This is point of inquiry for Friday, August 10th, 2007.
Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiries, the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing science reason and secular values in public affairs. Before we get to this week’s guest, Peter Gilmore, get this, the head of the Church of Satan to talk with me about science and Satanism. Here’s a word from this week’s sponsor, Free Inquiry magazine.
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My guest this week is Peter H. Gilmore. He is the head, the high priest of the Church of Satan, which was founded in the 60s by Anton Levay. Last year, the Church of Satan did a satanic mass at our West Coast branch of the Center for Inquiry there in Los Angeles, which resulted in all kinds of interesting reactions from the atheist, the humanist, the secular community there at the Center for Inquiry. I guess the Satanist can be everybody’s devil, not just the Christians. More about Peter Gilmore. His academic background is in the study of film and music. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music composition from NYU. In 1989, he founded The Black Flame, which is the Church of Satan’s magazine. And for the last two decades, he’s represented Satanism in international television, on the radio, in newspapers. And he joins me today to talk about science and Satanism. Peter Gilmore, welcome to Point of Inquiry.
Thanks so much for honoring me by having me here.
Peter Gilmore, your well, I should admit from the get go that you’re kind of an unusual guest for us. We normally have these leading scientists and social critics on the show. Now, it’s not that we haven’t tried to get some prominent religious leaders on as well to talk about the things we talk about science and religion and their intersection. Other topics. But all the conservative religionists that we’ve tried to get on the show, they’ve declined our invitations for some reason. You’re a religious leader, but you did not decline, even though some people might wonder what in the world you have to do with science and secularism. So to start off our discussion, you head up the Church of Satan.
Absolutely. I’m a high priest of the Church of Satan.
But you don’t actually believe in Satan. Isn’t that kind of like the pope not believing in Jesus Christ?
No. Satan for us. We take it from the original Hebrew meaning adversary, and we Satanists see ourselves as the adversaries to all faith based approaches to belief. So we are atheists. We are skeptics. We embrace science as the method for understanding the universe. And we’d look at Satanism as being an unreligious rather than a religion.
So that may be a good reason to have me here as an unreligious leader.
OK, so I get it. You’re just pretending you’re kind of theatrically acting all satanic in order to be the adversary of the devout religionist, in order to kind of rile them up. Is Satanism just a parody religion?
Well, it’s a little more than that for Satanism. Certainly there’s an aspect to that. We believe that all religion is show business and we’re about the only one that’s free enough to admit that. But for us, the esthetic component of Satanism is the symbol of Satan himself.
And we see it not as a representation of evil, but is one of individualism, liberty and pride, which are all things that we value. So we look at them sort of as Hamiltonian or a Mark Twain perspective, not as some kind of avatar of evil and vile behavior, although, of course, most of the religious folks might think individualism, liberty and pride is vile and reprehensible behavior. Mm hmm.
So you’re you’re Satan is the admirable character out of Milton, the the Satan that defies the status quo when the status quo is not worth living with.
That’s our guiding image is kind of along these lines about are the content of your actual beliefs. When I was a teenager, maybe I shouldn’t say this, but before I was an evangelical Christian, way back when I was kind of in a cultist in St. Louis, there there was a a store called the Alchemist’s Shop, and they sold candles. And, you know, you could get into all this kind of a cult stuff, paranormal stuff. You do rituals like that. But you actually you don’t actually believe in any of that mumbo jumbo.
Exactly. Well, we feel that the ritual chamber is a place for controlled self-delusion. The human mind consists of conceptual consciousness and symbols are ways that our mind holds more facts and conscious focus, small things than any other method. So the idea of using symbol and metaphor is something that. Natural for the human species. And that might be why you were attracted to it yourself. You can have secular symbolism and ritual and pageantry and it’s very effective. It’s something that is part of the nature of the human animal. But we can do that without having faith or belief in the supernatural. That ritual chamber can be a place where you dramatically perform what I call self transformational psychodrama. We release the emotions that we would find that would be hindering us in the regular pursuit of our happiness so that we can then let them go. And then outside of the chamber, be completely rational and promote ourselves to getting what we want out of existence, which is generally what pleases us.
Mm hmm. You raised a couple ethical questions just now. But before we get into the topic of ethics, I want to talk more about Satanism in society or kind of your view of Satanism verses or in terms of atheists in society. AppAll, a while back at University of Akron showed that atheists didn’t show that Satanists were, but that atheists were the most despised group in America. Shootin Satanists be even more despised, since you avowedly seem to be antagonistic to the most cherished beliefs of society. I mean, most atheists say no or kind of live and let live type folks. They don’t want to make religious people in our society miserable. They just want to be left alone to not believe what, you know, the supernatural ists are believe in.
