To celebrate the release of the thought-provoking documentary Hail Satan?, we chat to the head of the Satanic Temple, Lucien Greaves, about all things religion and Satan, of course
RD: What is the Satanic Temple?
LG: Right now, it is a federally recognised tax-exempt religious organisation based in the US. We’re explicitly a non-theistic religion which means we don’t endorse any supernatural beliefs and we don’t believe in a personal Satan; but rather in Satan as a literary metaphorical construct that stands as an icon for ethical beliefs, cultural identity and values related to personal autonomy, individual liberty. We see Satan as this idol for the ultimate rebel against tyranny.
RD: Where does “non-theistic religion” currently stand in the US?
LG: I feel personally that the future of religion is non-theistic and I think a lot of people have a cultural attachment to their religions and they feel obligated to claim they believe things that are simply intellectually insulting today.
I think as time goes on, people will feel more comfortable identifying with religion in non-theistic terms. They can still have a prescribed set of ethics built from this religious narrative that they have, they can still have their cultural identification, but they don’t need to pretend they believe in these supernatural elements that don’t exactly agree with what we know scientifically.
RD: In that case, why wouldn't you just swap it for atheism? Wouldn’t that be simpler?
LG: Atheism, as it says in the film, defines what you’re not; Satanism defines what we are and defines our place in the world. It’s not like we manifest it from out of a vacuum, like we decided we wanted to provoke and offend Christians.
"We always want to be aware of who we are and where we came from, and never to engage in witch-hunting behaviour ourselves"
Most of us grew up in Judeo-Christian culture and a lot of us took these claims when we were children at face value: that there was this supernatural deity from above acting as this arbiter of everything that was morally correct. When we were coming out of that mindset and growing sceptical of supernatural claims, we also saw the amount of corruption that came from the moral self-licencing of those who felt that they were unquestionably on the right side of the moral dynamic in their religious identification.
Embracing blasphemy, looking at this counter-narrative was very liberating and very much gave a context to our own kind of growth and expansion and I think that’s what makes Satanism relevant. You couldn’t arbitrarily rename it, you couldn’t create a new mythical structure for it.
RD: Do you worry about corruption and hypocrisy creeping into your organisation, just as it does into other religious systems?
LG: I think we already see evidence of that from some of the new membership that comes in, to be honest. It’s something you always have to be vigilant towards. We always want to be aware of who we are and where we came from, and never to engage in witch-hunting behaviour ourselves.
We want to adhere strictly to certain principles rather than political identification or other such things. Immovable principles, we feel, are immovable unless given scientific evidence or data to the contrary and as time goes on, some of those principles might be associated with one side of the political spectrum or the other, but we want to stay focused on what our affirmative values are as Satanists and not let it be corrupted by outside influences.
RD: How do you make sure you get the right people joining the Satanic Temple? And, more importantly, how do you become a member?
LG: To become a member, all we really ask people is to register online, if they identify with us. And that might seem a bit low-level but I don’t know why there should be stricter requirements for those identifying as Satanists than there are with any other religious beliefs.
On a deeper level, we have to vet our leadership very thoroughly and probably a bit more thoroughly than most because we feel very vulnerable to accusation. We have around 100,000 members—statistically speaking, it would be nearly impossible for a few of those not to be psychotic. In fact, while we were fighting to have our monument put up in Oklahoma, I found it interesting that, while we were big news over there, there was another story that took place. This Christian kid cut off the head of his roommate on suspicion that his roommate was engaging in witchcraft or Satanism. And what was funny about that was that nobody really implicated the religious beliefs of the person doing the decapitating, it was taken for granted that this was just an insane person.
The Baphomet monument which was initially commissioned to be installed alongside the Ten Commandments outside the Oklahoma State Capitol
But if it were the other way around, if it were somebody who was involved in Satanism or a card-carrying member of the Satanic Temple, it would have been the entirety of the story. So, we want to make very sure that people understand where we’re coming from and we can express it properly and they’re at least mentally competent enough to not severe heads or anything like that [chuckles].
RD: What’s your relationship with other Satanic organisations?
LG: Oh, we don’t have any relationship with any of the other ones. And in fact, there are not really any other ones worth the mention. People always talk about The Church of Satan as being the first organised Satanic religion who got it into the mainstream consciousness which is true, but today they’re little more than a Twitter account that does nothing more than b**** about the Satanic Temple.
