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Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Devil Wears Birkenstocks


The Satanic Temple appeared on our radar a few months ago after they requested to put a Satanic monument at the Oklahoma state Capitol.  This was in response to a 10 Commandments monument that had been placed there in 2012.  I only yesterday learned that I'd written about this 10 Commandments monument, or one like it, in Austin, Texas.  Between 1955 and 1985, over 150 of these monuments, each one the same, have been installed around the U.S. and Canada, privately funded by members of the public under the initiative of the Fraternal Order of Eagles.

The Temple of Satan do not worship the devil and if you look at them in terms of religious belief, I'm not even sure you can call them Satanists at all.  With their ethos of compassion and tolerance they sound more like, well....liberals.  They are different from the more "right Libertarian" stance of the Church of Satan (CoS), which at times veers towards Social Darwinism, by their own admission.  Some say LaVey himself began espousing this point of view to some extent under the influence of Boyd Rice, whose Social Darwinist beliefs have hovered around outright fascism, if only in an "aesthetic" sense.  That would be wrong; The Satanic Bible is based largely on a tome called Might is Right, which advocates amorality and denies natural rights, arguing instead that right is only established by force and power.  A 2003 reprint of this book featured an introduction by LaVey.  As for fascism, I don't think LaVey was one, but later Church of Satan publications such as The Black Flame do have an undeniably fascist aesthetic.  There's a fascistic undercurrent to a lot of the Satanic musical underground, again at least in an aesthetic sense.  While there's nothing to say LaVey was an outright fascist there's nothing in his world view that contradicts it either.

Satanic Temple leader Lucien Greaves addresses this directly in a Vice interview, in which he extols cooperation over competition, communalism over rugged individualism. He contrasts the Temple to LaVey:

We also find that Social Darwinism, interpreted in brutal, strictly self-interested terms, is counter-productive, and based on a simplistic misinterpretation of evolutionary theory. We do better when we work in groups, where altruism and compassion are rewarded. We are social animals.

For what it's worth, could this be described in part as a Left/Right divergence in atheistic Satanism?  That atheistic part is important; the Temple and the Church use Satan as a symbol, or metaphor.  They are working with Satan not as an entity, as do CoS offshoot the Temple of Set, but as an archetype.

For their part, the CoS has taken a dim view of the Temple, wondering if they're merely a media-hungry activist organization.  We're of the opinion that they are more than this.  What they are may not be religious, but they do have coherent set of ethical principles.

The Satanic Temple's monument is earnest, but it's hard to say exactly what the Temple's goals are.  Mocking Christians doesn't seem to be the point, just one of the tools.  They don't seem to be your typical atheist activist, either, who merely want the monument removed.  Let's consider however that the proposal is a tactic to have the Commandments removed.  We could imagine a scenario in which the refusal to accept the Satanic monument would lead to a court case and that instead of accepting a monument which is bound to offend the majority of Oklahomans, the Capitol will be left with no choice but to remove the 10 Commandments.  But if this were the case, the Temple wouldn't have successfully raised the 200,000 dollars it took to get their Baphomet cast in bronze.  Greaves has argued that Commandments shouldn't be there, but as long as they are, other traditions must also be represented.

The monument, though a goal in itself, also seems to be part of a wider effort to engage the culture in a discussion (pardon the "teaching moment" language, but it's appropriate) about religion's role in our everyday lives, especially what one commentator calls "Christian privilege."  States erect Nativities and prayers are said before government meetings all the time and this is considered "normal".  But are other religious groups afforded the same vehicle of state-sanctioned expression?  The Temple's actions over the course of this first Semester on 2014 have squarely addressed the 1st amendment.  They have not only tested the limits of freedom of speech and religion, but have tried to find at what point the separation of Church of State is compromised and the degree to which it has been compromised in the United States.  This in turn would lead to the question that while the U.S. does have a pretty good, albeit patchy record on freedom of religious expression, how good have we scored on the side of freedom from religion?

After reading about the Oklahoma thing, I figured this would all fade away.  But the Temple is media savvy and keeps garnering headlines.  Their next action, at least that we heard of, was a "pink mass" to be held at the grave of Pastor Fred Phelps of the Westboro "God Hates Fags" Baptist Church.  Brilliant move; even the KKK thinks Phelps was out of line and a total mockery of his life probably wouldn't incense too many people.  The plan was that while Phelps spun around like a top 6 feet below, two homosexual couples would engage in some passionate kissing and then they would proclaim that the ceremony had turned Fred gay.  Come to think of it, when they did the same thing to Phelps' mother in the Summer of 2013, that was the first time we'd actually heard of the Temple; when the monument came up we didn't immediately realize it was the same group.

