AWKWARD NEW YORK is a weekly column about the uncomfortable experiences of Chris Vespoli in and around NYC. Every Tuesday is another cringe-worthy account, from being fat shamed by a Dunkin’ Donuts employee to crashing Fashion Week.
It’s a Saturday morning in late May, and the sunlight is streaming through my bedroom window. Seconds after shaking awake, I instinctively check my phone. There among the Facebook notifications and Snapchats is an email I’ve been expecting. I open it, and read it. It’s signed: “Have a great day! Hail Satan! Sincerely, Heather.” The previous Saturday, I was preparing to attend a family member’s first Holy Communion. A week later, I’m trading emails with a member of the Church of Satan. Life is a funny thing sometimes.
These events were set in motion a few days earlier, when I was mindlessly scrolling through my Facebook news feed and happened upon an article about the Church of Satan’s 50th anniversary conclave, posted by an old stand-up comedy acquaintance of mine with a caption that read, in part, “one of the best weekends of my life.”
No big deal — it was just that awkward moment when you find out your Facebook friend is a Satanist.
Not one to shy away from an uncomfortable online situation, I clumsily reached out to my friend Heather Height — a 45-year-old freelance journalist living in Brooklyn, a married mother of four, and, as of last year, a member of the Church of Satan — with a Facebook message that was essentially me saying, “Hey, remember me? So, Satanism…what’s that all about?” Heather kindly responded, and agreed to indulge my questions via email.
So, what’s it like being a member of the Church of Satan in New York City? Well, for starters, there’s no physical church. “The CoS does not have a brick-and-mortar structure where we all congregate to worship,” Heather wrote.
Say what you will about the guy, but Satan knows enough not to pay sky-high NYC rents, unlike schlubs like me.
With no official houses of worship, Satanists enlist a grassroots approach to staying connected with other members. “We get together socially,” Heather said. “We attend each other’s events. If you’ve been to one of my comedy shows, chances are you were sitting next to a Satanist.”
Though there’s a $200 one-time membership fee to officially join the Church, those who identify as Satanists are under no obligation to do so, leaving them free to chart their own course through the philosophy. But let’s get down to brass tacks here. Do they actually worship the devil? “Satanists don’t believe in a god,” Heather affirmed. “We don’t believe in a devil. We worship ourselves.”
But what about that “Hail Satan!” business Heather used in her email to me? “In Satanism you are your own God,” she explained. “In that sense, we are all Satan. Saying ‘Hail Satan’ is the equivalent of saying ‘Hail You!’”
Emphasis on the self is a running theme in the Church’s literature. According to the Church of Satan website, the religion — yes, religion; it’s one of the many recognized by the United States Army — was founded in San Francisco in 1966 by Anton Szandor LaVey in celebration of man’s carnality, with Satan serving merely as a symbol for “pride, liberty, and individualism.” Adherents are united by their common acceptance of the Nine Satanic Statements, a set of provocative declarations like, “Satan represents vengeance instead of turning the other cheek!” and “Satan represents kindness to those who deserve it instead of love wasted on ingrates!” (They all end in exclamation points.)
This mantra of “do unto others as they have done unto you” may work in egregious cases like defending oneself from a violent attack (and as the basis of a Tool song), but what about honest mistakes? What if I accidentally break a wineglass at a Satanist’s dinner party? Is there room in the heart of a Satanist for forgiveness?
“Of course, it would be really difficult to maintain friendships if we were to exact immediate and equivalent revenge on any and all transgressions,” Heather admits, “not to mention time consuming.”
In fact, Heather says the relationships she’s forged with other members have been quite rewarding. “Satanists are some of the most forgiving people I’ve ever had the honor of befriending,” Heather continued. “It may be that when you’re not being nice just because you’re supposed to, it leaves a lot more room in your life to foster the friendships that count.”
Public perception of Satanism hasn’t always aligned with the rosy image Heather paints, likely due in part to LaVey’s shocking public displays during the 1960s, which the CoS itself describes as “cathartic blasphemies against Christianity.” Fears of ritualistic child abuse and murder stoked by sensationalist media reports peaked during the so-called “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s and ‘90s, figuring famously into the trials of the West Memphis Three and others — even though none of the accused self-identified as Satanists. And even if they had, the Church of Satan, Heather asserts, does not condone the heinous crimes for which they stood trial. The plights of those prosecuted still strike a raw nerve with her, calling it all, “the most vile injustice.”
Hostilities have cooled in recent years. Even this Christianity Today article titled “Lessons from the Church of Satan” makes the distinction between LaVeyan Satanism and devil worship. Though Heather and her husband — also a Satanist — have experienced the rare instance of discrimination, Heather says amusing encounters with people of other faiths are more likely:
“We had one funny moment with a Jehovah’s Witness. We were passing on the sidewalk and she started to proselytize to us between houses, very industrious, really. My husband told her we were Satanists, and she smiled and said, ‘Oh, so you’re working for the other side,’ with a real tone of camaraderie — like we were advertising execs working for competing firms.”
By the end of the weekend, Heather and I had traded about a dozen emails, exploring more questions than there’s room to print here. I’m thankful for her candor and generosity of time. All of this, however, isn’t to say that every Satanist is a good and generous person; just as with other religions, faith does not always guarantee personal morality (“There are Christians on death row,” as Heather reminded). And this isn’t an endorsement of Satanism, either. This is just the result of an awkward situation on Facebook that gave rise to quite the intriguing Saturday morning conversation.
My plans for the following Saturday? Officiating my friend’s wedding in a secular ceremony as a Minister of the Universal Life Church. Like I said, life is a funny thing sometimes.
Heather Height has written for Kink-E, Laughspin, and Penthouse Forum, among other outlets, and has been performing stand-up comedy for nine years. She can be heard on the podcast 9sense, and can be seen in the upcoming short film Vagina Time in summer 2015.
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