The scriptures of all religions acknowledge the existence of demonic beings. Some, including Christianity, Islam, and Zoroastrianism, regard the power of evil entities to be real and perceive them as rivals to the dominion of God. Others, such as Buddhism, consider them to be manifestations of ignorance and illusion. Those religions that testify to demonic powers also recognize that these negative beings are subject to the commands of a leader, known by various names: Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, Iblis, Mara, and Angra Mainyu, among others.
While rationalists in the present age of science and technology find it difficult to accept the concept of demons tempting men and women to commit acts of wickedness under the direction of a central embodiment of evil, such as Satan, other serious-minded philosophers and theologians call attention to the diverse horrors of the twentieth century and the seemingly endless capabilities of humans to inflict evil upon their fellow beings in the beginning of the twenty-first century and argue that such perversities transcend the bounds of reason. The Qur'an warns that "whoever follows the steps of Satan will assuredly be bid to indecency and dishonor." The prophet Zoroaster (c. 628 B.C.E.–c. 551 B.C.E.) blamed the Evil One for spoiling the plan of life and depriving humans of the "exalted goal of Good Thought." Hinduism envisions the gods and the demons as cosmic rivals for humankind. The demons are self-centered and interested in their own gain while the gods are generous and willing to share their bounty with others. The epistle writer Paul (d. 62–68 C.E.) informs Christians in Ephesians 6:12 that they are not fighting against creatures of flesh and blood, "but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places."
While it is one thing to recognize the human capacity for inflicting acts of incredible evil upon their fellow men and women, it is quite another to fear rumors of organized cults of thousands of Satan worshippers who allegedly plot horrid deeds against the members of other religions in the name of their cloven-hoofed and horned god. Contrary to the beliefs of certain conservative Christians, Satanism as an actual religion is composed of a few small groups, which according to census figures in the United States and Canada probably number less than 10,000 members. Such religious cults as Santeria, Wicca, voodoo, and various neopagan groups are regularly and incorrectly identified as satanic, and it has been suggested by some that the statistics often quoted by certain Christian evangelists, warning of millions of Satan worshippers, quite likely consider all non-Christian religions as satanic, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam.
In the 1980s and 1990s, a widespread fear swept across the United States that there were dozens of secret satanic cults involved in satanic ritual abuse and sacrificing hundreds of babies, children, and adults. Television and radio talk shows featured people who claimed to be former members of such demonic cults and those who had allegedly recovered memories of satanic abuse. For a time, certain communities developed a near-hysteria and a fear of Satanists that recalled the time of the Salem witchcraft trials. Even at its most alarming peak of irrational belief in such murderous cults, however, few accused such religious Satanists as Anton LaVey (1930–1997) and his Church of Satan in San Francisco as condoning ritual human sacrifices. After exhaustive police investigations on both local and national levels failed to produce any hard evidence to support such frightening accounts, allegations of satanic ritual abuse faded to the status of a kind of Christian urban legend.
There are many kinds of free-form Satanism, ranging from that which is merely symptomatic of sexual unrest and moral rebellion among young people to those mentally unbalanced serial killers who murder and sacrifice their victims to their own perverse concept of satanic evil. Teenagers and young adults may be mistaken for Satanists, because they dress in dark gothic clothes, read occult literature, or play with a ouija board with friends—but most of them are merely role-playing and quietly protesting the conformity they wish to resist. Other young people are drawn into a transient attraction toward Satanism by a number of heavy-metal bands who merely pretend to be practicing Satanists to shock parents and to provoke publicity in the highly competitive field of contemporary music.
Each year, hundreds of homicides are thought to have been satanically or ritually inspired. However, federal, state, and local law enforcement has never proven the existence of an organized satanic movement that has been responsible for these deaths, or that those murderers who were apprehended for the homicides were members of any satanic religious group. Some serial killers have claimed to be Satanists, but in each of these cases, police investigations have revealed that the murderers were not actually members of any of the satanic religious groups. Even such a high-profile "devil-worshipper" as Richard Ramirez (1960– ), the infamous "Night Stalker" of Los Angeles, who committed a series of brutal night-time killings, robberies, and sexual attacks, was never found to be a member of any formal satanic group. Although Ramirez scrawled an inverted pentagram (a symbol traditionally associated with satanic rituals) in the homes of some of his victims and shouted, "Hail, Satan!" as he was being arraigned on charges of having murdered 14 people, he was strictly a lone-wolf worshipper of evil.
Individuals, primarily teenagers and young adults, may for a time dabble in the occult, ceremonial magick, and other freelance rituals and declare themselves as Satanists. Their numbers are difficult to assess with any degree of accuracy, for they are essentially faddists, generally inspired by a current motion picture or television series that popularizes Satanism or witchcraft, and their interest in Satanism is short-lived. Some of these satanic dabblers may go so far as to sacrifice a small animal and spray-paint satanic symbols on houses and sidewalks, but their commitment to a lifestyle dominated by dedication to Satan soon dissipates.
