The Satanic Temple says it espouses a Satan who is not the same Biblical "Father of Lies" who tempted Christ in the wilderness.
"Satan, to us, is not a deity or entity, but rather a symbol of the ultimate revolutionary iconoclast exemplified by Milton, William Blake and Anatole France," said Jex Blackmore, a leader of the Satanic Temple’s new Detroit chapter and a member of the organization’s executive ministry team.
Blackmore told Aleteia that her group’s brand of Satanism—more comparable to a rationalist humanist philosophy than a mystical religion—provides her co-religionists with a sense of identity, community, custom and shared values.
"Our group includes mothers and fathers, veterans, musicians, professors, entrepreneurs and students," Blackmore said. "We represent all different walks of life."
The Satanic Temple has made headlines in recent months for its provocative efforts to organize a "black mass" at Harvard University and for trying to erect a statue of Baphomet—a bearded, goat-headed pagan deity—in Oklahoma City as a countermeasure against Christians installing the Ten Commandments at the state capitol.
It it not affiliated, however, with another satanic group, the Dakhma of Angra Mainya, which is performing a black mass Sept. 21 at the Oklahoma City Civic Center,
The controversial organization has also protested informed consent laws for women seeking abortions, held a "pink mass" ritual — which purports to turn someone gay in the afterlife — at the grave of the late Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps Jr.’s mother, and has offered to officiate at same-sex wedding ceremonies in Michigan, with the goal of overturning that state’s laws that currently define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
Over the next few weeks, the Satanic Temple plans to open 15 new chapters across the United States, as well as several internationally. The organization boasts more than 10,000 online members, which includes teens and people in their late 60s.
"We have slightly more females than males involved in the online community, but overall we are very diverse," Blackmore said.
The Satanic Temple’s rising profile — some critics dismiss it as the result of sensational media coverage — is occurring at the same time that more Americans than ever, especially millennials, are not identifying with any particular religion. The Pew Research Center estimates that 20 percent of the U.S. public — and a third of adults under 30 — are religiously unaffiliated in this more secularized age.
In 2011, Carlo Climati, the press officer for the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome, told the Catholic News Agency that a society "dominated by moral relativism fosters the spread of Satanism," which he argued creates “a society that is turned on its head, in which good becomes evil and evil becomes good.”
Jesuit Father James T. Bretzke, a professor moral theology at Boston College, told Aleteia that the rise of cults and religious groups, including the Satanic Temple, is a common feature in American culture, which is marked by voluntary association.
"People, especially in the United States, find meaning and identity by belonging to certain groups that not everybody belongs to," Father Bretzke said, adding that in this context, Satanism, which historically has suffered from "bad press," will have a certain draw.
"There is always going to be a fascination with religious ritual, which you’re not going to get in everyday life, coupled with this new idea, this repackaging of rationalism under the Satanic label," Father Bretzke said.
Blackmore said the Satanic Temple is a "non-theistic religious organization" that does not participate in bloody animal sacrifices or subscribe to "supernaturalism." The group sees religion as "metaphorical construct" by which people contextualize their lives, works and goals.
The Satanic Temple, according to its members, does not "worship" Satan but instead holds him up as a literary embodiment of a political liberator and cultural hero who stands up against arbitrary rules and unjust authority.
"We openly seek to destroy cruel, divisive witch-hunting demonologies," Blackmore said, "not to preserve them by acceding to a false assumption of intrinsic criminality and moral deficiency in the Satanic narrative."
The Satanic Temple’s "seven fundamental tenets" stress empiricism, individual freedom, including the "freedom to offend." The group says it also embraces blasphemy "as a legitimate expression of personal independence from counter-productive traditional norms." Blackmore said the Satanic Temple seeks to "encourage benevolence and empathy" among all people, and to embrace practical common sense and justice.
"One common misconception about us is that we promote evil harmful ideologies," Blackmore said. "However, much of what people think they know about Satanism is still derived from thoroughly debunked conspiracist panic."
However, Father Roger Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., and a Harvard University alumnus who spoke out against the black mass at his alma mater, told Aleteia that "something more" is happening beyond the Satanic Temple’s stated intentions.
"I’ll take them at their word that what they think they’re about is this mix between provocative attacks on organized religion under the name of Satan and some type of philosophy that guides their life," Father Landry said.
"But objectively, what they’re doing is invoking not a phantasm but a real power of evil, and secondly, attempting not to mock in words, but to mock in sacrilegious action, things that religious believers know are real, for example like the Holy Eucharist," Father Landry said.
In May, the Satanic Temple generated significant controversy over its efforts to organize a black mass at Harvard University. Traditionally in the black mass ritual, a consecrated Eucharistic host is desecrated with bodily fluids. The planned event caused such an uproar that a Harvard student club withdrew its sponsorship, though a campus newspaper reported that the Satanic Temple later held a scaled-down version of the event at an off-campus Chinese restaurant.
Blackmore told Aleteia that the Detroit chapter does not intend to hold a black mass.
"Our intentions at Harvard during our last black mass was to collaborate with a student group to educate the public and provide a forum for meaningful discussion," Blackmore said. "It’s clear that the Catholic Church will continue to promote hysteria in the interest of preventing those pursuits."
In an interview last year with Vice.com, Lucian Greaves, a lead spokesman and organizer of the Satanic Temple, said there was a link between satire and his group’s brand of Satanism. He also said the Satanic Temple had been envisioned as a "poison pill" in the church-state debate. For example, his group participated in a rally to support Florida Gov. Rick Scott after he pushed through a bill permitting prayer in public schools.
"They’re trying to demand for the Satanic Temple all the rights that would be due to any religious body in order to try to stick it to religious believers in the way that they think religious believers do to everybody else," Father Landry said. "They do this as a means to mock the claims of religious freedom."
Father Bretzke, who said the Satanic Temple and the Harvard Extension School Cultural Studies Club had "crossed a boundary" in trying to organize the black mass, added that he does not believe that groups like the Satanic Temple "will stand the test of time." Blackmore countered that the Satanic Temple is resonating with a wide audience.
"Therefore, it doesn’t follow that we lack staying power," she said. "There will always be those who recognize the failings of, and seek identity outside of, conventional norms."
Father Bretzke said the effort to "repackage" Satanism into a scientific rationalism is a "smart move" to generate "positive notoriety" and make the Satanic Temple more palatable to prospective members.
"If they can rehabilitate Satanism, that would be quite a feat," Father Bretzke said. "But I don’t think it’s going to happen."
Brian Fragais a daily newspaper reporter who writes from Fall River, Massachusetts