Despite my admitted skepticism prior to interviewing Peter H. Gilmore, High Priest of the Church of Satan, he was more than willing and accommodating to answer any questions I had about the church and its doctrine. This caught me off guard, my initial suspicions being that more prominent members of the church may be a little wary of media attention.
There is a layer of mystery or mystique there, but it is wafer thin and can be disappointingly wiped away with a quick Google search, all interactions with media these days being almost apologetic in nature. Aspects of the doctrine or laws found in the Satanic Bible that would be considered draconian or regressive appear to be discarded or dismissed, past interviews having shown prominent members exhibiting an interest in eugenics, proudly exclaiming LaVeyan Satanism “a religion for the elite” and that “the strong survive” in a form of “social Darwinism.”
One Satanic law calls for the punishment of the stupid. When questioned about this, one Satanist I talked with just laughed it off dismissively: “Oh, no one follows that one…”
It seems the church has become much more progressive since its birth in 1966.
As you watch, you can’t help but wonder if members reveled in the attention of outrage, the curiosity from without. The fascination with the church more than certainly has a hysterical conservative Christian media to thank, and as is far too common in mainstream media, there’s money to be made in fear – just look back to the era of Satanic Panic.
At the centre of it all is the lasting legacy of the church’s oddly charismatic founder, Anton Szandor LaVey. His rare media appearances are riddled with statements that often contradict the doctrine of his religion – during one TV interview, dressed in an outfit that would put Ming the Merciless to shame, he refers to the devil using the “he” pronoun and informs the host that hell is actually ice cold and isn’t far off from being frozen over. Look anywhere else, and you’ll find that LaVeyan Satanism is quick to make abundantly clear that it is not a theistic religion in the slightest. Was LaVey playing to an expectant crowd? Enacting part of a carefully constructed horror show image, a publicity getting method often echoed by bands such as Slayer and Black Sabbath?
It wouldn’t be too shocking to discover it was an elaborate satirical trick or sideshow ahead of its time, LaVey and his disciples carefully holding out a carrot on a string to a media on the hunt for its latest death show… skulls, pronged forks, and all. It’s free publicity, an effective attention-getting method, albeit a little detrimental to the church image. Today, you “accidentally” leak nudes for free press. Before then, rock stars came out as Satanists – all they needed was two hundred dollars and a taste for the Gothic to legitimize themselves with a brand new shiny black membership card.
LaVey has long since passed on, and his methods, although drastically less theatric, are alive and well with High Priest Peter Gilmore. Much more media-friendly than LaVey was in his later years, Gilmore is never seen without his mage-like beard, clad entirely in black and more than willing to talk with curious folk such as myself. With the mantle of High Priest having passed to him in 2001, he now presides over the church with his wife, High Priestess Peggy Nadramia, who is equally as welcoming and willing to talk about her religion.
Dread Central: What is the Church of Satan, and what are its goals?
Peter H. Gilmore: The Church of Satan was founded in 1966 by Anton Szandor LaVey as a means of promoting his atheist, individualist philosophy which uses aspects of religion, such as symbolism and ritual, to offer a perspective allowing each adherent to be the center of his or her own subjective universe. Each Satanist is his or her own “god” and is thus free to develop a subjective hierarchy of values meant to enhance their lives and those of the people, objects, and ideas they chose to cherish. Satanists consider the Universe to be indifferent to their existence, and so the responsibility for their own successes and failures are completely on their heads. This form of total responsibility is a challenge for many, especially those who ask for help from supernatural forces or seek to blame anyone but themselves for how their lives might be. We are skeptical, pragmatic materialists, and so the Church of Satan defines itself as a carnal religion, rejecting the spiritual in favor of embracing reality, for however long we might live to enjoy ourselves.
The goal of the organization is to present this philosophy with clarity to a global audience of people who seek out alternatives from those typically offered by whatever culture they inhabit. If they see themselves mirrored in our literature, they discover that there are others like themselves and learn that “Satanist” can be an energizing label to embrace. Satanists are a small niche amongst the world’s population; yet, those who adopt this philosophy come from many different nations and thus form a sort of “meta-tribe” of self-directed outsiders, energized by their differences from those around them who think and behave in styles more commonplace.
