On 19 October 2015, the tech culture website Geek published another installment of procrastination-inducing click-bait lists, namely a rundown of “The 11 best Satanists.” Here, writer Aubrey Sitterson introduced major figures associated with Satanism, from Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey to music icons Marilyn Manson and King Diamond (the latter of which seems to be the “best” of the lot). The list also included some doubtful entries, like entertainer Liberace and the “Weird Satanist Guy” from recent news, who is actually actor Andrew Bowser. That said, it covered most celebrities directly associated with the Church of Satan in historical overviews, including Jayne Mansfield and Sammy Davis Jr., and some recent newcomers, like the Satanic Temple’s Lucien Greaves, most famous for the huge Baphomet statue unveiled in Detroit this summer.
All in all, good enough for a brief coffee break. Not a high-water mark in investigative journalism, but our interest lies more with the highly toxic commentary section. Evolving in the days after publication, the piece quickly became a battleground between supporters of the Church of Satan and the Satanic Temple.
The spark comes from the original post, which states that the Church has been largely inactive since the founder’s death and the Temple seems to be “picking up steam.” Both are widespread sentiments in the larger satanic milieu outside the Church of Satan. While correctly pointing out this fallacy—the Church of Satan has been active for 50 years and actually seems to be picking up steam as well—Church supporters simultaneously condemn the Temple as inauthentic (“a coattail-riding bad joke of a cheap publicity stunt,” “cute performance art project”), anti-Semitic, and transphobic.
They also challenge the Temple’s ideological consistency. Compared to the mostly silent, individual work done by Church members to influence society and culture, the Satanic Temple seems to them nothing more than a series of pranks representing nothing, least of all Satanism as an adversarial stance. Supporters of the Satanic Temple, on the other hand, argue that the Temple is hugely successful exactly because of its ideological breadth, and that visible political activism is the logical next step for modern Satanism. “Individual work in the shadows” is nothing more than inactivity, they argue, and the Church is a backwards-looking personality cult out of tune with the larger satanic community.
Just another flame war?
On the face of it, this is just another internet flame war between two groups, peppered with snide remarks and ad hominem attacks. For example, the accusation of anti-Semitism is built on Lucien Greaves’ mid-2000s involvement as illustrator in the re-publication of a nineteenth century far-right tract called Might is Right, mentioned in a popular VICE interview from 2013. Given that LaVey wrote the so-called “forward” to the book, and that he had previously used sections of it in The Satanic Bible, this is definitely a double-edged sword.
In the same vein, the Satanic Temple’s alleged transphobia relates to how the Temple statue mentioned above differs from the “original,” which had both female breasts and an erect phallus, encircled by a caduceus to symbolize the unification of opposites and the meeting of microcosm and macrocosm. In the Temple version, the breasts are gone. The statue also includes two happy children as companions. Temple supporters, including Greaves himself, argue that this is done to remove a potential avenue of misunderstanding and focus on the positive message of the statue.
Sanitizing a satanic statue to please mainstream gender stereotypes does seem rather ironic. But claiming that it is inherently sexist towards transpersons—or even reading pedophilia into it—is perhaps a bit over the top.
Authenticity and the Church of Satan
To understand this conflict, we need to follow the charge of inauthenticity. Even though they seem to agree on a basic definition of Satanism, the two groups promote distinct interpretations of how Satanism actually manifests itself on a practical level, especially in terms of public activism.
The Church of Satan started out in a flame of public showmanship. Their brief period of public appearances and media events included religious services, witches’ workshops, and nude photoshoots deliberately playing with diabolic imagery. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Church of Satan toned down the public theater, most notably by individualizing ritual to the ritual chamber and closing down independent local chapters. This individual, non-conformist strain was strengthened by a general theory of withdrawal from massified society.
