Paradox of the Satanic Temple

No doubt you’ve heard about the Satanic Temple, the group who petitioned to put a Baphomet statue up at the Oklahoma legislature, and recently made headlines for attempting to hold a Black Mass at Harvard.

While there are many things that can be said about the group’s efforts (not the least of which is how organized they are!), one aspect particularly strikes me about the Satanic Temple’s foray into the public sphere. It reveals a paradox: the simultaneous act of transgression to attain public acceptance.

Transgression and acceptance are two opposite phenomena. Much has been written about the transgressive nature of modern Satanism in much better ways than I can speak to it. For example, Jesper Aa. Petersen observes that transgression “affirms a new order (or even the permanent lack of order) by interrogating the limit…cherished ideals are questioned and unspoken rules willfully ignored” (174).

In other words, transgression is used as a tool of differentiation, one which set the transgressor apart from normative society. It is provocative, both to the society whose values are transgressed, but also to the Satanist, who believes that through such acts they can transcend and harness the power behind these powerful discourses (Petersen, 175).

The Satanic Temple, by so publicly coming forward, is provoking society. Not only are they stimulating discussion about religious freedom and the place of religion in the public sphere, but they are doing so in ways which shock the sensibilities of many. One need only look to the reactions, not just in online comments (which have been virulent), but also editorial dispatches from more level-headed sources. Chris Stedman, writing for Religion News Service, called the Black Mass a direct attack on Catholicism and went on to question the sincerity of the Satanists. I don’t need to emphasize what sort of dangerous territory we are on when we try to assess the sincerity of another’s beliefs! But when smart, educated people resort to moral outrage and mocking (like Drew Faust, Harvard’s President, who called the Black Mass “abhorrent”), you know you’re really pushing the limits!

The fact that much of the discussion about the Satanic Temple is now on the agenda of the general public speaks to the assimilation (or attempts of assimilation) of non-dominant religions within contemporary society (which is, in America at least, mostly Christian). The Satanic Temple, ironically through transgression, is actually pressing their right to be at the table—a decidedly participatory and non-transgressive act! They are not rejecting the government or public institutions, but embracing (or one could argue, exploiting) them.

The shock value of Satanic transgression, ironically—and ideally—will lead to greater discussion about the place of religion in the public sphere. Will it lead to acceptance for marginalized groups? I’m not sure. But it illustrates quite clearly that the laws are for all.

Jesper Aa. Petersen. “The Carnival of Dr. LaVey: Articulations of Transgression in Modern Satanism” in The Devil’s Party: Satanism in Modernity. Oxford University Press. 2013.

Photo by Diego Martínez.