« An Atheist Speaks... | Main | Are Atheists More Moral? »

March 13, 2006

The Devil

newhart_devil.jpg Atheists use evil almost as much as the religious do. It becomes -- the evil of those God fearing, decent people drowning in their houses in New Orleans, for example -- a powerful argument against the existence of God.

But what might a nonbeliever make of the devil?
-- Is he a general in a war with God? Is this a struggle the angry nonbeliever might want to join? Or is it a dualistic, obsessive death match, which the thoughtful nonbeliever is happy to rise above, a war to which the atheist conscientiously objects?
-- Is the devil just more supernatural hokum, which ought to be purged from our cultures? God and the devil walking side by side. Dream and nightmare. One no more real than the other.
-- Or is he -- why always he? -- a Promethean figure, standing up for humankind against autocratic deities? I've heard that some form of the name Satan means in some form of Hebrew: the advocate. Might atheists have some sympathy for the devil (as myth, as literary character) as the being who makes the case against God?

Is there some sort of "principle of evil" in the universe which nonbelievers must acknowledge, not just use against their opponents?

I keep waiting for the devil to show up in my readings on the history of disbelief. So far, except for some talk of Milton, he's been conspicuous in his absence. Am I reading badly or does the devil really not fit, even as an object of scorn, in the atheist's cosmos?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at March 13, 2006 11:30 AM


If there were a Devil, and if he were as devious and clever as he is purported to be, and if his most persistent desire is to corrupt God's highest creation, Man, then would he attempt that corruption through drug addicts, drunks, and various types of thugs? Not a very attractive picture of evil.

No, I think that the Devil works by presenting himself as the messenger of God, and persuading those who accept him to behave in wicked ways - ways that contribute to the increase of pain and sorrow in the world and to each individual's own degradation and unhappiness. I think that the Devil exists in the person of those priests and ministers, rabbis and imams, who persuade their congregations that hatred of others is the will of God, that greedy accumulation of wealth is not only acceptable but proof of God's grace, that the environment was given to Man for his exploitation, that those who think or behave differently, or belong to different tribes, or speak a different language, or have skin of a different color, or who accept different scriptures, deserve death at the hands of the faithful - i.e. those who are deluded by the Devil's imposture.

So the Devil, in my way of thinking, exists, and his minions include Fred Phelps, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Muqtada Al-Sadr, Baruch Goldstein, Binyamen Kahane, and Pope Benedict, among many, sadly many others. If you look for those who are causing most sorrow in the world, and leading the greatest number of people to behave cruelly, ungenerously, and murderously, it is those and their allies. To the Devil they've gone, and to the Devil may they go!


Posted by: Richard Blumberg at March 14, 2006 3:36 PM

I find it funny that everyone's concept of "devil" falls directly in inverse proportion to what their current belief system is.

Most atheists I know would tend to characterize the devil the smae way they characterize god. Just more evidence of the ability of the human mind to create order out of chaos, and to explain natural forces they otherwise don't have the answer for.

The devil is no more real to this atheist than god is. There is good and evil in us all.

Posted by: Deedee at March 14, 2006 3:55 PM

It seems to me the devil is a Christian concept, the inevitable opposite side of the coin from the Christian god. I have a very limited knowledge of the role of Satan in Islam or Judaism, but my understanding is that in Islam at any rate, Satan is a trickster, a lesser being, rather than "the focus of all evil". Christianity, being IMHO a rather juvenile Manichean worldview, needs Satan just as much as it needs Jesus.

Personally I think it's stupid and a cop-out to imagine that there is some external evil force trying to catch us out. Yes, evil exists, but it exists in human beings - they are capable of every evil that can be imagined, without any external help.

Posted by: No More Mr. Nice Guy! at March 15, 2006 5:28 AM

It seems to me that looking for the devil in readings on disbelief is largely a wasted effort.  God and the devil are as one: believing in the devil but not in the god that he opposes sounds more like an aspect of a schizoid worldview than a fully formed philosophical or religious system.

Posted by: Dayv at March 21, 2006 1:10 AM

To go further, it would be like defining "shadow" without first having a concept of "light."

Posted by: Dayv at March 21, 2006 1:11 AM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)