That's certainly pushing the boundaries of good taste, even if it was for an asshole like Phelps.  Again, these media-savvy publicity stunts open up a host of questions about the limits of free speech.  I read in a recent interview that police threatened to arrest Greaves if he ever returned to their jurisdiction, where the pink mass was held.  But was the pink mass any more offensive than the sight of the Phelps family with placards at a soldier's funeral, telling the grieving friends and family that God was happy for their dead child?  It's an interesting debate; would a Christian get away with desecrating a funeral in the name of their religion, while a Satanist doing the same thing, of sorts, get arrested?

The only thing that protects people who would deny the same rights to the Satanic Temple is their belief that the Temple is not, in fact, a religion.  But this assumes the only groups that have a right to erect monuments celebrating certain ethical or even spiritual values are religious ones.  In other words, freedom of religion applies to those who proclaim no religion at all.

The next time I heard of these guys was only a few weeks ago, when they were intending to perform a Black Mass in connection with a Harvard cultural activity.  The Temple was roundly condemned by the Church and the event was ultimately not held on campus, but in a restaurant for a restricted audience.  A lot of articles (such as this one) lamenting this fact came out afterwards, basically asking the same question we've raised in connection with the Temple's other activities:  Where does freedom of speech end?  Is there a double standard?

This article in Salon claims pope Francis was involved in the matter personally, crediting this to his old school approach to the Devil as an actual entity who directs hordes of minions to influence people and everyday events.  Francis has been seen as a progressive and conciliatory figure to gays, atheists, Muslims...but his way of talking about the Devil is definitely medieval.  The Salon article, incidentally, links to an article I'd linked to on the LoS Facebook page, which discusses not only Fraces' viewpoint, but that of Catholics worldwide, who believe in possession and exorcisms and whose needs have apparently spurred the Vatican to train more exorcists.  This article goes on to quote an exorcist who claims to have felt Satan's presence on an airplane, from two lesbians behind him.  One began growling at him and pelted him with peanuts.  Fortunately for the priest those bags are small.

Another article on that conference says

The decline of religious belief in the West and the growth of secularism has “opened the window” to black magic, Satanism and belief in the occult, the organisers of a conference on exorcism have said.

I wonder to what degree, if any, the Temple has influenced that conversation.  Interesting that our exorcist felt Satan's presence in lesbians; kind of like Phelps, actually.  Greaves seems to be saying, ok, really, gays are Satan's spawn?  OK, you want gay Satanists?  We'll give you gay Satanists!  Then cut to cemetery:  gay men and women kissing over Phelps' grave, making him gay like the Mormons baptize the dead.  Which is in itself another layer of the onion.  How vociferously can a Mormon, for example, ridicule the idea of "gaying" the dead without starting to stammer on his words?

The Satanic Temple completely rejects the supernatural, but they are arrayed against forces who believe anything but.  Their Black Mass provides a keen insight.  In addition to the article about the "old school" pope and the exorcist conference, on May 12, WaPo published yet another story about Gabriel Amorth, the Vatican's most prolific exorcist.  He has plenty of work.  Amid this flurry of discussion about some of the most medieval-sounding artifacts of Christianity, such as demons, the devil and demonic possession, comes an atheist group to perform a Black Mass and they are roundly condemned and forced to abort.  A Pyrrhic victory at best, for the Temple has shown that despite or perhaps because of their aborted plan, they actually have a kind of power.  Catholics and Protestants alike weren't merely offended by the proposed Black Mass, they were scared.

Post Script

In the course of writing this article, we read about other Satanic Temple projects that we hadn't heard about before taking a closer look at their activities.  One of these is to adopt a stretch of highway in New York.  You've probably seen the signs, naming a group that has volunteered to keep the road litter free.  Usually these are churches, fraternal organization, what have you.  But over the years more controversial groups have applied for the program.  We seem to remember a kerfuffle some years back when a KKK group wanted to adopt a road.  Which leads to the question, can the state refuse to allow a legally-established group to participate in a public program, even if that group is controversial or offensive to the majority of local residents?  It's a free speech issue, great publicity (not free though, the Temple was crowd-sourcing to raise the estimate 10k required) and is humorous...a Satanic group picking up litter and planting flowers?  One thing perhaps we've neglected in this post is the Temple's sense of humor, which has lead some to question whether or not they're serious.  Why can't they be both?  Greaves actually asks this very same question in the Vice interview, come to think of it.


