Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Satanism has been a recurrent demonological theme in Western society virtually since the beginnings of Christianity, although details such as the "Black Mass" are relatively new inventions. As Stevens notes (1991:30), "The function of demonologies is that they can detract people from immediate yet daunting social problems." Thus we have seen interest in satanism ebb and flow over time, with there being considerable interest developing in it in the recent past history of a number of Western societies, including particularly the United States.

There has been a huge interest in the past decade or so in satanism, with an outpouring of books, many by Christian fundamentalists, claiming that Satan is alive and well in the United States. Related claims are that satanic groups have organized a major national or even international conspiracy, taking over selected institutional structures in society (such as children's day care) and operating hundreds if not thousands of "satanic cults" that abuse people and engage in all sorts of despicable acts. Virtually all scholarly examinations of these claims have resulted in little or no evidence being found for such claims (Carlson and Larue 1989, Richardson et al. 1991, Hicks 1991, Jenkins 1992, La Fontaine 1994, Richardson 1997). But proving a negative has been difficult, and the claims persist.

The application of a "social constructionist" perspective to the persistence of current claims about satanism suggests that interest in satanism seems to result from the confluence of a number of different and ostensibly independent movements or factors. Included are (1) the growth of interest in fundamentalist Christianity, with its specific focus on a real and personalized Satan; (2) the development of a few small, yet well-publicized satanic churches, initially established by Anton LaVey in San Francisco; (3) the development of a virulent "anti-cult" movement focused on control of "new religions" (often referred to as "cults"); (4) growth of the "child saver" movement made up of social workers, therapists, and others focused on protection of children from harm; (5) the emergence of the "adult survivor" movement made up of people (mostly women) who claim to have been sexually abused when young children, often in allegedly satanic rituals; (6) the evolution of the feminist movement, with its great concern for the welfare of females, including children; (7) the development of satellite and cable electronic media capabilities, which creates a great demand for programming, with "talk TV and radio" formats becoming popular; and (8) the development of popular "satanism seminars" for professionals such as social workers, police, and therapists who must gain "continuing education" credits to remain certified.

Those involved in these movements and other developments have discovered common interests in promoting the idea of Satan or satanism within a given society. Fundamentalists promote the idea of Satan as a key part of their belief system and are ready to agree with others who claim to see the hand of Satan at work, such as in allegations of child care centers being used by satanists to gain access to children. The minuscule satanic churches take solace from any who want to accept their anti-Christian beliefs, even as they disavow any involvement in such things as child sex abuse. The anti-cult movement has made great use of the "satanic cult" idea as a weapon in the battle against newer religious groups. Those in the child saver movement, including many social workers in burgeoning child welfare bureaucracies, find it easy to accept that satanists might have become involved in some child care operations as a way to gain access to children. Adult occult survivors promote satanism because the presence of a strong satanism movement lends credence to claims that they were molested in ritual abuse situations while young children. A few in the feminist movement may give credence to claims of satanic activity because to do so seems supportive of women making claims as adult survivors. Hosts on TV talk shows may look to satanism as a popular topic that attracts listeners, thus giving a forum to anyone willing to make such claims. And social workers, police, and other professionals such as therapists may learn of the work of Satan through seminars and workshops organized to make professionals aware of the growing menace of satanism.

The "strange bedfellows" of satanism have led to the development of a typology of those involved in promoting satanism (even as they ironically claim to be fighting it). Richardson (1997) defines three types of "objectivists" who promote satanism either directly or indirectly, with the types depending on the degree to which the person accepts the objective reality of Satan. Strict objectivists such as fundamentalist Christians believe in an actual Satan that is active in human affairs, promoting evil at every opportunity. Secular objectivists may not believe in a real Satan, but they are willing to entertain the idea of a "satanic conspiracy" operating in our society, say in child care centers or the government. This may occur in particular if accepting the idea of satanism promotes other interests they may have, such as the development of a larger welfare bureaucracy or the spread of feminist ideas of female exploitation. Opportunistic objectivists are those, perhaps including some media talk show personalities (as well as others), who do not believe in Satan or the idea of a satanic conspiracy but who nonetheless are willing to promote the idea for their own purposes.

Satanism has become defined as an international social problem of late, with outbreaks of considerable concern in a number of other Western countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand (Jenkins 1992, La Fontaine 1994, Richardson 1997). These newer international developments seem to derive almost totally from the work of American "anti-Satan missionaries" distributing materials developed in the United States to religious, child care worker, police, and therapy groups in other countries. The focus of these materials often has been on the alleged sexual abuse of children in satanic rituals in families and in child care facilities.

Whether satanism continues to attract so much attention remains to be seen. There does appear to be an ebbing of attention to satanism in the United States at this time, probably caused in large part by the failure to convince many, including some juries and judges, that satanism has in fact infiltrated major segments of the child care industry. Also, there has been increased scholarly attention on the issue of satanism, and that attention has been nearly totally unanimous in reporting that there is no satanic conspiracy operating within American society.

James T. Richardson


S. Carlson and G. Larue, Satanism in America (El Cerrito, Calif.: Gaia, 1989)

R. Hicks, Pursuit of Satan (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1991)

P. Jenkins, Intimate Enemies (Hawthorne, N.Y.: Aldine, 1992)

J. La Fontaine, The Nature and Extent of Organized and Ritual Abuse (London: HMSO, 1994)

A. LaVey, The Satanic Bible (New York: Avon, 1969)

A. H. Randall, "The Church of Satan," in The New Religious Consciousness , ed. C. Y. Glock and R. N. Bellah (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976): 180-202

J. T. Richardson, "The Social Construction of Satanism," Australian Journal of Social Issues 32(1997):61-85

J. T. Richardson et al. (eds.), The Satanism Scare (Hawthorne, N.Y.: Gruyter, 1991)

J. Russell, The Prince of Darkness (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988)

P. Stevens, "The Demonology of Satanism," in J. T. Richardson et al., q.v . (1991): 21-40

J. Victor, Satanic Panic (Chicago: Open Court, 1993).

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