To a certain mindset, nothing conveys a threat quite like Satanism. Many parts of the world witnessed this dynamic during the “Satanic scare” of the 1990’s. In reality, however, most groups identifying as Satanism do not believe in a Devil and, often enough, don’t engage in worship. These groups are a reaction against aggressive Fundamentalism. For example, a Washington Post article timed as parents (at least) are thinking of back-to-school worries, announces “An After School Satan Club could be coming to your kid’s elementary school.” News headlines are intended to make you want to read a piece, and this one worked in my case. It turns out that the Satanic Temple, the group behind this current initiative, is one of those rationalist groups that doesn’t believe in the Dark Lord. They object, however, to schools allowing Good News Clubs to meet after school hours and want to make a point by offering alternative programing. Devil-themed, but not Devil-believing.
It’s difficult to imagine this kind of situation developing in many world cultures. It raises some very basic dilemmas where two conflicting freedoms co-exist: freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Most people would agree, upon reflection, that public schools should not be used for religious instruction. After school programs, in the minds of kids, still take place “at school” and are not easily separated from regular instruction. (Just ask an undergraduate what an adjunct instructor is and you’ll see that they pay little attention to administrative issues like that.) Fundamentalist groups, such as Good News Clubs, use freedom of speech as their wedge to offer after school programs. It’s not “school,” and it’s after hours. Don’t we allow freedom of speech, and isn’t there space available? Good News Clubs are, of course, evangelistic engines. The Satanic Temple makes the claim that if one religious group can meet after school, so can another.
Neither academics nor society have a good understanding of literalist beliefs. Those of us who once believed—sincerely believed—Fundamentalist teachings are a resource academia has chosen to ignore. Higher education is still an “old boys network” where jobs are offered on the basis of who you know and not on the basis of the knowledge they might offer to students. This, I suppose, is yet another clash taking place. Fundamentalism may seem laughable from the outside, but from the inside the untenable beliefs are taken with deadly seriousness. After school programs are an expression of a very deep-rooted fear that such religions promote. Satanist groups will get headlines by taking them on, but they will continue the conflict rather than offering dialogue to try to understand. They’re only doing what higher education teaches them to do—support those you like instead of trying to move knowledge ahead. Perhaps that’s the real work of the Devil after all.