Bad ideas #145: The Devil

I'm reading Europe's Inner Demons, Norman Cohn's excellent book on witches and the witch-hunts of the middle and early modern ages. I've been prompted to do this because I'm on the Alpha Course at the moment, and enjoying it, but have been particularly challenged by the Course's lesson on the Devil.

The Alpha Course is like a charming metropolitan drinks party where you suddenly realise everyone at the party believes in the Devil. It's Four Weddings crossed with Rosemary's Baby. Last session that I attended, this very smart lady in high heels and pearls, who used to work at an investment bank, stood on the stage and charmingly told us about 'the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of Evil' (she was quoting Ephesians).

Satan is real and out to get us, she told us. His 'sole aim in life is to get at us, and when we become a Christian, we become a particular object of interest to the Devil', she said. And in fact, if we had recently confirmed our faith in Jesus at the Alpha weekend, we might find our life had suddenly become more difficult. This, she said, is because we are now on the Devil's radar and he is strenuously exerting himself to mess our shit up. But 'we shouldn't become morbidly obsessed by this', she assured us.

How could we not become morbidly obsessed by this news??? How could we not become somewhat obsessed by the statement that an incredibly-powerful fallen angel and his hordes of demonic helpers are out to get us? We should just be cool about that?! know...the world is controlled by the Devil, but hey, I'm not letting it get to me! No need to get morbid about it, right?

How could belief in the Devil not make us somewhat morbid? We would start to see the Devil - this demi-God who controls the world - behind everything that happens, behind world events, behind the media, behind the people we meet. We would start seeing his evil face and pointy horns grinning out at us behind every face we see.

I'm not criticising the people who run Alpha for their views. They're just following what it says in the Bible, or, more particularly, in the New Testament (the Old Testament barely mentions the Devil, and when Satan appears in the Book of Job, he seems to work for God, rather than against Him). But the idea of the Devil is the part of Christianity I struggle with most. I started reading CS Lewis' Mere Christianity and, again, I found it an incredibly dark view of human existence. Christians, Lewis says, are a small band of resistance-fighters deep in the Enemy's territory. How is that world-view not a recipe for deep pathology? And it also seems a profoundly self-serving philosophy - we are the shining knights of light and truth, while the rest of the world is controlled by demonic forces.

By the by, Lewis' mentor, George Macdonald, was a champion of the theory of universal reconciliation, as were many early Christian fathers pre-Augustine. It's the theory that eventually, everyone will be reconciled in heaven, even Satan and his evil hordes. I find that a much better theory than the idea of the cosmic battle between Good and Evil, which seems like a perfect excuse for invading other countries and exterminating other faiths.

To get back to Norman Cohn: his book tells the story of how, at various moments during the middle ages and Renaissance, parts of Europe became obsessed with the idea of Devil-worship, and the existence of warlocks and witches' covens. It became an article of faith in the Church that there were secret societies of warlocks and witches who flew around on brooms, and who met up for Satanic sabbaths where Lucifer would appear as a cat or a black man and they would worship him and shag him and each other, and possibly kill babies and drink their blood, before going back to their lives renewed in their evil purpose. The Inquisition would torture people until they admitted that, yes, they went to Satanic sabbaths and yes, they shagged Satan, and their confessions only confirmed the Church in its paranoid fantasies. The Devil was everywhere!

As Cohn traces in his book, the roots of the fantasy, ironically, lie in the Roman era, when the Roman Empire accused early Christians of exactly these fantasies - that they held incestuous orgies, killed babies and drank their blood, and worshiped a donkey God. This same fantasy led to the persecution and mass killings of Christians, including under the reign of the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius (to Aurelius' discredit).

Ironic, then, that centuries later, Christians should resurrect the same fantasy. Cohn traces how the Devil-worship fantasy was initially used for political purposes against the Templars. Philip IV of France wanted to reduce the Templars' power and seize their assets, so he stoked a conspiracy that they were a secret network of Satan-worshippers, leading to the arrest, torture and execution of many Templar-knights. Then the same fantasy was used against other groups and communities, such as the Cathars and, finally, every old woman in a village who muttered to herself and freaked the other villagers out. Burn them! Burn them all!!!

Cohn notes that, even today, many people in academia and in wider society believe in the reality of witches' covens in the middle ages. They might disagree that such covens worshipped Satan - they might claim that they were in fact ancient fertility cults - but they still believed in warlocks and witches covens. When in fact, Cohn insists, these covens were an invention, a fantasy, a clerical error. There were occasional witch-doctors, and some of them might practice practical magic, which might involve spells and the invocation of demons for practical ends (love potions, finding treasure, cursing people and so on). But there were never networks of Devil worshippers committed to the worship of Satan, battle with God, the killing of babies, incestuous orgies etcetera. It was a dark fantasy invented by certain sick or cynical individuals in the Church, and then 'proven' through horrific torture on innocent people.

And yet this clerical error has actually led to a religious movement today, via the Wicca movement, where various lonely souls who want to feel important meet up in covens to worship nature gods and perhaps to cast some spells. The modern Wiccans initially claimed to be the descendants of ancient witch covens, until they accepted that such claims were based on flawed scholarship. It's remarkable how historical errors can create whole religious movements. A similar thing helped to create the Renaissance passion for Hermetic magic. People were utterly convinced that the Corpus Hermeticum, the supposed magic books of the ancient magician Hermes Trismegistus, pre-dated the Old Testament, and that Hermes taught Moses his esoteric doctrine. In fact, this was another clerical error - the Corpus Hermeticum in fact dated from about a century or two after the death of Christ. But that didn't stop Hermetic magic from fooling a lot of intelligent people for several centuries.

Today, many people in the evangelical movement, including in the Church of England, are convinced that Satan controls the world and is pulling the strings behind the scenes of many events. They also believe that society is full of Devil worshipers, warlocks and witches, with whom they must do battle, like superheroes. Every superhero needs a supervillain.

This makes me glad that the Church does not wield much political power any more - because I think such fantasies are dangerous and harmful to society. The idea of the Devil has caused a lot of evil and suffering in the world. It is a bad idea, in my humble opinion, because it fosters paranoia and fear of our fellow humans, rather than compassion and love for them. We see the consequences of that idea in the terrible violence that the Church committed against people and nations back in the eras when a large amount of people genuinely believed in the Devil. I don't want to go back to those days, and see bodies burning on pyres once more.

I think the Devil idea often fed off fear of other people, cultures and ethnicities - you notice how, in the confessions of witches, the Devil is always black? How the evil race in the Book of Mormon is black? This, again, is somewhat ironic when Jesus and his disciples would be, how shall I put it, somewhat dark-skinned to our western eyes.

I also think the idea of the Devil leads to a perverted view of human sexuality, because the Church's fantasies of Devil-worship were so often sexual - fantasies of incestuous orgies etc. In other words, Christians were projecting their own sexual fantasies onto innocent people, and then killing them for it. They were getting their rocks off in a particularly messed up way - accusing people of vice, while also getting a vicarious thrill from the description of that vice (a similar sort of fucked-up-ness as one often finds in the Daily Mail today).

That's my opinion anyway. There's lots I love about Christianity and its message of love and social justice. The Devil is the bit of the New Testament that I particularly struggle with, and I think the social consequences of that idea are all too plain in history. Feel free to disagree.

Here's the video of the Alpha talk. The lady starts talking about the Devil roughly seven minutes in. If you play it backwards its the lyrics from Stairway to Heaven.