The co-founder and current head of the Satanic Temple, Lucien Greaves is, by his own admission, not someone who wants to be in the spotlight. But with the upcoming release of Our Nixon director Penny Lane’s documentary about his organisation, Hail Satan? Greaves might have to spend more time in it than he’d like. We had the chance to speak to him about activism, misconceptions and why we shouldn’t confuse them with the Church of Satan:
Could you summarise in your own words, the importance of the film?
I have a certain set of hopes for the film: I hope it clarifies for people what we are and what we aren’t but also I hope it clarifies the real struggle is that we are engaged in with the so-called culture war and how much headway the theocrats have made in defined the (United) States (of America) as a Christian nation. How important it is to this struggle that we maintain our place in the world as a pluralistic, constitutional republic. I don’t know if that all comes through to the viewers and I would assume people come away with different ideas of what the film is but ultimately I think if they keep the film in mind when they watch the news, even if they didn’t understand it when they were watching, as time goes on they might see legislation being passed in the name of exclusive religious privilege.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about the Satanic Temple and Satanists in general?
At the most surface level, I think people have that kneejerk, visceral reaction towards Satanists, really fueled by the Satanic panic of the 80s and 90s. It must be a federation of evil that enacts cruelty and be this religious practice that endorses cannibalism and human sacrifices and other such depraved deeds. It doesn’t take long to debunk that and show those fearful notions were put forward by superstitious minds who didn’t understand what causes people to identify with Satanism.
When people see the Satanic Temple, I think one of the immediate misconceptions they have is that because we’re a non-theistic religious organisation that we don’t promote the idea of any supernatural, personal Satan that it must be a prank or something merely to provoke and offend Christians. Neither of those perspectives is true and I hope the film helps clarify that to a greater degree.
Not to dredge up the Warner Bros lawsuit from last year, but do depictions of Satanism like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina contribute to these negative stereotypes?
Yeah, I think if you advance fictions that affirm these notions that the Satanic identification could only mean a particular thing, you’re contributing to that environment of misunderstanding. I think there’s been a long-term narrative device that’s allowed that perspective to be in play that’ll take a while to fight back against but I think the more we do what we do and people recognise what it actually is that causes people to identify as Satanists, the less currency those narrative structures will have. The more those fictions will be seen as having a bias that people will find less tolerable as time goes on. So I think it’s a feedback loop, it’s up to us to define what Satanism is and I think we’ll see fiction keep pace with reality.
For purposes of comparison… pic.twitter.com/AZJvmq1Cks
— Lucien Greaves (@LucienGreaves) October 30, 2018
As regards the seven tenets of the Satanic Temple, is it important to you that the work your group does is done not for publicity but for the good of people?
That’s right. There’s something to willingly embracing this outsider status and being the blasphemers and the frowned-upon heretics that is more conducive to charitable deeds and socially charitable acts. There is a concept psychologists refer to called ‘moral self-licensing’ which shows that people who tend to define themselves as ‘moral’ in terms use that to act like bigger assholes in the real world. Where their moral self-licensing helps motivate crass, anti-social activities. I think if you look at it from that perspective, it’s not alarming to see Satanists performing activities that are more pro-social and inclusive and understanding than some of the more traditional religious organisations
One of the earliest pieces of activism discussed in the documentary was the Pink Mass. Does activism like this help represent you as linked to groups seen as ‘other’ such as the LGBTQ+ community?
Right. That was an early activity, the ‘Pink Mass’ and some have pointed out considering the current structure of the Temple, that kind of thing might not happen. Now we have a kind of bureaucratic process to make sure that the public message isn’t a damaging one but at the time we did the pink mass, it was just a small group of us performing this ritual at the Westboro Baptist Church founder’s mother’s grave but while he was still alive.
It was an offensive act but it sent out an important message that this is what we were contrasting against. If you say Satan is evil and such, whereas that place, the Westboro Baptists, whatever you say about them, they do appear to be true believers in the word of the Bible and it’s hard to argue against them when they claim the Bible is anti-homosexual, etc.
Of course, there are many more liberal interpretations of the Bible but there are various interpretations of Satanism as well. We were just showing where we stand on that spectrum and how we stand for equal rights and equal recognition for the LGBTQ community and how we could converse with organisations like the Westboro Baptist Church on equal grounds. They have just as much right to free speech which we wouldn’t question but that doesn’t make them immune from questioning and to protest, even in a manner they might find offensive.
How do the Satanic Temple’s teachings differ from the church of Satan and traditional Laveyian Satanism?
