A visitor to the Illinois state capitol will find three holiday displays curiously juxtaposed: a Christmas tree, a menorah, and “an apple upheld by an arm which has been encircled by a snake” bearing the phrase “Knowledge is the greatest gift” on its base. According to the Catholic News Agency, that third display was put up by the Satanic Temple, and the state of Illinois is obliged “to allow temporary, public displays in the state capitol so long as these displays are not paid for by taxpayer dollars”. The Satanic Temple raised just over $1,500 for the display on GoFundMe, calling it “Snaketivity”.
This isn’t the first time the Temple has made headlines. In 2015, it proposed a display for the Oklahoma state capitol to protest an existing monument of the Ten Commandments, invoking separation of church and state. They withdrew their proposal after a court ordered the Commandments removed. Earlier this year, they also sued the state of Missouri over pamphlets the state mandates abortion providers to distribute, which say life begins at conception. The Satanists claimed the required pamphlets violate their religious freedom because they believe in the inviolability of one’s body.
Their highest profile case, however, was certainly their 2017 push to erect another diabolical monument in Minnesota. They group intended to plant “a black steel cube with an inverted pentagram on each side and an empty soldier’s helmet on top” in the Belle Plaine Veterans Memorial Park, according to a report from the New York Times. It was the group’s first attempt to establish a public monument and was provoked (again) by the park’s existing Christian symbolism: the Belle Plaine Vets Club had commissioned “a black silhouette of a solider with a rifle kneeling before a two-foot cross.
Committed though they are to public professions of faith, the Satanic Temple aren’t literalists. According to a BBC report on the “Snaketivity” (which oddly used the word “festive” to describe the display), the Satanic Temple “uses satanic imagery to promote the separation of church and state and to campaign for ‘practical common sense and justice’.” The Temple itself says the goal of the monument is to “no longer allow one religious perspective to dominate the discourse in the Illinois State Capitol rotunda during the holiday season.”
The Temple’s spokesman Lex Manticore said the arm represents that of Eve in the biblical story of the Garden of Eden, wherein Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. “We see Satan as a hero in that story, of course, spreading knowledge,” Manticore said. She described the pursuit of knowledge as “the greatest individual pursuit of bettering yourself, and we believe that you should basically act with the best scientific understanding of the world when you make decisions”.
“Not only do we not worship a literal Satan,” continued Manticore, “but we don’t believe one actually exists. Satan for us is a metaphor… Throughout literary history, [it’s] been used as a character that represents rebellion in the face of religious tyranny.” Indeed, Manticore argues that the Temple is completely anti-theistic and rejects all supernatural beliefs. Rather, they seek to “exercise reasonable agnosticism in all things.”
If the Satanic Temple sound like left-wing goths, then you should check out their founder. Lucien Greaves started the Satanic Temple in 2012 in Salem, Massachusetts – home of America’s infamous witch-hunts – after graduating from Harvard. And he seems less interested in human sacrifice than burnishing his liberal credentials. Last August he wrote an astonishing op-ed for the Washington Post headlined “I’m a founder of the Satanic Temple. Don’t blame Satan for white supremacy”.
Greaves bears a resemblance to another “humanistic” Satanist, who briefly enjoyed an even bigger profile in the 1960s: Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan. He, too, denied the existence of a literal Satan – though LaVeyan Satanism was more of a Nietzschean, right-makes-might sort of affair. As he wrote: “Satanism advocates practising a modified form of the Golden Rule. Our interpretation of this rule is: ‘Do unto others as they do unto you’; because if you ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ and they, in turn, treat you badly, it goes against human nature to continue to treat them with consideration.”
Meanwhile, the Satanic Temple’s main tenets might have been pulled from Planned Parenthood’s social media feed. “One should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason … One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone … Beliefs should conform to our best scientific understanding of the world. We should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit our beliefs.”
Compassion, reason, individualism and science: as visitors drop by the Illinois state capitol, they can rest assured that, this Christmas, they will be offered their fill of therapeutic humanism mixed with a dash of the occult for flair. Angst-ridden teenagers and heavy metal fans will have their laugh. Meanwhile, Christians will rejoice over the birth of Jesus Christ.