Harvard's dance with the devil

The hottest issue at Harvard University this week is Satanism. Of the five “most read” articles in The Harvard Crimson, 1, 2, 3 and 4 deal with a Black Mass, a Satanic ritual, to be celebrated on university property. (The fifth was the "fifteen hottest freshmen", suggesting that Harvard students are not completely obsessed with religion.) The event was cancelled at the last minute, but how and why reveal a lot about the world’s richest and most famous university.

The controversy erupted last week when a student group, the Harvard Extension School Cultural Studies Club, arranged for the Satanic Temple, a New York-based group, to celebrate a Black Mass as part of an examination of religious traditions.

The Black Mass is an ostentatiously blasphemous parody of the central religious rite of the Catholic Church. For serious Satanists, it is intended to be the ultimate insult to Jesus Christ. Normally a consecrated host stolen from a Mass would be defiled as a demonstration of fealty to Satan. For Catholics, this is unspeakable.

The organisers originally said that a consecrated host – which Catholics believe is truly the body of Christ – would be used. Later they back-pedalled and said that it would only be a plain wafer of bread.

Catholics at Harvard and in Boston protested vigorously. The Catholic Archbishop, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, told the media, ““It’s very repugnant. It’s just very disappointing and disturbing. You know, there’s a great fascination with evil in the world. It doesn’t lead to anything good.” But there was not a suggestion of a violent response. Instead, students organised an hour of prayer and Eucharistic adoration in the local church.  

How did Harvard respond?

At first, it tried to treat these objections as an annoying mosquito. Dean Robert Neugeboren issued a soothing press release which called upon the Satanists to dialogue with Catholics. Yes, the event was offensive, "But we do support the rights of our students and faculty to speak and assemble freely". It was the sort of bureaucratic boilerplate which might have been cut and pasted from a letter to a retired alumnus from Kansas complaining about modern art on campus. It was absurdly condescending and soothed no one.

However, the rising tide of protest soon alarmed the President of Harvard, Drew Faust. To appear as conciliatory as possible without conceding a single inch, she acknowledged that the Black Mass was extremely offensive:

“The decision by a student club to sponsor an enactment of this ritual is abhorrent; it represents a fundamental affront to the values of inclusion, belonging and mutual respect that must define our community. It is deeply regrettable that the organizers of this event, well aware of the offense they are causing so many others, have chosen to proceed with a form of expression that is so flagrantly disrespectful and inflammatory.”

And she declared that she would attend the hour of prayer organised by the students – even though she is not a Catholic. She wanted to show “our respect for the Catholic faith at Harvard and to demonstrate that the most powerful response to offensive speech is not censorship, but reasoned discourse and robust dissent”.

It was a generous gesture of solidarity, but she still refused to move a finger (at least in public) to deny permission to use university property for the Black Mass. 

“Vigorous and open discussion and debate are essential to the pursuit of knowledge, and we must uphold these values even in the face of controversy. Freedom of expression … protects not only free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

To everyone’s relief the Satanic Temple called it off, having achieved what may have been its main aim from the beginning – increased notoriety.

However, the outcome of this controversy will satisfy no one.

Politically, President Faust’s position is weak. It was the Satanic Temple which cancelled the event, not the University. The frustrated organisers may regroup and organise a similar event in the next academic year.

Nor is it consistent. There are many offensive events which the University would suppress without a qualm. What if a student group sponsored a public burning of the Qu’ran? Or if anti-Semites organised a public reading of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion or Mein Kampf? Or if a group scheduled a “homophobic and proud” rally? Or if students demonstrated in favour of female genital mutilation? Harvard would issue a press release denouncing hate speech and banning demonstrations on University property. After refusing to ban this notorious act of hatred and vilification, what coherent reasons can the university give for banning other events?

Intellectually, President Faust’s position is also weak. Her defence of the satanists’ right to free expression comes straight from John Stuart Mill and Harvard’s own Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. But “freedom for the thought we hate” has been repeated for so long, so often, over the past 150 years that it has become all but meaningless. It has degenerated into the yada-yada you would expect from a conflict-averse paper-pusher.

Besides, a Black Mass is not “vigorous and open discussion in the pursuit of knowledge”. It is a gratuitously offensive raspberry to 2000 years of Christian culture. It did not happen as the ripe fruit of reasoned debate. It was a publicity stunt which exploited Harvard’s brand, not academic discourse.



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In any event, Harvard is rather selective about defending freedom of expression. In fact, President Faust’s predecessor, Larry Summers, was booted out after he expressed the unpopular opinion that women are underrepresented in science and engineering faculties because, on average, they are not as good at mathematics as men.

So there is a creed at Harvard. And there are heresies. And there is a stake for the heretics. The problem is that Harvard’s creed is unacknowledged. It is not the radical freedom of expression averred by President Faust. Rather it is a radical scepticism about truth – the Veritas which, ironically, is the university’s motto. Harvard will defend to the death your right to have no settled opinion or to hold an unconventional opinion. (Not long ago, for instance, it approved a club for enthusiasts of sado-masochism.)

In times of peaceful consensus, a rich and prestigious university with this philosophy can muddle through. But when conflicts like the Black Mass erupt, is the numb repetition of the “freedom for the thought we hate” mantra a reliable moral compass? What is the thought that the university loves? Does Harvard University stand for anything if it is afraid to discriminate between good and evil, beauty and ugliness, the sacred and the profane?

Perhaps that is why one of the biggest issues faced by the world's most prestigious University is an epidemic of cheating

Michael Cook is editor of Mercator


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