I have been aware of the Satanic Temple as largely a group that seeks to dethrone religion’s dominance in US culture by demanding that the same privileges that are given to traditional religions, such as monuments in public lands, also be allowed to them. I knew that they use Satanic rituals and regalia even though they do not believe in Satan or the afterlife. It is political activism mixed in with cosplaying and performance art. They are in fact secular and supporters of a science-based worldview and fight racism and homophobia.
However they seem to be much larger than I had thought as evidenced by their convention currently underway at a Marriott hotel in Boston.
The Satanic Temple is recognised as a religion by the US government, and has ministers and congregations in America, Europe and Australia.
More than 830 people snapped up tickets for its late April convention, dubbed SatanCon.
Members say they don’t actually believe in a literal Lucifer or Hell. Instead, they say Satan is a metaphor for questioning authority, and grounding your beliefs in science. The sense of community around these shared values makes it a religion, they say.
They do use the symbols of Satan for rituals – for example when celebrating a wedding or adopting a new name. That might include having an upside-down neon cross on your altar while shouting: “Hail Satan!”
For many Christians, this is serious blasphemy.
“That’s not wrong,” agrees Dex Desjardins, a spokesperson for The Satanic Temple. “A lot of our imagery is inherently blasphemous.
The event takes up the whole fourth floor of the hotel. The Satanists fill it with androgynous goth chic, flamboyant robes, hand-painted horns, diabolical tattoos, and high-maintenance moustache choices. Most people here are old enough to be parents, and several are. I spot at least one pushchair.
Presentations are given, including one called “Hellbillies: Visible Satanism in Rural America”, and a seminar on Satanism and self-pleasure.
Mixed in with all fun this is some serious political activism.
Political activism is a core part of The Satanic Temple’s identity. It believes religion and the state should be kept separate, and frequently files lawsuits in the US to defend the distinction. Their point is serious, but they relish bringing satire and outrageousness to the fight. In Oklahoma, for example, they asked to erect an 8ft (2.4m) Satanic statue at the state capitol when a monument of the Ten Commandments was put up, noting that the First Amendment requires all religions to be treated equally. (The Commandments were ultimately removed after a court battle.)
The Temple also advocates for abortion access, arguing that everyone should have autonomy over their own body.
Earlier this year, it opened an online clinic based in New Mexico, which provides abortion pills by mail.
It has also developed an abortion ritual for people terminating a pregnancy – which is designed to be comforting and involves reciting an affirmation before the abortion – and argues its members must be religiously exempt from abortion bans that would stop them performing it.
I have to admit, The Satanic Temple is nothing if not imaginative.
Another project drawing headlines is After School Satan Clubs – slogan: “Educatin’ with Satan”. The Temple would rather keep religion out of schools, but wants to counter faith groups coming in to evangelise to pupils.
So where local people have asked it to, it tries to launch an After School Satan Club, focused on community service, science, crafts and critical thinking.
Opponents say it’s frightening children, but TST says its content is demon-free. They have a kids’ song – My Pal Satan – with a bopping animated goat, and the lines: “Satan’s not an evil guy, he wants you to learn and question why. He wants you to have fun and be yourself – and by the way there is no hell.”
As one might expect, some traditional religionists have risen to the bait and are protesting the convention.
Christian protesters from many denominations have gathered outside the hotel, carrying signs warning of damnation.
“Repent and believe the Gospel,” urges one. “Satan rules over all the children of pride,” says another – the letters of “pride” shaded in the rainbow colours of the LGBTQ Pride flag. “We are hoping to show God that we do not accept this blasphemy, and that we Catholics have not abandoned the public square to Satanists,” says protester Michael Shivler, from a conservative Catholic group.
Convention-goers in the lobby eye the protest outside. “They called us ‘dope-smoking masturbators’,” one man reports. “Oooh, sky daddy is mad with me!” someone else jokes.
The Satanic Temple thrives on this kind of opposition and the resulting publicity it generates.