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Is Satan Dead?
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MR. WATTENBERG: Hello. Iím Ben Wattenberg. A new book says that Satan is dead and, surprisingly, that we may be the worse for it. Well, do we need the devil to keep us on the straight and narrow, or perhaps does Satan provide some people with an excuse to do the inexcusable?
Joining us to sort through the conflict and the consensus are: Andrew Delbanco, professor of humanities at Columbia University and author of íThe Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evilí; Bernard McGinn, professor of theology at the University of Chicago and author of íThe Antichrist: 2000 Years of the Human Fascination with Evilí; Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete of the John Paul II Institute; and Robert Alley, professor of humanities at the University of Richmond.
The topic before this house: Is Satan dead? This week on íThink Tank.í
For centuries, people often accounted for evil acts by saying, ĎThe devil made him do it.í Today the devil seems to have been lost in the details of psychology, sociology, biology, and the law. Do we have good reason to mourn the death of the Dark Prince?
Letís give the devil his due. Ever since he tricked Adam and Eve into eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, Lucifer has captivated the imagination. The Bible warns, íBe sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about seeking whom he may devour.í
The Italian poet Dante put the King of Hell at the frozen center of his Inferno. In íParadise Lost,í John Milton portrayed Lucifer as a regal rebel against God who proudly declares, íTo reign is worth ambition, though in hell. Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.í
But more than a literary figure, believers contend that the devil whispers constantly in the ears of likely sinners. Even cathedrals are adorned with Satanís image as a reminder that evil is everywhere. But in the 19th century, when the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche pronounced that, íGod is dead,í the devil was mortally wounded as well. In this century, it is argued that Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, convinced many that sin is only mental illness, and reduced Satan to a figment of the imagination.
Is it only a coincidence that as the belief in Satan and hell fell off, the 20th century became the most brutal century in human history, witnessing the rise of evil dictators like Stalin in the Soviet Union, Hitler in Germany, and Mao in China.
In his widely discussed new book, íThe Death of Satan,í author Andrew Delbanco worries that without the symbol of Satan, we have lost a useful target in the battle against evil.
Welcome, gentlemen. Let me start with you, Professor Delbanco. Do we need the devil to guarantee good behavior?
MR. DELBANCO: Well, Ben, you know, the title of my book comes from a poem by Wallace Stevens in which he says the death of Satan was a tragedy for the imagination. And I found myself trying to think about what that means. I think one of way of thinking about it is to recognize that evil and suffering and pain are a part of everyoneís life and that people need a framework for understanding the meaning of these experiences.
If you turn on the television and you see starving children and the evidence of massacre and cruelty and brutality, and then the next moment you see a shaving cream commercial, which is the way our experience seems to go these days, you need some way of talking to yourself, of understanding how these phenomena are possible and whatís the difference between the image of cruelty and the salesmanship image. Satan used to help us to think about these issues. It was a powerful idea, and I think we ought to think about what it means that we donít have him in the same way anymore.
MR. WATTENBERG: All right. Monsignor Albacete, how about that? Do we need the devil to guarantee good behavior?
MONSIGNOR ALBACETE: As such, no, I donít think so. I donít think we do. We need -- I would reverse it -- we need God. We need God or something to stand by God. I think we need authenticity to self, we need to love. Actually, moral behavior based on fear of the devil is less praiseworthy than one based on love for God or someone else.
Strictly speaking, we donít need the devil, but we need to experience responsibility, and it is there I think that the problem arises. We have lost the experience of being responsible for our behavior. That experience was put in such symbolic religious terms, and then we have lost them, be it -- at both ends, because we have the same problem with God.
MR. WATTENBERG: Professor Robert Alley.
MR. ALLEY: Well, I think that the imagination could be directed in such a way as to find alternative responses if we can get rid of the myth. When the settlers from Europe came to this land, they came as a result of the discovery that the myth that the earth was flat did not hinder them in imagining what else might be there. So you take with a nod to the past the realization that the imagination is now set free, it seems to me, to find genuine responses to what I think is evil and to ask ourselves, can we stop scapegoating and begin to talk about it in a more rational fashion in relationship to public service and public responsibility?
MR. WATTENBERG: Professor Bernard McGinn will conclude our once-around here.
