He's probably just read Atlas Shrugged Credit: Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty

September 15, 2021   6 mins

Proverbially, the Devil has all the best tunes. Does he have the best books too? Apparently so, at least where soft porn is concerned: last week, it was reported that Xavier Nobell, a prominent Catholic exorcist and bishop, has resigned from the Church in order to be with his lover, a writer of “erotic-satanic” fiction.

The whole story evoked The Exorcist, which came out a few years before I was born and was considered the ne plus ultra of shocking content into my tween years in the nineties. But even setting aside the fact that the other “side” seems to have won, Nobell’s story evoked less shock than nostalgia.

In 2021, even the idea of a priest as the main protagonist in a battle between good and evil feels, well, very 1973. These days, while there’s plenty of Satanist imagery about, overtly anti-Christian symbols seem either banal (Lil Nas selling Satan trainers) or just naff (WitchTok).

But if devilish imagery mostly feels a bit cringe, the Devil himself has gone mainstream. If being deliberately anti-Christian pour épater la bourgeoisie feels exhausted, for the new, post-Christian bourgeoisie Satan now reads like the good guy. And in the hands of this class, the Devil’s proverbial pride, self-regard and refusal to yield isn’t just celebrated — it’s on its way to becoming the established religion of the United States of America.

America’s Satanic Temple, founded in 2012, is still small in terms of absolute membership. But it hit the headlines last week when it announced plans to sue the government of Texas for restricting women’s ability to abort a pregnancy. In response, Salon magazine declared it the “last, best hope” for protecting abortion rights in the state. The Satanic Temple has an impressive track record in self-promotion via outrage, such as founding a Satanist after-school club. It goes without saying that in our febrile online political climate, the convergence of “abortion”, “ritual”, “lawsuit” and “Satan” resulted in a lot of publicity for the group.

But how did we get to a point where an online magazine with 10 million monthly readers is hailing Satanists as last-ditch heroes? The truth is that our modern sympathy for the devil has deep roots. And Americans in particular are highly susceptible.

Perhaps Milton is to blame; Cromwell’s chief propagandist is famous for creating the most sympathetic Satan in literary history. In Milton’s 1663 Biblical epic Paradise Lost, Satan both longs for the Heaven he’s renounced, but stubbornly refuses to be ruled, declaring: “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven”.

This matters, because Milton wrestled with core questions of law, authority and personal freedom that roiled at the heart of the Protestant Reformation. And the Reformation was foundational to the modern West (and especially to America). And tracing the history of that rebellion brings us, today, to the startling conclusion that post-Christian America is an increasingly Satanist regime.

Paradise Lost was written against a backdrop of religious ferment. Following Martin Luther’s 1517 rejection of the constraining, legalistic force of Catholic law, Civil War England was a chaos of competing sects. For in seeking to free Christians from a Church reformers claimed was rigid and corrupt, the Protestants opened themselves up to the possibility that all laws, rules and constraints might be replaced by faith. A great deal of early Protestant turmoil was driven by people arguing over what, if any, limits there should be to the rebellion against doctrine.

Some took it to extremes. One of Luther’s colleagues, Johann Agricola, preached in 1525 that even the Ten Commandments belong “in the courthouse, not the pulpit”. “To the gallows with Moses!” he declared. Luther was having none of it, dubbing this extreme rejection of legalism as “antinomian” heresy, meaning opposition to “nomos”, or law.

Laurence Clarkson, an antinomian contemporary of Milton, even wrote in one 1640 pamphlet that sin is fake news: “sin hath its conception only in the imagination; therefore; so long as the act was in God, or nakedly produced by God, it was as holy as God”.

As they say today: believe in yourself, and you can do anything. Though Milton painted such extreme rejections of authority and rules as — literally — Satanic, the appealingly anti-heroic nature of his Satan suggests he had mixed feelings. He wasn’t the last writer to be thus ambivalent. A century on, the antinomian celebration of self-expression accelerated in the Romantic era.

The engraver and poet William Blake declared in his 1790 The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that “no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments… Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules”. Meanwhile, of course, across the pond Milton’s republicanism was a key influence in shaping the American rebellion against government from the Old World.

Fast forward another century on, and it’s not such a big step from thinking God’s grace gives you the freedom to do what you want, to dispensing with the God bit. The occultist Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) pursued a doctrine of individual will unconstrained by law or stuffy morality. He called himself “The Beast 666”, experimented with sex and drugs and in 1923 was expelled from Sicily after an associate died in mysterious circumstances, reportedly after drinking the blood of a sacrificed cat.

