While “theistic” Satanism worships the Devil as a person, Anton LaVey’s “rationalist” Satanism regards Satan as a metaphor.
by Massimo Introvigne
We mentioned Californian rocket-scientist-cum-esotericist Jack Parsons in the previous article of this series. Although Parsons was not a Satanist, with his story we came to the eve of the birth of modern Satanism. Its fathers were an underground Hollywood filmmaker, Kenneth Anger, and his friend Anton Szandor LaVey (pseudonym of Howard Stanton Levey, 1930–1997). In 1961, they founded an organization called the Magic Circle and in 1966, the Church of Satan.
In the same years, Mary Ann Maclean (1931–2005) and her husband Robert de Grimston Moor (born in 1935) founded in London The Process Church of the Final Judgment, based on a sophisticated Jungian theology worshiping both God and Satan. After a short-lived communal experiment in Xtul, Mexico, The Process became notorious as a “cult” in the United States and collapsed in 1974, with the separation between Robert and Mary Ann. The latter kept elements of The Process in her Foundation Church and later in the animal rights Utah community Best Friends.
The Process’s demise was also due to its contacts with Charles Manson (1934–2017), the leader of the communal group known as the Manson Family, infamous for the 1969 murders of actress Sharon Tate (1943–1969) and others. Although in fact Manson started co-operating with The Process and using Satanic references only after he was arrested, the association with him made The Process, in the eyes of some media, “America’s most dangerous cult.”
The early years of LaVey’s Church of Satan were those of its greatest media success. By recruiting celebrities such as Jayne Mansfield (1933–1967) and (later) Sammy Davis Jr. (1925–1990), LaVey succeeded in being perceived as both fashionable and inoffensive. He also titillated his audience in 1967 with a “Topless Witches’ Sabbath,” featuring as one of the dancers Susan Atkins (1948–2009), who would later become one of Charles Manson’s assassins.
In fact, however, LaVey had a clear ideology, derived from Russian-American atheist novelist Ayn Rand (1905–1982) and from an obscure volume published in Australia in 1890, “Might is Right,” signed by “Ragnar Redbeard” and almost certainly written by the anarchist New Zealander philosopher Arthur Desmond (1859–1929). Rather than a religion, LaVey proposed in his best seller “The Satanic Bible” (1969) a social Darwinist, humanist, and anti-Christian ideology of the survival of the fittest and of the right of the strong to prey on the weak, based on both Rand and “Might is Right.”
Some claim that the Church of Satan was just a human potential movement. However, both in the “Satanic Bible” and in his 1972 “Satanic Rituals” (which had both a confidential internal and a public mass-marketed version) LaVey included enough references to Western esotericism and Crowleyan sexual magic to create a certain ambiguity in his movement.
The ambiguity led to the 1975 separation between LaVey’s “rationalist” branch of the Church of Satan and an “occultist” faction, persuaded that Satan really existed as a sentient being, who followed LaVey’s lieutenant, Michael Aquino, a U.S. Army colonel specialized in psychological warfare, who founded the Temple of Set.
Aquino had problems of his own. He was (falsely) accused of child abuse, and (with some bases) of Nazi sympathies. He managed to keep the Temple of Set alive to these days, although it has perhaps evolved into what Finnish scholar Kennet Granholm prefers to call “post-Satanism.”
The 1975 opposition of “rationalist” vs “occultist” (or “theistic”) Satanists still largely defines the global Satanist scene. Contrary to pessimistic predictions, LaVey survived quite well Aquino’s and some further schisms, and at least 60% of world Satanists are still “LaVeyan,” be they members of the Church of Satan (currently led from New York by Peter Gilmore) or otherwise, with a special flourishing in Scandinavia.
Coming now to a geography of recent Satanism, among the “rationalist” groups one of the most influential is the Order of the Left Hand Path, founded in New Zealand in 1990 by right-wing author Kerry Bolton. He proposed to reform LaVeyan Satanism through the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). Bolton eventually converted to Christianity, but the Order still exists.
Italy has a comparatively significant Satanist scene. Until his founder’s death in 2021, the largest group was the Luciferian Children of Satan, founded in Bologna in 1982 by Marco Dimitri (1963–2021), who served time in jail for alleged sexual abuse although he was finally recognized innocent. While critical of LaVey’s antics, Dimitri offered in fact a variation of the Church of Satan’s rationalist Satanism.
In 2015, Michael Ford made headlines by inaugurating the first Satanist temple open to the public in the Old Town Spring suburb of Houston, Texas. On the surface, Ford’s Satanism is a variation of LaVey’s. However his organizations (Church of Adversarial Light, Order of Phosphorus, Greater Church of Lucifer) are also part of Luciferian witchcraft, a galaxy of small groups that try to keep together Wicca and Satanism claiming that the god of the witches was in fact Lucifer.
Even more visible than Ford is now Lucien Greaves (real name: Douglas Mesner), who founded in 2013 The Satanic Temple. It quickly became well-known for its very public celebrations of Satan and lawsuits asking, in name of religious non-discrimination, to introduce Satanic statues (such as his famous Baphomet), prayers, and after school clubs wherever their Christian counterparts are allowed in public spaces. Greaves has a LaVeyan background but the real aim of his initiatives is to induce courts, rather than to introduce a Satanist presence in certain public places, to eliminate the Christian one.
Among the “occultist” Satanist groups the largest (some 2,000 members) may well be the Order of Nine Angles (ONA), founded in England in 1970 by “Anton Long,” widely believed to be a pseudonym for the notorious British neo-Nazi David William Myatt. He proclaims he has now rejected Nazism. ONA is openly Satanist and celebrates its own version of the Black Mass. It is also a secretive organization, as it maintains that terrorism is a valid tool to usher in the new Black Aeon, although whether it has committed actual crimes remains unclear.
Joy of Satan was founded in the early 2000s by Maxine Dietrich, a pseudonym of Andrea Herrington, the wife of American neo-Nazi leader Cliff Herrington. It offers a unique combination of theistic Satanism, Nazism, and UFO conspiracy theories. It regards Satan as a benevolent alien who created the Aryan race, while extraterrestrial villains created the Jews.
At the opposite political extreme, a curious movement is The Satanic Reds, founded in New York in 1997 by Tani Jantsang as an evolution of groups she had been part of since the 1960s, inspired by the mythology created by novelist H.P. Lovecraft (1890–1937). Jantsang also combines Satanism with social reform, using Marxist symbols but in fact proposing something more similar to New Deal’s social realism.
Michael Bertiaux is a popular Chicago esotericist, who operates a variety of occult orders. One is the Neo-Luciferian Church he established in 2005 with Danish occultist Bjarne Salling Pedersen, claiming a succession from Ben Kadosh. The church worships Lucifer as one of several possible representations of the divine, and claims that Luciferian energies are specially mobilized by art, as evidenced in Bertiaux’s own works.
Theistic Satanism has now a significant presence on the Web, although the LaVeyan variety maintains a majority share there. Large “theistic” Web sites are operated by activists such as Venus Satanas and Diane Vera, whose Church of Azazel also organizes gatherings and rituals in New York.
Most Satanists celebrate Satan as a “good” character and the liberator of humans. Only in the musical milieu of Extreme Metal we find an “anti-cosmic” Satanism worshiping Satan as the dark god of death, destruction, and evil. We will discuss this unique Satanism in the next article of this series.