Harvard Chaplain: Black Mass Is Permissible but Unwise

Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain calls for dialogue and understanding in the wake of a controversial event.

I originally published these remarks on my personal Facebook page only. I see the entire discussion of this “black mass” at Harvard as an internal matter that has been blown out of proportion by nearly everyone, and I wanted to offer a balanced perspective without piling on. Sally Quinn, with whom I’ve enjoyed working over the years, convinced me that the post was getting out anyway and it might as well be available more widely. 

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Dear Friends,

I’ve received a number of inquiries over the past few days about my thoughts on a controversial event set to take place at Harvard tonight. Ultimately, I decided not to publish my thoughts on the matter, but I did just make a few comments on Facebook that you may find of interest. I’ve tried to express a balanced and appropriate perspective. Your thoughts are welcome, of course. For your convenience I’ve also attached the text below. Best wishes and hopefully it’s a peaceful night of dialogue on campus!

Tolerance, but Taste

As the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, I am writing to offer my personal response to the plans of a student group at Harvard to sponsor the staging of a “black mass” tonight, and to the debate these plans have generated on campus and beyond. Essentially, the students and event organizers have the right to stage this sort of an event as a form of satire or even as a social protest; however, just because they have the right to put on an event does not mean doing so is in good taste. I see the black mass as a legally permissible but unwise form of demonstration, given that it is a direct mockery of Catholic tradition and belief. I dearly value satire and see it as one of the last and best tools for marginalized people seeking to address injustice. I’ve also lived my whole life in religiously and nonreligiously diverse communities. In my experience, community events meant to parody, mock, or otherwise denigrate a specific ritual, text, or other symbol held dear by a neighboring community are more likely to be dismissed as disrespectful and hurtful than to open minds and provoke the development of new ideas.

As an atheist and the director of an organization of atheists, Humanists, and the nonreligious, but also as a Harvard chaplain working on a regular basis with religious colleagues whom I admire, I’ve struggled to arrive at a balanced, clear-headed perspective with regards to this controversy (which has probably received more attention than it deserves, from all sides). Just as not all satire is advisable or worthwhile, not all activity by a group labeling itself as “Satanic” should be dismissed or condemned. The Satanic Temple of New York, the main co-sponsor of tonight’s event, has recently engaged in some efforts that do represent worthwhile social satire and political activism, aimed not at the Catholic Church or at Christianity per se but at violations of the separation of Church and state and at the demonization of atheists and other non-traditional believers. Their campaign in response to the placement of a religious monument on the grounds of the State Capitol of Oklahoma in Oklahoma City, for example, has won deserved praise.

I understand my Catholic colleagues’ concern that the black mass is particularly meant to offend their community, and in fact, tonight I will join Harvard President Drew Faust and others in attending the Harvard Catholic Community’s event at St. Paul’s Church. However, as distasteful as some may reasonably find tonight’s event, I strongly disagree with the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston’s statement that participation in it “places participants dangerously close to destructive works of evil.” Even if this form of satire is misguided, we should not demonize anyone, including these young activists. After all, this is a time when many of the growing number of nonreligious Americans locally and nationally are also deeply upset about religious incursions into public life, such as the recent Greece vs. Galloway decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. In fact, I understand that many in my community will disagree with my approach, feeling that despite any offense that may be taken by Catholics or others, this event promotes critical inquiry and as such should not be dismissed. I respect and defend their right to that opinion.

Ultimately, dialogue across lines of religious difference, and between religious and nonreligious people, is more important than ever today. Let us all do what we can to seek true dialogue and true understanding of those with whom we disagree.

Greg M. Epstein
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  • JACKjozevz

    EVERY One hath ‘RELIGION” but nay/NOt in any of the 5-Five Major “INFIXUS-BOOKS” (Chumash, N. Testament, Quran, Book of Mormon {ABE} and Gita, Kangyurs {VEDIC} Systems. Note: As an APOCALYPTARIAN; Atheist-anity is a religion too like Secular-anity or Christ-anity…

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    Superbly stated Greg. I admire your multivalent approach — tough to do in an otherwise, flat, bivalent society.

  • Paul Zimmerle

    It would be nice if you’d speak a little more vividly in support of the people making the black mass. It’s not enough that the school caved to anti-free speech pressure?

  • ElRay

    Talk about hypocrisy. Why do Christian sensibilities get special respect? What’s your take on secular students that find anti-Evolution and Christian Revisionist History discussions offensive? What about Jews, Muslims and vegetarian Hindus, Buddhists, Jainists, Sikhs, Rastafari & Bahá’í finding a school supported “Ribfest” offensive?

  • Roy Gamsgrø

    “However, as distasteful as some may reasonably find tonight’s event,”

    Actually, as a humanist, I find it very distasteful that the humanist chaplain at Harvard kowtows to the majority in their effort to silence a religious minority.