Virgin sacrifices. Occult rituals. Drinking blood from skull-shaped chalices.
If these practices pique your interest then the Satanic Temple is probably not for you. As the FAQ section on their website succinctly suggests for all those seeking to sell souls, get rich, or join the Illuminati: “Please look elsewhere”. They have little or nothing in common with the carnivalesque Church of Satan founded by Anton LaVey in the 1960s and do not believe in Satan or any other deity.
Their mission, rather, is “to encourage benevolence and empathy among all people”, to “embrace practical common sense and justice,” and is guided by their “conscience to undertake noble pursuits.”
Their reasonable central tenets include: “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” and “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”.
Whither the Dark Lord?
"Exactly!" says Lucien Greaves, the Satanic Temple's spokesman and co-founder. "People often wonder, why Satan? Especially if you're not motivated by theism. For one thing, we grew up in Christian culture where these symbols are equally meaningful, irrespective of whether we believe in them literally or not. The affirmative values we arrived at entail a rejection of superstitious norms.
“Satanism has been amalgamated with cannibalism and all kinds of accusations. And these were invented as purchase against other groups, especially minority groups. So Satan is an important and historical point of reference.”
A progressive, inclusive, non-theistic, civic-minded, and anti-authoritarian movement, the Satanic Temple is one of the fastest growing religions in America and has the tax-exempt status to prove it.
“Our membership is very diverse,” says Greaves. “We first had a real interest from the LGBTQ community because a lot of people felt outcast from or not accepted by traditional religious organisations. They really appreciated a sense of community that wasn’t simply defined by their sexual orientation. Our demographics are shifting as people realise how inclusive we are what we stand for. Before, it was viewed as a kind of Death Metal phenomena but it’s here for any everybody who would embrace it.”
Greaves and the Satanic Temple have been inundated with enquiries since last January when Hail Satan? – a new documentary chronicling the rise of the church – premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews.
"I was looking at our emails and we just got this ridiculous product placement offer from some production company in Los Angeles, " says Greaves. "They're doing a love-matching reality show and they are offering us the opportunity to buy product placement for the Satanic Temple. I don't think they quite realise who they're actually sending this to."
Greaves became fascinated by the idea of satanism during childhood, as the satanic panic of the 1980s and 1990s – a hysteria that took aim at everything from heavy metal music to Dungeons and Dragons role-playing games – raged across America.
“I grew up in this daytime talkshow culture that was talking about all these horrific crimes that were being instigated by satanists,” recalls Greaves. “And I was too young to be properly sceptical of those claims, but as I grew older and I read about them and other conspiracy theories and tried to figure out why people make these claims to begin with, I saw that the real wickedness was in those claims themselves. The satanic cult that these people were talking about never existed. But the witch hunts did and people’s lives were ruined by those claims.”
The Detroit-born Greaves studied neuroscience, specialising in false-memory syndrome, at Harvard University, where he met fellow graduate and Satanic Temple co-founder, Malcolm Jarry. Inspired by Florida's Christian governor Rick Scott and his Bill to allow voluntary prayer at public school functions, Greaves and Jarry, two atheists posing as satanists, staged a faux rally in support of the Bill, chanting "Hail Satan! Hail Rick Scott!" This smart piece of theatre set the stage for future actions of the Satanic Temple.
The organisation have frequently counter-protested pro-life demonstrations outside Planned Parenthood premises
In 2013, the Satanic Temple made headlines for its "pink mass" over the grave of the mother of Fred Phelps, founder of the extremist Westboro Baptist Church. The ritual, which saw same-sex couples kissing, was described on the Satanic Temple website as having turned Phelps's mother "gay in the afterlife."
It sounds like trolling and Fox News seldom tires of covering the Satanic Temple and their prankster activism. (Greaves has featured on the right-wing news network many times). But the church is impressively community-minded and can often be found picking up litter on beaches and along highways.
In 2014, their Protect Children Project offered “First Amendment protection to support children who may be at risk for being subjected to mental or physical abuse in school by teachers and administrators through the use of solitary confinement, restraints, and corporal punishment”. In 2015, against a wave of Islamophobic sentiment following the Paris attacks, the Satanic Temple offered to help or escort any Muslims feeling unsafe.
