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Why Do Many Christians Still Literally Believe in Demons and Satan?

Hundred of years after the scientific revolution, the Catholic church still subscribes to the belief that the cosmos is swarming with evil spirits.

If there's anywhere in the U.S. where you'd expect aggressively conservative, domineering religion to be a relic of the past, it's tolerant and culturally liberal Massachusetts. But even in that blue enclave, the theocratic impulse is still surprisingly powerful. We found this out when a student group at Harvard University, the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club, ignited a furor by announcing that they were planning an educational program of ceremonies from different belief systems around the world, and that one of these ceremonies, in partnership with the New York-based Satanic Temple, was going to be a Satanist black mass.

Because this is an easy mistake to make, it should be emphasized that most Satanists don't literally worship the devil. They're atheists who treat the figure of Satan as an inspiring piece of mythology, a symbol of individual freedom and resistance to oppressive orthodoxy. (One of their current projects is a campaign to end corporal punishment of children in schools.) And, it has to be said, there's also an element of conscious satire in Satanism, a cheeky attempt to shock the easily shocked.

In spite of this, Satanism has always drawn hysterical fright from religious believers who seem terrified of the mere concept, even though they claim to worship a god who's infinitely more powerful. True to form, the announcement of the black mass provoked immense outrage and fear among Catholics in Boston and beyond. Harvard faculty, chaplains, alumni and students, as well as the Archdiocese of Boston, demanded that the black mass be canceled, or that Harvard step in and prevent it from happening. Some prominent Catholic bloggers expressed real fear that the students, without meaning to, would summon the literal devil and lose their souls (shades of the famous Jack Chick comic which claims Dungeons & Dragons teaches teenagers to cast real black magic spells).

But what drew the most outrage is that, in a true black mass—to the extent that such a thing exists, and isn't just the invention of medieval heresy hunters—there's a prop representing a Eucharist wafer that's symbolically desecrated, perhaps stepped on. A rumor, subsequently denied by the Satanists, that they'd be using a real consecrated wafer drove Catholics to new heights of frenzy. Some commenters urged that the Satanists be arrested and charged with hate crimes (I hate to break it to these people, but holding a religious ceremony that offends members of other religions is not actually a crime in America). Another proposed a Mission: Impossible -type commando raid on the Satanists' meeting place to rescue the imperiled wafer from harm.

Faced with these protests, Harvard grudgingly announced it respected the principle of free speech and wouldn't forbid the event, but the administration made it clear where its sympathies lay. Harvard's president, whose actual name is Drew Faust, announced she'd be attending a Catholic-organized protest against the black mass. Harvard's dean of students, Robert Neugeboren, also said, "We do not agree with the student group's decision to stage an event that is so deeply disturbing and offensive to many in the Harvard community and beyond."

Although Harvard publicly claimed it wasn't forcing the Satanists to move, it seems likely that behind-the-scenes pressure was applied. The night it was supposed to happen, the club announced it would be moving the event off campus as a show of good faith. But even after this, Boston's Catholics continued to hound them, making apparent it wasn't Harvard's sanction that was at issue, but their belief that Satanists should have no right to assemble or practice anywhere. In the end, the event took place, though apparently in an informal and scaled-down way, at a local restaurant.

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