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This past weekend, we witnessed a historical Pop Culture Moment courtesy of Lil Nas X’s viral “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” music video. In it, he’s seduced by a serpent in what appears to be the Garden of Eden, then pole dances elegantly into the depths of Hell, where he gives Satan (also played by Lil Nas X) a lap dance before snapping his neck and donning the devil’s horns as his own. The video itself is a symbol of the rapper’s relationship with the church as a gay man — they told him he was going to Hell, so he went. And he had a good time doing it.
But, as with anything that has to do with Satanism or the LGBTQ+ community, conservative Christian Twitter was up in arms over the symbols and imagery, calling for the rapper and his music video to be condemned and canceled. The release of Lil Nas X’s unofficial “Satan” sneakers only stoked the flames of fury; it turns out that the Satanic Panic of the 80s never really went anywhere.
Satanism hasn’t either. In fact, it’s only getting stronger.
But for all the fear and bluster around Satanism, the actual religion is not well-understood. The Church of Satan has been around since the 1960s, while The Satanic Temple was founded in 2013 and is recognized as a tax exempt church by the IRS. Neither of them believe in Satan. While followers of the Church of Satan do believe in magick, The Satanic Temple describes itself as a nontheistic branch of Satanism, meaning members don’t believe in God, Satan, or other supernatural forces. In other words, no one is trying to give Satan a lap dance, a la the Montero video.
Whenever something that even tangentially involves Satan-worship makes headlines, The Satanic Temple — which has over 300,000 members and counting — gets a little spike of attention, says Lucien Greaves, the organization’s co-founder. But more recently, the religion has been getting recognition for its actual belief system, which is surprisingly progressive and deserving of its own moment in the spotlight, divorced from the whole “eternal damnation” thing.
The Satanic Temple follows seven tenets that preach acting with compassion and empathy, fighting for justice, upholding bodily autonomy and science, and reducing harm. On their website, The Satanic Temple claims to have, “publicly confronted hate groups, fought for the abolition of corporal punishment in public schools, applied for equal representation when religious installations are placed on public property, provided religious exemption and legal protection against laws that unscientifically restrict women’s reproductive autonomy, exposed harmful pseudo-scientific practitioners in mental health care,” and more.
One place where you can see evidence of increased interest in forms of Satanism is on TikTok. The witchtok corner of TikTok has been going strong since the app began back in 2016, and in November of 2020, TikTok creators took advantage of the time warp feature to make themselves look like The Satanic Temple’s goat-headed deity, Baphomet (a trend that, of course, caused an outrage among TikTok Christians). Recently, a discussion about The Satanic Temple’s progressive views on abortion and bodily autonomy has resurfaced on the platform, prodding a newfound respect for the organization. Another attention-getting move: In February 2021, the Satanic Temple sued the state of Texas regarding their restrictive abortion laws, alleging that some of their regulations violate the religious liberty of its members.
“I honestly think that what’s really spurring the growth of Satanic identification is the increasing overreach of the theocratic right,” Greaves says. “I think when people look back and recognize that there was a booming nontheistic Satanic revival in the early 21st century, I think they’ll attribute that to — at least equally to — people like Mike Pence, if they attribute that to people like me.”
The more religions continue to alienate those in marginalized communities, the more those who have been pushed away will seek out alternative faiths. As Greaves says, “It’s much easier, I think, to understand the prosocial value in Satanism when you see the horrific and anti-human things that our evangelical politicians are doing.”
Even though the Satanic Temple doesn’t believe in Satan and has nothing to do with Satan worship, Greaves is totally unbothered by Lil Nas X’s use of devilish imagery. In fact, he notes that for any group — Satanists or Christians alike — to claim ownership over Satanic iconography would be ridiculous. “This is culturally available, artistic, raw material that everyone’s familiar with,” he says. “That’s always going to resonate in a certain way with people, and no one group can claim any ownership over that kind of imagery. It’s totally fair game for any kind of artist, whatever they’re trying to express.”
Greaves adds that the backlash Lil Nas X is getting over his use of Satanic imagery is “rather outsized and ridiculous. You would think Christians would have a little more humility and realize how unkind many churches have been, especially towards homosexuals. For a gay person to be using imagery of Satanism or Satan and for them to claim offense at that requires a bit of a lack of introspection entirely,” he says.
While Lil Nas X hasn’t come out as a Satanist, it’s apparent that he’d be welcomed by the community if he did. “We’re one religion that recognizes that this isn’t for everybody, and we think we’d be better off if more religions acknowledged that they don’t have the one true answer and the one true way for all people,” Greaves explains. “We always kind of want to uphold our status as the religion for the outsiders, a place where the freaks and outcasts feel at home and welcome.”
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