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.

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: