Regardless of belief, the name conjures an instant emotional reaction. The Biblical story of the angel’s fall is known throughout the world, and the image of his horned visage is etched deeply into our cultural subconscious, a complex symbol carrying with it the ideas of rebellion, evil, death, and torment.
Amongst those who believe in a spiritual world, Satan is feared and reviled as the enemy of God, and is considered the co-author of the world’s evils, guiding humankind’s hand as it writes its own tale of suffering with a blood-tipped pen. Any who align themselves with Satan are seen as pariahs in league with evil incarnate.
One group seeks to subvert that belief.
The Satanic Temple, founded by Lucien Greaves and Malcolm Jarry in 2014, has chapter groups throughout the country. A fully organized, atheistic religion, The Satanic Temple actively participates in public affairs, seeking to, as their mission statement reads, “Encourage benevolence and empathy among all people.” The group, among several other campaigns, seeks to organize After School Satan Clubs, much to the dismay of parents, community leaders, and the media.
The organization doesn’t actually promote worship of a supernatural devil, but rather rejects supernaturalism, using the imagery of Satan in the literary sense and as a metaphorical construct representing the rejection of all forms of tyranny. The After School Satan Club exists only in response to the Christian-based Good News Club.
Their emphasis? That multiple perspectives must always be allowed in the public arena.
But the question is this: why? Why would any organization appropriate satanic mythology and imagery to achieve its goals, when that imagery is so heavily weighted down with the baggage of two thousand years of association with evil?
It was this question, amongst others, that I put to co-founder and national spokesperson of The Satanic Temple, Lucien Greaves, in a telephone interview. So without further delay, let’s step inside the Satanic Temple and learn more about its mission, its methods, and what it might have to say about society and religion.
“For so I created them free and free they must remain.”
― John Milton, Paradise Lost
I’ve often thought that all activism is rooted in a dissatisfaction of some kind. What is the purpose of the Satanic Temple? What are you dissatisfied with?
“I would say activism is more rooted in a vision of a better world or a better culture. That necessarily implies that things aren’t as good as they could be, but I don’t see it entirely in the negative. We have to always work to maintain what we’re doing right, and work to fix that which we see as being wrong.
Essentially, The Satanic Temple stands for democratic purposes and pluralism, and we feel we stand for true religious liberty, and we want to see those things upheld so that no one voice becomes dominant in this dialogue and that the roots of theocracy never set in.”
It seems the goals of the Satanic Temple are altruistic, but the media seems to paint the organization as disruptive. Why the disparity?
“It’s shocking to see an alternative religious group outside of the mainstream asserting the same type of religious rights that have been taken for granted by mostly Evangelical Christian conservative groups.
And so I think the fact that it strikes people as very bombastic, and that whether it frightens them or makes them laugh, they think that the ultimate purpose of it is mere pranksterism or whatever else. But it’s usually our opposition that tries to color us as being disruptive or putting out some kind of malicious message or simply targeting individuals for their faith or whatever else. Those are usually criticisms of convenience.
Most recently we saw that coming out of Liberty Counsel. We’re doing our After School Satan Club program and it was Liberty Counsel that really fought to open the door to religious organizations being able to come into schools and do what we’re doing. So Liberty Counsel, trying not to seem like hypocrites, in their mission for religious liberty, which they claim to uphold, are still fighting against our presence in schools, fighting against us having equal access to public resources and facilities. They then speak to our intentions, and start putting out this propaganda thing that our only intention is to disrupt and mock and spread discontent and all the rest.”
How was the idea for The Satanic Temple conceived?
“Well, for me, it started really with the satanic canon. In the 80s and 90s, when I was a kid, there were these stories—and these were prevalent notions—there were these stories of Satanic cults and spirits that have these kind of global implications and that have insinuated themselves into world governments. It’s the Illuminati scare.
The conspiracy theory had mainstreamed for a while. People took it seriously, and there was absolutely no evidence for it at all. I found that so fascinating that we had this moral panic in our time and I still find it fascinating, and I still find it fascinating that little if anything at all was done to rectify the components that made the Satanic Panic possible.
But it really made me look into what is Satanism, who are the people who self-identify with Satanists. How and why could anyone view this as a positive thing—probably a lot of the questions people have when they see us and they wonder about the symbolism.
