Culture

It's Time We Rethink the Devil for the Modern Era

We can do a lot better than the people who invented him.

Photo Credit: GrandeDuc/Shutterstock.com

The devil needs updating. With what we know now we can do a whole lot better than the primitive authors of ancient texts ever did.

The devil originates among the Essene Hebrews and really takes off among the early Christians, Luke in particular. He’s a function of religious rivalries, a mythical character of pure evil who spawned one’s religious enemies, and made them so vile it’s a virtue to vanquish them. The devil thus represented all that was evil in one’s eyes and in the eyes of whatever god one imagined serving.

The devil was in the eye of the beholder. Whatever you hated was of the devil. Of course, you’ll find this definition offensive if you believe the devil and the god you worship are real, and if you think they’re real, you probably think they’re the most real things in the universe.

So a further refinement. The devil is a subjective fiction that his inventors claim is among the most real forces in the universe. The devil is a subjective fiction claimed as objective fact, fake objectivity, subjectivity pretending to be objective.

If you’re very religious, you probably resent this fake objectivity in your religious rivals who clearly don’t know how to tell your objective truth from subjective fiction. If you don’t trust religion at all you probably regard this fake objectivity as one of religion’s worse features, the source of a whole lot of religious people calling other religious people the devil’s spawn throughout history, and therefore, an idea whose time has passed.

But is it time to retire the devil? I don’t think so.

I’m a psycho-proctologist. I study assholes or buttheads, jerks, pigs, people who do way more harm than good. In a way, I study devils. Let me tell you why: In a free society, I don’t want to tell people what to do. Do whatever but do it within the bounds of basic decency. Give me liberty but don’t let me be a jerk.

That requires knowing what an asshole really is, and it can’t just be anyone we don’t like because that’s just more fake objectivity leading to everyone calling everyone they don’t like an asshole.

As a psycho-proctologist, I’m inclined to rethink the devil. I really believe there are evil people who have to be stopped, I really have to figure out how to tell who’s evil and my definition can’t be grounded in my preferences, or it’s just more fake objectivity.

The primitive authors of our religions saw good and evil, God and the devil, as fundamental principles in the universe, more fundamental than physics.

We now know that’s absurd. The universe is at least 14 billion years old and for the first two-thirds of that span, there was nothing but physical phenomena. In physics and chemistry, things just happen. Nothing is either good or bad. It just is.

Someday we may find out that life started somewhere much earlier than it did on Earth. Even so, it’s obvious, life started after physical phenomena.

Things are only good or bad for someone. The first someones aren’t the gods we can imagine but organisms. Good and bad originate as whatever helps or hinders an organism’s survival and reproduction. Good is what biologists mean by functional or adaptive – useful or beneficial to an organism in context. There’s no universal good other than whatever helps an organism, given its environment.

Physics and chemistry make no sense of good and bad. Biology makes no sense without good and bad, adaptation and function.

Good and bad emerge with biology as subjective and selfish. The organisms alive today are survivors of a roughly four-billion-year championship. We’d say things turned out well for us, compared to how they turned out for the billions of extinct lineages that didn’t make it this far.

By that standard, any dominant organism is good, good at the only game in town for billions of years, biological reproductive success.

But things are different for humans — obviously, or else the height of goodness would be anyone who raped and pillaged his way to a seat of dominance, power and fertility, a Genghis Khan or other authoritarian dictator, the kind of person we’re more likely to think of as evil, the devil.

So what then is a devil? Someone so full of themselves that they would do such a thing without regard for others. Someone with extraordinary powers who uses them solely for selfish gain.

I love Marvel Comics movies, not that I watch many. I love them as the modern way to satisfy the apparently deep-seated human appetite for gods and devils. Many of us get a much more vivid thrill out of them than any church service or sacred text passage, and without taking them too seriously. That’s how I believe religions work best, as vivid fictions expressing cultural values.

I wish Christians treated Christ that way, more like Santa or Marvel comic heroes, fictions and sometimes fictionalized historical characters taken seriously when young though appreciated when old too.

Marvel makes clear how to think about deities and devils: A deity uses his or her superpowers for the general welfare. A devil uses his or her superpowers selfishly.

We humans have superpowers compared to other organisms. The assholes or jerks are those who use them as an organism would, selfishly, without regard for the harm they do to others. 

Jeremy Sherman Ph.D. researches how the living interpret, from their cradle at the origin of life to our current grave situation.
 

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