This Sunday, December 21st, the Satanic Temple of Detroit, Michigan plans to erect a “holiday” display on the Capitol lawn in Lansing. The display features a black cross entwined with a red snake, topped with a goat’s head encircled by a pentagram. A scroll stretches across the statue bearing the inscription: “The greatest gift is knowledge.” According to the chapter’s leader, Jex Blackmore, the goal is to make citizens and legislators aware of “beliefs that aren’t mainstream,” presumably as a response to the nativity scene which the Capitol plans to install. “We really try to provide rational insight wherever the satanic voice may benefit,” Blackmore told FOX 2 Detroit.
Blackmore’s statement and the cryptic message on the statue’s scroll got me wondering just what kind of rational insight the satanic group had to offer. Unfortunately, their insights sound eerily similar to the kind of mainstream rhetoric we hear from the media all the time. Blackmore emphasized that legislators ought to “make sure that we’re all aware this is a diverse community we live in,” and that families who gather during the Christmas season ought to be engaging in discussions about these “divergent beliefs.” “It’s Christmas, it’s holidays, multiple people celebrate this time because we all have work off and it’s a reason to celebrate,” Blackmore told Fox. “Everybody chooses different ways to celebrate. But having one singular view, especially coming from the Capitol, promoting one singular view is extremely narrow-minded.” These claims don’t sound like witchcraft or sinister, demonic dogmas; they hit home with a lot of the language we’re accustomed to today about accepting all lifestyles and all beliefs equally. But just what kind of “knowledge” is this? What are the implications of these “rational insights” the local Satanic Temple has graced us with this Christmas season? What kind of “reason” is Satan concerned with?
One of the most disturbing parts about this demonstration is that it’s being justified under the auspices of “religious freedom” and toleration. While it’s true that the Satanic Temple technically falls under the category of an organized religion, no one with common sense can fail to miss the chilling irony of the way in which an “anti-religion” which is essentially a rebellion against other religions can claim the same rights as a religion to which it is fundamentally opposed. Next week, passersby will be greeted by two demonstrations with substantially different messages and purposes, placed side by side as if they were qualitatively equal. There is something profoundly unreasonable about this. But how are we to judge the situation on the basis of current political discourse? How do we think of “reason” nowadays?
In trying to figure this out, I couldn’t help but think of the first letter to Wormwood in C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. In the letter Uncle Screwtape denounces rational argument as a method of stealing a soul from the “Enemy” (God); reasoning won’t help Wormwood ensnare his “patient’s” soul. Instead, Screwtape advises Wormwood on the basis of some salutary developments in modern thinking which have undermined the possibility of reason: “Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false’, but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical’, ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary’ or ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless’. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church.”
As Blackmore witnessed to Fox News, the “jargon” of mainstream American life is based on this dancing about of divergent philosophies, about which it is impossible to make rational judgments because they are thought to exist equally on a spectrum, not a hierarchy of better and worse accordingly as they are good or bad for human life. This way of thinking is opposed to reason (what Screwtape calls “argument”), because it holds no standard on which true “rational insights” can be formed. The modern creed is based on “diversity” as an end in itself; all beliefs and lifestyles are created equal, and it is heresy to claim that any one belief is better or truer than another. But Lewis points to the fundamental problem this presents, which we plainly see in the competing demonstrations in front of the Michigan Capitol: what if some of these beliefs are incompatible or essentially opposed to one another? By what standard are we to judge which belief will win out in the face of this type of fundamental conflict? How are we to know which outcome is good for human life?
Previously it was understood that the answer could be found in reason, that is, the discerning of a standard of Good which allowed the mind to make judgments about better and worse, right and wrong. But we’ve lost faith in this view of reason these days. I allude to the attitude which we commonly call “relativism,” the notion that all ideas are equal and that no one of them is truer than another. But I don’t know if “relativism” is an accurate description of the phenomenon. There is a clear, moral teaching that is part of the liberal dogma of “diversity;” if you dare to question it, you are automatically and unthinkingly labeled as a “bigot,” “narrow-minded,” “on the wrong side of history,” or some other such sweeping turn of phrase that functions as a convenient excuse to avoid rationally confronting the heart of the issue. This is not reasonable; a culture where all ideas and views are perceived as equal has lost faith in reason as the ability to find the way of life which is best for human flourishing.
What are the practical effects of this loss in civil society? Someone’s rights are going to be trampled. In this case, the potency of the Capitol’s traditional Christmas display is undermined and insulted by the presence of a group whose professed aim is to destroy the Christian religion, which is the source of the holiday which eighty-three percent of the country celebrates during this time. To justify this situation on the basis of “religious freedom” is unreasonable.
The point of religious liberty is to protect rights, not to provide a license for every group that calls itself a religion to do as it pleases at the expense of others’ rights.
John Locke was one of the first proponents of religious freedom in his Letter on Toleration, which was written in the context of religious civil wars in England. He published the Letter in 1689 as an attempt to mitigate the violence caused by conflicting beliefs espoused by the state. But “toleration” for Locke did not amount to blind acceptance of all world views as equal; while he firmly asserted that it was not the role of government to be in the business of saving souls, he also wrote that some religions are not to be tolerated if they are bad for human life and civil society. He used violent examples such as child sacrifice to illustrate the point that religious practices qua religious practices cannot be defended purely and simply; some rituals are fundamentally unreasonable, that is, destructive of human life and productive of disorder. The role of the state was to judge, on the basis of reason, whether some religions were intolerable if they promoted the destruction of society or violated the rights of other citizens.
The implication is that there are limits under which the right of “religious freedom” must operate if it is not to descend into a license for any and all practices which remotely qualify as “religious,” regardless of how destructive they may be. So how are we to prevent the right of religious liberty from becoming an anarchic free-for-all? The answer is that the right must be qualified by reason, which asks the fundamental question of what is good for human life. The proclamation that all beliefs are equal, even the “divergent” ones, is not a “rational insight;” it is an invention of modern society which is justified by the liberal jargon which arose in the 1960s; it is a recent phenomenon, a phase, a trend, a fad that will pass in time. And the sooner the better, because any theory that throws out the possibility of discovering which ideas and practices produce disorder and unhappiness in political society is not a theory we should keep around.
In Lewis’ fiction, Screwtape recognizes the salutary effects of reason and does the best he can to keep his “patient” away from it: “The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle on to the Enemy’s own ground…By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result? Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favor, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences.” The trouble about our times is that we are preoccupied with things that are immediate and passing; politics is structured around the temporary and shifting demands of different interest groups, and with the loss of faith in reason we can no longer agree on the meaning of universal principles like justice and the common good, by which we can judge which political initiatives are better than others. Screwtape rejoices in this, because evil rejoices in disorder and confusion.
While America was founded on the basis of religious toleration and the separation of church and state, the Founders did not neglect to include Christian elements and allusions in their founding documents and speeches. While the state did not officially espouse one religion over another, they recognized the salutary effects of promoting the Christian religion which was based on the “laws of nature and nature’s God,” that is, a religion which understood the value of reason and the natural law for human life and the political order. This is why it is appropriate for political offices to honor Christian holidays, and why that honoring is not a breach of the separation of church and state; it’s good for the country to come together under one celebration — based on “one singular view” which Blackmore denounces — because it’s unitive, and that unity is the source of the great joy of living in society. Common opinions about what is good and bad are what hold a country together, and Christmas is the time to celebrate one of the greatest traditions which has held human society together for over two thousand years.