The fictional character Satan is a rebel against God. In mainstream religions, the devil is the personification of evil, but these religions have a dubious understanding of the deity. Our best idea of what God would be like is that God would be rendered insane by his uniqueness, isolation, and perfect knowledge; that he'd be spiritually lifeless due to his immortality and corrupted by his omnipotence. In short, as far as we could tell, the monotheistic God’s character would be that of an infantile tyrant. Rebellion against such a God would be existentially obligatory and tragically heroic, but the mythical rebel Satan has, of course, been demonized because the conventional myths serve a questionable political function as well as the theological one of explaining away evil.
Theodicy and Dominance Hierarchy
Whether you think God made us or we made God, our conception of God is taken from our experience of more familiar things and thus that conception is analogical. We’re most familiar with ourselves and with our social structures. Biology imparts one of those structures: the dominance hierarchy, or pecking order, in which those who are genetically fittest symbolically dominate the weaker members of the group to stabilize the group and to avoid what Hobbes called the war of all against all. In our species, this natural hierarchy produces monarchs, plutocrats, kleptocrats, or oligarchs at the top who enjoy godlike power that no one is equipped to handle. Thus, the Iron Law of Oligarchy, according to which the larger the group, the more the group can be efficiently managed only by concentrating power, should be combined with Lord Acton’s dictum that power corrupts. And so we’ve always had models for the ruler of the universe, namely the human rulers of our societies.
Then there are the subversive myths, such as the original form of Buddhism and Gnosticism or authentic Christianity, as well as various mystical traditions in Islam, Judaism, and in many other great religions. Christianity was originally a religion for losers, but some of its leaders sold out Jesus’ teachings for worldly power, reinterpreting or editing out Jesus’s uncompromising anti-naturalism, and scapegoating the Jews to let the Romans off the hook for executing Jesus. The Christian Bible came to consist of books that allowed Christianity to survive because they made peace with the natural order and the prevalence of dominance hierarchies, whether the rulers were Romans, Spaniards, Britons, or Americans. But the point is that a myth that projects the idea of a dominance hierarchy onto the relation between our world and a supernatural one can be told from the perspective of those who are poorly served by that arrangement and who are thus open to rebelling against both human society and God’s plan.
The split between these two perspectives on God becomes apparent in their theodicies. The mainstream religion blames evil and suffering on anything but God, demonizing some angels or locating the problem in human freewill, thus blaming the victims. By analogy, these religions implicitly justify the suffering caused or made necessary by naturally corrupt human rulers. The lawgivers who rule over us are above the laws that subjugate the poor masses. Even a so-called free society like the US, in which the government is supposed to be held hostage to the majority of voters in a democratic fashion, works more like a republic in which the representatives are captured by oligarchs who are “too big to fail or to be prosecuted.” Likewise, Job was foolish for daring to call out God on his obvious and inevitable insanity and moral corruption. God put Job in his place and American plutocrats put the 99% of voters in theirs. God is best understood by us as a sociopathic, alpha male tyrant and the US is a stealth oligarchy using democracy as a cover to make most Americans feel guilty about the thought of rebelling like the Jacobins.
But socially subversive myths like Gnosticism are more dualistic. Evil and unnecessary pain are blamed on the more apparent Creator of the universe, while only the mystic’s perfectly unknowable Source of everything is excused as somehow innocent. Thus, the gnostic is liable to renounce the human social order run by the tyrant who both causes and profits most from tremendous suffering. And so we find heretical secret societies of ascetics and other omegas. According to many Gnostic cosmologies, though, there’s a transcendent Source of all things that emanates lower deities, one of which becomes corrupted and presumes to be able to create as well as the Source. Yahweh, the God of the Hebrew Bible, was that tyrannical lesser deity who means to imprison us in the natural order, whereas our task is to liberate ourselves and be united with the true God. As I said, the counterpart of this spiritual rebellion is a natural one, requiring the Gnostic to detach from worldly affairs instead of contributing to the injustice of the natural dominance hierarchy. From the Gnostic perspective, which is that of the ruled rather than of the ruler, the serpent in the Garden of Eden was a saviour since the “tempter” was opposed to Yahweh, the false God. By contrast, from the perspective of mainstream monotheism, which is told by or for the winners in the struggle for worldly power, the serpent was evil for upsetting God’s plan, for causing the Fall and all of our woes.
