The JBFCS Cult Clinic and Satanism: A response to Arnold Markowitz, LCSW

January 27, 2011

(revised February 10, 2011)

Here in New York City, there is a Cult Hotline and Clinic run by the JBFCS (the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services). They provide various helpful services to ex-members of “cults” and to estranged families and friends of “cult” members. They are, as far as I can tell, the only place in New York City that offers such services.

Truly harmful religious groups certainly do exist, and it’s good that there are at least a few places, like the JBFCS Cult Clinic, where people who have been hurt by such groups can get help. But the website of the JBFCS Cult Clinic associates Satanism in general with “cults,” even though the vast majority of Satanist groups (or, at least, most of the ones I’ve run into) do not fit the JBFCS Cult Clinic’s definition of a “cult.”

I do not deny that there are, alas, harmful groups in the Satanist scene, nor do I deny that there are Satanist groups with certain cultlike attributes. (See my page on Avoiding harmful religious groups in the Satanist scene.) However, the page about Satanism that I found on the JBFCS Cult Clinic website says a lot of things that are just plain wrong, and the Cult Clinic seems to assume that all Satanist groups are ipso facto “cults.” Worse yet, their page on Satanism assumes we’re all a bunch of criminals.

The JBFCS Cult Clinic’s definition of a “cult” can be found on this page, which also lists the following “types of cults”:

  • Bible based
  • Eastern Meditation
  • Therapy/self-awareness
  • Political
  • Commercial/corporate
  • New Age
  • Satanic
  • One-on-One (one leader, and one or two followers)
  • Scientific
  • Philosophical

Wondering what their website might have to say about Satanism, I found the following page: The Extent of Satanism Among Adolescents by Arnold Markowitz, LCSW. That page begins:

There is a great deal of conflict over the question of the threat that Satanism poses for our society. For some people, experts as well as the lay public, the entire issue is generated by over blown hysteria. Others see a serious threat that arises from generational practitioners who secretly practice animal and human sacrifices and pass along their clandestine rituals from one generation to another. A few spectacular and horrific cases have emerged that certainly show how debased people can be. For example, the ritualized sacrifices of 13 young men by a drug smuggling ring in Malamores, Mexico gives limited creditability to the claim that human sacrifice is practiced by some very disturbed people who practice Satanism. While this event is shocking, it stands as the only solid confirmation of Satanic human sacrifice by adult believers in the devil. There is little, or any, confirmed evidence that a well organized network of Satanists exists. However, there is ample evidence that self styled grassroots groups of “dabblers,” mostly adolescents, are proliferating around the country.

Indeed there is no evidence of a well-organized generational “Satanic ritual abuse” network. (See my pages about “Satanism” scares and their debunking – a brief introduction and The “Satanic Ritual Abuse” scare of the 1980’s and early 1990’s.)

However, Markowitz fails to note the existence of law-abiding Satanists, adults as well as adolescents, many of whom have been Satanists for many years and thus are hardly “dabblers.” It is a widely-known fact that the Church of Satan, for example, requires its members to be law-abiding. (As for my own smaller, non-CoS groups: (1) NYC Satanists, Luciferians, Dark Pagans, & LHP Occultists specifically welcomes Satanists, Luciferians, etc. “of all law-abiding kinds”; and (2) the Church of Azazel proto-congregation has a Statement against violent crime and vandalism.)

Markowitz then says:

Many of our youth are frustrated, suffer from a sense of personal anomie and feel a lack of purpose in their lives. Feeling hopeless and powerless they return to magical thinking, mystification and idealization of the counter culture to provide their lives with meaning.

The above paragraph describes some, but by no means all, of the people who are drawn to Satanism and to various “counter cultures” (there isn’t just one “counter culture”). Markowitz seems to assume here that anyone who felt hopeful or powerful would be satisfied with mainstream cultural norms. Anyhow:

Unfortunately, many choose symbols of anger and hate such as the skinheads and Satanism.

