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The “Satanic Panic” was a conspiracy theory that really took hold among a certain kind of Christian in the 1980s. Perfectly innocent people were accused of ritualistic child abuse, bad behavior was blamed on the devil, and the modern-day witch hunt ruined countless lives. No evidence ever proved this organized abuse was occurring—certainly not the way accusers insisted it was—but as with so many conspiracy theories, its power had nothing to do with the facts.

Conspiracy theories have never gone away, obviously, but as NBC News’ Brandy Zadrozny writes in a truly disturbing article, the more recent versions of right-wing, religious conspiracy theories are taking pages from the Satanic Panic playbook.

The belief that devil-worshippers disguised as trusted members of the community are stalking neighborhood children to abuse and sacrifice them in secret satanic rituals is more prevalent than one might imagine

In one case, Zadrozny writes, a prosecuting attorney for Utah County lost an election at least in part because of false accusations of “murdering or cannibalizing young children,” a direct nod to the stereotypes about Satanism.

It’s not just that Republican politicians or right-wing propagandists are citing Satan as if he’s a real person, or that preachers like Greg Locke are insisting demons exist and conducting actual literal witch hunts. It’s that people who don’t even believe in Satan are getting caught up in the backlash against Satanism.

You may recall that over the summer, a Boston man was arrested for attempting to burn down the headquarters of The Satanic Temple (which is non-theistic).

“The satanic panic mongers have always loved the idea that we’re harassing children or otherwise harming them,” [The Satanic Temple co-founder Lucien Greaves] said. “And that whatever they do against us is justified in the name of preserving the children.” 

Greaves said demonization by the religious right is predictable, but he is concerned about what feels like the creeping normalization of satanic-panic-style beliefs in the mainstream or even progressive culture. 

“Moral panics don’t really take off when they can be brushed off as being a hysterical evangelical or right-wing talking point,” he said. 

In that sense, the most unusual thing about the modern Satanic Panic is that Satan isn’t even the focal point anymore. It’s just the terminology conservatives and Christians use to rail against everything they don’t like. Drag queens? Tools of Satan. Alleged child trafficking? The work of the devil. Joe Biden’s recent pro-democracy speech? Channeling Lucifer.

It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about QAnon or FOX. The script is virtually identical. Just literally demonize your opponent and whip the base into a frenzy. If innocent people get caught up in the backlash, so what?

Social media can also power new accusations, launch police investigations and invite harassment or worse upon the accused who have little recourse to defend themselves.

On July 1, police in South Windsor, Connecticut, announced that they were reopening an investigation into allegations of sexually explicit crimes against several members of the community. Those allegations had come from TikTok — where a 25-year-old woman named Haley Garcia, who lives in California, posted a video naming her parents and seven others as part of an “elite network” that had done “many ritualistic satanic things” to her and other children years ago

There was no evidence of any of that. But the accusations helped Garcia win a lot of free publicity for her burgeoning spiritual coaching business.

Conspiracies don’t just end when the facts are known. The problem with the Satanic Panic is that no matter how many bad faith actors use Satan as a metaphor for what they hate, there are many pastors who spend every week convincing their congregations that Satan is real and needs to be eradicated from their lives. They’ll never admit they’re lying because they genuinely don’t believe they are. As long as that belief perpetuates in churches, it’s next to impossible to convince people that Satan and the abuse associated with Satan are entirely fictional.

That means, much like sin itself, conservative Christians have invented their own problem out of thin air while presenting themselves as the only solution. Republicans are all too happy to go along with it because fear has always been a tool that unites the people who vote for them.

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.