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Satanic Ritual Abuse in Popular Christian Literature, Why Christians Fall for a Lie Searching for the Truth

By Bob and Gretchen Passantino

This article first appeared in the Journal of Psychology and Theology, 1992, Vol. 20, No. 3, 299-305
"Isn't it true that this whole satanic ritual abuse hysteria is a result of ignorant Christian fundamentalists?" The smug expression on the reporter's face answered the rhetorical question he had posed to the American Psychological Association's press conference subject, FBI special agent Kenneth V. Lanning. And although Agent Lanning disagreed, many observers of the satanic ritual abuse (SRA) phenomenon sweeping the country would agree with the reporter. The accuracy or inaccuracy of the reporter's assumption is beyond the scope of this article, but it also reveals a very important attitude prominent among Christian as well as secular observers: there is something about SRA that seems particularly compatible with popular American Christianity.

Not Primarily a "Christian" Phenomenon

A survey of the popular media sources of information on SRA shows that non-Christian sources are the most prevalent and most popular. Books such as Satan's Children, Rabbit Howls, and Suffer the Child are only the tip of the non-Christian "iceberg" of SRA reports. "Tabloidism," on television, in supermarket rags, and through networks of workshops, seminars, and support groups, is the largest purveyor of SRA sensationalism. Christian tabloidism such as that found on syndicated radio talk show host Bob Larson's Talk Back show, articles such as Moody Magazine's "Evil in the Land," and books such as the novel Dead Air and the purported autobiography Satan's Underground actually form a much smaller body of "literature" than do secular SRA stories.

The smaller volume and more restricted distribution of Christian literature on the subject, however, seems to have a wider degree of acceptance on the part of its target audience, evangelical American Christians, than does the non-Christian sensational SRA literature on its target audience, the general population. While no field research has been done to pinpoint the reason(s) for this disparity, we speculate that it is due primarily to the fact that Christians share a common world view that in some ways is congruent with the claims of SRA sensationalists. This world view includes belief in the depravity of man, the existence of Satan and demons, and the existence of evil.

In the general population, however, there is no unified world view and personal belief differs widely and radically from individual to individual. In such pluralism, SRA must compete both with similar secret horror concepts and with competing systems. The general population, for example, can choose from SRA, UFO abductions, past life regressions, and race memories as possible explanations for "missing time," eating and sleeping disorders, depression, and general inability to cope with life's problems. In addition, the general population has a smorgasbord of belief systems from which to choose, such as New Ageism's unlimited human potential, eastern philosophy's pantheism, the western world's post-Christian secular humanism, or even good ol' American hedonism. The Christian population, on the other hand, is restricted to choosing beliefs and explanations for dysfunction from those which appear to be compatible with the major tenets of biblical Christianity. Pantheism, for example, is not an option for a theistic Christian; reincarnation is not an option for Christians who understand the theological implications of atonement, resurrection, and judgment.

The common belief base among Christians not only allows for a wider portion of the group to accept certain theories over others, it also can give a misleading impression that certain theories are generally accepted or intrinsic to the base itself. The reporter mentioned at the beginning of this article was not accurate in his rhetorical question, but his perception was understandable given the homogenous belief base of Christians and their predominance in the group of SRA sensationalism instead of UFO/alien abduction or reincarnation sensationalism.

With this perspective on Christian SRA literature and its reception within the larger context of general SRA literature and belief, we can move to a review of Christian SRA literature, including how it developed and why a significant segment of Christians believe it.

Christian Literature on the Occult

Throughout the history of Christianity, theology has always included doctrines concerning evil, Satan, and forbidden occult practices. The early catechisms included renouncing "the Devil and all of his ways," and this theme of strict distinction between belonging either to Jesus Christ, "the Lord of Lords," or to the fallen angel Satan, "the Adversary," has continued throughout church history.

