Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Where I Stand

ideological disclosure: I am not a Catholic, nor do I identify in any capacity as a Satanist. My only relevant affiliation with the University is as a student at the College. In forming my opinion on this matter, I've talked with my friends, including student leaders in the Harvard-Radcliffe Catholic Student Association, and not including any self-identified Satanists, as there were none to be found.

I've tried to make a good-faith effort to give all sides a fair hearing in their own words. You can be the judge of whether I've succeeded.

I'm not a fan of Fox News. I'm not going to discuss my reasons here. That's not the point of this post.

I am a fan of Todd Jones, a fellow student at Harvard, and the director of a play I'm teching in the fall. He's a pretty awesome guy.

So when someone mentioned that Todd was on TV the other day, I found myself watching a clip from a news source that I rarely ever find myself watching. Here it is: Harvard to host "Satanic Black Mass". (Background: Factually, the story is correct, as reported in the Harvard Crimson here.) If you didn't click that link, here's a short summary:

News anchor is outraged; Harvard student and Catholic chaplain both make reasonable points; news anchor attempts to goad them into more extreme positions; Fr. Michael Drea responds with:

"Hopefully, we can lead by our example, to help others who are affected by negativity, by hatred, and by bigotry, ... so that the community can come together in a stronger way, and really be united for all people of goodwill, to be able to live their faith well without being denigrated."

It's rather good that the clip ended on that positive note, because I almost got tripped up by a line at the beginning, also from Fr. Drea:

"This is definitely an act of hatred, an act of bigotry directed towards the Church and towards her faithful people."

This is something I wasn't quite willing to take on faith (if you'll pardon the pun). Since it seems like the sort of thing that gets said a lot more often than it's true, I decided to judge for myself whether the 're-enactment of a Black Mass' really was an act of hatred directed towards the Church. So I resolved to do my research, and dug through the website of The Satanic Temple (the Satanic group sponsoring the event), read the public statements by both the University and the Extension School's Cultural Studies Club, and talked with College students of differing opinions.

In the tradition of discursive charity, I tried to give every side the most charitable interpretation possible, even if I thought it unlikely to be true. Rather than seeking out strawmen, I tried to construct 'steelmen' -- i.e. the strongest possible argument for a particular position. In constructing devil's advocate positions (pun unintended), I hope to overcome personal biases and treat the issue as fairly as I can. In total, I asked three questions:

1. What do the Catholics believe?
2. What does the University believe?
3. What do the Satanists believe?

and attempted to frame them in the context of a fourth:

4. How are the three positions reconciled in what I believe?

My most charitable attempts at the first three follow, along with my resulting resolution of the fourth.


The Catholic community (in stereotype), in keeping with long-held beliefs of moral realism, is firmly convinced that the event is not just offensive, but actually immoral in a real sense. They are very invested in ensuring that no consecrated host is desecrated because the difference between a consecrated host and an unconsecrated wafer is not merely symbolic, but real-in-the-world. The root of their opposition is not in the event's offensiveness, but in its wrongness.

If they are unable to prevent the event from happening entirely, they wish to respond in a way consistent with their own faith: by overcoming hatred with community. That is, they wish to respond to mockery and denigration with celebration and renewed conviction in the goodness of their faith. (again, Fr. Drea lays out this view rather elegantly in the above-linked video (here it is again), despite the efforts of a particular news anchor to push him to a more extreme position.)


edit: I've modified this section in light of President Faust's official statement. An earlier version of this post portrayed the University's actions as more passive, and made no mention of the moral stances individual administrators had chosen to take.

The University (which I regard as a single civic entity) owes much of its historical essence to a long-standing tradition of open dialogue, even when such openness threatens to divide or disrupt the community itself. In this spirit, it does not believe that stepping in to stop the event would be consistent with a position supporting the exercise of free speech.

However, in a natural role as a civic moderator, it believes that it does have a responsibility to prevent offense to any party involved when such offense is avoidable without significant imposition on any other party. To this end, for example, it has taken it upon itself to ensure that the Cultural Studies Club not use an actual consecrated host for the event, as they will not be materially affected, and the difference is clearly significant to the Catholic community.

