Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Devil's Advocate

Satan came to Cambridge, MA yesterday, and thus far, the people of this city have not been smitten, blasted, transformed into pillars of salt, or driven into the sea like so many possessed swine.  I presume this means the devil and his minions were successfully vanquished.  For this we must thank the Holy Alliance composed of President Drew Faust, the mysterious entities who hold the purse strings of Harvard's endowment (who, whatever else they may be, are evidently anti-Satan), the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, Fox and Friends, Greta Van Susteren, and internet swarms of the ever-vigilant and easily perturbed.

Remember when "witch-hunt" was used as a pejorative term -- as in, "this moral panic is turning into a witch hunt"?  The thought, I take it, was that the pursuit of "witches," believed actually to be at work in the world and possessed of real power to do evil by magic, was the paradigmatic case of paranoid hype -- a mere excuse to justify the venting of sadism and terror on the innocent.  Thus we described McCarthyism and the Stalin purges of the 1930s and similar persecution manias in these terms.

But for a not insignificant number of Americans, it would seem, witches are no joke, and the quest to flush them out of the UU churches and public school teachers' unions in which they reside is not to be attributed to any paranoid delusion.  I seem to recall Christine O'Donnell causing headaches for the Christian right when she admitted that before she became a born-again Christian, she had been a teenage "witch."  Bill O'Reilly worked himself into a lather over this fact on his show, lamenting that the good people of Delaware apparently faced a choice in the next election between "the witch and the Marxist."  (This latter remark reminds one that, for many conservatives, "witch-hunts" and McCarthyism might in fact bear historical comparison, but not in the way described above).

Much like witchcraft, Satan is also not, for many people, the non-issue we may have thought he was in today's world.  Columbia University was willing to go through with hosting the head of a state that routinely tortures and executes its citizens in one of the worst prison systems in the world, so that he could tell everyone in the audience that the Holocaust may not have happened and that LGBTQ people do not exist in his country.  But Satan, by contrast, is apparently still too controversial a speaker for an Ivy League university to host.

Admittedly, I'm not sure that Satan himself was scheduled to make an appearance.  It's not clear exactly what happens at a "Black Mass," and now, with the event cancelled, we may never know.

When I heard about this event from a friend, I was non-plussed.  I guess I assumed that much fouler blasphemies take place at Harvard on a typical day -- I am a ministry student at the Divinity School and ought to know.  I also thought the event sounded juvenile and needlessly inflammatory (no pun intended), which it probably was.  I therefore didn't give it much more thought.  I certainly assumed that enough of the world had already written off Cambridge, MA as another Gluten-free Gomorrah that no one would really care what diabolical things we got up to. (Would Fox News, for instance, have paid any attention to this story if it happened in Portland or Boulder, CO?)

But lo, the wrath of the Lord waxes strong.  I awoke on Monday morning to find a statement in my inbox from President Faust (aptly named?), in which she reiterates the University's commitment to free speech and free inquiry on campus, but adds that she personally finds the "Black Mass" event to be profoundly objectionable.   "The 'black mass,'" she writes, "had its historical origins as a means of denigrating the Catholic Church; it mocks a deeply sacred event in Catholicism, and is highly offensive to many in the Church and beyond."

Okay, the appeal to history here needs to be challenged, but overall, fair enough, I thought.  For the present, my sympathies were all with the Catholics.  I felt that they were being directly targeted by this sort of thumb-nosing event, and for no obvious reason.  To my knowledge, the Catholic community at Harvard had offered no particular provocation to Satan, apart from generally opposing his works.  I took the Catholics to be the underdogs in this situation -- and in fact, I have no doubt that on any more ordinary occasion, the agents of Satan would vastly outnumber the servants of Mother Church on Harvard's campus.  My initial plan was to go to the Catholic counter-Mass in a show of solidarity -- and of displeasure with a student group's choice to play most un-consecrated host to "The Satanic Temple."

As usually happens with me, however, my sympathies turned with the tide of the battle.  It quickly became clear that the Satanists were outgunned in this fight, and stood in greater need of a friend.  They at first evacuated Memorial Hall, their original choice of location.  One suspects they may have received some not entirely implausible death threats by email.

Even after they cleared out of Memorial Hall, the counter-protest by various local loonies went on outside the building, as my friend Isaac and I were able to observe.  The most prominent group in the counter-protest had a red banner unfurled which bore the words "Tradition, Family, Property," which I swear I've seen gracing historical propaganda posters from the Vichy regime in France.  Sure enough, a search on Wikipedia suggests that the group is an honest-to-goodness pre-Vatican II Catholic authoritarian movement, which aims at the restoration of the feudal order and the rule of mankind's natural aristocracy.  In addition to fighting Satan at Harvard, the group also holds the line against the EPA's "War on Electricity," according to its website.  It's Action Francaise meets Archie Bunker.

