Sunday, June 29, 2014

Ouija Board, Ouija Board

Here's another little anecdote for your reading pleasure.  When I was in High School I became very interested in the occult.  I still have a handful of paperbacks I bought at that time.  Gavin and Yvonne Frost's The Magic Power of Witchcraft, Eden Grey's Mastering the Tarot, The Satanic Bible, Necronomicon, etc.  Lightweight shit but at the time I felt it was something dangerous to even have in the house.  I still occasionally read the Tarot cards I bought during this period (Rider-Waite, natch!).  But I didn't bring another relic of that time with me when I moved to France.  Somewhere back at my mom's house, packed in with a bunch of my old junk, is a Parker Brothers Ouija board.

Perhaps the most mysterious thing about the Ouija board (except why we pronounced it "wee-gee") is that Parker Brothers still makes this thing.  People are genuinely scared of these pieces of cardboard and plastic and I'm surprised Parker Brothers risks getting boycotted over something so widely reviled and feared.  My own experiences with them has been less than overwhelming.

Except once.

Would you work for me?

A friend and I, a budding Catholic occultist, decided to try and contact something one afternoon using the accursed board.  To help facilitate the process, we lit an incense cone and then four candles, one in each corner of my room, corresponding to the corners of the board.  We sat in the center of the room, placed our hands on the planchette and began asking it questions.  Eventually, the planchette began to move.

Is there a spirit present. Yes.

Are you in the room?  Yes.

Can you prove it?  Yes.

How?  No answer.

Can you put out one of the candles?  Yes.

Which one?  The candle moved towards my right, at the bottom of the board.

We waited.  Nothing happened.

Should we concentrate on the candle to help you?  Yes.

Still nothing.  After a few minutes, we gave up.

Just as we were lifting our hands from the planchette, we both nearly jumped to the ceiling as a candle sizzled and popped, one might say violently.  Our heads jerked in unison to look at the candle, which was kind of sparking and doing a jig, a good 6 or so feet from where we sat.  It was, of course, the candle to which the board had pointed.

Hearts pounding, we looked at each other, then back at the candle, which at this point had settled down.  I got up and walked towards it.  As I approached, I reached out my hand and the flame simply died, as if it had been sucked into the wick.  It didn't flicker as if it had been blown out and when the flame was gone, it didn't smoke.

Shaken, we packed up the Ouija board and left the room.

So at this point, you might expect me to be a believer.  Alas, I am not.

How can this be so? you might ask.  Wasn't this proof?

Occam's Razor

Nope.  Later, I recalled that the night before I had lit the candle, but had extinguished it not by blowing it out, but by spraying it with a spritzer I used to water plants.

It's clear to me now that what had happened is that a drop of water had cooled some of the wax and become trapped inside it, a ball of water encased at the bottom of the waxen pool which then cooled and hardened above it.  As the candle burned away this wax, the drop of water become hot until the point it boiled and exploded, thus the pop and spark.  The water then entered the wick, which only burned a few seconds more until this damp part of the wick extinguished the flame in such an strange-seeming manner.

So, for a moment, I was a bit frightened by something unexplainable, seeming physical proof that a spirit had done what it said it would, that is to say, put out the candle it indicated.  I soon remembered what I'd done and the mystery was explained.

For me, whenever I hear a convincing tale of ghosts, UFO's and ESP, things of this sort, I always think of this Ouija experience, that behind every unexplained event lies a perfectly rational explanation.  I keep an open mind nonetheless, but I am certainly not a believer.  Just because we cannot think of or find an explanation for paranormal phenomena, it doesn't mean there isn't one.  It doesn't mean there is one, either.  But the burden of proof is on those who believe.

Controlled experiments in dowsing, Zener cards and Ouija boards invariably show that the results are always statistically consistent with random guessing.  A veterinarian friend of mine once told me that a professor told her class about a pain relief experiment on humans using aspirin (or perhaps paracetamol, I'm not sure which), a placebo and acupuncture.  What researchers found was that the success rate for all three was statistically the same.  Which means that acupuncture works just as well as an aspirin.  Which indicates, to me anyway, that a person's expectation of success is a potent factor in pain relief.  If we believed rubbing a feather on our foreheads is an effective headache cure, it would least as well as an aspirin works.

Possessed in Mexico

I remembered this story while reading about three American kids who were hospitalized after playing with a Ouija board in Mexico. Minutes into the game one of them began growling and thrashing about, in a trance. The other two began hallucinating after experiencing blindness and deafness.