Again, mainstream religion, which defends the edifice of natural injustice, the mammalian dominance hierarchy and thus whichever monarchy, oligarchy, or dictatorship the religion grows out of, blames suffering on the ultimate victims and demonizes the rebels who would overturn the social structure that imposes that suffering. However, subversive and thus unpopular or short-lived cults which ironically aim to speak for the majority, prescribe an ascetic lifestyle that would, if generally adopted, utterly destroy our power hierarchies. And so these cults glorify rebels against the knowable God, since what’s known about that God is that he’s similar to the insane and corrupt human rulers.
The Ambiguity of Satanic Rebellion
There are many demonized rebels in ancient religions, since each culture needs a theodicy, not so much for philosophical reasons but so that the religion can serve as ideology in the political sense, that is, as propaganda to preserve a particular dominance hierarchy. In Zoroastrianism, there’s Angra Mainyu, a daeva (deceitful, false god) who opposes Ahura Mazda. In Canaanite myths, there’s Attar who attempts to take the throne of Lord Baal but fails because he’s literally too small for the job and so is forced to rule the Underworld. The Babylonian goddess of fertility Ishtar likewise descends to the underworld. (These gods were identified with celestial bodies that pass below Earth’s horizon only to be “reborn” as they later rise again into the night’s sky.) In ancient Egypt, there’s Set who becomes jealous of his brother Osiris and kills him to take his throne. Set then battles Horus, the son of Isis and Osiris’s corpse, and in some versions of the myth Horus defeats him. In Greek myths, there’s the Titan Prometheus who pities humans, gifts us with fire and teaches us science, and who is punished by the jealous God Zeus. In Judaism, there’s the serpent in Eden and the angel Satan in Job who challenges the perfection of Yahweh’s creation at Job’s expense. In Enochian Judaism, there’s Azazel, the scapegoat and fallen angel who is similar to Prometheus: he degrades humans, from God’s perspective, liberating us with progressive knowledge to distract us from God’s plan for us, and God punishes Azazel by casting him into hell. In Christianity, there’s the demon Satan who tempts Jesus and tries to corrupt us all by deceiving us about God’s character and about our potential to liberate ourselves from God.
The popular forms of these myths demonize the rebel and glorify the all-powerful God and rightful ruler. In some cases, the alternative perspective survives, as in the case of Prometheus who is honoured as a champion of human progress. Ancient Greece was the birthplace of Western rationalism and even atheism, and so the subversive message of the conflict between Prometheus and Zeus was irrepressible. In Christianity, of course, the opposite has proven true: since the fourth century CE, the dominant form of the religion has unified itself with secular dominance hierarchies such as the ancient Roman Empire, and so God is lauded as a rightful ruler, a loving father figure, and a symbol of the emperor Constantine, while the rebel Satan is literally demonized. Satan is good and angelic only as long as he bows before God, but becomes evil and doomed once he rebels.
The relationship here between God and the rebel is obvious: if God is good, the rebel is evil, whereas if God is bad, the rebel is good. Two other points are equally clear. First, human societies develop into dominance hierarchies which elevate and curse certain rulers who are naturally corrupted by their concentrated power. Second, mainstream religions take God’s side, providing propaganda for the social status quo, glorifying the symbol of the human sovereign, God the creator (or as he’s known in American circles, the job creator) and lawgiver, and demonizing the symbolic rebel against the social order. What follows from the first point is the disturbing monotheism of Philipp Mainlander. If we’re forced to think of God in metaphorical terms, extending what we know about people to the supposed supernatural realm, God must be just as insane and sociopathic as the typical human ruler. If that’s the most rational and perfectly subversive form of monotheism, it follows that the best interpretation of the rebel against God is that this rebel is heroic rather than demonic. However, historically speaking, the exoteric form of the myth--the form that makes no sense as far as we can tell from what happens to people who become so powerful--carries the day and so God is praised and the rebel is pictured as so unthinkably evil that even to speak his name is taboo.