Well, we to take that perspective that we would like to be left alone. We do believe in having a secular, pluralistic society. I don’t know if that poll listed Satanism, but we think to see ourselves as a subset of atheists. We are atheists. And if the religious people understand that, then they despise us as much as they do atheists for the right reason. If they think that we’re devil worshipers, then that could perhaps put them on a higher level than atheists. Because if you were a devil worshiper, you’d have to believe in their God and their devil and their supernaturalism. And on some level, affirm their metaphysics. And we reject them. And we really are on board with the atheists in that.
So there’s not really a underground movement of devil worshipers who go out and skin cats and pray to, you know, bail or, you know, whatever pagan gods there. That’s all kind of a parody of your religion by the evangelical. Right. You know, from years back.
Oh, exactly. What happen during the satanic panic was a lot of evangelists were trying to promote the idea that there was this underground conspiracy of devil worshiping monsters who were hooked up to the highest levels in government and were promoting heavy metal bands and writing graffiti under subway, you know, on subway walls, and that these people are kidnaping white trash women to breed babies for sacrifice. And then their demons were appearing and teleporting people around the globe for meetings with international leaders.
It was pretty amazing and very similar to the protocols of the Elders of Zion, which were directed against the Jews in earlier times. So that kind of a finding, a scapegoat in society is something that human beings tend to do. And at that period that was being promoted. But really, the FBI and other rational researchers have proven that it’s really complete bunk.
Switching gears, hero a little, Peter, what’s your take on all these bestselling anti God books? You said that Satanism is adversarial to the faith based ways of looking at the world. So are these anti God books? Does that make them Satanist?
Well, it makes them adversarial. And we faintness love those books. It adds more ammunition for us to use against the believers. For years, though, major book seems to have been George Smith’s Athie isn’t the case against God. That was one that was always on our bookshelf. But now that we’ve got a whole new slew of books of nonbelievers coming out for the element of them presenting a nonbelief, we can really get behind that. And we like the idea that they’re bringing that argument out, especially in the reaction to this sort of pendulum swing towards faith and fanaticism that’s been worldwide.
So Satanists have almost up and down the line. It sounds like the same view about the role of religion in the public square. Yet you’re having that perspective as a religion, not as a kind of a group of nonbelievers. I guess I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around an atheist saying he has a religion.
Well, I think that’s what makes Satanism unique. We consider ourselves the world’s first cardinal religion. We reject that there is anything spiritual whatsoever that we’re just carnal animals. We think that that’s fine. Our nature is OK. We don’t try to beat ourselves up for being human beings. And we look to science, understand what that means. But it is something unique. And that means that we are often misunderstood or mischaracterized. And, of course, it upsets a lot of people in the secular humanist atheist camp because. They suddenly look at Satanism, think, well, it must be devil worship, or even if it isn’t, it’s just simply there to to be defining itself. Only counter Christianity. And we have a broader perspective than that. And, you know, we we Satanists feel that we don’t need to wear good guy badges. And that’s why embracing Satan is really the biggest tonic to your consciousness that can do that, because we think that if you’re self righteous and always wanted to find yourself as the good, that can lead to to a fanaticism, a lack of critical mass of what you’re doing. And so we feel that that, again, by embracing the symbol of Satan on this other level, it also helps you drop the idea that you have to wear a good guy badge and are therefore self-righteous Jim Underdown you seem to be contrasting Satanism, that kind of Athie ism.
You know, atheists who are Satanists, you’re contrasting that with atheists who are humanists, atheists who say, I do want to wear the good guy badge. I believe in being a good person and in taking care of the least of these. Right. Those are some big differences, I think, in terms of ethics. Let’s talk about ethics then, about your ethics as a Satanist over the years. In my line of work, I’ve met and debated with many religious leaders, especially evangelical Christian leaders. And a number of times they’ve described evolution as satanic evolution as evolution is the kind of half joke they use. Of course, I take it from your previous answers and other discussion that you buy into the theory of evolution. Does the theory of evolution inform your ethics? I mean, are you saying evolution is saying were all fixed in a battle for the survival of the fittest? That ethics doesn’t really enter into it. That this is a war of all against all. And so don’t even worry about trying to be a good guy.
