Satanism has been called many things. Some people say it’s a cult. Some say it’s a religion. Others say, “no way! That’s not a religion! It’s just a philosophy!” But do we know what these words really mean, or do we only know how they make us feel? Are we assigning a definition and label to something based on our comfort level alone or are we being true to the meanings of the words we use? The definition of religion and theology in general is something that will never be out of fashion to debate academically: as culture evolves, so will the way we define our world, but that doesn’t mean that the definitions themselves will change because definitions don’t change (the words we use to describe a concept will though)! So let’s talk about actual definitions, and let’s talk about definitions used by the authority figures in our world instead of what we heard our best friend’s cousin use on Tumblr. I bet you’ve wondered what the difference between these words are, so let’s find out together, one brave step at a time.
Cult is a word that gets thrown around quite easily now-a-days to describe a type of spiritual community whose activity seems suspicious and foreign to us. Rarely do we seem to think beyond the implications that a “cult” means “bad,” because honestly the media has done such a wonderful job blurring the lines between the two that it may as well be an exact synonym. Do you know what characteristics are seen by the experts to be prevalent in cults? The authority that I explored this subject with is the International Cultic Studies Association (ISCA). They are a global not-for-profit organization that has been researching cults, cultish behavior, its effects, educating the public, and helping survivors for over 40 years. The resources on their website are very rich and although I’m less familiar with this particular organization, I can easily trace their credentials and verify that they are who they say they are. I trust their word when they describe the following characteristics of cults, and I have learned that:
With regards to Satanism, people like to believe that our way of beliefs is cultish because that is what they have been lead to believe by others. The negligence to question your superiors, on the other hand, has perhaps ironically been defined as cultish behavior. We are a religion that uplifts the individual. We empower ourselves to seek full lawful gratification in this world and to enjoy every moment of our human and carnal existence. We question what we hear and endeavor for the truth because knowledge, we accept, is a way of power. Satanism is not a cult. Satanism is a religion. Let’s talk about religion!
Part of research is identifying bias, and bias is everywhere. It’s in everything and it’s unavoidable. I could only find one true and valid organization which is recognized to be an indisputable authority across the United States. This secular authority (has minimum potential bias) has performed the research with credible academic experts and has produced a code of qualifications for who they determine is a religion or otherwise, and it’s the most concise list I was able to find. I’m happy to share it with you. To learn more, and to read the exact word-for-word definitions, please consult the IRS' Publication 1828 with me. According to the IRS, when they are determining if they are presented with a religion—and therefore must grant tax-exempt status to avoid a violation of our fundamental governing legislature—they look for certain traits in the “church” (defined by the IRS to be an umbrella term which refers to the organization seeking tax-exempt status). Allow me to summarize since IRS Publications are notoriously dry.
According to the IRS, “The IRS generally uses a combination of these characteristics together with other facts and circumstances, to determine whether an organization is considered a church…” and those other circumstances include if the religion observes federal and international law. (IRS, 33) Basically what this means is that you don’t need to have every single one of the above, but if it shakes out that you meet the majority of the criteria or the most important criteria, they will agree that a verifiable religion is before them rather than a rabble of disjointed concepts that would not otherwise qualify for federal entitlements as a religion.
Satanism is the name we use to identify a system of beliefs which recognized by the IRS to be a religion. The Satanic Temple was recently granted tax-exempt status for satisfying the above requirements. The Church of Satan has never attempted to obtain tax-exempt status to my knowledge, but would also satisfy the above requirements. For those of you who don’t live in my country, the IRS is sovereign. They can garnish your wages with ease, impose a levy on your assets, and make your life a special sort of Hell if you cross them. They have their own investigators and are a major force to be reckoned with. Even during the incorporation process when founding your religion you need to work with the IRS to get a tax ID number so that money can be exchanged – in any form, be it donations, employment, whatever you’d like.
Religious Belief System (RBS)
It may seem weird to see this used as a separate term when we’re talking about identifying the difference between how we describe people’s spiritual*/religious philosophy because for the most part it’s an “umbrella term” (internet slang for a ‘catch all.’) It’s important to recognize though that while religions have an RBS, not all RBSs can be considered religions. This is because, as we discussed before, religions have characteristics. If an ideology exists, such as a personal philosophy combined with dogma from an establish religion, that can’t be considered a religion on its own but is still not the same thing as the religion—well, in that case, it’s a personal RBS. This doesn’t mean that the philosophy is wrong or that it’s invalid (nobody can invalidate it!), it just means that the words we use to describe it are different.
Said another way: If it doesn’t fit the criteria for being called a religion, you should probably be calling it a belief system. My personal experience suggests to me that many belief systems fall short of being a religion because:
* Spiritual here being a strict secular use of the term. I am not talking about souls.
Now You Know.
In this modern age we are substituting truth for comfort. It has become fashionable and preferable to embrace the “agree to disagree” mentality when it comes to fact rather than saving that for opinion, and this is a crime against truth as we know it. While we are all guilty of using some slang here and there, it’s important that we know the differences between these three concepts so that we can better understand our world and better respect those we meet within it. Rather than embrace ignorance, embrace bravery. Be courageous. You are the steward of truth in your world. Define it with the terms it deserves, the way that words are rightfully meant to be used—and not what feels ‘right’ based on your emotions.
Further Reading and Bibliography
“Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups.” ISCA, ISCA, www.icsahome.com/articles/characteristics.
“FAQs.” ISCA, ISCA, www.icsahome.com/elibrary/faqs.
“On Using the Term ‘Cult.’” ISCA, ISCA, www.icsahome.com/articles/onusingtermcult.
“On Using the Term ‘Cult’ .” Cults 101: On Using the Term "Cult", ISCA, www.csj.org/infoserv_cult101/essay_cult.htm.
Internal Revenue Service. “Publication 1828.” US Department of the Treasury, Aug. 2015.
Taliaferro, Charles. “Philosophy of Religion.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 8 Jan. 2019, plato.stanford.edu/entries/philosophy-religion/#ReliPlur.
REMINDER: The contents of this blog (or any AW blog) should not be used or interpreted as any form of guidance or advice. As with everything else, this is my interpretation and I don't attempt to speak for others. You should always contact a direct authority for guidance in anything, not the blogs of people you've never met on the internet. Thank-you!
Who is the Witch?
Once I called myself a Christian, then an atheist, and a Satanist. At the end of the day, I'm just a person who is living her truth one day at a time. I'm interested in religion, its effects on the mind, the occult, and more. Learn more about me on the about page.