Critique of Modern Satanism
Let’s focus on the rebel Satan for a moment. Despite centuries of demonization and Catholic persecutions of heresies, there’s still a cult that worships or praises Satan. This cult has two forms, the theistic and the atheistic. Theistic Satanists worship Satan as a real deity. I leave this aside as preposterous. By contrast, atheistic Satanists, such as Anton LaVey who wrote The Satanic Bible, worship Satan only as a symbol of human egoism, freedom, and power. The ethics of this modern Satanism are just Ayn Rand’s, whose libertarianism bastardizes Nietzsche’s thesis of the will to power. Modern Satanists regard themselves as magicians/occultists who follow the so-called left-hand path of skepticism and iconoclasm. Marilyn Manson is an example of this sort of atheistic Satanist, or rebel against society. By contrast, the right-hand path submits to social conventions.
This Tantric distinction between the heterodox and the orthodox is consistent with that between the esoteric and the exoteric and in generous Hinduism, both paths are spiritually valid for different kinds of people; that is, both paths lead ultimately to salvation, although the exoteric path is for those who are furthest from the heaven of moksha (liberation from corrupting and illusory nature). The heterodox path is to spiritualize what the public regards as sinful, based on the monist assumption that all is one anyway. The danger, though, is that you succumb to the sins and lose any insight into their spiritual aspect. In any case, the distinction between the esoteric and the exoteric also maps on to the ambiguity I discussed in the last two sections. The mainstream myths that demonize rebels against society are propaganda for orthodoxy. Modern Satanists, though, adhere to the exclusivist interpretation, according to which their way of life is much better than the alternative.
To the extent that modern Satanism is libertarian, it has a number of problems. Ayn Rand’s egoism is prone to the naturalistic fallacy of simplistically equating what is with what ought to be. Just because we’re instinctively selfish doesn’t mean selfishness is a virtue. What this leaves out is our existential predicament, which is that a rational being tends to self-destruct since reason leads us not just to understand nature but to be horrified by it. Reason supplies us with the objective perspective, which humbles and humiliates us by allowing us to discover our insignificance in the cosmic scheme. By worshipping the ego, the modern Satanist actually opts for the orthodox path of validating the powers that be, since the freest ego will naturally belong to the alpha male atop a power hierarchy, as I explain elsewhere. Moreover, libertarian individualism defends the modern status quo, by infantilizing the Satanist, which is good for business. The ego that needs to cater to its whims, to express itself as an unrestrained god will surely want to avail itself of the host of products designed to peak our interest. Also, Satanic egoism runs up against cognitive science which shows that the self’s independence is largely if not wholly illusory.
Finally, even were Satanic rebellion noble, the label of “Satanism” is so tainted after millennia of demonization that the movement becomes obnoxious and thus impractical (counterproductive). Granted, the symbol of Satan has power precisely because it’s taboo, but much of that power is based on the confusions that led to such demonization of rebellion against God in the first place. Those confusions are bound to distract not just the ignorant and manipulated herd, but the modern Satanist herself. In particular, she’s going to fail to appreciate the existential problem which is central to the conflict between the twisted and tyrannical deity and the tragic hero who is doomed to resist the natural and social orders imposed on her.
