June 28, 2017
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing The Satanic Temple‘s Lucien Greaves about art, activism, and what religion means as a framework rather than a faith. “Recently” isn’t quite right — these questions were written back in February, as you might notice by the news reference in one of them, but we hope you’ll forgive us the wait. I’ve been following TST’s work for a while and am wholeheartedly a supporter of their mission, but whether you know their tenets by heart or are just tuning in, you’re sure to find something of interest below.
So, just to get it out of the way, could you describe the difference between The Satanic Temple and The Church of Satan for any readers who may not know?
Well, first off, organizationally, there isn’t any similarity. That is to say, we have an organization, we have active chapters internationally, we have a physical headquarters, and we have active campaigns to advance our goals in the real world. The Church of Satan has none of these things.
One thing that I don’t think is clear to a lot of people is that all of the organized Satanic activity you’ve seen in the national and international press in the past years — from the Satanic monument, to the religious reproductive rights lawsuits, to the After School Satan Clubs — it’s all come from The Satanic Temple. The Church of Satan writes these humorous tirades in opposition to each of our activities, but they always get their facts wrong. For instance, they’ll claim that they would never seek to erect a monument on public grounds because, according to them, they support secularism.
Well, we support secularism, but we support it actively.
In fact, we very often work with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, and other established defenders of secularism nationwide. Our monuments are made in defence of secularism, and we are very clear about that. We only seek to place our Baphomet monument on public grounds where there is a pre-existing 10 Commandments monument to ensure that the government remains neutral regarding religious expression in public forums. Government has no place in Religion, Religion has no place in Government. If a public forum allows privately donated religious monuments, the Government can’t pick and choose between religious viewpoints. That’s secularism. You can’t let the theocrats take over the Public Square and claim it as their own exclusively.
Of course there are those who complain that a true expression of secularism would be the absence of any religious monuments on public grounds. Well, yes, but when there’s already a 10 Commandments monument on public grounds, it doesn’t do much good to simply say you wish it weren’t there. There isn’t much point to organizing a membership structure and hierarchy when there are no activities associated with those roles. When we’re proposing our monument, the government then has to make a choice — will they accept a Satanic monument, or will they engage in religious discrimination and all but ensure that the 10 Commandments monument will come down as well?
Similarly, The Church of Satan objects to our After School Satan Clubs on the grounds that they feel proselytizing to children is abhorrent. If they learned about our after school program before commenting, they’d find that we, too, find proselytizing to children abhorrent. In fact, the very reason we started the After School Satan Clubs was to offer an alternative to coercive religious proselytizing inflicted on children through evangelical after-school clubs, and we only offer our club in schools where the evangelical presence already exists. Our curriculums don’t contain any items of religious opinion and focus entirely on critical thinking and reasoning skills. To say, then, that we shouldn’t call it the After School Satan Club misses the point. We’re The Satanic Temple, and we’re Satanists, and we’re not going to hide that fact. The schools have to understand, if they allow evangelical clubs, they can’t turn away the Satanists. For children to be aware that there are self-identified Satanists, and that they are friendly, approachable people — it has a counter-indoctrination effect.
So, the incessant criticisms we receive from the Church of Satan are either wildly misinformed, or completely dishonest.
Philosophically speaking, The Church of Satan is a fundamentalist LaVeyan organization, which makes a certain sense from a business perspective because they base their authenticity on the fact that they inherited Anton LaVey’s organization and claim his achievements as their own. They hold to a remarkably similar philosophy as you find espoused by radical Tea Party Christians on the theocratic Right: Ayn Rand-inspired Social Darwinist authoritarian-fetishizing libertarianism, but with a bit of occultic ritual magic thrown in. The Satanic Temple espouses a non-supernatural anti-authoritarian philosophy that views the metaphorical literary construct of Satan as a liberator from oppression of the mind and body. Our canon embodies the Romantic Satanism of Milton, Blake, Shelley, to, particularly, Anatole France, whose Revolt of the Angels is a primary text in TST. From its inception, modern Satanism, as it came to be defined in the Revolutionary era of Romantics, was very much a non-theistic movement aligned with Liberty, Equality and Rationalism. With that in mind, I think we’re rather closely aligned with early Modern Satanism, rather than some type of wildly aberrant, unique and unrecognizable contemporary off-shoot.
