Devil's advocate: Religion News Service reports on Satanist pitch

The Satanic Temple has gotten lots of coverage from the Religion News Service, but its most recent story digs deeper into the group and its founder, Lucien Greaves. Which is not to say that the article doesn't have a laundry list of flaws. 

Most of the 1,600-word article is drawn from an interview with Greaves. Some of it is pasted from previous coverage. It makes some shaky claims about the causes of the Satanist movement. And it allows Greaves to attack Christianity again and again, without seeking out the other side.

This update does seem less servile than, say, the summertime feature in the Washington Post. It does more explaining, less campaigning. RNS seems to use a double peg. One is Greave's meeting with the Kansas City Atheist Coalition, seeking allies and kindred minds.  And Missouri is the home of the Child Evangelism Fellowship, which sponsors the Good News Clubs.

Hence the playful lede:

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (RNS) Lucien Greaves is the Good News Club’s worst nightmare.
Greaves is co-founder of the Satanic Temple, a group dedicated to church-state separation. And his organization’s latest campaign in launching after-school clubs for children, Greaves told RNS before a recent talk in Kansas City, is not so much about indoctrinating children into Satanism — he doesn’t actually believe in the devil as a real being, much less one to be worshipped.
Rather, the After School Satan clubs, as they are called, are about making a statement against the government providing facilities exclusively for Christian after-school programs such as the Good News Club.
A side benefit is that the publicity surrounding the After School Satan clubs is likely to bring far more attention — and maybe public understanding — to the Satanic Temple than anything else the group could do.

So we have a good summary of Greaves' grievance: not so much a defense of his faith, but attacking activities of another faith. And we have the story's first flaw: calling The Satanic Temple the "worst nightmare" of the Good News Club. That may sound cheeky, but RNS doesn't interview anyone connected with Good News.

Getting such feedback shouldn't have been hard. The Temple's own YouTube channel posted a pro/con between Greaves and Moises Esteves of Good News, which aired on HLN's show The Daily Share. But the RNS article doesn't interview any evangelicals at all. It settles for a couple of quotes from Mat Staver, head of the religious rights group Liberty Counsel -- quotes that it copied from the Washington Post story.

Then what does the RNS article bring up, besides how bad Good News is?  

Well, it narrates Doug Mesner's upbringing in church, then his rebellion against it and his eventual self-reincarnation as Lucien Greaves.  And it relays his rationale for Satanism, a secular philosophy that sees Satan as a symbol and not a literal being.

It says the After School Satan clubs will teach lessons on science and reason, with a "focus on free inquiry and rationalism." It says he's seeking to set up the clubs from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles (although RNS reports that only one is actually running -- scheduled to start today in Portland, Ore.).

It also quotes two of the atheists in the audience at the Kansas City event. They voice appreciation for the common secular values, despite the "religion" part of Greaves' address.

But other problems intrude as RNS writes up the launch of The Satanic Temple:

Then, during his youth, Greaves grew outraged by the cultural phenomenon known as "the Satanic Panic" of the 1980s and 1990s.
That wave of moral panic grew out of a widespread fear, especially among conservative believers, "that satanic forces were taking over the country," he said.
Movies such as "The Exorcist" and "Rosemary’s Baby," as well as heavy metal music, were often blamed for fueling the Satanic Panic.

Visiting the Internet Movie Database would have helped here. It would have shown that Rosemary’s Baby came out in 1968, and The Exorcist came out in 1973 -- both of them long before the 1980s.

More direct causes for the "Satanic Panic" were self-avowed experts -- especially Mike Warnke, who said he was once a Satanist high priest; and Lauren Stratford, who claimed to have served as a "breeder" for babies, for Satanists to sacrifice. Neither name appears in the RNS article; Greaves probably didn’t mention them.

The problem is not just what this article says, but what it does not say. For one, it has nothing on the Church of Satan, founded by the late Anton LaVey 50 years ago, long before The Satanic Temple. The CoS's fundamental beliefs heavily overlap those Greaves spelled out to RNS: atheistic, rationalistic, individualistic. And three years ago, Greaves told Vice magazine that he considered LaVey's work an "excellent jumping-off point," but short of the activism he favors.

Other problems:

* RNS acknowledges that "atheists aren’t necessarily keen on the idea of something that seems to promote any religion -- be it satanic or Christian." But no one says that in the story -- an instance of the "People Say" method, putting words in the mouths of unnamed sources.

* The Satanic Temple is said to have around 50,000 members, but RNS doesn't find out the size of Good News Clubs. In that HLN video, Moises Esteves puts it at 178,000 children.

* RNS asks why Greaves chose Satan as a symbol, then doesn't get an answer. He merely says he "expects to be misunderstood," then adds: "If people can see that Satanists aren’t immoral or criminal or cruel, we have forced them to judge others based on real-world actions rather than maintain some obscure out-group standard by which unjustified purges have always taken place." So he just attacks. Again.

This story, as I've said, goes deeper into Satanist beliefs than many other news accounts. But as one of the main remaining pools of specialists on religion news, RNS needs to do better. After all, you-know-who is in the details.

Photo: After School Satan logo, from the Satanic Temple's Facebook page.

 

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