Benedict Atkins who used to be a satanist and is now a vicarRebecca Hendin / Getty / BBC Three

‘Satanism became my life’

Meet the devil worshipper turned 'hipster' vicar

Benedict Atkins

I first got into Satanism when I was 15. My parents are committed Christians and took my sisters and me to church when we were kids. A few years earlier, I had started hanging out at my local skate park in southwest London and listening to death metal bands. I'd gotten into alcohol and drugs, and lost my virginity at 12. It became a choice between hanging out with my friends in what I saw as the 'real world', or listening to Bible stories with my parents and colouring in pictures of Noah’s Ark. I chose rebellion.

My look at the time was 'full Emo' - I had a huge fringe that I perfected with my sister’s hair straighteners. I played guitar in a band with some friends - it was an easy way to get attention. I wore band T-shirts and even, occasionally, some ‘guyliner’. Sexuality is very fluid when you’re that age, so, if they asked, I would sometimes wear make-up to impress girls. 

One night I spotted The Satanic Bible at a mate’s house. I took it from his bookshelf and read the whole thing in one go. Written by the founder of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey, it has sold over a million copies since it was first published in 1969. I really connected with it. I was unhappy in my relationship with my then girlfriend and I was arguing a lot with my parents. Satanism seemed to acknowledge the pain and anger I was feeling.

The next day, I had a huge row with my mum, so I locked myself in my room and started carving a pentagram - the symbol of the Church of Satan - onto my arm. There was a lot of blood, but it didn’t deter me. I wanted to permanently scar my body.

People interpret it in different ways but, to me, Satanism was about loving yourself at the expense of others. In a philosophical sense, it’s actually got little to do with devil worship. Most Satanists believe in doing everything in their power to get what they want out of life. Indulging in desires such as sex, food, and booze is encouraged. It breeds selfishness within you, which is what makes it so dark - for yourself as well as those around you. Putting yourself first all the time, and not caring about others, is lonely.

Vicar Benedict AtkinsRebecca Hendin / Getty / BBC Three

But, at the time, I felt like the Christian God that I grew up with, who was meant to be good, didn't seem to care about my suffering. I was self-harming and rebelling with drink and drugs. My parent’s brand of suburban Christianity didn’t offer me any solace. It seemed to be all about pretending everything was fine; there was no room for darkness or controversy. So I rejected it.

Satanism gripped me. It became my life. I drew the pentagram on everything, from my school books to my body. My friends and my girlfriend were freaked out - they all thought I'd gone too far. I went from being pretty popular to having no friends.

Cutting myself was something I’d done on and off in the past. I’d stopped, but found myself starting again when my relationship got rocky.

Then one night I dreamt that Satan was standing at the end of my bed. He was well-dressed and well-spoken, like a character from a Sherlock Holmes film. He just stood there and said, ‘You’re going to finish your exams and then die’. I was like, ‘Oh shit - this is bad, I’m going to die before I even get to give up triple science’. So, I started making deals with Satan. If I stole things like booze from my parents, was honest with girls that I just wanted sex, or turned people against each other, then I got to live. I’d been quite a caring person until then, but I became horribly manipulative.

After a while, I started having terrible nightmares and realised I was getting quite disturbed. There was a moment when I asked myself, 'Am I really having a conversation with Satan?' My relationship with my girlfriend had fallen apart, I’d turned against my family, and lost a lot of friends. I felt totally isolated and like I had nobody to turn to except Satan. Then my exams were over - and I was still alive. Suddenly, it was clear to me that he was a liar.

Salvation came in an unlikely form. A friend of my sister’s, who happened to be the local vicar’s daughter, invited me to a Christian festival. It was a week-long event in the countryside. To be honest, I went because I thought there might be some hot girls there. But I was surprised to find that it was full of people who, like me, were unhappy with traditional Christianity. 

Vicar Benedict AtkinsRebecca Hendin / Getty / BBC Three

On the last night of the festival, I was listening to a talk about how to recognise when you’ve hit rock bottom when a stranger offered to pray for me. I didn’t know what to say so I agreed. While he was praying, I felt a sense of peace flood my body. Afterwards, the man said that even though I felt there was no hope in my life, God had a plan for me and Satan was a liar.

I went home feeling free and positive for the first time in ages. I decided to look at Christianity again, but not just accepting it unquestioningly, as I had been told to do before. I started hanging out with a few people I’d met at my parents’ church who, like me, weren't interested in just sitting down and listening to traditional sermons.

Slowly, I learned not to use people for money or sex, as Satanism had led me to. Rumours went around the skate park that I was a ‘born again’. Some of my friends were supportive, but it became hard to stay part of such a hedonistic scene. 

Sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll had been my coping mechanisms throughout my teens. It took me years to learn that you don't need those to feel good about yourself, and I slipped up on occasion. But I started going to church more regularly, and I felt increasingly like I belonged.

When I was 20, I met my wife, Sarah, through the church. We’ve been married for three years now. 

Vicar Benedict AtkinsRebecca Hendin / Getty / BBC Three

I never set out to be a vicar. I got a job in south London after college, working with dyslexic kids from local gangs. At the same time, I joined a new church in the area, and found myself being asked for advice by young members of the congregation about spiritual matters. I was like, 'Wow, this is quite a big responsibility'. I decided to do some proper studying, and took a Bible Studies degree at the University of Nottingham.

For the past 18 months, I’ve been a vicar in Canning Town, East London. I’ve decided not to wear a dog collar. I don’t see myself as a figure of authority - I’m a normal guy. In my neighbourhood, the dog collar would be a barrier. 

Our church has grown from a congregation of 5 to 50. I still wear an earring I bought from a hippy shop when I was 14, and I’ve just got a new tattoo (I had one already and would get more, but I think my wife would rather I spend my wages on a holiday!). There are plenty of tattoos in Canning Town, so I don’t particularly stand out here. 

When I think back to how scared and lost I was when I was a Satanist, it makes me determined to help people. That’s why I do this job. My name, Benedict, actually means blessing - I was born after a very difficult pregnancy which put both my life and mum’s at risk. In my darkest moments, I lost my sense of life being a blessing. Now, I just want to stay here in Canning Town until God decides it's time for me to move on, or I die.

As told to Serena Kutchinsky

If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article help and support is available here.

A Tattoo To Change Your Life - Satanism, Self-Harm & Me is on iPlayer

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This article was originally published on 11 April 2018