Black Goat Cabal > Essays > Harmful religious groups ("cults")
The opinions expressed below are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by the Black Goat Cabal.
Avoiding harmful religious groups
in the Satanist scene
by Diane Vera
Copyright © 2006, 2011 Diane Vera. All rights reserved.
- The dangers
- How to avoid harmful groups?
- While you are still looking for a good Satanist group to join...
- The dangers
Most forms of Satanism pay at least lip service to the idea that we Satanists should think for ourselves and not conform blindly to any herd. Nevertheless, the Satanist scene has its share of sheep - and plenty of shepherds and would-be shepherds out to fleece them. Alas, there do exist quite a few groups in the Satanist scene that appear to be run by would-be cult leaders looking for blindly obedient followers.
Some groups can be downright dangerous to their own members, in one way or another - especially to those who join and then decide, later, to start thinking for themselves.
Obviously, the most dangerous groups are those which practice or advocate violent criminal activity in the name of Satan (or any other god). Although not as commonplace as is popularly believed, such groups have indeed existed from time to time, mainly amongst teenagers. And they are far more dangerous to their own members than they are to anyone else, judging by the track record of the Norwegian "Black Metal Circle" and the Italian "Beasts of Satan." In both these groups, at least one member was murdered by at least one other member.
But the more law-abiding groups can be dangerous too, in other ways. For example, quite a few groups will ask prospective members lots of nosy personal questions in the membership application. Some groups - even some otherwise reputable groups - have been known to use that information against ex-members who voiced public disagreement with the group later on.
Still other groups can be dangerous to one's mental health, using meditation and visualization techniques to blur the distinction between fantasy and reality. (Meditation and visualization do have valid uses too; indeed they are vital to the practices of all occult groups that I'm aware of. But, in my opinion, they should be approached carefully and systematically, with an awareness of the psychology involved.)
Another thing to watch out for is hidden sexual agendas. There are, alas, some groups whose unannounced de facto primary purpose is for the high priest to get laid. Now, if a group is into group sex, I have nothing against that as long as it's done responsibly, i.e. with due attention to health and safety (e.g. condoms), and with everyone giving informed consent, which should include being told about it before one joins the group. What's objectionable is when the leader of an ostensibly nonsexual group routinely hits on members.
Some groups will pressure people into making premature commitments. Some groups will tell newcomers to Satanism to make an oath of dedication to Satan ASAP. (In my opinion, a dedication to any deity should wait until someone has already interacted with the deity and studied the relevant religion long enough to make an informed decision. Dedication rites by total newcomers are like marrying someone you just met yesterday -- not a good idea even if you've fallen head over heels in love at first sight.) Other groups want instant declarations of loyalty to the group itself. I've even heard of one group that apparently wanted new members to make some sort of oath of obedience to the group's leader!
Because of the blatant dogmatism and groupthink displayed by all too many Satanist groups, many Satanists have concluded that it's best not to join any groups at all. Thus there are many independent Satanists who do not belong to any group and who don't intend ever to join any group.
I wouldn't go so far as to advise not joining groups at all. If you can find a sanely-run group whose beliefs you are in essential agreement with, then belonging a religious group does confer certain advantages. It's very nice to have a bunch of likeminded people you can talk to, hang out with, participate in rituals with, and exchange favors with. Also, if you're ever involved in a legal battle against discrimination on the basis of religion, being a member of a law-abiding Satanist group can help strengthen your case and can help you seem all-around more legitimate, especially if your group has official doctrines and a code of conduct that you can point to.
But I would advise being very careful about joining groups in today's Satanist scene. Too many groups are run by emotionally unstable egomaniacs with little or no sense of honor.
Is the Satanist scene forever doomed to be dominated by silly dogmatists and would-be cult leaders? I don't think so. Other subcultures have gone through a similar phase and outgrown it, as explained in my article Don't give up! Some reasons to hope that the Satanist scene will improve. (See especially the section on The underground sleaze phase - a historical perpsective.)
In the meantime, I advise great caution about joining any of the Satanist groups that exist now, even the most reputable. I wouldn't say not to join any groups at all. There do exist a few good ones, in my opinion. But don't take even my word for it, especially if you don't know me personally. Be very careful in evaluating all groups you may consider joining.
- How to avoid harmful groups?
