It's important that we understand the satanists, if we can …

Most religions preach peace, love and harmony. And, yet, a large number of them can't even get along amongst themselves. Protestants and Catholics continue to burn, torture and bomb one another in conflicts spanning hundreds of years. Likewise, the Shia and Sunni Muslims have fought far longer than that.

And now, even anti-religions are falling into the same trap. Two of them, dedicated exclusively to Satan — the Prince of Darkness, the Enemy, the Fallen Angel — are currently having a schism. And leaders of both say it’s giving Satan a bad name.

It's a bizarre and byzantine fight which includes a half-dozen sects and over a dozen leaders. There aren’t any full-scale wars (yet). And no beheadings (yet). Their fights are limited mostly carping on Internet forums, with shoot-outs on Twitter and post bombings on Facebook becoming the norm.

The two main satanic sects these days are the Church of Satan and the Satanic Temple. Just like Sunni and Shia or Protestant and Catholic, an outsider to both would barely see the difference between the two. Both the Church and the Temple love pentagrams, blood, blackness, deep screeching music and goatish gods. Neither one actually believes in a literal Satan — it's all metaphor, all smoke and mirrors.

But satanists from the Church of Satan say the Satanic Temple is full of "lame, fake satanists" who are "making Satanism look … ridiculous." They believe they are the “One True Church,” and demand they be regarded that way. The Temple, meanwhile, is full of life and activism (some call it epic trolling). And, thus, the upstart Satanic Temple is getting all the attention. The Temple has a physical headquarters in Salem, Mass., home of the witch trials, and a quickly growing worldwide membership. It says the Church of Satan has been "reduced to an online forum" for "alt-right" "middle American troglodytes" whose members "just don't do much" and are oddballs who want to impress the goth girls by flashing their Church of Satan membership cards in the waiting room of the orthodontist.

Well, you say, why can't the satanists all just get along?

Actually, Satan is having a moment right now. Unlike nearly every other religion (which are declining in popularity and influence because they're filled with dried up old ladies), this one is on the upswing, because satanism has traditionally appealed to people who are mostly young, male and single, said a 2001 study. 

Examples of satanism's influence can be see seen everywhere. Henry Zebrowski from The Last Podcast on the Left signs his tweets "hail satan." It was a pressing issue in the presidential campaign. Satanism is now an officially recognized religion by governments and prisons alike. In hip coffee shops, you'll see hip crowds wearing hoodies reading "Smoke Meth and Hail Satan." And Gilfoyle from the wildly popular show Silicon Valley is a satanist. 

Sataism's resurgence has brought more young women in; the Satanic Temple's Malcolm Jarry claims it has slightly more female members than male. So there's a chance satanists may actually breed. 

And so it's important that we understand the satanists, if we can.

Lucien Greaves, co-founder of the Satanic Temple, is this conflict's Martin Luther. He certainly looks the part: all dressed in black, with a cloudy right eye that looks white and demonic and a big scar on his upper chest. Lucien spoke to about 70 people at the University of Colorado-Boulder recently. Appropriately, it was underground — in the basement. The crowd was ecstatic, hanging on Greaves's every word.

Greaves says The Temple is attracting thousands of new members every year, a fallout from he and his crew pulling really demonic moves, pushing Satanism into every corner of America where religion is allowed. The Temple is fighting to get "After-School Satan" clubs in schools, pushes statues of Satan into statehouses and demonstrating in favor of abortion rights, which they say are their religious rights. In one masterful stroke, Lucien draped his ballsack on the grave of the mother of the founder of the gay-hating Westboro Baptist Church and claimed that by doing so, he turned her into a lesbian in the afterlife.

Their point: Satan is a god, just like Jehovah. If you let in one, you have to let in the other, or else you're breaking the separation of church and state.

These moves brought Greaves everything from death threats to substantial TV coverage. It garnered the church real successes, from getting Christians to back down on their Ten Commandments monuments to making Pat Robertson freak out, even forcing Glenn Beck to cry like a child — all because they wanted a statue of a goat displayed alongside Jesus.

Successful trolls are successful.

You'd think that the Satanic Temple pissing off all these Christians would make the Church of Satan happy. That’s wrong. The Church of Satan is actually upset. According to some of the members, the Satanic Temple is stealing their image. Or, as Church of Satan Reverend Raul Antony says, "they're borrowing brand equity."

It's sort of true. In this schism, the Church of Satan are like the Catholics: the originals, the gurus. Older and more dogmatic, with long robes and ludicrous large headgear, it laid the groundwork for the Temple. Founded in 1966, it got famous as their founder, Anton LaVey, let himself be photographed by major magazines with a snake crawling around his neck, with followers wearing goat heads and parading around with semi-nude women who aren't all that attractive. Scholars suggest LaVey was a "misanthropic huckster." But, clearly, he was pretty metal, and he was trolling Christians — although he pretended it was all for real.

Without the Church of Satan's groundbreaking work, the Satanic Temple might not be as effective as it has been. When Christians hear the Satanic Temple is filing a lawsuit, they assume it's the same church that's been around for fifty years. It's part of why they take it seriously. And so the lawsuits get more of a hearing and more press than they otherwise might.

LaVey's version of the religion grew, and still exists. But whatever fun they used to have, it's dropped away. The Church doesn't have regular meetings or temples. And a reverend claims that even the infamous orgies are rare. In some ways, the Church of Satan is now disturbingly square. They do not "condone illegal activities," their website says. On that site, the message comes across as preachy high school goths whose denim jacket said "future anarchist" but whose marching-band flute-playing and front-row seat in AP Algebra said "future sexually-frustrated tax attorney."

But the Church of Satan laid the groundwork to make satanism semi-acceptable in modern society. And now they're understandably mad because the Temple, new and bold, has dropped them like a hot skull, dropped the incense and the rituals and the chants and all the other self-important mumbo-jumbo of the old Church. They're simply out there kicking ass, challenging kings and presidents and getting interviewed by Megyn Kelly

As an outsider, it's easy to see both kinds of satanism as a joke or a sideshow. But that's a mistake. The Satanic Temple is a real challenge to Christians who want America to be a Christian-only nation. And that's a lot of Christians, including possibly our next Vice President. This is part of why the Satanic Temple continues to grow so quickly. They added thousands of members in the few hours after the election, Greaves said.

And, in a bigger sense, history and artists and scholars say satanism might present to us not just an outlet for pranks or rebellion, but a new avenue for the soul. In these horrible, confusing times when nihilism and pomposity reigns, people are looking for guidance. And say what you will about the controversial tenets of satanism … at least it's an ethos.

People find solace in a more earthly view of life and death. And in a world where President Trump seems to promise to unite us all under one banner, satanism is a way to put up your pinkie and index finger in the ‘Hail Satan’ salute and say to everybody — as Zebrowski from The Last Podcast on the Left tweeted right after the election — "Fuck this shit fuck trump hail Satan I'm not trapped in here with him he's trapped in here with me."

[originally published November 17, 2016]