During the Middle Ages the Roman Catholic Church waged a bitter and sometimes dreadful campaign against "witchcraft," a term including any practice of occultism and including allegiance to Satan (the only alternative to allegiance to God). This persecution reached its height after the 1484 publication of The Witches' Hammer (English translation of its Latin title, Malleus Maleficarum) by two Dominican friars, Heinrich Kraemer and Johann Sprenger. The Witches' Hammer institutionalized the stereotypical view of witches as evil, Devil-worshipping meddlers. It is from this source that we get the images of witches flying on brooms, of having magical, evil black cats, and of performing lewd sexual acts with Satan. During the Renaissance's "Enlightenment" many people forsook Christianity, embracing the secularism of that age. Some formed clubs or fraternities to mock their former faith, and these "Antimorality Clubs" or "Hellfire Clubs" incorporated images from The Witches' Hammer as well as simple perversions of Christian worship. Christian opposition to these groups tended to be along two lines: philosophical argumentation concerning the existence of God and truth of Christianity; or exhortations to forsake "the ways of the Devil," a term covering any false belief or unbelief.

In the first half of this century, Christian literature on the occult was predominantly theological in nature. Most books drew from the Bible as their primary source of information, identified current popular practices with those practices described in scripture, and argued against occultism from theology and scripture.

Three Developments Produce SRA Sensationalism

During the 1960s, personal experiences, anecdotes, became much more popular. Partly as a reflection of the general society's fascination with personal evil (movies such as Rosemary's Baby are examples), Christian books began to include stories of those who claimed to have participated in occultism. The most popular were by Merril Unger (who highlighted mission field encounters with occultism), and Kurt Koch (whose books recounted the stories of the many occultists he encountered in pastoral counseling). The responses to occultism were still theologically and scripturally based. Personal experience stories have since become characteristic of SRA sensationalism.

In 1969 Anton Szandor LaVey, ex-carnival barker and self-described iconoclast, wrote The Satanic Bible, providing his fledgling Church of Satan with its own unholy scripture. His carnival atmosphere ritual performances were gobbled by the secular press, and the image of a naked woman altar symbolized the "freedom" from biblical morals LaVey and his followers sought so desperately. Whether or not LaVey and his cohorts took their anti-Christianity seriously or not, impressionable teenagers and misfit adults soon devoted themselves to following LaVey's brand of satanic worship and practice. It was not long before Christians began to respond to this contemporary Hellfire Club, the Church of Satan. A significant segment of the literature took the symbolism of The Satanic Bible and interpreted it from a biblical presupposition, assuming (often wrongly) that any satanist actually and consciously believed in the fallen angel of the Bible and gave his or her spiritual allegiance to him and his unholy power.

The first significant book of this genre was The Satan Seller by confessed ex-satanic high priest Mike Warnke. The Satan Seller introduced the idea of widespread, almost invincible and almost undetectable satanic conspiracy. Warnke claimed in this book and in other places that in his short time in 1965 and 1966 as a satanic high priest he recruited 1,000 new members to his satanic empire in the sleepy San Bernardino desert area of Southern California; flew around the country to secret satanic strategy meetings, meeting with some of the most dastardly of the darker side of life, including Anton LaVey and mass murderer Charles Manson; and ran a massive drug dealing ring. The Satan Seller's two chief contributions to the development of Christian sensationalism concerning satanism were, first, widespread conspiracy theories; and, second, the incorporation of the earlier trend to use unsubstantiated personal experience stories as "proof" of one's assertions regarding the occult. Nowhere in The Satan Seller or in other recitations of his story does Warnke document any portion of his story, even the more incredible ones (such as meeting with Manson even though state records show Manson was in prison during the entire time Warnke allegedly was a satanist). In fact, he does not even provide the reader with accurate names, dates, and locations to enable an ordinary reader to check his story out if he were so inclined. Since its publication in 1972 The Satan Seller has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and Warnke has maintained a very public, successful ministry addressing thousands at a time in mass rallies.

The third development in Christian literature on the occult that contributed to today's SRA sensationalism came with the two biographies Michelle Remembers and Satan's Underground. In both of these unsubstantiated personal experience stories including mass satanic conspiracy ideas, the authors described horrific scenes of sexual and physical abuse and violence performed in a ritualistic setting by organized, satanists. The three elements had combined: (1) subjective personal experience; (2) invincible conspiracies, and (3) satanic ritual abuse.

Neither Michelle Remembers nor Satan's Underground offered any objective evidence to support the allegations of the authors, and in fact when we conducted a careful investigation into the Satan's Underground story, we found it to be untrue, completely contradicting the evidence and facts concerning the life of the author.

