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Satanism, According to Science

How sociology explains the worship of dark forces

Wikimedia Commons

The concept of Satanism originating from Roman Catholic sources continues to lack a rigorous social science interpretation. Satanism is sometimes believed to be a reflection of real-life problems faced by society and is sometimes considered a phenomenon in its own right that merits serious study. HSE doctoral student Oxana Mikhailova provides an overview of how the concept of Satanism is treated by different sociological theories and offers her commentary.

Terminology Struggles

Many terms used in both sociology and public discussion have non-scientific origins. The notion of Satanism first emerged in evangelical manuscripts and has since made its way into political and legal discourse. A subject of numerous sociological studies, Satanism still raises questions regarding its nature and definition. 'There is considerable ambiguity in how the concept of Satanism is treated in sociology and related fields,' Mikhailova observes.

Satanism refers to a group of occult religious teachings based on the worship of gods representing 'evil' in a broader sense and opposing the Christian morality in a narrower sense.

Whether this concept is relevant to sociological research has generated controversy among scholars. Some authors criticize social scientists for portraying Satanism as a harmless phenomenon — as opposed to mass media stories of satanic crime — and for using the term 'satanic establishment' to refer to its respectable forms. Others argue that 'satanic studies' represent a separate area of research with its specific terminology, such as 'de-demonization' and 'sanitization'.

Certain authors question the scientific value of using the term 'Satanism'. They argue, for instance, that 'Satanism' is an oppressive and marginalizing notion and suggest using other terms such as 'post-Satanism' and 'Left-Hand Path' instead.


Mikhailova observes that these debates raise questions as to the current status of sociological studies and representations of Satanism as a phenomenon. In her paper, she deconstructs the treatment of this concept in sociological discourse for a better understanding of how different theories explain Satanism and whether new approaches can be developed in this area of study.

Based on her deconstruction, Mikhailova identifies the following explanatory models usually applied to Satanism:





Interpretative Models: Satanic Panic, LaVey, and Dark Tourism

Mikhailova argues that the interpretative approach seeks to make sense of satanic ideas and practices through the theories of ‘moral panic’ and ‘social problem construction’ at the macro level, and those of the ‘dark tourism’ and ‘charismatic authority’ at the micro level.

The term 'moral panic' was proposed in 1972 by sociologist and criminologist Stanley Cohen, although not in connection with Satanism and satanic studies. The co-occurrence of the terms 'Satanism' and 'moral panic’ started with some U.S. scholars who tried to make sense of the rumours about satanic ritual abuse in American and European authoritarian sects.

Moral panic is a widespread feeling of fear, often an irrational one, of an evil person or thing (e.g., a certain ideology) allegedly threatening the wellbeing of a community or society. Public concern is usually disproportionate to the actual threat.

Psychiatrists and other members of different professional, social and political groups have been involved in spreading satanic panic, resulting in numerous lawsuits against people accused of engaging in satanic activities.

The satanic panic of the 1980s propagated the so-called 'satanic legend' based on a medieval religious scare suggesting the existence of a secret sect of Satan worshipers with traditions and rituals involving necrophilia, sexual abuse of women and children, and infant sacrifice.

Groups identifying as satanic have been implicated in high-profile ritual murders. One of the best known is the murder of actress Sharon Tate, wife of film director Roman Polanski, and her friends by members of the Manson Family cult. Russian society was shocked by the ritual killing of four teenagers in Yaroslavl in 2008 by their peers who identified themselves as Satanists.

Mikhailova argues that reference to satanic ritual abuse can illustrate the moral panic theory but is not fundamental to it. The concept of Satanism plays a similar role in the theories of social problem construction. Proponents of such theories emphasize the persistent nature of satanic practices. 'For them, Satanism can largely be explained by the complex of problems existing in society,' Mikhailova notes. According to one theory, belief in Satan is a form of conspiracy thinking that has emerged in response to an existential crisis.


