There’s a point in Penny Lane’s largely uncritical documentary Hail Satan? when the Satanic Temple‘s Detroit branch founder Jex Blackmore – who, like everyone in the film, does not seem to be operating under her birth name – carries out a dramatic and rather striking ritual Black Mass performance piece that includes naked people, pigs heads on spikes and a vigorous call to arms that includes a ‘threat’ to kill the President. It’s potent stuff and very much the sort of thing you’d want a Satanic event to be, especially compared to clips of the other Temple branches running clean up campaigns on local highways – worthy, certainly, but not very exciting even if they do use pitchforks to pick up the trash. But it’s also a statement in opposition to the Temple’s own Seven Tenets – or at least one of them. Here they are:
• One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward 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 forgo one’s own.
• Beliefs should conform to one’s best scientific understanding of the world. One should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one’s beliefs.
• People are fallible. If one makes a mistake, one should do one’s best to rectify it and resolve any harm that might 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.
I suppose “one’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s will alone” is an argument against violence to others, and if the call for Trump to die was more than just performance hyperbole, then fair enough. In any case, Blackmore’s mistake was beyond rectification, and she was out of the Temple. I recall some wild accusations and angry retorts flying around social media art this point, but Blackmore is in Lane’s film and doesn’t seem especially resentful. so all’s well that ends well.
If only all Satanic disagreements could end so happily.
If there is one thing the non-theist Satanic organisations have in common with traditional religions, it’s the continual in-fighting and arguments between breakaway groups. Admittedly, it’s on a more civilised and less violent level than Catholic vs Protestant, Sunni vs Shia, but it’s still a depressing reminder that it’s hard to remove conflict and tribalism from any religious movement.
The Satanic Temple have come a long way very quickly, and under the guidance of Temple head Lucien Greaves and his shadowy (literally so in the documentary) co-founders it has become the most high-profile Satanic organisation in the world. This is to the continued annoyance of the Church of Satan, formed in 1966 and until now the go-to voice for modern Satanism. The CoS has little time for TST, and is quick to continually point out on their always-lively Twitter feed that the Temple is an activist group, a hoax or, more recently, a Christian organisation masquerading as Satanists. This latter claim is down to the Temple becoming recognised as a religion for tax purposes, and placed on the required forms as ‘Christian’. The Church says this is proof of who they really are; the Temple says it is an admin error.
It’s certainly true that both organisations have very different ideas about what Satanism should be. The Church claims that they are the only true Satanists, as Anton LaVey set up their organisation back in 1966 and were the first people to establish Satanism as a religion. There’s truth there, though of course the idea of Satanist cults – and the use of the word – was already long established. The real argument is whether breakaway sects – of which there have been many over the years – can be genuine Satanists without the say-so of the CoS, perhaps similar in how various groups will argue that only they are the true Christians or true Muslims. The problem with being a religion, I’m guessing, is that you can’t copyright the name of that religion, only your church or temple or sect. Then it’s down to the rest of the world to makes its own mind up. And the Church of Satan has already stated that “you don’t have to join our organization to consider yourself a Satanist”, so it’s hard to then say that other groups can’t use the name, no matter how much you disagree with them – though perhaps they would argue that these new groups are not following the LaVayian tenets and so are false prophets, so to speak. Equally, the Church might well find the behaviour of other groups to be a mockery of what they stand for.
The Satanic Temple certainly seems to have stumbled into existence, from satire to protest movement to actual religion, and it’s easy to see why some would view them with suspicion when even many of the founders seem to admit that they were not Satanists in spirit or actuality when the whole thing began. Their start as a hoax is probably going to hang over them as long as they exist. For my part, I very much admire Lucien Greaves and don’t doubt his sincerity – and if by some unlikely chance he is just fooling around, he’s got a lot of balls, given how his life has now been irrevocably changed by his very public presence as the very recognisable face of modern Satanism. His organisation has, of course, brought about other breakaway sects – The Global Order of Satanism split from the UK branch of the Temple, feeling that the US division wasn’t able to support them, or any other international branches, effectively. There have also been tales of political disagreements, certainly with Greave’s free speech stance that includes debating with people who are politically far removed from TST’s mindset. Outside them all is the Church of Rational Satanism, another British-based organisation that follows the non-theist tradition, but seems generally to keep out of the arguments that have occurred with other groups. There are other groups too, and only time will tell if any will last as long as The Church of Satan, and longevity is perhaps the ultimate arbiter of authenticity.
