Tommy Lavin wanted to clear up some misconceptions about Satanism. We were sitting on a bench outside the Hardy and Nance Studios, a sprawling art complex northeast of downtown Houston. It was a warm Saturday evening in early December, and the studio was hosting an exhibition called “Left Hand Illumination: Visions of the Occult.” Tommy, a 48-year-old IT executive, moonlights as an ordained minister in The Satanic Temple’s Houston congregation, which organized the show. He wore a pentagram necklace, an Irish kilt, and Adidas slides over green socks. 

“Do Satanists drink blood? No. Do Satanists kill babies on the stroke of midnight? No. Do Satanists have great big orgies? Sometimes.” Tommy laughed. “That’s up to individual people.” 

According to Tommy, Satanists don’t even believe in Satan. For them, the devil simply represents the spirit of nonconformity. (A helpful Q&A section on the congregation’s website explains that “to embrace the name Satan is to embrace rational inquiry removed from supernaturalism and archaic tradition-based superstitions.”) He lives in a conservative suburb of Houston, where his neighbors don’t speak to him. His children have been bullied at school. (To protect his family’s privacy, Tommy declined to give his real last name.) “Being a Satanist isn’t an easy journey,” Tommy acknowledged. “You’re probably going to be ostracized. You’re not going to have a large group of friends.” At work, Tommy keeps his beliefs to himself. His colleagues have no idea they share an office with a minister of Satan. 

Founded in 2018, The Satanic Temple of Houston has a congregation of around twenty members. They originally held meetings at Brash Brewing Company, in Houston’s Northside neighborhood. The brewery closed during the pandemic, so the congregation is currently looking for “a cool place that will let us hang out, buy food and drinks, and doesn’t mind a bunch of strange-looking Satanists hanging out at their venue,” as Tommy put it. Until then, members will keep holding monthly book club meetings at various coffee shops around town. 

Inside the exhibition space I met Tommy’s wife, Tracy, who was wearing a black dress over a BDSM-style body harness, accessorized with earrings that appeared to be made from snake vertebrae. She sat behind a merch table, selling Satanic-themed T-shirts (“Houston, Est. 666”) and candle holders shaped like Baphomet, a winged goat-man whom Satanists have adopted as their mascot. Before meeting Tommy in 1998, Tracy had considered herself an atheist. But the more she learned about Satan, the more she found to like. “The figure of Lucifer is there to help people have a choice, and knowledge, and to encourage them to educate themselves,” she said. “He’s a literary figure who brings knowledge.”

The “Left Hand Illumination” exhibition included several dozen Satanic-inspired art works. Baphomet was a favorite subject, with depictions ranging from the sinister to the humorous (including a goat enjoying a bubble bath with the caption “Baph Time”). Monsters, skeletons, and women in various stages of undress were also popular. Around eight o’clock the lights dimmed for a performance by Ak’chamel, a trio of multi-instrumentalists who dress up like extras from The Wicker Man and play some of the creepiest music I’ve ever heard. (“I think they cast a spell on me,” my girlfriend later said, only half-jokingly.) Visitors strolled around the gallery, checking out the artwork and trying to stay clear of an Ak’chamel band member who was using a branch to flick water at them.

For more than a decade, Tommy and Tracy belonged to the Church of Satan, which was founded in 1966 by Chicago-born autodidact Anton Szandor LaVey, author of The Satanic Bible. In 2013, a renegade faction, dissatisfied with the Church of Satan’s lack of political engagement, broke away to establish The Satanic Temple. Based in Salem, Massachusetts, the organization now has around forty chapters across America (including in Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio), plus outposts in Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, and the United Kingdom. In contrast to the Church of Satan’s lower profile, The Satanic Temple has made a name for itself through political activism. In 2018, after Arkansas lawmakers allowed a Ten Commandments monument to be erected on state capitol grounds, The Satanic Temple tried, without success, to install a seven-foot-high Baphomet statue beside it. More recently, it has demanded an exemption from Texas’s abortion ban, claiming the ban infringes on their religious belief that life begins at birth

Satanism has long held an allure for people who feel marginalized by society. In The Satanic Bible, LaVey elaborates a libertarian, hedonistic philosophy that “condones any type of sexual activity which properly satisfies your individual desires—be it heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or even asexual, if you choose.” The Satanic Temple of Houston would be donating proceeds from the “Left Hand Illumination” exhibition to the Montrose Center, a nonprofit that supports Houston’s LGBTQ community. The congregation also partners with the Montrose Center for its annual “Menstruatin’ with Satan” campaign, which distributes menstrual hygiene products to Houstonians in need.

In 2019, the temple sold tickets to a “black mass” at the Brash Brewing Company, to coincide with the release of Brash’s latest beer, a double coffee milk stout called Black Masses. Around a hundred people bought tickets to the event, which also attracted protesters from local churches. “I always thought that was ironic,” Tommy said. “You know, Satanists don’t show up at Christian churches on Sunday morning and try to stop people from doing their thing.” 

Prospective ministers of The Satanic Temple must take an online course and complete a background check, after which they are licensed to perform weddings, funerals, and so-called “unbaptisms.” “A lot of people were baptized into a religion unknowingly,” said Casey Widdershins, a Houston public sector worker who was ordained in 2021. “An unbaptism is a way for people to say, ‘I’m disaffiliating from this religious tradition and reclaiming my own autonomy.’ ” 

On the street outside the exhibition, around a dozen local vendors were hawking Luciferian wares—T-shirts, handmade crafts, jewelry, occult books. Attendees’ fleshly desires were not ignored: Jacklyn Lira, the proprietor of Screwed Up Tapatios, was selling a deep-fried snack that resembled a flauta. She wore a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Heavy Metal.” “I’ve been looking into Satanism,” she told me. “I grew up Catholic, but I didn’t follow that path.”

Nearby, Brittany Falcon was manning a booth that sold 3D-printed jewelry such as upside-down crucifix earrings. “I’ve always admired what the devil represents,” she told me. “Knowledge, wisdom, getting back up when you fall down. He’s the bringer of light. Honestly, Satanists are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.”