Sympathy for the Devil

I wanted to write about something important this week, like the Greece v. Galloway decision, but events have conspired to thwart me. The story I covered earlier has had some dramatic new developments that cry out for a followup. So: Satanism.

On Monday, I wrote about the Harvard student club that wanted to stage a Satanist Black Mass on campus and the ensuing onslaught of fury from Catholics. Some commenters demanded that the university forbid the event from taking place; others demanded that the students be arrested and charged with hate crimes; still others panicked at the thought that the Satanists might literally summon the literal Devil and lose their souls.

I assumed that, despite the outrage, the Satanic ceremony would happen as planned; no fiery portal into the bowels of the earth would open in the heart of Harvard Yard; and life would go on as normal. But oh, how wrong I was.

First, Harvard’s president Drew Faust announced on Monday afternoon that she wouldn’t forbid the Satanist event from happening, but that she also planned to attend a prayer ceremony at St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge that was organized as a protest against it. Harvard’s dean of students, Robert Neugeboren, also said, “We do not agree with the student group’s decision to stage an event that is so deeply disturbing and offensive to many in the Harvard community and beyond.”

Basically, Harvard’s administration made it clear that they would do the bare minimum necessary to respect free expression and free assembly, but that their sympathy was with the Catholic theocrats who assert the right to prevent others from practicing their beliefs as they see fit. (Again, it bears repeating, these are the people who’ve made “religious liberty” their watchword in the legal battle over the contraception mandate.)

Naturally, this ceremonial gesture of hostility wasn’t enough to placate said theocrats. There was an earlier rumor that the Satanists would be using a consecrated host as part of their ceremony, and though they denied this, the mere possibility stirred the Catholics to frenzy. Francis X. Clooney, a faculty member at Harvard Divinity School and a Catholic priest, wrote an editorial laying out his demands:

“Since there is no empirical way to show that one host is consecrated while another is not — consecrated hosts do not glow in the dark — there is also no way for anyone but the organizers to know whether a host used in a black mass has been consecrated or not,” Clooney said.

“Catholics at Harvard should not have to be worrying about where Monday’s host comes from.”

He’s saying that transubstantiation is a purely mystical belief supported by no evidence (we atheists have said that all along!), and therefore that the Satanists shouldn’t be allowed to use any piece of bread in their ritual, because it might have been consecrated – there’s no way to tell – and that mere possibility is so upsetting to Catholics that we must do whatever is necessary to protect their feelings. Faith, no matter how irrational, must be placated. This is like a Muslim group saying that no one should be allowed to draw stick figures, because the artist might secretly have intended one of them to be a picture of Mohammed.

Anyway, despite Harvard’s grudging support of free expression, I very strongly suspect that they brought pressure to bear behind the scenes. A few hours before the Black Mass was supposed to start, the Harvard Cultural Extension Club announced that although Harvard wasn’t forcing them to move, they planned to relocate to a venue somewhere off campus as a show of good faith.

But again, this wasn’t enough for the theocrats. Emboldened by this victory, they redoubled their insistence that it wasn’t just the sanction of Harvard that was at issue; they thought the Satanists should have no right to practice anywhere. The Archdiocese of Boston made this perfectly clear:

In response to the event’s relocation, Terrence Donilon, secretary of communications for the Archdiocese of Boston, said that the Catholic Church still condemns any re-enactment of the Satanic ritual, regardless of setting.

“Whether they have it at Harvard or at some other location, this is repugnant. No other community would stand up for this,” he said. (source)

At the last minute, the student group announced that their alternate venue had fallen through and the Satanist event was canceled. But according to confusing reports from later that night, it may have happened after all, at a Chinese restaurant – or the participants may have just gathered there spontaneously. It’s still not clear to me exactly what happened.

As I’ve said before, I find Satanism rather silly, and I see no point in naming my group in honor of a mythological figure I don’t believe in. But if Harvard’s Catholics wanted to make me sympathetic to the Satanists, they succeeded. It’s outrageous that Catholics think the expression of different belief systems is at their sufferance, that they think they’re entitled to decide whether religious groups other than Catholicism are allowed to meet. This is true even if – especially if – the Black Mass is designed as a parody of a Catholic ritual. Mark my words that it won’t be long before that line moves, and we hear Catholics saying, “If we didn’t allow a Black Mass, why should we allow X?”