Nevertheless, several University administrators have spoken critically on the event, both in persona and ex officio. In their critiques, they've addressed the difficult choices inherent in a commitment to free expression in our community, and the necessity of matching offensive expression with positive expressions of community.


edit: Here, I'm definitely discussing only TST's formulation of Satanism, not Satanism in general. I am well aware that there are a diverse array of beliefs which call themselves Satanism, and I only mean to discuss the particular form promoted by the organizers of this event.

Satanism (as defined by The Satanic Temple) is essentially defined by its opposition to a religious establishment harmful to humanity. Some members of the community use this opposition as a framework to promote humanistic values and civil freedoms; others believe that the opposition of an oppressive religion is sufficient end unto itself. The fundamental shared standard of belief appears to be "The Christian tradition is wrong, and anyone who agrees is likely to make generally good judgments."

Based on TST's website, however, I do not believe that Satanism can be defined without reference to its opposition to organized Christianity. On both ideological and social levels, the community is essentially defined by its out-group status, and cannot exist as an in-group without the relative presence of an antagonistic Christianity.

(Keep in mind that this is not my best guess as to the actual truth of the matter, but rather my attempt to be as charitable as possible while still retaining the possibility of being true. That is to say, it's not just that I don't believe that the community actually has a positive in-group definition, but rather, I've concluded that such a definition would be fundamentally incompatible with their explicitly stated positions. Feel free to do your own research and draw your own conclusions.)

In theory, I'm confident that ideologically atheist communities need not be defined in opposition to theistic ones; for a wonderful example, the Secular Solstice celebration that I've written rather extensively about carried the tagline "God probably doesn't exist. But that's not the point." And we meant it, too. There's a world of difference between a humanist event that aims to celebrate humanity independently of religion and one that aims only to disparage religion.


I'm willing to grant groups with whom I disagree the right to publicly make in good faith demonstrations I believe to be harmful to the community. (After all, free speech without free harmful speech isn't really free.) However, such license is offered as part of a social contract of noninterference: individuals are given license to hold their own faith, except insofar as such exercise infringes on the same rights of others.

However, I am not convinced that the Satanic community does act in good faith; if an essential part of their community identity is reliant on their opposition to another group, they are not making a good-faith effort to exist in a civil society with equitable contracts of noninterference. And, thus, I am not inclined to grant them the protections of the same.

By contrast, the Catholic response has convinced me that they are attempting to co-exist with people with whom they disagree, though the process may be (to them) painful. Forsaking the opportunity to directly lash out at people who (in their view) are obviously making the world a worse place, many Catholics have instead elected to respond in a manner consistent with their own stated beliefs, namely through prayer, meditation, and peaceful (if vocal) opposition. I'm convinced that they are motivated by some defining concept of who they are, rather than who they are not, and thus have a place as citizens of a civil community.


I'm not going to defend the theory of social contracts here, but rather, I'll simply conclude: I like people who are willing to abide by the rules they want other people to play by. They're the sort of people who I prefer in my community.

I do not agree with Catholic doctrine on numerous issues, but I do believe that, at the end of the day, the Catholic community is essentially acting in good faith to live in accordance with some ideal of goodness. I wish I could say the same about the parts of Satanist community that I've uncovered, but I'm afraid that I can't; rather, the only impression I've gathered is that they're attempting to exist in opposition to another group's identity, for the inherent purpose of antagonism per se.

And so, I stand with Harvard Catholics, because I think that they're honestly trying to make the world a better place. And that's a position that I respect, and deem worthy of support.

addendum: If you feel like you've got a better picture of the TST community or the practice of Satanism as defined and promoted by The Satanic Temple, I'd love to hear it. (I know that there are alternative formulations floating around, but in the interest of topicality, I'd prefer to stick to the particular belief system at hand for this event.)

I'd be more than willing to believe that my impression is incomplete, if someone well-informed could point out where I'm mistaken about the community or its practice. I'll be the first to admit that I'm really none too familiar any of it...