DC: What is the most common criticism the church faces?
PHG: People find the symbol of Satan to be off-putting, but that is entirely intentional as it serves as a filter to keep out those who are not bold enough to examine the many aspects this figure has held over history. We stand with the likes of Mark Twain, Baudelaire, Carducci, Byron, and Milton among others who found in Satan a crystallization of intelligent criticism, personal liberty, pride in self, and unwillingness to bend before tyrannical authority.
DC: Can you talk about the rituals the church practices? Is it true that curses are also practiced?
PHG: Satanic ritual is meant as a form of emotional catharsis done via a theatrical rite wherein emotions are released without shame or stinting—self-transformational psychodramas that allow us to express and pass beyond feelings that might obsess or encumber us. They are thus most often done privately, or solely with individuals who are close to the celebrant who share the same goal of emotional release. They are not worship services and are rarely done with larger numbers of people. Anton LaVey outlined three basic types meant to generally cover broad emotional ranges: Lust, Compassion, Destruction.
In a Lust ritual, a person who is sexually frustrated would fantasize about an ideal erotic partner and bring him or herself to orgasm as the conclusion of a vivid sexual fantasy that could be enhanced through the use of scents, costuming, or other elements that satisfy the person’s needs. Of course, since most people these days have Internet access to any number of forms of pornography to suit most fetishes, this form of ritual is less frequently employed.
The Compassion ritual is essentially meant to rid one of feelings of inadequacy or stasis so that success in one’s chosen endeavors can be achieved. This can be self-centered or also offered to one who is cherished as a form of benediction—well wishes towards a better life.
The Destruction ritual is meant to release fury against anyone who has unjustly wronged the celebrant. This can function as a classic curse, and one could stick pins in an effigy of the person who has harmed the performer, or simply vent one’s anger in a litany wherein the righteous wrath is let flow to its fullest like a river of fire that then passes and releases one from the toxicity of holding such inside.
The point to all of these is to be exhausted of the feelings that have held you back from enjoying life so that you can get on with finding joy in all that you are doing. Satanists accept the full gamut of human emotion, from deepest love to white-hot hatred, but we see these as extremes that are not usually part of everyday experience. We try to live a balanced, Epicurean existence filled with well-chosen indulgences in all that we find to delight us, avoiding that which would harm us. We are not hedonists compelled to pursue what might be termed “base desires”; rather, we embrace pleasures from intellectual to sensual, moderately, to achieve satisfaction for ourselves and the folks we care about.
DC: The church distances its itself from devil worship and does not believe in Hell; yet, it has chosen a symbol that immediately brings to mind typical images of horned beasts and hell that are prominent in Judeo-Christian lore – why is that?
PHG: Satan in the Hebrew scriptures means adversary, opposer, the one who critically questions; hence, we identify with this title and serve as adversaries to all spiritual doctrines that offer delusion in place of reality and false hopes for fictional post-life existences. Like Satan, we challenge such ensconced past mythologies which have tended to allow people easy xenophobia, dehumanizing those who do not share their beliefs so that they can be treated abominably. We find it interesting that the world is currently shocked at how Islamic extremists are murdering their adversaries, all whom they consider to be apostates to their faith, when most of the major Western Christians sects did this as a matter of course to each other as well as other belief systems over the past two millennia.
DC: My initial skepticism came when I discovered the one-time membership fee of $200. Isn’t a fee pretty unusual for a religion?
PHG: Hardly. Membership in many churches and other organized religions requires many fees, often tithing a percentage of one’s yearly income, so $200 for lifetime membership is quite a bargain. However, that fee is for membership in the Church of Satan itself. We state quite clearly that if an individual reads our primary literature, especially The Satanic Bible by Anton LaVey and my own The Satanic Scriptures, then they can consider themselves Satanists if they embrace the principles in those books without needing to join.
DC: Do members of your church still relate to certain aspects of eugenics as seen in past interviews? Detractors have drawn notice for the church’s fascination with figures such as Hitler and Charles Manson (even going as far as celebrating the murders). Is this still the case?
