Let’s get this cleared up immediately: Members of The Satanic Temple do not worship Satan.
They don’t even believe in Satan. At least, not the way Christianity serves him up.
“We don’t believe in any gods, demons, devils, whatsoever,” said René Grigori, the pseudonym used by the SoCal temple minister and mild-mannered computer programmer in the Inland Empire.
“We may use that as part of our aesthetic, but we don’t believe they actually exist. We don’t believe in a literal Satan, but in Satan as a fictional character who represents our values, in much the same way that Uncle Sam is a fictional character who represents American values.”
The name was chosen nearly a decade ago by droll atheists in Massachusetts as a kind of goof — or middle finger, perhaps? — as religion crept ever further into public life. And while it clearly aspires to get the goat of the God-fearing and garner fantastic headlines, The Satanic Temple has adopted a stretch of Pacific Coast Highway between Bolsa Chica and Dog Beach in Huntington Beach, has raised money for food drives with a San Bernardino church and is now a bona fide church recognized by the Internal Revenue Service, prompting a re-examination of what the word “religion” really means.
It has 500 or so adherents in Los Angles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura and San Diego counties, hundreds more in Northern California, and some 700,000 worldwide. For these folks — who reject “tyrannical authority” and believe their ritual surrounding a pregnancy’s termination might protect abortion rights in states that have outlawed the procedure — the separation of church and state is paramount, and Satan is far more James Dean and Mae West than biblical fallen angel.
“Satan is a symbol of the Eternal Rebel in opposition to arbitrary authority, forever defending personal sovereignty even in the face of insurmountable odds. Satan is an icon for the unbowed will of the unsilenced inquirer – the heretic who questions sacred laws and rejects all tyrannical impositions,” the religion’s founders explain in their literature.
“Our metaphoric representation is the literary Satan best exemplified by Milton and the Romantic Satanists from Blake to Shelley to Anatole France.”
Adherents don’t worship anything, but if they did, it would be reason, empathy and the pursuit of knowledge.
Their bedrock beliefs include fighting injustice, protecting individual freedom and doing good works. “Beliefs should conform to one’s best scientific understanding of the world,” the church’s tenets state. “One should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit one’s beliefs.”
The rejection of traditional religion is a religious choice. And IRS-recognized churches get great tax breaks from the government, including exemptions from income, sales, property and other taxes – perks that were worth at least $71 billion a year, a conservative study found in 2015.
“Are we supposed to believe that those who pledge submission to an ethereal supernatural deity hold to their values more deeply than we?” the SoCal Group asks on its website. “Are we supposed to concede that only the superstitious are rightful recipients of religious exemption and privilege?”
The IRS found it hard to argue with that logic, and The Satanic Temple was deemed a church in 2019. One of its bedrock beliefs is that “One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.” And that’s where the abortion debate and its secular ritual comes in. But first –
What is religion?
It’s a fascinating and age-old debate, wrote religious studies scholar Joseph P. Laycock of Texas State University, who wrote a book on The Satanic Temple titled “Speak of the Devil.”
In 1961, the Supreme Court concluded that there are many religions “that are just not interested in God,” such as Buddhism, Confucianism and some forms of Judaism, Laycock wrote. The court didn’t define religion, but it said that religion is not synonymous with theism (the belief in a god or gods as creator(s) of the universe).
In “America: Religions and Religion,” scholar Catherine Albanese argued that religions are systems with their own creeds, or a set of beliefs; code, or set of rules; cultus, or set of rituals; and community.
“The word religion lends itself to such creative legal uses precisely because it has no set definition. As religion scholar Russell McCutcheon says, religion’s ‘utility is linked to its inability to be defined,’ ” Laycock wrote.
“The Satanic Temple is significant because it renders this sort of verbal slipperiness less tenable. If this group can no longer be dismissed as a ‘hoax,’ people might be forced to think a bit more about what religion is.”
About 8% of Americans are atheists or agnostics, with another 16% saying “nothing in particular,” according to a recent Pew study. There are more atheists in the Los Angeles metro region than in the nation as a whole, making SoCal fertile ground for The Satanic Temple.
There are gleeful pokes of Satanic fingers in establishment eyeballs. To wit:
The Satanic Temple insisted that Oklahoma erect their statue of Baphomet, a winged-goat-like version of Satan, beside the monument of the Ten Commandments installed at the State Capitol in 2012. The Oklahoma Supreme Court ordered that the Ten Commandments monument be removed.
It filed suit against the city of Scottsdale, Arizona, in 2020 after it was uninvited from giving the invocation at a city council meeting (“Let us stand now, unbowed and unfettered by arcane doctrines born of fearful minds in darkened times. Let us embrace the Luciferian impulse to eat of the Tree of Knowledge and dissipate our blissful and comforting delusions of old….”).
It has helped folks form “After School Satan” programs to teach rational thinking in schools that host Christian “Good News” clubs. It has an advocacy arm trying to protect mental health patients from what it calls “dangerous pseudoscience and discredited therapies.”
It has fought with companies in several states after its billboards showing a bowl of batter on one side and an egg and sperm on the other (“Not a cake…Not a baby”) were rejected. And it has sued Texas over its abortion prohibitions and is ready with a novel recipe to protect members who live in states where the procedure is illegal.
The abortion ritual
As the courts pointed out, religions have rituals. And so does The Satanic Temple.
Not at all mystical and admittedly often boring, this one includes the medical or surgical abortion itself and “serves to cast off notions of guilt, shame, and mental discomfort that a patient may experience when choosing to have a medically safe abortion,” the ritual primer says.
“This ritual is designed to alleviate these stressors and empower the patient to be guided by an appreciation of their bodily autonomy and knowledge of best scientific information about the process.”
To perform this ritual, a member needs only a quiet space, a mirror and a copy of The Satanic Temple’s Third and Fifth Tenets: “One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone,” and “Beliefs should conform to one’s best scientific understanding of the world.”
There’s the taking the medication or performance of the procedure, followed by the personal affirmation, “By my body, my blood, By my will, it is done.”
Will that be enough to convince a doctor in Oklahoma that he/she and the patient are protected from legal fallout? Well, it’s certainly an interesting philosophic exercise. The Satanic Temple is poised to bring lawsuits to protect this slice of religious freedom, and it wants the FDA to grant it unrestricted access to Mifepristone and Misoprostol for use under medical supervision as part of its religious abortion ritual.
Minister Grigori, for his part, was raised Catholic and went to Catholic schools, where he had a lot of time to question and doubt the doctrine. He eventually concluded there was no God, became active in Riverside Atheists and Free Thinkers, but still wasn’t satisfied.
Atheists knew what they didn’t believe in. But what did they believe in?
Soon he heard about The Satanic Temple, its core tenets and its headline-grabbing antics. There has been no looking back.
It’s a community of like-minded people. There are weekly meetings online and occasional in-person events. They’re more like educational seminars than religious services. There are campaigns and causes and good works, like adopting that stretch of Pacific Coast Highway between Bolsa Chica and Dog Beach in Orange County (folks can be spied every couple of weeks there picking up trash), marching in local Pride parades (let people be who the heck they are so long as they’re not harming anyone else), and raising thousands of dollars to help an Episcopal Church in San Bernardino provide food to the needy during the height of COVID.
“We don’t hate Christians, though there are Christians who hate us,” he said. “We’re willing to work with anyone who values, and practices, compassion.”
The temple sees itself as a bastion for liberty, justice and the American way. And who couldn’t do with a little more compassion?.