Features & Columns

How Satan Became the New
Face of Secularism

A meet and greet with Silicon Valley's Satanists.
FIRESTARTER: Jedidiah Schadenfreude brought the Satanic Temple to San Jose.

Sunday evening, the Lord's Day, at Flames: a few lost souls wander around the San Jose diner trying to find a ruck of Satanists. They're late, sidetracked by a bunch of leather-vested bikers who rented the banquet room for a holiday party. After a couple wrong turns and awkward exchanges, the stragglers arrive. One of them, a young man—crimson hoodie, red hair, flushed cheeks—sidles into a seat and lets out a relieved sigh.

"Who else thought those bikers were Satanists?" he asks. "I thought Satanists wore black."

Jedidiah Schadenfreude, a dyed-in-the-wool Satanist whose burly build occasionally gets him mistaken for a Hell's Angel, chuckles.

"Oh we do," says Schadenfreude, who, in addition to a diabolical alias, sports leather cuffs, a black button-down shirt, shaved head and kohl-smudged eyes. "But not all people who wear black are Satanists."

They wonder how many of the bikers were asked with straight-faced sincerity about their allegiance to Lucifer. The inaugural gathering of the Satanic Temple's San Jose chapter draws a handful of inquisitive strangers. Some look the part—slag-black garb, dye-darkened hair, facial piercings. Others, in Carhartt coats and heavy work boots, could pass for God-fearing, salt-of-the-earth folk.

"This is good," Schadenfreude says, nodding his head approvingly as people settle in. He'd been apprehensive about the first public meeting, inviting a bunch of strangers to a satanic mixer—for good reason. Chapters elsewhere have faced death threats, some broadcast on national talk radio. Thus, the pseudonym.

With beers ordered and introductions made, Schadenfreude cracks open a white binder to review the fundamentals of Satanism. The tenets he reads invoke compassion, reason, justice, the inviolability of one's body and freedom that never encroaches upon another's.

"But even these aren't set in stone," he says, glancing up from the page to gauge the group's reaction. "These are guidelines to hold us accountable to ourselves and to each other. These are here to promote personal responsibility and rational inquiry."

Schadefreude's right-hand man, who goes by the decidedly less sinister anonym Nolan Bell, chimes in to explain that their public service must always express those core values.

"That's right," Schadenfreude affirms. "We want to help the community because that is the rational, satanic thing to do."

Temple Tantrums

The Satanic Temple stormed into the public eye on the steps of the Florida state capitol in January 2013. A throng of caped Satanists staged a rally to facetiously applaud Gov. Rick Scott for pushing a bill that sanctioned prayer at public school assemblies. They raised a banner proclaiming "Hail Satan! Hail Rick Scott!" and gushed to news cameras about how the new law would allow students to offer up invocations to the Prince of Darkness.

Doubtful that honest-to-God Satanists would salute a politician who openly promotes Christianity in government, journalists blew their cover. Turns out a New York-based film crew had put out a casting call for unpaid "minions" and extras to act in a "mockumentary" about "the nicest satanic cult in the world."

The "Satanists for Scott" stunt went viral, inspiring a myriad headlines, memes and pearl-clutching outrage. But the temple realized that in order for its message to truly resonate, they had to drop the act. Doug Mesner, the Harvard-educated ringleader, assumed the name Lucien Greaves and became the face of the organization. He set out to prove that despite the fake film setup, the Satanic Temple is the real deal.

Originally conceived as a "poison pill in the church-state debate," as Mesner phrased it in a 2013 interview with Vice, the temple has since evolved beyond reactive political ploys. "Our message and beliefs are deeply sincere," says Jex Blackmore, who leads the group's highest-profile chapter in Mesner's native Detroit. "To us, Satan is a figure that embodies the characteristics that inform our deeply held beliefs, rather than a stab at the superstitious."

Adherents of the Satanic Temple have no qualms with the occult or low-key spirituality. But Greaves and his ilk embrace an atheistic philosophy that views Satan not as a deity but a literary symbol. Satan, in this brand of "ism," stands for reason, autonomy and rejection of superstition and arbitrary authority. Through this lens, he bears more resemblance to the rebel angel of Paradise Lost than the Bible's rendition of evil incarnate.

