Popular Delusions XI: Satanic Ritual Abuse

One of the surest marks of a pseudoscience is that it stays forever the same, never altering its claims, even as the world changes around it and revolutions in our knowledge come and go. While science evolves over time, with theories becoming refined to more closely track the truth, popular delusions stay the same through the centuries, at most changing their outer robes to match the spirit of the times.

I wrote about this in a past entry in this series, in which the demonic succubi and incubi that were once imagined to haunt sleepers become, in the modern era, gray-skinned alien abductors. Today's post concerns a different topic, and one that has likewise seen its manifestation mutate over the ages: the hysteria of alleged Satanic cults that subject children to horrific sexual abuse and violence. Some people claim to have been victims of these cults; some even claim to be ex-members. As always, Jack Chick provides a handy example of what a large number of Christians and other theists still actually believe.

But, as I said, many popular delusions update their outer trappings to match the times. This is also true of Satanic cult beliefs, which in modern times have taken on the form of secret conspiracies of pedophiles gathering to prey on children. The most infamous example is the 1980s McMartin case, in which a California family who owned a preschool were accused of hundreds of counts of sexual abuse of the children under their care. After a six-year trial and the expenditure of millions of dollars by the prosecution, the case ended without a single conviction. (This story was dramatized in the movie Indictment.)

The McMartin case in particular began with the allegations of one woman, later revealed to be mentally ill, who alleged that her son had been sexually abused by one of the teachers at the preschool. Taking her at her word, the police began a dragnet investigation that culminated with hundreds of children being interviewed by a California clinic, the Children's Institute International. The CII therapists took the approach that abuse was certain and the only obstacle was getting the children to admit it. Under their guidance, children were peppered with leading questions; the therapists described what they thought had happened ("I know that the kids were touched") and pressured the children to agree. When children denied those claims, they were told, "You better not play dumb", or "I don't want to hear any more 'no's", and informed that many of their classmates had already told the truth. When they gave in, they were rewarded. Despite the bizarre nature of the allegations that emerged from this technique (sex with movie stars, sexual abuse taking place in hot-air balloons, one of the alleged abusers killing a giraffe in front of them), these videotaped "confessions" were presented as evidence at trial. It has since been discovered, and is now widely known, that leading questions and high-pressure interviews such as this can readily generate false memories and false confessions, even in adults, and much more so in suggestible children.

Most Satanic panics, including the McMartin case, share the attribute of extremely implausible allegations for which no physical evidence is presented. The scope of the imagined conspiracies is inevitably vast, with estimates ranging from 50,000 to an astonishing two million murders by Satanic cults in the U.S. each year. (As that article notes, the higher estimate would mean that the annual death rate from Satanic cults surpasses the number of U.S. deaths in World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined.) Abuse and crime on such a massive scale should be easy to demonstrate, and yet no undisputed Satanic cult has ever been broken up and prosecuted, no physical evidence of such astonishing allegations ever presented. As with other conspiracy theories, the absence of evidence is taken by true believers to simply be further confirmation of the conspiracy's scope and power, even though the idea of such a massive cover-up being successful does violence to everything we know about human psychology.

What Satanic panics show, more than anything else, is the malleability of memory. In matters as important as this, we cannot rely solely on testimonial evidence: human beings are far too prone to tell untruths, to confabulate, and to unwittingly encourage others to do the same. The problem of sexual predators that molest children is very real, and all too common. But the idea of organized, underground cabals of devil-worshippers gathering to practice diabolical rites on innocents is a hysterical fantasy, nothing more. This kind of irrational overreaction only ensures that innocents will be unjustly swept up in dragnets of overzealous law enforcement, rather than targeting our legal resources where they are most needed to take on genuine predators.

Other posts in this series:

November 2, 2008, 12:09 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink41 comments

On Nihilism and Satanism

I'd like to write today about two stereotypes of atheism that are common among some quarters of religious apologists: that we are moral nihilists, recognizing no such concepts as right and wrong; and that we are Satanists who worship, or at least admire, the adversary power of monotheism. The atheists who advocate these concepts, rare though they are, are exploited by fundamentalists who use them to tar the rest of us.

