INTERVIEW: Peter H. Gilmore – High Priest of the Church of Satan

‘Satanism’. It’s a term which is often misinterpreted, for obvious reasons, as being related to worship of the devil. Anyone who actually takes the time to look deeper into it will find that this is about as far from the truth as it’s possible to get. In 1966, Anton LaVey grew his ‘Order of the Trapezoid’ group, in which he would lecture on the occult, rituals and various ideologies, into The Church of Satan. Now, it’s the largest Satanist organisation on the planet. They do not believe any devil, or deity of any kind, their beliefs are purely atheistic, which might lead you to wonder why they adopted the name in the first place, and the answer is simple – opposition, questioning. That is both at the route of the Hebrew term ‘Satan’, and the core of the Church.

They define this through a lack of self denial (embracing carnality and pleasure), questioning the nature of both the universe and society, and magic, which in this instance refers to manipulating forces that we as a species don’t necessarily understand yet. In these senses, it’s largely ideological, and once you’re in it, you can more or less do what you want with it. Think Nietzsche, or Ayn Rand, and you’re on the right track. Over the years, the attitude towards the Church has morphed repeatedly, with one of the lowest points being the ‘Satanic Panic’ which took place across the States in the 1980s, a widespread onset of paranoia, propagated by the media, suggesting that these people were doing all kinds of unsightly, gruesome rituals behind closed doors (spoiler alert: they weren’t, anywhere, at all).

Regardless of what your views on their belief system might be (something which you have to read The Satanic Bible to fully grasp), it’s hard to get around the fact that they are one of the most fascinating large-scale religious groups active today, if you can even define it as such. There seems to be an almost inherent tendency towards creativity, as well as more obvious one towards indulgence. Their website includes their entire history today and the regular updates make for some interesting reading, but we’re going a bit further in than that. LaVey passed away in 1997, passing the highest role in the church to his partner Blanche Barton. In 2001, she passed it over to Peter H. Gilmore, who has been acting as High Priest ever since, as well as being a prolific essayist, musician and artist, and he was good enough to take the time to speak with us.

How has the Church changed and developed in the past 10 or 15 years, with regard to the way religious and ideological attitudes have been changing in the States?
Our philosophy is based on observations of the human animal throughout all of recorded history, so our principles are applicable to whatever situations might arise. Our organization takes advantage of advancing communications technology, since our purpose is the accurate dissemination of our philosophy. Changing laws and attitudes allow for opportunities or roadblocks that are dealt with as needed, since we are pragmatic in our approach to reaching personal goals. Now that same-sex marriage is legal throughout the U.S., our Priesthood can wed same-sex couples far more easily. When New York State legalised this, one of our Magisters performed the first legal same-sex wedding by Satanic clergy in New York State.

We remain wary of the current backlash by the Abrahamic religions via legislation, the erroneously termed “religious freedom” bills, whih essentially want to establish permission for legalised bigotry. As always, the changes in society come with resistance from others so it takes some time for progression to permeate a populace.

What do you Anton LaVey would think if he could see the state of the world, and of LaVeyan Satanism now?
Anton LaVey despised the term “LaVeyan Satanism” — he codified Satanism as a coherent philosophy for the first time in history and launched a worldwide movement, a point now widely agreed upon by religious scholars. LaVey felt there were Satanists, as defined by his ground-breaking literature and organization, and there were “nuts” claiming to be Satanists. I am certain that he’d be proud of the Church of Satan as we reach our 50th anniversary, since the calibre of people who affiliate are precisely the sort of intelligent, productive, successful individuals whom he meant his writings to inspire.

One recent cultural development may have been a bit of a disappointment for him—the surge of virulent, rabid theism leading to an ever-mounting roster of terrorist atrocities in recent years, since Christianity seemed to be watering itself down and waning as an influential force during the earlier years of the Church of Satan. The global toxicity of extremist Islam and the backlash of Christian hatred for diversity may be seen as the climax of a long struggle between societal paradigms—one proposing authoritarian uniformity contra one offering libertarian diversity—before the rational people of the world move to reject such primitive means for regulating human society, or sadly that they submit to those who would enforce their despotic morality on all under their dominion.