It is wrong to reduce Satanism to “anger and hate.” Most forms of Satanism do accept the full range of human emotions including anger and hate. But Satanism can also be about questioning popular hatreds. (See, for example, Anton LaVey’s rejection of anti-gay bigotry in the chapter on “Satanic sex” in The Satanic Bible — written back in 1969, long before the gay rights movement became at all fashionable. See also Hekate and the Satanic School by Tim Maroney.) Calling on Satan can also be a way to experience a sense of the numinous. And the better-established forms of Satanism, including both LaVeyan Satanism and the largest theistic Satanist groups, encourage individuals to excel at whatever they happen to be good at.

Markowitz’s association of “skinheads and Satanism” suggests that he might be thinking of Satanist neo-Nazis — who, alas, do exist, but are not by any means representative of Satanists in general. (See my collection of pages Against neo-Nazism among Satanists.)

It seems, also, that Markowitz is confusing Satanism with various juvenile phenomena that may involve the use of Satanic symbols, but in which any interest in “Satanism” is not serious enough or in-depth enough to qualify as religious. For example, Markowitz says:

Since the mid 1980’s there has been a rapid increase in the number and seriousness of crimes related to Satanic Ritual. There are dozens, even hundreds of incidents of graffiti and desecration of churches and cemeteries in almost every state.

There have always been, long before the 1980’s, lots of juvenile delinquents who did graffiti and other, more severe kinds of vandalism. What happened in the 1980’s was the Satanic panic, which inspired some of these kids to use Satanic imagery as just one more way to shock the grownups. But these kids are NOT, as a general rule, serious about “Satanic Ritual.” For example, in one recent episode I blogged on last year (see The alleged “Satan-loving arsonist,” again, in the case of Glory of Christ Church in the Bronx, July 12, 2010, and see also the more recent New York Times story Glory of Christ Church in Bronx Perseveres by David Gonzalez, January 16, 2011), note that the vandals weren’t even aware that a Satanic pentagram points down, not up. So their vandalism should be thought of as, primarily, a teenage gang phenomenon, not a religious phenomenon.

There have been grave robbings in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Louisiana—completed suicides by teenagers in New York City (one on high school grounds), Westchester, New York, Connecticut, Vermont and Florida as well as dozens of suicide attempts related to the practice of Satanic rituals.

An alleged association between Satanism and teen suicide is common in anti-Satanist writings, but I’m not aware of any actual form of Satanism that encourages suicide. If anything, most forms of Satanism make a point of encouraging self-preservation.

It is true that many of the kids who are drawn to Satanism are also alienated from their families. The latter is a far more likely motive for suicide than is these kids’ interest in Satanism per se.

If one is going to look for religious causes of teen suicide, the one religious tendency that has probably caused more teen suicides than any other is the anti-gay attitudes of the more conservative sectors of the Abrahamic religions.

Back to Markowitz:

Seventeen and eighteen year olds have been convicted of homicide that occurred during the practice of Satanic rites in Northport, New York, Minnesota, and New Mexico. A fourteen year old boy slashed his mother to death, set the house on fire, and cut his own throat in New Jersey following his involvement in Satanic readings and rituals.

I would suspect that most of these kids were violently antisocial to begin with and used “Satanism” as just one more excuse for their nastiness — probably, in most cases, without ever exploring very deeply into any form of Satanism. Hence their criminal behavior should not be blamed on Satanism.

The Cult Hotline and Clinic receives more calls about Satanism than any other single cult group.

Markowitz’s wording — comparing Satanism to “any other single cult group” — seems to suggest that he regards Satanism itself as a “cult group.” More about that later.

Be that as it may, his statement surprises me. I wonder how long ago the above page was written. (I didn’t find a date on that page, other than the same general 2010 copyright that appears on all pages of the site.) Was Markowitz’s page written back in the early 1990’s, when the Satanic panic of 1980-1995 was still going strong? Or have the more recent mini-revivals of Satanic panic been far more severe than I thought? Or have Satanic trappings recently become even more faddish amongst juvenile criminal gangs (of which I have no direct knowledge, because they aren’t a part of the religious Satanist scene) than they were back in 1980-1995?

It has long been my impression that New York City has both (1) fewer actual Satanists per capita than most of the rest of the U.S.A. and (2) far less paranoia about Satanists than most of the rest of the U.S.A.