One has to define what a good guy here. And our idea of what being good is may not be what the Christian might say or particular other people.
But yes, clearly that evolution is the way things function, that that Darwin is correct. There’s plenty of evidence that supports that and that there is a certain struggle for survival. However, you can’t just sort of take that as an individual pitted against everything because human beings are naturally social creatures. And that Satanists understand that we need to have a social contract so that we are part of a civilization, a structure that allows us to get the most pleasure out of our lives.
We think that if there is any kind of chaos or a state of total war, you’re really going to waste a lot of your time in just basic survival and trying to hold on to your goods and property. And really, we only live once. There’s no afterlife. So that kind of of an anarchic, violent situation to us seems completely ridiculous. We’re very pragmatically Satanists, and we want to use practical means of approaching what the reality of our species is towards the attaining of our own personal pleasures.
Well, none of that sounds very controversial. Talking about enlightened self-interest, organizing your life in a way to maximize the goods in it, the pleasures, your happiness. Well, that that doesn’t you know, that doesn’t sound uniquely satanic to me.
Well, you naturally did.
You didn’t just suggest I’m a little satanic, did you?
Well, I think if the horns fit, sometimes you have to wear them, really.
The folks who advocate altruism, the sacrifice of oneself to the good of others or society or whatever, which ranges from Christianity to Nazi ism, those kind of people will see this as satanic and evil. So, again, everything is all a matter of your perspective and how you make definitions of those things. Human values are completely subjective and created by human beings, and every particular society has a set of values. And it all depends on what kind of connection they have to previous ones. Are they studying literature that existed? Do they even know or care, you know, vary so greatly? I mean, if you lived in Sparta, the rational thing to do for same Spartans was to take out the defective infants and expose them to be gotten rid of. And today in 21st century, Western society would think that was completely revolting. So there’s always standards that come from society and we have to decide how we’re going to work with the society that exists that we’re living in to, again, maximize what we’re going to get out of it.
One difference that seems obvious to me in yours. You’re talking about ethics just now between Satanism in, say, secular humanism, which is often called satanic by its cultural competitors. Is that you said morality is completely subjective. I know a lot of secular humanist to loudly talk about how morality has an objective basis only insofar as you contested by its consequences. You talked about pragmatism. That’s kind of an objective way of looking in the real world of evidence. If this ethical behavior works versus this one that doesn’t. That’s objective. In other words, it’s not just a matter of tastes, just a matter of preference. That’s a heady subject. You know, we could not just you and me, but anybody we could debate for 2000 years, as I think has been happening about ethics.
I want to focus a little bit more on this survival of the fittest vs. altruism that you brought up.
Well, just to catch you back there a second, the whole idea that, you know, being pragmatic, we’ll find something that works. But again, you have to look at history in various societies to see what works in the context of the societies. And it will vary over the course of what the values are and how people behave. And that whole example I gave of Sparta shows that in that society that seemed to work for those people.
Right. Cultural relativism does should enter into it. That morality is relative to the moral agents. Right. But I’m not sure it follows that. Therefore, it’s subjective. It’s relativistic. It’s not necessarily subjective, but relative.
It is subjective because it’s in the human mind. It’s not something that that is any way something completely objectively demonstrable in every case in the universe. I don’t think it is. I mean, some people might.
Again, you were thinking before one could argue that once we really get anywhere and even if we could argue constantly and have a fruitful argument, I’ll focus on on this question about the downtrodden, about survival of the fittest vs. altruism. T.H. Huxley says somewhere that ethics is. Well, it’s kind of a..
It’s behaving in a way that opposes the survival of the fittest, the struggle for cosmic existence. He says something like in in the place of ruthlessly asserting yourself, in the place of thrusting aside the weak. Right. Instead of all that. We should try to behave in a way so that as many as possible will survive as opposed to the survival of the fittest. Now, that was a that’s a paraphrase of what Huxley was getting at.
But the point is that, yeah, maybe were naturally red in tooth and claw, but we don’t need to stay that way. We can we can take care of everybody. There’s kind of a social gospel and secular humanism that I don’t find in Satanism. In other words.
Well, again, Satan is deciding what you cherish and what you value is personal choice. And if a Satanist decides that he thinks it’s a value to it to contribute to hospitals and care for people who’ve had financial difficulties or who have been addicts or whatever, that’s a purely personal choice.
Let me ask you, as a Satanist, do you value those sorts of things, taking care of the week?