The people who argue that a Satanic ritual should be forbidden because it’s “offensive” overlook the fact that every religion is blasphemous to every other religion. The Christian claim that God was incarnated in a human body is blasphemous to Judaism; the Jewish claim that Jesus was not the messiah is blasphemous to Christianity. But Harvard’s Catholic students aren’t trying to get Harvard’s Jewish students kicked off of campus, or vice versa (even though the Catholic Good Friday liturgy contained a reference to the “perfidious Jews” until 1962). Why? Because of the logic of pluralism which holds that religious groups in a secular and multicultural society all have an equal right to peacefully express their own conscience. By their actions, the Catholics of Boston have shown that their allegiance to this American principle is far more superficial than they’d like us to believe.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Leeloo Dallas Multipass

    “Since there is no empirical way to show that one host is consecrated while another is not — consecrated hosts do not glow in the dark — there is also no way for anyone but the organizers to know whether a host used in a black mass has been consecrated or not,” Clooney said.

    It’s almost like the consecration has no actual effect!
    I think you mentioned this already in the other thread, but holy crap is this super reminiscent of anti-semitic urban legends from the Middle Ages. I’m surprised they didn’t ask the Satanists to remove their hats and submit to a routine horn check.

  • Naked Bunny with a Whip

    I hate it when I spend all day worrying about the possible mishandling of the ceremonial flesh of a murdered man that was meant for a proper cannibalistic ritual.

  • DavidMHart

    Can I just be the first to say that, if I didn’t know better, I’d think that the fact that this Satanism kerfuffle happened under the auspices of a university president called Faust was a pretty good sign that there is a god after all :-)

  • L.Long

    Another example where calling xtians stupid can’t be done because it would be a compliment!!

  • Mimmoth

    It seems to me we accept on faith, as a matter of good will, that the crackers the Catholics use do not actually contain ground up baby bones. It would therefore behoove the Catholics to extend similar good will to other groups.

    Not that hypocrisy in the religious is any big surprise, mind you.

  • GabeS

    When people argue about things that only exist in their imaginations, neither side will ever win.

  • J-D

    Almost anything anybody ever does could conceivably give offence to somebody else. Generally speaking, it’s a good idea for people to give some consideration, if they can, to that possibility. But the idea that people should always abstain from any action at which other people take offence is both ludicrous and outrageous. Generally speaking, people who are offended by something (no matter what it is) should be free to say so. It’s one thing to say that they should be attended to (they should, often if not always); it’s something drastically different to say that they should be _submitted_ to. There is seldom if ever a good case for the heckler’s veto.

  • Adam Lee

    If this story were fictional and an author made up that name, I’d probably criticize their symbolism for being so heavy-handed.

  • 8DX

    What if they said they were historically re-enacting a purported black mass as a piece of theatre? What if they re-enacted an actual mass with all the liturgy, but *labelled* it black? The age-old problem is that religious offense is considered sacrosanct =(.

  • XaurreauX Pont DeLac

    Secularism is for grownups.

  • tyler

    what gets me about this whole story is that in all the coverage i’ve seen there’s been not a word about the black mass from the people actually putting the event on. literally all the quotes are from people that expected satan himself to make an appearance. there’s nothing whatsoever from the actual satanists about the rituals, the symbols, their beliefs or the purpose of holding a black mass in the first place. all i’ve heard is “the black mass is a hate crime against catholics!” and not a single quote from anyone that says otherwise. i’d really like to see an interview with, say, lucien greaves or another coordinator about this whole fiasco, though somehow i get the feeling i’m in the minority on that

  • GCT

    Good point.

  • KBQ


    I guess you’ll be taking issue with Kazue Kato’s Blue Exorcist, then :-P

    Sorry, I realize this might not be terribly related to the article. However, given my involvement in the comment thread of your last post regarding this incident, the appearance such a character (complete with top hat, cane, and gigantic pink limousine) in an anime I just started watching was too serendipitous to not share.

  • Joseph

    Come on folks this is the 21st century. Lock your silly superstitions in your anxiety closet. It is really disappointing that Harvard’s president with an astounding lack of academic rigor is joining the festivities. Surely she has some needle point or something else intellectual to do.