How Belief in Satan Affects the World


Surveys show that a staggering percentage of Americans believe in a literal Satan, and even more believe in the idea of a sort of disembodied evil. Piercarlo Valdesolo at Scientific American looks at some psychological research on how those beliefs affect our views on other issues.

The issue of whether “pure evil” exists, however, is separate from what happens to our judgments and our behavior when we believe in its existence. It is this question to which several researchers have recently begun to turn. How can we measure people’s belief in pure evil (BPE) and what consequences does such a belief have on our responses to wrong-doers?

According to this research, one of the central features of BPE is evil’s perceived immutability. Evil people are born evil – they cannot change. Two judgments follow from this perspective: 1) evil people cannot be rehabilitated, and 2) the eradication of evil requires only the eradication of all the evil people. Following this logic, the researchers tested the hypothesis that there would be a relationship between BPE and the desire to aggress towards and punish wrong-doers.

Researchers have found support for this hypothesis across several papers containing multiple studies, and employing diverse methodologies. BPE predicts such effects as: harsher punishments for crimes (e.g. murder, assault, theft), stronger reported support for the death penalty, and decreased support for criminal rehabilitation. Follow-up studies corroborate these findings, showing that BPE also predicts the degree to which participants perceive the world to be dangerous and vile, the perceived need for preemptive military aggression to solve conflicts, and reported support for torture.

Regardless of whether the devil actually exists, belief in the power of human evil seems to have significant and important consequences for how we approach solving problems of real-world wrongdoing. When we see people’s antisocial behavior as the product of an enduring and powerful malice, we see few options beyond a comprehensive and immediate assault on the perpetrators. They cannot be helped, and any attempts to do so would be a waste of time and resources.

But if we accept the message from decades of social psychological research, that at least some instances of violence and malice are not the result of “pure evil” — that otherwise decent individuals can, under certain circumstances, be compelled to commit horrible acts, even atrocities — then the results of these studies serve as an important cautionary tale. The longer we cling to strong beliefs about the existence of pure evil, the more aggressive and antisocial we become.

But this is not necessarily an either/or situation. Some people probably are irredeemable and can only be locked up to keep others safe, but that does not result from anything to do with the devil or with this weird concept of evil existing as a thing in and of itself. It’s the result of mundane epigenetic influences. And their irredeemable nature as an adult could well have been averted at some point early in life given the right circumstances.

The thing that bothers me about belief in Satan or “pure evil,” other than the obvious fact that they just don’t exist, is that they offer a simple answer to much more complex questions. It’s a convenient way to explain away things that bother us but it doesn’t actually offer anything in the way of genuine understanding or potential solutions. It’s a form of irrationality that we simply can’t afford.

Comments

  1. eric says

    I think in some ways its a psychological shield against uncertainty. The thought that good people can do bad things will bring up uncomfortable questions about how much we can trust our friends and loved ones. Believing in some evil peson “out there” is much more psychologically appealing than (for example) accepting that your basically good, hardworking, honest, never-a-crime-in-his-life uncle could one day flip some psychological switch and molest your child or murder your aunt.

    I guess my point is, the effect would probably occur in people even without religion or Satan per se. IMO we’d perform the same psychological whitewash job in the absence of supernatural beliefs.

  2. Alverant says

    Another problem is that if you think there is some embodiment of evil then it can be killed/damaged/removed/whatever. It’s easier to try and do that than to try and fix the problems that caused that. “If we just shoot all the drug dealers then the drug problem with go away.” and we all know the problems with that kind of thinking.

    If Satan fell from grace for being prideful, shouldn’t he be angry at people blaming him for their own failings? If I was that egotistical I’d take pride in my work and deny credit for things I was not involved with doing.

  3. grumpyoldfart says

    I love reading about the funny little ideas that Americans have. “Satan exists, truly-ruly.” So childishly cute.

    Although I guess the belief in Satan could be useful when somebody makes a stupid mistake and employs the Geraldine Defense: “The devil made me do it.” Especially when the peer group will accept that excuse (because they intend to use it themselves if they mess up in the future).

  4. anubisprime says

    Satan is a very handy construct, it avoids nasty awkward questions to the priests and other various oogedyboogety shamen about why certain things happen and why their mythological hero did not intervene.

    It is a philosophical laziness…nothing more!

  5. busterggi says

    “Evil people are born evil – they cannot change. Two judgments follow from this perspective: 1) evil people cannot be rehabilitated, and 2) the eradication of evil requires only the eradication of all the evil people.”

    To me, the most amazing thing about this is the cognitive dissonance of those that believe it also believe that EVERYONE, including themselves supposedly, is born a ‘sinner’ yet somehow believers are redeemed just by believing in the correct sky-fairy.

  6. Pen says

    Interesting that this particular conception of Satan as pure evil has nothing to do with the traditional belief in the devil throughout Europe. This folklore held that all humans were equally subject to the temptation to evil by Satan and the call to virtue by Christ/God. The real unbelievable legend here is that all humans were equal before that choice and made it by the exercise of free will. In many Christian traditions humans were also always redeemable, at least before death.