MR. MCGINN: I guess I would say that we need the devil and his human psyche, antichrist, not so much in order to do good, but to help us to understand the evil that we do and the evil thatís present in the world. And I donít think we need them in a literal sense. I do think we need to take them not literally, but seriously, and I mean by that that a kind of meditation on the symbolic value that these mythical figures have stood for is still very, very essential to culture. And a study of their history tells us a lot about the way in which evil has affected human history. So I think theyíre necessary symbols.
MR. WATTENBERG: You say the devil is a symbol. Does anyone here believe the devil is real?
MONSIGNOR ALBACETE: I do.
MR. WATTENBERG: You believe that Satan --
MONSIGNOR ALBACETE: Iím a Catholic priest.
MR. WATTENBERG: Excuse me?
MONSIGNOR ALBACETE: Iím a Catholic priest. Yes, I do. Well, what I mean by real, you see, I donít believe in your image. I believe all the language expressing that reality is symbolical and obviously reflects all kinds of both personal, cultural, historical conditioning. But I think behind it is the claim that in the human experience, there is an experience of a reality that is beyond, a reality that is anti-love, anti-personal, if you wish, that is beyond the possibilities of human action -- before, it precedes it. One is in the context of that reality.
Again, as I say, that is an experience. The myth -- I donít see how one can get rid of myths because myth is the way we express these experiences.
MR. WATTENBERG: We have seen public opinion polls that show inordinately high percentages of Americans believe in the devil. I donít know, itís something -- 70, 80 percent. Are they believing typically something that you are not believing, in a real devil, a real Satan, because even you, Monsignor, are not quite saying, íThere he is. His named is spelled S-a-t-a-n,í or whatever.
MONSIGNOR ALBACETE: I wonít say that because it is a mystery. The reality exceeds the words. It can only be approached through symbolic language. There is -- the error starts in the Bible itself. You do not find a systematic presentation of this. You find even contradictory accounts. But there is like a continuous experience. The moment you try to systematize it into he or the standard image or even the idea of a fallen angel, a pure spirit, which is a very sophisticated way, youíre forcing the evidence. So I donít think -- I think the reality is there. I think it has to be at the personal level because the dialogue about love or failure to love, I think one loves or fails to love, is an interpersonal reality. If evil lies in that area, then its origin has to do with persons. I can only leave it like that.
MR. MCGINN: But there are many millions, certainly, of Christians, fundamentalist Christians and even others, for whom Satan or antichrist is still taken in a very literal sense. I mean I think that was the --
MR. WATTENBERG: Right.
MR. MCGINN: Obviously, none of us, I think, here are taking it quite in that literal a sense.
MR. DELBANCO: No. When the Puritan theologian Cotton Mather about years ago wrote a book called íWonders of the Invisible World,í it was a book about this fallen angel who came from this other world and started to wreak havoc in a place called Salem, Massachusetts, and to bewitch people.
Now, I have no problem with the concept of an invisible world if by that we mean the recesses of the human psyche, which are still in many respects invisible to us and in which, clearly, there reside the capacities to act with unimaginable brutality. I think we need to think about those capacities.
MR. MCGINN: But, you know, if we externalize Satan language or antichrist language, the danger is always to be able to objectify it in somebody else, and thatís why I think itís so necessary that we recognize that these symbols are both external and internal. And Iím not sure this should have that much effect in, letís say, the neutral language of politics. It seems to me that it should have a very great cultural effect -- I think thatís what youíre arguing in your book --in terms of the cultural discourse and the social discourse, in which we recognize the evil within ourselves. But that can be dangerous if theyíre objectified into saying, íBecause you stand for this, youíre present the forces of Satan and antichrist.í
MR. WATTENBERG: How do you deal with this situation? You all seem to agree, I think, that modern society suffers from an erosion of the belief of certain absolute values, that we have lost the concept of evil. And yet when various groups on the right or the left -- Iím thinking now, specifically, the Christian Coalition is often attacked and accused by liberals for saying, íWell, you want me to behave the way you want me to behave because you have -- you think you have a lock on absolute values.í
Now, how do you square that circle? You wrote a book about it. Surely you can do that for us, Andy.
MR. DELBANCO: Well, the absolute value that I would like to see returned to the center of public discourse is the value of respect and what the romantic poets call the sympathetic imagination. Thatís not the same thing as what the fundamentalists are saying when they say, íYou have to live the way I live,í or, íYour family structure has to be the same as my family structure,í that thatís the model for us all.