The fracturing of the Satanic religions is nothing new – back in the 1970s, the Temple of Set broke away from the Church of Satan, disagreeing with – amongst other things – the CoS’s non-theist approach, and if there is one thing that you can almost certainly guarantee, it’s that as soon as any religious movement reaches a certain size, some members – or simply followers who were never formally aligned to the Church – are going to fall out with the leadership and want to go their own way. As soon as you have rules and regulations, no matter how loose they might be, and as soon as you have leaders who might do or say something that you find intolerable, then splits are assured. Christians who mock this in the Satanic world would do well to look at their own fractured history that includes countless splits and variations.
The main difference – and perhaps the main bone of contention – between the Church of Satan and the Satanic Temple is the sense of activism. The CoS prides itself on being non-political and individualistic. For them to campaign on anything would be anathema, and in violation of the first of the Eleven Satanic Rules of Earth (see below). The Satanic Temple, on the other hand, is defiantly activist and provocative – perhaps as a result of their origins, TST pull stunts that are making serious points, fighting for religious plurality and in support of things like abortion rights. The Church has always stayed away from such things, maintaining an Ayn Rand-derived libertarianism that is invariably at odds with the social justice driven new movements.
Strangely though, although on the surface the Church of Satan and The Satanic Temple are very different organisations – and we don’t expect a reconciliation any time soon – their rules and tenets are perhaps not that far apart. Here’s the CoS Rules:
• Do not give opinions or advice unless you are asked.
• Do not tell your troubles to others unless you are sure they want to hear them.
• When in another’s lair, show him respect or else do not go there.
• If a guest in your lair annoys you, treat him cruelly and without mercy.
• Do not make sexual advances unless you are given the mating signal.
• Do not take that which does not belong to you unless it is a burden to the other person and he cries out to be relieved.
• Acknowledge the power of magic if you have employed it successfully to obtain your desires. If you deny the power of magic after having called upon it with success, you will lose all you have obtained.
• Do not complain about anything to which you need not subject yourself.
• Do not harm little children.
• Do not kill non-human animals unless you are attacked or for your food.
• When walking in open territory, bother no one. If someone bothers you, ask him to stop. If he does not stop, destroy him.
Now, certainly there are points of disagreement in terminology, but it does seem that you could combine the two sets of rules/tenets and not have a massive clash. Certainly, I’m pretty much down with both sets of rules as a general guide in life. And the fact is that both organisations – alongside all the breakaway sects and groups – have common enemies that make their own disagreements seem petty. The Church of Satan found in the 1980s that it had to make a stand against the Satanic Panic (sometimes alongside the Temple of Set) or else face constant demonisation and persecution of its members, and while they clearly disapprove of the stunts of the Satanic Temple, the fact remains that those stunts are aimed at holding back the powers of an increasingly fundamentalist Christian movement in the USA (and a wider religious movement in other countries) that not only sees religious bodies demanding special rights and using their protected status to shut down criticism, but could also lead to more demonisation of Satanists and another attack on individual liberty and the rights of anyone to declares themselves a Satanist, plays Dungeons and Dragons, listens to heavy metal or simply chooses to be a free thinker who doesn’t want to follow the herd. As the Hail Satan? documentary shows, the Christian Right are on the march and have the ear of the President, while other Abrahamic religions are demanding similar rights and protections for themselves even as they demand that others have those rights and protections removed.
Hail Satan? is perhaps too much of a one-sided view – I didn’t want to necessarily hear from Bible bashers, but perhaps the thoughts of other Satanic groups might have provided more balance – but there’s no doubting that the Satanic Temple are the organisation of the moment, and my instincts are to support their provocations, even if I do still find the rules and the attitudes of the Church of Satan pretty hard to argue with. Perhaps that’s why, despite agreeing with most of what the various organisations stand for and thoroughly enjoying the idea of upsetting stupid people, I still can’t quite fully identify myself as a Satanist or join any existing group – I’m just too agnostic about the arguments and would struggle to pick a side to really commit to. Perhaps, as Groucho Marx said, I just don’t want to be part of any club that would have me as a member. Hail Satan? didn’t convince me otherwise. But the documentary is an interesting look at how 21st century Satanism is developing and changing, and offers a reasonable argument for why Satanists of all flavours are a necessary force in an increasingly fractured and evangelical society.