[This article was first published in 2017]
Picture a Satanist, and you might imagine someone dressed in a black cloak and mask engaging in bizarre violent rituals. At some point in this vision, Satan might even burst through the floor in a flurry of fire and bring an end to the world.
All in all, a Satanist is not the sort of person you'll be calling up to have dinner with your mum anytime soon. But those are the sorts of stereotypes that Ashley S. Palmer, a reverend of the Church of Satan, wants to debunk.
Satanists may not sound like the friendliest types, but the 33-year-old who lives on the south-east coast of England with his wife and baby daughter is happy to explain why his religion is misunderstood. It has nothing to do with devil worship, he stresses.
The religion, founded just over 50 years ago by US author and musician Anton Szandor LaVey has much more to do with atheism and libertarian ideals of the freedom to indulge, muddled together with a dash of Machiavellian pragmatism.
Palmer spoke to The Independent about how Satanism affects his daily life, and why a Satanist's favourite holiday is their birthday.
How old are you, where are you based, and what is your role in the Church of Satan?
I am a 33-year-old entrepreneur living on the south-east coast of England with my wife and baby daughter.
My role in the Church of Satan grew organically out of my passion for the philosophy, and pursuits pertinent to the propagation of Satanism as codified by its founder Anton Szandor LaVey. These activities were recognised by High Priest Peter H. Gilmore as authentic and effective additions to our world view, and I was ordained a Priest out-of-the-blue due to these meritorious efforts.
In accordance with the social Darwinian basis of Satanism, membership in the Priesthood of the Church of Satan is by invitation only and is strictly meritocratic, affirming the truisms, “actions speak louder than words” and “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it”.
There are no set duties for members of our Priesthood, as levels of involvement vary depending upon each individual’s talents and unique circumstances. I publicly promulgate Satanic philosophy and aesthetics, but not all Priests speak on our behalf and may even choose to keep their affiliation secret if beneficial to do so. Machiavellian strategies are particularly prevalent in professional circles due to the manifold misconceptions surrounding Satanism.
When did you first find out about Satanism and how long have you been a committed Satanist?
I first discovered the Church of Satan and writings of Dr LaVey through my older brother. We both grew up listening to death and black metal and industrial music, and were naturally drawn to the bands that had anti-Christian lyrics and employed Satanic imagery. Determined to learn of the origin and philosophy of Satanism, my brother delved through various books.
My brother realised he had finally found the source of Satanism was thoroughly impressed with LaVey's philosophy, but as I was only 10 or 11 at the time, he made a point of letting me discover Satanism on my own, after I had expressed interest independently a couple of years later.
As a natural non-joiner I was initially sceptical of the Church of Satan and incorrectly assumed, as most do, that Satanists were members of a devil worshipping cult, and was therefore happy to remain an atheist with a penchant for Satanic aesthetics prior to reading any official literature.
At around the age of 13 I eventually read The Satanic Bible and considered myself a Satanist shortly after. I realised that genuine Satanism had nothing to do with the supernatural devil nonsense that I cringed at whilst reading death metal lyrics, but was instead a pragmatic and unusual carnal religion which perfectly complimented my own atheistic, sceptical, and rational world view.
At the age of 15, as part of my English coursework, I gave a lecture on Satanism and the Church of Satan to a surprisingly receptive classroom in which I sought to smash through the misinformation I had encountered through mass media hysteria and discussed the hidden merits of Satanism.
Several years later, once an adult and having mulled over many aspects of Satanic philosophy, myself and my wife officially affiliated with the Church of Satan.
What is the biggest misconception people have about Satanism?
The main and most persistent misconception about Satanism and Satanists is that we believe in and worship an anthropomorphic or spiritual being known as ‘Satan’ or the ‘devil’. This is false. We Satanists are atheists who adopt ‘Satan’ as a symbol of passion, pride, liberty, and heroic rebellion in the tradition of the proto-Satanic themed poetry and writing of Giosuè Carducci, Lord Byron, John Milton, Benjamin DeCasseres, Mark Twain, and others that predate the founding of the Church of Satan.
Stating that one is an atheist leaves a lot of room for belief in a myriad of other spooky delusions unrelated to the existence of god(s) that are also regularly incorrectly packaged with Satanism, so I shall further clarify that as I apply the tool of scientific scepticism to critically analyse and question all things, I therefore reject all forms of pseudo-science, New Age spirituality and the supernatural, including, but not limited to: the occult, magick, Ouija boards, tarot,psychic divination, ghosts, immortality, astral projection, chakras, faith healing, astrology, and conspiracy theories. All of this is as ridiculous to me as praying to Jesus or Shiva.
What are the core philosophies of Satanism?
The philosophical concepts at the heart of Satanism are atheism, scientific scepticism, evolutionary biology, social Darwinism, heroic individualism, meritocracy, Lex Talionis, hierarchy, pragmaticism, aesthetics, dark romantic realism, humour, carnality, Epicurean indulgence in balance with Lycurgan Spartan vitality, a Faustian will to explore cutting-edge technology tempered by a respect for the past, and a passion for wildlife and nature.
