Recently watched: “Hail, Satan!”

Next semester, I teach my “Religion in the United States” class, so I’m watching a few documentaries over the break to increase my knowledge and understanding. One of the topics I cover is American Satanism: both The Church of Satan and The Satanic Temple. The value of this particular subunit is that is stretches students to think critically about the concept of “religion”, what counts as “religion”, and what our motives are for labeling something a religion, denying that label, or dismissing a group as a “cult”.

Earlier this year, I read Joseph P. Laycock’s Speak of the Devil: How the Satanic Temple is Changing the Way We Talk About Religion (Oxford: OUP, 2020), which I reviewed on this blog (see “Recently read: Laycock’s ‘Speak of the Devil'”) and highly recommend, and I interviewed Laycock (see “Interview: discussing The Satanic Temple with Dr. Joseph P. Laycock”). Today, I’m watching “Hail, Satan!”. It’s R-rated, so won’t make it into my classroom, but it does get me thinking about something that parallels what another colleague of mine teaches when he has students read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good people are Divided by Politics and Religion. He has them think, based on Haidt’s writings, about why we find certain things immoral and then pushes them to explain it. An example might be incense, which has the “ick!” factor, but is hard for people to explain in terms of morality. Similarly, The Satanic Temple (as highlighted by Laycock in his book and discussed in our interview) causes many people more problems that the earlier founded Church of Satan because (1) The Satanic Temple is almost uniformly non-theistic (i.e. Satan’s valuable as a symbol but isn’t a metaphysical reality) and (2) The Satanic Temple, as the documentary highlights, wants to rectify the wrongs done to people during the “Satanic Panic” by doing widely recognized good deeds (e.g. collecting socks for those in need, especially those who are homeless).

What Laycock covers brilliantly in his book is covered quite well in documentary-style in “Hail, Satan!” This topic is a fascinating exploration of the boundaries of religious freedom, our interpretations of the First Amendment, and related topics. Whether one comes out of this discussion seeing Satanism as a legitimate religion, a mockery of religion, or whatever, the questions raised by The Satanic Temple need to be addressed by our society.

Related, for those interested in the development of the presentation of Satan in the Hebrew Bible, Jewish literature, and the Christian New Testament, see my quick summary of Ryan E. Stokes, Satan: How God’s Executioner Became the Enemy (Eerdmans, 2019): “Recently read: Stokes’ ‘Satan'”. Stokes does an excellent job covering a breadth of literature.

Next up, I plan on watching “I, Pastafari: A Flying Spaghetti Monster Story” which is available on Amazon. It’s 13+ rating means it could make it into circulation for my “Religion in Global Context” class where I introduce Pastafarianism and Dudeism as a way of introducing questions about the boundaries of the word “religion”.

Recently read: Laycock’s ‘Speak of the Devil’

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.

Educating in the Era of COVID-19: Day 12

Yesterday was a fun day, relatively speaking. Obviously, this whole social-isolation-in-mass isn’t fun but I did have fun interviewing a couple more people yesterday. I need to make a habit of this even after we return to our new normal.

If you missed it, on Monday I interviewed Dr. Joseph P, Laycock about Satanism. Yesterday, I talked with Fr. Kevin Daugherty about the Convergence Movement (a sort of liturgical Pentecostalism) and Dr. James McGrath about the Christian doctrine of the Ascension. If you have time, I hope you’ll take the time to watch because each interview is insightful.

Today’s Wednesday which means I check-in with my classes via Google Meet. Also, I need to do some grading. Ok, I need to do a lot of grading.

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Week 2
Week 1

Educating in the Era of COVID-19: Day 11

This week will be the most unique one since we went to online learning. I’ve asked several scholars and/or religious practitioners if they’d be willing to do interviews with me on topics they research/religions they practice. (This is the beginning of something I hope to do with some frequency, even when we ‘return’ to our ‘new normal’ after this pandemic.) My first interview was great. I talked with Dr. Joseph P. Laycock, assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University, and the author of Speak of the Devil: How the Satanic Temple is Changing the Way We Talk About Religion, about Satanism in the United States and the two predominant groups: The Church of Satan and The Satanic Temple. My students in my ‘Religion in the United States’ class will learn about Satanism next week, so I’m excited to share this interview with them.

