On its surface Hail Satan?, directed by punctuation enthusiast Penny Lane (Nuts!) and distributed by Magnolia Pictures (Man on Wire, Capturing the Friedmans), is a straightforward if openly sympathetic report on the rapid growth of the Salem, Massachusetts-headquartered Satanic Temple and the Temple’s goading of heartland conservatives in the perennial debate over the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. All of which is entertaining enough. But, below the surface, Lane’s film is also a case study in the resiliency of religious identity and atheism’s waning power as a rallying cry, as a movement, as a flag worth waving in an age of identitarian politics.
A revealing line is delivered about halfway through the film when Mason, a clean-shaven, bow-tied Satanist from Little Rock, Arkansas (yes, there is such a thing; a central message of the film is that the Satanists aren’t who you think they are), explains that he’d been a “zesty little atheist” before becoming involved with the Temple. Mason’s disdain for his former identity is mischievous but unmistakable. So is his enthusiasm for a more positive, more nourishing philosophy. And he seems to be speaking for everybody. Here, in Lane’s film, are a group of people who, on one hand, have a recognizable scorn for conservatism and mainstream religion, and on the other consider themselves enthusiastically and committedly “religious.”
As a somewhat-late-in-life apostate of Evangelical Christianity, I would have found Mason’s conversion out of atheism, at least as an identity, interesting enough. But because Mason is my cousin, and because our evacuations from Christianity about six or seven years ago roughly coincided, I cannot stop thinking about it. In February, I accompanied him to a midnight screening of Hail Satan? at the Sundance Film Festival, where it had premiered the day before. Aside from the attempt to rejig preconceived notions, Lane’s film is also making a legal argument: in a secular democracy the government must remain neutral between specific religions, and Satanism is a specific religion, therefore Satanists too have their rightful place at the democratic table. This is tight enough as a syllogism. But is the Satanism of the Satanic Temple really a religion, as its adherents seem to believe?
According to the Temple, “religion can, and should, be divorced from superstition.” And the term “superstition” is used by the Temple interchangeably with the term “supernatural.” But do these terms really mean the same thing? Certainly, superstitions are supernaturalist. But are all supernaturalists really superstitious? What about the Enlightenment era belief in an “Uncaused First Cause,” for example? How can we conceive of “nature” as having a “natural” source? Doesn’t a philosophy have to tackle or at least acknowledge fundamental origin questions like these, if it is really to meet other “religions” on their own turf? For Temple members, however, questions of metaphysics—“supernaturalism and archaic tradition-based superstitions”—are subordinate to other characteristics of religious communities, all of which they say are present and correct.
In addition to its mythical figurehead, the group also has tight-knit communities affiliated, if loosely, under an international governance structure, the occasional candle-lit ritual, and even “Seven Tenets,” similar in form to early Christian creeds or Evangelical “belief statements,” but more prominently featured in the group’s ethos, like the Decalogue. All of this “faith” translates into an impressive list of “works.” A number of the Temple’s discrete projects are also mentioned, but the film focuses on the Temple’s political activism in Little Rock, where efforts to erect an eight-foot statue of the goat-headed Baphomet alongside the Ten Commandment monument already on the lawn of the State Capitol have involved the Temple in a federal court case. You come to the film tentatively: “Satanists? Really?” And then before you know it you are giggling as they run circles around their fanatical opponents.
So, who are the main players in Lane’s film? The unrivaled star of the show is the Satanic Temple’s founder, a soft-spoken, 43-year-old Harvard graduate from Detroit named “Lucien Greaves.” Of course, that extremely metal moniker is not Greaves’s real name. Greaves’s real name, Mason told me, is Doug, which, I thought, is exactly the kind of name you’d expect a Satanist to ditch. Only, it’s revealed in the movie that “Doug” isn’t actually Doug’s real name, either. I assumed when I saw the film that this was a double bluff on the part of Greaves. I assume, in retrospect, it was also a willful fib by the filmmaker: the revelation, delivered after a serious discourse on the security concerns necessitating Greaves’s primary pseudonym, is one of the funniest moments in the movie.
And, as the reviewers have testified, the film contains plenty of funny moments. It opens with hapless efforts by a caped Temple spokesperson in Florida to master a flame-thrower attached to his wrist. Later, Temple members in Arizona “adopt a highway” and pick up litter with pitchforks. When the Temple starts an after school educational program, the specter of a cartoon Beelzebub brainwashing the kiddies induces parental apoplexy. The humor, in all these cases, comes from the Satanists’ self-awareness. Satan isn’t real; the Satanists know that. The game is to rile up America’s superstitious and humorless conservatives by being simultaneously lighthearted and profane. Until the monument battle in Arkansas, the Temple had been most famous, perhaps, for a “pink mass” in Meridian, Mississippi, during which Greaves presided over two same-sex wedding ceremonies at the tombstone of Fred Phelps’s mother. According to Greaves, the Westboro Baptists’ own doctrine holds that this will turn her gay in the afterlife. The Temple brought home another memento from that trip, now disseminated in various censored forms online: a photograph of Greaves smiling as he lowers his testicles onto that same piece of carved granite.