PHG: Anton LaVey himself despised being lumped in with Hitler and Manson since Hitler was a delusional tyrant promoting a collectivist fascism (recall that Nazi was short for National Socialism) and Charles Manson is a petty life-long criminal who was hoping to start a race war so that society would crumble and he and his band of losers could find their way to rule in the ruins. LaVey always stated that he saw benefit to society being stable, as that is the best way to lead an enjoyable existence, and so he opposed anarchy and other political concepts meant to shatter the social contract. Hitler’s Reich is fascinating to people in general, not just Satanists, as any casual perusal of historically oriented programming will demonstrate. That nation was on the way to conquering the globe, and so it should be studied, especially since it used technology and psychology amongst its weaponry. The case of Charles Manson holds interest as it demonstrated that the media storm around it created false images over the facts of the case that still remain unchallenged. Manson murdered nobody and was not at the scene of the crimes. Most people think otherwise. President Nixon declared him guilty before the trial’s verdict, surely something unusual, especially for American justice, which presumes innocence until guilt is proven. LaVey never championed Manson, but he and many Satanists see that the circumstances of that trial show media scapegoating is a palpable force worthy of understanding.
LaVey proposed eugenics as an option for people who wish to have healthier, talented, intelligent offspring. He thought that since humans applied such principles to other species, then why should people who wished to do so for their own offspring not be allowed the chance? He never advocated eugenics as a governmentally mandated program, which ironically was something that some Christian sects did prior to the Nazi regime when this idea was pushed to horrifying conclusions. Now that the human genome mapping is progressing well, the time will come when parents can design their own children, if they so choose, and that may prove to be interesting to Satanists amongst many others for the future of our species.
DC: What are the church’s views on modern religions?
PHG: The modern forms of older religions tend to be on better behavior than when they were part of theocratic states that tortured and murdered anyone who did not submit to their beliefs. However, that hatred is still there and can be seen in efforts by the religious to promote their bigotry, especially in issues of forbidding same-sex marriage or hindering healthcare rights that lead to certain forms of contraception. Islamic extremists are bold in behaving like old-time religions used to, but we Satanists and fellow secularists tend to think that any who believe that their points of view are supported by some supernatural sky-daddy could behave in the same manner given the opportunity.
Religions come and go in human history, invented by people dissatisfied with what society currently is offering. Some would-be prophets never bother investigating existing schools of thought and often think they are creating something new, when they just reproduce the same old ideas, often with less depth, but give them a new name. We Satanists call that “forgetfulness of past orthodoxies,” and it is on our list of Satanic sins, which are behaviors we’d like to avoid as they detract from our lives. Stupidity (behaving without thinking) is the top of that list of ours. Various forms of neo-paganism and other modern religious constructs can at times take a more human-centered view when creating symbolic deities, but Satanism views any form of theism as self-delusional and thus dangerous to our society and the future of our species. We advocate secularism in government and oppose proselytizing, especially when done by force through legislated religious morality.
DC: The police have long dispelled accusations of live sacrifice in the church. Where do these rumours come from? Are there any documented accounts of different Satanist sects?
PHG: During the 1980s-90s there was what we called “The Satanic Panic,” during which evangelical Christians and their supporters promoted the idea that there was an underground association of devil devotees sacrificing animals as well as babies bred for that purpose. They claimed that this conspiracy went from teenagers who spray-painted weird symbols as graffiti up to the leaders of armed forces and international commerce. Journalists like Geraldo Rivera often featured people making such unsupported claims on their talk shows. However, when the madness died down after extensive law enforcement investigation, this was proven to be urban legend and active spreading of falsehoods to promote a Christian agenda.