What is the nature of the relationship between The Church of Satan and the Satanic Temple, at present?
The Church of Satan is not ecumenical in any way, and never has been, so we have no relationship with any other organisations.

Do you echo their glowing endorsement of The Witch?
We were approached by publicists for that film and we turned them down, a point I discuss in some depth in my essay “Which Witch?”. A film that depicts dueling theisms—repressive Christianity and child-slaughtering Devil worshippers—is hardly congruent with our materialist/atheist perspective. If it had an actually Satanic twist, wherein someone embracing reason rejected both of these perspectives, then it might have won the admiration of Satanists for bravery by having some aspect of genuine Satanism as part of its message. Otherwise, conceptually it is just a typical horror film, well-photographed and slow moving, but not offering anything new. Eggers shows promise as a director and I look forward to his future efforts.

The Braga and Simon series Salem has much more fun with similar historical situations and how individuals find ways to seek out their own destinies. Iñárritu’s The Revenant is a recent film offering deeply Satanic principles in its depiction of a man’s struggle for survival and personal justice in both nature and society.

Why are films in particular so significant within the Church?
Film is our culture’s most powerful art form, blending story, images, and music into a means that can, in a stylised manner, explore so many aspects of both reality and fantasy in an emotionally gripping creation that can readily work cross-culturally. Our web site includes a film list created by Anton LaVey of movies that touch on aspects of how Satanists might view the world around us or how human behaviour might display our principles in action. I’m working on a book of essays discussing Satanic philosophy as seen in films, from the popular to the obscure, far beyond movies using obvious devil themes or portraying aspects of devil worship.

I thoroughly enjoyed your essay about Godzilla, how did you find the Gareth Edwards version, in the end?
Thank you! If you liked that essay, you may enjoy my lengthy analysis of Edwards’ film in a two part personal blog entry (part 1 and part 2) While I have some significant criticisms, I find it to be one of the best films in the entire Gojira canon. With Desplat’s driving score, most impressive cinematography, and well-designed daikaiju that seem quite alive, Edwards’ Spielbergian techniques raise the bar for giant monster films.

It offers the message that humans are but one part of nature, and should be mindful of not upsetting its balance, lest there be dire consequences. That concept was fundamental to the original 1954 film and this warning was maintained, even while finding a method to incorporate the evolution of Godzilla from villain to hero that was part of the course of the first Showa Toho film series. I’m looking forward to more from Edwards as well as Toho’s soon to be released Godzilla Resurgence. Higuchi and Anno have promised their new Gojira as a nightmare, which should be an exciting return to this potent character’s origin.

In recent years have you found that a more understanding attitude towards the Church has developed? Why/Why not?
We’ve spent 50 years educating people about Satanism, from the open-minded 1960s and the madness of the evangelist-driven “Satanic Panic” in the 80s and 90s, to more recent isolated cases where Satanism is blamed for criminal activity or seen as some metal-inspired adolescent rebellion. The Church of Satan has accurately communicated the truth about Satanism to a global forum—I have been interviewed for print/video/web by journalists from many nations—and we maintain cordial contact with law enforcement agencies both here in the U.S. and abroad, consulting or alerting them to possible dangerous situations that might be developing.

We have found that people who are aware now more widely understand Satanism from our literature and our decades of representation. One clear sign is that comedians find aspects of our genuine philosophy, as well as popular stereotypical misconceptions, to be fodder for their humor, showing that we’ve become well-established in a more accurate form in popular media. From Mr. Show and Mad TV to Silicon Valley, Satanists are depicted with knowing and enjoyable mockery. I provide a number of examples and video links in this essay: Laughing Best—Humorists Take On Satanism.

