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Playing Devil’s Advocate (Sort Of)

By J. Gram Slattery

It goes without saying that the Satanic Temple—whose members simulated a black mass on Monday much to the chagrin of the Boston Archdiocese—is far from an orthodox church. Apart from the fact that the word “Satan” is in its name, the temple is nontheistic, and its doctrine eschews the supernatural. God doesn’t exist in its pupils’ eyes, but neither does Satan himself, nor any other scriptural being.

Most of the temple’s seven core tenets are widely agreeable—and for atheists, all of them are. “One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason,” goes the first. “People are fallible. If we make a mistake, we should do our best to rectify it and resolve any harm that may have been caused,” reads another.

The Satan to which these “Satanists” are referring is a literary one who appeared in a number of early Renaissance books and poems as a tragic hero, if only in a technical sense. The temple’s current leader, Harvard grad Lucien Greaves, cites Joris-Karl Huysmans’s “Là-bas” and Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” In each of these works, Satan asserts his own free will and the centrality of his intellect in contradistinction to God’s omniscience.

Elaborating on the temple’s philosophy, Greaves says that this literary, purely metaphorical Satanism is “defiant of autocratic structure” and based on a rejection of “superstitious supernaturalism.”

This superstition, he elaborates, is the ultimate enemy of the temple. And, yes, as Christians have complained, the Satanists do attempt to satirize the Church—as they do with all churches that believe in the supernatural. Their black mass is partly a symbol of their rejection of superstition, which, transitively, is a rejection of most theistic faiths.

In the past, the group has mocked the Westboro Baptist Church, denigrated Florida Governor Rick Scott’s Bill 98 supporting prayer in public schools, and the group is currently building a devil-goat statue called Mahomet to display outside Oklahoma’s statehouse. So this recent mass—which was drawn from a scene in “Là-Bas”—was just one political act in a series of political acts, from a secularist, humanist church that’s as political as it is religious.

To me, a political and cultural writer who has mocked others’ beliefs—and whose beliefs are often mocked—this sort of action seems permissible. In fact, it seems to be a staple of democratic discourse. Make no mistake; Satanism as a vessel for symbolic rationalism is a bad, overly abrasive strategy for those who strive for a secularist world. I personally disagree with the tactic. But these soft-core Satanists have every right to challenge theism in whatever fashion, so long as their strategy is not based on intimidation or the provocation of violence.

This, unfortunately, is not a concept with which the regional Catholic Church—or many of its pupils—agrees. To be sure, some institutional response was appropriate, but much of the response from the Christian community has itself been based on intolerance and the suppression of discourse.

As the Extension School Cultural Studies Club claimed in the Harvard Political Review, the group received intimidating letters and coordinated emails lambasting the group, some comparing it to the KKK—which committed brutal ethnocide throughout the 20th century.

On Fox News, prominent conservative student Jim McGlone ’15 called on campus administrators to cancel the event and again invoked the KKK analogy.

The Archdioceses of Boston and the Harvard Chaplains demanded that the event be canceled. Eventually, the event nearly did implode under the weight of intimidation—and this, I submit, was the only reason that many students on campus, according to my unscientific sampling, have expressed sympathy toward the Satanists.

On its own, a ridiculous, sexualized enactment of a scene from Huysmans’s “Là-Bas” is not a powerful critique of the autocracy of theistic religion. The reaction by Boston’s faithful, on the other hand, added an unfortunate fleck of legitimacy to what would have otherwise been an illegitimate critique.

J. Gram Slattery ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House.

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