But when you’re a kid, and you’re being told that the music you like or the games you play or everything you view as fun is also satanic, it’s not that big of a mystery that some people just come and say okay and embrace that, especially if you’re coming away from a mainstream religion you grew up in and have serious doubts about it and its moral authority when you see the abuses that happen in some of the institutionalized religious organizations. So I think that was how, for me, how my sense of Satanism evolved, and ultimately expresses itself in the Satanic Temple.
So in a lot of ways, I don’t think modern Satanism would exist as it does, ironically, if it weren’t for the Satanic Panic of the 80s and 90s.”
Would you say that the Satanic Temple is, metaphorically, the abused child of the Christian Church?
I feel like the issues are broadened when we fight these church/state issues and that kind of thing, I think you’re right for a lot of people, but it might not be that way for everybody. They might not feel that this is an expression of having previously been abused by either authoritarian impulses of people in our government or their upbringing or whatever else but it’s definitely that for certain people.
I’m still trying to get a hold on whatever it is, what all the common characteristics are of people who gravitate toward Satanism. Some people are coming at it through atheism, and other people are coming to atheistic Satanism from theistic Satanism. People are converging from a bunch of different directions into this thing. So it’s difficult to put too fine a point on it, and I think, ultimately, it’s going to be like that for every religion. You’re going to have crazy people in every camp; you’re going to have the idealized version everywhere. It’s interesting for me, too, to see this kind of play out, and I’m trying to understand it as much as I try to direct it.
With that in mind, would you say that the Satanic Temple is more set in opposition to the process of “othering” rather than in opposition to religion in general?
“Yeah, and I think that we would never posture ourselves as anti-religion. When we call ourselves a religion, we’re not saying that in mockery—we don’t have that kind of tongue-in-cheek nature that a lot of people assume we do, or that we call ourselves a religion just so we can claim these benefits or exemptions or whatever else. I really think it’s important that people think about religion differently and they think about what kind of values do we offer protection to, and do they really require that somebody believe in the supernatural, and does that mean that somebody’s deeply held beliefs who doesn’t believe in the supernatural, are less deeply held and are less a part of their fundamental sense of self? I don’t think that’s accurate, and I don’t think it takes anything away from any other religious group to recognize our values as religiously held.”
Are there any common misconceptions of the Satanic Temple that you would want readers to be aware of?
“There’s a lot of ideas about us that maybe aren’t incorrect, but I don’t think are looked upon properly or with proper critical scrutiny of what’s often viewed as our opposition. These notions that we’re only some kind of disingenuous religious organization because we’re politically active—I feel a lot of religious organizations are now politically active and we live in a new world—we don’t live in the Biblical age. I think more and more, as we move forward and continually modernize that people assert their deeply held beliefs in the same way we do, and that to be a religion doesn’t require that you engage in arcane rituals or anything else. I would like to think that we are more an indication of religious evolution than religious mockery.”
You say that your goal is not to make mockery of any particular religion—how does that fit in with some of the Satanic Temple’s past activities like the Pink Mass, for example?
“That definitely was targeted against the Westboro Baptist Church. It’s certainly not a mockery of Christianity in general in the same way that mocking ISIS isn’t a commentary upon Islam. I thought you’d bring up the Black Mass event—if you hear we’re doing a Black Mass event, that would be far more questionable.
There’s been some other attention-seeking groups that have since, regrettably, done their little black mass events. But when we were doing our thing at Harvard, we were asked if there was some kind of ritual event we could do with an academic presentation, so we said we would do a reenactment of a black mass, and the idea was that we weren’t doing a black mass, but we’re reenacting it—we thought that would allay people’s fears, and we tried to emphasize that this was an academic presentation.
But actually we were using that as a jumping off point to talk about witch hunts and othering and that kind of thing because a lot of the mythology of the black mass was based off blood libel claims and that type of thing. So with that in mind, we had this kind of naïve notion that this presentation would be of real interest and not just some offending practice to Catholics themselves—they might want to attend.
So that was a case where I think our intentions were entirely misconstrued and that situation was unique in that was one time I felt like nobody really wanted to hear what we were actually saying about what we were doing because it didn’t help maintain the controversy that was taking place in the press while the archdiocese in Boston was making comments against us without having dialogue with us to figure out what it was we were actually doing. And then rumors were going around that we were using consecrated oaths when I made clear in every interview I did and every dispatch about this that that wasn’t the case. That we felt this was no different than people watching the old film, Häxan, except you had live actors. This was an act.”
Do you think using Satanic imagery, with all of its baggage, holds you back from your mission? Do you think that it builds walls rather than encouraging dialogue?