Is what I just wrote a contradiction? I don't think so. I find no inconsistency in saying that a depiction of some group is a stereotype, even if it is actually held by some members of that group. The purpose of a stereotype is as a misleading, derogatory depiction of some group as a whole. Even if a very few members do fit that description, it's untruthful and insulting to imply that all of them do. As I hope to show, atheists who are nihilists and Satanists do exist, but their numbers are so small that they are essentially negligible in comparison with atheists as a whole. They do not represent the views and beliefs of the larger majority of atheists any more than ranting lunatics like Fred Phelps represent all of Christianity.

I'll begin with Satanists. Most people who call themselves by that name today are devotees of a church founded in the 1960s by the eccentric occultist Anton LaVey. Satanism as such does not include the literal worship of demons. Instead, Satanists believe in the exaltation of the individual, hedonism and self-will as the supreme virtues, and the desirability of a society of Spencerian social Darwinism. (If anything, Satanism is most similar to Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, which LaVey acknowledges having been influenced by.)

Satanism is not a large movement. Self-identified Satanists were not even numerous enough to register in the 2001 ARIS study, which counted religious groups as small as 4,000 members nationwide. I know of no survey undertaken since which has come up with any greater numbers.

Nevertheless, they do exist. As with any tiny religious movement, they have a web presence - here's an excerpt from one of their essays, written by the current head of the church, Peter Gilmore.

As you can see, there are no elements of Devil worship in the Church of Satan. Such practices are looked upon as being Christian heresies; believing in the dualistic Christian world view of "God vs. the Devil" and choosing to side with the Prince of Darkness. Satanists do not believe in the supernatural, in neither God nor the Devil.

So, Satanists say that they don't literally believe in Satan; fair enough. But if that's true, why do they define themselves in terms of the language and symbology of a religious tradition which they supposedly reject? Why do they name themselves after that which they do not believe in? This inconsistent behavior indicates a seriously confused state of mind, to say the least.

My strong suspicion is that Satanism is a faith crafted to appeal to the rabble-rousers, the self-chosen outsiders, that are bound to be present in any large enough group of people. They adopt these terms because they enjoy shocking others, because they revel in the sense of excitement that comes from deliberately transgressing social norms, and because they find a shared identity with others who feel the same.

Next is a marginally more serious position: the atheists who proclaim themselves to be moral nihilists. (Regular Daylight Atheism readers may know the one or two examples who occasionally comment here.)

It seems to me, as I think it would seem to any rational person, that it's a contradiction for Satanists to draw their identity from the religion they reject. I think this point applies with even more force to the nihilists.

Religious apologists assert, continually, unendingly, and in the face of a vast amount of contrary evidence, that atheists can have no basis for morality, and that only people who believe in God have any good justification for ethical behavior. In my experience, most atheists see through this flimsy slur and recognize that morality can be based on conscience and reason. But, inevitably, some people will be taken in. If the religious say often enough that only through religion can you find morality, some people will begin to believe them; and when those people rightfully notice that the factual claims of religion are a morass of wishful thinking and fallacy unsupported by evidence, they often conclude: so much the worse for morality.

In an important sense, the nihilists are the product of religion in a way that most atheists are not. We humanist atheists find a reason to recreate morality apart from supernatural claims, based on the facts of this world. The nihilists, meanwhile, are still stuck in religious stereotypes about how the non-religious "should" think and behave. They've had the insight to see religious superstitions for what they are, but not enough to take the next step and adopt a worldview completely free from them. Instead, the religious outlook still tinges their beliefs and their thinking.

With both nihilists and Satanists, we can see how religion creates its own enemies. Rather than face our position as it truly is and try to refute it, most religious apologists spend their time exclusively thrashing at strawmen of their creation. They push these stereotypes so persistently that they end up being actually adopted by a handful of real people. Predictably, these few are then pointed out and played up to exaggerate the seriousness of the "threat", and their existence used as a broad brush with which to tar all atheists.

May 13, 2008, 8:42 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink78 comments

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