References to Satanism as a response to social problems are quite common. As an illustration, Mikhailova refers to a paper on Satanism in Zambia whose author suggests that the spread of satanic narratives in the country is caused by the challenges and upheavals faced by young Zambian Christians, such as a transition to the nuclear family and a hierarchical society, as well as spiritual and economic insecurity.

The focus on examining power and authority in satanic groups reflects a shift from thinking of Satanism as only a product of human fantasies to recognizing the existence of ideological and religious communities with inherent social dynamics, whose members self-identify as Satanists. Some researchers refer to Max Weber's concept of charismatic authority to explain the mechanisms of leadership and control in Satanic churches.

Mikhailova notes that the first to write about Satanism from the theory of authority standpoint was the U.S. researcher Randall Alfred in his book published in 1976. As a participant observer, hejoined the Church of Satan, pretending to be a believer. His conclusion was that the charismatic authority of Anton LaVey, the Church of Satan founder, was based on a combination of stage magic and knowledge of natural and social sciences; this is indeed typical of new religious movements.


Institutionalized studies of dark tourism began in the second half of the 1990s. The term was coined by J. John Lennon and Malcolm Foley, two faculty members in the Department of Hospitality, Tourism & Leisure Management at Glasgow Caledonian University, Scotland. This type of tourism involves travel to places historically associated with death and tragedy.

But there is no direct connection between Satanism and dark tourism. 'Sometimes, visitors to Black Metal festivals and to places associated with dark magic and Satanism are referred to as Satanists. However, many other reasons may be behind the growing interest in dark tourism,' according to Mikhailova. One study has found that visitors to Black Metal festivals can perceive these events as rituals that help them confront death and cope with the fear of dying.

Theories examining the notions of authority and dark tourism treat Satanism not only as an example or illustration of a broader trend but as a phenomenon in and of itself. According to Mikhailova, these micro-interpretative models based on empirical evidence can give rise to promising new theories. She notes that most such models deal with 'reactive' or 'esoteric' rather than 'rational' Satanism.

In addition, such models 'de-demonize' Satanism but fail to address the potential associations between satanic practices and barbaric or criminal activity. And finally, what is satanic and what is not is determined by the lay public rather than social scientists.

Structuralist Model: Subculture, Neotribe and Ideology

Adherents to the structuralist model focus on hidden meanings in people’s actions, assuming a latent orderliness in things such as language use, kinship relations, rule-following, and involvement in rituals. The key drivers of human behaviour are believed to be structural rather than physical or neurophysiological, so they cannot be ascribed to an individual.

Structuralist interpretations of Satanism, according to Mikhailova, are based on the theories of subculture, neotribe, scene and ideology. They all view Satanism as a belief system that may or may not have a distinct group of adherents; in the former case, Satanism is conceptualized in the form of a micro-theory.

The 'cultural scene' concept is an example of this approach, used in reference to Satanism in four contexts: 'satanic scene', 'black scene',  'Gothic scene', and 'Black Metal scene'.

'...a "scene" can thus be defined as a locally organized social world — an informal network of people, communities or organizations that jointly generate and represent a certain lifestyle...' (from a paper by Elena Omelchenko and Stanislav Polyakov published in Sociological Review).

The structuralist explanation holds that Satanists engage in certain practices because these are prescribed by the relevant satanic culture. Mikhailova believes that examining Satanism from this perspective has practical value, because it can inform medical and legal typologies of followers. A paper describing Satanism in Finland outlines four types of Satanists:

 members of intergenerational cults

 members of organized satanic churches

 solitary Satanists

 experimental Satanists

Based on this typology, methods of assessing personal involvement in Satanism have been proposed.

Mikhailova outlines several conceptualizations of Satanism as an ideology, including those defining Satanism as:

 discursive field with its own religion, terminology and controversies

 standalone religion

 system centred on Satan as its leader


 personality cult

 religious worship of Satan

Mikhailova argues that the structuralist approach treats Satanism as a neutral phenomenon and leaves it up to sociologists to name something as Satanic. 'Only the cultural practices theory, being close to criminalistics, carries negative connotations,' the author notes. As was the case with the interpretative model, researchers applying the structuralist approach either refer to Satanism as an illustration of their theories or conduct an empirical analysis of this phenomenon.