“Yeah, but that’s part of the mission. I don’t think that it holds us back from our mission at all. I think that it holds people back from embracing us, but that’s to be expected. And to a certain degree, we accept that and take responsibility for it. But on the other hand, we do expect that people will do their research and, of course, not put false accusations upon us.
We get that criticism all the time—“Well, if you didn’t want pushback, you wouldn’t call yourselves the Satanic Temple,” and I take issue with this idea that the labeling is arbitrary and that the symbolism and everything else must not mean anything to us because we’re atheistic. I reject this notion entirely. But on the other hand, also, I think that confusion is good, because there is no reason to maintain this idea of the nefarious “other” working in some kind of conspiracy in the background, and there’s every reason to disabuse people of that notion and make people realize that different symbolic constructs, different metaphors, different frameworks like these can be entirely different things to different people.
I understand that there are Christian people with best intentions who view their tenants and Biblical precepts very much in line with how we view our Satanic motivation, but that just simply doesn’t work for us. We see the story differently. Even though we see it metaphorically, we see the Biblical God as a tyrannical force. And it doesn’t have to be the same for everybody, but I think a lot of that does have to do with your background. How you were raised, how you were introduced to these things, what you see going on in the world.
I see this confusion as something of a good thing because even people who identify as rationalists, atheists, materialists, secularists—they still have what I kind of feel is a superstitious reservation about Satanic symbolism, and I think there’s this kind of underlying notion. This might get to a deeper level of semantic logic where people think symbols have inherent meaning that aren’t malleable to culture or redefinition, but that simply isn’t true. We’d like to get people to think about that and reconsider these things.
You look at cases like the Satanic panic where people sent significant time in prison, what’s amazing to note is that people on accusations of being Satanists were assumed to be criminal, as though people knew what that meant, that they knew what Satanists do, and yet nobody could point to any organized doctrine that said these things. What you can point to is other witch hunts that made these claims, especially blood libel claims against the Jews. So no—I think we confront people’s fears about this, and we put this out there ultimately for a positive effect on culture in general. That’s what I hope—I mean, that’s kind of a lofty goal, to redefine this for culture in general, but it might hold us back in the short term on certain things, but as far as the ultimate goal goes, it’s essential.
I think that fighting against that othering is essential, and I think there is such a mythology of Satan that came from the Romantic literary tradition, from Milton and on, that is going to resonate with certain people. There are certain things that have been satanized that people don’t want to depart from because it’s something they like—heavy metal music, people who grew up playing dungeons and dragons and told that that was satanic, and then Satanism as a symbolic system, as a belief system, really speaks to them. And there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. There’s no reason why anybody should be able to tell them that’s off limits.”
As my final question, are there any positive changes you’d like to see take place within the religious world?
“I think this could all be solved if people were able to tame their impulse for proselytization and worldwide assimilation into their religious beliefs. I think that if people could just really accept pluralism and accept that it is not necessarily one true religion, I think that we would all be far better off and we wouldn’t be dealing with that kind of out-group making that we see now. There’s always going to be some kind of human impulse to make out-groups, but we always have to fight against that, and I think when religions have this call to convert the entire world, it really acts as a destructive force and motivates people to find out-groups, and that’s working in the wrong direction.
I think if people can recognize that people can be Satanists and still be productive members of society, I think we’ll have gone a long way in making that point clear.”
As the interview concluded, I was left with the impression that The Satanic Temple is a reaction to something much bigger than itself, that it is the symptom of a cultural malady.
To “other” someone is to treat that person as intrinsically different to oneself, mentally classifying them as “not one of us.” This often leads to the dehumanization of those who have been othered, to the loss of their dignity and freedoms. Think of the Jews of Nazi Germany. Think of those who were not white males throughout much of history Think of the LGBQ community today—the people who were and are treated as lesser because they were and are different.
Although many raise valid issues with The Satanic Temple’s appropriation of satanic mythology, the organization’s very existence teaches us something.
People are hurting.
They want to belong. They want to be accepted and loved and cherished as human beings. And most of all, they want to be free.
Most of the major world religions—including Christianity—embrace the idea of loving others, respecting them, and treating them well. One can simply look at the life of Jesus for a great example of this. But that’s not always how the religious world treats its others—those who don't fit neatly within the confines of its worldview. If it takes the appropriation of the symbol of darkest evil to convince the world that people are still worthy of freedom and respect, then something is very wrong.
That's something worth talking about.
“Never can true reconcilement grow where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep...”― John Milton, Paradise Lost