To my mind, it seems like more and more people are adopting an attitude less constrained by external pressures and standards, politically, ideologically and however else. Being that such an attitude is central to the Church’s ethos, does it seem to you like we’re on the edge of big, societal change?
I think it important define which people you find adopting that sort of attitude. While those living their lives through the internet and social media primarily in Western nations might give that impression, I think that there has concurrently been a deadly resurgence of those seeking lives guided by external standards of either religious or political origins. The major conflict of our current society is between the social paradigms offered by the progressive, equitable libertarian evolution in conflict with those who prefer the imagined security of rigidly maintained and regulated beliefs and behaviors based on authoritarian dictates.

It all depends upon which circles you haunt as to which you’ll experience with greater frequency. Whichever approach eventually dominates will determine how our society changes as we move into the future. The internet has made for a global arena, while in the past humans have been tribal and regional in their social orders, so it will be for future generations to see whither our species will go and whether there will be a world culture, or a neo-balkanization into contrasting, conflicting tribalisms.

Is there any particular prevailing stance within the Church on the upcoming election?
Since we are an individualist philosophy, our members select whatever political positions they find to best enhance their lives. We do not poll our people as to their politics, since such is strictly in their personal purviews. In general, Satanists note that candidates offering policies based on Christian morality in an attempt to change secularism to theocracy would create an environment hostile to those who are open about their affiliation, thus they would support opponents promoting the secularist approach, especially here in the U.S. where The Constitution does provide a bulwark against church/state hegemony.

Do you often (or ever) come into contact with the other kind of satanist? Ie the ones who legitimately believe in the devil?
We do not consider devil worshippers to be Satanists, as such demonolators are already clearly defined by other terminology. Satanists generally have little interest in cavorting with theists of any sort, whether they worship deities or demons. We have our own lusty lives to live joyfully so we avoid wasting our precious time dealing with people who suffer such delusions.

You make music yourself, but what kind of work does the Church do to foster creativity from its members?
We use our website to promote the efforts of our creative members who are open about their affiliation—one of the benefits of affiliation. You’ll find plenty of that to enjoy in our newsfeed. Of course some of our most successful people must remain underground, lest the folks who are their fans be turned-off by their philosophy—though sharp-eyed observers might catch hints. I’ve been honoured by a number of people who find my own efforts in art, music, and writing to have galvanised their own projects. The Black House belonging to my wife, High Priestess Peggy Nadramia, and I is an ongoing restoration project that has become an icon to a new generation of Satanists since Anton LaVey’s original was destroyed in 2001. My elaborate take on Victorian colour placement has been energised by Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” (and Corman’s film of the same) so that visitors to our historic home often take with them ideas to be applied to their own unique lairs.

Additionally, I am curating thematic art exhibitions in association with Howl Gallery from Ft. Myers, Florida, which showcase infernally themed art by members and non-members which also include compendium books. Currently the first, The Devils Reign, has a traveling subset now in Brooklyn, soon to head to Cambridge, Massachusetts. The next instalment, The Devils Reign: Psychedelic Blasphemy, is currently receiving submissions for the Florida opening and book release in December of this year, to travel afterwards. So, encouraging creation by promoting the works and performances of our diverse membership stimulates more to join in the efforts to enrich our possible experiences.

If there was one person you could sit down with and discuss the current state of the world, and what needs to change, who would it be and what would you talk about?
Being a pragmatist who eschews pipe-dream idealism, I can’t think that a conversation with any particular world leader would be anything other than a mutual waste of time. Those in power have long solidified their perspectives and implement them according to their abilities and are surely not open to change. Our activist members are highly successful in the fields of planetary ecology and in combating infringements upon human freedom on global levels, both areas of concern for Satanists who want to enjoy lives of liberty in a world that is flourishing. They deal directly with significant players in government, commerce and those who serve on regulatory commissions to effect real change in global standards and practices. These intrepid, visionary individuals are in communication with me, making me proud of their outstanding achievements which have moved the world.

Thanks for taking the time to speak to us!
You are most welcome! Here’s to our next fifty years of intelligent iconoclasm and abundant joy for those who’ve embraced our carnal religion!

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