According to doctors

"They had involuntary movements and it was difficult to transfer them to the nearest hospital because they were so erratic.

It appeared as if they were in a trance-like state, apparently after playing with the Ouija board.

They spoke of feeling numbness, double vision, blindness, deafness, hallucinations, muscle spasm and difficulty swallowing."

He added that whether the trio were really possessed, or had simply convinced themselves that they were, was not for doctors to comment on.

So, they were either faking it or this is a case of collective hysteria. I also wonder if the trio had taken too many magic mushrooms. Their symptoms sound like sensations that can be produced during a strong psilocybin trip. Come to think of it, it also sounds a lot like what a friend told me about his experience with Datura and what other friends have told me regarding ketamine. Never having tried these latter two, I cannot say. Their symptoms could easily have been created by the drug and their minds' attempts to deal with what was happening to them, influenced by their own beliefs about the results of using a Ouija board: possession.

Dose, Set and Setting

Even experienced occultists sound dire warnings about messing with Ouija boards and the internet is rife with tales, real or invented, about weird things happening with their use.  A 2012 survey of American registered voters indicated 57% of those polled expressed a belief in demonic possession.  Even given that surveys are imperfect tools, we can still imagine a good many people believe in possession.  More educated people tend to vote more; so among the rest of the population, the non-voting part, we could expect a corresponding increase in less-educated people, and thus a probably even higher level of belief in possession.

Interestingly, even a study of the Bible reveals that "victims of demon-possession appear to be from the less well-educated and lower socio-economic ranges of Jewish and Gentile society".  This may explain why these polls show Republicans have significantly higher rate of belief in possession than Democrats, as Democratic states also tend to be more highly educated.  Which, as Business Insider points out, doesn't mean that education creates Democrats, but that liberal states tend to spend more on education and thus, have a more highly-educated citizenry.

So, the point of all this, is that these kids almost certainly weren't possessed, but their socio-economic status and their milieu helped create the conditions that led them to think they were.  Unless they were faking it, their expectations were strong determining factors in the outcome of their intoxicated experiment with the Ouija Board.  That and the fact they were tripping balls.  Timothy Leary said three things influence the result of any drug experience: set, setting and dose.  This would be a textbook-worthy case study to show how Leary's theory played out in actual subjects.

Penn and Teller do an interesting show on the Ouija Board as part of their Bullshit! series.  One thing they do is turn is 180° after participants are blindfolded.  As one would expect, the planchette continues to go where users expect "Yes" and "No" to be....


I told you so

OK, I feel vindicated now. Some enterprising journalist visited one of the possessed, a girl in the rural Mexican village where she, an orphan, resides with her guardians.  Apparently the area has a strong tradition of shamanism and her guardians advised her to use the shamanic drug and the board to contact her dead parents. The drug: Brugsmansia, aka Angel's Trumpet. In other words, Datura.  (Honest folks, I came to this conclusion before I read it in the article I cite in this paragraph). Hard to imagine a more ideal set of parameters that would lead a kid to believe they were being possessed. Dead parents and one would imagine a strong desire to contact them, an adult-sanctioned recommendation that drugs and Ouija boards could achieve this, community belief in shamanism and the spirit world....

One of the guardians is still worried the kid may still be possessed, for you see, despite the fact the kids had taken a drug known to produce the effects they experienced, the adults around them still believe they were in fact possessed by demons. Which is probably a greater threat to her mental health than any lingering effects of her very bad trip. Superstition and belief in the occult can be toxic and dangerous, as we have seen with the bad psychology surrounding Satanic Ritual Abuse and the whole idea of repressed and recovered memories. I indirectly addressed this in a recent article about The Satanic Temple. Seriously, these kids, orphans no less, are surrounded by people who made the bad decision to recommend using a drug even many experienced psychonauts won't mess about with and who continue to express their fear they still may be possessed; we're looking at a form of child endangerment. Just like belief in acupuncture can actually reduce pain, belief in demons can actually lead to "possession". It's no coincidence most Catholic exorcists are first trained psychologists and generally only use exorcism as a last resort, and even then probably as a form of therapeutic psychodrama than in any belief they're casting out actual demons.

