A group of U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen who follow the religion of The Satanic Temple recently announced in an email that “Satanic services” would soon be offered on the campus. After the email was leaked on a popular Instagram account, the Navy clarified that a group of midshipmen “with beliefs aligned with those practiced by The Satanic Temple” had requested a space for a “study group” to discuss their Satanic beliefs and not for holding Satanic religious services. “The USNA Command Religious Program provides for the exercise of diverse beliefs,” a spokesman for the Naval Academy said. “Arrangements were being made to provide the Midshipmen with a designated place to assemble as chaplains facilitate for the beliefs of all service members.”

This news, as well as other acts by Satanist groups, has sparked renewed interest and concern about this religion. Here are nine things you should know about the religious beliefs of modern Satanism.

1. Modern Satanism refers to the religious, philosophical, and ideological movements that self-identify using the term “Satan” or “Satanism” and associate themselves with Satan, whether as metaphor, a dark force, or an individual entity. The beginning of modern Satanism is generally attributed to the late-1960s. The three major trends within the movement are theistic or religious Satanism, atheistic or philosophical Satanism, and reactive or adolescent Satanism.

2. Theistic Satanists believe Satan is one of a group of supra-personal “dark forces” capable of having some control or influence over human beings, and who venerate, worship, or align with him. A prime example is the Order of Nine Angels, an occult group created in the 1960s in the UK, whose members strive to become “one” with Satan and other “dark forces” and seek “to create new, more highly evolved individuals.” Even within occultism, theistic Satanists are extremely rare. Researchers estimate their global numbers to be in the low thousands.

3. Atheistic Satanism does not acknowledge the existence of either God or Satan. What they identify with is Satan as symbolic adversary of religion and traditional morality. As Time magazine wrote in 1972, “They invoke Satan not as a supernatural being, but as a symbol of man’s self-gratifying ego, which is what they really worship.” The Church of Satan explains their view by saying, “We see the universe as being indifferent to us, and so all morals and values are subjective human constructions. Our position is to be self-centered, with ourselves being the most important person (the ‘God’) of our subjective universe, so we are sometimes said to worship ourselves.”

4. The German historian of religions Joachim Schmidt coined the term “reactive Satanism” to refer to groups who adopt the Satan portrayed in Judaism and Christianity as a figure of veneration to invert the values of those religions. As Catherine Beyer explains, “Satan is still an evil god as defined in Christianity, but one to be worshiped rather than shunned and feared. In the 1980s, adolescent gangs combined inverted Christianity with romantic ‘gnostic’ elements, inspired by black metal rock music and Christian scare propaganda, role-playing games and horror imagery, and engaging in petty crime.” These types of Satanists often adopt the self-identification of Satanism as an act of adolescent rebellion against parents or society. In The Psychology of Adolescent Satanism, Anthony Moriarty says these “dabblers” in Satanism tend to fall into three categories: psychopathic delinquents, angry misfits, and pseudo-intellectuals. This type is likely to be the largest group within modern Satanism.

5. The primary inventor of atheistic Satanism was former circus performer Anton LeVay, who created the Church of Satan in 1966. Because of growing interest in the occult in California during that era, LeVay attracted media attention to his new cult.
Among those to join his church were the actress Jane Mansfield, entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., and hairstylist and Manson Family murder victim Jay Sebring. In 1969, LaVey published The Satanic Bible, a quasi-scripture that outlined his religious beliefs. The essence of LaVeyan Satanism is captured in the “Nine Satanic Statements” made in the introductory chapters:

  • Satan represents indulgence instead of abstinence.
  • Satan represents vital existence instead of spiritual pipe dreams.
  • Satan represents undefiled wisdom instead of hypocritical self-deceit.
  • Satan represents kindness to those who deserve it, instead of love wasted on ingrates.
  • Satan represents vengeance instead of turning the other cheek.
  • Satan represents responsibility to the responsible instead of concern for psychic vampires.
  • Satan represents man as just another animal who, because of his “divine spiritual and intellectual development,” has become the most vicious animal of all.
  • Satan represents all of the so-called sins, as they all lead to physical, mental, or emotional gratification.
  • Satan has been the best friend the [Christian] church has ever had, as he has kept it in business all these years.

6. The inspiration for LaVey’ brand of Satanism was thenovelist and pop-philosopher Ayn Rand. “I give people Ayn Rand with trappings,” LaVey once told The Washington Post. On another occasion he acknowledged that his brand of Satanism was “just Ayn Rand’s philosophy with ceremony and ritual added.” Indeed, the influence is so apparent that LaVey has been accused of plagiarizing part of his “Nine Satanic Statements” from the John Galt speech in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

7. Prior to LaVey, the most common symbol associated with Satanism was the inverted cross. But after seeing a picture of a goat’s head in an upturned pentagram on the cover of the 1964 coffee table book A Pictorial History of Magic and the Supernatural, LaVey adopted the image as the symbol of his cult. LaVey first used the image in 1968 on his spoken-word album The Satanic Mass LP, and then in 1969 on The Satanic Bible. The image, copyrighted by the Church of Satan and known as the Sigil of Baphomet, quickly became associated in the public imagination as the primary symbol of Satanism.

8. Founded in 2013, The Satanic Temple has overtaken the Church of Satan as the most popular organization for Satanists in America. Although both share the ideology of atheistic Satanism, the two groups oppose the core activities of the other. (As The Satanic Temple claims, “The Church of Satan expresses vehement opposition to the campaigns and activities of The Satanic Temple, asserting themselves as the only ‘true’ arbiters of Satanism, while The Satanic Temple dismisses the Church of Satan as irrelevant and inactive.”) Since its founding, The Satanic Temple has primarily focused on reactionary attention-grabbing stunts, such as lobbying to put up Satanic displays alongside Nativity scenes and Ten Commandments on public property, starting “After School Satan Clubs” for elementary schools in response to the evangelical Christian Good News Clubs, and filing a lawsuit against Netflix and Warner Bros. over a depiction of their Baphomet statue on the television series “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.”

9. Despite their focus on political activism, The Satanic Temple claims they are an actual religion. “The idea that religion belongs to supernaturalists is ignorant, backward, and offensive,” they say on their website’s FAQ page, “The metaphorical Satanic construct is no more arbitrary to us than are the deeply held beliefs that we actively advocate.” Penny Lane, director of the documentary Hail Satan?, says The Satanic Temple is both serious and satirical. “Yes, they are internet trolls and pranksters, and they really are Satanists. Both of those things are true. Because the core of Satanism is to embrace joking and pranking and being mischievous and freaking people out. That’s the heart of the religious identity. It’s not evidence that they’re insincere. It’s actually part of it.” In May 2019 the group officially received tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service, making them the first Satanic group that is both atheistic and adolescent to be recognized as an official house of worship.