These two books were quickly followed by others affirming the reality of SRA, including books like The Edge of Evil, Satanism: The Seduction of America's Youth, The Satanic Revival, Don't Make Me God Back, Mommy!, and Uncovering the Mystery of MPD.

Reasons SRA Sensationalism Is Believed

Gullible Christian audiences were ready to believe full-blown SRA stories, not only for reasons common to the general population, but also for reasons peculiar to the Christian Church. First, the stories seemed compatible to the Christian idea of the sinfulness of man. Second, the stories seemed to affirm the existence of evil and of the fallen angel, Satan. Third, the stories seemed to affirm the commonly held idea that the world will continue to get more and more evil until the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. However, simply because a particular story seems compatible to Christian ideas does not mean the story is true.

It is important to note some of the general reasons Christians (and the general population) fall for what is not true, even when they are seeking to know the truth. This issue is not a black and white one of either choose a lie or choose truth. Instead this is a complex issue of how to find out what the truth is. Ten common reasons people believe what is not true follow.

  1. It fits into our world view.

    Because something is possible, doesn't mean that it is true; and just because something exists, doesn't mean every report we receive of it must be true.

    Let us explain what we mean with an example. How do Christians explain UFO reports? As "lying signs and wonders in the air"? As demonic apparitions? If you're thinking critically, you won't accept the question in the way it was posed. Instead, you will ask, "Which UFO reports do you want me to explain?" In fact, careful investigation shows that the vast majority of UFO sightings are of natural or manmade phenomena, misidentified by observers.

    Second Corinthians 11:4 and 13-15 teach us that Satan and his followers can transform themselves so that they look like "ministers of righteousness." In our biblical world view, we would expect to find instances of demonic evil masquerading as what is good, perhaps as UFO phenomenon. However, we fall for fantasies if we do not discriminate among the reports of evil-in-progress.

    We tend to believe what is allowed for and predicted by our world view, but investigation is necessary to determine the explanation for a particular report. This is a vulnerability to which counselors seem especially prone. We tend to believe the personal experiences we're told that correspond to our world view without checking to see whether there is any validity to the report at all.

  2. We accept what we're told.

    Readers under time constraints and without knowledge of how to research or test a proposition sometimes find themselves accepting what they're told without sufficient testing. It's not that we don't want to be critical, but we don't always have time to check everything we're told. We forget that finding someone willing to tell us what to think about a certain situation is not the same as finding the right person to tell us what can be verified.

  3. We base our knowledge on common sense.

    Sometimes we stumble on the truth even in the midst of our vulnerability. For example, just because someone is paranoid doesn't mean everybody isn't out to get that person. Often common sense parallels the truth. That is, what we commonly think makes sense, and it may even correspond to truth, but common sense is not a trustworthy method to find truth.

  4. We place too much faith in "experts."

    It is possible to place blind faith in experts. Parents are reassured if their child is seen by a pediatrician, even if the doctor doesn't know what's wrong. People with difficult relationships tend to accept the advice of a professional counselor more than they would that of a lay person. This is especially true when there are very few experts in any one area and we are forced to get all or most of our information from one source, or when we trust experts to tell us about something outside their field of expertise. We seem to think that truth gets truer if someone important says it, even if that important person has no particular knowledge of that field. On the contrary, two plus two still equals four, no matter if a mathematician, a zoologist, or our young son says it.

    Believing an expert without appropriate authority and without corroborating evidence is not a trustworthy way to discern truth.

  5. We think seeing is believing.

    Raised in the "scientific" age, we tend to think that whatever we encounter empirically, or with any of our five senses, must be real. We describe something incredible by "You have to see it to believe it!" We express our doubt by "I won't believe it until I see it!" And even the Apostle Thomas affirmed his scientific status by qualifying what it would take for him to believe Jesus' resurrection, "Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe."

    There's nothing inherently wrong with empirical testing. In fact, some things must be tested empirically. But we need to be careful of two things.

    First, not everything is empirically verifiable. What laboratory experiments can you devise to test my assertion that someone loves Jesus? Some things are not inherently material and cannot be tested adequately by the senses.

    Second, when we test empirically, we cannot always trust our senses. We have to add critical thinking to our sensory experience. If sensory experience were sufficient in itself, we would assume that pencils bend each time we place them in glasses of water because they look bent. Critical thinking reconciles what our eyes tell us with what other tests tell us. That way we can explain the illusion of the bent pencil in terms of light refraction in the two different mediums of air and water.

