TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA —The Satanic Temple struck another blow for religious equality when it secured the right to erect a Satanic holiday display in Florida’s capitol. It will sit alongside a display celebrating the birth of Jesus, the noodly appendages of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and a pole marking Festivus. This is the same Satanic organization that has previously offered to make a bronze statue of Baphoment for the Oklahoma capitol, announced it would distribute Satanic literature to Florida schoolchildren, and performed same-sex weddings over the grave of Fred Phelps’ mother. Reviled by stalwart Christians and mistrusted by other Satanists, The Satanic Temple invariably makes a media splash when it comments on the separation of church and state.
So many Pagans have spent time either rehearsing or actually having conversations explaining how Paganism differs from Satanism. Therefore it is no surprise that The Satanic Temple has received negative reactions from Pagans. But is there anything this group can teach Pagans about public relations or defending religious freedom?
To find out, we first asked how this organization relates to Pagans, if at all. The spokesperson for the temple, who goes by the name Lucien Greaves, explained that there’s always been a bit of push back from Pagans:
It happens less now — probably because of our apparent successes — but in the beginning, we would receive occasional messages from Pagans and Atheists, both concerned that our activities were attaching their own values or symbols to a caricature of ultimate evil. The concern seems to be that, by invoking Satanism, we serve to justify the worst fears born of superstitious bigotry.
The notion that we should coddle such divisive witch-hunting impulses by maintaining a taboo against Satanism is, I feel, a completely backward approach. In fact, there is a culture of Satanism, culled from various elements, including Pagan symbols. The identification with Satanism isn’t arbitrary to the point that we feel it could simply be exchanged for a more palatable label. Satan symbolizes unsilenced inquiry, rebellion against tyranny, and personal freedom.
For a Pagan, or any other minority religion, to openly engage in efforts to distance themselves from Satanism serves only to affirm the misguided notion that Satanism stands for cruelty, abject depravity, and unabashed evil. As Satan, mythologically, stands in opposition to the Biblical God’s authority, Satanism too is feared to challenge Biblical doctrines of faith. To concede that such opposition must, by its nature, be corrupt and criminal is to conversely affirm that traditional religious institutions hold a monopoly on moral virtue.
In fact, we feel our campaigns embrace the highest of moral callings — from gay rights, to women’s rights, to the protection of children against institutionalized abuse. In each of these cases, we fight against regressive mainstream religious thinking. I think that by embracing Satanism, we represent another phase in our civilization’s social growth. This is another step toward ensuring that each individual is judged for his or her actual actions in the real world, free of fear from persecution for symbolic crimes and/or “blasphemy.” If our past has taught us anything, it’s that the most cruel and evil acts are committed not at the hands of secret religious minorities, but by the witch-hunters whose paranoia allows them to imagine such minorities are willfully acting against the common good.
With that background, we asked a few Pagans and Polytheists the following question. What can Pagans learn from The Satanic Temple? It turns out that they had a lot to say.
Author and activist T. Thorn Coyle recognizes the activism in the temple’s work:
The Satanic Temple is approaching the public square head on, with no apologies. I appreciate that. Their take on things is, “OK. Religious materials in schools? Here’s an educational children’s book that we are handing out. You ruled that it was fine,” and, “Monumental religious statues at the state capitol? Here is one of our own.” They are also mobilizing around issues such as reproductive rights and the rights of children to not suffer corporal punishment.
The Satanic Temple are unapologetically themselves and move ahead by assuming they already have the same civil rights as other religions. In approaching the public sphere in this way, they serve to highlight where the real cracks in the wall of “separation of church and state” are. The Satanic Temple, by acting forthrightly, are taking a hammer and chisel to those cracks. For this, I applaud them.
Philosopher Hannah Arendt spoke of the need to become ‘conscious pariahs’ rather than parvenues (assimilationists) or pariahs outcast by society. The conscious pariah rejects and directly challenges the status quo, not from petulant rebellion, but because the status quo is corrupt. There is great power in choosing to be a conscious pariah. I see some Pagan groups wishing to be “just like everyone else” and that can take away some of the power and bite we have in not being like everyone else. The role of the conscious challenger is important to society. I think that Pagans could take some lessons from the ways the Satanic Temple are issuing their challenges and refusing to assimilate. They are acting from their power, rather than begging for it or giving it away.
Their most recent holiday display, though? I find it offensive. Why? It’s bad art.
I have long been an advocate for Pagans walking a middle path. On the one hand, I think it behooves and benefits us to resist being cast as ‘other, outcast, the antithesis of normal.’ On the other hand we absolutely must retain our integrity and not sell out those features of our beliefs and practices that define and distinguish us just to gain respectability and acceptance. And of course, we must always be willing to stand up against institutional oppression.
What the Satanic Temple is doing greatly benefits religious freedom across the spectrum and Pagans should support those and similar efforts. Their outrageous, funny, ‘in your face’ approach is proving effective. But they do so purposefully building on their otherness and with no expectation of being accepted or even taken seriously as a religion. Their social power is in their marginality and their oppositional approach. If Pagans decide to replicate their ‘in your face’ approach we allow the overculture to define us in contrast to themselves rather on our own unique qualities and merits. We become the enemy rather than the neighbors. We should support them, but I do not believe that we should replicate their methods.