  7. Trebuchet says

    I believe Dick Cheney (see previous post) is pure evil. And I’m pretty sure he exists. So there.

  8. Sastra says

    A belief in Satan and Pure Evil both works with and against the idea of Hell. If we are to be hysterically grateful for salvation, then damnation must not only be a possibility, but really, really bad. And if you have anyone in Hell at all and God is fair and just, then they must be irredeemably bad — Pure Evil.

    But they can’t have been born that way or the punishment has no merit. You’ve got God damning a fig tree for not producing figs out of season again — with no way to turn it into a “metaphor.” So the damned must once have had a choice to be good but decided instead to choose to be bad, to throw away absolutely every positive virtue they have so that they truly deserve Hell and there is no need to pity them.

    What throws this off (well, other than the childish cartoon view of human nature of course) is the common claim from many Christians that everyone deserves Hell. Only perfection counts and thus we need the saving blood of Christ. So the folks in Hell don’t have to be Pure Evil. They can be ordinary, virtuous, kindly, self-sacrificing, and loving. But apparently too willfully stubborn to accept loving Jesus as savior because … well… Pure Evil?

    It’s very confused.

    Has anyone ever ended up in Hell who would never have gotten there if it wasn’t for Satan?

    If so, then it seems that Satan has the power to thwart the omnipotent will of God and prevent His children from abiding in His presence. God must be weeping with frustration. So close… and then Satan had to come in and ruin it!

    If not, then what the hell is the point of Satan?

  9. magistramarla says

    Trebuchet beat me to it.
    Ed, you are doing awful things to the minds of skeptics when you follow a post about Cheney with this post!

  10. erick says

    The problem of “evil incarnate” or even simply evil people is dangerous. It keeps you from understanding where evil actions come from, and how to deal with them. Frankly, most of what any given person considers evil isn’t considered evil by the perpetrator. Yes, there are people who are so psychopathic or just plain nasty that they enjoy hurting people, but that isn’t the majority.

    Look at the settling of North America, or any other colonization. From the perspective of the natives, it was absolutely evil, and even in retrospect many of the descendants of the settlers might see it as evil. But those settlers didn’t see it as evil. They honestly thought that they had the right, and even the god-given duty, to “civilize” or “pacify” or simply remove the natives.

    Pardon the Godwin, but even seeing Hitler as pure evil is misguided. I don’t like teaching kids that the Holocaust was “pure evil”. I know that’s a dangerous statement and easily taken out of context, but bear with me for context! The actions were undoubtedly horrible and evil on a scale never before imagined, but to simply blame it on one evil man is to overlook how he was able to lead people to do what they did. However evil (sick, psychopathic, wrong, whatever) Hitler and his inner circle may have been, they didn’t kill millions of people with their own hands. Hundreds or thousands of people had to commit terrible acts. Most of those people believed they were doing right. They became convinced that those they were killing or turning over were less than human, or were deserving, or they didn’t really connect their own actions with people dying. Then they went home to their loving families and read bedtime stories to their kids.

    And since this is effectively an atheist website, we can see what role religion plays in this. I can’t honestly say religion alone causes this, or that all religion leads to this kind of evil action. It can certainly lead to black and white, us versus them thinking, and it can justify actions without really considering the results. How much of it leads to evil is more than I have time to write about right now.

  11. raven says

    If not, then what the hell is the point of Satan?

    To be a fictional character in a collection of incoherent stories.

    If you try to make sense of xian mythology, you can’t do it. It’s incoherent.

    1. God the all powerful creator, created satan and the demons.

    2. And he lets them run around doing whatever it is they do.

    If he can control his creations and won’t, then such a god is evil. If he can’t control them, then why call him…god?

    And satan and the demons are superfluous anyway. We were made by god, the perfect being, in his image. And promptly went off the rails and became flawed, which means god the perfect being is an incompetent idiot. It isn’t like we humans need any help from invisible beings to screw things up.

  12. Larry says

    I believe Dick Cheney (see previous post) is pure evil.

    He’s certainly been around for a long, long year

  13. Childermass says

    “the eradication of evil requires only the eradication of all the evil people”

    If that is what they believe then we have an more basic underlying root: magical thinking.

  14. uzza says

    Satan is just the inevitable anthropomorphizing that language practically requires. Confronted with real evil {Ariel Castro, Suicide Bombers … } our natural revulsion activates our amygdala and presents a choice. We can say “I’m not like that, he’s different, evil. Kill him.” This is particularly attractive if we’ve been exposed to the Abramic religions whose essential message is that any wrong absolutely demands punishment.

    Or, we can say “We are all the same, what could cause one of us to become like that?” The second choice leads to study and learning, becoming familiar with the Lucifer Effect, for example, and reading Ordinary Men. One might admit that “that could be me’, feel empathy, and work toward real, productive solutions. But all that is HARD, not least because it requires suppressing the amygdala. Much easier to ride the rage, go all old testament and stay comfortable believing you are not like the evil ______ .