    In the SRA field, an example of this second kind of "seeing is believing" fallacy is some adult survivors' pointing to actual physical scars to "prove" their entire SRA story, when there could be many alternative sources for those scars, including routine surgery and self-inflicted wounds.

  6. We draw conclusions from faulty evidence.

    Here's a common reason we believe fantasies. We do a great job of thinking critically from evidence to conclusion, but we forget to check our evidence. What if the evidence is faulty? All the critical thinking in the world can't change bad evidence into good evidence.

    Contemporary cultic and occultic "myths" fall into this category. A caller to our radio program once told us what she had decided to do in light of the evidence that a major luxury hotel in our area was owned by the Church of Satan. She was going to call all of the radio, television, and newspaper offices she could to get the widest possible publicity about this terrible situation, and she was urging all Christians to boycott the hotel as a protest against satanism. There was nothing wrong with her action plan.

    Except she hadn't checked her evidence. It is true that the Westin South Coast Plaza Hotel in our city of Costa Mesa is at 666 Anton Way, and it is true that Anton is also the first name of Anton Szandor LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan. But it's not true that the Church of Satan owns the hotel (it's owned by one of the wealthiest families in Southern California, the Segerstroms); it's not true that the Church of Satan picked the street number 666 (the hotel falls just past half-way through the 600 block square of the Costa Mesa city street number grid); and Anton Way is in honor of two Segerstrom family members, not LaVey. Trusting faulty evidence had sabotaged our caller's entire action plan.

  7. We draw faulty conclusions from good evidence.

    It's fairly easy to recognize when we draw conclusions from faulty evidence, but it's harder to recognize drawing faulty conclusions from good evidence. Check for this vulnerability the next time you have a conclusion that doesn't seem true, and yet you have checked, double checked, and even triple checked your evidence. Maybe your evidence isn't the problem. Maybe you have drawn a faulty conclusion from your evidence.

    For example, the fact that more and more people are "recovering suppressed memories" of SRA doesn't necessarily lead to a conclusion that SRA sensationalism is true. It might instead lead to other conclusions, including that more people (counselors as well as clients) are aware of SRA memory recovery as an option.

  8. We believe what makes us feel comfortable.

    This reason relates to the three reasons Christians are more prone to accept SRA sensationalism, especially the third reason, that we expect the world to get worse as the Second Coming draws closer. SRA sensationalism confirms our world view, giving us comfort that the Bible was right all along and that, though the night gets darker, the dawn is coming.

  9. We see the world as we would like it to be rather than as it really is.

    It would be so much easier if evil were as easily distinguishable from good as is an SRA perpetrator from an innocent victim. It may seem easier to put all the evil into the satanists than to recognize that evil is any disobedience to God, including our own common Christian sins, such as gossip, laziness, and self- centeredness.

  10. We base our beliefs on personal experience.

    We have a serious disease in Christian literature today. That is, we too often substitute personal stories or experience for comprehensive, accurate research and evaluation. It's so much easier to tell a story or get a guest speaker with a great story than it is to put in good, hard work at apologetics.

    Christian bookstores are full of personal stories, testimonies, and experiences on everything from possibility thinking through "I was a baby breeder for Satan." Most of these stories are characterized by subjective emotionalism, undocumented assertions, and little or no biblical or theological evaluation. But that's ok, we're told, because So-and-so really experienced it, so he knows all about it. We don't need doctrine. We don't need theology. We don't need facts. We don't need documentation. Just tell a story. It makes people feel good, and who can argue with a story?

    But personal experience doesn't always tell the truth. We should have a healthy skepticism toward Christian "stories," too. If the book you're reading on satanism, for example, has no dates, no places, no names, no events -- is completely undatable and untestable, how can we know it is true? And even if the events recorded happened, how do we know they are interpreted properly by the story teller? No matter how tempting and easy, don't substitute stories for responsible research and evaluation.

Guarding Against Christian Gullibility

Christians claim to follow the God of truth. We cannot afford to reinforce the secular world's perception of us as hopelessly naiv‚ believers in myths, either good about some Savior God, or bad about some bogeyman. Christian standards for accepting or rejecting sensational literature should be based on sound methods of evaluation, and stories that cannot meet reasonable tests for truthfulness should be rejected, including those that fail the following tests.

