Leave the Satanists Alone!

Leave the Satanists Alone! May 13, 2014

A visit to the website of The Satanic Temple threatens, at first glance, to reaffirm one’s worst prejudices. A rich red background is stamped with a livid symbol of a horned goat superimposed upon a pentagram. Scanning the page reveals an illustration of Paradise Lost by Gustav Dore, showing Lucifer’s expulsion from heaven: the angels, feathered wings unfurled, are bathed in light, while Lucifer slinks away in darkness, leathery bat-wings held close to his body.

These people worship the devil!

This was the group which, yesterday, was to be hosted by a student group at the Harvard Extension School. The Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club had invited the Temple to perform a reenactment of the “Black Mass” – supposedly (although this is debated) a ritualized satire of the Catholic Mass sometimes performed by Satanists.

The response by religious groups on campus and beyond was predictable. Cardinal O’Malley of the Archdiocese of Boston, speaking to the Boston Globe, said of the Mass “[I don’t know] why people would want to do something that is so offensive to so many people in the community…it’s repugnant…It doesn’t lead to anything good.” The Harvard Chaplains – usually a reasonable bunch of fairly liberal representatives of their respective faiths – released a statement calling the Mass an unhealthy form of intellectual discourse.

Even President Faust, a generally level-headed and excellent University President – weighed-in against the Mass (there is something delicious about President Faust decrying a Satanist Mass). While supporting the student’s right to hold the Mass (an important and laudable position in itself – some University President’s would not have stood up for the right to free expression and exploration of ideas in such a case), she nonetheless called the plan to hold the Mass “abhorrent”, “a fundamental affront to the values of inclusion, belonging and mutual respect that must define our community.” Framing the issue of a clash between two values – “the dedication to free expression at the heart of a university [and] our commitment to foster a community based on civility and mutual understanding” – Faust came down heavily on the side of the latter, even while supporting the former in principle. She would attend the “counter Mass” planed by Catholic organizations on campus instead.

The outcry was sufficient to first get the event moved off campus, then to get it effectively cancelled, with the latest reports suggesting that some version of the Mass was held in a Harvard Square Chinese restaurant  beneath a comedy studio, no longer under the auspices of the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club. The jokes just write themselves.

Many would think justice has been done: an offensive attack on a religious community has been thwarted and pluralist values won out. As so often in such cases, though, surface impressions are deceiving, and knee-jerk responses unwise. A closer look at the website of the Satanic Temple would surprise many who objected to the Black Mass, were they to take the time to investigate. The first notice on the site, beneath a warm welcome, reads:

“If you are a student in public school and are opposed to being hit, restrained, or placed in solitary confinement by your teachers or principal, please register at”

The link leads to a project, run by the Temple, which seeks to prevent the psychological and physical abuse of children at the hands of schools – perhaps not what one’s prejudices would lead one to expect of a Satanic Temple.

The Temple’s Mission Statement is equally eye-opening. Above the Dore image of Lucifer, the Temple expounds its creed:

“The mission of The Satanic Temple is to encourage benevolence and empathy among all people. In addition, we embrace practical common sense and justice. As Satanists we all should be guided by our conscience to undertake noble pursuits guided by our individual wills. We believe that this is the hope of all mankind and the highest aspiration of humanity.”

A list of Tenets below the Mission Statement begins: “One should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason.” This is the First Commandment of The Satanist Temple. Anyone paying attention would now realize that the Temple deserves a closer look than its critics were willing to give. How is it that a religion which espouses such positive values is being vilified so comprehensively by people, like the Harvard Chaplains, who should have the religious literacy and intellectual curiosity to know better? What’s going on here?

Lucien Greaves, founder of the Temple, explains precisely what is going on in a speech for the Secular Humanists of the Low Country: “Our ideas of what Satanism actually is are always derived from pejorative labels put on out-groups”, he explains. Powerful cultural institutions – like the Catholic Church, which has historically hounded those they termed “Satanists” – are the ones who get to determine which religious expressions are “religious” and which are “sacrilegious”, and in this instance they have declared by fiat that the religious expression of Greaves and his compatriots is out of bounds.

