A Subtler Satanism

No knees and no scars from any cross—two distinguishing marks of the devil. Pope Emeritus Benedict reminds us of Satan’s form in a story from the Desert Fathers: “He looked black and ugly, with frighteningly thin limbs, but, most strikingly, he had no knees.” Ven. Fulton Sheen says that “Satan may appear in many disguises like Christ, and at the end of the world he will appear as a benefactor and philanthropist—but Satan never has and never will appear with scars.”

Since our theologians no longer speak of Satan, however, Ven. Sheen says we must summon the poets instead. So Lucien Greaves, the co-founder and spokesman for the Satanic Temple, explains that Satan is not literal but rather a “metaphorical construct.” As the group writes: “Satan is symbolic of the Eternal Rebel in opposition to arbitrary authority… Ours is the literary Satan best exemplified by Milton and the Romantic Satanists.”

And now Milton’s “bold” Satan taunts, like some great soul, elementary and middle school parents with After School Satan.

Numerous Christians and conservatives counsel us against undue alarm over the proposed club. We’re quoted vague literature from the Satanic Temple promising lessons on science, free inquiry, and art. We’re reassured, with collective little jokes, that these Satanists don’t “worship” Satan. We’re advised, indeed, that they are in fact “faux Satanists”—atheists exploiting Lucifer to be “jerks” to people of faith, “satirists” capitalizing on the “PR value of standing for Satan instead of Reason.”

So mark the humor, we’re told, of the intentionally “jarring” promotional video featuring backwards-walking schoolchildren, ominous chanting, and a guttural, diabolical voice.

We’re urged, by some Christians, to elude this “trap,” this provocation to shut down all religious clubs with our naïve indignation. We’re exhorted, by others, to extol the Satanic Temple for sharing our “struggle for justice” and shielding our “freedoms,” including “the freedom to offend.”

And we’re utterly missing, in our legal shrewdness and brave free thought, the terrible seriousness of the Satanic Temple’s “symbolic” Satan.

Frequently invited to shed Satan to gain support for his crusade to separate church and state, Greaves is unpersuadable. He finds it “annoying” to be dismissed as “‘just’ an atheist group trying to make a political point.” Others don’t comprehend his “atheistic religion,” a religion emptied of “supernaturalism.” Satan may be just a metaphor, but he’s too essential to the religion’s “symbolic structure,” “sense of purpose,” and “religious narrative” to be ceded.

Hence Greaves’s bald declaration:

It’s the After School Satan Club because we’re Satanists, and we see no reason to hide that, or apologize for it … we believe our use of Satan serves a very positive social function … we view our embrace of blasphemy as a conscientious objection to thoughtless, harmful, divisive fealty to superstition. It’s long past time that we put aside our irrational fear of the Satanic ‘other’…

So Satan the symbol, recuperated from his persecutors, enters schools with the “goal” of “developing freethinking autonomy in the face of oppressive superstition.” While his club promises to refrain from conversion attempts and “commentary upon religious practice, customs, or mythology,” its Satanic label, “character-building exercises,” and “scientific, rationalist, non-superstitious world viewshow children that “moral people” can shed “superstitious fear” and embrace “‘blasphemous” names and iconography … without repercussions.”

“This [program] teaches kids you can embrace the iconography of Satan and still lead a moral life,” says Greaves. The “good people” who “self-identify as Satanists” offer a new “subjective interpretation” of Satan.

“I think people should feel differently about Satan,” he says.

More than once Greaves speaks as if his “metaphorical construct” were strangely real. “Satan does ask us to do good among each other and follow our own path to happiness as long as it doesn’t encroach on others,” he said in 2013. According to his interviewer, Greaves “said his group is very much in favor of getting their Satanic message to kids at school functions. Satan is very misunderstood, he said.”

To that end, the group tried to distribute, in Florida schools, a Satanic coloring book boasting illustrations of a girl “spreading knowledge and helping to dispel ignorance by demonstrating her Satanic ritual for her class.”

When Greaves discusses After School Satan’s “very child-friendly” material, which “wouldn’t necessarily bother little kids,” he admits he “could be wrong” and illustrates his point, incredibly, with the group’s Baphomet statue. Eminently “kid-friendly” and featured in the club’s video, it is an enthroned goat-headed idol flanked by two children who gaze up in rapt, smiling adoration. Greaves says it “terrifies people who have this cultural baggage,” but children “just find it interesting and fun.”

“We hope children will see this as a beautiful work of art – there is nothing to be afraid of. That’s what the children symbolize,” Greaves previously explained.

The inverted cross at the statue’s unveiling, meanwhile, symbolizes an “inversion” that is “Satan’s perception.” An exhortation to “reconsider” our “values,” reconsider “institutionalized religion as the arbiters of moral correctness.”

Satan the symbol, rehabilitated into a shining paragon of morality as he inverts the cross. Satan the symbol, exposes the young to the glamorous beauty of the blasphemous. Satan the symbol, more effective than Satan the literal in freeing us from those primitive fictions of God and Heaven and Hell.

Satan the symbol, agitating, unsurprisingly, for no knees and no scars.

The club’s lead curriculum developer speaks rosily about helping children “build a positive self-image.” “We want students to know they are enough and to believe in themselves, and we want them to feel safe so they are free to open themselves up to new experiences,” she says.

