Judging by Satan's popularity in news accounts and police reports these days, you'd think Satan had been elected to Congress or won the Pulitzer Prize.
But it's not true, says J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif. and one of the country's leading experts on cults. In fact, there is no suge at all in Satan's popularity.
"The only surge we're seeing is the spread if mis-information," Melton says. "Malicious, suspicious, and ritualistic acts are being attributed to satanism, and people are buying into it."
Melton has launched a one-man crusade to get what he considers the truth out to the public. Using an extensive survey he completed in 1986 as his guide - "The Evidences of Satan in Contemporary America" - Melton makes his case frequently before groups and in interviews.
Most misinformation regarding satanism comes out of police agencies, Melton maintains. That's because, in the absence of true satanic groups, law officials have to blame "something concrete," he says.
"What we've got is creation of imagination, paranoia, and general ignorance," Melton says. "We've got wild speculation and jumps in logic. What we don't have is the truth."
"One story perpetuates another, and, before long, 'experts' in police departments are conductng seminars on a topic they don't really understand."
At the Phoenix Police Department, police spokesman Andy Hill says the agency analyzes every incident that has satanic overtones. He blames a majority of these crimes on "kids caught up in experimentation."
"It's safe to say that most of it isn't hard-core. We're usually dealing with copycat crimes," he says. " I wouldn't consider satanism a big problem here in Phoenix. We know it exists, but it's more underground than anything else."
According to Melton, only three established satanic cults exist: The Church of Satan, a San Fransisco based group headed by founder Anton LaVey; a splinter group, the Temple of Set, also in San Fransisco and headed by Michael Aquino; and the Church of Satanic Liberation in New Haven, Conn., led by Paul Douglas Valentine.
Total membership in all three groups is "probably less than 3,000," Melton says. Those followers are the true satanists, and their numbers haven't varied much in the last two decades, he says.
Many of the acts blamed on satanism are committed by teen-agers who are bound together by drugs and violence rather than demons. While they may use satanic imagery in their deeds, Melton says they are "play- acting" the role of worshipping the Prince of Darkness.
"It's true we're hearing a lot of satanic referneces in today's music, but that's pure commercialism," he says. "Just because your teenagergets wrapped up in certain rock'n'roll doesn't mean he's into the occult."
Some of the conclusions that support Melton's studies to combat the theory of international satanic conspiracy include:
* The existence of a large number of nonconventional religions that have nothing to do with occultism, much less satanism.
* The growth of Witchcraft as a new religion and how it is confused with satanism. Melton labels contemporary Wicca as a nature religion that places great emphasis upon the preservation of life and non- violence.
* Reports of cattle mutilations, which ignore the facts that most are mistaken observations of predator damage.
* The dicovery of common symbols, such as an inverted cross, pentagrams, and bloody altars, which lead investigators to conclude that satanic activity has taken place. However, no evidence of any conspiracy involving the kidnapping and transportation of children for ritual purposes has emerged.
* Fantasies of people who make "confessions" of their involvement on satanic cults. Typically, they cannot supply independent corroboration of the stories.
Moreover, a good portion of the mis-information on satanism - which Melton says is really a "parody of religion" - comes out of evangelical Christian publishing houses. With that bias, "it's easy to see how misinformation breeds," he says.
Melton contends that open satanic groups pose no public threat. If there is cause for concern, it would be the small, ephemeral satanic groups, mostly consisting of young adults or teenagers and possibly led by psychopaths or sociopaths.
"These are the groups that cause immediate danger to themselves and society at large. That's where police should be concentrating their efforts," he says. "In the meantime, we've got to get out of this satanic mentality and get our labels straight."