A closer look reveals a much more interesting picture, however. Greaves is extremely sophisticated in his explanation of what the Satanic temple are trying to do: “We take the metaphorical construct of Satanism and we use this to define our works and goals, but our tenets – what we drive for – those we truly believe in, we truly value.” Those tenets, as explained above, are essentially Humanistic: Greaves is using the cultural resources of a religion – and the mantle of religious privilege – to provide a counterpoint to conservative religious values. The Protect children Project, for instance, uses the special privileges and protections US society has established to shield religious views and puts them in the hands of those currently abused by schools. It’s quite ingenious.

In this instance President Faust, the Harvard Chaplains, and all those expressing outrage have totally missed the point, siding with a major religious institution against a small minority religion engaged in a smart and interesting form of religious protest. The community of the offended simply asserted that their interpretation of this religious event – an interpretation based on zero research into the actions of the group they condemn, and on a highly specific metaphysical viewpoint (the idea that Satan must be “evil” because that is how Satan is portrayed in Christianity) – must stand unopposed. They seem to think there is nothing remotely problematic with a powerful religion like Catholicism imposing its own highly denigratory view on a minority religion like Satanism.

Normally when one religious group calls the rituals of another “disturbing”, “evil”, and “repugnant” (all words Cardinal O’Malley used to describe the Black Mass) thinking members of a pluralistic democracy recognize it as problematic, if not an expression of naked prejudice. When the target is Satanists, however, we seem not only to turn a blind eye, but to join in the denigration – never questioning whether the interpretation of the “offended” religious group is legitimate. Nor do we seem to ask, even if the offense taken is legitimate, whether we can rightly stigmatize the expression of one religious group because another finds it offensive. There are very many doctrines within mainstream religions which other religions – and even other denominations within the same religion – find profoundly offensive (or would if they thought at all about their implications). Religions, taking different (sometimes utterly opposed) stances on the biggest existential, ethical, and metaphysical questions of life, are bound to be offensive to each other on some level.

When secular viewpoints are thrown into the mix, offense becomes an even weaker excuse for the sort of cultural policing which occurred on Harvard’s campus yesterday. From my perspective as a Humanist, many of the values represented by O’Malley and the Catholic Church are abhorrent – yet you do not see me campaigning against Catholic Mass (though it seems a much better idea today than it did yesterday). An institution which systematically uses its power to oppress women and LGBTQ people (O’Malley himself would rather kids go without parents than be adopted by gay couples), and to shield pedophiles from justice, is much more grotesque than one which seeks to use the metaphorical resources of Satanism to promote compassion, empathy, and reason. Are Catholic Masses now to be opposed on campus because the religion they represent offends me and works against my equal dignity? I think not.

But perhaps the Black Mass is problematic because it has historically simply mocked Catholicism, and is not really part of the “religious” practices of Satanists? Even were I convinced that religious groups wouldn’t decry any expression of Satanism on campus (they would), the historical records regarding the Black Mass seem murky. Indeed, the Black Mass may never have been a Satanist ritual at all: some suggest it was invented by members of the Inquisition so as to have something truly despicable to charge heretics with. This is a delightful irony: if the Black Mass was concocted by Catholics to smear their enemies, and is now being performed by a real Satanic group and opposed by Catholics, the historical turnaround is just sublime.

No, what has happened here is that a group of otherwise intelligent and well-informed individuals have been scared by the word “Satanic” into betraying the values they would otherwise espouse. The Harvard Chaplains, and President Faust – who in almost every other circumstance would support a minority religion – should be ashamed of their actions. They deprived students of a valuable educational opportunity and a religious group the chance to share something of their culture, while playing into the hands of an oppressive religious juggernaut which frequently throws its weight around when “offended” to get its own way. Catholicism is no longer an oppressed minority religion in America. Catholic students at Harvard – however “offended” they might have been – have the support of a large and wealthy set of institutions they can turn to to soothe their rattled nerves. They should have been content with that, and left the Satanists alone.

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