Religious Pluralism and The Satanic Temple 10 August 2016

TST-baph-statueThe Satanic Temple (TST ) is a politically motivated religious organization that opposes any policy that privileges any particular religion (a.k.a Christianity) over other religions. In America, TST has been so effective at settling freedom of religion disputes that Hermant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, has called them the nuclear option  in church/state separation cases. Also, after distributing their colouring books in Central Florida, David Williamson of the Central Florida Freethought Community, coined the phrase Lucien’s Law, named after the pseudonym of one of the co-founders of TST. It states: “governments will either (1) close open forums when The Satanic Temple asks to speak, or (2) censor The Satanic Temple, thereby opening itself to legal liability.” As long as all religions are denied an open forum, as in (1), TST is happy with the result. TST’s successes should result in more theological and social reflection about what successful pluralism entails, especially among Christians.

In 2014 TST commissioned a statue of Baphomet, an ambiguously gendered half human/half goat, who has served as a symbol of Satanism for decades. This statue was originally intended to be displayed at the Oklahoma State Capitol alongside a monument dedicated to the 10 Commandments. However, an Oklahoma State Supreme Court judge ordered the removal of the 10 Commandments monument, removing the need for TST to continue its suit.

Meanwhile in Arkansas, Governor Asa Hutchinson signed a bill that would allow a privately funded 10 Commandments monument to be erected at the Arkansas State Capitol. In response, TST also petitioned the state of Arkansas to be allowed to place Baphomet there. There has been no final decision on when or where to place these monuments; thus, Baphomet’s temporary home is Detroit, Michigan, one of the strongest TST chapters.

In response to TST’s unveiling of this statue, Bart Barber writing for The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, argues that Christians should not try to win a monuments-and-statues race, that every idol is a satanic monument, that neither Jesus nor the apostles attempted to take down any of the statues dedicated to the Roman Gods, and that an angry response is TST’s intention. This is not, however, a good interpretation of their intentions. Their preferred response is not anger, but rather acceptance of minority religions, even those that are diametrically opposed to the majority.

However, even Barber’s response is better than Detroit minister David Bullock’s understanding. Bullock, one of the most vocal opponents of the Detroit unveiling, stated:

“they [TST] now seek to pervert the notion of religious freedom by poisoning our city and culture in their attempt to elevate a demonic symbol.”

This quote betrays a lack of understanding of TST’s pluralistic purpose. However, his misunderstanding is even more obvious when he claims that they were “kicked out of Boston; Oklahoma didn’t want them; they tried to put Satanic colouring books in Florida – that was shut down…” With the exception of the attempt to hold a “Black Mass” in Boston, these cases were successful from TST’s perspective. Yes, they were blocked from putting a statue at Oklahoma’s State Capitol and were disallowed from handing out Satanic coloring books, but Christians were denied their monuments and literature as well. And appearing on “Let it Rip” with TST spokeswoman Jex Blackmore, Bullock seems unable to comprehend the possibility of a religion without a supernatural God.

Bullock reacted with prejudice and without attempting to correct this prejudice. He likely still would have opposed the unveiling; however, he did not attempt to understand before he critiqued (or, in this case, vilified). Also, the Detroit unveiling was always intended to be a private, not public event.

Understanding Bullock’s reaction requires understanding his belief system. In his version of Christianity, demons are real and a statue dedicated to a demon would likely cause more demons or at least a satanic presence to be brought to his city. Bullock was thinking on a spiritual level and not about pluralism. And less devout Christians, Christians with less intense beliefs in the supernatural, and even some non-believers would likely have a similar “not in my backyard” response to the Baphomet statue. However, we should reflect on when religion should be allowed into the public sphere, as your theological enemies may request access to the open forum.

People often have a deep-seated fear and respect for sacred things even if they do not believe in them. In 2000, Jonathan Haidt and Fredrik Björklund discovered even people who do not even believe in a soul are reluctant to sell it. In the Harry Potter series, the prohibition against speaking Voldemort’s name is believable because virtually everyone has some idea what it is like to fear the name of evil. For much of the Western world that name is Satan. TST has chosen a title that most people in the Western world fear.

And, at least in their choice of aesthetics, TST does little to dissuade from this initial impression. The TST held a ceremony at the Michigan State Capitol where they appeared with muted American flags and dressed in black gothic clothing while Blackmore, their spokeswoman, gave a speech that included a few repetitions of the phrase “Hail Satan.” On their website there is currently a parody of “Silent Night” called “Arbitrary Night,” complete with people dressed as goat men in honor of Baphomet.

However, TST does not encourage belief in a literal Satan. Instead, Satan is a symbol of the Eternal Rebel opposed to arbitrary authority. Thus, they are choosing images and aesthetics that a predominately Christian nation would find disturbing. And this works well to close previously open forums that Christians had formerly dominated.

So how might we use these events brought about by the TST to reflect on pluralism more constructively? Well, not by dismissing them simply because they are Satanists. Not by calling them the enemy and fighting against their displays. A better theological and social response would be to reflect on their motivations as well as on how, in a pluralistic world, religion should be conducted in the public sphere. I have no answers to these dilemmas but I think we can start to tackle them by asking ourselves: “If someone had the exact opposite religious beliefs as we do, how should we treat them when they enter the public sphere?”

This article is from Issue 13 of On Religion. You can subscribe to the print magazine for just £19 a year by Direct Debit. Subscribe Button

About Daniel Ansted

Daniel has an M.A in Philosophy, History and Philosophy of Science, and Religious Studies. As a religion critic, his main objective is to experience examples of religion first hand and to make judgments of these examples based on his experience. You can view his blog or @areligioncritic on Twitter.

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