Oh come all ye unfaithful, sinful and indulgent

Fed Up with Christmas already? Bored with all the carols? Irritated by the folksy, phoney bonhomie? Does the sudden rise in church attendances, the one-off bending of the knee, strike you as the most despicable, unholy hypocrisy? Then maybe the Church of Satan is for you.

Church attendance is not compulsory. Rituals involving naked virgins and so forth are entirely optional. All that is required for membership is for you, the individual, to enter into a private covenant with the founder - a retired lion-tamer named Anton Szandor LaVey who is now dead - whereby you commit yourself to upholding his Nine Satanic Statements.

Intended as a counterpoint to the Ten Commandments, the Statements include such pearls as: "Satan represents indulgence, not abstinence"; "Satan represents undefiled wisdom, instead of hypocritical self-deceit"; "Satan represents kindness to those who deserve it, instead of love wasted on ingrates".

Applied to the Christmas season, the Statements might be interpreted as enjoinders to partake of mighty turkey consumption and other fleshly excess, to abstain from religious worship and to save yourself the cash you might otherwise have spent on a present for that brattish nephew.

Church of Satan devotees are supplied, as a catechistic supplement to the Statements, with some homespun guidelines for everyday social exchange. The Eleven Satanic Rules of the Earth, or "Lex Satanicus", composed by LaVey in the Year of Our Lord 1967, contain elements which might be considered pleasingly digestible by adherents of the more conventional religions.

"Do not give opinions or advice unless you are asked" appears harmless enough, for example. So does, "Do not tell your troubles to others unless you are sure they want to hear them." There is much wisdom in the admonition, "Do not complain about anything to which you need not subject yourself", and good counsel in the warning, in these litigious times, "Do not make sexual advances unless you are given the mating signal."

In case anyone out there believes all the Hollywood mumbo-jumbo about ritual sacrifices and so forth, the Lex Satanicus lays out the church's respectable credentials by calling on its infidels not to harm little children and not to kill non-human animals, "unless you are attacked or for your food".

A touch more alarming, if not entirely unreasonable, is rule number four, which states, "If a guest in your lair annoys you, treat him cruelly and without mercy."

Also potentially off-putting, especially to those who shun religion but abide by the old-fashioned notion that all humans are created equal, is an undercurrent of elitism that runs through the Church of Satan's articles of faithlessness. Cardinal among the Nine Satanic Sins, copyrighted by LaVey in 1987, is Stupidity. The fourth sin is Herd Conformity and the ninth, Lack of Aesthetics.

But perhaps the Church of Satan's most appealing feature is its brutal honesty. As an epistle by one of LaVey's disciples, Magister Peter H Gilmore, explains it, Satanic philosophy "certainly has nothing to do with the prevailing Judaeo-Christian outlook of altruism and self-sacrifice". "The Satanic code of behaviour", Magister Gilmore continues, "is based on human nature as it is."

The magister, clearly blessed with LaVey's unillusioned insights into the human condition, then observes that "it is a fact that many people today call themselves Christians but really have no clear concept as to what that philosophy fully entails, so they generally behave in a Satanic fashion".

For those who wish to abandon the pretence and embrace the animal within, further enlightenment is just a long-distance phone call away. Look up the San Francisco Yellow Pages. You'll find the Church of Satan between the Church of Saint Gregory and the Church of Scientology.

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