How can one avoid harmful groups?
First, do not rely on the Satanist scene's rumor mill. Do not rely, primarily, on asking other Satanists to tell you which groups are good and which are bad. The Satanist scene is now in a phase of bitter competition between groups, and all too many Satanist leaders have little or no compunction about spreading the most ridiculous defamatory crap about other Satanist leaders and groups. (One example is discussed in The Satanism Scare: Witchhunt Mentalities in Modern Times by Geifodd.) The opinions of other Satanists should not be completely ignored, but they should be taken with a hefty dose of salt. If you are told any serious allegations, ask where you can see some evidence. (Be a bit skeptical about alleged "evidence" too. Some people in the Satanist scene have even gone so far as to put up fake websites or send fake email messages or online forum posts impersonating Satanist leaders whom they didn't like, for the purpose of defaming them. If a particular website, email message, or online forum post seems at all out of character for the alleged author, please do not hesitate to contact the possibly-impersonated leader about it, even if the website or message itself tells you not to do so.)
When deciding which organizations to join, if any, you should rely primarily on what you can see and experience for yourself.
This means you should require an opportunity to get to know a group yourself before you make any kind of longterm commitment or reveal any kind of private personal information about yourself - or put yourself in any kind of situation that might put you in any danger from the group. If a group does not have some means of interaction with prospective members before they apply to join the group, then I would suggest joining it only if it is recommended to you by a friend whom you know well enough to trust and who also knows the group very well.
However, just as prospective members need to approach groups warily, so too groups need to be at least somewhat wary of prospective members. Although you do need an opportunity to get to know a group before you join, you should not expect its leaders to be willing to spend lots of time with you one-on-one before you're accepted as a full member - or even afterward, for that matter. Remember that the leader does have a life and plenty of other people to talk to besides you - and, unlike a Christian pastor, is probably not getting paid a salary to talk to you and other members and prospective members of the group. Therefore, you should expect to get to know the group only through a combination of (1) its literature, (2) online forum participation, (3) social events in public places, and (4) only occasional one-on-one interaction, which you should not expect immediately at all.
If a group publishes any literature or has a website, you should read it thoroughly before you apply to join the group. Doing so will both (1) help you evaluate the group and (2) help you make a good impression on the group and its leaders when and if you do apply to join. Of course, to get to know a group, you'll need to do more than just read its literature and/or website. Some of what a group says in its literature/website might turn out to be bullshit, after all. But reading a group's literature/website - thoroughly - is an absolutely essential first step. If you disregard it due to sheer impatience, laziness, or "not having enough time," chances are you'll succeed only in either (1) annoying the group and its leaders or (2) ending up over your head in a situation you never expected or wanted. If a group doesn't have any literature and does not have a reasonably informative website, or at the very least a recommended reading list, then you're lacking crucial information and should be extra cautious about applying to join this group.
After you've read at least a goodly amount of the group's literature and/or website, your next step should be either to participate in the group's online forum, if it has an online forum open to nonmembers, or to meet a representative of the group at a public social event, if there are any public social events that the group either holds or participates in, such as a local Satanism Meetup. If both options are available, then I would strongly recommend making use of them both rather than just one of them. In particular, even if you also have an opportunity to meet these people in person, do not underestimate the value of their online forum as a place for more sustained interaction with the group, and as a place to get into more in-depth discussion of the group's beliefs and practices than would likely be feasible at a group social event.
In the online forum, introduce yourself and tell the group about your own beliefs and background, without revealing any identifying personal information. Tell the group what you like about them. Having read the group's literature, you should now be able to discuss their beliefs intelligently. Do so. Ask questions about anything that is still unclear to you after having read their literature. Tell them both what you agree with and (politely) what you disagree with. (You probably won't agree with absolutely everything.) Don't be afraid to voice your disagreements politely, as long as you are careful to follow the forum's rules. See how the group reacts. If they respond calmly and intelligently to your disagreements, that's a good sign of emotional and intellectual maturity on their part. On the other hand, if they have a cow about even minor, polite disagreements, well, that's a bad sign. If you are dealing with a group that has integrity, then voicing an occasional minor, polite, and well-informed disagreement will help you make a good impression on them, because it shows that you're a thinker and not an ass-kisser. Of course, if you have major problems with the group's belief system, then you probably shouldn't be courting them in the first place.
