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The Devil? Seriously?

How can people believe the manifestly absurd?

MachoCarioca/Wikimedia Commons
Source: MachoCarioca/Wikimedia Commons

There’s a church in Harlem that preaches derogatory things about gays and lesbians. Hey, that's their right. But some folks in the neighborhood don’t like all the hatred spewing from this Christian congregation, and so last week they held a public demonstration, as is their right. They walked in front of the church chanting: “Stop the hate now!” In response to their chanting, the church’s leader, Pastor James David Manning, came out to confront them. “You are Jesus haters!” he yelled. “You faggots! You lesbos! You dungeaters! You perverts! ... You are wretched, unbelievable, despicable—a disgrace to humanity!” And then he explained to them that they were full of the Devil. They were possessed by demons. “Stop the demons now!” he yelled.

Demons? Really? What, with horns? Tails? Yellow teeth? Or are they invisible demons?

Presidential candidate Ben Carson—a man who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Yale University and an M.D. from the University of Michigan Medical School, and who worked as a leading neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital—publicly declared, back in a speech from 2012, his unwillingness to accept the scientific, empirical evidence for Darwinian evolution, which happens to be the fundamental cornerstone of the biological sciences. “I personally believe that this theory that Darwin came up with was something that was encouraged by the adversary,” the well-educated doctor said. The “adversary?” Is that like some magical annoying neighbor who always leaves his sprinklers on at night? Or is it more like some cosmic puppet master who makes malevolent villains out of unsuspecting, weak-minded humans? Or tricks people into believing solid evidence about the nature of life on planet earth? You say that humans share 99% of their genetic makeup with chimpanzees? Why, the devil must have made that up!

In October 2013, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia declared that, yes, he most certainly believes in the existence of Satan. But why don’t we see him? Well, “you know, it is curious. In the Gospels, the Devil is doing all sorts of things. He’s making pigs run off cliffs, he’s possessing people and whatnot. And that doesn’t happen very much anymore … It’s because he’s smart … What he’s doing now is getting people not to believe in him or in God. He’s much more successful that way.”

Huh? What? The devil is “smart”—like, he has a degree in chemistry? He knows how to translate Sanskrit into Estonian? And he somehow gets people not to believe him? And the evidence of all of this is …? This man, Scalia, mind you, interprets the Constitution for the nation, declaring what is legal and illegal for millions of citizens.

How can people seriously believe in the devil? The year is 2015, not 1315. And yet, the fact remains that tens of millions of Americans continue to believe that there is a magical, wicked, evil—oh, and smart—being out there doing magical, wicked, evil deeds and presiding over a fiery realm, where demons crawl and witches cackle. Oh, wait. No cackling witches. Just demons, right?

According to a 2013 YouGov survey, 57% of Americans believe in the devil. And yes, that is 57% of American adults—not kindergarteners. But hey, it's probably the same percentage among that demographic, too. Only a completely uninformed, poorly educated mind with little knowledge of things like evidence, could believe in the devil. Oh wait, scratch that. Actually, top neurosurgeons and Supreme Court justices can. And millions upon millions of other well-educated, upstanding men and women, too.

But there is no such thing as the devil, just as there is no such thing as fairies, imps, or goblins. The two largest religions in the world—Christianity and Islam—teach that there is a devil. And they are wrong. There is no evidence for such a thing. Not a shred. It is simply something that germinated from the unscientific, irrational minds of early humans who tried their best to explain why bad things happen to good people, why good people sometimes do bad things, and why there is so much needless suffering in the world.

But wrong and infantile as it is, the belief continues. Big time. And this is quite a problem: how can we understand and explain why people believe in such absurdities? We can trot out the usual explanations:

1. Socialization. People are taught to believe in the devil by their parents and other family members, and so when one is raised with such a belief, it takes on a force of factuality that is impervious to critique.

2. Group membership. People are part of religious groups or cultural groups that contain a host of beliefs, including belief in the devil, and because people gain so much from being part of this group—community, solidarity, camaraderie, heritage, etc.—they swallow beliefs without much investigation, because the benefits of being part of the group outweigh the benefits of critical thinking and empiricism.

3. Psychological comfort. When one’s child dies from leukemia, or one’s parents are killed in a tsunami, or a little girl is abducted from her home and raped to death by a drifter, the pain of such realities can simply be too much to bear. We need to think that these things aren’t senseless and random, but the work of some powerful being who simply enjoys causing misery. Now, why God would allow this fiendish being to live and thrive is hard to fathom—but hey, any explanation, no matter how fanciful, is better than no explanation.

4. Existential angst. Most people like to watch a movie where there's an easily identifiable good guy and bad guy. Such a plot is easy to follow, easy to hang on to. You know where you stand. But movies in which characters are morally ambiguous or questionable, and no one is all-good or all-bad, and drama is about multiple parties having agendas which are not evil, but merely in conflict, and the ending isn’t always happy—well, such movies may do well at Sundance, but they don’t do well with the general public. This is because many people find life’s ambiguity threatening. It may be realistic, but it can feel existentially disquieting. So it goes with God and the Devil. People would rather believe in their existence than accept the unnerving truth that we are here on this planet for reasons unknowable, with no magic deities presiding in pearly or fiery realms.

All of these explanations are certainly plausible. And yet, I must admit, they leave me feeling short-changed. For when I think about well-educated people believing in Beelzebub, I remain deeply, deeply flummoxed. How can anyone with even a basic knowledge of history and psychology, science and anthropology, mythology and logic, believe that there is an immortal evil being running around doing evil things? It is so absurd as to be pathetic.

There are many joys of being secular, but also some downsides. And one is that you have to live in a world where presidents and judges, professors and doctors, Rhodes scholars and engineers—not to mention your neighbors and colleagues—believe things that are utterly and completely imaginary.

And with horns, no less.