At the end of July I posted about the lack of scholarly study of institutional Satanism in America. The issues I wanted to highlight were the way theological commitments by participants in the field of Religious Studies generally made them either oppositional to Satanism, as a legitimate subject of inquiry, or to treat it differently, such as assuming they know about it when they would never make similar assumptions about other religious traditions. I also wanted to point out how journalists also treat Satanism differently, again assuming they know about the tradition and, therefore, have no need to consult experts in the field. The blog post received a fair number of views and received some comments that confirmed the perception. Since the post, I have continued to monitor the way Satanism has been reported by journalists and how scholars of religion have participated. An article posted last week opens opportunity to reexamine the discussion, because it both highlights the way my initial post was correct, and how, when a scholar of religion is consulted, things don’t always go as they hope.
The article I want to focus on was written by Robert Allen, a staff writer for the Detroit Free Press. His article is called “It's Satanist vs. Satanist in Detroit's newest political tug-of-war” and in it he wanted to highlight the conflict between two satanic groups within the Detroit area. (Other versions of the article have been published in USA Today and other media outlets.) First, I want to point out a few of the things the essay does right. For the most part, Allen also treats the Satanist theology respectfully, just as one should of any religious tradition—although he does sensationalize to a degree. Moreover, he tries to tease out nuances that suggest the diversity in views found within the satanic religious movement. This is something lacking in most representation of Satanism, which usually portray it as monolithic and superficial. Finally, Allen made an effort to get input from religious studies specialists, particularly those local to him in Michigan. But it is here we see the first confirmation of the things I highlighted in my previous blog post. Allen writes:
Religion experts with several large universities in Michigan either didn’t respond to requests for comment from the Free Press or said that they weren’t familiar with Satanism.
Allen reached out for comment from specialists in religion and these scholars either ignored him or deferred because they did not know enough about Satanism. Allen eventually did get in touch with a religious studies scholar who is knowledgeable about Satanism, Jesper Aagaard Petersen. Petersen is an Associate Professor at the Norwegian University of Science & Technology and one of the leading experts in the world regarding the history of Satanism and contemporary satanic groups. As I pointed out in the previous blog post, the overwhelming majority of the world’s leading experts on Satanism are in Europe, particularly Scandinavia. Thus, this is where Allen went for comment, and Allen was right to contact Petersen. However, isn’t it a problem that a local newspaper has to contact a scholar in Norway to discuss an issue in Detroit? Are there really so few scholars of religion in America that one must cross the Atlantic for authoritative statements? It seems so.
The problem with Petersen being the go-to scholar on Satanism is his distance from the local dynamics—in this case Detroit. For all Petersen’s strengths, and he has many, he is still very distant from the conflict between the Satanists in question. This is reflected in the very general statements he makes about Satanism and the Satanic Temple represented in the article. We should also note that on his Facebook page Petersen stated that he was disappointed with the way his comments were “cherry picked.” But how could they be otherwise when he is on another continent? Local scholars in the Detroit area, preferably, or at least religious scholars in the same country should have been able to answer Allen’s questions. But, as Allen found, American scholars don’t want to engage Satanism. This hurts the field of religious studies, highlighting its biases, and the public because they don’t have specialists to present factual information and history relevant to the local context.
Does the article have problems? Absolutely. Despite his attempt to highlight differences in satanic interpretation, Allen still appeals to sensationalism, discussing blood rites and animal sacrifice. Allen significantly edits Petersen’s comments, an issue many scholars of religion have reported when corresponding with journalists. Allen also fails to compare the similarity of interpretive disputes in Satanism with those in Christianity. It is as if he is surprised to find Satanists in disagreement. Despite these faults, Allen’s essay is useful to see how journalistic representation of Satanism can be different than the usual coverage, and highlight how far it has to go to be on par with the reporting of other religious traditions. Perhaps with the continued presence of Satanism in the headlines, emerging scholars of religion will choose to investigate the tradition. This would help elevate the problem in a few years.
However, in the meantime, perhaps the scholars of religion in Michigan and elsewhere in America should begin to read about Satanism to become more informed. Scholars of religion outside of America have produced a great deal of important scholarship about Satanism. For instance, Per Faxneld, a scholar in Sweden, has just completed his dissertation on satanic feminism entitled, “Satanic Feminism: Lucifer as the Liberator of Woman in Nineteenth-Century
Category: Academics, American Religious History, Popular Culture Tags: Islam, Islam in America, Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb, religion and american culture, religion and popular culture, Theosophy, World Parliament of Religions
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