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Devil in the detail

Devil in the detail

Devil in the detail

Some say the De’ils deid and living in Kirkcaldy, as the old ditty goes, though, as we now know, he is in fact alive and well and serving on Her Majesty’s frigate Cumberland.

Or at least one of his minions appears to be. The nation spluttered over its cornflakes earlier this week and wondered if Hallowe’en japes had arrived early, on reading that Leading Hand Chris Cranmer, a Scots naval technician and self-professed member of the Church of Satan, had been given permission by his captain to practise as a Satanist, making him the first officially sanctioned Satanist in the armed forces.

The decision by Captain Russell Best of the Cumberland means, among other things, that the 24-year-old Cranmer, from Kirkliston in West Lothian, may worship in robes before an altar and, if killed in action or otherwise at sea, may be given an appropriate funeral, whatever that may be.

Well, look out Osama. Most of us may be excused for wondering whether the world is descending into gibbering, dark-age lunacy. New-ageism run riot, “political correctness gone mad”… or should we be more basically concerned that someone who espouses a religion or philosophy which appears to reject moral values is entrusted as part of a team controlling a fighting ship?

Despite some recent high-profile crimes linked to satanism in recent years, no-one thinks that Leading Hand Cranmer is going to eat our children – his discomfited mother has assured the press he was brought up a Christian and “doesn’t have an evil bone in his body” – but what exactly is the Church of Satan, and how will his adherence to it affect him – and, more importantly, his shipmates?

The Church of Satan was founded in 1966 – reputedly on 30 April, Walpurgisnacht – by one Anton LaVey, sometime stage hypnotist, nightclub organist and a flamboyant figure in America’s 1960s subculture, although very little of his claims about himself bear too close investigation. LaVey, who died in 1997, cultivated a Mephistophelian image and was often referred to as “the Black Pope”. He devised the organisation at least partly under the influence of the writings of the “Great Beast” himself: Aleister Crowley, “wickedest man in the world” and one-time resident of the notorious Boleskine House on the banks of Loch Ness.

Just as Crowley’s dictum was “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”, LaVey’s Church of Satan, based on LaVey’s own Satanic Bible champions Satan as a symbol of personal freedom and individualism. Its lavish website is not averse to merchandising, and states the organisation’s “articles of faith”, including the Nine Satanic Statements such as “Indulgence, not Abstinence”, “Vengeance, Not Turning the Other Cheek ” and general glorification of the “so-called sins, as they lead to physical, mental or emotional gratification.” It warns “do not harm little children” but also “If a guest in your lair annoys you, treat him cruelly and without mercy.”

“Satanism, by definition, is a philosophy in which you won’t find group hugs,” it adds with a certain sardonic humour.

For Doug Harris, director of the Reachout Trust, a Richmond-based Christian organisation that helps those who have become embroiled in the occult, the Cranmer affair goes beyond the merely laughable to concerns as to the consequences of such a philosophy within a naval vessel. “My concern is the character of the person this produces. If you read the tenets of the Church of Satan, everything is antisocial as well as anti-Christian. If you actually follow these lines – vengeance instead of forgiveness and all that – on a ship where you have a close-knit crew, you’re going to have problems there.”

But Harris’s concerns go further still: that if you start messing with what he does believe can be genuinely evil powers, you may deeply regret it: “We certainly have seen people over the years who have been involved in various forms of the occult and satanism and whose lives have been severely affected by supernatural evil and they needed deliverance.”

Chris Cranmer’s plaintive statement is that, “I didn’t want to feel I could not get out my Satanic Bible and relax in bed.” So are we to believe that this is the acceptable face of Auld Nick, comfy in carpet slippers and a cup of Horlicks?

We may live in a secular age, but every so often supposedly Satanic manifestations rear from the darkness to disquiet us, such as the lurid Ruda case in Germany, in which Manuela and Daniel Ruda were found guilty of stabbing Frank Haagen to death with 66 knife wounds before drinking his blood – a case which sent unsavoury tremors as far as Edinburgh, as Manuela said she and her husband first developed a taste for blood-drinking there, and hinted at a “vampire” cult on the fringes of the capital’s youthful goth culture.

In Russia, last year, following a series of what appeared to be ritual murders, officials admitted they had established a special unit to investigate “devil-worshipping sects” , while back in Britain what appeared to be a particularly nasty and exotic form of Satanism made its gruesome presence felt when the headless torso of a five-year-old Afro-Caribbean boy was found in the Thames, bearing the hallmarks of ritual killing. A west African woman was later arrested in Glasgow.

Then there were the hugely damaging aspersions which blighted a community when social workers removed nine children from their homes in Orkney, with charges of apparent ritual abuse which were later thrown out of court as “fundamentally flawed”.

There was a brief flurry of sensationalist headlines four years ago when a report by psychotherapist Valerie Sinason, of London’s Tavistock Clinic, claimed that the sacrificial murder of young children was more than just the result of overheated fantasies. Sinason said she had treated 76 children and adults over the previous 15 years who claimed to have experienced or observed satanic abuse. Her evidence suggested that only a minority of those involved in ritual abuse were really satanists, but that 70 per cent were in fact paedophiles who abused the “satanic” rituals and paraphernalia to terrify their victims. The Metropolitan Police examined the report, which was duly submitted to the Department of Health, followed by thunderous silence, apart from some heated argument over the validity or otherwise of “recovered memories”.

Headline-making episodes apart, in Scotland, when the 2001 census asked its respondents what religion or belief system they adhered to, 53 stated Satanism (mind you, 14,052 clamed to be Jedis).

It is tempting to regard claims of Satanism as just another daft strand in our pick‘n’mix crucible of New Age religions. Who can forget, for example, the over-the-top statanic symbolism of Robin Hardy’s film, The Wicker Man. However, society’s present flirtation with the occult has provoked some extreme reactions even to its most innocuous manifestations. Bible Belt religionists in the United States, for example, protest that Harry Potter is an evil influence on his young readers and have accused Philip Pullman, author of the hugely popular His Dark Materials trilogy, of promoting Satanism.

Pullman once told this newspaper that his habitual response was to advise accusers to read all three books thoroughly, “then if they find they’ve inadvertently become a Satanist, they can write to the publisher and get their money back”.

One person who has publicly condemned the rash of interest in the occult is Father Jim McManus, rector at St Mary’s Centre of Spirituality, Kinnoull, near Perth, who regards Satanism as “a dangerous religion” but when asked about the Cranmer case warns – perhaps surprisingly – “The last thing we need is a ‘witch hunt’ of Satanists.”

The right to worship is a basic human right, says Father McManus: “While all Christians should warn people that Satanism is a dangerous religion and that it will eventually cause the adherents great inner distress and loss of peace, they should be the first to acknowledge a Satanist’s right to worship according to his or her own conscience.

“Otherwise the State, once again, would become the arbiter of true and false religion and in the past that has led to persecutions.” He quotes GK Chesterton, that “when people stop believing in God it doesn’t mean that they stop believing. It simply means that they will believe in anything.” You may believe – as in Peter 5:8 of the New Testament – that “your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” – or that he’s merely splicing the mainbrace on HMS Cumberland.

Either way, that official endorsement may just open the doors to more than the vessel’s captain bargained for.

As Doug Harris concludes: “Okay, you don’t legislate against belief, but I don’t think they’ve thought through what they’ve actually done – not so much just allowing this man to be a Satanist, but what it might produce.”