Today, I’m interviewing Fr. Kevin R. Daugherty, regarding the Convergence Movement, which brings together aspects of what might be consider Pentecostal spirituality with the liturgical practices found in traditions like Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism. Then I’ll talk with James F. McGrath, the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature from Butler University, about the Christian doctrine of the Ascension.

Otherwise, the routine is taking shape. I upload assignments, meet with students using Google Meet, grade assignments, and do it again. We didn’t try synchronous learning as a response to the pandemic but it does appear likely that my summer school class, ‘The Hebrew Scriptures’, will be online and synchronous in June. So, I’m brainstorming ways to make that a great class in spite of the unfortunate circumstances.

Week 2
Week 1

Interview: discussing The Satanic Temple with Dr. Joseph P. Laycock

In an effort to make the most out of the move to online education, I’ve begun reaching out to scholars and/or religious practitioners to see if they’d be willing to be interviewed about their research and/or beliefs. Since my ‘Religion in the United States’ students are learning about the Scientologist this week and Satanist next week—both being groups that challenge conventional definitions of religion—I thought I’d reach out to Dr. Joseph P. Laycock of Texas State University. Laycock is an assistant professor of religious studies who focuses on new religious movements and American religious history. His newest book, Speak of the Devil: How The Satanic Temple is Changing the Way We Talk About Religion, is excellent. I wanted my students to be able to hear directly from a scholar and I was thrilled that Laycock agreed to participate.

My students will watch this interview as part of their homework next week. But I want to share it now for those who might be interested. As a preview, here are the seven questions I asked him:

  1. Please tell everyone why I’m talking with you about this topic. What do you research and how did Satanism become one of your interests?
  2. One of the first things I tell my students about Satanism—and it’s something that find somewhat surprising—is that most Satanist don’t actually believe that Satan is a real, metaphysical being. Instead, he’s more of a symbol. Can you explain what Satan symbolizes for most Satanists?
  3. I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area, so I’ve known the name ‘Anton LaVey‘ and I’ve known of the Church of Satan (CoS) for years. Can you explain why LaVey and his CoS is important to understanding Satanism in the United States?
  4. In your excellent book, Speak of the Devil: How the Satanic Temple i Changing the Way We Talk about Religion, you focus on a new group of Satanists: The Satanic Temple (TST). Can you explain what TST is and what’s their mission and purpose is?
  5. Last year when I taught my class on American religion, I showed my students the graphic that can be found on TST’s website that juxtaposes their identity with that of the CoS. What would you say is the most important difference or differences between these two groups?
  6. In Chapter 6, ‘Satanic Bake Sales’, you wrote about a fascinating concept. You walk about how Satanists wrestle with the best way to appropriate ‘the inverted order’ or ‘the discourse of evil’. What does this mean and why are these concepts important for understanding TST (or even Satanism in general)?
  7. Some people dismiss TST, and even COS, as ‘fake’ religion or a mockery of religion. My students have read J.Z Smith’s article ‘Religion, Religions, Religious’, so they get the gist of why the word ‘religion’ can be tricky but can you explain why it’s problematic to dismiss TST or COS as a ‘fake’ or ‘mock’ religion?

You can watch the (unedited…because I haven’t developed that skill set yet) interview here:

Educating in the Era of COVID-19: Week 2

Another week in the books. Another day sitting at home. Another opportunity to worry less about whether we’ll resume this school year and to worry more about whether next school year will be delayed. I’m handling the anxiety of the pandemic well but I worry for those who aren’t. I worry about my students who can easily fall through the cracks if we don’t keep up with them day-to-day. I worry about the financial stability of my government, employer, family-members, friends. But overall, all things considered, I’m doing good.

Next week should be a good one. I’m interviewing several scholars and practitioners about their work including Joseph Laycock (Satanism), Kevin R. Daugherty (the ‘Convergence’ Movement, i.e, liturgical Pentecostals), and James McGrath (the doctrine of the ascension). A few others are being lined up or have been lined up for the weeks ahead. I’ll share my interviews here will permission.

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Week 1