by Ethan Mack
Recently, a group of self-proclaimed “Satanists” put on a black mass in the Civic Center of Oklahoma City. The black mass was attended by roughly 40 people and was protested by hundreds of Catholics from the local diocese. In the wake of this, many commentators have criticized the protesters and Catholic Church in general for wanting to have it both ways. The USCCB has been combating the HHS mandate on the grounds that it is a violation of religious freedom. Many believe that Catholics cannot push so strongly for religious freedom and at the same time protest the Satanists’ right to perform a ritual sacred to them. Since I’m not a legal scholar, I won’t get into the legal issues of free speech and the first amendment at play here. Rather, I would simply like to argue that “Satanism” properly understood should not be labeled a religion.
Coming to an exhaustive definition of “religion” is a notoriously difficult task. There have been entire books written for the purpose of coming to a definitive answer. The difficulty is partially because it’s not always clear what characteristics are essential to a religion as such and which are simply common to many or most religions. In other words, what is the essence of religion and what are the accidents commonly associated with it? You could claim that a belief in God (a personal God who exists apart from creation) is an essential element of religion; however, you would inevitably have to contend that most of the eastern religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, etc.) are in fact not religions at all. This definition is, therefore, too narrow. You can also make a definition which is too broad. For example, you could claim that religion is that which contends with non-physical reality. However, from this it would follow that Platonism is a religion, since practically every work of Plato asks a question which aims to define an aspect of non-physical reality (“what is justice?”, “what is piety?”).
Having said this, I think it’s important to realize that a clear and distinct definition of religion is not necessary in order to claim something is not a religion. While certainly not comprehensive or definitive, my understanding of the essence of religion is not empty. A partial understanding of a concept can be sufficient to judge that a particular thing does not belong to that concept. For example, let’s say that Aristotle’s definition of a human, which claims that man is a rational animal, is correct. Let’s also say that my understanding of this definition is imperfect and all I know for sure is that man is an animal. Despite my imperfect comprehension, I can claim with certainty that a plant is not human. It is for the exact same reason that I have no trouble whatsoever claiming that Biology is not a religion. Because even thought I don’t know what a religion is, I do know that religions ask and answer questions about reality itself, whereas Biology asks and answers questions about a particular aspect of reality.
In a similar way, it can be said that Satanism is not a religion based on the fact that religions posit something. They make a series of positive claims. By “positive”, I don’t mean something kind or pleasant, but rather something affirmative or constructive. For Christianity, its first (and perhaps most important) positive claim is that Jesus of Nazareth, a man who walked the earth roughly 2000 years ago, was (and is) God. Satanism has its foundation in a negative claim about Christianity. It borrows the dualistic cosmology and morality of Christianity only so it can praise what Christians consider evil. Now, does this mean the religions never make negative claims? Of course not, they clearly do. But the negative follows from the positive. A Christian will say that all other religions do not possess the fullness of truth, only because they first claim that Christianity dose possess the fullness of truth. With Satanism, the positive follows from the negative. They affirm things like sin, hell, and demons precisely because they want to reject the Christian notion of these things. Thus, Satanism is not a religion truly, but a negative reaction to one; an inverse reflection then a thing in itself.