  1. There's no evidence to back it up.

    Sometimes there is no evidence because of the very nature of the story. That doesn't mean such a story can't be true, it just means that it's not a story that can be considered trustworthy research. At most it's an illustration or example.

  2. Its strongest commendation is that it ought to be true.

    Be careful that you are not persuaded to believe a particular story simply because you wish it to be true. This can be a strong temptation, but don't give in to it. God won't excuse us for supporting made up stories because they serve a useful purpose.

  3. It's so detailed or bizarre that we can't believe someone could make it up.

    People can tell convincing stories with intricate detail and soaring sensationalism simply for selfish ends. However, much more common are the sincere, conscientious individuals who are given the wrong tools for discerning truth from error, reality from what one has been led to believe is reality. A story's complexity or simplicity is not a determiner of its truthfulness.

When to Believe or Reject a Story

Here's a brief checklist that can give you a good general indication of whether or not you should tend to believe a story you hear:

  1. Is the story documentable? Does it have names, dates, locations, facts that can be checked? Be especially wary of the story that has what we call "phantom documentation." That is, the story teller may say, "I would give you the documentation, but the satanists said they'd kill me if I tell anyone," or, "There used to be records that I graduated from that seminary, but the New Agers sneaked in and changed the records." Phantom documentation is no more trustworthy or useful for research than is no documentation.
  2. Is the source for the story reliable? Is the main figure in the story someone whose credibility, integrity, and honesty are well-known or can be checked? If not, you need to find out why not, and reconsider trusting that story.
  3. Does the story fit the biblical world view? Does anything in it contradict the Bible or Christianity? Someone may tell a very convincing story about remembering past lives, but reincarnation contradicts what we know from the Bible to be true. No story that contradicts biblical truth can be trustworthy. (But remember that simply because it fits the biblical world view does not automatically validate it.)
  4. Is there reliable, appropriate data supporting the major quantifiable statements in the story? For example, if a story says there were 1500 satanists following one leader in a rural area, but the population and crime data for that area makes such a claim incredible, then it should not be trusted. A story whose claims are completely unsupported by available data is not trustworthy as research.
  5. Does the story teller seem to aggrandize his role in the story, artificially inflating his importance, power, or victimization? Although this question is sometimes very difficult to answer, in clear-cut cases such myopic subjectivism lessens the credibility of the story.

Predicting the Future

SRA sensationalism appears to be here to stay, although careful readers, researchers, and counselors are beginning to reassess the subject according to principles such as those described here. We have perceived a shift in the pro-SRA sensationalism literature and presentations that should drive a wedge further between those skeptical of unproved assertions and those who seem to accept stories totally without evidence. This is a trend toward insulating all SRA stories from any demands of evidence at all. In other words, pro- sensationalists seem to be saying, "Believe the stories because there's no evidence." One author, Larry Jones, in his latest newsletter denies the Bible's clear principles of accusation and conviction as "contemporary wisdom," identifies it as a "whore," a "harlot," and a "seductress," and concludes,

"Contemporary wisdom" has told us: the earth is flat, the sun revolves around the earth, . . . AIDS won't cross gender lines or attack the heterosexual population, and satanic ritual murder is an urban myth!

Another author wrote us personally, criticizing our skepticism by saying, "You base your arguments on scientific evidence, etc. There is no way this type of demonic activity can be validated scientifically" and "Do you not think satan could pull this off?" She concludes her argument with the logical implication of such rejection of testing with, "Of course there is not any worldly documented evidence."

Can any Christian ever really be comfortable embracing a significant part of his or her world view totally apart from the very testing methods and evidence embraced by such scriptures as the Ninth Commandment (do not bear false witness) and Matthew 16:18's procedures for confronting a sinning brother? Do we really want to abandon Peter's affirmation of the truthfulness of the gospel, in which he declared, "we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty"?

Can any Christian ever really be comfortable embracing a significant part of his or her world view that makes Satan all powerful, able to hide all evidence of his people and their actions, and able to thwart the very methods of testing God has established?

And can any Christian ever really be comfortable embracing a view whose gullible acceptance of unsubstantiated testimony destroys families and condemns professing Christians totally apart from biblical standards of justice?

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