Being at once serious and humorous is perhaps best illustrated by their rally in Tallahassee back in January, 2013.  This rally was in response to Governor Rick Scott's support for Senate Bill 98, which opens the door for “a district school board to adopt a policy that allows an inspirational message to be delivered by students at a student assembly; providing policy requirements; providing purpose, etc.”  Many saw this as a blatant attempt to allow prayer in school, predominantly Christian prayer.  The Temple went to town with it and held a rally on the capitol steps with banners reading "Hail Rick Scott!  Hail Satan!"  They certainly couldn't have expected these action to actually help Scott, so what was the point?  According to Greaves, it was genuine support because it would allow Satanic children to spread their message freely at school activities and attract new "minions".  But this seems like a bit of a jest.  Did they in fact hope that the majority would capitulate and retract the bill once they realized they had opened the floodgates to any kind of prayer in school?  Or do they, again, want to raise questions about Christian privilege and the role it plays in our lives?  It does lead to the question that if these "inspirational messages" are allowed, who will get to deliver them?  Catholics and Protestants should have no worries.  A Jewish kid is probably safe.  But will a Muslim kid be allowed to lead a meeting with a prayer?  A Hindu or Buddhist?  What about a Wiccan?  What about a Satanist?

In the recent Oklahoma controversy, one lawmaker stated that since he didn't consider Satanism a valid religion, he didn't feel their request for a monument need be approved.  So again, what constitutes a religion?  We at LoS are quite open on the matter, generally supportive of New Religious Movements' (usually called "cults") claims to be a valid religion.  What is a religion basically but a cult that has succeeded?  A "religion" is just a cult with more money, more followers and more years behind it.  If you want to look at a group of cultists with all the negative connotations of that word--charismatic leader, cut off from society and family, at odds with the political and spiritual mores of the time--one only need look at early Christianity, no?  How many families has that little cult torn asunder?

That said, I'm not sure the Satanic Temple does qualify as a religion.  If anything, they sound like typical secular humanists, with a rational worldview and an emphasis on compassion and free expression.   Thing is, do they really see themselves as a religion, or are they using the term for the special protection it provides under the law?  The long quote by Greaves at the end of this post addresses exactly that.  We can't say if they're a religion or not.  For us here at LoS, ultimately the answer to the question lies in this:  Whether or not we recognize them as a religion is only important so far as the law applies to that status, such as tax exemption and other administrative matters.  If they say they are on a spiritual path, who's to say they're wrong?  One person can't validate or deny the spiritual beliefs of another.  Which is, we think, part of the Temple's point.  If you're going to allow groups to adopt highways, pray in schools or erect monuments, you either have to put up or shut up; the Consitution and legal precedent are clear:  either everyone gets to play, or no one does.  Or at least, cut the crap about the Constitution and cut the hypocrisy.  Recognize that Christian privilege exits and that you're all for it.  Admit that you think the Constitution may be wrong.  Unfortunately, that wouldn't stop us from hearing some Christians whinge about being persecuted every time someone complains about the impropriety of promoting their religion on state property.  Personally, crosses, nativities and Ten Commandments (and remember, there are 150 of them!) don't bother us, but it would be refreshing if the Christians would at least admit their privileged position.

I for one would like to see a Baphomet in every Capitol city in America, but I'm not holding my breath.  For one thing, many people believe these kinds of things are not jokes at all, but real conduits for demonic forces to enter the earth.  The Satanic Temple may be joking, but that doesn't mean their opponents don't take them seriously; they are afraid of the Temple and their fear can be an enormous source of power.  It may well be that their opponents take them more seriously as a religion than the Temple itself!

The Satanic Temple was actually conceived of independent from me by a friend and one of his colleagues. They envisioned it more as a “poison pill” in the Church/State debate. The idea was that Satanists, asserting their rights and privileges where religious agendas have been successful in imposing themselves upon public affairs, could serve as a poignant reminder that such privileges are for everybody, and can be used to serve an agenda beyond the current narrow understanding of what “the” religious agenda is. So at the inception, the political message was primary, though it was understood that there are, in fact, self-identified Satanists who live productive lives within the boundaries of the law, and that they do deserve just as much consideration as any other religious group....I helped develop us into something we all do truly believe in and wholeheartedly embrace: an atheistic philosophical framework that views “Satan” as a metaphorical construct by which we contextualize our works. We’ve moved well beyond being a simple political ploy and into being a very sincere movement that seeks to separate religion from superstition and to contribute positively to our cultural dialogue. To this end, I am very much an activist.

-- Lucien Greaves

2 comments:

  1. Hum, I wrote a piece critical of the recovered memory/Satanic Ritual Abuse some time ago and finished by quoting one Doug Mesner, concluding "Hear! Hear! Doug!" I just realized that Mesner and Greaves are the same person...so cool, at least I've been consistent with this guy. For my article about Jimmy Savile and SRA: see Savile Row

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  2. Colbert does an amusing bit on the Baphomet monument: Here

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