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Satan and "Evil" in Christianity (and Satanism)

by Diane Vera

Copyright © 2003 by Diane Vera. All rights reserved.

  1. Evil
  2. Satan in Christianity
  3. Satan in most forms of theistic Satanism
  4. Whence the Black Circle Boys' notion of Satan?
  5. More about pop cultural vs. hardcore Christian ideas of "Evil"

  1. Evil

    In Christianity, Satan is "the Evil One." But what is "Evil"?

    "Evil" is a value judgment. It depends a lot on who and what you are. For example, cats are evil if you're a mouse, but not if you're a human with a pet cat. Therefore, "evil" cannot be the essence of who or what any entity fundamentally is. When Christians call Satan "the Evil One," this can mean only that Satan is "evil" from the point of view of Christianity.

    What is "Evil" according to Christianity? That depends on which Christians you ask.

    In Protestant fundamentalist Christianity, "Good" and "Evil" are defined solely in terms of one's attitude toward the Christian God. Humans are said to have been created for the purpose of glorifying God. Therefore, total subservience to the Christian God is "good," and anything else is "evil," no matter how beneficial to humans.

    On the other hand, liberal Christians take a more humanistic view of morality. They tend to think of "good" and "evil" in terms of concrete benefit and harm, primarily to humans.

    The fundamentalist Protestant idea of "Good" and "Evil" is almost completely divorced from any idea of concrete benefit or harm to humans. The most seemingly "good" (in a human-centered sense) forms of rebellion against God are considered to be no better than the most obviously evil forms. On the contrary, the most seemingly "good" (in a human-centered sense) types of "evil" (in the Christian God-centered sense) are considered to be the most insidious, the most likely to lead people astray. "For even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:14, NASV). "Narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it" (Matthew 7:14, KJV).

    To Protestant fundamentalists, the essense of "Evil" is the very idea that we have any right whatsoever to think independently about morality, rather than submit totally to the Christian God. It is considered impossible to have morality without an "absolute standard." And only God can provide that purported "absolute standard."

    I am less familiar with with Roman Catholic thought than with fundamentalist Protestant thought. Judging by what I've seen so far, Catholic thought is not as simplistic as fundamentalist Protestantism tends to be. Yet it appears to me that, at least in practice if not in theory, conservative Catholics too tend to think of "good" and "evil" in a God-centered sense rather than in terms of concrete benefit and harm to humans. An example is their irrationally strict attitude toward birth control.

  2. Satan in Christianity

    Next question:   How is the liberal-vs.-fundamentalist divide relevant to our understanding of who and what Satan is?

    The more liberal Christians tend not to believe in a Devil. If "evil" is defined in terms of harm, then a consistent commitment to Absolute Evil is logically impossible, as explained here by Elliot Rose.

    Among Christians, belief in a Devil has a very high correlation with advocacy of God-centered concepts of morality and rejection of human-centered concepts of morality. Thus, the Devil -- in the minds of even those Christians who most strongly believe in Him -- has at most a secondary interest in "evil" in the sense of concrete, Earthly harm to humans, as distinct from "Evil" in the sense of rebellion against the Christian God.

    Roman Catholic doctrine on "Evil" starts from a relatively common-sense concept of "evil," as explained in the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Evil. However, Catholic doctrine regards Satan not as the source of all evil, but, more specifically, as the enemy of "Christ's kingdom," i.e. the Church. Satan is the "head of all the wicked" who are "ranged under his banner in continual warfare with the kingdom of Christ," according to the Catholic Encyclopedia article on the Devil, which also says:

    There is no reason, indeed, for thinking that all sins and all temptations must needs come directly from the Devil or one of his ministers of evil. For it is certain that if, after the first fall of Adam, or at the time of the coming of Christ, Satan and his angels had been bound so fast that they might tempt no more, the world would still have been filled with evils. For men would have had enough of temptation in the weakness and waywardness of their hearts. But in that case the evil would clearly have been far less than it is now, for the activity of Satan does much more than merely add a further source of temptation to the weakness of the world and the flesh; it means a combination and an intelligent direction of all the elements of evil. The whole Church and each one of her children are beset by dangers, the fire of persecution, the enervation of ease, the dangers of wealth and of poverty, heresies and errors of opposite characters, rationalism and superstition, fanaticism and indifference. It would be bad enough if all these forces were acting apart and without any definite purpose, but the perils of the situation are incalculably increased when all may be organized and directed by vigilant and hostile intelligences.

