“Satanic Temple” is NOT a religion
I’m sure many following the American domestic culture wars have raised their eyebrows at the most recent incident, a legal battle concerning the legality of a Ten Commandments display on the grounds of the state capitol building in Oklahoma City.
All the classic elements of such church-and-state scuffles are present. A Republican legislature commissioned a statue of the Ten commandments on the lawn, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing to get it removed, and Fox News deifies one faction while MSNBC lionizes the other. But there’s a twist this time, a random event that seems to have fallen out of Heaven (or Hell.)
Satanic Temple, one of the various atheistic satanist groups surprisingly active and well-followed in this country, has announced plans to submit a proposal to the Oklahoma State Capitol to erect a Satanic statue of Baphomet, the devil-goat, Satan himself, upon the grounds, as testimony to the universal religious freedom enshrined in Oklahoma’s (and America’s) constitution.
Yup, those are children smiling admiringly at the Steward of Hell. Supposedly his lap’s supposed to double as a seat of contemplative joy on the proposed statue.
Conservative Christians are predictably incensed, and the ACLU opposes the proposal out of an honorable consistency: it opposes ALL state-funded religious expression, believing it to go against the principles of church-and-state. Devotion to one’s faith against the cosmic antagonist of that faith, and fidelity to universal values- two perfectly justifiable reasons to oppose the placement of the statue. However, I can think of one yet more critical reason why the Baphomet statue ought not be erected.
The Satanic Church, it seems, is a recognized religious organization. Now there is a tradition in local and state politics in the United States, of religious groups placing religious monuments like crucifixes and saint statues on public grounds such as courthouses, libraries, and other various government turf. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it- this is simply too widespread a tradition, I think, for it to be desirable to eradicate it, as the ACLU seems to intend. When public opinion is generally hospitable to religion, it makes sense that the servants of the public would allow religious expression on their territory, the public’s territory, if for no other purpose than to satisfy general public sentiments. Thus the monuments of various denominations of Protestants, and Catholics, and at times even Jews. It gets a little hairier when religious minorities desire a monument placed, but public recognition and funding of Muslim and Hindu and Eastern Orthodox monuments is neither unthinkable nor unheard of.
But the Satanic Church is a different story (and it is not the Roman Catholic in me saying this.)
To be clear, while there are undoubtedly those kooks who DO worship the Devil, and practice various occultish rites in the hopes of being possessed by the Prince of Darkness, most “Satanists” in the modern United States are not satanic at all. They are not even theists.
Put very simply, the modern Satanist movement, as it has existed since the 1960s, celebrates Satan as a SYMBOL of free will, expression, the search for truth, the acceptance of the body’s imperfection, and various other nice-sounding ideals generally endorsed by secular humanism. There’s nothing particularly mystical about it.* Satanists might be better called secular humanists with a penchant (or an upside-down pentagram) for symbolism.
Now there is nothing particularly bad about this. A good atheist friend of mine has argued, quite convincingly, yet imperfectly, that Satan represents some of the most fundamental freeing drives of human nature. I perused the website of this ‘religious group’ and found their ethics quite commendable, and their metaphysics actually quite beautiful, even inspiring. But it is important to note that everything supernatural, Satanic Temple treats as PURELY SYMBOLIC. That is, the official ‘theology’ of the movement is a good-natured agnosticism, fraught with symbolism.
That is not a religion (though it may be a philosophy,) and whoever thought it would be a logically coherent policy to grant this group a ‘religious group’ legal status messed up terribly. In general, religions require the mystical*, a supernatural order of things beyond this earthly sphere. They require transcendence past the mere spirituality humans are capable of experiencing on Earth, and a belief in greater truths than justice and righteousness and existence. I have argued that to believe in God (and religions do not necessarily require Gods, just superior metaphysical and spiritual realities) you must merely “believe in a greater spiritual reality which preceded and created the universe, and that you, as a human, have a special part of that spiritual reality within you, which nothing else in the universe shares.” But it is clear, looking at the beliefs and tenets of Satanic Temple, that the group treats Satan as a symbol for human striving rather than an existent deity. This would be like if Christians believed that Jesus were merely an example of how one ought to live- but the fundamental belief of Christianity is that Jesus came to save the souls of all men, and Christians therefore hold him not as a moral teacher, but as the salvation of the human race, their path to eternal life.
In their own words:
“The Satanic Temple seeks to separate Religion from Superstition by acknowledging religious belief as a metaphorical framework with which we construct a narrative context for our goals and works. Satan stands as the ultimate icon for the selfless revolt against tyranny, free & rational inquiry, and the responsible pursuit of happiness.”
“Seven Fundamental Tenets:
- One should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason.
- The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.
- One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.
- The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forego your own.
- Beliefs should conform to our best scientific understanding of the world. We should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit our beliefs.
- 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.
- Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word.”
The paragraph above (italics mine) and the seven principles below it form what appears to be the core of Satanic Temple’s beliefs. And nowhere, nowhere, nowhere, is any belief in the supernatural imposed. As a guide for life, as a code of conduct, it is, as I noted before, quite a commendable one; but the modern secular idea of religions as chiefly codes of conduct, paths to virtue, is not a good or accurate one. There must be an element of faith in a structure greater than this universe and a spiritual reality accessible by the human spirit, and Satanism appears to display none of these.
Moreover, I post here the apparent founding myth of Satanic Temple:
“God is supernatural and thus outside of the sphere of the physical. God’s perfection means that he cannot interact with the imperfect corporeal realm. Because God cannot intervene in the material world, He created Satan to preside over the universe as His proxy. Satan has the compassion and wisdom of an angel. Although Satan is subordinate to God, he is mankind’s only conduit to the dominion beyond the physical. In addition, only Satan can hear our prayers and only Satan can respond. While God is beyond human comprehension, Satan desires to be known and knowable. Only in this way can there be justice and can life have meaning.”
It is important to read this with the symbolic nature of the word “Satan” in mind. Coupled with the teaching that “The Satanist harbors reasonable agnosticism in all things,” it seems that this founding myth is viewed as that- mere myth- and not believed to be seriously the origin of the world.
I repeat: religions are organized systems of belief which acknowledge a greater metaphysical reality deeper than mere spirituality, and seek to connect human beings to those realities. The forced agnosticism and absent theism of the beliefs of Satanic Temple lead me to conclude that the group is not, in any way, truly what could be called a “religious group” (though they are probably dedicated and passionate people anyway.) As they are not a religious group in any meaningful sense, they should not have been accorded legal status as that, and they should not be given the opportunity to place their monument alongside religious monuments to be treated as an equal. To allow it would be like allowing a statue of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to be placed.
* “A religion without mysticism is a philosophy.” -Pope Francis