Not not in general is a broad principle, no. I would look at people who may have had bad consequences that are not something that is based on their own actions that I feel should be supported because they’ve been productive, intelligent, creative people and may have, through no fault of their own, fallen on hard times and could use a boost to get back up to being the wonderful people that they were. And also, I’m interested in, you know, certainly protecting animals from being abused by humans because we are such a feral primate and can really do some horrific things.
Why why protect the animals?
Simply because I cherish them? I think animals are wonderful. They’re there. They add to my existence.
What about the guy who doesn’t like animals? That is there doesn’t have to contribute to it. So according to your ethical worldview, there’s no imperative for people who disagree with you to. There’s no argument in your ethical position to persuade other people to adopt it.
Absolutely. OK. So really, it’s to each his own. Yes. Yes.
Kind of still along these lines. It might be controversial to some of my best buddies who are avowed atheists. But I say it and they always wince. I love religions, even though I’m an atheist. I love religions. One of the most fascinating religions out there to me is Mormonism. You get 10 wonderfully the real. Yeah, it’s amazing. It’s beautiful. Developed by a really impressive American religious genius, Joseph Smith. I bring up Mormonism because you get to know a Mormon. There’s something about a Mormon that’s charming, that’s kind of puts you at ease. They have happy families. They care for the community. They’re good citizens. What I’m getting at is a Mormon. It’s like a Mormon would make a great neighbor. Here’s the question for you. Would a Satanist make a good next door neighbor, too? Or would a Satanist be so self-centered and selfish you’d always have to be watching your back?
Well, with the Satanist, one of our main principles is responsibility to the responsible. And we approach that by treating people as we would like to be treated. Of course, people treat us badly. We’ll return them. However, if you’re a good person and a Satanist is near you, if you treat that Satanists with respect, you’ll get that back. So Satanists are wonderful neighbors. Just as an example here in the apartment building I live in, I’m the one person the building that he has. Just about everybody’s apartment because everything needs something. I’m the one they know they can rely on to make that happen.
You not only live and let live, you match kindness with kindness and evil with evil.
Absolutely. It’s very much the old Roman concept of lex talionis when it comes to the crime being punished with something in equal in kind and degree. And we do that for the benefit to have somebody does something nice to us. We’re kindly disposed towards them and we return the favor. It does seem to make life much more pleasurable.
Game theorists, I think, would have a heyday with the ethics espoused by Satanists. But I want to explore with you some comparisons of Athie ism, the atheist movement in general, and your Satanist church. You were the head of the Church of Satan. So who better to ask the following? Too many religionists. There’s not much of a difference between Satanism and Athie ism, but you’ve shown that there are some stark contrasts or that you are a subset, at least that that not every atheist shares the tenets of Satanism. This especially, I think, holds true for secular humanism vs. Satanism, even though both are atheistic. So let’s let’s get it this this way. If it be next to impossible for a Satanist to be elected to public office. If he were if he or she open about it. We have members who are elected to public office who are not open about and you kind of encourage remembers not to come out of the closet.
Absolutely. Because practically the bigotry that exists in our society can be amazingly detrimental.
Well, why not work for social change to make? Society more accepting of Satanists?
Well, on some level, some of our members do that, and I certainly do through my writings and speakings. But we don’t require our members to be martyrs to the cause that if your life is one in which it would be detrimental to you to come out and be a Satanist, you know, this could be a goal to make society feel that sadism is OK. That can take a century or more. And why should you waste your life being a sacrifice to something down the line that isn’t going to really benefit you personally?
That argument could have been marshaled to African-Americans who were working for their civil rights or women who were working for the vote. Many atheists argue that they are oppressed. They seem to have some good reason for this. Look at how unpopular it is.
Do you think Satanism is oppressed? Does it need to raise consciousness for its cause?
It does in some arena. Yes, there are people who will be against it. We have plenty of members in the military. And it used to be actually in earlier times from the 70s, say through the mid 80s, that they could have Church of Satan on their dog tags. And it wasn’t an issue except maybe among some of their superior officers who were born again, Christians born again. At that point, we’d be told to kind of shut up and live and let live. However, these days, because of this upsurge of the Christian right, any of our members to do that really can have their military careers ruined. The whole point is, again, as I said before, it’s an individual choice. If your value is that you want to work towards moving society in a direction that will be more friendly to Satanists and more accepting, then absolutely pursue that. But if during your life you feel that that’s going to be a self-sacrifice, that’s something that’s painful and harmful to you and it’s your option not to. So it’s a case by case basis. Each individual Satanist has to make that decision as to whether they’re going to stand forth and be an exemplar and show people that it isn’t what they might think it is or not.