    Note the multi-faceted nature of Satan's influence, according to Catholic doctrine. Satan promotes variety, e.g. "heresies and errors of opposite characters," rather than promoting any one single principle. Thus, in Catholic doctrine as well as in fundamentalist Protestant doctrine, you are a part of Satan's kingdom -- acting in accordance with Satan's master plan -- if you are any kind of heretic, i.e., if you think for yourself on matters of theology and morality, rather than submitting to Christian orthodoxy.

    A similar view of Satan is held not just by Catholics and by Protestant fundamentalists, but also by moderately conservative Protestants. See, for example, The Screwtape Letters and "Screwtape Proposes a Toast" by C.S. Lewis.

  3. Satan in most forms of theistic Satanism

    Many theistic Satanists hold a view of Satan that is actually quite similar to the Christian view, except that it is more general.

    We see Satan as an entity who enjoys prodding us to think for ourselves rather than submit blindly to any orthodoxy -- not just Christian orthodoxy. To many theistic Satanists, Satan is a God who, among other things, champions individuality and independent thought.

    This view of Satan is not very far removed from the here-and-now beliefs about Satan held by those Christians who are most likely to believe in Satan.

    Of course, we disagree with hardcore Christians regarding (1) our beliefs about the relative status and power of Satan and the Christian God and (2) our value judgment concerning Satan. (Many theistic Satanists also believe in the existence of other gods as well, and some are pantheistic. See Who and What Is Satan? Various Satanist reinterpretations on the Church of Azazel site.)

    As for "Evil" in a human-centered sense, Satan -- as understood both by hardcore Christians and by many Satanists -- does encourage us to think forbidden thoughts of all kinds, including thoroughly nasty thoughts sometimes. To be truly independent thinkers, we must indeed be willing to think forbidden thoughts of all kinds, no matter what the purported reason why they are forbidden.

    But this doesn't necessarily oblige Satanists to follow through on all those forbidden thoughts. Reflexive anti-morality isn't independent thinking. After open-minded contemplation of some particular forbidden activity, we might conclude that it is forbidden for a good reason (good in a practical, human-centered sense) after all -- whereas some other activities are forbidden for no good reason. If we conclude that there's a good reason why a particular activity is forbidden, then at least we know why we think it is wrong (or against our own interests), rather than just blindly following the herd.

    Hardcore Christians have spread lots of sensationalistic tales about "Satanic cults" who allegedly perform human sacrifices and ritual sexual abuse of children. (See my collection of links to articles Refuting the "Satanic Ritual Abuse" witchhunt of the 1980's and early 1990's.) But how would such behavior by Satanists serve Satan's goals, even from a purely Christian point of view? Satan's number one aim, according to traditional Christian belief, is to get as many people as possible to reject the Christian God. Satan's goal, according to most of those Christians who actually believe in Satan, is not to get people to behave as nastily as possible, but rather to get as many people to leave Christianity as possible. A bunch of Satanists going around torturing and murdering people would not serve that goal. On the contrary, it would only frighten people into clinging all the more tightly to Christianity. And that, of course, is probably one of the reasons why some Christian evangelists love to spread tales of "Satanic crime." But, to be consistent with the traditional Christian idea of Satan, the main goals of Satan's human followers would be (1) to lure people away from Christianity; (2) to get ourselves into positions of power and influence, the better to lure even more people away from Christianity; and (3) simply to live our lives as we please, looking out for our own interests.

    Satanists, being non-Christians, tend not to have such a Christian-centric view of things. Therefore, many public Satanists are more interested in challenging popular dogmas in general (or, at least, whichever popular dogmas we personally find most irksome) rather than just Christian ideas in particular. But the goal of challenging popular dogma in general is clearly a superset of the goal of challinging Christian ideas in particular, and is thus more consistent with traditional Christian ideas about Satan than is the idea that Satanists can best "serve Satan" by committing violent crime simply for the sake of being "evil." (Some Satanists might be political revolutionaries, but that too is not "evil" for its own sake.)

