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PHOTO: Josh Fowler
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Story highlights

On their websites, the Church of Satan and the Satanic Temple say Satan is a symbol, not a being

The groups reject holy sites, gods and other things sacred to most religions, but they place a high value on symbolism and art

They don't celebrate Jesus' birth, but on satanist says he spends time with family and "enjoy(s) the richness of life" on Christmas

Program note: They’re artists, community activists, intellectuals … and satanists. “This is Life with Lisa Ling: The Satanist Next Door” premieres Sunday, December 13, at 9 p.m., followed by a marathon of all Season 2 episodes.

(CNN) —  

When you think satanism, images of pierced, black-clad youths gathering at night, listening to hardcore death metal music and sacrificing animals may come to mind.

But you might be surprised to learn that many satanists are a lot more interested in community activism and individual freedoms than heavy metal or performing bizarre rites.

Here are a few things you might not know about satanism:

Most satanists aren’t devil worshipers

Surprisingly, most card-carrying satanists do not worship Satan or any other form of the devil – they are actually atheists. The Church of Satan, founded in the mid-1960s, explains it this way on its website: “Satan to us is a symbol of pride, liberty and individualism, and it serves as an external metaphorical projection of our highest personal potential. We do not believe in Satan as a being or person.”

The Church of Satan puts the individual at the center of the universe, what high priest Peter Gilmore describes as going from an “a-theist” to an “I-theist.”

The Satanic Temple, which formed in recent years to fight a perceived intrusion of Christian values on American politics, says, “we do not promote a belief in a personal Satan. To embrace the name Satan is to embrace rational inquiry removed from supernaturalism and archaic tradition-based superstitions.”

They are OK with celebrating Christmas

Why would satanists be OK with celebrating the birth of Jesus? Because, the Church of Satan claims, “Christians stole this holiday from the pagans – Santa Claus has come to signify indulgence, and he is a combination of Dionysos and Silenus from Roman and Greek myths.”

“So for the Yule holiday season we enjoy the richness of life and the company of people whom we cherish, as we will often be the only ones who know where the traditions really came from!”

Michael Mars, a Detroit artist and member of the Satanic Temple, says he celebrates Christmas, but not as a day to commemorate Jesus’ birth.

“I personally just view it as more of a time to be with my family,” he told CNN’s Lisa Ling. He, like other members of the Satanic Temple, has no problem with other religions’ holidays.

“I feel like everyone should have the right to celebrate their religion,” Mars said, “but every voice has to be heard.”

You won’t find a satanic church in your community

The Church of Satan doesn’t have actual church buildings, because “that would be against our individualist approach to living,” its website says. For a short time, its founder Anton LaVey used his San Francisco home as the church’s headquarters, where he performed rituals. Now, the church is based in New York, and its headquarters is not open to visitors.

The Church of Satan once had “grottos,” or local chapters, but it disbanded those after deeming them “unnecessary.”

“When we have events, they are private and at times discussed later, such as the conclave in Washington, D.C., that marked the beginning of celebrations for our 50th year of existence,” Gilmore explains.

The Satanic Temple has chapters in at least a dozen locations in the United States, as well as Finland and Italy, but it also does not have permanent physical temples.

The temple had difficulty finding a temporary location for the unveiling of its massive Baphomet statue in Detroit this summer: Threats and protests caused the owners of several locations to back out. It finally found a venue, but it had to keep the location secret – even from those attending – until the night of the event, because of security concerns.

There was a “satanic panic” in the 1980s and ‘90s

In the 1980s and 1990s, American talk shows and news programs linked reports of animal sacrifice and ritualistic killing to satanic worship. Slate.com, which explored the “satanic ritual abuse panic,” reported in January 2014 that it all began with allegations of bizarre rites and molestation at a California preschool – a story that took on a life of its own with the advent of the 24-hour news cycle:

• As televangelists prayed for deliverance from Satan’s scourge, talk show “experts” claimed that every imaginable form of abuse was happening on a massive scale in America and that networks of Satanists had infiltrated schools, the police, and local government. Geraldo Rivera claimed in a televised 1987 special report that more than a million satanists were plying their evil trade in America right at the very moment. (He has since apologized.) In 1989, Oprah Winfrey interviewed Michelle Smith and another woman who claimed to have recovered memories of being abused by a satanic cult; Sally Jesse Raphael, not to be outdone, ran two shows on the subject.

The California preschool trial ended with no convictions and an FBI report concluding that the satanic ritual abuse allegations were not credible. But, as Slate.com pointed out, that didn’t put an end to the concerns: “A Redbook magazine survey conducted in 1994 found that fully 70 percent of Americans believed that satanic ritual abuse was real.”

It probably didn’t help that at the time, many American teens were listening to heavy metal bands that intertwined their rebellious music with satanic imagery and songs about the devil.

This demonic-looking mascot appears on album covers for the heavy metal band Dio, popular in the
PHOTO: ronniejamesdio.com
This demonic-looking mascot appears on album covers for the heavy metal band Dio, popular in the '80s and '90s.

Symbolism and art are important

While satanism may eschew holy sites, gods and other tenets that are sacred to most religions, it places a high value on symbolism and art.

The Satanic Temple has used symbols of Satan to draw attention to what it sees as the hypocrisy of Christian symbols on government property. For years, it petitioned to have a massive Baphomet statue – a goat-headed symbol of Satan – in the Oklahoma state Capitol, which was home to a Ten Commandments statue.

This summer, Oklahoma’s state Supreme Court ruled that the Ten Commandments statue had to be removed, and the Satanic Temple took its statue to Detroit. Now, the temple is petitioning to have Baphomet on display next to a planned Ten Commandments monument in Little Rock, Arkansas.

After learning of plans to display a nativity scene to commemorate Christmas at Michigan’s state Capitol last year, the Satanic Temple placed what it called a “snaketivity scene” on the Capitol grounds. The 3-foot-tall sculpture featured a snake wrapped around a cross with the message, “The Greatest Gift is Knowledge.”

“There’s nothing wrong with (having a nativity scene on government property) … if other religions can be accepted as well,” said Michael Mars, who helped create the satanic display. “There can’t be one dominating voice to all the voices.”

The display got a lot of news coverage and, Mars said, “a lot of people threatened to destroy it. But for the most part, I felt like it was met with acceptance and curiosity.”

The Church of Satan also incorporates art into its practice, although for very different reasons than the more community activist-driven Satanic Temple.

“Symbols are essentially natural human constructs,” explains Gilmore, the Church of Satan high priest, who recently curated an exhibit and book called “The Devils Reign,” featuring satanic-themed art.

“Satanists feel that we should proudly admire this most precious human capacity without the need to use mythological figures as distancing intermediaries.”

Satanic artwork at a recent exhibit sponsored by the Church of Satan at the HOWL Gallery in Fort Myers, Florida.
PHOTO: Courtesy HOWL Gallery/Tattoo
Satanic artwork at a recent exhibit sponsored by the Church of Satan at the HOWL Gallery in Fort Myers, Florida.