." If challenged on this point, I will insist that I am indeed "pagan" (lowercase p) in the sense of "not JCI." But I'm not fond of the word itself, especially when used in that purely negative sense. In fact, I personally think that the English language would be better off without it. What's the point of having a special word to mean "non-JCI"? The English language doesn't have a special word for "non-Hindu", for example. Nor does it have a special word for "non-Protestant" or even "non-Christian" -- both of which might be worthwhile categories if the point were simply to bring together a bunch of American religious minorities. The word "pagan" (lowercase p) contributes nothing to an appreciation of the diversity of world religion. On the contrary, it only encourages Christians and other Westerners (including Pagans, capital P) to stereotype non-JCI people as being more "all alike" than they really are.

    I think that the word "pagan" should be allowed to become the exclusive property of "Pagans" (capital P), who have a decades-old attachment to the word and thus are unlikely to give it up no matter what. At least Pagans can define the word "Pagan" in a positive sense and thus can (if they so choose) find ways to distinguish themselves from Satanists without having to annoy us by calling us "Christian" or "Abrahamic."

  5. How Pagans (capital P) can legitimately distinguish themselves from Satanists

    Pagans (capital P) can legitimately say that Pagan religions and Satanism are distinct. However, they should not say so on the grounds that Satanism is "Christian" or "Abrahamic."

    Instead, they should simply say that Satan is not part of their pantheon as either a literal deity or a symbol. Making such a statement on behalf of the entire Pagan community is problematic, since there isn't just one Pagan pantheon. But it can easily be made on behalf of specific Pagan religions, e.g. Wicca, Pagan Witchcraft (capital P, capital W), and the Pagan Reconstructionist religions. Likewise, an individual Pagan can easily enumerate one's own personal pantheon and then point out that it does not include Satan.

    It is also accurate to say that the idea of Satan is derived from the JCI religions (NOT the same thing as saying that Satanism itself is JCI), whereas Pagans (capital P) aim to revive more ancient religious concepts. As I mentioned earlier, that last statement doesn't exclude all forms of Satanism from the definition of "Pagan", because many theistic Satanists do revere more ancient deities and/or reinterpret Satan in more ancient, non-JCI terms. But it does show that the focus of the Pagan community is on something other than Satan.

    If it is important to a general Pagan group to exclude all kinds of Satanists from its concept of "Paganism" altogether, without also excluding lots of other people and groups that have identified as "Pagan" for at least the past few decades, then the only possible way to accomplish this would be via an explicit exclusion in the group's very definition of "Pagan" (capital P). For example, a group could say something like, "For our purposes the word 'Pagan' shall encompass all religions, spiritualities, and worldviews which __________________________ [fill in the blank], but not including any religion, spirituality, or worldview which honors, reveres, or otherwise favorably uses the name 'Satan' or 'the Devil', in whatever way those names are understood, whether as referring to a sentient entity, a force, a principle, or a symbol; and regardless of what kinds of ethical or moral value judgments, if any, are associated with those names, and regardless of the overall theological context." Of course this sounds awfully arbitrary and ad hoc.

    But there simply isn't any other, more general principle on which basis you could exclude all of those Satanists who identify as Pagan without also excluding a lot of other people who identify as Pagan. For example, you can't define "Paganism" as requiring a belief in the threefold law, because many Pagans don't believe in it. Nor can you define "Paganism" as excluding any concepts derived from monotheistic religions, because this would exclude the many Pagans who use the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. Nor could you just exclude all Christian-derived (as distinct from Jewish-derived) concepts, because this would exclude the many Wiccans and other pantheists who see Christ as a legitimate aspect of the God and/or Mary as a legitimate aspect of the Goddess. It would also exclude, for example, the idea that Witches meet in "covens", celebrate "sabbats", and worship a "Horned God." (Whatever the ultimate origins of these terms and concepts themselves, they were first applied to witches by Christian witchhunters.) On the other hand, you can't exclude Satanists on the grounds that Pagans reject the idea of an "Evil" cosmic principle, because the vast majority of Satanists reject that idea too. Also you can't exclude Satanists by defining Paganism as "positive and life-affirming" because (1) there are many Pagans who would regard this as "unbalanced" and (2) the words "positive" and "life-affirming" are value judgments, not objective criteria. (Most people in general, including many Satanists, see their own path as "positive and life-affirming," even if other people would disagree with that asseesment.) Like it or not, the beliefs and practices of Pagans and Satanists do overlap quite a bit, and there has been a lot of mutual influence between the two categories, plus a lot of common ancestry in the Western occult tradition and other sources. (For more details, see my articles A Critique of Wiccan and Other Neo-Pagan Disclaimers About Satanism and Satanism and the History of Wicca. See also my updates to both articles here.)

    So, there really is no way to exclude all Satanists from a definition of "Pagan" other than via an explicitly ad hoc wording -- a wording which would clearly serve no purpose other than to (1) placate Christians and (2) placate many Pagans' own Christian baggage. Some specific Pagan religions might be able to make more principled objections to all forms of Satanism; but all such objections that I've seen so far are both (1) rooted in the beliefs of some but not Pagans and (2) applicable as objections to other Pagan religions as well as to Satanism. (For example, some Pagan Reconstructionists have objected to Satanism on the grounds that one should not call upon or otherwise use the name of any deity outside the context of traditional beliefs and practices pertaining to that deity's pantheon. But the vast majority of Pagans too, including Wiccans and eclectics, routinely call upon many deities outside their historical context. Indeed, this is the most common Reconstructionist complaint about Wicca and eclectic Paganisms.)

    Generic Pagan groups should consider whether they really do want to exclude any religious category on a blatantly ad hoc basis.

    Another possibility they might consider is the following:

    Even if a group does not outright exclude Satanists, it still can accurately say that the vast majority of Pagans are not Satanists, and that the vast majority of Pagan religions are quite distinct from Satanism. And, because Pagans do get asked about Satanism, Pagans do have a right to make these facts clear.

    To the latter end, one could list some of the specific religions within the Pagan community and then briefly describe the pantheons of each of these religions, followed by a brief note that none of these pantheons include Satan. One could then define the "Pagan community" as consisting of the listed religions plus other closely related religions and spiritualities. Such a definition would not exclude all kinds of Satanists, but it would clearly indicate, at the very least, that most Pagans are not Satanists and that Satanism does not play any kind of central role in the Pagan community as a whole.

    And, for Pagan public relations purposes, that should really be enough. Otherwise, you're like the conservative gay rights activists who used to feel embarrassed about drag queens, or the feminists who used to feel embarrassed about lesbians back in the late 1960's and early 1970's. (Remember, back in the bad old days, most mainstream folks were even more prejudiced against both gays and a drag queens as they are today against Satanists.) It is legitimate for gay activists to point out that most gay men are not drag queens; but that can be done without trying to exclude drag queens from the gay community altogether.

    However they define the word "Pagan," generic Pagan groups should at least educate themselves and their members about at least a few of the many different kinds of Satanism. Since Pagans do get asked questions like "Do you worship Satan?", they should be prepared to answer this question without scapegoating or otherwise misrepresenting Satanists. To that end, they should at least be willing to listen to and dialogue with various kinds of Satanists as well as dialogue with people of more mainstream religions.

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