It was the kind of announcement designed to grab attention: On Dec. 8, the Satanic Temple of New York unveiled plans to erect a monument that would sit alongside the Ten Commandments on the lawn of the Oklahoma State Capitol. The project, which has generated media coverage despite having little chance of ever being completed, is the latest move by a relatively new satanic group with a knack for getting its name out.
“Some people feel that we have just one message, that we’re completely making a mockery of the religious agenda without any actual core beliefs of our own,” says Lucien Greaves, the Satanic Temple’s spokesperson. “We want to actively engage in the cultural political dialogue and make the world a more equitable place for all kinds of different beliefs.”
The temple’s activism began in January when it held a “mock rally” for Florida Governor Rick Scott, who signed a bill permitting public schools to allow students to read “inspirational messages” at school-sponsored events. “Hail Satan! Hail Rick Scott” read the Satanic Temple’s messages on the steps of the statehouse.
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A few months later, the temple announced it would adopt a highway in New York. “Help The Satanic Temple spread their message as they enter the adopt-a-highway program in New York City where they will maintain voluntary beautification of a stretch of public highway for at least 2 years by way of litter cleanup and landscaping,” read the temple’s crowdsourcing page, which ultimately failed to raise enough funding.
In July, the temple held same-sex wedding ceremonies on the grave of the mother of the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church – the controversial religious group that protests funerals to promote its opposition to homosexuality.
Greaves says the Satanic Temple isn’t looking to inject religion into public spaces where it doesn’t exist. But if lawmakers do so, the group wants to ensure that its view of the world is included. Greaves describes the temple’s beliefs as a “narrative construct, a framework by which we contextualize our lives and our work,” the core idea being Satanic revolt against arbitrary authority. The temple’s members often view Lucifer through the lens of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” as a rebel angel against ultimate tyranny.
But it’s rare for a group of Satanists to be so active politically. Most are incredibly insular, and Satanist groups are often transitory, lasting for brief periods while often being more concerned with defining Satanism’s philosophy.
“The Satanic Temple seems essentially to be a website that appeared within the last year which posts about their politically oriented stunts in what looks to be a grab for media attention,” Magistra Peggy Nadramia of the Church of Satan wrote via email. “What little they have about their philosophy is cribbed from the work of LaVey and Gilmore.”
In 1966, Anton Szandor LaVey founded the Church of Satan, which is often considered the world’s foremost group of Satanists. In 2001, Peter Gilmore took over and often writes essays about the philosophy of Satanism. The Church of Satan is decidedly uninterested in politics and thinks the Satanic Temple is merely one big PR stunt.
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“The comparison between the [the Satanic Temple and the Church of Satan] would be like comparing the Roman Catholic Church as opposed to some self-proclaimed ‘Catholics’ on a newly minted website who use the term ‘Catholic’ to ride on the coattails of the established organization,” Nadramia wrote.
Cimminnee Holt, a Ph.D. student at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, who is working on a dissertation about Satanism and is one of a handful of experts who studies Satanist organizations, says she’s equally unsure about the Satanic Temple’s true goals.
“It’s unclear how serious they are,” Holt says. “They’re not terribly well organized, and projects like these are often very expensive.”
The proposed Satanic monument at the Oklahoma statehouse would cost $20,000, which the Satanic Temple is hoping to fund through online crowdsourcing. While the temple has yet to choose a design, Greaves says his preferred proposal is one that’s “meant as an object of play for children.” On Dec. 10, two days after announcing the project, the temple had raised $1,725. The temple’s previous crowdsourcing effort, to raise money for the adopt-a-highway program, only raised $2,244 of the $15,000 goal.