In C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, the Calormene villain Rishda cynically worships and promotes the human-sacrifice god Tash for political gain but doesn’t believe he is real. Eventually, to Rishda’s horror and surprise, Tash shows up, seizes him, and is then banished from Narnia in the name of Aslan. As he leaves, Tash takes with him the suddenly believing Rishda, who is most likely eaten.
This is somewhat of a recurring theme in Lewis’ fiction. Think of the N.I.C.E. scientists in That Hideous Strength, strict materialists who think that through their technology they have reanimated a severed head and created “god.” They worship the thing, which isn’t actually animated by their technology but by demonic forces, and eventually turn on one another in a murderous spasm when the demon commands them, “Give me another head.”
Lewis’ point is that cynically dabbling in the demonic is no shield from the danger such dabbling inevitably brings. That point came to mind Friday when I saw a post on X, formerly Twitter, about Doja Cat’s music video for her latest single, “Demons.” The video features Christina Ricci as a new homeowner who quickly discovers the place is haunted by a demonic, black-clad Doja Cat, replete with horns, sharp claws, spiked tail, and glowing red eyes.
Everything about the video, right down to the font of the title cards, exudes a self-consciously ironic, throwback vibe. It’s not meant to be scary, exactly, more like a tongue-in-cheek indulgence in demonry that mocks the “satanic panic” of the ‘80s and ‘90s and revels in satanic imagery. It’s not that much different than what a chubby, horn-clad Sam Smith did at the Grammy Awards earlier this year, or Lil Nas X did in that video where he gave Satan a lap dance before killing him and taking his throne.
There’s a decades-long long history of this sort of thing in pop culture, of which these younger artists are likely well aware. What they’re doing isn’t new, and in our post-Christian society it certainly isn’t transgressive — maybe it’s not meant to be. The aim here is perhaps not to shock, but to entice.
The comment I saw on X was from an anonymous account, @Antweegonus, who noted in reference to the Doja Cat video that “overt celebration of the demonic can be understood as evidence of a particular, predictable phenomenon that takes place during late stage decline.” Materialism, he says, can for a time be used as a way to explain away and deny the reality of the spiritual world, but in the end “strict materialism is inevitably found insufficient, discarded, and replaced with a sinister neospiritualism.”
Lewis had a name for the kind of modern man who would embrace this sinister neospiritualism. He called him the “materialist magician.” In his 1942 epistolatory novel The Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape addresses a question from his nephew Wormwood about “whether it is essential to keep the patient in ignorance of your own existence.” The question, Screwtape says, “at least for the present phase of the struggle, has been answered for us by the High Command.”
Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. Of course this has not always been so. We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and sceptics. At least, not yet. I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalise and mythologise their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, belief in us, (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy. The “Life Force,” the worship of sex, and some aspects of Psychoanalysis, may here prove useful. If once we can produce our perfect work — the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls “Forces” while denying the existence of “spirits” — then the end of the war will be in sight.
The goal here is to produce a man who is both a good materialist and also a good pagan. Lewis was of course on to something, because this precisely describes our present moment, when #WitchTok influencers hawk potions and spells out of one side of their mouth and spout off about the “science” of climate change and transgenderism out of the other. Indeed, both the transgender and climate change movements, among other leftist causes, are largely premised on an unstable admixture of materialist and spiritualist worldviews.
It’s not quite right, then, to chalk up all of this seeming demon-worship in pop culture to mere nihilism. The materialist magicians of our time are gradually shedding their cynical, 20th-century materialism and embracing the notion of a spiritual realm that touches our physical one. As they do so, they will become more overt about their belief in “forces” while denying the existence of “spirits.” You can see manifestations of this worldview not just in ironic pop culture products like Doja Cat’s music video but among AI researchers, who increasingly talk about what they’re doing in theological or spiritual terms — “creating god,” as former Google executive Mo Gawdat put it.
The danger here is that pure objective materialism eventually collapses in on itself, and what emerges is what we’re seeing now, all around us: a radical subjectivism that rejects all notions of right or wrong, good or bad, but is guided instead by mere appetite and desire. To quote Lewis (again), “When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.”
That’s not just a recipe for the ruin of our civilization, it heralds a new pagan epoch in which an entire society of materialist magicians, like the scientists of N.I.C.E. or the grinning pop stars of today, emotionalize and mythologize science and reason, largely unaware they are actually in thrall to something much worse than their appetites — something that, like Tash, will eat them in the end.