  15. dingojack says

    Pretty sure I’ve seen this guy beffore.*
    Dingo
    ——–
    * Yep David Warner, before he was Kurt Wallender’s mad, bad ol’ dad.

  16. Michael Heath says

    Sam Harris’ book on free will does an excellent job of destroying the conflation of evil acts from the discombobulated idea that disembodied evil exists.

  17. georgelocke says

    Some people probably are irredeemable and can only be locked up to keep others safe, but that does not result from anything to do with the devil or with this weird concept of evil existing as a thing in and of itself. It’s the result of mundane epigenetic influences.

    by “epigenetic influences” i believe you environmental influences. There’s no reason to suspect that the psychological factors have a specifically epigenetic, that is gene-regulatory, etiology.

    Epigenetics can refer to heritable changes besides mutation (e.g. DNA methylation) or more broadly any change in the physical state of the DNA (besides mutation) with an effect on gene expression (e.g. transcription factors, chromatin modification). There’s no reason to suspect of this sort, and you’re just kind of diluting the meaning of the word by using it to refer to anything besides intrinsic genetic influence.

  18. typecaster says

    Isn’t BPE itself an example of BPE ?

    I’ve seen threads get Godwined before. But I can’t remember the last time I saw a thread get Godel’ed.

  19. says

    Late to the party, but a few thoughts. The title of the post, How Belief In Satan Affects The World, assumes causation, but causation isn’t entirely clear. When we speak of something predicting something else, we don’t necessarily mean that it causes that thing. So I see many unanswered questions in this research, which isn’t a shortcoming of the research–they’ve established certain correlative relationships worth further investigation–but in matters of mental life, causation is a very sticky subject.

    Consider the following: We’re born with very little capacity for affect regulation. Enormous mental distress, you might say pure mental distress or unmodulated bad states, occur with much greater frequency in infants than in adults. Initially, most of the affect regulatory function comes from outside, from the tension relieving, comforting caretaker(s). It’s speculated that these regulatory functions are neurologically internalized through the repeated experience of shifting between good and bad internal states. As language develops, some of the regulation becomes cognitive–beliefs can modulate affect, but beliefs are far from the whole story. There is vast understructure of non-conscious affect regulation that can also influence belief. So, for example, a person with very poor affect regulation will experience rage states that are explained on the basis of some pure badness, some evil external force or person–the cognitive component being a post hoc attribution. We can see these tendencies in everyone, but in a borederline personalty organization, for example, we see a lot more splitting of the external world into all good and all bad, even sometimes with shifting assessments of the same person as affective states shift. And, no surprise, unmodulated affect states are associated with aggressive behavior whether defensive or punitive.

    So my point here is that it might be the case that people prone to unmodulated affective states are both more likely to attribute these states to an evil external object and, and more inclined toward punitive retalliatory aggression.

    Certainly affect regulation wouldn’t be the only factor, and I wouldn’t dismiss the idea that a particular belief could lead a person to a more punitive posture. At the same time, a simplistic cognitive model assumes too much about beliefs being primary agents exerting effects independent of critical, non-conscious regulatory functions. Beliefs are often attributional in nature.

    I’d be interested in somehow measuring affect regulation (eg, look at pulse, BP reactivity to and recovery from noxious stimuli), and punitiveness, belief in Satan and belief in pure evil. Certainly some of these beliefs are culturally influenced, but lots of people around here grew up in cultures that supported these beliefs, yet they ended up rejecting these beliefs. Some would say it’s because they’re highly rational, but to what extent are certain styles of rational processing influenced by affect regulation?

    I”m not arguing certainties, but just commenting on the problem of attributing causation in the mental life.

  20. jonathangray says

    Let’s try to untangle some of the confusion here.

    “pure evil”

    A metaphysical absurdity. Christian teaching is that evil is not a positive ‘thing’ or ‘force’ — it is understood as a privation, a lack or misapplication of the good. Satan is not the ‘Spirit of Evil’, just an evil spirit.

    … one of the central features of BPE is evil’s perceived immutability. Evil people are born evil – they cannot change.

    Crap. Christianity makes quite a big deal about repentance. The belief in punishing wrongdoers simply derives from the belief that wrongdoing demands expiation, regardless of any rehabilitative or deterrent effect or considerations of public safety.

    … harsher punishments for crimes (e.g. murder, assault, theft), stronger reported support for the death penalty, and decreased support for criminal rehabilitation. Follow-up studies corroborate these findings, showing that BPE also predicts the degree to which participants perceive the world to be dangerous and vile, the perceived need for preemptive military aggression to solve conflicts, and reported support for torture.

    Not entirely false. Belief in an active, purposive force promoting evil certainly disabuses one of the utopian liberal view of the world. On the other hand, many of the most prominent modern reactionary thinkers are atheists who are led to their harsh, Hobbesian view of reality by nothing more than observation of human behaviour.

    if we accept the message from decades of social psychological research

    : ß

  21. says

    @JonathanGray:

    one of the central features of BPE is evil’s perceived immutability. