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‘Speak of the Devil’? That’s the point of Satanic sect, Austin author says

Joe Gross
“Speak of the Devil" [Contributed by Oxford University Press]

It’s not every day you get to hear the sentence “Look, you’re not a real Satanist” in conversation.

The speaker in question, Texas State religious studies professor (and Austin native) Joseph P. Laycock, is not talking about me (though I am not a real Satanist, no), and we are discussing his new book, “Speak of the Devil: How the Satanic Temple Is Changing the Way We Talk about Religion” (Oxford University Press).

The public perception of Satanism is all over the place. Some folks think it’s a weird joke, all satin capes and silly rituals. Some folks think it’s genuinely dangerous and can inspire young people to murder or commit abuse (see also the “Satanic panic” of the 1980s). Some think it pairs automatically with heavy metal.

But Satanism comes in a variety of ideological flavors. My discussion with Laycock soon dives into the differences between:

• The Church of Satan (the one you’ve probably heard of, started by Howard Stanton Levey, aka Anton LaVey, in 1966)

• The Temple of Set (the one you probably haven’t heard of, the result of a Church of Satan schism in 1975 — “an esoteric group interested in the occult rituals,” Laycock says)

• Laycock’s main interest, the Satanic Temple (the one with the big statue of Baphomet, launched in 2012)

The Satanic Temple was founded by Malcolm Jarry and Lucien Greaves (real name Doug Mesner) in response to a Florida law that would allow students to read “inspirational messages of their choosing” at assemblies and sporting events. (Early drafts used the word “prayer.”)

The two saw an opportunity to make a point about how slippery slopes can be. Jarry himself had no background in Satanism. His friend Mesner was a Satanist and agreed to help him. “Lucien Greaves” was a pseudonym they used for correspondence.

“But Mesner had to become Greaves as the project wore on and the media asked questions about Satanism,” Laycock says.

Jarry and Greaves came up with a manifesto of sorts and decided to hold a rally in January 2013, “in which Satanists praised (Florida’s then-Gov.) Rick Scott for turning public schools into a platform from which to spread Satanic ideology,” Laycock writes. The theory: If you allow kids to read inspirational messages from the New Testament, you have to let them read inspirational messages about Satan.

(And no, the Satanic Temple does not actually worship Satan the way Christians worship Jesus.)

The rally occurred and picked up a bit of national coverage, but Jarry and Greaves weren’t done. They had a belief system to flesh out.

The first of seven core tenants of the Satanic Temple: “One should strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason.”

This ... doesn’t sound too traditionally Satanic.

LaVey, the Church of Satan founder, “was very influenced by Ayn Rand. His philosophy was that we should all be looking out for ourselves, social welfare is a scam, that sort of thing. The Satanic Temple is the opposite,“ Laycock says.

The Church of Satan, he adds, has contended that this means the Satanic Temple “doesn’t understand what Satanism is. It basically comes down to libertarianism versus a vision of social progress.”

» Related:From Salem to Austin, Satanic Temple recognized by IRS as church

Laycock says this is the “paradox inherent in Satanism: If you celebrate going your own way and maximum individuality, how do you organize at all?”

The Satanic Temple, Laycock argues, is not only organized, but represents one of the most intriguing recent developments in contemporary American religion. (The Satanic Temple has an Austin chapter, by the way, established in 2016 — with 40 to 50 members as of April. That year, a representative of the Satanic Temple was scheduled to give the invocation at an Austin City Council meeting, but backed out.)

Laycock had written about the intersection of religion and mortal panic before, but it wasn’t so much the Satanism that drew his eye to the Satanic Temple. It was the U.S. Constitution.

After the Florida rally, Jarry and Greaves sent a letter to the Oklahoma State Capitol Preservation Commission “offering to construct a monument to Satan” to accompany the Ten Commandments monument that had been erected on the grounds of the state Capitol the previous year. (The memorial was removed from the grounds in 2015.)

This led to the Satanic Temple starting a crowdfunding campaign to create a statue of Baphomet and two children. The winged goat-man-demon-thing now known as Baphomet was first drawn by an occultist named Éliphas Lévi in 1856; the name dates from the 14th century. Using that image, an artist named Mark Porter forged a sculpture called “Baphomet with Children.” (As Laycock writes, “Jarry wanted to design the statue so that visitors could sit in Baphomet’s lap for ‘contemplation and introspection.’”)

The statue was unveiled at a Satanic Temple event in 2015 in Detroit. While it was never displayed in Oklahoma, the statue showed up in Arkansas in 2018 to protest the Ten Commandments on the grounds of that state’s Capitol.

“One of my main arguments in the book is that religious Satanism actually matters,” Laycock says, “and one of the reasons it matters is that it forces a public conversation about some very difficult topics.” (Hence, the book’s title.)

“How does religious pluralism actually work in the U.S.?” he continues. “What is the definition of a religion?”

In “Speak of the Devil,” Laycock offers a history of Satanists, touching on LaVey’s church (“instead of challenging Christianity’s political power, they wanted to challenge its ability to inculcate guilt and shame so that they could better enjoy what pleasures the world offered”).

But the book focuses mostly on Jarry and Greaves. “I remember talking to Jarry about creating the seven tenants of the Satanic Temple,” Laycock says. “He said, ‘You know, people think we’re not a real religion, but we believe in justice. Justice exists only as an ideal. Laws bring us closer to justice, but it can never be fully attained.’”

As Laycock contends, opposition to the Satanic Temple as a religion mostly denies it’s a real faith at all, which “Speak of the Devil” argues that it is. Or, in one weird serve, that if the Satanic Temple is a religion, well, maybe freedom of religion shouldn’t exist at all.

Then again, we are in a seriously weird moment.

“The main thing,” Laycock says, “is that the Satanic Temple and what it represents is part of a much bigger cycle in the American culture war. It’s not a coincidence that after the 2016 election, membership in the Satanic Temple surged. The temple’s existence forces questions about what happens when white Christians are no longer the majority.”

If you go

Joseph P. Laycock will speak and sign copies of “Speak of the Devil: How the Satanic Temple Is Changing the Way We Talk about Religion” at 7 p.m. Feb. 17 at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd. The reading portion is free and open to the public. Only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: