Prescriptive versus descriptive religion

The Church of Satan likes to say that the word “Satanism” was never used to describe a coherent, organized system of thought prior to Anton LaVey’s founding of modern Satanism in 1966. That may be true, but certainly the word already existed: you can even see it in the 1916 edition of the Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. The word “Satanism” is right there, jammed between “satanic” and “satchel”, defined as: “Worship of Satan”.

I don’t get too bent out of shape when people mistakenly think that Satanists worship Satan. I’ll correct them, of course. I’ll explain to them that modern Satanism is a specific religion that is non-theistic and non-supernaturalist, and is focused on using the fictional character of Satan as a metaphor and symbol of rebellion against arbitrary authority and the prioritization of reason over faith.

But I won’t huff and puff over their ignorance. There was a time when the common collective meaning of the word “Satanism” was “worship of Satan.” As a Satanist, I’m part of the movement that is changing that definition; and I will accomplish that better if I simply educate them, than if I turn up my nose and sneer at them for not being as up-to-date as they should be.

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Years ago I was speaking to a journalist who specialized in reporting on religion and religious issues. He also was a devout Christian. He talked about a phenomenon he described as “living in two worlds”. He saw the world as a Christian, and from this perspective he was absolutely certain about his moral beliefs and what he felt “true” Christianity represented. But he also saw the world as a reporter, and from that perspective he had to be able to address Christianity as it is embodied in the world, with all of the confusion and contradiction and hypocrisy that exists in every human endeavor.
His answer to the question “What are core Christian principles?” might be different, for example, depending on whether he was answering as a Christian or as a religious reporter.

When I heard him talk about this, my immediate reaction was to think he was describing the difference between Christianity as it is versus Christianity as he thinks it should be.

But there is something about that gloss that doesn’t sit right with me. Making that binary distinction feels like it’s putting up a wall: as if one is reality, and the other is mere wishful thinking.

The fact is, we make a religion what it is: we, the ones who identify as the adherents of a particular religious worldview. A religion is not some objective Platonic object — some web of moral and ontological axioms hovering in the sky. A religion is a socially constructed thing: a living, breathing, evolving thing. A religion is an emergent collective phenomenon that is both driven by and embodied by the people who claim its mantel as their own.

So when he talks about Christianity as he thinks it should be he is not talking about some delusion, some wishful fantasy that is disconnected from an objective fact-of-the-matter. He is talking about the Christianity he is creating in the world, simply by the fact of him being a certain type of Christian.

I see nobility in that, because I do the same thing as a Satanist.

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This distinction is like the distinction those who study language draw between prescriptive linguistics and descriptive linguistics.

Prescriptive linguistics tells you what the correct way to say things is.

Descriptive linguistics tells you how people actually use language.

But the catch is, of course, that each one blurs into the other: ultimately language is a social phenomenon, and emergent collective action, and what once was “just how people happened to talk” eventually becomes “the way you are supposed to talk”… as long as you can convince enough people to do it.

When I was younger , the word “momentarily” meant “for a moment”. One would say: “I was momentarily startled by the loud sound, but then I recovered.” At that time, it was incorrect to say “I will be back momentarily”… unless you truly intended to mean: “I will be back for a short while, and then I will leave again.”

But after decades of news reporters on television, and announcers on stage, and managers at stores and restaurants, all saying “I will be with you momentarily” and “we will return momentarily”, eventually t he word took on a new meaning. Now, “momentarily” means “in a moment” rather than “for a moment”. It didn’t happen through some grand proclamation: it simply became the prescriptive truth because it had been the descriptive truth for so long that anything else now sounds “incorrect”.

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I live in two worlds, just as the Christian reporter does.

As a Satanist, I say that Satanism is not “devil worship”, it is an atheistic religion that views Satan as a symbol.

As a linguist, I say that modern Satanists have been reclaiming the term “Satanism” over the last half century as part of a deliberate statement of rebellion against the superstitions of mainstream religions.

As Satanist, I say that viewing we humans as a biologically social and cooperative species requires us to work for the common good, and we can be inspired by the fact that Lucifer never sought freedom merely for himself but for all of the angels who were willing to fight by his side.

As a cultural observer, I will note that there are distinct philosophies or “denominations” within Satanism, and that (for example) those who align themselves with the Church of Satan take a much more individualistic and self-oriented moral stance while those who align themselves with The Satanic Temple take a much more socially-oriented or even collectivist view. I would even point out that within these groups there are nuances and disagreements about how exactly moral priorities such as “self-interest” or “social justice” should become manifest in one’s life.

I live in two worlds: Satanism as it is, and Satanism as I embody it myself.

This makes me an activist, as well, even though I abhor the idea of imposing my own Satanism on others. I know better than to think that there exists any “true Satanism” hovering in some Platonic heaven.

But I am de facto an activist because I am a Satanist, and therefore I am part of the pattern that makes up the whole. I am one of the motes of dust in the dust storm. I will embody the Satanism that feels the most true to me, and in doing so I am part of the pattern of Satanism as it is.
And that is part of the social process of creating Satanism as it should be.