There’s a bit of a snafu in my new hometown of Tucson that started 2 months ago. The Tucson chapter of the Satanic Temple applied to the Tucson Unified School District for an afterschool program. Many in the public fought hard against it, so much so that it’s likely to end in litigation.
The move was meant to counter religious afterschool programs that are hosted at schools all across the district. Such afterschool programs have been cropping up in school districts nationwide.
Now, most atheists know that the Satanic Temple is pretty much about the separation of church and state, and that virtually none of them actually worship an anti-deity called Satan. But while 27 percent of Arizonans identify as having no religious preference (compared to 26 percent identifying as evangelical Christian), only 3 percent identify as atheist and 2 percent identify as agnostic. The remaining 21 percent are likely theists with no actual religious preference.
So using a term like Satan may actually be working against the cause of separation of church and state. Messaging and branding matter. As much as I would love for us to live in a world where the practice of critical thinking was the norm instead of the exception, we don’t inhabit such a world.
We all have our cognitive biases. To be persuasive and change a person’s view, one needs to circumvent those biases. The use of the term Satan only reinforces the cognitive biases we seek to override. It’s counterproductive.
This is not meant to detract from the work that the Satanic Temple has done in terms of shining a light on church and state separation. I especially liked how they effectively forced the Phoenix City Council to ban prayer at their meetings.
But it’s an entirely different ball game when it comes to schools. You’re working with multiple cognitive biases. Not only are you working with the religiously indoctrinated biases, you’re working with those arise from the parental instinct to protect their children. It’s a doubly difficult problem to persuade in this scenario.
Here, branding does matter. I get that using the term atheist in the branding may only be marginally better than the term Satanist, but why use either? Why not use something like the Best News Club. It competes directly with the club that Satanists are trying to sponsor in terms of branding. It avoids the pitfalls of using incendiary terms. As long as the club sponsors are transparent about the atheist sponsoring of the club, it’s not disingenuous.
Don’t get me wrong. All movements need their firebrands and the Satanic Temple certainly fills that role admirably. They certainly have gotten results nationwide and often bring key issues of church-state separation into public view. But not all change can be achieved by incendiary tactics. Some change requires finesse. I feel that the issue of afterschool clubs (and by extension childhood indoctrination) requires such finesse.