Before we finish up, Peter, let’s just touch on ethics a bit more. If we took the words Satanism out but just talked about the ethics you just espoused. How is that different than, say, Ayn Rand’s objectivism or or, you know, there’s some of those kind of more self-centered, selfish in their sense of the term? Some of those philosophies?
Well, I don’t. There’s a huge difference between basing Satanism in our ethics and Ayn Rand because of her approach as a rational self-interest with a person’s happiness being the central value. I think that she has decided, though, that their objective means fear and how people should behave. And as we discussed earlier, I don’t really think that they’re necessarily objective, that they are fairly relative and culturally based. So that, I think, is the major difference. But you know what’s interesting, too, though, if you get just beyond the ethics, but for Satanism and the atheists and secular humanist is that I’m noticing more recently and I mean, Satanism has been around since the church was founded in 1966, that the atheist community is trying to figure out a way of having some kind of metaphor in symbolism that can galvanize them like we have Satan as our symbol of pride and for us, a way of not being self-righteous. But you saw in, you know, the history of Madeline Murray O’Hare as American atheist group. They tried to create a symbol with an A and electrons orbiting it to show science and reason. And we now have the bright movement where you’re trying to create a meme like using the word gay was used before to create something that was not an epithet used against a certain kind of people, but something that could infiltrate the culture and present a more acceptable image. You know, I mean, they even have an emblem that looks kind of like a variation on the Japanese rising star flag from World War Two. But that idea that that the human animal needs to use some kind of symbolism and metaphor that is emotionally reinforcing and personally satisfying is actually getting out there among secular people. And I think we’ll be seeing more of that in the future. There will be different symbols being used by people who are secular because it is something that’s natural to our species and that we we secular folk don’t want to let the religious believers, the spiritual folk, the fanatics be the ones to monopolize that.
That said, these symbols that the secular movement, the humanist, the atheist, the brights movement, all, you know, the rationalist movement, the symbols that they’re using, contre, the Satanist symbols that you’ve been using for decades. Well, the rationalist symbols are used kind of with an organizing goal in mind. They want to bring people together. They want to create a movement. I should stop saying VÉ because it’s kind of my line of work to help organize this movement. Yet you’re you’re not interested in organizing a movement or an. Having people come out of the closet or raise consciousness for Athie ism or Satanism, you you write in your book kind of even against that whole notion of community.
Right. For us, what we’re doing is catering to a certain type of person that’s out there. A major component of Satanism is an esthetic one. We are kind of Addams Family Values kind of folk that the symbol of Satan and sort of a spooky approach to things seems to be something that is common to us. We say that Satanists are born and not made. And we think it’s cross-cultural that there are people who speak different languages and come from all the various cultures on the globe that when they see they read the Satanic Bible or read my book, they see themselves reflected in the words there and in the esthetics as well. Satanism is a way for these people to say there are other folks out there and they feel pleased at that. But it’s not necessarily any kind of enforced mode of making people deal with each other. Because, again, we feel we’re a bunch of individualists when individualism is a basic tenet. You understand that people are not necessarily going to get along with each other. So trying to, again, create some kind of movement isn’t really our goal. It’s just a way of promoting an identity for a certain type that we think exists out there.
And it’s the type that’s kind of theatrical, enjoys the macabre, this kind of melodramatic way of confronting culture. Exactly. We could talk about many more things. This was interesting. I don’t know if every rationalists out there. Yeah, I could just see the eyes roll. Oh, my gosh. A Satanist. That’s exactly the opposite of what we need to do as we work on our PR image. But you say some thought provoking things, and I appreciate you being on the show. Let’s finish up by asking you the doozy. The question that I enjoy asking a lot of our guests on the show, is science compatible with religion? I’m asking, I guess, is science compatible with the religion of Satanism and religion in general?
Well, I think that science is utterly compatible with Satanism. So it’s our main approach to understanding the universe around us. I don’t think it’s necessarily compatible with faith based approaches because they’re using the primacy of belief against using a reason and evidence to come up with understanding. I have faith as a short circuiting of reason and reason is intrinsic to science. So I do not think that in general religion and science are compatible.
Thank you very much for joining me on Point of Inquiry, Peter Gilmore.
Oh, you’re really welcome. It’s really a pleasure. And, you know, I appreciate what you’re doing and really think it’s necessary.
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Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. And I’m your host, DJ Grothe.