Although Satanism and witchcraft have become synonymous in the popular mind for many centuries, they constitute two vastly divergent philosophies and metaphysical systems. Generally speaking, witchcraft, the Old Religion, has its origins in primitive nature worship and has no devil or Satan in its cosmology. While some traditional witches seek to control the forces of nature and elemental forces in both the seen and unseen worlds, others are contented to work with herbs and healing. In essence, what many have described as the "power" of witchcraft throughout the ages may be the effective exercise of mind over matter, those abilities in the transcendent level of mind that today we term psychic or mental phenomena. True Satanism—although manifesting in a multitude of forms and expressions and having also originated in an ancient worship of a pre-Judeo-Christian god—is today essentially a corruption of both the nature worship of witchcraft and the formal Christian church service, especially the rites of the Roman Catholic Church.
Some scholars argue that in a real sense, the Christian Church itself "created" the kind of Satanism it fears most through the excesses of the Inquisition, which made an industry out of hunting, persecuting, torturing, and killing those men and women accused of being doctrinal heretics and those practitioners of the Old Religion who were condemned for worshipping the devil through the practice of witchcraft. Then, in the sixteenth century, a jaded and decadent aristocracy, weary of the severity of conventional morality legislated by the church, perversely began to convert the primitive belief structures of serf and peasant into an obscene rendering of the rites of traditional paganism with the ritualistic aspects of Christian worship.
In contemporary times, many of those who openly claim to be Satanists and to belong to organized satanic groups insist that they do not worship the image of the devil condemned by Christian and other religions because the word "Satan" does not specify a being, but rather a movement or a state of mind. What Satanists do worship, these individuals explain, is a spirit being commonly known as Sathan in English and Sathanas in Latin. They do not believe Satan to be the Supreme God, but they believe him to be the messenger of God in that he brought to Eve the knowledge of God. Satanists believe that there is a God above and beyond the "god" that created the cosmos. The most high God takes no part in the affairs of the world; thus Satanists believe their faith to be the only true religion, insofar as revealed religion to mortals can be understood.
Satanism, according to certain of its exponents, is the oldest of all world religions, and it is the only one that by doctrine lays claim to having its origin in the Garden of Eden. Adam's firstborn son, Cain, is thought to have celebrated the first Satanic Mass, and today, any lone Satanist can celebrate a valid Mass if the occasion arises. In the case of established covens, an ordained priest performs the office of the liturgy. Satanism, they maintain, is also the oldest form of worship according to discoveries made by archaeologists, who have discovered drawings of the Horned God (Sathan) in caves of Europe dating to prehistoric times.
The following signs and symbols are among the most common expressions of Satanism, both among individual Satanists and those self-proclaimed "high-priests and priestesses" who have established small covens of 13 or fewer members:
The Pentagram: The traditional five-pointed star, most often shown within a circle.
Goat's Head within a Pentagram: The sigil of Baphomet, the symbol for Anton LaVey's Church of Satan.
Number 666:The number of the beast in the Book of Revelation, considered by many Christians to represent Satan.
Upside-Down Cross: A mockery of Jesus' death on the cross. Sometimes the cross is shown with broken "arms."
Upside-Down Cross Incorporating an Inverted Question Mark: The cross of confusion, questioning the authority and power of Jesus.
Quarter Moon and Star: Represents the Moon Goddess Diana and Lucifer, the "Morning Star." When the moon is reversed, it is usually satanic.
Classic Peace Symbol of the 1960s: The sign of peace carried by protestors of the Vietnam War in the 1960s has allegedly been appropriated by Satanists who now use it to denote an upside-down cross with broken arms, thus signifying the defeat of Christianity.
Inverted Swastika: The swastika is another once-honorable symbol that simply represented the perpetual progression of the four seasons, the four winds, the four elements, and so forth. Already perverted when the Nazis claimed it as their symbol, Satanists are said to invert it to show the elements of nature turned against themselves and out of harmony with God's divine plan of balance.
Ritual Calendar: Satanism adopted the traditional calendar of witchcraft and celebrates eight major festivals, known as Sabbats:
Contemporary Satanism is said to have experienced its rebirth on Walpurgisnacht (May 1), 1966, when Anton Szandor LaVey brought into being San Francisco's Church of Satan. The kinds of Satanism in vogue at various times in the centuries before LaVey's revival expressed itself in many ways—some reflected the Dark Gods of antiquity, but most mirrored the dark side of the human imagination. Generally speaking, the kind of Satanism championed by LaVey and others preaches indulgence in personal pleasure, and it has never pretended to be other than a counterculture alternative to the civil and religious establishments and a relentless foe of conventional morality. But none of the satanic cults, such as the Church of Satan or the Temple of Set, have many points in common with the conservative Christian concept of Satan. They do not worship a Satan that commands demons and seduces human souls into hell. To most of the satanic cultists, Satan represents a force of nature that inspires their own individual expressions of virility and sexuality.
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