Boeotian polytheist and Neo-Cyrenaic Ruadhán J McElroy would like to see more people pushing boundaries:
I pretty much only know the highly publicized activities of The Satanic Temple, but from that alone, I think between that and the later, philosophy-focused writings of LaVey, it would do the Pagan Community, and all pagans, polytheists, and others involved in alternative religion, a lot of good to do more questioning of the status quo and pushing boundaries of both society and oneself. Sometimes comfort zones exist for a reason, but a lot of times we construct them as a crutch, which does us no good.
If a person who can walk chooses to instead live in a wheelchair, their muscles atrophy and they come to need extensive physical therapy to be able to walk again, and if a wheelchair bound person doesn’t get certain physical therapies and daily time in a standing frame, they open themselves up to all sorts of health issues, from muscle spasms to potentially fatal blood clots. With my chronic back pain, you have no idea how much I want to just give up and get a wheelchair, some days, but if I can at all walk through the pain, I make myself cos it’s better for me to walk than to not. Since we clearly need to do physical things every day that push our boundaries, lest we risk atrophy or worse, we also have to push our boundaries mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and of the culture we are in. Or as the Cyreniacs might say, sometimes you gotta make a little rough motion to make a big smooth motion.
It’s good that The Satanic Temple is willing to push those boundaries of the culture in such a public way, though I wish I could say at this point that I’m disappointed that I’ve not seen as many pagans and polytheists doing similar –I’m too used to pagans (and especially Pagans) who are content with the status quo and too fearful of rocking any boats, even if someone set the starboard on fire and you gotta douse it (like what’s been going on in Missouri), to be disappointed in pagans, anymore.
Ritualist and speaker Shauna Aura Knight thinks it’s worth learning how The Satanic Temple handles the media:
The Satanic Temple effectively uses shock and the legal system to their advantage. There are few Pagan groups out there with much media savvy, and fewer still able bankroll lawyers. I have a background in marketing work, and I’d say that The Satanic Temple is cleverly using the fact that many people think that Satanists are about the worst thing ever. Specifically, they’re using the outrage to call attention to infringements on the separation between church and state.
It’s pretty clear that the dominant religions want those infringements—so long as it’s their own religion. When TST introduces themselves into that infringement they appall people. It’s incredibly effective tactic as an activist. You want prayers before city council meetings… religious holiday scenes…statuary at public buildings? You want to give out religious texts at school? You want your religion to provide a legal loophole supporting your beliefs on contraception and abortion?
Ok. Then Satanists can do that too. People rarely see a problem with the status quo until provoked.
This strategy of contrast doesn’t work quite as well for Pagans because most Pagans have been trying hard to put out the PR that we’re not that bad, we’re good people. Satanists don’t seem afraid of their own bad press and use it to further their goals.
However, Pagans can still effect the same legal pressuring which could provoke the, “If I have to include you, then we just won’t have any prayers at all.” However, that still requires us to have professional media and PR folks as well as lawyers on retainer.
What we can learn from The Satanic Temple is that with trained media professionals and a legal budget, we too can combat the system. TST understands a strategic aspect of activism; sometimes you have to play the legal game. TST grasps the rules of the system and is willing to exploit those rules and find the loopholes. We can do this too with enough budget and expertise.
Knight’s comments about being able to “bankroll lawyers” was not a unique sentiment, but Greaves says it’s not entirely deserved.
Our cadre of lawyers (from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State) representing us in Florida were pro bono, working for us at no charge, simply because they believed strongly in our position. To be clear, it would be a mistake to think that these lawyers were motivated by the prospect of receiving compensation in the form of monetary damages from the lawsuit. In fact, we weren’t seeking monetary damages at all, only to secure the right to place our holiday display in the Capitol Rotunda. And this, largely, is how we’ve managed to get so many things done: our campaigns have resonated deeply with people who support our positions, to the point that they will volunteer their efforts, even if many of them don’t care to identify as Satanists themselves.
In the case of the Baphomet monument, we crowd-funded around $30k through Indiegogo, after which we found an amazing sculptor who was willing to work on the project at-cost. Even with that solid foundation, the monument ended up costing 10s of thousands more. I, and the other core membership of The Satanic Temple, have consistently put significant amounts of our own money into our campaigns. It seems we’re always scraping up the bottom dollar to push things through, but we keep moving forward. Despite the heavy burden this imposes, we think that the imposition of dues for religious affiliation is inappropriate. We sell merchandise in hopes of generating revenue toward our campaigns, but this hasn’t proven lucrative by any means. We clearly have the beginnings of some enormous legal battles now in the works, for which we have set up a legal fund.
As for Greaves’ advice for Pagans talking to the media, he recommends, “Stay on point and control the dialogue. Don’t be pulled into superfluous and irrelevant arguments. If you’re asked an unreasonable question, simply answer with whatever message you wish to put forward, whether it addresses the question in any way or not.” He might file all questions about theology under ‘unreasonable,’ because he also says, “Move away from meticulously describing what it is you believe and practice. Your material has long been publicly available to the genuinely curious. You simply do not have to justify your religious perspective to anybody to assert your rights as equally regarded citizen[s].”