By Vexen Crabtree 2003
Is LaVey Satanism a personality cult of Anton LaVey? Starting off with a few disclaimer about the relationship of the average Satanist to LaVey himself, I proceed to look in detail at what a cult of personality is and look at the development and style of leadership of such cults, and then conclude that the Church of Satan is indeed a radical movement initiated by a charismatic leader, but is not a personality cult of its founder.
Later on I get into the sociology and terminology of the most respected sociologist Max Weber, but I fear that that would be a very boring way to start the page, so I start off with some more exciting sounding topics such as do Satanists blindly follow the teachings of LaVey?
1.1. Blind Allegiance to leaders
Satanism is notoriously individualistic so that this is very rarely ever an issue and at least never admitted. But is there an unadmitted, subconscious blind allegiance to Anton LaVey and his teachings? My answer is no, but the criticism is not without its merit. Anton LaVey is given authority by Satanists. When I wish to ultimately 'prove' that what I say in a comment about Satanism is true, I look to LaVey.
I would like to quickly add that I do not blindly follow LaVey because I do very much question and ponder over his text. I know there are places where I disagree with LaVey, and areas where I'm simply not sure. LaVey's text, like all the text of every human, contains errors, omissions, mistakes that are both conceptual and technical. Like all people, sometimes LaVey was just wrong. This is an undeniable truth which holds true for all people and all books. There is no fundamentalism in Satanism, certainly not in the way that some Muslims and Christians consider their texts to be infallible.
Those who follow blindly are attacked really quite scornfully within the Satanic community; people actively look for this weakness in their colleagues. Those who follow blindly are also attacked by the leaders themselves within Satanism! To follow blindly is a taboo, something that is dogmatically forbidden.
2.1. The Authority of Anton LaVey amongst all Satanist groups
LaVey is given authoritative status by Church of Satan officials and members. This cannot imply, however, that the Church of Satan in particular is a cult of personality, and we can pursue this without even reaching the stage where we define what a Cult of Personality is. This is because all Satanic groups give LaVey authoritative status. The writings of LaVey are also held to be the foundation of various other Satanic churches and groups, and most individual Satanists' also proclaim that The Satanic Bible is their most fundamental textbook source of information on Satanism, whether or not they are members of or like the Church of Satan that LaVey founded.
In this, Satanism is following the path of the major religions throughout history. During the formation of Christianity, Gnostic Christians and Literalist Christians both claimed that the ultimate divine truth was their authority, both claimed that the figure of Jesus represented them and stood for them and both Literalist and Gnostic Christianity claimed the writings of Saul of Tarsus (Paul) as their textual foundation. Both groups also used different texts. In Islam, after Muhammad's death, different groups of Muslims rallied around various leaders who compiled scripture, basing it all on Muhammad. The Satanic Churches that have splintered off from the Church of Satan likewise claim that they represent LaVey better than the original: Across most these bodies, LaVey is given authoritative status.
So, if we are to conclude that the Church of Satan is a cult of personality, and that other Satanic churches and individual Satanists might not be, then it cannot be done purely by pointing out that LaVey is given authority by LaVey Satanists. This in itself is part of the normal development of a religion, and it is impossible to say from such things that any group is a personality cult of LaVey. Momen agrees with Max Weber in 'The Phenomenon Of Religion: A Thematic Approach' that religions follow this general trend. Talking of the status of the leader and development of the religion beyond the founder's death, he then notes:
“With the death of the founder, the religion is deprived of his charisma which had attracted new people and kept [them] unified. [...] The [new leaders] face the problem of how to maintain the cohesion and continued expansion of the movement, which is now at its most vulnerable. [...] One can speak of a myth being created of the prophet-founder that turns him into a role model for the key virtues and moral norms of the religion, the bridge between the transcendent and the mundane, the perfect human being. Thus, Jesus becomes the perfect Christian; Muhammad, the perfect Muslim; Guatama Buddha, the perfect ”
LaVey is seen as an exemplary Satanist. His credentials as a Satanist are never questioned. This also is not a sign of a cult of personality as it is present in all religions in their youth, in an increasingly symbolic guise as they mature. The status of his achievements, one of which was the creation of Satanism, is enough to justifiably warrant his name as an authority.
2.2. Not just a religious phenomenon
Authority in any field is always traced to someone. If for example I was to tell a sociologist that he was using the term 'charisma' wrongly, such a person would go straight away to the writings of Max Weber, who founded sociology, or a text that directly relies upon Weber, and show me how he derives at his correct usage of the word. That Weber is an authority on such things does not make sociology a cult of personality of Max Weber, it is merely indebted to him, and this is something no-one could deny.