In some cases, religion is just a more codified and socially acceptable expression of the basest superstition. I've personally seen people speaking in tongues and being slain in the Spirit, and it wasn't glorious, it was disturbing and a little frightening. It was if the people around me had been turned into thoughtless conduits of mass insanity. I remember once hearing about the apocalypse and the end of the world....I was camping with the Boy Scouts, quite young, looking into the fire, I can see it now and still recall how terrifying and traumatic it felt, almost certainly part of what makes me so pessimistic today. I'll say it: religion can be a form of child abuse...what is that expression? The sleep of reason produces monsters?

"....demented, corrupt, and ripe for ridicule."

Friday, June 27, 2014

Saturday Night Fever

Here’s a little coincidence I found interesting.  A couple years ago I went to a clandestine restaurant, an occasional dinner an acquaintance puts on for friends and strangers in his amazing medieval-era cellar.  25 Euros for the entrée, main dish, dessert, digestif and all you care to drink in beer and wine.

And you can smoke -- for a cellar it's well-ventilated!

The cuisine was Haitian creole and as part of the fun, guests were asked to dress up according to a "Voodoo" theme.  (I use the less academic but popular spelling throughout this post).  I decided to dress up as Baron Samedi.  Baron Samedi is a Loa, or spirit, a kind of  "leader" of the Ghede family of Loa.  The Ghede are a boisterous bunch:  hard-drinking, foul-mouthed and lusty, they govern matters of fertility, and death.  There are other Barons (La Croix, Cimitière, Kriminel), but it's sometimes unclear if they are separate incarnations or merely aspects of Samedi.  Peu importe.  Samedi is the best-known and clearly the most important.

The Baron is usually depicted dressed in a black tuxedo and top hat, dark glasses and cotton plugs in his nose.  He often carries a cane.  Basically the dress of a 19th-century aristocrat....or corpse; his face is often skeletal, if not an outright skull.

For my costume, I dressed up in a black suit and decorated a black cane with a crucifix and pair of small antlers, then painted my face and hands to have a skeletal appearance.

But for the hat, all I could produce was my brown fedora.  So, imagine my surprise when I turned to Wikipedia while waiting for my wife to get ready.

More recently an unknown, light-skinned, dark-haired young man has been associated with Baron Samedi. Holding true to tradition he is seen only on Saturday after the sun has set, wearing a fitted dark suit. He sticks to the party lifestyle of drinking, smoking, dancing and sex, affiliated with the Baron.  The only real difference seen in this new adaptation is that instead of his usual top hat, he is never seen without a fedora.

I’m a light-skinned young man, it was Saturday night, I was dressed in a fitted black suit, wore a fedora and I was off for a dinner which would include lots of drinking and smoking, possible dancing and hopefully, sex.

I was amused and to be honest, not flipped out, but a little puzzled.  Given the circumstances, this was meaningful.  I didn't expect a description that justified my departure from the standard iconography.  What finally flipped me out was that when I finally got around to recounting this little anecdote -- two years later -- I went back to Wicker-podium and was surprised to see that the reference no longer was there!  The young man in dark suit and fedora was gone.

Luckily, Wicked-pantaloons keeps a record of an article's entire history.  I had to convince myself I hadn't imagined the whole thing.  What follows is a brief summary of the citation.  It began on March 5th, 2012, when an unknown user wrote

More recently the image of a dark haired young man has been associated with Baron Samedi.

This evolved into the longer description quoted above within a few minutes.

On March 15th, the description was calibrated a bit, but the essence was the same.  Like on the 5th, the user was anonymous; the IP address was different and might have been a different person tidying up some grammar.  Maybe it was the same person.  For both users, the only contributions were to the Baron Samedi article.

But a short time later, May 5th, the text was removed with the comment “somebody’s idea of a joke”.

On June 27th, a third (or second, or the same) anonymous user whose only contributions are to Baron Samedi, wrote

However more recently he has been portrayed rather differently. Now the the image of a dark-haired, light-skinned young man is seen as Baron Samedi. This new adaptation stays true to tradition wearing a fitted dark suit, but there are differences. The dark glasses, nasal voice and cotton plugs have been removed. Replaced with slight facial hair and and earring on his left ear. The most notable change, Baron Samedi seems to have traded in his top hat for a fedora.

(This isn’t the version I noticed, and I have neither slight facial hair nor an earring).

On July 25th this was removed in turn: “removed removed newer portrayal because there is no citation for this image of the Baron”

On July 28th the same text was added back in. (A 4th anonymous IP dealing only with Samedi).