So is Satan an existential hero? Well, the demonized character of the rebel against God is of course the opposite of any kind of hero. So too, the modern Satanist isn’t so heroic in the existential sense, although some of her skepticism and countercultural preferences may be laudable. But the underlying, pre-demonized character of Satan, of the angel that chose to rebel must indeed be heroic, given the subversive version of monotheism, according to which God is hideous from the perspective of oppressed and suffering people everywhere. The problem is that the character of this rebel has no content. The surviving stories about Satan’s reasons for rebelling are told from God’s perspective. Milton’s Paradise Lost makes Satan a heroic, Promethean figure and the modern Satanist gives a libertarian interpretation of that heroism, but the latter is flawed for the above reasons, and the rationalist, Promethean tradition tends to be Scientistic and thus can at best be part of the story of the rebel’s heroism. To be sure, standing up to natural and social establishments requires reason to empower the rebel. But what does the rebel fight for? What are her ideals? If the angel Satan thought God was a monster, how would the angel have improved on God’s creation? How could anyone cope with God’s knowledge and power? Such questions are left as mysteries because religions are typically preoccupied with the demonic version of the existential rebel, since most theists ally themselves with the alpha’s idea of God because they’re understandably terrified of how a tyrant would treat a malcontent.
The Devil and the Libertarian
Finally, I’d like to highlight the awkward fact that the American Tea Party, which is the trumped-up name of the current libertarian movement, has the same ethics as modern Satanism, the link being Ayn Rand. In both case, the ideal is individual liberty, the rebel’s freedom to do as she pleases instead of being controlled, for example, by a tyrannical dictator or by God. In terms of Isaiah Berlin’s helpful distinction between negative and positive liberty, the freedom from constraint and the freedom of self-empowerment to tackle a particular goal, the American libertarian and the modern Satanist are each interested only in negative freedom. Thus, in answer to the question of what the American revolutionary fought for, the answer is the individual’s freedom to decide what to do with her life. There’s no pre-established direction to take and the individual must assume responsibility for her choice of goals. Note the similarity between this negative liberty and the devil’s home in the hell of the outer darkness, the void in which all sins are permitted but nothing has any meaning. The devil rejects God’s grand design and fights for negative liberty, for the breaking of God’s chains so that the devil might pursue any passing whim. The problem with this liberty is precisely the existential one of homelessness and absurdity. Any direction we freely choose just because we can is arbitrary and uninspiring, and once we reach that destination we’re left empty and unfulfilled. This is the justification of the aphorism that money can’t buy you happiness. Money gives us negative liberty (financial independence), but if all we’re blessed with is the power to do whatever we want, we’re still left with the ultimate normative question of what we ought to want. What should we do with that money, with that independence? How could Satan do better than the God that must have succumbed to that same independence?
This is why I said that the subversive character of the rebel against God is unfortunately empty. We know that resistance against tyranny is good, but we don’t know what the rebel ought to do instead of becoming just another tyrant; in this respect, the French Revolution is archetypal since the revolutionary Jacobins became actual tyrants. This is the problem of positive freedom and it’s central to the existential predicament. Reason empowers us with some autonomy, some freedom from our genes and our environment, to control ourselves as we see fit. But how ought we to see? What direction should we take? What should we do with all of our technoscience, our skepticism, our political freedoms and civil liberties? What should a democracy do in the world? Enlightening and uplifting answers to these questions are currently unknown, but we do know what actually happens to free individuals. Enter another axiom: power abhors a vacuum. So when the free individual doesn’t know what to do with herself, powerful people will enter the picture and show her what to do and where to go. This is the role of demagogues in a democracy.
So in a stealth oligarchy like the US, in which bankers happen to rule, the ideal of most Americans happens to be the one that’s good for business: materialistic consumerism. The free individual just wants to be happy, but she has no positive conception of happiness. Because of what the ads, movies, and other propaganda in her environment tell her, she trusts that owning and using things gives you pleasure, as does social interaction. Also, she trusts her genetic impulse to have a family. But these answers to the existential question represent only the powers that be filling the vacuum left behind by mere negative liberty. So the Tea Party is Satanic in that, like the rebellious angel, the libertarian is doomed to the outer darkness, to the tragically heroic freedom from any pre-existing path. Like the devil, the libertarian walks alone; she must be her own god and autonomously decide her every course of action, selfishly and vainly taking credit wherever she can. And like the devil, who is thought by the orthodox to be God’s pawn in the end, the merely free, isolated, fragile individual is bound to succumb to the stealth oligarch’s power.