Satanists cannot rightly deny that LaVey's text is the greatest authority on Satanism. Momen (quoted above) has showed us that certain idealisation of the founder is an inevitable part of the development of religion, the aspects of LaVey's life that (may) be idealized are irrelevant to Satanism and the doctrine of the Church of Satan, the body as a whole is now independent of LaVey, even though authority is rightly traced to him. Peter Gilmore, et all, would not need to emulate, be related to, be a personification of, be a reincarnation of or otherwise even like LaVey in order to lead the Church of Satan. The scene is set for continued healthy growth: The shadow of LaVey, however great, has not restricted the Church of Satan's growth: It has not indeed become a cult of personality of LaVey.
However, in order to progress in a meaningful way, I think it is about time we looked at exactly what a 'cult of personality' is.
3.1. A charismatic leader
There is no standard definition of what a 'Cult of Personality' is. The term itself appears to post-date Max Weber, although Weber in his multiple voluminous works ties it up with a religious group that is dominated, founded or led by a single charismatic leader. Many groups are led by charismatic leaders, both within and outside of traditional offices of authority. A party that is bogged down in bureaucracy may gain a charismatic leader just as much as a group of outcasts with no formal social structure may find themselves led by one. They arise in business, art, science, politics and every other field. Sometimes charismatic leaders can add much needed vital energy to a field, and sometimes they can cause instability and be a nuisance to ordered society.
So, our definition for a Cult of Personality will borrow extensively from Weber and his terminology, as there is no other respected authority of his status in sociology, and in particular I will be referring to Weber whenever I talk of charismatic leaders.
3.2. A following
Charismatic leaders have a "cult of personality", but I'd like to distinguish between good ones and bad ones, cults and movements.
“[There are many] examples of "sect"-like and "cult"-like clusters within mainline "Churches." A Pentecostalist Assembly may exhibit "sect"- like characteristics in New York City, but might be a "church" in rural West Virginia. The term "cult of personality" has been used frequently to describe the relationship between specific charismatic ministers and their congregations in a variety of mainstream "churches." One person's "cult" may well be another person's "church."”
Some people will conclude that "Satanism" is a "cult", because they personally find disagreement with the symbolism represented by Satan. Some will call the Church of Satan, in particular, a cult, but not say the same about other Satanic organisations. As the term "cult" is so ambiguous and used very personally by people, it is difficult to argue if any group is a cult or not.
3.3. Illogical adherence to dogmatic, unquestioned rules
But, the defining feature is in the relationship that a group has with its living or deceased founder. If healthy expansion, growth, both personal and organisational, is inhibited or prevented because of an illogical adherence to vague rules of the founder, then it is more cultish because it is more destructive and negative. If it is interacting with the world in healthy and positive ways, not illogically or superstitiously, then it is a positive movement and not a cult. For example, groups who illogically cling to a leader despite his prophecies of the end of the world not actually occurring at the predicted dates, are sometimes taken down the route of mass suicide or destruction. This is the behavior of a Cult of Personality such as the Heaven's Gate cultic deference to the beliefs of their founder, and trusting him despite the refutations that reality provided. Pesky as it is, reality has proved all end-of-world prophecies to be false so far. Their relationship to their leader has become more important than their relationship to the real world. Their natural instincts, desires and social safety nets have been removed, hence, a cult.
To rephrase: A cult of personality is when the followers of a charismatic leader make irrational and illogical decisions based upon the things the leader has said, whereas a normal movement is one where the followers follow the charismatic leader, but still make rational decisions about problems that face the group.
“2. Individual leadership, the cult of personality, largely emotional, which Weber labelled "charisma." Positions might include presidents, governors, mayors, coaches, pastors, priests, rabbis, imams or other community leaders. This trait is thought to be irrational, as it goes against the grain of how issues confronting the organization are handled, dealt with, brokered and accepted.”
In the business world there is talk of cults of personality. This is when the CEO of a corporation has to be very outward, with very public leadership skills, in order for the business to continue working profitably. This dependence upon the leader is a negative sign. Although organisations need leaders, the organisations should have resistance and the strength to survive even with a poor leader, as the other strong members of staff assume to keep things running. A cult of personality has developed if the business relies upon its leader to maintain its profitability. Many small businesses, small religious groups and small social groups are headed by charismatic leaders and upon the passing of the leader are faced with problematic times. If an organisation survives without becoming destructive, then it is not a cult of personality, even if it once was.
