Joseph P. Laycock, Speak of the Devil: How the Satanic Temple is Changing the Way We Talk About Religion (Oxford: OUP, 2020).
The past two years I’ve taught a class called ‘Religion in the United States’. My broad focus has been the presentation of how Americans have designed, interpreted, and implemented the concept of ‘religion’ in the public square. In some sense, the class could be classified as religious studies, American history, political science, and sociology. Underneath this broad focus, and the variety of subjects of which it could be a subset, is that cherished concept of ‘religious freedom’.
When I teach about ‘religious freedom’, I’m inclined to be positive toward the idea. Religious intolerance hasn’t had a good track record. But I’m also inclined to be disappointed. A cursory examination of American religious history reveals that ‘religious freedom’ has meant, usually, religious freedom for the majority. In this country, that has meant a variety of things—for example, Protestants lorded over Catholics—but it has never meant ‘non-Christians’.
Joseph P. Laycock’s new book Speak of the Devil may seem to some to be argument ad absurdum when it comes to religious freedom. (Why use the Satanists as exemplars?) But in fact, the Satanist may be the most interesting case study available. There’s no religion out there that makes people as uncomfortable with their own claims regarding religious freedom as the Satanists.
When it comes to matters of the separation of church and state, the Satanists confront our presuppositions and expose biases. Do we want ‘prayer in schools’ to include the right of state-employed teachers to lead a prayer? Many Americans might say ‘yes’. But what if the teacher was a Satanist? They’re unlikely to maintain the firm ‘yes’. The most natural side-step is to deny that Satanism is a real religion but then we get into tricky territory of asking who gets to define real religion. The courts may be wrestling with this but the IRS has been clear that Satanism, at least in the form of The Satanic Temple, is a real religion.
In Laycock’s book his main focus is The Satanic Temple, though Chapter 2, ‘Origins and History of The Satanic Temple’, and Chapter 4, ‘The Satanic Reformation’ (and other parts of the book), remind people not only of the influence of Anton LaVey and the Church of Satan, but also of ‘the writings of Romantics such as Blake, Shelley, and Byron’ (p. 88) who represented Satan not as the baddest-baddie but as the rebel with a legitimate cause (with God being the omnipotent, cosmic-bully). These two chapters will help readers see how The Satanic Temple is uniquely Satanist, when contrasted with the more libertarian, Ayn Rand type Satanism of the Church of Satan, but also traditionally Satanist when rooted in the aforementioned presentation of Satan found in the Romantics.
Now, for many of my students, it has been disappointing to hear that Satan is a myth, or a symbol, for most Satanists. In other words, few Satanists believe they are worshipping a real, metaphysical being. This may lead some to think that Satanism is a parody religion rather than a real religion. Laycock addresses this misconception is Chapter 5, ‘Religion or Trolls: How The Satanic Temple is Changing the Way We Talk About Religion’ when he examines The Satanic Temple through the lens of Catherine Albanese’s ‘four c’s’ framework (religion defined as a ‘creed’, a ‘code’, a ‘cultus’, and ‘communities’, all four being possessed by The Satanic Temple). While some theorist argue that a religion must embrace some form of the supernatural (see Christian Smith, Religion: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters), most theorist—including past versions of the Supreme Court of the Unite States—don’t. Therefore, as my students have learned, so readers will see that Satanism qualifies as a religion by most scholarly and legal metrics available.
My favorite chapter in the book is Chapter 6, ‘Satanic Bake Sales: How The Satanic Temple Is Changing the Way We Talk About Evil’. In this chapter, Laycock writes about how Satanists ‘appropriate the discourse of evil’. In other words, they identify with a symbol (Satan) that many equate with evil but they do so in ways that most equate with good—bake sales, charity, care for the poor, defending marginalized groups, etc. These actions scramble our categories of ‘good and evil’ (especially when we see ‘good’ Christians doing terribly oppressive, racist, bigoted things). This chapter will challenge the linguistic, philosophical, and religious ideologies of the reader more than maybe any other chapter in the book.
Anyway, this isn’t a review; just a report. I enjoyed this book. I found it as intellectually stimulating as anything I’ve read in a while. And if you haven’t seen, I had a chance to interview Laycock several days ago. It’s well worth your time but don’t just watch the interview, get the book, and read the book. If you are interested in definitions of ‘religion’, how religion is practiced, questions about ‘religious freedom’, and the like, you’ll find this book is well worth your time.