Harvard's satanic mass conjures controversy

  • 19 May 2014
  • comments
A model of a statue of Baphomet created by The Satanic Temple of New York.
Image caption The Satanic Temple, which held a black mass near Harvard last week, has designed a statue for display on the Oklahoma state capitol grounds

Last Monday, members of a New York group called the Satanic Temple joined Harvard students to hold a "black mass" at a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The absurdity of the event belies the controversy that led up to it, as the ceremony - a quasi-religious parody of a Catholic Holy Mass - was originally scheduled to be sponsored by a Harvard University student organisation and held on campus.

Although Harvard did not prohibit the event, allowing it as an expression of student free-speech rights, the campus group - the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club - pulled its support, forcing relocation at the last minute to the nearby Hong Kong Restaurant and Lounge.

Theodore R Delwiche and Alexander H Patel of the Harvard Crimson describe the scene:

About 50 people, mostly dressed in black and some wearing face makeup, were present for the ceremony. A consecrated host, believed by Catholics to be the body of Christ, was not used in the ritual.

Four individuals in hoods and one man in a white suit, a cape and a horned mask were active in the proceedings, as well as a woman revealed to be wearing only lingerie. The ceremony began with a narration on the history underlying satanism and the black mass ritual.

It should be noted that members of the Satanic Temple don't really worship Satan so much as they embrace atheism and point to Satan as a literary symbol of their humanist views.

This didn't dissuade Catholic groups from criticising the ceremony, however, and urging Harvard to prevent it from taking place on campus.

"For the good of the Catholic faithful and all people, the Church provides clear teaching concerning Satanic worship," the Archdiocese of Boston said in a statement warning of the "danger of being naive about or underestimating the power of Satan".

"This activity separates people from God and the human community, it is contrary to charity and goodness, and it places participants dangerously close to destructive works of evil."

At the time the black mass was originally supposed to take place, the archdiocese held a Eucharistic procession from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to St Paul Church on Harvard's campus, where more 1,500 gathered, including Harvard president Drew Faust.

Despite the scaled-down nature of the satanic ritual, debate over its observation has continued.

The editors of the Boston Globe call the whole episode an "effort at trolling, not a statement about religion or free speech".

"It's understandable, but too bad, that Catholic groups took the bait; without a public backlash, such a deliberate effort to stir up rancour would have passed with minimal attention," they write. "In the future, Harvard should feel no need to indulge such affairs with a promise of campus space."

Fox News's Emily Walker says that if she had tried to hold a ceremony at Harvard mocking Islam, it never would have been permitted.

"Would Harvard support me and would the Muslim community acknowledge that the protest is my right?" she writes. "As a former Harvard undergraduate student, I doubt it."

Harvard would be right to ban such a hypothetical event, she adds, just as it should have prohibited the black mass:

The Black Mass was constitutional, but it wasn't appropriate at or near a private institution of higher learning. Private institutions should not hesitate to ban practices that deeply offend others.

The Boston Globe's Tom Keane disagrees, saying that those who called for blocking the Satanists are just as wrong as people who protest controversial university commencement speakers or get upset when God is invoked on public property.

"We seem to be afraid of words," he writes.

"No one seriously believed that a so-called satanic ritual was actually going to unleash evil upon the world," he says. "It was a piece of theatre, doubtless intended to be provocative. The target was religion, but religion has been subject to mockery before (as many of the religious know too well), and there's no reason to believe a Mass itself is somehow off-limits."

The Harvard Crimson's J Gram Slattery thinks that rationale behind the black mass was misguided, but it shouldn't have caused such an uproar:

Make no mistake; Satanism as a vessel for symbolic rationalism is a bad, overly abrasive strategy for those who strive for a secularist world. I personally disagree with the tactic. But these soft-core Satanists have every right to challenge theism in whatever fashion, so long as their strategy is not based on intimidation or the provocation of violence.

Last month the Satanic Temple generated a fair amount of coverage when it unveiled the model of a statue of Baphomet, which it wants to place next to a statue of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Oklahoma state capitol.

The group's members seem to be relishing the attention their activities generate, so it's doubtful these "satanists" are going to be disappearing in a puff of black smoke anytime soon.