There were teenage dabblers, some even inspired by the nonsense spread on the talk shows, who were obsessed with drug use and the occult—of which they knew very little—and the few crimes that could be said to have used “Satanic” symbols were committed by these disorganized, misinformed miscreants. They were not sects. They had no philosophy or codified belief systems. What came out in later studies by the FBI and others was that the criminals had been influenced by horror films and newspaper stories that spread the stories minted by the evangelicals. There were murders, but they were not done as devil worship; rather, they were the results of internal disagreements amongst these disaffected teens. Several Palo Mayombe tinged murders done by Mexican drug dealers at the time were being held up as examples of Satanism but were in fact done to keep fellow criminals in line, as was later admitted. But such fantasies of murderous cults linger when someone like Miranda Barbour and her husband perform a thrill-killing and then, like other past murderers such as Henry Lee Lucas, try to blame it on indoctrination in cults that never existed. This is a means towards mitigating responsibility for their heinous acts; yet, actual Satanists think that they should be held responsible for their crimes. We support the idea of “Lex Talionis,” that the punishment should fit in kind and degree the committed crime.
DC: What qualified Anton LaVey to found a religion? The similarities to L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology are inescapable.
PHG: LaVey himself stated that if he didn’t found Satanism, somebody less qualified might have eventually tried to do it. LaVey was a self-educated man who read a great deal about history, religion, mythology, and philosophy as well as anthropology, criminology, sexology, and sociology; and he had direct experience of the way people behaved through working in carnivals, circuses, and as a freelance crime scene photographer. His unusual life is detailed in the just released biography The Secret Life of a Satanist by Blanche Barton.
The truth is that anyone can found a religion, but their qualifications only become clear if that belief system “has legs.” The Church of Satan is nearing its 50th year, and it has flourished past the demise of its founder, so as the global interest in our point of view continues to rise, we suspect that Satanism will be around for a while. Hubbard was a very different type of man than LaVey, but his Scientology has proved to be successful and serves a growing number of people as their chosen set of beliefs. Scientology has been claimed to be “cult-like” and coercive towards its members by its detractors. The Church of Satan does not attempt in any way to keep people as adherents against their wills—those wishing to depart simply send a signed/dated resignation note along with their membership card, and their files are closed. Success, meaning that adherents continue to come to the set of beliefs, is what will eventually determine the place of such ideas in the history of human thought and prove the qualifications of the individuals who conceived them.
DC: It’s widely known that famous figures such as Sammy Davis, Jr,. were members of the church – do you still get high profile members today?
PHG: Absolutely! But membership in the Church of Satan is strictly confidential since we live in a society where bigotry can easily lead to the hampering of one’s chosen life goals as we hold to a minority and oft-misunderstood point of view. Thus we do not “out” our members who are celebrities. Some other popular musicians have been open about their Satanism, such as King Diamond, Marc Almond, and Marilyn Manson; but there are others who would surprise their fans should they admit their Infernal interests. Popular music seems to allow for open Satanism, and many of our members have bands which are promoted on our news feed. But our members who head corporations or hold elected office or have any other profession that is held up to constant public scrutiny would rationally remain “closeted” since the misperceptions about Satanism would cloud people’s evaluation of what they are doing. Some might leave clues for the savvy to catch, but we’ll never tell.
With our time with Peter drawn to a close, we moved on to speak with current High Priestess Peggy Nadramia about her experiences with, and responsibilities toward, the church and its members…
DC: What do you believe led you to become the high priestess of the Church of Satan?
Peggy Nadramia: I spent many hours in the company of my friend and mentor Anton LaVey. He shared his observations about human nature, his hopes for the future, jokes, tragedies, films, books, and sought my reactions to these things because he wanted to be sure his guidance wasn’t falling on deaf ears. At the end of one of my last visits to the Black House, he hugged me close, then looked in my eyes and whispered, “You do everything right.” I’ve worked very hard not to let him down.
DC: How much has it helped you?
PN: My favorite part of being the High Priestess of Satan is watching the development of other Satanists, being on the cutting edge of the new things they produce and discover, of being able to recognize and reward their accomplishments, and of course, the state dinners and fancy cocktails.
DC: What does being the Magistra of the church entail on a daily basis?
PN: I’m a Magistra by title/rank and not the only one. My office is that of High Priestess. I’m the nuts and bolts of the operation. Is that too American? In brief, I deal with the inner workings of the Church while our High Priest represents us to the outside world, the press, and so on. The likes of you, in other words.
DC: The church of Satan believes strongly in acting and thinking for yourself, the individual – why would someone with these principles need to belong to a church or organized religion?
