Is the Satanist Behind 10 Commandments Challenge Sincere?

This week RD interviewed “Lucien Greaves,” the brains behind the proposal for a Satanic monument on the grounds of the Oklahoma capital and the “Pink Mass,” held to convert the spirit of Fred Phelps’ mother to homosexuality, both organized by The Satanic Temple.

My initial suspicion was that Greaves was simply a “smartass” who took issue with conservative Christian hegemony and was employing satire, much like Bobby Henderson when he created the Flying Spaghetti Monster. However, Greaves assured me his commitment to Satanism is sincere, explaining, “There’s nothing easy about openly taking on the label ‘Satanism.’” Greaves’ philosophy of Satanism has led him to fight what he sees as social injustice, and brought him into conflict with conservative Christians and other Satanists, fomenting a discussion about the place of religion in a democratic and religiously plural society.

Greaves came of age during the Satanic Panic when a coalition of talk-show hosts, dubious psychotherapists, “cult cops,” and Christians interested in spiritual warfare sent America into hysteria over Satanic conspiracies that resulted in innocent people being prosecuted and imprisoned. Greaves initially assumed stories of criminal Satanists must have some basis in fact. He sought out self-identified Satanists, meeting a priest of the Church of Satan and even former members of The Process Church of the Final Judgment. While he found no basis for the Panic, he did find Satanic philosophy compelling and ultimately came to identify as a non-theistic Satanist.

Later, as a graduate student studying cognitive science, he became further outraged by fear mongering. He found that certain therapists were still encouraging claims of Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) and even using hypnosis and other therapies to induce “memories” of abuse in their patients. He began to write articles attacking groups like the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISST-D), which promotes the theory that trauma causes dissociative states and represses memories of Satanic crime.

Not Your Parents’ Satanism

In 2005, Greaves had lunch with Peter H. Gilmore, high priest of the Church of Satan founded by Anton LaVey. Greaves felt that a cultural shift had occurred with the rise of the New Atheist movement, led by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, and that Satanists should participate in this new conversation about religion in the public sphere. As a cognitive scientist, he was suspicious of Dawkins’ claims that humanity can live without religion since he felt that humans are “hard wired” to interpret the world through a rich language of symbol, narrative, and ritual. So Greaves imagined Satanism as a religion that could combine Dawkins’ aversion to supernaturalism with powerful and compelling symbols—what might be called a “sacralized” atheism.

He also felt that organized Satanism had become moribund and needed to become politically active. “What is the point of an organization, if it doesn’t organize? You can’t advocate something and then not do anything about it.”

Tired of Satanists simply deriding the claims of the panic-mongers and wanting to go on the offensive, Greaves wants “all out war on the ISSTD.”

Despite this bellicose language, I was surprised to see that Greaves mentions compassion in many of his writings. Asked whether compassion isn’t out of sync with Satanist ideas about social Darwinism, Greaves suggested that Anton LaVey’s rhetoric about social Darwinism was meant to appear “evil yet justifiable.”

In practice, brutal social Darwinism cannot be reconciled with Satanism’s commitment to reason because it is based on a flawed understanding of human social evolution. Greaves explained, “As a species, altruism has enabled us to survive. We won’t get far if we mistake altruism for weakness.” While he may advocate compassion for more pragmatic reasons than Christians, Greaves’ take on Satanism has more in common with Christianity than either might care to admit.

Pink Mass

Greaves was eventually approached by The Satanic Temple, a group that shared his political goals and saw Satanism as a “poison pill” that could be used to check the erosion of the establishment clause by reminding the public that privileges afforded to Christians could also be afforded to Satanists. The persona “Lucien Greaves” was created to be the face of the Satanic Temple. In his more mundane persona, Doug Mesner, Greaves was already receiving a stream of hate mail and death threats for attacking claims of Satanic Ritual Abuse and repressed memories. He assumed that openly endorsing Satanism would bring even heavier attacks. Strangely it did not. “My daily persona gets a lot more hate mail than Lucien Greaves,” he explained

In January 2013 the Temple’s campaign began with a rally to support Florida governor Rick Scott, who signed a bill allowing religious “inspirational messages” to be read before assemblies in public schools. This was followed by the aforementioned “Pink Mass” at the gravesite of the mother of Westboro Baptist Church leader Fred Phelps, a service that would turn the woman’s spirit gay, according to the Temple. There have also been plans to adopt a highway. However, the most successful campaign to date has been the offer to build a monument to the historical significance of Satan on the grounds of the Oklahoma capital as a compliment to an existing Ten Commandments monument.

Greaves says he’s only getting started as the Temple continues to experiment and determine which tactics are most effective. They also have a growing legal team. Future plans involve legally ordaining ministers and using the free exercise clause to claim privileges for Satanists. Satanic ministers could, for example, illegally marry a gay couple and then, when the state refuses to recognize the marriage, claim that their free exercise rights have been violated.

Other projects involve the Satanic ideal that one’s body is sacred and inviolable. Expressing disgust that corporal punishment is still legal in schools throughout the South and beyond, Greave hopes to produce waivers for Satanic families providing a religious exemption from corporal punishment (an ironic reversal of SRA claims, in which Satanists would actually prevent child abuse). A similar exemption would be sought for Satanic women in states that implicitly require trans-vaginal ultrasound to receive an abortion—a policy that opponents have called “state-sponsored rape.”

A ‘Real’ Satanist?

To gain any legal traction, Greaves will have to demonstrate that he is sincere about Satanism and that these projects are more than just pranks, which may prove difficult for a newly formed group that denies any belief in the supernatural. His opponents understand this too. Greaves described how, before his work with the Satanic Temple, advocates of SRA produced conspiracy theories about him, claiming that only someone secretly connected to criminal Satanism would challenge their claims. But now that he’s demanded Constitutional rights for Satanists, his detractors have reversed course. In an interview with Fox News he was repeatedly challenged as not being a real Satanist. Even the Church of Satan has joined the queue to call Greaves a phony Satanist. 

In an article for Time, the Church’s High Priestess Magistra Peggy Nadramia, claimed that Greaves is not an authentic Satanist and merely “riding the coattails” of the Church of Satan, adding that “The Church of Satan is decidedly uninterested in politics.” Greaves dismissed these attacks, asserting that preserving their status as the monolithic embodiment of Satanism appears to be the Church’s only goal. For his own part, Greaves claims he has no interest in being the public face of Satanism and that struggles over leadership are at odds with Satanism’s anti-authoritarian philosophy.

Interestingly, the claim that Greaves is not a “real” Satanist often hinges on his atheism, though he says, “If I were a fake, I would just claim a theistic belief in Satan.” Greaves rejects the idea that religion is fundamentally about faith in the supernatural. He explained, “Look at the Jews. They’re united by a shared sense of identity and ritual praxis, not belief. No one would question whether Judaism is a religion.”

Greaves feels that a community centered around Satan—not as a literal entity but a potent metaphor for values that he holds sacred—is more than just a philosophy and should enjoy the same Constitutional protections afforded to religion. If the Satanic Temple’s campaign has any traction it will force a public discussion not simply on the Constitutional issues surrounding religion, but on the perennial problem of what religion is.

Joseph Laycock is an assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University. His forthcoming books include The Seer of Bayside: Veronica Lueken and the Struggle for Catholic Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2014) and Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic Over Role-Playing Games Says About Religion, Play, and Imagined Worlds (University of California Press, 2015).

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