We tend to think of such deliberately shocking behaviour as the essence of “Satanism”. But Crowley’s core legacy was stripping the last remnants of Christianity from antinomian rebellion. His most famous dictum, written in The Book of the Law (1909), was: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

He wasn’t the only one. Already in 1882, Friedrich Nietszche declared God dead and the human will to power as the only real source of good. In America, meanwhile, the individualist celebration of mankind became ever less Christian. Though she disavowed him later, the American writer Ayn Rand (1905-1982), called Nietzsche her “favourite philosopher” in the 1930s. Rand’s doctrine, Objectivism, argues selfishness is both noble and good: “It’s the hardest thing in the world – to do what we want,” argues one character in Rand’s 1943 The Fountainhead, “And it takes the greatest kind of courage”.

Both Crowley and Rand pursued the liberation of individual will from taboo, custom, law and even (as practitioners of ceremonial magic hoped) reality itself. These influences fused again in 1966 California, with Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan. Lavey drew on both Rand and Crowley to reject all collectivist constraints on individual behaviour and emphasise the primacy of individual desire. “There is a beast in man,” he declared, “that should be exercised, not exorcised.”

LaVey, a former carnival worker, took a highly theatrical approach to exercising that beast, incorporating dark ceremonies and all the props you’d expect to find in a horror-movie depiction of Satanism (or indeed in quite a lot of heavy metal). But if he was still rebelling against Christianity, the core Satanist philosophy of radical, godless freedom took less provocative form elsewhere in 1966 California in, for example, the “self-actualisation” promoted by Abraham Maslow, at the Esalen Institute.

So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that individual autonomy and self-empowerment is the central aim of the Satanic Temple’s abortion ritual, the “ceremonial affirmation of self-worth and bodily autonomy” at the heart of the group’s current Texas court case.

But this doesn’t mean you need to become a devout Satanist to embrace the belief that self-empowerment is our real purpose in life, and that guilt is an unwarranted intrusion. Aleister Crowley wrote in The Book of the Law that “Every man and woman is a star”. And from Rand to Maslow to a trillion “empowering” Pinterest memes today, a variant of this dictum is a core message of the self-help industry.

Self-help writer Julia Cameron, for example, closely echoes Ayn Rand in her 1992 bestseller The Artist’s Way when she declares: “What we really want to do is what we are really meant to do”. Elsewhere, if you want a bit more ritual with your individualism, but the heavy-metal Church of Satan vibe isn’t your thing, there’s the occultism-meets-pamper-day aesthetic of Arin Murphy-Hiscock’s 2019 The Witch’s Guide To Self-Care.

Echoing Crowley, Murphy-Hiscock tells us: “Living as your authentic self means following a very individual path”. If, for instance, you find yourself plagued by inconvenient feelings of guilt as a consequence of doing exactly what you want, Murphy-Hiscock suggests a ritual for “releasing” those feelings.

No wonder the modern Satanic Temple is now (as the Guardian suggested in 2019) hard to distinguish from the liberal “good guys”. At its core Satanism is simply the doctrine of untrammelled individualism, shorn of any link to the divine. To put it another way: Satanists are just very, very liberal.

Milton saw Satan’s refusal to submit to any law (however ambivalently) as the sin of pride. Now, in our post-Christian world of self-actualisation, pride is no longer a sin. Rather, it’s a vital part of becoming fully yourself. As body modification micro-celebrity Farrah Flawless put it: “I do not believe in God, I don’t worship the Devil, but yes I am a Satanist which means I am my own god. I worship myself’.

Indeed, it’s so far from being a sin that sacralised self-worship now has an annual religious festival. This new, increasingly pseudo-religious summer event, simply known as “Pride Month”, may have started out as a twentieth-century campaign for gay and lesbian equality. But what began as a justified and (at root deeply Christian) campaign for equal treatment for gay and lesbian people has long since morphed into a corporate-sponsored celebration of individualism that today horrifies many gay and lesbian people.

Pinterest, the internet’s motherlode of self-help platitudes, succinctly summed up the new faith in an official post this year. As a religious holiday, Pride isn’t about gay rights; it’s where we “celebrate identity and self-expression in all its forms”. Inasmuch as Milton’s ambivalence about rebellion lives on, it’s in the now-traditional argument about whether there are any forms of individual desire still off-limits for proud celebration.

At least on the now majority post-Christian East and West coasts of America, this sacralisation of individual freedom and desire is increasingly assertive in its efforts to expunge Christianity as America’s official faith.

A less overt challenge than those posed by Aleister Crowley or Anton LaVey, but a continuation of the same argument. This time, though, the boot is on the other foot. The side with imperial institutional and military backing is the faith of self-expression, individual will and indomitable pride.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.