In this way, LaVey and his Church transitioned from a position roughly congruent with the surrounding counter-culture in terms of occult exoticism and theater, a (somewhat) optimistic view of human potential, and a healthy dose of carnality, to a closed group of diabolical collaborators aiming for change of a wholly different order. This tied satanic authenticity directly to Church principles and the heritage of LaVey, as enshrined in the Church of Satan. Disagree with these principles and heritage, and you are not a Satanist. Even though the current leadership led by High Priest Peter H. Gilmore has opened up quite a bit in the new millennium, the Church of Satan still shuns political activism, eschews public pranks and “satanic” happenings, and avoids any sort of satanic ecumenism.
Satan as political champion
In contrast, the Satanic Temple has continually made the spotlight through public “pranks” tied to serious political activism, such as the proposed Baphomet statue in Oklahoma, satanic coloring books in Florida, the Reproductive Rights Campaign targeting restrictions on abortions, and satanic holiday displays in Florida and Michigan. Not even the football field is sacred. Since the inception in 2012, these activities have rallied over 40,000 online supporters, while the most active members have organized in local chapters offline, most of which are represented on Facebook.
Some of their activist pranks explicitly address the disjunction between “authentic” and “satire,” and exploit it to make a political point. They defend a secular society by following arguments to their logical conclusion: If you want to allow religion a privileged place in public spaces, this must also include Satanists. As such, the Temple utilizes public media events similar to the early Church of Satan. They have, however, a different goal: to effect political change in tune with satanic enlightenment values, formulated online as a set of core principles. As such, the Temple understands authentic Satanism along political and practical lines, freely associating with similar interest groups.
Consequently, the two groups see satanic authenticity in two different ways. On the one hand, they both belong to one clear strand of the satanic milieu; both define Satanism along atheist and symbolic lines, distancing themselves from devil worship and occultism. On the other hand, they draw different conclusions from that, viewing Satanism as an individual project and as collective program, respectively.
When Anton LaVey formulated a “political” program called Pentagonal Revisionism in the late 1980s, outlining “a set of goals/guidelines that are clear, concrete, and that will effect significant changes,” he attacked the myth of equality while defending secularism as a principle of state governance. But he also made the ultimate goal of Satanism an individual matter, namely the creation of “total environments” and the use of “artificial human companions” to insulate and empower the Satanist.
Rather than changing the world, the Satanist creates a world by surrounding him- or herself with things that have emotional resonance. The goal of the Church is to facilitate this project on an individual level. Hence authentic Satanism is the Satanism of the Church of Satan, as it manifests in the life of each individual Satanist. There is no “us” in any political sense—it is up to each individual to decide.
Conversely, the Satanic Temple is inherently political. For example, when Jex Blackmore, leader of the Detroit chapter of the Temple, national spokesperson, and member of their Executive Ministry was recently asked on a Reddit AMA of her practices as a Satanist, she simply answered “Activism as worship.” In the same vein, founder Lucien Greaves repeatedly underscores the centrality of sanctioned Temple campaigns to “fight for secularism and religious plurality.” In a sense, this makes a specific definition of what Satanism is less important than the collective fight for equality as Satanists. While both Church and Temple champion active satanic individuals, they stress “active” and “satanic” differently.
The Church of Satan has changed over time, and yet it has solidified on a course of absolute individualism laid down early and strengthened during the 1980s. Ambiguous about collective ritual and magic, and preaching an absolute individualism, the Church is, in a way, more the visible symbol of a heritage than a collective enterprise. Authenticity and originality is its coin, and it is jealously guarded.
The Satanic Temple may not be denying the coin’s provenance, but they are issuing their own, drawing on a less ambiguous Enlightenment heritage and a collective activist enterprise clearly centered on the age-old debates about state and religion in American society. They address current debates, and do so in a form well adapted to current media. Political relevance in everyday life is central to the coin, with activism in favor of equal individual rights and freedoms for all taking the place of stratification and a “quietist” individualism for the alien elite.
Image Credit: “Domestic Satanism” by Thawt Hawthje. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.