Observe the group's attitude toward newcomers such as yourself. While it's desirable for a group and its leaders to be friendly to newcomers, I would advise being a bit wary of groups and leaders that are too eager to welcome newcomers with open arms. Chances are that the leader of such a group is either (1) naive and inexperienced or (2) a would-be cult leader hoping to win followers through love-bombing. However, Satanist groups, especially online, are far more likely to have the opposite problem - a very obnoxious attitude toward newcomers, especially toward those who deviate from the party line. I certainly wouldn't advise joining groups of that kind, either.
Watch the group for signs of all-around maturity or immaturity, both intellectual and emotional. For example, does the leader seem emotionally stable, or is the leader always having temper tantrums? Do the members seem relaxed and easygoing most of the time, or do they often seem to have a chip on their shoulder? Do you see intelligent discussion about theology, demonology, ritual practice, and the group's code of conduct? Do you see occasional amicable debates or at least discussion of different viewpoints within the group's overall worldview, or does everyone just march in lock-step with the leader? If the group makes historical claims, especially controversial or surprising historical claims, how does it back up those claims? (And don't be too quick to buy controversial historical claims without first taking a good look at what the skeptics have to say about them as well.)
Avoid groups that display extremes of unreasonable paranoia. For example, one Satanist website claims that two other Satanist leaders, who have long hated each other, are secretly in cahoots with each other and are both secretly Christians out to subvert the Satanist scene. This is exactly the same kind of paranoia displayed by some extreme Christian religious right wingers who claim that everything they don't like is secretly controlled by Satanists as part of some grand master plan directed by the Illuminati.
Paranoia to some degree, on the part of Satanist leaders, is understandable given the high level of infighting in the Satanist scene. It is reasonable for Satanist leaders, especially those who have been around for a long time, to have at least a very cautious attitude toward other Satanist leaders and groups, and toward prospective members of one's own group. But there is paranoia and there is paranoia. An extremely paranoid group or leader is likely to get paranoid about you too, even if (perhaps especially if) the group or leader seems very friendly and welcoming at first. Also, avoid groups with paranoia-inducing beliefs, such as Scientology's "third party law," lest you too become unreasonably paranoid, which is not a fun way to live.
You should apply to join a group only after you've spent some time getting to know them, either in their online forum or at public social events, and preferably both. Even then, be especially careful about joining groups with nosy membership applications. To be fair, I should say that the nosiness is to some extent justified. A group does need to get to know its prospective members as well as vice versa. Some groups require personal information so they can do a criminal background check on prospective members - a reasonable precaution, because just one violent criminal member can get an entire group in deep trouble. But, for your own sake, you had better be allowed to spend a long time getting to know the group, both online and in person, before you fill out that nosy membership application. If the group doesn't allow this, then forget about it.
Before you apply to join, find out the group's expectations of new members. In particular, what are their loyalty expectations? Does the group demand loyalty beyond what you are comfortable with? Too many groups have unreasonable and premature expectations of loyalty. Remember that loyalty is a good thing, but it should be earned over a period of time, both by groups and by individuals. Be especially wary of groups that expect new members to make an oath of personal loyalty to the group's leader, especially if you don't yet know said leader very well. Also be wary of groups that forbid even new members to belong to any other groups, or which discourage you from learning about other forms of Satanism or about other religions. To avoid conflicts of interest and minimize soap opera, it is reasonable for a group to prohibit dual memberships by clergy, or at the more advanced membership levels. But what you should be wary of is a more general, cultish attempt to narrow your vision by discouraging you from looking at other groups' teachings in general.
Some groups have initiation rituals for new members. Traditionally, in many occult groups including some Satanist groups, initiation rituals are kept secret so that there will be an element of surprise. Up to a point this is legitimate.
However, at the very least, you should be told in advance about any oaths you will be asked to swear. An oath should always be something you have plenty of time to think about, never something that is sprung on you at the last minute. If a group is unwilling to tell you in advance about your oaths of initiation, then that group should definitely be avoided. If they do tell you the oaths, consider carefully whether you think the oaths are reasonable. Do not make an oath that you aren't confident you can keep, or which isn't reasonable for anyone to ask of you in the first place.
