Goat pardoning, hummus and Christmas paraphernalia? By the time you’ve finished reading this, you might be tempted to join the Satanic Temple.
“We did a goat pardoning at the beach recently. We rescued a goat from slaughter and paid for it to be in a sanctuary,” Sadie, a 44-year-old artist and performer from California tells me. “While we were doing the pardoning, some people called the police on us and said there was a group of Satanists on the beach trying to sacrifice a goat. Even after we offered them vegan food, they still called the cops on us.
The softly spoken Satanist continues: “So the lifeguards come over and ask us what’s going on, and we offer them some hummus and tell them we’re rescuing a goat. They just laughed it off.”
It sounds absurd, right? But if you hold the belief that Satanists are devil-worshipping, evil-doers hell-bent on setting the world on fire, then you’ll want to watch documentary Hail Satan?, directed by Penny Lane, when it hits UK cinemas on 23 August. After premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it currently holds a Rotten Tomatoes score of 97%. Funny, provocative, illuminating and thought-provoking, it’ll change everything you thought you knew about Satanism as it explores the inner workings of The Satanic Temple (TST), an organisation that is as much a socio-political counter-movement as it is a religious group.
The Satanic Temple
Founded in 2013, the TST’s followers quickly gained notoriety for their public campaigns and stunts – all with the aim to “encourage benevolence and empathy among all people.” And it is worth noting that their ideology is captured in seven tenets – fundamental principles which promote empathy, compassion, justice and bodily autonomy.
In just six years, The Satanic Temple claims to have already become the “primary religious Satanic organisation in the world” – an opinion which was seemingly proven when, in February 2019, they became the first satanic organisation to be recognised as a church by the United States, thereby granting it tax exempt status.
You might be surprised to know there’s no devil-worshipping in the TST – nor are there any human sacrifices, rivers of blood or curses. There’s not even a devil; satanists are largely non-spiritual atheists.
To take Satanism back to its 16th century roots, the term “Satan” actually just means “adversary”. Although that’s not to say Satanists are actively anti-Christian. Sadie (the vegan, goat-pardoner from earlier) is quick to dispel this common misconception, stating that Satanists are more often than not “pluralists, accepting of all religions”.
So why keep the name “Satanism”? “We have a fundamental set of beliefs that would not fit atheism or any religion than Satanism,” TST Council Member Kym LaRoux tells me. “We call ourselves Satanists because that is what we are.”
The new Satanic verses
Contemporary Satanism started in the 1960s, when author and musician Anton LaVey founded the Church of Satan. Then came the Satanic Panic of the 80s and 90s, the mass hysteria which saw thousands of people wrongfully accused of “satanic ritual abuse”. Suddenly, everything from rock music to an innocent game called Dungeons & Dragons was being labelled as dangerous, occult recruiting tools.
It was during this time that some of TST’s members first discovered Satanism. Sadie grew up in the 80s and says those who prompted the Panic, “only succeeded in making Satanism look attractive by condemning everything we appreciated: D&D, heavy metal and fantasy books.” At 14, she bought and read LaVey’s Satanic Bible, although she admits “it never really jived with me”.
“There was a lot I didn’t connect with. I’m now what I call a recovered occultist,” she tells me.
TST members Chalice and Jill, now both in their 30s, also came to Satanism in their teens via the works of LaVey and, like Sadie, encountered the same conflict.
“The Satanic Witch was bullshit but it was still a great tool for me when dealing with high school interpersonal issues,” says Jill. “Without it, I’m not sure I would have survived into adulthood.”
“Although I found his work profound, ultimately, his philosophies and application of them didn’t match my own,” adds Chalice. “Namely, his dated ideas about women and social Darwinism. His legacy has been smeared by the Church of Satan that succeeds him and the culture there is rife with misogyny, ego, and grandiosity.”
“I’m a Satanist”
It was upon discovering the fledgling TST – an entirely separate organisation from the Church of Satan – and seeing how its members engaged “publicly and unapologetically as Satanists” that Chalice knew she had found her group.
“It was refreshing to see a Satanic organisation being led predominantly by women, as opposed to them being mere props of male virility,” she says.
Sadie discovered TST in 2014, when one of their earliest public acts – a “Pink Mass” ceremony – grabbed headlines. The Mass, officiated by TST co-founder Lucien Greaves, was held over the grave of Catherine Johnson, mother of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps. Same sex couples kissed over the headstone, and Greaves declared that Johnson was now a lesbian in the afterlife – but not before placing his genitals on her headstone.
It certainly caught the world’s attention but, for Sadie, it meant more than that.
“I just thought ‘Wow, queer Satanists that are activists – this is just what I’ve been looking for!’” As she was gender transitioning around the same time, Sadie went on to join TST and its San Jose chapter later in 2015, going on to co-found TST Santa Cruz and become Chapter Head.
