This process of secularisation opened the way to see Satan more as a literary character than as an almost divine power – in works like English poet John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan became someone who had been misunderstood and misrepresented. As a result of this process, people who felt oppressed by Christianity started looking favourably upon Satan. For them, he became a symbol of freedom from the tyranny of a strict religion.
In 1969, Anton Szandor LaVey published The Satanic Bible, a collection of rituals and principles for Satanism as a religious movement. An important tenet of this movement is individualism.
Satanists do not want to conform to the rules of society and conventional religion. They feel that the standards and etiquettes of society – ideas about sexuality, for example, or about how one should look – are narrow-minded and oppressive.
Satanism as a new religious movement has little to do with the Christian conceptions of Satanism as an organisation of evil devil-worshippers. At the moment, however, these two ideas co-exist and often get confused.
Currently, an exacerbating factor is that a dominant form of Christianity in Southern Africa nowadays is neo-Pentecostalism, which places great emphasis on the devil and his agents. According to neo-Pentecostals, these forces of evil need to be fought in spiritual warfare.
In neo-Pentecostal churches, the Christian image of Satanism is disseminated most forcibly by testimonies of people who claim to be ex-Satanists. These former Satanists speak of an organisation of evil, headed by Satan himself.
As Satanists, so they say, they had to carry out assignments such as causing road accidents, disease or other misfortune. This image of Satanism is a descendent of the accusations of Satanism against heretics and witches in European history and has nothing to do with it as a religious movement today.
On the one hand, there are self-declared Satanists, like the members of the South African Satanic Church, who practice a new religious movement – Satanism for them is a positive word that represents their individualism. You might disagree with the individualism and non-conformism of the South African Satanic Church, but these individuals are not evil, child-sacrificing devil-worshippers.
*Kroesbergen-Kamps is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s faculty of theology and religion, and a specialist in Western new religious movements and Christianity in Africa.