But in a pluralistic democracy, we have to, I think, have this value of the individual and the rights of the individual at the center.
MR. MCGINN: You know, the absolute value that I think is most often forgotten is the value of responsibility, that is, taking responsibility for the evil that one commits. We live in an age when the easiest thing is to say is, íIt wasnít my fault,í or, íIf I happened to do that, Iím not really responsible because of XYZ.í
One of the things I think thatís so potent about the notion of Satan and Satanís influence, if you read it both internally and externally, is the recognition that yes, indeed, we can be responsible.
MR. DELBANCO: You know, on this point of -- go ahead.
MONSIGNOR ALBACETE: No, no, please.
MR. DELBANCO: On this point of responsibility, I think itís very much at the center of what weíre talking about, and this notion of individual responsibility has become a kind of mantra in American politics in the last few years.
Thereís a lot to it. But if you take the example of the out-of-wedlock birth, for example, and we say, look, this young woman is responsible for herself, for her sexuality, for her relationships, and we must hold her to that standard, I sympathize with that up to a point, but the religious tradition that we are talking about also requires that we take account of our collective responsibility, of our corporate responsibility for the conditions in which this young woman is growing up.
And itís the balance between these two, I think, that we have to try to retrieve. I think the theological tradition gives us a way to do that.
MR. ALLEY: It seems to me that one of the things that we do have is a demonizing of politics in this country, which is the exact reverse of what the founders would have intended as the art of policymaking and governance. It was a craft and something worthy of a career. Now we are being told that politics itself and the whole public policymaking arena is evil.
MR. MCGINN: Satan is alive and well in the political arena.
MR. WATTENBERG: Let me just -- Monsignor Albacete has been remarkably quiet.
MONSIGNOR ALBACETE: All kinds of satanic interruptions.
MR. WATTENBERG: Right. (Laughter.)
MONSIGNOR ALBACETE: The public policy I think should be based on the experience of the dignity of the human person, as the human person is the one absolute moral norm, that there be human person respected in all its dimensions.
Now, the problem starts when one starts to disagree as to what those dimensions are. In my belief, that includes -- the roots of personal identity go beyond even the psychological into the realm that I call the spiritual. That is to say, they go beyond into the very life of the mystery that we call God. The end result is that respect for the human person and its freedom.
The problem is that sooner or later, people will want to go beyond value talk to truth talk, and say values are based on what? What is the reality that sustains the values? Otherwise, you have to keep the people entertained at the level of values sustained only by stories. Well...
MR. WATTENBERG: Why is it that in recent years, religious leaders have stopped talking to their flocks about the devil? Is that accurate?
MONSIGNOR ALBACETE: Yes, it is --
MR. MCGINN: -- of a literal interpretation and maybe theyíre not adventurous enough to try to dig out this kind of symbolic deep meaning, and they feel if theyíre going to talk about this, people are going to think they take the devil or other figures in that history in a very literal fashion. This is why I think the serious but not literal interpretation -- MONSIGNOR ALBACETE: Because of the horrors that have been done in the name of the devil.
MR. MCGINN: Exactly, and particularly the scapegoating and the externalization.
MR. ALLEY: Weíre assuming here, and I think all four of us seem to be in agreement on this, that there is something of value, some essential character to good as opposed to evil. And that runs counter to much of whatís going on in our society, and I find it difficult to talk in terms that do not, in the final analysis, say that thereís something particularly good and proper about the way things can be done, as opposed to the wrong way.
And the relativistic approach, which is fairly common in our society now, is a problem, I think, particularly at the academic level.
MONSIGNOR ALBACETE: I really think what was said here is correct. Our concern should be at the other end, in a positive way about good, the dignity of the person, and to talk about that and to -- that is what motivates people. But we have lost that. We grasp, we donít --itís an experience.
MR. WATTENBERG: Isnít -- just in terms of the human psyche --isnít the devil more interesting than God?
MONSIGNOR ALBACETE: Well, you know how sad. Iíll tell you, the answer is no. No. However, in the sense that sin is far more interesting than virtue.
MR. WATTENBERG: There are more movies -- excuse me? Pardon?
MONSIGNOR ALBACETE: In the sense that sin is more interesting than virtue, but the reason is because we have such a low view of conviction about or experience of God as love, as ecstatic, divine --ecstatic, eternal love. You may or may not believe in God, but what do I mean when I say God? I donít mean the first unmovable prince --no, the philosophical God. I mean the God who is love.
