When the registration of the first Satanic Church in South Africa became public, it sent shockwaves of indignation throughout social media. Outraged commenters could not believe that the government would allow such a church to exist.
While Satanism is certainly a provocative name to choose for a religious movement, we should look beyond the surface of that name before rejecting the South African Satanic Church outright.
In Christianity, Satan has become the personification of all evil. In history, those that were seen as dangerously different, from heretics in the 12th century to witches in the 16th century, have often been labelled as Satanists. In these historical contexts, these Satanists were imagined to do the precise opposite of what good Christians would do. Satanists were believed to sacrifice or even eat children instead of loving them, to practise sexual taboos instead of having appropriate intimate relations, and to worship the devil instead of God. While the groups accused of being Satanists actually were no more than dissidents and outcasts, in the Christian imagination they became synonymous with evil.
During the Enlightenment, belief in the devil started to decrease in Western Europe. Misfortune began to be understood to have previously unknown natural causes or to be an unfortunate coincidence. This process of secularisation opened the way to see Satan more as a literary character than as an almost divine power – in works like Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan became someone who had been misunderstood and misrepresented. As a result of this process, people who felt oppressed by Christianity started looking favourably upon Satan. For them, he became a symbol of freedom from the tyranny of a strict religion.
In 1969, Anton Szandor LaVey published The Satanic Bible, a collection of rituals and principles for Satanism as a religious movement. An important tenet of this movement is individualism. Satanists do not want to conform to the rules of society and conventional religion. They feel that the standards and etiquettes of society – ideas about sexuality, for example, or about how one should look – are narrow-minded and oppressive. Satanists want to free themselves from these conventions and live out their true selves.
Satanism as a new religious movement has little to do with the Christian conceptions of Satanism as an organisation of evil devil-worshippers. At the moment, however, these two ideas co-exist and often get confused. In the 1980s and 1990s, a Satanic panic swept through the USA and Europe, heightening fears that Satanic organisations were out to corrupt or harm children. This panic was felt in South Africa as well, especially in white, Christian communities.
Currently, an exacerbating factor is that a dominant form of Christianity in Southern Africa nowadays is neo-Pentecostalism, which places great emphasis on the devil and his agents. According to neo-Pentecostals, these forces of evil need to be fought in spiritual warfare. Furthermore, the Christian idea of Satanism in Southern Africa has become compounded with certain traditional African notions, such as that any misfortune has a spiritual cause, and that wealth, status and power can be acquired through sacrifices.
In neo-Pentecostal churches, the Christian image of Satanism is disseminated most forcibly by testimonies of people who claim to be ex-Satanists. These former Satanists speak of an organisation of evil, headed by Satan himself. As Satanists, so they say, they had to carry out assignments such as causing road accidents, disease or other misfortune. They also claim that they had to sacrifice people, often close family members, and were rewarded for that with riches and authority. This image of Satanism is a descendent of the accusations of Satanism against heretics and witches in European history, and has nothing to do with it as a religious movement today.
On the one hand, there are self-declared Satanists, like the members of the South African Satanic Church, who practise a new religious movement – Satanism for them is a positive word that represents their individualism. On the other hand, there are Christians for whom Satanism is the enemy of everything Christian and everything good in general, an organisation that carries out human sacrifices, causes misfortune and promotes evil. These two very different conceptions of Satanism are often confused in the popular imagination.
The self-declared Satanists have chosen a provocative, contentious name, and should be prepared to take some flak from the confusion that this might cause. At the same time, South Africans should be prepared to look further than a name. You might disagree with the individualism and non-conformism of the South African Satanic Church, but these individuals are not evil, child-sacrificing devil-worshippers.
Johanneke Kroesbergen-Kamps is a postdoctoral research fellow in the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Theology and Religion, and a specialist in Western new religious movements and Christianity in Africa. She has written extensively on narratives about Satanism in contemporary Zambia.