There’s a controversial part of my religious life that often makes for awkward conversation: I’m a member of the Satanic Temple. I’m not exactly shy about voicing my support, but my open approval of the Temple is often met with quiet awkwardness, which leads me to believe that people have questions. I asked friends and twitter what they thought of my membership. I got some fantastic questions, and I will write my responses to them below. An important caveat: I am not a spokesperson for the Temple, and these are my own interpretations and views.
What is the Satanic Temple?
The Satanic Temple is a non-theistic Satanist organization heavily involved in progressive political activism and protest. That’s all good and well, but why Satan, you ask? From the FAQ page of TST:
Satan is a symbol of the Eternal Rebel in opposition to arbitrary authority, forever defending personal sovereignty even in the face of insurmountable odds. Satan is an icon for the unbowed will of the unsilenced inquirer – the heretic who questions sacred laws and rejects all tyrannical impositions. Our metaphoric representation is the literary Satan best exemplified by Milton and the Romantic Satanists from Blake to Shelley to Anatole France.
In other words, many Satanists are nontheists, atheists, and agnostics who venerate the symbol of Satan in a religious manner. Does that seem like an oxymoron? This leads to another question which wasn’t asked, but is often implicit:
How can you be religious if you don’t believe in God or the supernatural?
We are biased towards thinking of religion as only connecting us to unseen realms, but I think this a woefully narrow definition of religion.
Think of religion as a vast spectrum. On one end of the spectrum is symbol and metaphor, and on the other end of the spectrum is literalism. Those in the first category see the symbols and stories of religion not as literal fact but as a guiding myth which helps to contextual life and relate them to what they perceive to be ultimate reality, their highest values, and community. On the other end of the spectrum are the literalists, who see the myth as true in a more fundamental sense. Christ truly did rise again, and he really will come back on Judgement Day riding a white horse and wielding a sword.
Who is more religious — person A or person B? They both speak the liturgies, attend the rites, dream in the symbols, orient their lives through the symbolism presented, and thrive within their religious communities.
I think that religious people are often scattered all over this spectrum, shift over time, and might even be on different points of it simultaneously without necessarily being aware of it. A fundamentalist might still think the Christ myth an important metaphor for how to live her life; a staunchly scientifically minded progressive who sees her religion as metaphor might hold out the possibility that the metaphor is literally true. Many others might be in the middle – somewhere in between literalism and metaphor, drifting in an interstitial landscape, unaware that they are doing so.
But regardless of where someone falls on this religious spectrum, they are still in my view unambiguously religious.
Satanism is, generally speaking, in the first category. Satanists often do not believe in a supernatural God, but still have religious symbols and rites which help contextualize their sense of meaning and purpose. In this sense, Satanism is fully a religion, fully non-theist.
Or, as the FAQ page puts it:
The idea that religion belongs to supernaturalists is ignorant, backward, and offensive. The metaphorical Satanic construct is no more arbitrary to us than are the deeply held beliefs that we actively advocate. Are we supposed to believe that those who pledge submission to an ethereal supernatural deity hold to their values more deeply than we? Are we supposed to concede that only the superstitious are rightful recipients of religious exemption and privilege? Satanism provides all that a religion should without a compulsory attachment to untenable items of faith-based belief. It provides a narrative structure by which we contextualize our lives and works. It also provides a body of symbolism and religious practice — a sense of identity, culture, community, and shared values.
What are the tenets of the temple?
There are seven tenets of the Satanic Temple:
– One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason.
– The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.
– One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.
– The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo one’s own.
– Beliefs should conform to one’s best scientific understanding of the world. One should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one’s beliefs.
– People are fallible. If one makes a mistake, one should do one’s best to rectify it and resolve any harm that might have been caused.
– Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word.
The satirical side of the Satanic Temple (using the term satan and related images) seems a little out of sync with the emphasis on compassion and wisdom. Why go so far? Is it intentional to offend?
What this reader calls the satirical side of the Temple – using the name Satan, for example – is not, in fact, satire. This is perhaps the largest point of contention regarding Satanism: is it a “real” religion, or is it satire? Some people have become quite frustrated with me when I insist that Satanism is, at its core, not a satire religion.
Yes, the Temple does often engage in some hefty acts of trolling and satire, but that is a secondary to the very un-satirical religion of Satanism itself. As Temple spokesman Lucien Greaves puts it in this excellent interview,
Satanism is (or can be) deeply personally enriching, and isn’t merely an attention-seeking shock tactic directed at observers. When the cameras aren’t rolling, when the journalists have all left the spectacle, we are, in fact, Satanists still. I know this doesn’t quite exactly directly answer the question of how literature and art serve as icons for deeply held beliefs; But the power of metaphor, the vital necessity of narrative to cultivate and define one’s sense of self and purpose, the atavistic desire for art are all self-evident to me. I have a difficult time understanding the bizarre, yet apparently prevalent notion, that religious identity, practice, and ethics should be dependent upon intellectually crippling superstitions. I can’t grasp why it became the norm to believe that mentally-stunted fundamentalists have a more authentic claim to deeply-held beliefs.
The symbol of Satan is not arbitrary to Satanists in the way that, say, The Flying Spaghetti Monster is arbitrary to the Pastafarians. As explored above, Satan is a central guiding symbol and myth which help orient Satanists to what we believe to be reality and our place within it. That is not arbitrary or satirical in the least.