MR. MCGINN: But in a sense, evil is the other great mystery. You know, if God is the great mystery by excess, evil is the great mystery by defect.
Philosophers and religions for millennia have wrestled with trying to give explanations for evil, and none of them can really explain it.
MONSIGNOR ALBACETE: We never really Ė
MR. MCGINN: So it is the mystery of defect, and in that sense, I think it always has a very deep and powerful attraction.
MR. DELBANCO: Defect and privation are the words, and itís interesting to me as we talk about sin here that the terms that have come up are self-deception and self-love. And those are terms which imply that somethingís missing. Whatís missing is an outward love, an apprehension, an appreciation of something outside the self, which can be called God or transcendence; it can be called the sensibility of another human being.
Itís a very tricky problem for our society because itís an individualistic society, so we believe in self-love up to a point. We believe in pride. Thatís what America is built on. But we have to have that other side of the continuum or weíre lost.
MR. ALLEY: And that -- it seems to me that the individual cannot be divested of the ego. The individual has an important role to play and there is a selfish center, but there is also the center of the other. Iíd go back to Jeffersonís last words to Madison, when he said, íTake care of me when dead,í suggesting, one, that he is concerned about fame and the fact that he has done something, but what has he done? He has done something good for all people as best he could. So thatís the context -- Iím doing this as a person, as an ego, but Iím doing it in terms of others.
And I think thatís something weíve somehow lost in an overemphasis on whatís wrong with being an individual. There is everything to be said for that.
MR. WATTENBERG: Let me go around the room, starting with you, Professor McGinn, and see if we can come up with a short word of advice from our four moral philosophers here. We have an audience out there. If there was one thing you could tell them, what would it be?
MR. MCGINN: I think Iíd remind people that evil is both internal and external and that the great symbols of history, symbols like Satan or antichrist or other figures, give us cause for thinking about the evil within ourselves and how it relates to the evils that we see in society. But the real danger is just to project these images outward on other people and to think that weíre not involved and responsible.
MR. WATTENBERG: Bob Alley from the University of Richmond.
MR. ALLEY: Well, I am convinced that evil as a concept has to be personalized both for oneself and for -- people make evil. And we have to assert that there is an evil there, and there is a good that is potential and an evil that is potential, and try to work through the process, which I think is largely political -- and political is the way we as persons deal with each other -- and try to find ways to use the system to heighten the role of us as persons in creating an environment that is for the good, in spite of the fact that we recognize evil in ourselves and in everyone else. But donít personify it with some name or location. That I think is -- I think that is bad.
MR. WATTENBERG: Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete of the John Paul II Institute. I have now given you an electronic flock. You can give a sermon.
MONSIGNOR ALBACETE: Thatís it, yes. Cyber Monsignor now is a video.
When I read the book and I knew I was coming here --
MR. WATTENBERG: Professor Delbancoís book?
MONSIGNOR ALBACETE: Yes -- I said, well, I need a point of departure, a little talking point, and there are many things I could read. But the first thing I read was the story, íThe Diary of a Country Priest,í by George Bernanos. It was a discussion about Satan and hell. And I would end with this by quoting from the book:
íHell is not to love anymore.í íHell is not to love anymore.í
So what I would have to say to people is, Do not be afraid of love. Love means the vulnerability of giving yourself to another. Itís risky, itís dangerous, but follow that path, as St. Augustine said, and do whatever you want.
MR. WATTENBERG: Well, I donít know how you top that, Andy, but you can try. (Laughter.) MR. DELBANCO: I canít top it. I think hell means not being able to love is the right thing to remind people. I think the internal and external nature of evil is the right thing to remind people. And although the realms of love and political life are different, there is a connection. I think we have to recognize, yes, our responsibility for ourselves, but we also need to recognize our responsibility for one another.
That means not flagellating the girl in the ghetto who has had a baby out of wedlock, but talking with her, teaching her, and also recognizing our responsibility for making it possible for her to be taught and to live in a decent world where her best human aspirations can be realized and satisfied.
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Thank you, Andrew Delbanco, Bernard McGinn, Lorenzo Albacete, and Robert Alley.
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For íThink Tank,í Iím Ben Wattenberg.
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