Since the religious construct of Satanism doesn’t believe in the supernatural, you say you “turn to literature and art as icons for deeply held beliefs.” Can you talk more about the importance of art and literature, especially during times of conflict?
This, I think, cuts to the very heart of what it means to be a non-theistic, non-supernaturalist religion. As I’ve described elsewhere, non-theistic Satanic religious affiliation has a cultural framework that is deeply significant and far from arbitrary— that is to say, we couldn’t simply re-label it for the sake of diplomacy, nor would doing so be true to our principles.
The narrative of the ultimate rebel against tyranny, the use of blasphemy as a tool for liberation against imposed, frivolous, sanctified superstitions; the cultivation of the individual will and rationalism unencumbered by “faith” or blind subjugation; the willingness to stand as an outsider with a sense of justice that is independent of laws and institutions; all are embodied by the literary Satan.
Those of us who were burdened from childhood by archaic tradition-based dogmas, especially in the era of the Satanic Panic, were instilled with an irrational aversion and fear toward the “other”, the Satanic. Breaking that barrier, defying such deeply-entrenched cultural programming, embracing the symbols, narrative, and outside status of the Adversary, can be a supremely liberating personal experience, not merely incidentally divorced from superstition, but emblematic of, and vital to, the break with superstition. Whether we interpret them literally or not, the mythological backdrop by which we each contextualize our existential grounding is profoundly important in our lives. I feel that theists are subjugated by their myths, while we are empowered by ours. The literary Satanists of the Revolutionary Era understood this, and their power to change the world by way of altering the cultural mythological structure was certainly not lost on them. One can read some artful exposition on this point in Shelley’s A Defense of Poetry. In explaining this, I can only hope to make some people understand that, despite common perceptions, 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.
Any advice you would give those who are operating at the intersection of art and activism?
Never separate art and activism. Never let your activism be artless, and never allow your art to be orthodox.
In a VICE interview a few years ago, you said, “LaVey is an excellent jumping-off point, but his work was a product of its time, and it’s appropriate to recontexualize it to today’s reality. LaVey was active during a time in which, for decades, the United States was on a dysfunctional spiral of increasing violence.” 2017 also seems to be a spiral of increasing violence; do you see TST adapting to that in any particular way?
I don’t agree that there is a spiral of increasing violence. In fact, violence is at historic lows. Since 2008, in the United States, violent crime has been lower than at any point in over 40 years. There was a rise in crime in 2015, but there’s no reason to believe it’s a trend, and there’s no reason to believe it harkens the end of an overall decline in violence. Broader historical overviews indicate an overall decrease in violence from the beginning of recorded history till now. So why are we being sold this bullshit apocalyptic narrative of increasing criminality and violence? I think the reasons should be clear to anybody paying attention to American politics. There needs to be an emergency in order to declare Emergency Powers. Fear-mongering inures the public to unilateral executive actions that defy the checks and balances of open deliberation. “Othering” strengthens tribal bonds as they unify themselves against a common enemy, and the creation of unease and general panic can be used by leaders to manipulate their followers who offer them the latitude to protect them by whatever means.
In the case of LaVey, he actually was living in a time in which violence in the United States was trending upward and was a cause for alarm. During the 1960s, crime steadily and dramatically rose till about 1995 when it began to plummet, eventually, to where we happily are now. LaVey seems to have looked at what was unique in the culture around him at the time to determine what may have precipitated the rise in crime, and to determine what might need to change to make things better. He looked critically at the Rights Revolution and he despised the Hippy culture. He imagined a stratified and tribally divided, non-democratic world. He advocated police state politics.
Turns out, he was wrong.
