This is What Really Freaked Me Out About the Black Mass May 21, 2014

This is What Really Freaked Me Out About the Black Mass

This is a guest post written by Meryl Federman.

Just over a week ago, a “Black Mass,” or a Satanic ritual purportedly based on inverting Catholic rites, was scheduled to take place on the Harvard campus, sponsored by the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club and administered by the Satanic Temple of New York. The Cultural Studies Club, true to their name, intended this to be an academic event, a look at a marginalized and unorthodox tradition, and part of a series of events examining other religions and cultures (including Shinto, Shaker, and Buddhist events). However, they received a flood of intimidation and anger.

They responded publicly to it, saying:

Obviously, not all forms of expression are constructive or pro-social, and some forms of speech need to be curbed. This is recognized by the delineation of what is referred to as “hate speech.” Hate speech is communication that has no purpose other than to express hate for a specific group and is likely to incite violence. While some people are offended by satanic practices, the Black Mass ceremony does not meet the criteria for hate speech and is as valid as any other form of religious expression. People might find the rituals offensive to their sensibilities, but there is no expression of hate towards any group, and there is no incitement of violence. This ceremony does not silence any individuals from expressing their respective faiths as they see fit. No one is intimidated in such a way that they feel they cannot behave as they choose. Those who oppose this reenactment simply feel that their deeply held rituals are being mocked.

However, daunted, the Cultural Studies Club eventually revoked their sponsorship of the event. Their final response was calm and deferential, saying that it was merely social pressure and not an official pronouncement from Harvard that barred them from going forward. The event, now only presided over by the Satanist Temple, was scaled down and moved from an on-campus location to a restaurant in Harvard Square on May 12th.

The enraged response from some Catholics, I understand to a point — they believe the Satanic ritual to be counter to their own religious beliefs. Personally, I think it’s a bit futile and exhausting to respond so forcefully every time someone does something counter to one’s beliefs, but for a meaningful enough infraction, I suppose it makes sense. The Eucharist in particular was to be “desecrated” at the Satanic mass, and though the Cultural Studies Club backed down on the idea of using a consecrated host before finally dropping their sponsorship, I understand the wariness of Catholics to embrace this blasphemy in their midst. They don’t need to embrace it. However, in a pluralistic society, it is imperative that they tolerate it. Their Catholicism cannot be threatened by someone else failing to believe in Catholicism or respect their rituals, otherwise there is no religious freedom for others.

And yet, the Catholic response consistently equated this Satanic mass with “hate” and “intolerance,” despite having only religious objections to it. It was merely their religious beliefs and rituals being countered — their lives, their identities, their employment, their right to worship, and their own salvation according to their faith were not being threatened. In fact, as an academic rather than religious event, no one was even trying to convince anyone to embrace Satanism over Catholicism. And yet, a Crimson op-ed characteristic of the response (meaningfully entitled “Hatred at Harvard”) explained that Catholics felt fear, hate, and persecution at the mere possibility of someone countering their religious teachings. It closed on a saccharine and disingenuous note, saying “The only response to such overwhelming hate is that of Christ Himself: love.”

The hypocrisy of the loving, tolerant Catholics driving out a small minority merely interested in speaking of disbelief in the Catholic faith — while bemoaning the intolerance of the Cultural Studies Club — is almost too obvious to mention. It is the broader community response that was far more troubling. Harvard President Drew Faust conceded, in her official response, that the Satanic ritual was intolerant, abhorrent, and worthy of hate, and said that the only reason to tolerate the event is that principle dictates the right to free speech. She attended the Catholic counter-mass held to stave off the dark, hateful forces. So did Greg Epstein, the head of the Humanist Community at Harvard, which was deeply disappointing to me as a sometimes-attendee of his meetings. He has held events where I could join other Humanists in discussion — and sometimes irreverence — of all sorts of religious tradition, all without repercussions. Would he propose that we expose our doings to the religious community, concede that our talk (while private and not intended to be forced in their face or into any sort of public policy) was “hateful,” and say that any act which disrespects superstition must be condemned as merely “legal,” but surely on the same level as Fred Phelps‘ noxious bile? Sure, Phelps was trying to impose legal inequality on whole swathes of the citizenry while we simply think the supernatural makes no sense, but why not throw the two in the same pile? How does he square creating this sometimes-irreverent space for Humanism while attending the Catholic mass intended to shame the Black Mass for its irreverence, which was its only transgression?

The fact that the broader community, including leaders of intellectual and nonreligious institutions, sided with the Catholics in this case, is the real shame of this story. You show solidarity to people who need it and deserve it, not to those who have every advantage and right in the world to do as they please. Show solidarity with at-risk youths being told their sexuality makes them unworthy to show their face in society. Show solidarity with Jews if Nazis show up in your town, with nonwhites if the Klan does, or with women if a men’s rights group appears. But to stand with a vast plurality of people who are completely safe from a small, intellectually curious minority? To go as a representative of Harvard or its Humanists to a mass where Catholics were literally trying to stave off the Devil, which I doubt Faust regards (and know Epstein does not regard) as a true and immediate risk? It makes me question how willing these leaders are to call into question religious traditions when doing so may be unpopular.

On the heels of the Hobby Lobby case making it clear that Catholics find their own religion threatened if others don’t follow it, and the Greece case making sure that officials can equate their local government with their religions, it seems only reasonable to fear that the Catholic Church is truly trying to make all institutions cater to its need to abolish dissent and irreverence. If that seems like a basic thing to say to this atheist audience, I must reveal my own personal backstory for a brief moment — I am from a highly liberal family that is secular and culturally Jewish, and my hometown also had more than a critical mass of liberals and secular Jews. Going from there to Harvard left me without a true immersion in a religious, intolerant community that would show me just how necessary religion can be for social acceptance.

Seeing Catholicism demolish its opposition at Harvard of all places was a blaring wake-up call for me. I hope that’s also true for others, who did not have to escape religiosity to discover their secular nature. We have been coddled relative to other atheists, and this story shows things may be worse than we thought. The fight is in our backyards, too.

Meryl Federman is a math and theater geek living in New York City. She was a Harvard Humanist member while on campus there, and ever since, has maintained an active interest, both academic and practical, in cultivating a secular worldview.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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