Functionalist Model: Exorcism and Stages of Evolution

Functionalist models in sociology seek to interpret the goals of people's actions and view society as a complex system whose parts work together, each performing its function.

‘Usually, functional explanations are concerned with the survival of communities, cultures, or social institutions, but can also apply to a microsocial or individual level. This is true, for instance, of psychoanalytical interpretations based on an individual’s unconscious motives,' Mikhailova says.

She finds functionalist interpretations of Satanism in sociology rather scarce and outlines two types of such papers: those examining exorcism as a means of controlling social life and those using the satanic discourse in historical and cultural contexts.

The two most prominent functionalist models examine Satanism in its earlier forms and describe its current status. A paper looking at its social history notes significant variations in attitudes towards Satanism over time, with alternating pro-satanic and anti-satanic sentiments.

Danish author Jesper A. Petersen identifies three stages in the evolution of modern Satanism: the formation of the Church of Satan, the emergence in 1975 of the Temple of Set (a religious movement considered satanic), and the rise in satanic activity on the internet. Scholars believe that the internet has helped Satanists popularize their ideology and deploy global communication networks.


Mikhailova finds it important to mention exorcism in this context, since scholars argue that people who believe in demonic possession associate the practice of exorcism with defence against Satan. In the past, exorcism could have served as a form of moral guidance helping people tell good from evil. Some argue that historically, exorcism was more likely to emerge where there was a conflict between religion and science, and science was not on the winning side.

Naturalist Models: 'Satanic Syndrome', Dysfunction of the Family, and Flawed Socialization

While a naturalist explanation of Satanism is missing among the explanatory models described above, Mikhailova believes that examining Satanism from a psychological perspective could fill this gap.

In his paper, Croatian author Zlatko Šram discusses the so-called 'satanic syndrome' and its correlation with psychopathy and depression. Satanic syndrome is defined as a complex of behavioural and cognitive patterns that include participation in satanic rituals, séances with the dead, learning black magic, membership in occult groups, and reading books and magazines on esoteric and occult topics.

According to Šram, people who score high on the scale for psychopathy and depression are more prone to satanic syndrome. This finding is true for men and women, and for different ethnic groups.

According to Mikhailova, the psychodynamic interpretation of Satanism as being caused by a dysfunction of the family and other agents of socialization is similar to the structuralist/functionalist perspective.

A combination of philosophy and psychoanalysis has been used to interpret the representations of Satanism in mass culture. One paper applies philosopher Gilles Deleuze's concept of masochism to the mother-child relationship in Rosemary's Baby — a film by Roman Polanski based on the novel of the same name by Ira Levin.


Satanism is also associated with ideas and beliefs causing stigmatized behaviours such as self-harm. In the psychological discourse and practice, people involved in Satanism are generally seen as needing professional help.

Mikhailova argues for the use of naturalist approaches to interpreting Satanism because they allow for fairly accurate measurements and are easier to operationalize. 'They help avoid a blurred concept of Satanism. Such models depart from the lay public's perceptions of Satanism, focusing instead on concretization, linguistic instrumentalization, and essential definition of the concept,' Mikhailova says. 

She reminds that once a phenomenon is made quantifiable and measurable, it becomes more manageable and open to responsible intervention by relevant actors outside of academia. The aim of adopting the naturalist model is not to replace but to complement other approaches.

In Conclusion

A limitation of this study is that it uses only English-language sources published between 1918 and 2018. The author suggests further research could focus on comparing the sociological discourse on Satanism across a broader range of cultures.

Study author:
Oxana Mikhailova, Doctoral Student, HSE Faculty of Social Sciences, Department for Social Institutions Analysis; Junior Research Fellow, Centre for Modern Childhood Research, HSE Institute of Education
Author: Marina Selina, August 10, 2022