Secular democratic states are less likely to engage in war against each other and less likely to engage in terrorism or political violence than autocratic states. The rise in democratic states and the concurrent diminution in autocracies correlates to the global trend in reduced violence. Intermingling cultures — free to “appropriate” from each other — fare better than insular ethnic/religious/nationalist cults. And crime has, as stated, drastically plummeted in the United States without any massive reductions in Civil Liberties. In fact, the Rights Revolution has continued to move forward, slowly — but with great resistance, particularly from the Christian Right — and inexorably. I highly recommend a book by Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which explores this topic in great detail.
Troublingly, I feel that the greatest threat to our social stability now comes from those who claim we must do something to stop the imagined increase in violence. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We already see an increased tribalistic zeal, and we see pre-emptive violence in the name of anti-fascism, which will then be used as justification for increased police action. That’s the real downward spiral.
However, an increase in crime now can’t change what we know. It won’t make a stratified, autocratic Social Darwinist system any more correct. That said, one might wonder why I feel LaVey could be described as an “excellent jumping-off point” at all, if he is so entirely incorrect on this important point? LaVey was a bold voice in opposition to faith-driven mindlessness. He was instrumental in establishing recognition of Modern Satanism, even if he did hang on to other forms of magical thinking. If he were alive today, I like to think that he would be able to see the evidence and adjust his thinking accordingly. Being able to live without delusion and adjust one’s thinking to incorporate the best empirical evidence is, I think, a great overriding principle of Satanism.
In certain areas, LaVey was quite progressive, and I’ve gotten to know some of his old friends (who don’t associate with the Church of Satan), and they’ve all said that they suspect he himself would very much appreciate what The Satanic Temple is now doing.
Is there a reason TST’s Baphomet doesn’t have breasts?
The short answer as to why our Baphomet monument has no breasts is because we fight to win in all of our battles. The Baphomet was originally offered as a private donation to Oklahoma’s State Capitol grounds where, in 2012, their government allowed for the placement of a 10 Commandments monument. The Oklahoma Legislature — led on this issue by a Southern Baptist Deacon State House representative — claimed that the 10 Commandments monument wasn’t, in fact, a religious monument, but a secular, historical monument paying tribute to the early foundations of Constitutional Law. In further attempting to build an argument that the 10 Commandments on Capitol Grounds didn’t constitute a government endorsement of religion, Oklahoma made clear that no public funds went into the construction of the monument, thus opening the Capitol Grounds as a First Amendment protected public forum for private donations. Clearly, they didn’t expect anybody to call their bluff. It was the end of 2013 when we sent off a letter to the State of Oklahoma expressing to them that we should like to offer a monument to be displayed on the Capitol Grounds and requesting the documentation required to move our monument request forward. Having obtained that, we then began to design a monument within the parameters of their “limited open forum” requirements. After sketching out various proposals, it became clear that Baphomet was the best, artistically and symbolically. Symbolically, the binary elements of Baphomet aligned perfectly with our effort to counterbalance the 10 Commandments. We meticulously contrived a legal argument for the inclusion of the Baphomet on the Oklahoma Capitol grounds that artfully paralleled the 10 Commandments’ Bill in every way. The Baphomet was to stand as an homage to the unjustly accused, the heretics and the scapegoats: those burned, hung, stoned, and tortured during witch-hunts and crowd panics. An homage to them, we explained, is an homage to the moral underpinnings of our secular Judiciary which works from a presumption of innocence, places the burden of proof upon the accuser, and refuses to recognize claims of divine authority or anti-blasphemy legislation. We constructed an ironclad argument. We knew, however, that exposed breasts would lead to an opportunity for Oklahoma to claim that our monument defied so-called decency standards, and they would be entirely relieved to evade the Establishment Clause issue in favor of a puritanical claim related to community standards. Initially, I worked with the artist to devise some type of covering for the breasts, but they all looked out-of-place and distracting. Artistically, the breastless bare chest looked best. We still occasionally hear from people who insist that they, as purists, would have included the breasts, decency complaints be damned. I just have to shrug and let them know that this is exactly why they’ll most likely never get anything done.
As a hybrid religion/activism group that embraces humor, TST bears some similarity to 60s activist group W.I.T.C.H., which has recently announced a modern reincarnation. I’m also reminded of Discordianism, which was my first introduction to the use of religion as a satirical framework as a teenager. Do you think humor is an integral part of activism?