PN: Anyone who NEEDS to belong to something doesn’t find a good fit with the Church of Satan and quickly moves on or gets booted out. The whys and wherefores of the “organization for non-joiners” issue is best answered by Dr. LaVey himself in his essay “Get a Life.” You may find it in our Theory and Practice area, in the Anton LaVey section, at churchofsatan.com.
DC: What is magic, and how do Satanists use it?
PN: Lesser Magic is that thing you do to get a better table at a restaurant or some free upgrades at the computer store: You focus your charms and your knowledge of human nature to make people WANT to do nice things for you, solve your problems, fulfill your desires.
Greater Magic is the performance of a Satanic ritual, focusing your attention and emotional energy on a desired outcome. Satanists have many and varied ways of performing these rituals; some don’t perform them at all. What is most important to understand is that we are not worshiping a supernatural entity or calling on his help; we’re working with our own desires and psychology to focus our intentions for a better life, and if this sounds very unscientific, I would counter that for many of us, it is purgative, it works, and we’re happy to wait for science to explain it for the rest of you in the coming decades.
DC: How do you become a Witch or Warlock?
PN: I’m glad you asked as I’m not done talking about magic. We’re also involved with what Magus Gilmore calls “The Magic of Mastery.” This essay is included in his book, The Satanic Scriptures, but originally appeared in “The Cloven Hoof,” the Church of Satan’s newsletter. Witches and Warlocks are recognized among our ranks when they step up and show us what they can do, whether it’s mesmerizing a crowd with their musical skills, winning a case in court by being the smartest lawyer on the block, or simply following a personal dream and achieving it over and above their greatest expectations. People who can do something, who change their own worlds and often that of others, are our ideal Witches and Warlocks.
DC: What are your thoughts on the Satanic groups who perform live sacrifice and blood-drinking rituals? (Most notable was a 2005 case in Louisiana where a pastor from the local church admitted demon worship which involved child abuse and the drinking of cat blood.)
PN: These groups don’t exist; it’s an urban legend that’s been disproved by law enforcement time and again. There are individual criminals out there who occasionally do hideous things using “Satanic” trappings they’ve learned about on TV. And when you do a little digging, you usually discover their minds were warped by being dragged to a Christian church one too many times.
DC: Satanism – philosophy or religion? If you are your own god and the church worships no kind of deity, in whose name do you perform rituals? It seems like a theistic aspect of a religion which claims to have no god.
PN: As you observed in your own question, we DO have a god: ourselves. Satan is a metaphorical figure who represents our desire to lead an effective and joy-filled life, to step out of the herd and revel in the undefiled wisdom, the truth of our animal nature and the freedom from stultifying belief in a cruel and unjust godhead. Humans are hardwired to pursue ritual behaviors, and we find these work well to raise our own energies and crystallize our intentions. We accomplish this by calling upon “the Satan” in all of us during our rituals.
DC: Two of the laws of Satanism are “If a guest in your lair annoys you, treat him cruelly and without mercy,” and “When walking in open territory, bother no one. If someone bothers you, ask him to stop. If he does not stop, destroy him.” Should a new Satanist interpret these laws literally?
PN: Absolutely not. What the language here is attempting to do is to relieve you of the kind of guilt that has been inculcated in many of us from childhood. Not all people are nice or worthy of concern or respect — especially when they go out of their way to bother you or spurn your efforts to be decent or hospitable. When this happens, you can stop caring about them and deal with them in any way that is legally responsible. Never feel sorry for people who are ready to spit on you or hurt you. Just get them out of your life.
DC: It seems very draconian and archaic for a religion founded in 1966. It seems to be the only threatening aspects of an otherwise progressive codification of beliefs.
PN: Not everything invented in 1966 was about peace and love – in fact, Dr. LaVey was reacting to a lot of new, “hippie” belief systems that were popping up in the media every day. Satanism is not draconian in that LaVey is not telling his adherents that they CAN’T be nice to their enemies and detractors; he’s just advising them not to complain when their efforts are for naught.
Many thanks to both Peter and Peggy for taking the time out to talk with us.