For those who think Christianity a fount of goodness and love, one of the more ironic images in recent weeks has been Christian youth loudly jeering a small group of Satanists who quietly tolerate their hostilities.
The backstory may be familiar: High school coach Joe Kennedy in Bremerton, Washington, turned the football field into a public forum for religious expression by hosting prayers at midfield after games. In response, several religious minority students, including the senior class president, invited prayers from the Satanic Temple of Seattle, a small sect that eschews supernaturalism and opposes state-sponsorship of religion, but places a deep spiritual value on religious equality. Temple members, who don’t believe in Satan except as a potent symbol of rebellion against cruelty and tyranny, requested that they too be allowed to conduct prayers after games.
But this soon became a moot point. Due to Kennedy’s refusal to cease conducting public prayers in his role as a school employee, the district placed him on paid leave—effectively halting public prayers of all sorts. Both Kennedy and the members of the Satanic Temple chose to attend the game as spectators.
Christian fans of Coach Kennedy didn’t take that too well. As members of the Satanic Temple approached the stadium entrance, a crowd gathered on the inside of the fence. Lilith Starr, head of the Seattle chapter describes her experience: “They were screaming at us and some were throwing water. We were really there to support the students who had invited us, but as those students were escorted through the crowd someone was yelling, ‘Dyke!’ and ‘Everybody hates you’ at them. We met the students and hugged them, but we didn’t really want to distract from the game. That was their last home game. So at that point we decided to leave.”
Members of the Bremerton school administration faced similar hostility from Christians who were angry about the suspension of Coach Kennedy, which the right-wing Liberty Counsel called a “hostile employment action.” The calls became so threatening and violent that the students had to be temporarily pulled from phone duty by the district.
Seven Tenets vs. Ten Commandments
While self-righteous or fearful Christians have been busy making themselves and their faith look ugly, Satanists have maintained their equanimity, followed the Golden Rule, and even, in the words of Jesus, “turned the other cheek.” According to Starr, she and fellow practitioners are simply living according to Satanic precepts.
The Satanic Temple, which is based in Massachusetts and has approximately 20 chapters across the U.S., lists its seven fundamental tenets:
- Strive to act with compassion and empathy toward all creatures in accordance with reason.
- The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.
- One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.
- The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo your own.
- Beliefs should conform to our best scientific understanding of the world. We should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit our beliefs.
- People are fallible. If we make a mistake, we should do our best to rectify it and resolve any harm that may have been caused.
- Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word.
Anyone who is familiar with the Ten Commandments will immediately recognize that these seven tenets offer an easier path to equanimity than do the famous Ten. The first of the Ten Commandments—Thou shalt have no other gods before me—asserts the primacy of a single deity rather than the primacy of compassion and empathy. It prescribes competition between religious worldviews, the very antagonism expressed by Christian students in Bremerton and Christian callers from across the country.
More broadly, the seven tenets emphasize positive, pro-social values rather than bad behaviors to be avoided. They largely express egalitarian values that transcend tribal boundaries, in contrast to the Ten Commandments, which endorse the view that women, slaves and livestock are possessions of men. They invite inquiry rather than certitude and individuality over tribalism.
Compassion, Acceptance, Meditation
I asked Starr, the Seattle leader, what attracted her to the Satanic Temple. She said she first became familiar with Satanism through a relationship that has since grown into a marriage. At the time she and her husband met, she was struggling with addiction. Starr said, "Maybe because he was a Satanist or maybe because he was a good person, he was extremely honest and accepting. He didn’t make judgments; he just loved me for who I was. When that happened, I vowed to live a sacred life. I didn’t believe in God, but I vowed to engage in a sacred practice. "
Starr’s leadership in the Seattle Temple is part of that practice. She also says she was formerly a student of Zen Buddhism and still sits for meditation daily. She sees parallels between compassion as the highest value of Buddhism and that same focus in the Satanic Temple, and in fact has laid out this and related values in a manifesto of sorts at the beginning of her book, The Happy Satanist: Finding Self-Empowerment. “I believe that every human being on this planet deserves love, compassion and connection, regardless of their race, religion, class, sexual orientation, gender, or any other meaningless category beyond ‘human being’....I believe compassion and working together will get us much further than judgment, shame and fear.”
If Lilith Starr and fellow members of the Satanic Temple are representative, the greatest threat to Christianity from Satanism may simply be this: that self-proclaimed followers of Satan seem more sane and kind than self-proclaimed followers of Christ.
This fall, Christianity’s brand is being battered but not by the behavior of Christians themselves. Catholic corporations have headed to the Supreme Court again, trying to prevent women from preventing pregnancy. GOP presidential hopeful Ben Carson declared on biblical authority that the Egyptian pyramids were actually built to store grain. The Mormon hierarchy issued a formal ruling that baptism and temple initiation (including protective undergarments) would be denied to children of gay couples. Christianists in Houston defeated gender equality legislation by whipping up fear of cross-dressing men lurking in women’s bathrooms. And research went viral showing that children from secular homes are more generous, less prickly and less punitive than children raised under Christian and Muslim parents.
In each case, one or more of the seven precepts of the Satanic Temple would have mitigated against the harmful and self-defeating behavior on public display.
Perhaps Christians should consider upgrading from a set of Ten Commandments that were written in the Iron Age to a better set. It might do wonders for Christianity’s public image—and for its ability to follow the teachings of Jesus himself.