Another thing you should be told about in advance is whether the initiation rite will involve any sexual or erotic activity, and, if so, of what general kind. As a general rule, a group with a serious spiritual purpose will not include any sexual activity as part of an initiation rite for new members. On the other hand, if you personally happen to be looking for a group that does do group sex, then that's fine if you told about it in advance, and if you know the group well enough to trust them to be careful on health and safety issues. What's not fine is an initiation rite in which sexual activity is sprung on the new member at the last minute, with no prior notice, in a context where it would be very awkward to say no. That's called rape.
More generally, make sure you know the group well enough to trust them before you ask or agree to be initiated in a group ritual. Throughout the many different branches of the Western occult tradition, including even Wicca, it was once commonplace (at least until the 1970's or so) for group initiation rituals to involve things like being bound, blindfolded, and having a sword pointed at you. Not all occult groups do this sort of thing anymore. Indeed, probably most don't, except for the oldest, most traditional, and most Masonic-derived groups such as the OTO and Gardnerian/Alexandrian Wicca (see What Witches Do by Stewart Farrar). However, if a group initiation ritual is being kept secret, then you are best off assuming that it might involve these and other scary activities. So, don't ask to be initiated unless you know the people well enough to trust them to bind, blindfold, and point a sword at you - and perhaps whip or paddle you too, or perhaps make you lie down in a closed, airtight coffin for a while, and who knows what all else - all without harming you. You'll need good reason to trust not only their good intentions toward you, but also their competence, e.g. are they the sort of people who would have taken the time to learn how to do the more dangerous activities safely?
- While you are still looking for a good Satanist group to join...
Given the shortage of Satanist groups of any kind, let alone good ones, it may very well be a long time before you find a worthwhile Satanist group to join.
In the meantime, as a way to gain some group ritual experience in a non-Christian/non-Abrahamic setting, I recommend exploring your local Pagan/occult scene. These days there are quite a few Pagan groups that hold public or semi-public rituals.
Most Satanists feel that most Pagan groups are too "white light," among other problems they may have with them. However: (1) Not all modern Pagans are as "white-light" as they make themselves appear at first glance. You might meet some surprisingly interesting people. (2) Wicca, whose derivatives constitute the most popular form of modern Paganism, acknowledges at least in theory the need for a "balance of light and dark" (among other pairs of polarities). So, even the most "white light" Wicca-based Pagan groups are likely to call on some relatively "dark" deities at least occasionally, especially at Samhain.
Alas, many Pagans are exceedingly queasy about the S word. So, you may need to be careful about telling people you're a Satanist.
If they exist in your area, I would also recommend looking into some non-Wicca-based occult groups, such as Thelemite groups (e.g. the OTO) or Chaos Magick groups. I would also recommend looking into some non-Wicca-based Pagan groups, e.g. Asatru and other Pagan/Heathen Reconstructionist groups. These will all have a very different "energy" from what you're likely to encounter in a Wicca-based Pagan setting.
Of course, you should also learn about the many different kinds of Satanism. These days, for most people in most locales, the only good place to learn about Satanism is on the Internet. Satanist websites vary widely in terms of the knowledge and intelligence of their creators. Again keep in mind that the Satanist scene is highly competitive and full of infighting at the present time, so you should do your own research and make your own judgments rather than rely on the opinions of other Satanists.
I would also suggest that you participate in Satanist Internet forums and, if you're a decent writer, save copies of your better posts. Eventually you may want to launch a website of your own, at which point your better posts can be recycled into articles for your website.
Consider starting your own local Satanism Meetup group, if there isn't already one in your area (or if the one in your area is dominated by a leader or dogma that you don't like), and if you can afford the monthly fee which the Meetup site charges to organizers of groups. Having your own website (and publicizing it via link exchanges) will help you publicize your Meetup group beyond those people who discover it via the Meetup site itself. I would suggest that you hold your Meetup as an informal social gathering in a public place such as a restaurant. Eventually you may want to get together with some of these people privately to do rituals. (For more advice about Meetup groups, see, here on the Black Goat Cabal site, the article Using the Meetup site to organize a local Satanist social group or discussion group.)
However, please don't get carried away and start immediately calling yourself a high priest(ess) ....
The search for a worthwhile Satanist group to join can be very discouraging. But don't lose heart. The Satanist scene is growing and is gradually becoming more diverse and generally better, albeit slowly.