In the spirit of Satan as eternal outcast, activism remains central to the group's mission. Where religion has already breached the church-state divide, the Satanic Temple elbows in to remind lawmakers that those privileges necessarily extend to other beliefs. On principle, neither the executive ministry nor its affiliate chapters will apply for a tax-exempt status. The temple holds that religious organizations, even one that firmly denies the supernatural, shouldn't receive special treatment from the government.

Following the Florida demonstration, temple chapters began cropping up throughout the country to promote plurality and shine a critical light on the intersection of church and state. They touched down in Mississippi, to officiate same-sex unions on the grave of Catherine Johnson, whose son Fred Phelps founded the militantly anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church. Mesner declared her a lesbian in the afterlife and ended the affair by tea-bagging the late Johnson's headstone.

GOATS, GOD, AND THE DEVIL: A 9-foot statue of the goat-god Baphomet.

The scrotum incident incited outrage, predictably, but also garnered widespread support for its most incendiary project: a 9-foot statue of the goat-god Baphomet. Greaves et al famously petitioned to have the one-and-a-half-ton bronze figure, paid for by $30,000 in donations, installed on the lawn of the Oklahoma state capitol alongside a monument of the Ten Commandments.

A lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union derailed those plans, however, as the state was forced to remove the Christian display. Satanists, of course, welcomed the outcome. The timing was impeccable, too. With Arkansas poised to display the 10 Commandments on the capitol grounds in Little Rock, the Satanic Temple asked lawmakers to reserve a spot for their beloved Baphomet.

Schadenfreude, who converted to a more occult form of Satanism as a teenager, says he joined the Satanic Temple because it so clearly struck a nerve. Its campaigns, he says, have forced the powers that be to engage in a dialogue that makes the world more equitable for all beliefs. "That's what pulled me in," he says. "I like to tell people: We've got teeth."

In relatively progressive Silicon Valley, however, the movement may be less defined and the battles less pronounced. In the Midwest and other conservative parts of the United States, Satanists have tilted against religion-based laws that sanction prayer in public school or threaten access to comprehensive reproductive healthcare.

"Our role is fluid depending on the culture and the place," Schadenfreude says. "But wherever we go, we're here for the outsider."

Aiden Simon, 27, an atheist who joined the San Jose chapter after dropping in on the first meeting last month, says that's exactly what brought him to the table.

"I'm transgender, and you don't really have many spaces, even queer spaces, without some sort of opposition," he says. "Being from more than one subculture myself, I like the idea of promoting these various groups, whether they're on the LGBT spectrum or in the broader community. I do want to actively help and I think the [temple] can be a big part of that."

Devil May Care

The man known as Schadenfreude, a 43-year-old artist-musician who lives in Campbell, asks to meet at his favorite haunt, Flames. In a black T-shirt emblazoned with a red devil-horned PBS logo, he's easy to spot if you've got your eyes peeled for a Satanist. I wave him over to my booth, where he explains how he had a hard time leaving his flu-addled girlfriend.

"I tucked her in and made her dinner," he says, apologizing for seeming preoccupied. "Sometimes she wants me to leave so I don't fuss over her."

Over Buffalo wings and IPA, he tells me about growing up Southern Baptist in Louisiana, where he lost his faith innocently enough. At the age of 6, he wrestled with the idea of loving Jesus more than his parents. Love Jesus the most, his Sunday school teacher cautioned, or end up in Hell. Enough threats of eternal damnation got him used to the idea. He developed an affinity for the outcast, the heel, the devil himself.

"I used to listen to that song 'The Devil Went Down to Georgia' and think the devil got a bad shake," he says. "My Sunday school teacher didn't like that either."

By his teens, Schadenfreude says, he embraced Satanism with a "piss on the Bible" kind of fervor. He turned his walk-in closet into a satanic shrine, with an altar and candles, where he'd practice spells. That her son had long since sworn his soul to the devil only dawned on Schadenfreude's mother years later. The nationwide "satanic panic" of the 1980s compelled parents and church groups to censor anything remotely blasphemous, from heavy metal to Dungeons and Dragons, David Bowie and Cabbage Patch Dolls. TV shows and a resurgence of a conservative spin on "family values" fueled a pandemic paranoia that demons lurked behind every doorknob.

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