Meanwhile, the Catholic counter-mass (not affiliated with the Tradition Family Property people, it must be emphasized, or any other vaguely proto-fascist group) had become a circus in its own right.  The higher-ups in Harvard had all turned out to lend their support, pausing in dramatic silhouette in the entryway to the Church so the news media could capture their image.  Police had formed a cordon sanitaire around the holy place, one assumes to prevent the Satanists from getting inside.  Sounds like an implausible concern, perhaps, but a man did wander by at one point during the service to shout into the Church: "If you eat the body of Jesus, yer a cannibal!"  The creatures of the night were evidently out in full force in Cambridge this Monday.

The promised "Black Mass," however, was cancelled.  Poor Satanists.  Since they lost this battle, they have my official sympathies on this blog, at least for now.  For the rest of this post, I'm playing devil's advocate.

Who were these Satanists?  Well, as you might have guessed, Satanism as a movement does not lend itself to much orderly cohesion.  There are many splinter groups and private covens and temples within the larger movement.  Satanists too have their heresies and their orthodoxies, their agnostic and theistic factions.  Apparently, people can't unite behind the devil any more easily than they can behind God.

This particular group, "The Satanic Temple," appears to be essentially a group of humanists who do not believe in any real supernatural being called Satan, but are using Satan as a mythological shorthand for the rebellion of human reason against God -- and a convenient way to rile people up, in which endeavor they tremendously and dramatically succeeded on this occasion.

As stated above, I have no idea what this "Black Mass" would have entailed.  The whole concept of a "Black Mass" most likely derives, not from any ritual that was actually practiced by a historical group, but rather was invented by Catholic and Protestant authorities as a particularly lurid charge to level against so-called "witches" in early modern heresy trials.  According to the witch-hunters, the "Black Mass" involved the sacrifice of human infants, anthropophagy, and other grotesque crimes.  Historians are now in almost universal accord that such events did not in fact ever take place (or at least, that no accounts of them are historically reliable).  "Black Masses," like witches, were chimeras  used to justify burning people at the stake.  Like most of the worst criminals in history, the Catholic and Protestant authorities who accused the witches of these bizarre offenses no doubt sincerely believed they were acting in the name of justice.  As Oscar Wilde once put it, "As one reads history […] one is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted."

Bearing this history in mind, it is rather disingenuous of President Faust to assert that "The 'black mass' had its historical origins as a means of denigrating the Catholic Church[.]"  Actually, the 'black mass' as an idea had its historical origins as a means of destroying and immolating alive groups like the Albigensians whom the Catholics persecuted.  President Faust is a historian and of course knows this sort of thing.  One senses her words are merely a sop to the outside media and Catholic members of the university, who had been employing the language of identity politics to protest the Satanists' visit.  Perhaps a Faustian bargain had been struck.

Okay, so let us again emphasize for a moment that the "Black Mass" idea was sophomoric and probably mean-spirited.  It should also be clear, however, that the Catholic and Christian communities at Harvard have handed the Satanists the best possible moral victory they could have expected by reacting the way they did.  By gathering to pray the Satan away, the joke was very much on them, as it was meant to be.

The whole thing did not have to follow this script.  The Christian members of Harvard's community could have taken the whole thing in stride with a pinch of humor, for instance.  They also might have admitted that the literary and mythological figure of Satan has some points in his favor.  Like the figure of Prometheus, he has provided solace to some non-believers in the way Christ does to Christians -- as a symbol of the exiled and despised and martyred renegade.  George Orwell, suffering through the inferno of an English boarding school, saw Satan as a literary hero: "I understood to perfection," he writes in a reminiscence of his school days, "what it meant to be Lucifer, defeated and justly defeated, with no possibility of revenge."  In J.K. Huysman's classic novel The Damned (1891) the "homily" delivered at a Black Mass described therein is one that could almost have issued from the throat of Isaiah or of a prophet of the Radical Reformation: "Centuries have wept, awaiting thee, fugitive God, mute God! [...] Thou hast forgotten the poverty thou didst preach, enamoured vassal of Banks! Thou hast seen the weak crushed beneath the press of profit; thou hast heard the death rattle of the timid, paralyzed by famine, [...] sacristy Shyster, huckster God!" (Wallace translation).