Back in the mid-1990’s, when I was in process of extricating myself from a brief association with one of the more cultish groups in the Satanist scene, I contacted a local support group for ex-cultists and family members, to ask for advice on responding to harassment. (This support group no longer exists, unfortunately.) I was, as I told the people I spoke to, not interested in leaving Satanism per se; I was interested only in getting a particular leader and group out of my life. When I mentioned Satanism, the people I spoke to told me that they had never been contacted, before, by any ex-members of cultish Satanist groups. (The vast majority of their calls were about crazy authoritarian Christian groups.) I hadn’t really expected them to be familiar with the real-life Satanist scene, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that they hadn’t been contacted by any Satanic panic-mongers either — even though this occurred at the tail end of the 1980-1995 Satanic panic era.

So, I’m very curious to know what kinds of calls the JBFCS Cult Clinic has been getting about Satanism these days.

Anyhow, Markowitz then says:

Teenagers attracted to Satanism tend to be 13-19 years old, white, working and middle class youth who are mostly showing a transient interest. Those more intensely involved or older participants tend to be more seriously troubled and psychologically disturbed.

[Sigh!] Where is he getting his information about older, non-transient Satanists?

Markowitz then gives a list of alleged traits of Satanists including poor academic performance and assorted self-destructive and violent behaviors.

Hello? These are vast overgeneralizations, to say the least. Some Satanists have been very learned and/or successful.

The following famous people all were, at least for some portion of their lives, Satanists in at least the literary sense of having had favorable things to say about “Satan” and/or “the Devil” in well-known writings of theirs:

  • William Blake – wrote “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.”
  • Mark Twain – wrote Letters from the Earth and A Pen Warmed in Hell
  • Giosue Carducci (who is considered to have been one of Italy’s greatest poets) – wrote a “Hymn to Satan”
  • Charles Baudelaire – wrote “The Litanies of Satan”
  • Matilda Gage (leading 19th century feminist) – referred to Satan as the “God of Freedom” in her book Woman, Church, and State, echoing the French historian Jules Michelet’s favorable portrayal of a hypothetical Satanic ceremony by medieval peasants.
  • George Bernard Shaw – wrote The Devil’s Disciple and Man and Superman

Admittedly, I’m not aware of any solid evidence that any of the above authors were Satanists in a religious sense. Nevertheless, they clearly were “Satanists” in at least a sense in which that term has long been used by literary critics (e.g. in the books Romantic Satanism by Peter A. Schock and Milton and the Rise of Russian Satanism by Valetin Boss). And they clearly were Satanists in a much more serious, meaningful, and in-depth sense than the kids who spray-paint inverted crosses on church walls.

And they were, obviously, successful in their literary careers. Carducci even won a Nobel Prize.

It is true that nearly all Satanists are alienated from mainstream society in one way or another, to one degree or another. However, being alienated from mainstream society is not necessarily pathological. Seeing things a bit differently from the way everyone else sees them can be, and often has been, a source of great creativity. It can even be, in some cases, a source of badly-needed social reforms. People can be alienated from mainstream society for many different kinds of reasons.

The better-established forms of Satanism encourage their adherents to find ways to put their alienation to productive use, and to acquire the skills necessary to succeed.

It seems to me that Markowitz’s page reflects popular bias — compounded by another kind of bias, specific to psychotherapists and social workers, that is in some ways similar to the anti-gay bias that was common amongst psychotherapists and social workers before the 1970’s: If the only people you personally encounter in category X are people with severe mental/emotional problems, then you naturally tend to assume that all people in category X have severe mental/emotional problems.

To their credit, psychotherapists and social workers do tend to be relatively open-minded people. In the early 1970’s, the gay rights movement did manage to succeed in getting homosexuality removed from the list of psychiatric disorders. This was one of the earliest victories of the gay rights movement, long before the movement made much headway on any other front.

But it’s entirely understandable why psychotherapists and social workers considered homosexuality to be a disorder before then. The only gays they personally knew were some of their own clients, who came to them because they had severe personal problems. And the only other gays they ever heard about, besides the ones they read about in psychiatric journals, were the perpetrators of “homosexual murders” reported by tabloids — even though most sex-related murders were/are committed by heterosexuals but were NOT described by the tabloids as “heterosexual murders.” The term “homosexual murder” has, fortunately, gone out of fashion among journalists, thanks to pressure from the GLBT rights movement. However, back in the 1960’s and earlier, the “homosexual murder” and “homosexual child molester” memes, combined with the fact that the most visible gay hangouts back then were sleazy Mafia-run bars, naturally led a lot of otherwise open-minded people to associate homosexuality with crime and general sleaziness.