Well, Lavey (, Anton – founder of the Church of Satan and writer of the Satanic Bible) described his brand, his philosophical construct of Satanism as, “Ayn Rand with ceremonial trappings.” He very much endorsed a social Darwinist perspective in this kind of notion that altruism, compassion and sympathy, these better angels of our nature were destructive cultural by-products and the only natural law was one that allowed the weak to fall to their own incompetence and the strong to rise and that we shouldn’t anything to lift up those less fortunate or who haven’t been able to rise above their condition by their own merit.
I think we find with credible scientific evidence, that is far from the right way to structure a social arrangement and Humans are social creatures. Altruism is not a Human defect, it makes us who we are and makes us worthy of praise when doing it. So we differ from the Laveyian collective in that way but we certainly differ from the Church of Satan that he left behind just by being an active organisation at all. It gives the Church of Satan too much credit to say that they are an active organisation even if they say they are. All they really are these days is a Twitter account that exists to bitch about the Satanic Temple.
Would it be fair to describe the Satanic Temple as more Egalitarian than Randian?
Yeah, that’s correct. We’re more Egalitarian and far more inclusive. We’re certainly more progressive than the crotchety, old Church of Satan.
How did Penny Lane approach you about making the film or was it vice versa?
We absolutely were not seeking to have a film be made and over the years, we’ve been reached out to by many a documentarian who wanted to make a film about us and we said ‘no’ to all of them and Penny reached out, I was fairly sure we’d end up saying the same thing. However her approach was far less insulting than most, many seemed to think we were keen to have attention for attention’s sake which couldn’t be further from the truth.
Though we do these provocative media stunts, we’re always very clear that we want to bring attention to the issues that we find important and through the activities that we do but not necessarily to us. There was a lot we weren’t willing to do: we didn’t want to do re-enactments, we didn’t want it to be a personal biography, I wouldn’t go into my personal history. We didn’t want it to be too personal as that wouldn’t recognise all the work done by the individuals not recognised in that sort of narrative.
Penny was very willing to work with that and she also seemed to have a deep and clear understanding of the Temple when she approached us. At the point I saw her documentary, Nuts, which is the film she did before Heil Satan?, I was very impressed by the structure she put in place and by a Q&A she did after a showing in New York she invited me to where she spoke about her long-standing feud with the anti-vaccine movement and pseudo-science in general and her rejection of superstition in general.
I thought this would give her a really clear viewpoint on who we are and what we do and make her a good prospect for putting together a credible documentary about us. That said, her following us around for a good couple of years and filming without knowing what film she was putting together was a very harrowing experience but it was very vindicating to see what she did produce.
How does it feel now you’re no longer being followed by a documentary crew?
I’ve never particularly liked the spotlight for as much as I’m asked to be in it now. I was sad for the film to come to an end because I used to have weekly meetings with Penny and the producer Gabriel and I would just talk to them, let them know what we were up to and if there were any things they might want to film and not just what I was doing but the various chapters as they would have to consider where they were going to go as many things could be happening at once and they’d have to decide which they were going to go and film.
Having those meetings was a way for me to decompress and talk to people who were technically on the outside of the Temple but still bound by non-disclosure agreements to not give away proprietary information and things we were working on. So I could talk very openly to them about these things and so I came to really value those meetings and now they’re over, I guess I am a bit sad.
A large portion of the film revolves around a campaign against the building of a stone tablet of the Ten Commandments on the steps of the Arkansas Senate & the need for embracing religious diversity. How much of a difference do you think these campaigns have made in the eyes of secular Christians?
Yeah, I do. In fact, at the climactic rally that you see where I put on my bulletproof vest and speak at the podium, what you don’t see is that the rally was, in fact, an interfaith rally. You don’t get to see that Christian ministers were willing to take that stage with Baphomet (the goat-headed deity associated with Satanism) on it and speak in defence of pluralism and religious liberty knowing full well, I was the headlining act. But they fully understood the relevance of our fight, they also did not want the government to take control of their religious voice and to start dictating religious perspectives onto the public at large. I think that’s an amazing bit of progress for Satanists to be able to reach out into the community-at-large and find there are some Christians on our side.
Now that The Satanic Temple is recognised legally as a church, beyond tax exemption, what changes?
Well one thing that getting that recognition did for us is it prevents us from having to any longer argue in court that our religious claims don’t have any merit. We saw that Arkansas arguing against our case for religious discrimination for the Baphomet monument, they were promising their entire argument that we were merely satirical and beneath the dignity of the court. They can’t make that argument anymore. We don’t know what argument they will make now.
In the very near future, you’re going to see that we’re claiming exemption from certain abortion restrictions. In the case of the most recent news, the Supreme Court has upheld Indiana’s right to impose burial standards upon the disposal of foetal remains in abortion cases. That very much places it in the religious domain and I think we have a very strong case in that regard. Once that goes into litigation, I think people will be taking us a lot more seriously on both sides of the equation.
Hail Satan? is available on digital now.
Hail Satan? Will be in cinemas from 26th July.