Trolling Hell: Is the Satanic Temple a Prank, the Start of a New Religious Movement -- or Both?

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Photo Credit: Church of Satan Archives
Magus Peter H. Gilmore, leader of the Church of Satan.
While the Satanic Temple makes headlines, the leader of the nation's oldest Satanic institution seethes. And he is not doing so quietly.

"When a fellow in horns — with an adopted moniker fit for a 1970s hairdresser — tea-bags a tombstone while some 'goth' rejects swap spit on the grave, it seems to us to be a parody of Satanism rather than a representation of some actual philosophical or religious organization."

Those lines were written by Magus Peter H. Gilmore, leader of the Church of Satan, on the Church's official blog. It's one of several denunciations Gilmore has issued against the Satanic Temple in the past year.

The Church of Satan was founded 48 years ago by the father of modern Satanism himself, Anton LaVey, one of the more entertaining spiritual leaders in recent memory. Born Howard Stanton Levey in 1930, he moved with his parents from Chicago to California as a child. He dropped out of school at age 16 to travel with the circus, playing the organ, working on an act with the big cats and behind the scenes at the "spook shows." In the off-seasons he played the organ at burlesque houses on Saturday nights and at tent revivals on Sunday mornings. He saw many of the same customers haunting both spots, feeding his cynicism about the endless Christian cycle: sin, be forgiven, sin some more.

After his carny youth, LaVey claimed to have worked as a crime-scene photographer for the San Francisco Police Department (which SFPD later denied) and as a freelance investigator of psychic phenomena. He was fascinated by the history of the occult —  mysticism, rituals, and what he came to call "lesser magic": the practice of influencing and manipulating others. LaVey began giving weekly lectures on the occult. Before long he'd developed the full-fledged belief system that would become Satanism, which he officially founded on April 30, 1968.

Dr. LaVey, as Satanists refer to him, didn't believe in the existence of a literal devil, and most Satanists don't actually worship Satan. As LaVey put it in The Satanic Bible (the new religion's cornerstone text, published in 1969), the figure of Lucifer represents "a force of nature," an "untapped reservoir that few can make use of," a symbol of a human being's highest potential. 

At its heart, Satanism is about exultant self-centeredness: indulgence in earthly pleasures, kindness only to people who deserve it, vengeance against those who have wronged the Satanist, and the use of lesser magic — wiles, manipulation, a soupçon of deceit — to influence others and advance in the world.

"We are no longer supplicating weaklings trembling before an unmerciful 'God,' who cares not whether we live or die," LaVey writes in The Satanic Bible. "We are self-respecting, prideful people — we are Satanists!"

LaVey, his children, and other church members were especially active through the 1980s and '90s, appearing on talk shows to promote the Satanic point of view. It was a particularly dangerous time to be a public Satanist: beginning in the late '80s, in what came to be called "the Satanic panic," hundreds of children alleged that they had been subjected to sexual abuse by Satanist parents or babysitters as part of dark, sadistic secret rituals.

LaVey died two days before Halloween 1997. Blanche Barton, his longtime partner, took over leadership of the church until 2001, when she passed the torch to Gilmore. He and his wife, Peggy Nadramia (the church's high priestess), live in the Hudson Valley, in a Victorian-style Black House. 

Gilmore argues that the Satanic Temple amounts to no more than a bunch of trolls giving Satanism a bad name in a bald quest for attention. True Satanists, Gilmore asserts, don't act out their beliefs in public. The Church's members, he tells the Voice, "don't alert the media while going about their business. They have no interest in having the world gawk at them and treat them like freaks."

Gilmore is so incensed by the Satanic Temple that he's talking about them publicly. That's unusual: For years, with rare exceptions, the Church of Satan has observed a fairly strict policy of not acknowledging the existence of other Satanic groups, maintaining that it is the only one with a direct line to LaVey.

"Since the 'Satanic Temple' claims to be New York-based, many people confused them with the Church of Satan, which has been officially headquartered in New York since I became High Priest in 2001," he writes in an email. (The church's official address is PO Box 666 at a Poughkeepsie post office.) "Some journalists did not do proper research, and in several cases simply reported that this statue stunt was perpetrated by the Church of Satan."

Gilmore is particularly incensed by the Baphomet monument, calling it "ugly" and noting in a blog post that it "seems pedophiliac, since the caduceus between the goat's legs is a phallic symbol." (Mesner angrily denies that last bit: "That kind of statement is well beneath the dignity of any of us.")

Gilmore is also concerned that the actions of the Satanic Temple will lead the larger world to think Satanists are proselytizing. And that would make Satanism just like the dull herd of faiths Satanists strive to rise above. The prospect horrifies him. 

"It is possible that people could be confused by actions that depict Satanism as being just like other obnoxious spiritual doctrines, which want to force themselves upon people," he tells the Voice. "We do not want intelligent people to see us as yet another religion trying to intrude on public spaces."

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