There has been some recent tumult in a group that I love, the religious group I identify with more than any other: The Satanic Temple. Once you peel back the serious but mundane factors that beset any small passionate organization–from poor communication and oversight to grandstanding and personality conflicts–the core of these recent issues seem to stem from questions about the character of the organization.
What does it mean for a person to be a member of The Satanic Temple? What does being part of The Satanic Temple suggest about the kind of person you are? Do the decisions made by the organization reflect your aspirations for the world you want to live in, how you think society should work, and who you want to be as a person?
There is no reason in principle that any organization should be held to such a standard. You don’t necessarily ask the same of your swim team or your book club. But it’s the nature of a religious organization, I suppose, that for many people it is not just something they join or do: it is something they are.
Atheistic Satanists care passionately about their deeply-held convictions, just like members of any other religion. My Satanism is profoundly connected to my day-to-day life. It is a lens through which I view relationships, a compass for my morality, and a fire that fuels my activism. Satanism is a key facet of my identity. So, it is natural if from time to time I look to The Satanic Temple as an extension of my self.
It is natural… but even though I catch myself thinking that way, it also feels wrong to me. After all: The Satanic Temple isn’t my religion… Satanism is.
Then again, The Satanic Temple isn’t exactly a swim team or a book club, either.
So what should I be looking for in a religious organization?
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My spouse and I have been together for 10 years. I attribute part of our success to the fact that we recognize we are different people.
It seems so trivial that it almost reads as snark, but I am being completely sincere. Our marriage reflects a decision we have made to bear witness to each other’s lives. It reflects the fact that we both believe that we constructively amplify each other, and that both of us can be better together than apart.
Sometimes it is hard. Sometimes, I wish he would be more verbally expressive of his feelings, without waiting until things built up to the level where he’s unhappy. On the other hand, he wishes I were better at noticing and reading non-verbal cues. He also wishes I could go the entire length of a movie without checking the apps on my phone. We each have little habits of thought or action that frustrate the other.
So what do we do? We communicate. This is how I think you feel, this is how I feel. This is what I think you meant, this is how it felt to me. This is what I think you can do better next time, this is what I will try to do.
But every “this is what I will try to do” must come with an understanding: I might fail, because old habits are hard to change.
And every “this is what you can do” must come with the same understanding as well.
We have been together long enough that we trust each other. When he says something that seems insensitive or hurtful, I am certain to the very core of my being that he didn’t do it in order to hurt me. I take it as an axiom that we are on the same side. So instead of lashing out or admonishing him for being hurtful, I ask: What did you mean? How did you think I would react? Can you help me to understand what was going on in your mind, when you uttered those words?
For the first few years certain things were tough. There were times when I spent conscious effort saying to myself: “I told him I want him to do ____. He has said he knows how important it is. He said he would try. He hasn’t been successful. He may never change. Is that ok? Can I live a happy and complete life with him as my companion if this thing that I’m not happy about never changes, no matter how hard he tries?”
So far the answer has always been “yes.” Of course, I can’t guarantee it always will be. I’m sure there are things about my behavior that make him ask the same questions. And if some day he decides that the balance has shifted and our relationship isn’t right for him, I will be devastated… but I won’t try to hold him back. His feelings are his feelings. I cannot control him, and I do not want to control him.
For me, that’s a fundamental philosophy of my Satanism. It’s also fundamental to how I see love: I respect him enough to know that he is the god of his own world and the captain of his own ship, and if he decides to go in a new direction then I will be sad… but I will respect him enough to let him be his own person. Anything else would be dishonest.
In a weird way, I feel like this mindset is itself part of why we have been together for so long. We don’t try to be the same person. We just try to walk the same path.
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The fight for social justice is one of the keystones of my religion. It is one of the tenets of my Satanism. I not only think of myself as a “Social Justice Warrior”, I think of myself as a “Satanic Justice Warrior”. Whenever I see the acronym “SJW” it makes me smile a little, because I’m privately translating it that way.
However, if someone asks me what I think of Social Justice Warriors, my response is to ask them what they think the term means. “I can’t answer your question,” I meekly offer, “unless I know what Social Justice Warrior means to you.”
If they reply vaguely, something like “Oh you know, those people who get offended at everything and try to force people to talk a certain way,” then I ask them to give me a specific example.
Details are important. Because if the example they give me is something like this,
“I posted a story online about a time a cop stopped me for speeding and I said I was really sorry and the cop let me go with a warning because it was Christmas eve, and some stranger came into the comments and yelled at me for telling that story because they thought me talking about a cop being nice undermined the efforts of minorities to highlight the severity of police brutality. To me, that’s crazy! Anyone who would get mad just because I told a specific story about a specific cop who was nice to me is an extreme Social Justice Warrior.”
…then I will agree with them: I do not care for these extreme Social Justice Warriors, the way you have described them in this story.
On the other hand, if I get an example like this:
“I was discussing current social issues with some people online, and I said was that if you’re born with a penis and you decide one day that you wish you were a girl, then obviously you’ve got mental problems. Suddenly this crazy person starts yelling at me for being a bigot. Can you believe it? To me, that’s an extreme Social Justice Warrior.”
…then I would have to reply: “Yes, I can believe it…. and if that’s what Social Justice Warrior means to you, I am an ‘SJW’ too.”
And I would smile to myself, because the little voice in my head would pronounce it: Satanic Justice Warrior.
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I said at the beginning that many of the disagreements currently going on within The Satanic Temple appear to me to revolve around the character of the organization: what it is now and what it will be in the years and decades to come. The Satanic Temple is dedicated to fighting for social justice, but that means different things to different people.
Do we ally ourselves with a broad collection of other social justice groups, or do we only join others on topics related to separation of church and state and religious freedom? Do we as an organization support candidates who have a record of fighting for social justice, or do we stick to supporting causes rather than individuals? Do we believe that the solution to toxic harmful speech is to drown it out and shut it down, or do we believe that the solution is to shine a light on everything wrong with it and provide a contrasting point of view?
And for our members, the most critical question of all: if my personal answer to any of these questions is different from the answers I hear from others in the organization, or others in leadership, then is this relationship right for me?
To put it another way: Can I exist in a “marriage” to this organization, knowing that there are things about it that may not change, no matter how well-intentioned every single member of the organization is?
Everyone’s answer may be different.
What is my own view?
I want the relationship to work. I wish I saw more communication within The Satanic Temple, from every side of the discussion, that followed the “This is what you can do better, and this is what I can do better” format. I wish I saw more people on all sides of the discussion entering into dialogue with trust and the assumption that the other side is intending to do the right thing.
That being said, however, as a Satanist I have zero desire to impose my views forcefully on anybody. Each of our members is the god of their own path in life, and must live their own truth. Sometimes there are differences that are too great for a relationship to bear. Not everybody is the same person.
So when I look five or ten years into the future, I think it is both necessary and inevitable that there will be two strong Satanic groups whose core mission is to fight for social justice. One will ally itself strongly with a broad spectrum of progressive groups and causes, the other will be more focused on religious issues. One will fight hateful rhetoric by advocating that it be regulated and cut off, the other will fight hateful rhetoric by calling out how harmful it is and presenting the strongest possible opposing views.
I’m certain both organizations will exist. I’m certain both will be forces of good in the world.
The only open question, from my point of view, is: which one will be The Satanic Temple?