I think humor is integral to being a well-adjusted human. There is a difference, however, between creating a satirical religion and using satire, as a religious organization, to advance a point.
Our identification as Satanists isn’t “satirical,” however, we’re not adverse to using humor and satire to highlight various hypocrisies and absurdities we run up against. This point is entirely lost on some people who seem to believe that everything is mutually exclusive, and one organization can’t be more than one thing at a time.
We’re often asked if we’re political, religious, an art movement, etc. Why would we have to choose between any one of those things? Why can we not be entirely sincere while also having a sense of humor? For that matter, why is it we seldom see the skepticism that is directed toward us directed toward the Evangelical Right? Is the Evangelical Right a sincere religious movement, or is it merely political? Is there anything in scripture that even distantly implies that a corporation like Hobby Lobby shalt not pay for insurance benefits that include contraceptive coverage? Is their belief that they should not pay those benefits more deeply-held than our belief in bodily autonomy merely because they claim to lack the intellectual nuance to not read their Bible as a literal historical text?
I would like to see that The Satanic Temple never loses its sense of humor, even as there persists this bizarre notion that humor and authenticity are irreconcilable.
According to Breitbart, you reached out to clarify that TST had nothing to do with the counter-Milo protests in California, citing your support of free speech. How do you reconcile having “freedom to offend” with the danger Milo causes to individuals by targeting specific trans or undocumented students at his speeches?
I’m not sure what danger he’s caused to anybody. I’ve never read his material. I’ve never listened to him speak. Even still, after having defended his right to speak, I still don’t give a shit about what he’s saying. I defend the principle of Free Speech, and when you defend a principle, you don’t only defend it selectively. If you can’t support it when it incidentally doesn’t benefit you, you’re not supporting it at all. You can’t claim that you believe in Free Speech, only insofar as you agree with what’s being said. If Milo has posed a legitimate danger to individuals through inciting violence in a very direct and tangible way, if he’s defamed people, or invaded their privacy — this seems like a matter for the civil courts, and the aggrieved parties should consult legal representation. If the “danger” is that he has hurt people’s feelings, then I should be quite clear that I am not sympathetic. For my part, I can’t wrap my head around the cognitive dissonance that has self-proclaimed defenders of Liberal Democracy calling for limitations on Free Speech in the name of “anti-fascism.” The irony is overwhelming. Of course, it seems, nobody quite wants to admit that they renounce Free Speech, so it’s quite popular to try and categorize anything one disagrees with as Hate Speech worthy of censorship. But offensive and even hateful speech is, and should remain, protected under the First Amendment. Threats and incitement are treated differently, and there could be legal claims related to those, if in fact that’s what Milo’s done.
Many are the times in which The Satanic Temple has been wrongly denigrated as engaging in “hate speech” by offended Christian groups who imagine that any and all of our activities are acts of persecution against them. They would argue that while we’re not make direct threats or inciting specific actions against them, our very identification as Satanists nonetheless threatens Christians and incites acrimony against them. Their feelings are hurt. They’re offended. We would support a broadened definition of Hate Speech or accept a less discriminating interpretation of what constitutes a threat or incitement at our own peril.
My impression of Milo is that he rode a wave of celebrity that was largely created by the ignorant little assholes who ran amok lighting fires, smashing property, and macing bystanders in the face wherever he was scheduled to speak. When you take a third-rate comedian who’s saying offensive things and demand his censorship, you suddenly give him the First Amendment high ground. You turn him into a defender of Civil Liberties. You make him a Free Speech martyr, and in the internet age his message is certainly no less accessible, you’ve only given him free publicity.
Incidentally, it appears that Milo’s career as a sweetheart of the alt-right is all but entirely finished, and it wasn’t destroyed because some screaming mob of mindless fascistic “anti-fascists” managed to impose a general censorship of his words, but because he was allowed to speak freely and express things that even his followers couldn’t support or defend.
Related, does TST have an official stance on punching Nazis?
Personally, I think it’s a bad idea to go out looking to punch anybody. I especially think it’s a bad idea to go out looking to punch thick-skulled miscreants who themselves are looking for a pretext for a fight. I also think Nazis are a bit too easy a target to place all of our post-election angst upon. I’m not particularly concerned that the Nazi Party is going to gain prominence in the United States any time in the near or projected future. Even our most oppressive elements on the right probably honestly believe themselves to be entirely unrelated to Nazis. The self-identified Nazis I know of are angry, uneducated, aggressive yokels who run no risk of organizing a national coup. I just don’t run into Nazis in my daily life or when I’m out socializing. I’m not sure where people are living that they can decide to whimsically travel out and go punch a Nazi at will. Rather, I think the anti-Nazi rhetoric is simply a safe and inoffensive exhibition of discontent. It’s something people can rant about and issue threats of violence toward without any real fear of actual confrontation. I think it would be far more poignant and meaningful if people were to confront Evangelical Nationalism and rail against the Theocratic Right. I get sick of hearing people say, “let’s call them what they really are: Nazis.” No. Why don’t you call them what they really are? They are the Theocratic Right. They are Evangelical Nationalists. They are taking over the public offices and overturning Liberal Democracy. When you call people who have no attachment to Nazi-ism Nazis, they don’t know you’re talking about them, and it’s not clear that you know who you’re talking about either.
You recently opened an international headquarters in Salem. Can you tell us about this?
Our organization has grown so rapidly in the past few years. It made sense to have a dedicated headquarters where we can keep our offices and centralize our operations. The lower floor is open to the public as an art gallery where we regularly have exhibitions. The current exhibition features the work of Vincent Castiglia, a remarkable artist who paints enormous and meticulously detailed works of art in his own blood. We have some amazing sculpture-work by Chris Andres, who also designed our veterans’ memorial in Minnesota. We also have a segment of the gallery dedicated to the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and 90s, and which still persists to a greater or lesser degree today. We also have a lecture room where we show films and host guest speakers.
The gallery is always going to be a work in progress and we’re adding to it all the time. By now, given my explanation of non-theistic religion and the importance and power of art, it shouldn’t seem strange in the least that our headquarters should double as an art gallery. In fact, nothing could be more natural to us. Art is integral to our religion.
People often ask how we’re received by the local community. There haven’t been any problems at all. We get along with the neighbors, the local officials haven’t given us any problems, and we really couldn’t have picked a better place to put our headquarters. When people recognize me on the street, it’s always been a positive and polite interaction. We’ve had many people visit from out-of-state just to visit our headquarters, and it hasn’t been uncommon for them to considering moving to Salem afterward. I have a feeling that Salem will become home to the largest population of self-identified Satanists in the world in the foreseeable future.
You support non-believers having access to religion as a framework. Can you elaborate on what that means? What is the difference between religion and faith?
“Faith” is belief without evidence. Theists ennoble faith as integral to religion: blind belief in intellectually insulting superstitions that offer the benefit of solace in “knowing” that we’ll go to a paradisiacal after-world, so long as we live a life of servitude toward an unseen master. Faced with disconfirming evidence, the theist often withdraws into arguments that attack a lack of moral clarity in science. The superstitious religionist feels that their ethics, community, and sense of cultural identity are founded upon old superstitions that they must strive to believe and struggle to uphold, despite the persistent injuries constantly dealt to those beliefs by critical scrutiny and empirical knowledge.
In the United States we afford certain protections to deeply-held beliefs to respect freedom of conscience. Thomas Jefferson, in his Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom stated, “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.” Elaborating on this bill (which was important enough to him that it was named among three lifetime achievements upon his grave), Jefferson wrote in his memoirs that in this statute “protection of opinion was meant to be universal”, and the document included “within the mantle of its protection the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”
Religious opinion was meant to be equally protected alongside faith. The non-believer’s right to express non-belief and not be besieged by a state-sanctioned religious viewpoint is equally protected alongside the right of the superstitious to assemble in houses of worship and implore the good will of a petty and jealous deity to take pity on their pathetic and groveling souls. This is the only tenable interpretation of what “religious liberty” can mean in a democratic pluralistic society. Religious Liberty doesn’t support a “right” to impose a religious viewpoint upon anybody else, or a “right” to limit another’s civic capacities. Religious Liberty gives every one of the us the opportunity to object to impositions of the state that run contrary to our deeply-held beliefs and challenge our freedom of conscience. Superstition does not produce superior ethics or identities, nor does faith provide beliefs that are more deeply-held than the personal moral foundations of any well-adjusted atheist. It would be deplorable to give superstition preferential treatment to rational thinking.