RD: What’s your personal story with Satanism?
LG: I guess my introduction to the concept would have been during what the sociologists refer to as the “Satanic Panic.” In the 1980s and 90s there was this conspiracy theory that gained mainstream favour in the media which speculated about Satanic cults trying to undermine basic moral values and engaging in cannibalism and human sacrifice and other things.
The fact that no tangible evidence of this could be found was seen often as evidence of the efficacy of these organisations in covering these things up. The conspiracy theory grew larger and larger; the less evidence would show up, the more people became convinced that police were involved, judges were involved, law enforcement, journalists and this is common conspiracy theory stuff.
"There are people whose lives were ruined by the attribution of Satanism, they were thrown into prison, convicted on the most spurious evidence you can imagine"
At the time it was on the daytime talk shows, a significant number of people believed in it explicitly. And there are people whose lives were ruined by the attribution of Satanism, they were thrown into prison, convicted on the most spurious evidence you can imagine.
I was seeing these claims on mainstream TV and on the radio when I was a kid, but then it just kind of disappeared and I didn’t really think about it too much until I did. I grew more and more sceptical of the traditional religious institutions that I grew up in. Seeing their corruption and learning more and more of the paedophilia scandals, becoming more and more sceptical of supernatural claims in general. I think having that kind of feeling about the corruption of the mainstream traditional religious organisations and coming away from superstition really primed me for seeing real value in this embrace of blasphemy as a declaration of independence from superstition.
RD: Do you come from a religious family?
LG: I came from a somewhat religious family, my dad’s side of the family was Catholic, my mum’s side was Protestant. They both kept their individual religious identities upon being married and sometimes I was taken to a Catholic church and sometimes I was taken to a Protestant church.
But never with any extreme regularity. I think the most oppressive introduction into religious thought I was introduced to was during the Satanic Panic. At some point that was the real evil, not these mythological Satanic cults that never existed; but the witch-hunt against them was a real manifestation of one of the most grotesque things that people could do to one another.
RD: I thought Hail Satan? was really funny and you guys are so laid-back and self-deprecating. Do you ever worry that people won’t take your core values seriously because of that?
LG: I would be more concerned about that if I felt that we were here for a limited time and were going to disappear sometime soon and leave ourselves open to the re-narration of our opposition. But I think as time goes on, people see what we’re engaged in and what we’re actually doing.
"There were a lot of people with guns and there were a lot of people who wanted us to know they were there with guns"
Now, that we’re on the precipice of a new dark age within the US, a lot of people are looking to the Satanic Temple to see what we can do to assert our own equal access and religious claims. A lot fewer people are taking us as any type of joke now. These claims we’re making have to be taken seriously in the courts so we don’t have people who are inclined to take us as a joke, no matter which way our litigation plays out. I think people have to realise the struggle is very authentic and very real.
RD: You generally piss a lot of people off—do you get any death threats?
LG: Oh yeah, I get those all the time and people always ask if a certain threat is a credible threat but… you just don’t know. One thing you don’t see in Hail Satan?, in the part where I put on a bulletproof vest on and go to the rally for the speech, is that on the way walking over to the podium and on the periphery side area where most of the crowd is gathered, there were a lot of people with guns and there were a lot of people who wanted us to know they were there with guns.
A lot of those people were to my back when I was speaking at that podium which is something you try to not think about when you’re speaking so as not to damage the delivery of the statements you make.
So the fact that we’re willing to do that, put so much of our money into these efforts, go out into hostile territory where armed people are threatening to murder us, essentially, I think puts it in a whole new light when you then hear the theocratic government officials in Arkansas trying to make the claim that we’re just doing what we’re doing as a prank and don’t deserve to have our claims taken seriously.
RD: Have the threats become a normal part of your everyday life now?
LG: Yeah. It’s normal. Nobody’s shot me yet, so far so good, but we’ll see.
RD: What does the future hold for the Satanic Temple?
LG: Well you’re seeing the beginnings of the future right now. I think very soon you’re going to see us being very prominent and on the front lines of litigation in culture in a way that we have only hinted at before.
Either way it shakes out, it’s going to define who we are—at least in the US—for generations to come. If we remain a society that respects religious liberty and pluralism—or if the theocrats actually manage to codify exclusive privilege for one religious viewpoint. And it’s really scary that these are even questions that are in everybody’s mind right now.
Hail Satan? is out in cinemas across the UK today
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