  4. Whence the Black Circle Boys' notion of Satan?

    Many Satanists feel embarrased by the existence of some people, mainly teenagers, who venerate Satan primarily as a god of "Evil" in the sense of gratuitous harm, and who use Satanism as an excuse for violent criminal activity. I will refer to such people as Black Circle Boys, after the 1997 movie of that name.

    Black Circle Boys are noted for killing and torturing animals, sometimes even humans, in the name of Satan. Most Black Circle Boys outgrow it. Some of them end up embracing more mature forms of Satanism.

    Note: Those theistic Satanists who practice animal sacrifice are not necessarily "black circle boys." I would consider them to be "black circle boys" only if the animal is killed in a particularly cruel manner. See my article on Animal sacrifice.

    Also, Black Circle Boys aren't the only Satanists who acknowledge, venerate, and even celebrate Satan in His Destroyer aspect. However, most Satanists regard Satan as much more than just a destroyer.

    Among Satanists, it is often said that Black Circle Boys believe in the "Christian" idea of Satan. But, as I've explained above, this isn't really true.

    The Black Circle Boys' ideas about Satan are derived more from pop culture than from Christianity. In horror movies and supermarket tabloids, Satan is often portrayed as personifying "evil" in the sense of just plain nastiness. Thus, in pop culture, Satan personifies notions of "evil" held by people who typically do not actually believe in Satan.

    The Satan of hardcore Christianity is much more subtle and clever, much more the sort of entity that all Satanists can admire.

  5. More about pop cultural vs. hardcore Christian ideas of "Evil"

    To be fair, I should mention that Black Circle Boys aren't the only Satanists whose ideas of Satan and "evil" are derived more from pop culture than from Christianity.

    Some of the more vocal public Satanists, especially in the U.K. and New Zealand, hold that Westerners have gotten too soft, comfy, cowardly, and generally "weak." To such Satanists, a major goal is to "build character" through facing danger. Hence they seek out "evil" in the sense of danger.

    The "weakness" of many Westerners is often blamed on Christianity, the "religion of the weak." However, most western Satanists who say this sort of thing seem to be reacting NOT against hardcore Christianity, but against the more wishy-washy, watered-down, middle-of-the-road forms of Christianity, e.g. northern European state churches. Many of the more hardcore forms of Christianity are not at all incompatible with a warlike spirit. For that matter, even the more middle-of-the-road forms of Christianity can easily adapt themselves to a warlike spirit when needed. Only a minority of Christian sects are committed to pacifism. Jesus himself said, "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34).

    Hardcore Christians are "weak" in the sense of slavish, but NOT particularly "weak" (compared to most other Westerners) in the sense of soft, comfy, or cowardly. As far as the latter kinds of "weakness" are concerned, the real "religion of the weak" is the jaded, ultra-commercialized pop culture of affluent Western societies, not Christianity per se, despite the mutual influence between Western pop culture and contemporary Christianity.

    When I talk about Christianity being compatible with a "warlike" spirit, I mean "warlike" in the sense of "soldierly." There is even a well-known hymn with the title "Onward, Christian Soldiers." And, as Nietzsche and others have pointed out, soldiers are not the same thing as warriors in the more ancient and more lordly sense.

    However, there have also existed plenty of Christian warriors -- among medieval noblemen and their retainers, and among the northern barbarians before the fall of ancient Rome. (The barbarians who sacked Rome were Christians, as also were the Romans themselves at that time.) Even today, most Christians don't have any problem at all with the existence of Christian warriors in those times and places where society was organized along such lines. (Well, actually, some Protestant fundamentalists might deny that the medieval and barbarian warriors were Christian, not because they were warriors, but because the medieval knights were Catholics and the barbarians who sacked Rome were non-trinitarian Arians.)

    Because Christianity is stronger in the United States than in Western Europe, Satanism in the United States tends to be more influenced by actual Christian ideas about Satan. Hence we American Satanists are more likely to think of Satan in terms of indulgence and nonconforming creativity, as well as strength and courage, and are less likely to emphasize facing physical danger. However, even in the United States, many Satanists come from only superficially Christian backgrounds, or even non-Christian backgrounds, and define their Satanism more in opposition to some aspects of pop culture than in opposition to Christianity per se.

    Note:   So far, I've spoken only about Satanism in the United States and other affluent Western countries. Satanism in the Third World is probably a different story altogether, about which I don't yet have sufficient knowledge to generalize.

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