‘Speak of the Devil’ by Philosophy professor Joseph Laycock looks at The Satanic Temple and religion in America
In 1968 the movie “Rosemary’s Baby” introduced much of America to Hollywood’s idea of Satan worshippers. Based on the novel by Ira Levin, it ignited a new interest in the Church of Satan.
Decades later The Satanic Temple was founded. By 2019 it was granted tax exempt status and was formally recognized as a church by the Internal Revenue Service.
Dr. Joseph Laycock, assistant professor of religious studies in the College of Liberal Arts has written a new book, Speak of the Devil: How the Satanic Temple is Changing the Way We Talk About Religion (Oxford University Press, 2020). Laycock is very quick to explain that The Satanic Temple is NOT the Church of Satan.
A conversation with the professor is a fascinating journey into religious controversies, pop culture, social experiments, myths, history, crimes, and punishment.
“The book was never meant to be ‘cheerleading’ for this group. Speak of the Devil is making an argument that The Satanic Temple is forcing us to have a conversation with things like ‘what do we consider to be a religion? What do we think that freedom of religion should actually look like in a religiously plural society? It is more of an argument showing that this group matters. And here is why they matter and why they are a game changer in this culture war.
“I hope people who read it take that idea seriously and are not looking for sensational accounts of Satanists doing spooky stuff,” Laycock says.
Among the courses that Laycock teaches at Texas State University are Cults and New Religious Movements (REL 335) and American Religious Controversy (REL 330). He is the author of several books on religion and is co-editor of Nova Religio, an academic journal. He has also been a consultant in court cases where accusations of Satanism were involved.
Laycock is one of four Philosophy faculty members who are part of the new B.A. in Religious Studies offered at Texas State. “When they surveyed students and asked ‘what do you want to learn about’ the students said Scientology, Satanism and Jim Jones -- all these weird controversial things. They tried to find someone who could speak to that and it ended up being me,” Laycock says.
“As best historians can tell, there were no real Satanists until 1966. Prior to that mostly just people accused each other of being Satanists. The word has been traced back to the wars of religion in Europe – between Catholics and Protestants with each side accusing the other of satanism,” he said. “Then in 1966 this guy in San Francisco named Anton LaVey founded the Church of Satan -- I think kind of just to see what would happen. He was sort of this eccentric guy, and he had these sorts of lectures at his house on vampires or whatever spooky stuff he wanted. It was kind of a media stunt.”
Laycock explains that The Satanic Temple does not worship Satan. Members will say, “We are about compassion; we are about helping people.” He says they don’t believe in the supernatural, a literal God, or a literal Satan. “But Satan is their favorite fictional character,” he adds.
Today, the Satanic Temple has about 100,000 members in 16 states, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Texas, because of the size, has the most chapters with four. Red states seem to have more TST members than blue states, Laycock says. Their mission statement on the web site, includes: The mission of The Satanic Temple is to encourage benevolence and empathy among all people, reject tyrannical authority, advocate practical common sense, oppose injustice, and undertake noble pursuits.
That Christian Century, a Chicago-based magazine founded in 1884, recently listed Speak of the Devil among the bestsellers from scholarly presses is something that Laycock finds amusing. “Partly because a lot of Satanists wanted to see what I had to say about them. It is a little ironic that I ended up in that magazine.”
In the 1970s, Laycock says, America was terrified of cults. “There was this idea that you could send your kids off to college and they would join a cult for the rest of their lives.” In the ‘80s and ‘90s he says “Satanic Panic” gripped the country. This led to such things as accusations against daycare providers in several states, including Texas. Laycock discusses “Satanic Panic” in American Religious Controversies.
“At some time, academics stopped calling them cults and started calling them ‘new religious movements.”