I found myself occasionally wincing at this and other ploys so unlike the measured provocations Greaves has used to focus the religious freedom debate. It seems Phelps’s mother was not a political activist but a homemaker, and died at age 28 of throat cancer. Does a fact like that matter? Nietzsche wrote that “[l]aughter means: to rejoice at another’s expense, but with a good conscience.” Since its premiere in February, Hail Satan? has been described as “hilarious” by the New York Times and (inevitably) as “wickedly funny” by Hollywood Reporter. According to the Verge, an outlet apparently no less vulnerable to writerly temptations, the movie “puts the fun in fundamentalism.” In any case, someone judging the Temple by its own principles might argue the Seven Tenets, which set out to “inspire nobility in action and thought” and prioritize the “spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice,” counsel somewhat against tea-bagging dead cancer patients. But it’s so easy to laugh, even so, and so hard to pity anyone tied too closely, in whatever way, to someone as sinister as Fred Phelps. Like John Milton’s Arch-Fiend, the competitive advantage of the Satanic Temple, in the battle for the hearts and minds of various Adams and Eves, is the abject dislikeability of its self-righteous opponents.
Lane’s film too has a named foil: Arkansas state senator Jason Rapert, who led the charge to raise the Ten Commandments monument in Little Rock and is now squaring off with the Temple. Rapert is recognizable at once to the liberal audience: the middle-aged white male with a southern drawl and that carefully curated mouth-frame of facial hair popularized in the late 1990s by (I think? who else?) country music artist Tim McGraw. Here, the audience senses instantly, is an avatar for all that is retrograde, boring, and dorky in postmodern Middle America: one of those Guardians of Days Gone By who seems to be convinced that if he just keeps repeating a handful of sacred words (“values,” “heritage,” “Judeo-Christian”) with the right amount of self-assured, soft-edged swagger, then time-honored notions of “what’s right” will prevail.
Alas, I’ve been reading about Jason Rapert since long before the Satanists or a film crew came to Little Rock to cover the monument controversy. And not only because he’s the state senator from my own hometown. Mason’s previous identity as a “zesty little atheist” meant, as his Satanism does now, directing his zest at tough-talking, Bible-beating state legislators. I watched Mason and Rapert go at it online for years until Rapert finally blocked Mason across all social media platforms. That doesn’t stop Mason from sending his nemesis letters. Rapert is not only a state legislator but the head of “Holy Ghost Ministries,” which according to its website is dedicated to “impacting the world through Evangelism, Teaching, Missions, Leadership Training, and Honoring Israel” (capitalization in the original). Both Rapert’s senate offices and the ministry get their mail at the same P.O. Box. Occasionally Mason sends Rapert a Subway gift card with a handwritten note: “Have a sandwich on Satan.”
To Mason’s credit, this line has a little more bite than, say, “Have a bag of chips on Daniel Dennett.” And, indeed, watching the free press materialize like manna at the Temple’s invocation of the Prince of Darkness, it is easy to see Satanism as mere marketing gimmick. Aren’t these, in fact, just regular atheists, but with a transgressive edge? Greaves prefers to describe the group as “non-theistic.” Here he is, for example, in an essay published in January: “From its inception, modern Satanism, as it came to be defined in the Revolutionary era of Romantics, was very much a non-theistic movement aligned with Liberty, Equality, and Rationalism.” Have a cookie on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, then?
One way to frame the narrative: the Satanic Temple is a data point in the decline of atheism. Another: atheism has never been that strong to begin with. Despite all the chest thumping that occurs mid-culture war, it turns out it’s rather hard to find any respected thinkers who are, on this point, committedly doctrinaire. In writing the first sentence of this paragraph, for example, all of my first choices were taken. It seems Voltaire, Carl Sagan, Bertrand Russell, and even three of the “Four Horsemen,” Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, have all, in quieter moments, disclaimed the term for one reason or another. In response toHail Satan?mainstream conservatives might (and probably will) say what they’ve been saying for years: “Of course atheism isn’t working! Humans will always need religion!” Not even American conservatives are wrong about everything all the time.
I am not surprised to see Mason, at least, distancing himself from the term. While he and I have often taken mutual joy in the New Atheists’ denunciations of superstitious bullies and fear-mongering dogmatists, I’ve maintained my own reservations about the “atheist” label. I believed, and still believe, that the moral objection to the Christian Cosmos—something like Ivan Karamazov’s (better articulated in Dostoevsky’s Rebellion than in the more famous Grand Inquisitor chapter)—is more powerful, and far more important, than popular arguments from science. The New Atheist argument went something like: “The scientific method and principled doubt are the most important tools in the pursuit of truth, therefore God does not exist.” To which I always found myself thinking, “They’ve got to be kidding.” And if you read their own writings, on some level, they were. But I like Mason too much to take any satisfaction in this.