In direct contrast, Satanists are implored to doubt everything, question everything, and never submit or follow without thinking everything through thoroughly.
3.4. Not a cult
I am writing this text because I don't like being described as a member of a Cult of Personality when the affects of The Church of Satan on my life is everything but cultish. So my conclusion is that the relationship between Satanists and the leadership of the Church of Satan is in the positive category and not the cultish one. To summarize:
Whereas, if it were a Cult of Personality, our life choices would be inhibited by the sayings of LaVey. LaVey happened to dislike perfumed women: This does not translate into a dogmatic rule of natural odour for women, because the Church of Satan is not a cult of personality and LaVey's views are not held to be transcendentally perfect. Personal wealth is encouraged by many cults, for example Scientology that requires personal wealth in order to purchase expensive course material, but frequently do not accept that a person may develop beyond the need for the religion itself. If a Satanist reaches a point where they feel inhibited by Satanism, they are advised to leave, as it is not Satanic to let religion get in the way of your life. This is not the behavior of a Cult of Personality, where the individuals rely upon the charisma of the leadership.
LaVey, unlike nearly every other cult leader (including suicide and death cults, many of which are Christian in origin such as the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments, responsible for nearly 1000 deaths), is not given supernatural or superhuman providential powers. LaVey does not speak for the gods, nor is he infallible or a genius, he is merely a man who wrote down and codified the religion of Satanism. Entirely for his own gain, his motives are not superhuman either. Or even altruistic.
However there is one more element of a Cult of Personality that we can look at: The role that LaVey plays in the Church of Satan in death. This is going to be a discussion on Weber's teachings on how the charisma of a leader becomes institutionalized.
The powerful charisma of a leader becomes institutionalized over time. Weber refers to this as the routinization of charisma and refers to this process frequently throughout many of his essays. The process in itself is normal, and occurs in all fields of humanity, from religious to business leadership. I will not look at this process in general, but focus on the more illogical and harmful aspects of such a process if illogical and cultish behavior becomes manifest within the group.
4.1. Mythical beliefs about the leader
Charismatic leaders become mythologized. Here are two of the most popular ones:
Jesus in the first century was a symbolic, fictional character of the gnostic Christians in the first century. Then, the literalist Christians believed in him as a literal person, and the Jewish Messiah. By the 2nd and 3rd centuries he was the Son of God, and then in 325CE became God itself, one third of the trinity3
Muhammad was at first a political leader. Later, by his own leadership, he self identified (like Jesus) as God's prophet. Upon death, his works were compiled as the word of God. Later still, he was attributed with miraculous deeds, such as the belief that he was illiterate (thereby making his writings miraculous)
These are generally accepted by society as 'normal' developments of belief in a charismatic leader. The partial mythologisation of LaVey may or may not have occurred, but such a thing is pointed out specifically by Momen as being a developmental stage of post charismatic leadership. Thankfully, as Satanism is not superstitious, most the elements of mythologisation are trivial, silly things rather than the old-fashioned "son or prophet of god" thing, or the "inerrant" thing! LaVey's biographical details have not become institutionalized as part of the symbolic or ritualistic elements of the Church of Satan. In short, Satanism is not as bad as other religions. Although there has only been a short time for such myths to develop, modern cults have developed superstitious beliefs about their founder even during the founders own lifetime. Examples include L. Ron. Hubbard and Mother Theresa.
4.2. Dogmatic beliefs derived from cult of personality style behavior:
Examples of such illogical, cultish behavior becoming part of the belief system of the religions mentioned above are:
Not only is the general routinization of the charisma of the founder a normal part of the development of the religion, but Satanism lacks the more harmful and superstitious elements of that process. On a scale, if LaVey Satanism is a cult of personality, then it is of a form that is so mild as to behave as if it were not. In other words... it makes more sense to describe it as a movement, than a cult of personality.
The Church of Satan traces authority to LaVey in a way that is rational and realistic in the same way academic fields of research give special status to significant figures and founders. Satanists' beliefs are not formed or influenced illogically, irrationally, dangerously or in a cultish way by the Church of Satan leadership or by the legacy of LaVey, and the Church of Satan has not progressed down lines that has led to destructive Cults of Personalities. It is following the route of larger organized religions, but it is following fewer cultic paths and superstitious roads than our historical religions have in the past. In short, not only is the Church of Satan not a Cult of Personality, but it is also somewhat healthier than many historical and new religious movements.
Current edition: 2003 Apr 08
Parent page: Criticism and Attacks on Satanism by Various Authors
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