The Satanists have been on a roll recently in showing that political pandering to the religious is a double-edged sword and that any special privileges given to Christians necessarily means that other religions should be able to walk through that same open door. Other groups like the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster have tried to do the same thing but with less success which prompts the question of why it is that the Satanists are more effective at using this tactic to expose the hollowness of those who claim they are fighting for general religious freedom when in reality they are pushing for special privileges for just their own religion.
I think it is because many religious people actually believe that Satan exists while the FSM does not, and they think that having Satanist symbols and literature and idols may actually encourage a visitation by the Lord of Darkness. They fear Satan but don’t fear the FSM.
One of the intriguing things about public discourse is the veneration that people have for the center of anything. In politics, for example the people who are hailed as ‘moderates’ are those who straddle the divide between the so-called extremes of conservatism and liberalism. Of course, this depends on how you define those supposed extremes. In the US, the two ‘extremes’ of acceptable political discourse is between right wing and extreme right wing which ensures that the center is also right wing.
This tactic of controlling the extremes and then elevating the center is used by the political and media establishment to help them serve the roles of gatekeepers to ensure that views that challenge the status quo are considered beyond the pale and excluded from debates over important questions. For example, when it came to the health care reform debate, it served to shut out the single-payer option and even the public option as extreme, because those were immediately labeled as socialist and thus, by definition, outside the range of reasonable discourse.
This process of limiting the range of ideas considered acceptable is what is known as the Overton Window:
Joseph Overton observed that in a given public policy area, such as education, only a relatively narrow range of potential policies will be considered politically acceptable. This “window” of politically acceptable options is primarily defined not by what politicians prefer, but rather by what they believe they can support and still win re-election. In general, then, the window shifts to include different policy options not when ideas change among politicians, but when ideas change in the society that elects them.
You can read more about the Overton Window here.
This is why it is important for those of us who can to use every means to expand the range of acceptable opinions by not being afraid to take stances that lie outside the accepted range and risk being called extremists. One benefit of doing so is that while those who are at the extremes will still be considered as going too far, those who do not go quite as far will become more acceptable. In the US, the presence of open Communists makes socialists more acceptable and people who self-identify as socialists (as I do) make progressive views more acceptable, and the existence of progressives pushes liberals into the accepted range of political views.
It is true in religion too. The emergence of outspoken New Atheists who think that science and religion are incompatible has now created a space where agnostics and compatibilists (those who are atheists but think religion and science are intellectually compatible) are seen as more reasonable and less threatening because they are not like those extreme New Atheists.
Being willing to take positions that are outside the acceptable range is a way to expand the Overton window. I don’t mind playing the role of an ‘extremist’ because I have nothing to lose and feel that that freedom makes it almost obligatory on my part to try and expand the Overton window and create room for others who are more constrained in what they can do. Using a metaphor from American football, such ‘extremists’ play the role of blockers, enabling others to have more freedom of movement.
That is why the people who are really stretching the Overton window in religion nowadays seem to be the Satanists. They are the ones who are making even atheists seem moderate. For example, when a Florida school district decided to allow a religious group to distribute Bibles to students (because in their minds the freedom of religion allows it), they were unfazed when atheists said they would do so too. But when Satanists announced that they too were going to distribute coloring books to students that explained their beliefs, the school district abruptly abandoned the entire policy and now no one will be allowed to distribute materials. They are scared of the power of Satan in a way that they are not about the atheist message or the FSM
I think that we should have an Overton Prize for that individual or group that does most to expand the window in any debate. I think the Satanists would be great candidates for it.