On the 30th another user removed it, saying “Revert when you have a source for this nonsense”

It was again added on August 9th by a 5th anonymous user.  Again, the user’s only concern on Wikipedia was Baron Samedi.

Finally, it was removed on September 1st with the comment “there is no material available to suggest the addition is factual. if you wish to readd it, cite a source."

OK, so this is all a fascinating look at a minor revert war.  What’s interesting (to me) is that it seemed to describe me pretty well and I happened upon it during the few months it appeared.  Not so strange I suppose, given my interest in Voodoo and a few months is a pretty large window.  That said, the version I saw, which didn’t include details that would have made it less descriptive of me at that moment, was only online for part of that period.  I also found it amusing that a person (or persons) found it important enough to keep re-adding their own description over a period of 6 months, apparently vigilant enough to notice it had been removed within a few days to a month afterwards.

Writing this out and reading back over it, it all seems so trifling.  It was a mere coincidence; but given the association with Voodoo, it had some resonance and stuck in my memory.  If this had happened to a more impressionable soul, a better poet maybe, it might have been a magickal sign, an invitation to ride the snake, a personal Loa revealed....

Another part of this story is that three months prior to this dinner, drinking with cousins, we joked about how I was the Baron of Fondemenge and, for a brief time, including during this period, these cousins would write to me as “Baron”….

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Aucamville Project 13: Accursed Houses

Aucamville has been around a long time.  Bronze coins found here attest to a Gallo-Roman presence.  I'm not sure exactly if this is early or late Gallo-Roman, but if we just leave it in the air we can still safely say the village is between 1500 and 2000 years old!

Who know what weird things have gone down in these past two millennia?  Is it at all surprising that the village features at least one haunted house?  What surprises me is that there aren't more legends of hauntings and weird happenings.

The house isn't actually tilted, the spirits have fuggered the image!
This house was apparently used as a barracks by the German Army during the occupation.  It's a grand house and now in a total state of decay.  It's quite dangerous and threatens to collapse into its large basement any time now.  I'm surprised I hadn't heard of this until just the other day, but apparently villagers swear it's haunted.  No apparitions or cold gusts of wind, though.  Just the sound of boots, dead German soldiers, tramping through the ruins.  I've cruised by this place in the dead of night, three sheets to the wind and haven't heard any tramping boots.  Just one latched shutter somehow got open and hasn't budged since.  But rest assured!  I'm on the case, Egon.

And there is another house, which isn't said to be haunted....but to my mind it is.  Just across the road from where I live there is a handsome house which has been empty since I moved here in 2007.  It's progressively fallen into greater disrepair; in 2005 there was a fire and for a short while some people seemed to be actively dismantling it, although that seems to have ceased.  It used to be a rather elegant tavern named the "auberge de Tail"  but people now call it the "Auberge Rouge" or "Red Tavern."  "Red" as in "Blood"....

L'Auberge Rouge
The full story is a bit hazy, but for an unknown period of time a homeless guy by the name of Georges Haurdine lived and worked at the auberge.  Proprietor Altobella Capelleri had lured him to the auberge with promises of work, room, and board, but neglected to mention the regular beatings.  Described as "slow", Haurdine was exploited by Capelleri, and through a combination of intimidation and violence she was able to keep him like a slave.  Apparently a "family friend" was filmed raping him on several occasions and there were even rumors of sadistic parties involving public officials, but that seems par for the course in France.  Not the parties, but the rumors.  Not so surprising when you consider that this is the country which gave us Gilles de Rais and the Marquis de Sade.  Unlike Gilles de Rais, however, these tales were (probably) either deliberately fabricated to smear the political class or got mixed up in the popular imagination with the "Affaire Alègre" in which Toulousain serial killer Patrice Alègre claimed he organised S+M orgies for public officials and killed on their instructions to cover things up.  Eyes Wide Shut, wot?

Mr Haurdin's body was never found.  As the story goes he was beaten and left for dead by Capelleri herself.  She then had her husband and son bring the body to the pigs, then afterward to a well, where it lay rotting for 6 months.  Unhappy with the progress of decomposition, they retrieved the body, burnt it in the tavern's kitchen chimney and then disposed of the ashes in various trashcans throughout Toulouse.

Maybe the house isn't haunted....but I certainly am....

An earlier article with a few remarks on the Capelleri story.

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