I suppose the Christian-Satanist dialogue I am recommending would be a tough sell to those who believe in a literal hell and devil boiling beneath the earth.  I have no recommendations for salvaging such beliefs.  In light of them, the bizarre response I witnessed last night makes perfect sense, and was entirely logical.  All the more reason, then, that such beliefs should be abandoned.


  1. I had a long response written out but realized it was a bit wordy, and echoed a lot of what was already here. I will just remark that this entire episode seems to be a manifestation of the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. During that time a huge public paranoia about Satanism became prevalent throughout the nation. Geraldo Rivera devoted TV specials to it (http://io9.com/5829171/when-geraldo-rivera-took-on-satanism-and-a-very-confused-ozzy-osbourne), psychiatrists told their patients that their depressions may have been caused by repressed memories of childhood Satanic ritual abuse, and rock musicians were suspected of hiding secret backwards satanic messages in their lyrics. Jack Chick's infamous tract "Dark Dungeons" dates from this craze (http://www.chick.com/reading/tracts/0046/0046_01.ASP).

    All this might have been funny if it hadn’t led to people being harmed. The McMartin Preschool trials over absurdly false accusations of satanic ritual abuse lead to decades of legal battles as people fought allegations that included things like resurrecting the dead or flying on broomsticks. The West Memphis Three were only freed from prison within the last few years after being convicted of murdering children. They had been convicted largely on the basis that one of them had listened to Metallica and owned a copy of a book by Aleister Crowley. The obvious parallels to witch trials are apt.

    The fear over Satanism at Harvard really seems to harken back to the same kind irrational outcry. People, including at least one of the Catholic priests I have heard from, are not afraid of Satanists because they are offended, they are afraid because they believe Satanists can work evil magic and will harm them. Someone who believes in a literal hell can have a reasoned discussion, someone who believes that Satanists are sacrificing infants (as much of the Washington Post falsely reported might happen at Harvard) cannot be. This kind of paranoia is the moral foe of religious tolerance.

  2. Thanks for posting this. This is a helpful comparison, and I think your assessment of motives and concerns ("People [...] are not afraid of Satanists because they are offended, they are afraid because they believe Satanists can work evil magic and will harm them.") is correct for a lot of the people involved (esp. protestors, internet loonies, and possibly the Archdiocese). However, I think the response from Harvard itself and some of the student body has been more about identity politics. I suspect events involving "Satanism" of some kind happen at a lot of universities without it causing an uproar -- the reason this one blew up the way it did probably had to do with the use of the word "Mass" in the title and the fear therefore that the Satanists would be mocking Catholic liturgy. I do think, and I'm guessing you'd agree, that it is offensive to mock other people's religious services , unless there is a larger moral point to be made by doing so (though it should be permitted under the heading of free expression in any case). Given what we know about the history of the "Black Mass" idea and how it was used historically by Catholic and Protestant clergy to persecute opponents of the Church, women suffering from dementia, and other innocent people, there may have been such a larger point to this event, i.e., the Satanists may have been mocking religious intolerance rather than mocking Catholicism per se. But since the event was cancelled due to this ridiculous furor, we don't really know.

    Btw, would be interested in seeing the longer response too if you have it saved somewhere. Wordiness is no barrier on this blog!

  3. Aha! To your point, check out this post that is now up on the "Tradition Family Property" website!


    Ok-- listen up world. We were there, we know how it really went down (though we were not among the black-clad Satanic hecklers mentioned in the post-- I think we were in colorful UU and Divinity School gear, though maybe that's "same diff" to these people).

    Here is how TFP tells it:
    "[T]he spiritual battle between good and evil has never been more visible [...]. As we prayed, a group of individuals dressed mostly in black with satanic insignia gathered in little groups to jeer and mock the prayers. One even muttered "Hail Satan!" as he passed by the statue of Our Lady of Fatima. But this did not in the least deter those on the sidewalk who continued praying the Rosary at the intersection of Cambridge and Kirkland streets until 8:35 PM."

    Ok, there were in fact hecklers wearing black at the protest, though as I recall, one of them said loudly "I do not worship Satan because I don't believe he exists."

    More importantly, the hecklers DID deter the TFP people! The TFP-ers packed it in very quickly after encountering them, which they half-admit later on in the post. Here's the mock-heroic TFP gloss on their dignified retreat:

    "[The hecklers'] hatred was explicitly directed against Our Lady. With this, TFP volunteers formed a protective perimeter around Our Lady, escorting her safely to the van, while being trailed by those who wished to smash her."

    Even for Falangist and Black-shirt wannabes like them, that's pretty lame. Good riddance!