Over the last few weeks, American media have reported proposals by an organization called The Satanic Temple to offer “After School Satan Clubs” at public schools where Christian after-school “Good News Clubs” are operating. This, of course, drew vigorous protests from Evangelicals. It is, however, important to understand the context, who Greaves is, and what are his real motivations.

At the beginning of 2013, a page was created on Facebook called “The Satanic Temple” to recruit amateur actors for a documentary on a new form of Satanism. The project was the brainchild of Douglas Mesner, who used the pseudonym Lucien Greaves, although he later claimed that the Satanic Temple “was actually conceived of independent from me by a friend and one of his colleagues.”

Mesner’s involvement in matters Satanic related to two episodes of some importance in the history of Satanism in the United States, which are discussed at length in my book Satanism: A Social History (Leiden: Brill, 2016).

The first is the publicity Anton LaVey (1930-1997), the founder of the Church of Satan, did for an obscure social Darwinist book published in Australia in 1890, Might is Right. The book was signed by “Ragnar Redbeard”: but it is almost certain that the author was the anarchist New Zealander philosopher Arthur Desmond (1859-1929).

The second incident was the promotion by some therapists of alleged survivors of Satanic ritual abuse. During therapy the survivors “remembered” fantastic stories of Satanism, which were later debunked by both scholars and courts of law, but not before they had produced unnecessary suffering for innocents accused of heinous crimes.

Might is Right was a forgotten book until it was reprinted in 1996 on LaVey’s initiative. The reprint was organised by Shane Bugbee, who later became a member of the Church of Satan. Mesner, a young artist and illustrator, was enthusiastic about the book. He contacted Bugbee and eventually illustrated a new limited leather-bound edition of Might is Right, published by the same Bugbee in 2003.

Mesner studied neuroscience at Harvard and became familiar with 20th Century literature on Satanic ritual abuse and survivors. He was deeply disturbed when he discovered that a small group of therapists was still spreading this literature and the narrative of Satanic ritual abuse, even though it had been largely discredited in the 1990s. One organization that promotes the survivors to this very day is SMART (Stop Mind Control and Ritual Abuse Today), founded in 1995 by Neil Brick. In 2013, Mesner, using the pseudonym of Greaves, announced that the mysterious leader of The Satanic Temple was “Neil Bricke,” a pun aimed at the founder of SMART.

“Bricke,” Greaves announced, would speak on January 25, 2013, at a rally in front of the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee where Satanists would express their support for Governor Rick Scott’s controversial proposal of a bill allowing students to read religious messages in assemblies and sport events. While freethinkers and liberals opposed the bill, which was supported by the religious right, Greaves decided to stage a rally where he and his friends, in full Satanic garb, welcomed the Governor’s proposal as an opportunity for Satanist students to read excerpts of LaVey’s The Satanic Bible and other texts of their choice during school events.

The rally drew considerable media attention, and Greaves followed up on June 14, 2013 with a “Pink Mass” celebrated at the gravesite of Catherine Idalette Johnson Phelps (1907-1935), the mother of Fred Phelps (1929-2014), the pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Phelps had become notorious for his bombastic remarks against homosexuals, and the “Pink Mass,” celebrated by Greaves with a “Satanic” horned hat, while two homosexual couples kissed, was allegedly intended to turn the pastor’s mother into a lesbian in the afterlife. Predictably, the Westboro Baptist Church was not amused, and the police charged Greaves for desecration of a grave.

In 2012, the State of Oklahoma authorized the installation of a privately funded Ten Commandments monument in front of the State Capitol in Oklahoma City. In 2013, the Satanic Temple petitioned the Oklahoma Legislature to install in the Capitol grounds a statue of Satan, depicted as Baphomet sitting in a pentagram-adorned throne and teaching two children.

The application was rejected, although a nine-foot tall bronze statue was unveiled by the Satanic Temple at an event on June 25, 2015 in Detroit, attended by a crowd of around 700 and advertised as “the largest public Satanic ceremony in history.” The Satanic Temple had good reason to celebrate. On June 30, 2015, the Supreme Court of Oklahoma had ruled that, while the State was not required to place other statues on Capitol grounds, the Ten Commandments monument should be removed, as it “operates for the use, benefit or support of a sect or system of religion,” thus breaching the principle of church-state separation.