What it took, to change the attitudes of psychotherapists and social workers back then, was a bunch of relatively healthy gays coming out of the closet. We similarly need more law-abiding and non-self-destructive Satanists to come out of the closet, to whatever extent they safely can.

Of course, religion and sexual orientation are very different things. But I nevertheless I think there are many valid points of analogy regarding some of the sources of the bias and how it can be overcome.

I should also point out that there are already some sociologists and other social scientists, starting with Marcello Truzzi back in the 1970’s, who have noted that Satanism is not necessarily unhealthy and can even help some people grow up.

Anyhow, back to Satanism and “cults.” Alas, there do exist all too many harmful groups within the Satanist scene, although the none of these are of the type claimed by “Satanic ritual abuse” scaremongers. (See my page of advice on Avoiding harmful religious groups in the Satanist scene.) But do any of these real-life groups qualify as “cults” by the JBFCS Cult Clinic’s definition of the word “cult”?

Elsewhere on the JBFCS Cult Clinic’s website, Arnold Markowitz makes an effort to stick strictly to the JBFCS Cult Clinic’s definition of a “cult.” On a page titled Is Osama Bin Laden or Al Qaeda a Cult?, Arnold Markowitz, LCSW, quotes the JBFCS Cult Clinic’s definition, saying:

Destructive cult groups have a self appointed charismatic leader who is venerated by the followers, a leader who exercises autocratic control over the members’ lives. The group uses deception and manipulation to recruit members and raise funds, and to control the lives of members and deny privacy. I would also add the use of sophisticated psychological techniques to coerce a rapid change in beliefs, values, and practices of recruits.

Markowitz then says, about Al Qaeda:

I have decided that Bin Laden or Al Qaeda is not a cult in the way we use the term and to characterize it as such will diminish our position in warning the world about destructive cult groups. While Bin Laden is a self appointed leader of some sort and may be venerated by his followers, he presents himself as holy man not G-d or a G-d like figure. He focuses his followers’ veneration on Allah, not himself. As best as I can tell, recruits are not inveigled into the group by deception or manipulation. The members know full well what they are joining and seem to be lining up to support the Taliban and Bin Laden. I am not aware of the use of psychological techniques or the use of brainwashing to recruit and keep members. We may not like his message or how it is taught but this does not make it a cult. It is far worse than that. In addition I think it takes us further away from understanding this movement and what we are up against if we glibly dismiss them as a cult group. They are terrorists and terrorists share some characteristics with cult members, particularly the self-negation of their own lives, a willingness to sacrifice themselves for the cause, and intense devotion to a person or a belief system. It is the misuse of these character traits that abhor use [sic] when they are used to kill innocent unarmed men, woman and children.

Okay, if you’re going to be strict about your definition, then hardly any Satanist groups at all — even the harmful groups — qualify as “cults” by the JBFCS Cult Clinic’s definition.

Most Satanist leaders do not claim to be Satan incarnate, or the Antichrist. On those rare occasions when I have seen such a claim by a leader who was taken seriously by anyone at all, it was in the context of a pantheistic or panentheistic belief system in which everything and everyone is divine, and some people are just more in touch with their inner divinity than others. (There are also some silly kids who run around claiming to be the Antichrist, but hardly anyone in the Satanist scene takes them seriously.)

Nor do most Satanist groups engage in heavy-duty proselytizing of any kind, deceptive/manipulative or otherwise. Most Satanist groups recruit only those people who are already Satanists, of a kind compatible with the particular group’s belief system, and who are looking for a group to join.

Most importantly, most Satanists — especially most longtime Satanists — highly value thinking for oneself. Blind faith in anyone or anything is considered a vice, not a virtue, by the majority of people in the Satanist scene, especially by the vast majority of the older, more longterm Satanists. Thus the fundamental ethos of the Satanist scene is the exact opposite of “cultlike.”