He’s having too much fun to notice, anyway. In fact, if I’m honest, this is the bit that’s bothering me a little. I was not surprised when I had a hard time explaining my apostasy to Christians. But I’ve been disappointed (and, in a way, disillusioned) at how hard it’s been explaining my former Christianity to the easy, urbane “non-believers” with whom I’ve surrounded myself in the past decade. Many of them, it seems, have managed to hang onto some form of religious identity: a progressive mainline Protestantism, a proud but proudly unideological Judaism, or, likewise, a vaguely ethnic identification as Muslim. But Evangelical Christianity? Young earth creationists who stay virgins into their 20s and elect as the leaders of both Church and State the fire-breathing mascots of all that is feared and loathed by most of the rest of America?
Mason and I know: the person who has grown up with Old Time Religion as commonplace steps out into the antiseptic sunlight of the wider world and feels embarrassed, bamboozled, betrayed. This version of religion must be spat out, scrubbed off until the skin bleeds. You are left standing in a no man’s land, and the feeling can be terribly isolating, never mind your social life or even how many loyal, close friends you have. Carl Jung said that loneliness “does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself.” In the last six or seven years I have felt better talking to Mason. I have felt better, at times, just knowing someone like Mason exists.
Is this Mason, in some sense, gone now? Regardless, I’m more aware than ever, as the kind of gun-shy apostate wary of “labels” and of my own isolation. Who would I throw in with, were I to do so? With another religion, like Mason? With the Socialists? The #resistance? The white nationalists? The Intellectual Dark Web, whatever that is? The vaguely mystical acolytes of Jordan B. Peterson? It would be nice to have somebody, somebodies. At the moment, I can only say for certain that I feel “Arkansan,” happily if nervously “American,” quietly if not quite apologetically “white” and “male,” but mainly, now that “Christian” is gone, and since I never did take on “atheist,” like nothing more than myself.
I guess being no more than yourself is not so much “no man’s land” as “no other man’s land,” but in any case, as it often does, the sea supplies the best metaphor. No one is just standing around, after all. In the years since the both of us jumped Christian Ship, I have, I think, watched Mason find rest on a buoy labeled “atheist.” And now that he’s swum to another nearby, labeled “Satanist,” I realize that for the sake of some sort of personal-ideological purity I am bent, still, on treading water. Last month, driving back to Salt Lake from Park City, the snow on the mountains painted, like the sky, with the rose colors of the magic hour, I asked Mason a question already asked by the only reviewer I can find, so far, to have panned Lane’s movie unequivocally: Was it really fair to call Satanism a religion? Absolutely, he said. Seriously though? Was he really “religious” again, just like that? Had we both been kidding ourselves to think anything else was sustainable? I didn’t chase down these questions. The scenery was too pretty. It was his weekend. I was happy just to have been invited.
The next night, around 1:30 a.m., I watched as Penny Lane stood before a packed theater and with tears in her eyes and the kind of lump in her throat you can hear from 30 yards away thanked the Temple members, at least a dozen of whom were in the audience, for all they had done for her. The Temple had changed the way she thought about religion, Lane said: as a lifelong atheist, she never really “got it” before; now she did. After the Q&A session was over, she and members of the Temple lingered on stage shaking hands, slapping backs, giving hugs. To others, this might have looked like the end of an SNL episode, but to me it was closer to some sort of hipster church service in a rented theater. Though we didn’t get back to our Airbnb until 3:00 a.m. that morning, Mason was up at 8:00 the next day, jotting down thoughts and, of course, working on a tweet:
Can’t sleep. Up too early reflecting on yesterday. Epic doesn’t give yesterday justice. Topped off by the amazing @hailsatanfilm with friends. Seeing this galvanized me to continue the work. Thank you @lennypane, @LucienGreaves, and everyone else who had hand in this. #hailsatan
— Mason (@mason_selby) January 27, 2019
Later that day, Mason and others we’d traveled with rented snowmobiles before heading back to Arkansas. I found a coffee shop to do some work, and to reflect on the weekend, before going back to L.A. Among Lane’s interviewees, Mason was, aside from Greaves, the Satanic Temple’s best spokesperson. I had witnessed this in person a number of times in Utah. In turning visibly skeptical and occasionally repulsed strangers into smiling supporters of Satanism’s pro-science, pro-human, anti-conservative cause, Mason needed five to seven minutes. Everyone in our party agreed he would’ve made a good missionary. But of course he already is one.
Where has my first Sundance experience left me, not just as a wannabe film critic, but as a person who is, though I very much dislike the term, on his own philosophical “journey”? I feel more strongly than ever that there is nothing much to be done with the Jason Raperts of the world, embarrassments to a heartland I still manage to love, except to defeat them. I sympathize with this cutesy reversal, which will surely be deployed a thousand times in response to Hail Satan?: in the battle against religious bullies and nationalists it’s the Satanists, these days, who are doing “God’s work.” I feel proud of Mason. I feel happy for him. And in a way that confuses and scares me a little, in a way I am still trying to understand, I feel jealous too.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article mischaracterized the film’s depiction of the Temple’s “pink mass” in Mississippi.
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