Case in point: I have around my neck at all times the sigil of Lucifer: an obscure, beautiful symbol from an ancient Grimoire which has come to symbolize modern Satanism. I wear it precisely because no one knows what it means, and I can have a symbol of Lucifer on my person at all times without provoking consternation from those around me. When I want to push boundaries in a Satanic manner (like writing this post, for instance) I can do that. But even when I’m at my job, falling asleep, and reading alone in my room, I still see myself as a religious, nontheistic Satanist. I’m doing this for myself, and not to provoke controversy.
That Satanism is earnest, non-satirical, and deeply held for me is further confirmed by the fact that it unnecessarily complicates my life. I’m already a gay heretic, and life is already difficult. Plus, if I wanted to stand up for human rights, secular values, and individual autonomy, I could easily do that (and probably more effectively) without the symbol of Satan. Satanism often serves as a spectacular distraction from the things I really want to talk about: mental health, LGBT rights, etc. I waste time and energy explaining a controversial religion when that time could be better spent on humanitarian conversation. And yet … here I am, against my better strategic judgement, talking about Satanism.
For me, Satan is a symbol of such gravitational pull and identification that I can’t let it go. And that, to me, is evidence enough that it isn’t satire or trolling, but is as sincere as my love of Christ.
My main concern is that Satanism, while positively shedding light on Evangelicals’ hypocrisy, seems to be unnecessarily provocative.
The Temple is certainly provocative, and that can strike many as distasteful. The primary question is whether their protests are effective, and I think so far the answer is yes. Their protests are shedding light on the hypocrisies of religion in a provocative, legal, and nonviolent way. More so, they are effective in a way other atheist and secular groups are not.
And if provocative protest isn’t your cup of tea, that’s fine. The truth is that we need many types of catalyst for transformation. Long suffering and tolerant dialogue is one. Grotesque theatrics are another. Raging protest is another. And, although I lean toward the first in my temperament, I have to admit that all work effectively in different ways.
Ultimately, however, I’m not in TST for the public displays of protest, nor am I 100% supportive of every protest they’ve done. I think the pink mass at the grave of Fred Phelps’ mother might have been a bit in poor taste. Like all organizations, I don’t align myself with everything they do.
Are you a member simply to draw attention to hypocrisy, or do you get a spiritual benefit from belonging?
While the protests and political activism are what most outsiders see of TST, that is the last reason I got involved. I am not a very confrontational person, and I doubt I will ever be involved in one of their protests. I got involved because it felt like my whole soul lit up with joy and belonging when I encountered the beliefs and community of TST. I was finally able to put words to what I’ve been all along. Now, TST provides me with a language, community, and symbol for how I’ve felt my whole life. This isn’t about offending Christians — I still consider myself a Christian. Rather, it’s about identifying with the outsider, and owning my status as abomination within historical Christianity.
TST has also probably saved religion for me, by showing me that nontheism is a valid form of religion. I was caught in a deadlock between supernaturalist religion and atheist non-religion. Atheism spoke to my reason, but I could not live without my embodied rite and symbol. Religion had all the symbol, community, and ritual, but I couldn’t abide the intellectually insulting beliefs. I was caught in this death grip for years, until TST came along.
Now, I fully embrace being a non-theistic Christian, thanks to the Satanic Temple, who showed me the way.
Can you explain how being a part of TST is compatible with your Christian faith?
First things first: I am a nontheist. I do not believe in a supernatural realm or a supernatural God. When you leave the realm of literal truth claims, you enter the realm of art and symbol, and symbol is subjective.
The moment you concede that gods and religions are nothing more than symbolic structures, you can start fucking around with the ingredients. You can experiment with symbol in a way that you never could in a literalist religious worldview.
I’ve already written an article about this, so I won’t belabor the point here. But I essentially see Christianity and Satanism as dealing with two different strata of existence, and using subjective symbols in completely different ways.
Satanism is primarily concerned with human power structures, and the symbols reflect that. Satan is the icon of the overcomer and the heretic, standing against arbitrary and undue authority. God, in this context, is not the Ground of Being, but a symbol for human authoritarianism. Satanism has little to say about ultimately reality, other than that we should approach it skeptically and with an open mind.
Christianity, however, speaks to huge, cosmic realities: God as the ground of being, Christ as a prototype of ego death and rebirth. To me, these different narratives – nontheistic Christianity and nontheistic Satanism – help me relate to different parts of reality. They don’t contradict one another, but rather feel like two puzzle pieces which compliment each other.
But there’s more: Satanism feels like a personal necessity after life in the church. After being beaten to death by Christianity, and continuing to feel conflicted about being within the church, Satanism offers me a necessary escape hatch.
My relationship with Christianity feels too much like a relationship with an alcoholic father: bitter, brutal, traumatizing, and made all the more difficult by genuine love, devotion, and hope. That’s exhausting, too exhausting. Sometimes, I just need an escape, and that escape is Satanism.
Satanism is simple and pure by comparison. Satanism is a community of people who believe in no god and yet value religious life anyway, who respect boundaries and autonomy, who give me the space to be whatever uncomfortable freak I want to be. It allows me to be fully good and fully myself in a way that Christianity has never allowed. It helps me find a balance between my commitment to compassion and human flourishing and my attraction to dangerous asking and exploring. Satanism is, ironically, the compromise I make to remain in the Christian world.
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