“Safe” and “free” to explore precisely what kind of “new experiences”?

Since, then, Greaves is so “eager” to send children a “positive message” as Satanists who embrace blasphemy “without repercussions” come into their schools, we need to recall how religious and university leaders and 60,000 petitioners once decried his group for scheduling a Black Mass at Harvard.

For Greaves, the Black Mass is “an act of liberation” from “oppressive superstitious precepts that were likely instilled at a young age.” It is an act often performed when beginning Satanists are “empowered by the fact that they can engage in blasphemy … without consequence.” But the Satanic Temple unwittingly betrayed that more than metaphors might be at stake when it came to Harvard in 2014.

Having received Our Lord in the Eucharist daily for years, Harvard student Aurora Griffin sensed the enormity of the evil touted under the guise of an educational “reenactment.” “I believe that the Eucharist is the most precious and holy thing in the world,” Griffin writes, referencing her fear of its desecration. “If I did not protect it, what did that say about my true priorities?”

Greaves could only mock Catholics’ “ridiculous, infantile fears” about the devil and profaned “magical bread.” Amidst conflicting statements about the Satanists’ intent to use a consecrated host to enact their liberation and consequence-free blasphemy, Greaves said “it wouldn’t make a difference” in any case because the Eucharist is “just a cracker.” He couldn’t call the host he’d defile a “consecrated host” because “consecrated or not, it means nothing to us.” Even if it “did turn out, somehow” to be blessed, no one would “be able to discern the difference” because “it’s a piece of bread.”

And Greaves was “not sympathetic” to Catholics who questioned his equivocations because they were burdening him with proving he wouldn’t cause offense.

When Griffin’s crusade led to the event’s cancellation on campus, she made her way to the Holy Hour scheduled at St. Paul’s in reparation. But she says that a group of the Satanists “threatened to violate or kill [her], hissing their words and advancing toward [her] menacingly.” “Lucky to get away,” she soon heard “rumbling and screaming” from the church’s basement during the Satanists’ thwarted attempt to elude security, break into the sanctuary, and reach the tabernacle. The Satanic Temple’s members later reassembled, off campus, for their Black Mass.

So if the Eucharist was a mere metaphor—as empty of divinity, says Greaves, as the “imaginary” host or piece of broccoli that Harvard had asked him to defile—why all the sound and fury from our stolid rationalists? Why all the hisses and threats and screams when, according to the group’s seventh philosophical tenet, “the spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word”? Why, with their reverence for “multiple perspectives,” could the Satanists not tolerate knees bending before “just a cracker”?

Why—when they were utterly liberated from superstition, when the Eucharist meant “nothing” to them, when Greaves coolly called the odds “almost zero” that one of them “would waste time going to all [the] trouble” of stealing a consecrated host—did police have to force screaming Satanists from reaching St. Paul’s tabernacle?

Why, when others were outraged by his notion that profaning the Eucharist was as intrinsically ridiculous a concept as profaning broccoli, did Greaves insist on defiling a host that could “turn out, somehow” to be consecrated? Because his Satanists’ right to consequence-free blasphemy was sacrosanct? Because Greaves’s “positive message” of embracing blasphemy “without repercussions”—blasphemy as a “conscientious objection” to “thoughtless … superstition”—must now be spread to our elementary and middle school children, with After School Satan?

By the same token, however, we might imagine our Satanists asking some uncomfortable questions of us:

If you Catholics really believe that the Eucharist and Satan aren’t mere poetic devices—they might say—why don’t you use your knees more? Why isn’t your people’s ardor for Eucharistic processions and Holy Hours and reparation for sin greater, when the blasphemous spectacles are gone?

Why did your Pope Emeritus, in The Spirit of the Liturgy, have to tell you that “the inability to kneel is seen as the very essence of the diabolical” in order to counter those “who are trying to talk us out of kneeling”? He told you the “touching story” of St. James, who “had a kind of callous on his knees, because he was always on his knees worshipping God and begging for forgiveness for his people.” Are you using your knees like that?

The world recognizes our “symbolic” Satan as a great humanist, and our clubs will preach the loftiest of “secular moral values.” “Benevolence.” “Empathy among all people.” “Justice.” But our Satan is unscarred. And so is your Christ if you strip him of the Cross—if he becomes, in your Ven. Sheen’s words, a “sentimental Christ,” “a humanitarian who taught brotherhood without tears,” a “cheap, feminized, colorless, itinerant preacher who deserves to be popular for His great Sermon on the Mount” and unpopular for his hard sayings on sin and sacrifice and penance and judgment and eternity. How boldly have you preached the unpopular Christ and his unpopular Cross? Is he a “social activist”—or is he, says Ven. Sheen, a Savior who “takes on the burden of the world’s guilt” and says, “Take up your cross”?

Ven. Sheen said that “the ultimate goal of the demonic is to avoid the Cross.” He said—we are embarrassed to tell you this—that “it’s frightening how the Cross is being dropped.” He said you needed more mortification, more Holy Hours, more invocations of the Holy Name and the Precious Blood to battle an Evil One in your midst.

And so, if you Catholics really believe in all that we mock as “superstitious” and “infantile” and “ridiculous,” should we expect to see more knees and scars?

Julia Meloni

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Julia Meloni writes from the Pacific Northwest. She holds a bachelor's degree in English from Yale and a master's degree in English from Harvard.

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