Of course, any time that equal protection for the religious opinion of non-believers is contextualized as part of a fight for Religious Liberty, there’s always some smug asshole, self-identifying as an atheist, who witlessly parrots the witticism, “atheism is a religion in the same way that bald is a haircut,” or, “…in the same way that off is a television station,” or any number of less-than-clever unoriginal variations. Nothing could be more helpful to the Fundamentalists than non-believers who insist that religion is dependent upon superstition, thus defining themselves outside of a protected class. I feel that atheist organizations, as organizations based upon a well-defined religious opinion, or opinion regarding religion, should have no hesitation in arguing for religious privilege and exemption including religious tax-exemption.
I think that the more people come to recognize the legitimacy of non-theistic religions — and there are already a significant population of atheist Jews, Buddhists, and others — the more we will see atheistic Christians making themselves known; individuals who still venerate the Christian myth and its customs, who identify with the Christian community, but simply can’t claim to believe ludicrous Biblical stories — at least not literally.
When superstitious delusion becomes isolated from the real-world benefits of religious affiliation, superstition becomes all the more impossible to maintain and defend. The sooner the atheist movement recognizes that their fight is with superstition, not religion, the sooner we’ll get there.
What are you working on right now? How can people get involved?
Recently, we were approved to place a veterans’ memorial monument in a park in Belle Plaine, Minnesota where a Christian veterans’ monument provoked controversy leading the local officials to open the public grounds as a limited open forum. We’re crowd-funding to offset the cost of that effort.
We have two lawsuits, State and Federal, currently active in Missouri, where we’re fighting against prohibitive abortion restrictions on the grounds that these restrictions violate our religious liberty.
We’re putting a volunteer manual together for our After School Satan Club, so that people who aren’t a part of a local TST chapter can nonetheless apply to present our After School Satan Club (ASSC) curriculum in schools where Evangelical indoctrination clubs are present. We’re going to release our volunteer manual at around the same time we file our first ASSC-related lawsuit.
We’re currently researching the prospect of opening our own religiously-protected abortion clinic.
I’m putting together a syllabus now for ordination coursework through The Satanic Temple, and it’s going to be rigorous and intensive, but it will ensure that our ministry are entirely capable of speaking on behalf of our beliefs.
We’re putting together an online platform so that we can video stream our activities at the headquarters to our membership and better connect with our international community.
In fact, we have a massive number of projects currently in the works that keeping track of it all has become the largest difficulty we face. Expect big things in the near future.
People who want to get involved can check to see if they have a local chapter near them, or reach out to us if there is sufficient local interest in starting one. Keep up with our current campaigns on our website and check up on our daily news on Facebook. Check out our merchandise on ShopSatan.com and keep in mind that your purchases help fund our campaigns.
Anything you want to add?
Please check out GreyFaction.org. Grey Faction is a sub-organization of The Satanic Temple dedicated to combating irrational conspiracy theory-based moral panics, modern witch-hunts, and the discredited therapeutic practices that still haunt us from beyond the formally recognized Satanic Panic era. We are keeping track of professionals in the mental health field that continue to use Recovered Memory Therapies to reveal and propagate delusional narratives of Satanic Ritual Abuse. We have issued petitions against therapists who openly endorse bizarre conspiracy theories related to imaginary Satanic cults to the mentally vulnerable. Our research revealed the connection between one such therapist and the murder of an 8-year old boy not many years ago. Our work with Grey Faction is supremely important, but has received relatively little press coverage.