One can find common conceptual ground with the likes of Ragnar Redbeard, Friedrich Nietzsche, H.L. Mencken, Ayn Rand, Jack London, and H.P. Lovecraft, all of whom were acknowledged as influences on Satanism. Dr. LaVey’s vision to synthesise various schools of thought with his own original ideas and symbolism, developed into an entirely unique and powerful philosophy, and a religion for the irreligious, which continues to inspire and grow over fifty years after its inception.
What is the average Satanist like?
The Church of Satan keeps all membership information private, but based upon my own interactions off and online, I have observed similar demographics to atheism in general. The majority of Satanists appear to be men between the ages of 20 to 45, although I have personally met many Satanic women above this age range.
How does being a Satanist affect your day-to-day life? Do you use the Satanic Rules for guidance, for instance? Are there any ceremonies or rituals?
As a Satanist, one could say that Satanism permeates all aspects of daily life, but for me this as natural as breathing, and is largely an unconscious process and a result of following my instincts and passions. Satanic rituals are not a requirement of Satanism and should be used as an optional cathartic tool for those that gain psychological benefit from structured ceremonies of the kind found in our texts. As my business activities largely revolve around Satanic principles and concepts, I have personally found that these creative pursuits, alongside the discipline of daily strength training, are effective forms of ‘ritual’ which provide sufficient stimulation, stress relief and satisfaction which allows me to save any formal Satanic ritualisation for extremely rare and special occasions. Through the designs, clothing and merchandise that I create for ASPculture.com, I'm able to channel my unique vision and aesthetic tastes to bring myself and other Satanists around the world pleasure and inspiration through tangible objects.
Are there Satanist holidays, for instance something comparable to Christmas?
Satanists are free to celebrate any holidays or “unholidays” they wish, although for most Satanists, as egoists, one’s own birthday is naturally considered the highest holiday of the year.
There is no requirement to celebrate any holidays, but as someone who embraces science, nature, and pre-Christian pan-European traditions, I tend to indulge in and observe the vernal equinox, Ostara, Walpurgisnacht, the founding of the Church of Satan, summer solstice, autumnal equinox, Halloween, and Yuletide, winter solstice, Saturnalia and New Year's Eve.
The Satanic Rules seem pretty reasonable. Where it states “act cruelly” or “destroy him”, is it to be taken as literally as that sounds? It doesn't seem to allow much room for negotiation. What's the philosophy behind that?
Those parts of ‘The Eleven Satanic Rules of the Earth’ are natural conclusions of our recognition of man as an animal whose highest law is self-preservation. As social Darwinists we adhere to a “might is right” philosophy of vengeance, and support the idea of justice through Lex Talionis, an aspect of which can be understood by the colloquial concept “an eye for an eye”. Timid would-be Satanists often try to sanitise Dr LaVey’s language, but the intention of these statements is obvious and can be taken literally depending upon the statement in question and the severity of the circumstance.
Obviously if somebody approaches you in the street in a non-threatening manner, and continues to bother you after you ask them to stop, physically destroying them would be an irrational, unwarranted, and illegal response. But you could “destroy” them symbolically with your words or by ignoring and removing yourself from the situation. However, if there was a legitimate threat and your life depended upon it, then to literally “destroy” the attacker in an act of self-defence may be completely rational as the only course of action left to avoid death. However, it is important to note that as strict advocates of law and order, we demand that each Satanist operate within the legal parameters of their country of residence with regards to all actions.
How does Satanism overlap with libertarianism?
As Satanists are free to align with any branch of politics, or remain apolitical if they wish, there are likely some anarchist and libertarian members of the Church of Satan. I feel it is improper to inject too much of one’s own personal politics into discussions when representing the Church of Satan, but as Dr. LaVey’s own politics are implicitly and sometimes explicitly encoded in Satanic philosophy, I shall attempt to measure libertarianism against Satanism from a mostly objective viewpoint.
Anarcho-capitalism and libertarianism in general appear more conducive to Satanic ideals. H. L. Mencken, one of the earliest Americans to identify as a libertarian, along with fellow traveller, Ayn Rand, were influential on Anton LaVey and Satanic philosophy, particularly in their advocacy of heroic individualism and rejection of religion, mysticism, supernaturalism in general.
A point of departure between Satanism and libertarianism that I have noticed, is that many schools of libertarian thought have a delusional view of human nature. This appears to arise in part from belief in the pseudo-scientific tabula rasa theory which claims that each human is born as a ‘blank slate’ without innate biological differences. This faulty notion leads many libertarians to conclude that all humans have equal potential ability and free will to become masters in any field of human endeavour, so long as the person is afforded the opportunity and necessary education. This utopian view of human potential is unfortunately unrealistic and un-Satanic. Satanism aligns with the scientific discoveries of evolutionary biology, and recognises that the natural world is stratified, exceptional talent and genius is rare, and the universe doesn’t care.