AN interview with the satanists
The 2011 census revealed that Bristol has a higher concentration of Satanists than any other area in England and Wales. Two percent of the countries' ‘devil worshippers’ live, breathe, eat and, one can’t help but imagine, sacrifice a chicken or two in this historic city every day. They walk their dogs on The Downs, grab lunch at your local BTP, and work in the offices and construction sites you pass every day. They don’t wear pointed hoods over inverted-cross necklaces (at least, not all the time), and they live among you unnoticed. That is, of course, assuming Bristol isn’t instead full of dads who get a kick out of refusing to honestly answer a few simple multiple-choice questions on a representational survey. Whatever the reality behind the statistic, though, we were mesmerised by the concept of a growing movement, and found one group who are due to give a guest lecture at Bristol University this year: the Church of Rational Satanism.
Brandishing a suitably ironic ‘Behemoth’ mug behind the electro-ripple of a Facebook Live video, Ben Dean – the church’s London representative – addresses its virtual followers. The real-time comments flood in, with one member agonising over his own inability to be critical of the movement’s ‘bible’; “I am far from a sheep,” he types, “but I can’t do anything BUT agree”. Indeed, critical thinking lies at the heart of the church’s ethos, and appears to be the catalyst which causes many a wandering atheist to join the sort of group whose mere name terrified a Good Christian friend with whom I discussed this interview. To you, dear reader, I say what I said to her: this evocation of the biblical beast is something of a red herring. Indeed, as one representative writes on the group’s blog, “Rational Satanists do not believe in Satan as a real deity or the big red kick ass guy with horns. And if he was real he could go kiss my ass as I would never bow down to him.”
Dean has been a member of the church for a little over two years which, in the scheme of any other cosmically-minded organisation, might seem fledgling. However, with the church only celebrating its eighth birthday this month, it’s clear that the movement is one which is still growing with, rather than within, its members. When asked a question about the meaning of the church’s core symbol in the Q&A, Dean ordains to “give it whatever meaning you want. You’re the one that’s going to give it the power.” In this place, nothing is sacred and everything is up for debate. Instead of encouraging the church members to find their place in the system, its managers (née bishops, priests, spiritual leaders) insist they forge it. Of course, the only logical step forward was to organise a Skype date, with little regard for the innate possibility that I might be hypnotised over video chat.
Starting with the most important question: in your experience, are there a lot of Satanists in Bristol?
John Wait, Devon & Cornwall Representative: The census said that there was…there’s quite a population status in Bristol, isn’t there? From our point of view I know a few, we’ve got a few members in that area.
What is it that separates a member of the Church of Rational Satanism and a staunch atheist?
Ben Dean: For me personally, I’ve always been interested in witchcraft and the occult, so I’ve always been drawn to that esoteric side of self-improvement. But I know that’s not for everyone, and everyone within the church doesn’t do rituals.
JW: I actually do think we all do rituals, we just don’t do them in the same way. Ben would do his in a classic sense, but ritual for all of us is about escapism and wellbeing. I go for a walk on the beach or take the kids out or whatever, but I can’t see any difference.
You’re doing a guest lecture here in May, and I heard you’ve already run one at Hull University. How do people usually react to that kind of thing? Are they hostile or do they genuinely want to know more about you?
BD: I think it’s the usual thing. People have usually got preconceived ideas and you just have to go up there and be yourself…you know – discuss the baby sacrificing and all that stuff [far-too enthusiastic laughter from me].
JW: Yeah, we’ve got seven [University visits] booked now I think.
Oh wow, how do these come about? Do they invite you or have you contacted them?
JW: No no, we’ve not contacted anybody. […] I think the humanist societies all talk to each other probably.
That’s interesting, because the preconception seems to be, based on the reactions of people I’ve told about this interview, that you’re bound to start ripping the heads off chickens on-camera.
JW: Yeah, well…we moan about it but there’s a reason why we like the word. It goes both ways, and it’s all part of the larger picture. Yes, it is edgy, but there’s another side to it. There are people within the Satanic community who I don’t feel I have anything in common with philosophically. You know, there’s deists and demonologists, but we try not to worry about all of that.
I suppose you would have to believe in God to some degree in order to believe in Satan?
JW: Exactly, which is why we, rather disparagingly I suppose, refer to them as ‘reverse Christians’. We’re all predominantly atheist, but Lee’s intention [the church’s founder] was to get people looking at themselves. At the end of the day, Satanism is – in a positive way – a selfish scenario: to get people to fully appreciate themselves, you’ve got to try and have a more accepting view of others, too. There are people with all sorts of views and beliefs in the community, and it doesn’t really matter, as long as the concentration and the development and the attitude of life is consistent.
BD: They can believe whatever they want to believe as long as they don’t force it on you. We’re quite happy for members to be Christian or Muslim, whatever, as long as we don’t try to force each other to change. Satanism is a philosophy, not really like a religion.
So the Church of Rational Satanism, unlike other religions I suppose, doesn’t exclude members based on their attendance of other churches?
JW: Yeah I mean, when you do get into a conversation with people of a devout nature, they’re so obsessed with what happens next. So obsessed that nobody gives a shit about what they’re doing now, as though fate is going to roll them along until they get to heaven. I’m against promoting death.
So why use Satan as the mascot for an atheist movement that’s all about the self?
JW: In the original Hebrew, Satan’s name is literally translated to ‘adversary’. We don’t see him as this guy who punishes people for God, but a guy who stood up to God and was kicked out of heaven. Lucifer, the Morning Star, Apollo, whatever, is the light bringer prior to Christianity – he brought enlightenment and his crime was trying to teach us mortals heavenly secrets. That’s basically what it is; he’s a character, and a metaphor, which we feel is a benefit to humanity. We don’t believe in Satan, but we want to be like Satan – adversarial.
Do you find that people do come to the church with previous experiences that have proven that they need to put themselves first, or invest more into their own wellbeing?
BD: Me personally? I’m actually in the proof-reading stage at the moment for a book I’ve got coming out using the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous without using God, from a Rational Satanic perspective. I’m nine years now without a drink. Halloween is basically my recovery date, and I’ve put that into a text that will hopefully give people a good enough start point where they can look at themselves, utilising recovery processes that are already in place, and help themselves.
JW: And it’s really looking great. I think there are quite a few people in the community who’ve had some kind of a jolt. I often feel, and people have said to me, that something can happen in your life and you think ‘you know what? I’m not making the best job of this, I need to get my shit together, and think about me’. Quite often, the selfish aspect is misconstrued, though. We accept the fact that altruism ultimately benefits the self, and there’s nothing wrong with that – being a good person should make you feel good. We’re taught to be humble and beaten down and oppressed, but I’m much more comfortable with the idea of helping someone because it makes me feel good than I am with doing something because I don’t want to get fried in hell, or just because God is watching.
And just like that, I’m ‘converted’. Or, perhaps, suddenly able to recognise the honest goodness in the movement and relate with themes I’ve already felt throughout my life. The church is a powerful comment on the strength of self-actualisation, the kind that, atheism argues, religion steals from the individual. Far from some mother-horrifying, headline-making cult, whose members are psychologically overpowered, members of the Church of Rational Satanism are partaking in a radical act of autonomy. Exercise your own autonomy and come along to the organization’s guest lecture on 18th May at the Bristol Improv Theatre at 8pm – BYOSC (bring your own sacrificial chickens).