Alas, too many Satanist groups nevertheless do have some “cultlike” attributes, as I warn on my page of advice on Avoiding harmful religious groups in the Satanist scene. But such attributes are generally considered, by most longtime Satanists, to be extremely hypocritical. Every religious movement has its share of hypocrites, and Satanism is no exception.

Perhaps Arnold Markowitz needs some education in what Satanism itself is all about? There is a bewildering variety of different kinds of Satanism, but the following pages of mine describe some key beliefs and attitudes that most Satanists have in common: What is Satanism? and Satan and “Evil” in Christianity (and Satanism).

Note to Arnold Markowitz, if you are reading this: I hope you’ll consider correcting various statements on the Cult Clinic website. At the very least, I hope you realize that it’s a very serious matter to claim or insinuate, whether deliberately or otherwise, that an entire religious category consists of a bunch of criminals. I hope you will, therefore, want to research that issue further. Feel free to ask me questions.

To others: If anyone reading this happens to be both (1) a Satanist or at least Satanist-friendly and (2) a psychotherapist or social worker, or aspiring to become a psychotherapist or social worker, please let me know and I will try to find ways to put you in touch with others. If possible, I would encourage you to start your own blog or other public outreach. We would all benefit from the existence of a network of people in those professions who are knowledgeable about Satanism and friendly towards Satanists.

UPDATE, February 10, 2011: In an email reply, Arnold Markowitz says he doesn’t remember when he wrote his page about Satanism, except that it was written at a time when there were lots of tales in the mass media alleged Satanic ritual sacrifice of babies. So, I’ll try to date it myself. His page could not have been written before 1989, at least in its final form, because it mentions the Matamoros murders, which were discovered in 1989. Markowitz’s page begins by mentioning “a great deal of conflict” between people who believe in the existence of “generational practitioners who secretly practice animal and human sacrifices and pass along their clandestine rituals from one generation to another” and those who believe such claims are “over blown hysteria,” — another reason why his page could not have been written before the late 1980’s, which was when the “Satanic Ritual Abuse” (SRA) scare began to be debunked. Most likely his page was written in the early 1990’s, after the publication of several books debunking the SRA scare, but before the scare finally died down (at least in respectable professional circles) in around 1995. Also his page contains the sentence, “Since the mid 1980’s there has been a rapid increase in the number and seriousness of crimes related to Satanic Ritual” — wording which suggests that his page was written no sooner than the early 1990’s.

In his email to me, Markowitz mentions various sensational SRA claims from the 1980’s, starting with Michelle Remembers, which was published in 1980. I’m well aware of many of these cases; see my website Against Satanic Panics.

Markowitz’s email then says:

The intent and message of my writeup was to counter these claims and essentially point out that except for these adolescent dabblers there was little or no evidence of Satanic Cults sacrificing children ,etc. My comments are limited to the
adolescents as that was the area of concern at the time.

I find it intersting that I as a counterveiling commentator contradicting common beliefs and media at the time now attract your criticism. I believe my caveat that even the fewer cases one hears about now are not evidence of widespread destructive Satanic practices still holds true today. Thank you.

To Arnold Markowitz: Insofar as you took a stand against the more spectacular SRA claims at a time when they were still widely advocated, thank you for being a voice of reason on that issue.

Nevertheless, your wording still strongly suggests that all Satanists are criminals, albeit criminals of a less spectacular kind than full-blown SRA. If you re-read your article, I hope you can see how it conveys that impression. If you didn’t mean to convey that impression, I hope you’ll consider adding an update.

As for your comments being limited to adolescents:

1) Your page does in fact briefly mention adult Satanists too, only to say that “Those more intensely involved or older [than 19 years old] participants tend to be more seriously troubled and psychologically disturbed.” If your view on this has changed, it would be nice if you could add an update to the page.

2) I should point out that even adolescents with an interest in Satanism aren’t necessarily criminals either. And those who aren’t criminals are likely to base their beliefs on writings by law-abiding adult Satanists, whereas those who are criminals are less likely to have paid any attention to the adult Satanist scene. So, to round out the picture of young people with an interest in Satanism, to avoid painting them all with the brush of criminality, it is necessary to mention law-abiding adult Satanists too.

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