“When I joined, I was a year into my transition,” she tells me, “and I found nothing but acceptance and love. I had people telling that I’m accepted, that I can be a leader, that I’m valued, that I’m not an abomination before God. Being part of TST definitely helped me have a successful transition.”
A non-conformist ideology
According to Sadie, who now sits on TST’s National Council along with Chalice, at least half of our leadership are LGBTQ+. “In fact, a good portion are trans,” she tells me. “Aside from directly standing against theocracy and doing activities to benefit LGBTQ+ shelters and community centres, TST provides a welcoming environment and important platform for people who are marginalised.”
Jill, who identifies as non-binary, echoes this: “From day one I felt that it was OK not to align to typical gender roles. When I stepped up as the Chapter Head of Boston, I was quickly given a #1 Dad mug and started to experiment with my initials. I feel supported and accepted in a way I had never felt before.”
Jill preferred not to be pictured for this article, which is a request that comes as little surprise. During the making of Hail Satan?, many TST members asked for their faces to remain obscured. “To publicly declare yourself a Satanist is to invite a great deal of hatred and persecution,” explains director Penny Lane. “For that reason it’s not surprising that some of the Satanists in our film chose not to have their faces shown. These people have families they’re trying to protect, so we made sure that we weren’t putting anyone on camera who didn’t feel entirely comfortable with it.”
For Jill, however, this discomfort is simply more in-keeping with their non-conformist nature, especially given the subject matter of our interview. Some people just don’t like having their photo taken or, indeed, appearing in them – so why should they have to?
Satanism in the workplace
Jill is currently the Director of TST’s Religious Reproductive Rights (RRR) Committee, whose acts include suing Missouri over abortion law to turning up at a pro-life protest outside a clinic dressed as adult babies. Their Boston Chapter also launched “Menstruatin’ With Satan,” a campaign that collects menstruation product donations, making them available to those in need.
As TST is entirely volunteer-run, like Sadie and Chalice, Jill carries out their TST work entirely in their free time, balancing it with a job in data governance. “I’m very open about TST with my employers and colleagues,” they tell me. “Many are supportive and some are indifferent. The only times I have ever been made to feel bad about my Satanism is from a few family members.”
Chalice, a medical researcher in Arizona, has also found her workplace equally indifferent. “My religion isn’t relevant,” she says. “I’ve been fortunate enough that my employers recognise that my religious views do not take away from the value of my work.” As for her family, she says she’s been “incredibly lucky, compared to many others” that they have accepted her religious identity.
And a very merry Satanic Christmas to you, too!
As you might expect, Christmas isn’t celebrated here but, as Jill points out, “It isn’t a holiday for me for many reasons, not just because of Satanism.”
For Sadie, she doesn’t celebrate most American holidays anyway. “I attend Christmas and sit through it because my family loves it. I’ll open presents. But we’re not really religious in my family except for one person, and they don’t like Christmas as much as I do.”
Despite this, though, Sadie says that Christmas is her ultimate “guilty pleasure”.
“I love Christmas paraphernalia and the TV commercials and music,” she tells me. “Oh god, I love it.”
Satanists under (hell)fire
Despite considering themselves “lucky” to have found acceptance amongst family and friends, prejudice, intimidation and threats of violence are still something TST’s members face.
“I’ve received countless death and rape threats from strangers,” Chalice tells me. “One has even showed up at my home and another sent me a picture of my home.”
But she is not to be deterred, and continues to work expanding the After School Satan Club campaign, supporting the RRR and TST’s Grey Faction protest activities. In fact, all three members talk excitedly of upcoming TST projects and campaigns – all of which are firmly under wraps.
“I want to focus on setting TST apart from the reactive mob of protest culture,” Chalice tells me, “to engage in real activism against legitimate systemic abuses, which can be applicable to many of our current campaigns.”
The future of Satanism
Jill, Sadie and Chalice are all excited by the influx of interest and inquiries, members and prospective chapters the release of Hail Satan? has encouraged – and yes, that includes a prospective UK chapter. “I think it’s about time,” says Sadie. “There’s been theocratic privilege and stuffiness for just too long. The forum needs to open up to other voices. The world is fast evolving, especially with the internet and everyone having a voice now.”
“The defiant nature of a Satanist and the figure of the ultimate rebel will never change,” says Chalice, “but the milieu of Satanism will always look different as society progresses or regresses. I only hope that the work we are doing now inspires future Satanists.”
“We’ll continue fighting and pushing back against tyrants who would legislate me out of existence,” Sadie adds. “We’re just going to Satan harder.”
Hail Satan? will preview nationwide on 20 August ahead of its UK release on 23 August.
Images: Magnolia Pictures/Kym LaRoux
All other photos have been supplied by the interviewees.