The organisation have frequently counter-protested pro-life demonstrations outside Planned Parenthood premises. Earlier this year, they unsuccessfully challenged a Missouri state law requiring abortion providers to distribute a booklet claiming that: "The life of each human being begins at conception. Abortion will terminate the life of a separate, unique, living human being."
Penny Lane, the director of Hail Satan?, carefully contextualises the Satanic Temple's actions against the bogus and creeping notion of America as a Christian nation, an idea borne out of Cold War propaganda. The phrase "In God We Trust" replaced "E pluribus unum" (from many, one) as recently as 1956. The words "under God" were added to the US pledge of allegiance in 1954. The first amendment to the US constitution protects freedom of expression and religion, but the document makes no mention of God.
"The United States has taken a real and dangerous turn into cultural theocracy at this point," says Greaves. "I feel that's more generally understood by the journalists I've spoken to in Europe than the journalists in the United States, who I think are in some kind of state of denial. Hopefully, exposes like The Family (on Netflix) and films like Hail Satan? will make people a little more aware of what's going on.
“I think we’ve been conditioned to accept these subtle encroachments, like God appearing on our money or God being inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance. What Hail Satan? shows is just how those supposedly ceremonial and patriotic nods towards our history and heritage are turned into this exclusive licence for Christianity to have primary placement in the public realm to the exclusion of everybody else.”
Thus, when the city council of Phoenix, Arizona, introduced Christian prayer into its meetings, the Satanic Temple demanded the inclusion of satanic prayers. In response, the council soon ditched all prayers. In response to the decision to allow the Child Evangelism Fellowship's pro-Christian Good News after school clubs into US public schools, the Satanic Temple founded After School Satan clubs to promote scientific rationalism.
“These groups are well-funded and well organised,” says Greaves. “There are a bunch of organisations working together internationally and in the United States and they’ve been making enormous strides. You can see that with the rise of conservative nationalism globally. It’s really quite frightening.
"The Satanic Temple were keenly aware of these issues and we took them seriously during the Obama era. But the election of another Republican has us moving ever so surely towards theocracy. Donald Trump has no agenda of his own. He is a complete moron. But he's a useful tool for certain interests that fund the Republican party."
Was he surprised when the Christian right got behind Trump’s presidential bid?
“You are never surprised about these things when you do the things that I do,” says Greaves. “I see the depths of the hypocrisy all the time. Some of these people have given themselves a moral self-licence. I often get emails that explicitly say that good deeds don’t matter – because some of these people are very offended that satanists are doing pro-social work and they feel that’s not our domain – that what matters is that you are aligned with the proper deity.
“And they believe that to the point that you can do whatever you want so long as you ask for forgiveness afterwards and pledge allegiance to Christ. I think that’s kind of the thinking with Donald Trump. He might be a couple times divorced; he might advocate for grabbing pussies; he might have all kinds of human rights violations on his record; but at the end of the day, he’s fighting on the right side so it doesn’t really matter what it does.
“I find it interesting that after all of the despicable things he has been responsible for, recently evangelicals were souring on him, only because he had used blasphemous language – the word goddamn – several times at a rally. That just shows you how skewed people’s priorities can be when they’re sure they’re working on the side of an unquestionably holy agenda.”
When the Oklahoma state capitol allowed for the installation of a Ten Commandments sculpture on its grounds – a piece that originated as a promotional tool for Cecil B DeMille's biblical epic – the Satanic Temple campaigned to erect a statue of Baphomet, the goat-headed idol allegedly worshiped by the Knights Templar during the 13th and 14th centuries. Hail Satan? follows the Baphomet statue to Arkansas where Greaves puts on a bulletproof vest before addressing a rally.
“It was a weird feeling in Arkansas because when I was walking up to the podium I could see people with guns,” recalls Greaves. “It’s an open carry state and they wanted us to see that they had them. When I was giving the final speech at the rally fully expecting a one of them would try to take a shot but none of them did. It’s bizarre you can get about that kind of thing after a while.”
Understandably, Greaves, who sometimes goes by the pseudonym Douglas Mesner, does not use his legal name. He routinely receives death threats from white and Christian supremacy groups and the Ku Klux Klan.
"One problem is that a lot of the threats come through Facebook and Facebook has their own policies on regulating death threats they have never found a death threat made against the Satanic Temple to be outside their terms of service," explains Greaves. "There's always that question whether or not it's a credible threat. And you just never know until somebody does something radically stupid. But that's just part of the day to day."
Hail Satan? is in cinemas now