The same strategy worked in 2016 in Arizona. The Phoenix City Council traditionally opened its sessions with prayers offered by local religious bodies. The Satanic Temple asked to deliver one of these opening prayers, threatening a lawsuit for discrimination in case its request would not be granted. The Satanic Temple prayer was thus scheduled for February 17, 2016. Public outrage led the City Council to vote on February 3, 2016 to replace its longstanding tradition of prayers offered by ministers with a moment of silent prayer. It thus avoided both the embarrassing prayer by a Satanic Temple representative and the threatened lawsuit. Once again, the Satanic Temple had achieved its result, by effectively ending the presence of Christian and other ministers in the sessions of the Phoenix City Council.

Other initiatives have followed a similar pattern. Greaves knows that few courts would ever compel American public schools to introduce “After School Satan Clubs.” This is not what he wants. He hopes that some courts will order local schools to eliminate any sponsorship of the Christian after school “Good News Clubs.” Greaves’ legal tactics are often successful, and in fact he is able to gather support and donations — not from the handful of Satanists operating in the US — but from the much larger subculture of secular humanists and advocates of strict church-state separation.

Is Greaves really a Satanist?

Among those who do not appreciate the Satanic Temple’s campaign is Peter Gilmore, the current leader of LaVey’s Church of Satan. In a statement obviously directed at Greaves, although not naming him, Gilmore called the former’s “self-proclaimed Satanist group” a “political activist prank rather than a legitimate philosophical organization.” The statement noted that this group borrowed liberally from LaVey, but wondered whether it really understood what the Church of Satan was all about. “If these people truly embrace the philosophy as codified by Anton LaVey and maintained by the Church of Satan, Gilmore added, they do a disservice to Satanism by creating public confusion regarding its actual principles and tenets.”

There was, however, a misunderstanding. Gilmore criticized Greaves for the “Pink Mass” at the grave of Pastor Phelps’ mother, where the Satanic Temple was “ritually dealing with spirits in an afterlife, which is absolutely not part of the Church of Satan’s philosophy,” which is fundamentally atheistic and does not believe in spirits.

This was not, however, what Greaves wanted to do. He does not believe in spirits or the afterlife either. What he staged was a symbolic ceremony to criticize Phelps’ homophobia. All of Greaves’ other initiatives were aimed at legally challenging the presence of Christian activities and symbols in public institutions as contrary to the principle of church-state separation. If Christianity has a place in these institutions, Greaves claimed, then Satanist ceremonies and symbols should also be allowed.

His success in the Oklahoma case confirmed that Greaves’ real aim was not to have Satanism publicly recognized, but to have Christian symbols eliminated, based on Constitutional principles forbidding the official promotion of any religion.

From this, one could easily conclude that Gilmore was at least right in claiming that the Satanic Temple is not a Satanist group but a form of political activism using Satanic symbols for its own purposes.

Greaves, however, disagreed. To the question whether the Temple “is a Satanic or a satirical group,” he answered in an interview: “Why can’t it be both? We are coming from a solid philosophy that we absolutely believe in and adhere to. This is Satanism, and to us it couldn’t be called anything other than Satanism. However, our metaphor of Satan is a literary construct inspired by authors such as Anatole France [1844-1924] and [John] Milton [1608-1674] – a rebel angel defiant of autocratic structure and concerned with the material world. Satanism as a rejection of superstitious supernaturalism.”

To Gilmore, Greaves objected that “the Church of Satan has never fully renounced supernaturalism, as we have,” since it believes at least in the effectiveness of magical ritual. For Greaves, “LaVey is an excellent jumping-off point, but his work was a product of its time, and it’s appropriate to recontextualize it to today’s reality.”

What the Satanic Temple promotes is an atheistic “non-believing religion,” separating “religion from superstition. Religion can and should be a metaphorical narrative construct by which we give meaning and direction to our lives and works. Our religions should not require of us that we submit ourselves to unreason and untenable supernatural beliefs based on literal interpretations of fanciful tales. Non-believers have just as much right to religion – and any exemptions and privileges being part of a religion brings – as anybody else.”

One may wonder whether this position is really distant from LaVey’s. As for publicity stunts and psychodramas, they were always part and parcel of LaVey’s Satanic campaigns. Is Greaves a Satanist? It all depends from your definition of Satanism.

Massimo Introvigne, a well-known sociologist of religion and the managing director of CESNUR (Center for Studies of New Religions) in Torino, Italy, is the author of the monumental Satanism: A Social History, just released by Brill, Leiden.

Massimo Introvigne is an Italian sociologist of religions. He is the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), an international network of scholars who study new...