Welcome to another installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October we’ll be sharing various pieces of underappreciated scary books, comics, movies, and television to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.
Good morning! Do you have a moment to talk about our lord, Satan?
Organized Satanism is not new. In the U.S., it’s existed publicly since The Church of Satan was founded by Anton LaVey in the 1960s, but the modern perception of Satanism seems to be guided by hokey horror movies from the ’70s and extreme metal music. This representation is a large part of what led to the Satanic Panic of the ’80s and early ’90s.
The most recent, significant iteration of Satanism is The Satanic Temple (TST), based in Salem, MA, which was formed in 2013 by two like-minded friends, Lucien Greaves and Malcolm Jarry (pseudonyms, for the sake of security). That’s what Texas State University professor of religious studies Joseph P. Laycock explores in his book Speak of the Devil: How the Satanic Temple is Changing the Way We Talk About Religion, looking at the genesis of TST, its status as a religion, and how the efforts of this new organization are changing how we talk about religious liberty in America.
Greaves and Jarry are progressives frustrated with the inroads religion has made into public life in the 21st century. A major instigator and target of their ire was the “Faith-Based Initiatives” of President George W. Bush, and the precedent they set for similar legislation. They use TST’s status as a government-recognized religion to combat these and other incursions against what they see as true freedom, and made national news when they asked the state of Oklahoma to put a statue of Baphomet on the grounds of their capitol building. Right next to an existing monument of the Ten Commandments.
The public offer was really intended to shine a light on the concept of “religious liberty” and its exploitation by the Christian majority, which allowed the Ten Commandments monument to be installed in the first place. The state argued that it could remain partly based because it could be one of several monuments. TST called their bluff, and the Ten Commandments were eventually removed, making the Baphomet statue moot. It visited the Arkansas State Capitol in 2018, when a similar Ten Commandments monument was erected there, opening the door for TST to sue the state for violating their equal protection rights.
The fight in Oklahoma is emblematic of TST’s stance on the separation of church and state. TST also engages in other initiatives that are in step with their socially progressive values. These include the promotion of mental health (against practitioners of pseudoscience), bodily autonomy, and LGBT rights.
These very public tussles have attracted many like-minded people to TST, after realizing they shared the same basic values. Chapters have since formed in many states, all of which answer to the National Council. In short order, thousands of eager and energized people are now part of a public Satanic organization.
As with any religion, dissent over some issues has led to schisms. One of the biggest issues was the National Council using the pro bono services of Marc Randazza, a lawyer who’s also been hired by neo-Nazi groups and conspiracy-mongering, alt-right radio host, Alex Jones. This was too much for some members. There was also frustration with the bureaucracy that was slow to respond to approval requests for new chapters. Some entire chapters left the organization and formed new satanic groups, most of which retain the values that first lead them to TST.
TST is a religion without faith — the adherents do not believe that Satan actually exists. Instead, the word is used to evoke the model of rebellion depicted in John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost. This lack of faith in a supernatural being begs the question, is it really a religion? TST’s official religious status is employed as the main tool in their activism, leading detractors (including Arkansas’ Secretary of State) to claim it’s a “sham.”
Laycock points to a Supreme Court decision in a “freedom from religion” case in 1961, which ruled the lack of belief in God does not disqualify one from public service. In a footnote to the decision, Justice Hugo Black included religions that do not teach the existence of God, “such as Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism, and others.”
For a more academic approach, Laycock defers to UC Santa Barbara professor of religious studies, Catherine Albanese, who suggests that “a religious system can be understood as the product of four interrelated components,” which she calls “The Four C’s”:
Creed, explanations about the meaning of Human life
Code, rules that govern Human behavior
Cultus, rituals that perform the Creed and Code
Communities that are bound together in the first three elements
For Creed, Laycock invokes three of TST’s “Seven Tenets.” These regard “compassion and empathy towards all creatures,” the ongoing struggle for and pursuit of justice, and that “beliefs should conform to our best scientific understanding of the world.” The remaining four tenets, including the rule of bodily autonomy, respect for the freedom of others, and the understanding of our own fallibility, are used as examples of Code.
TST involves itself in many rituals, too. Some are public theatrical displays performed as part of fundraising and recruitment efforts, like a “Black Mass” followed by live music. TST will even hold the occasional Un-Baptism, satirizing the Mormon practice of baptizing the dead. There are other rituals that are more personal and are not performed in public.
The first three C’s culminate in a shared community not unlike those of Christians and other religions and organizations. Members in individual chapters and the organization as a whole have a sense of belonging. They have cookouts, picnics, and other bonding activities. Laycock attended an event put on by the Austin, TX, chapter and noted, “Only a preponderance of black t-shirts hinted that this was an outing of Satanists.”
Whether or not one agrees that TST is an actual religion, the adherents see it as so. Their outsider status is a big part of their reason for existence, as they continue to broaden the conversation about religion, and our relationship with it.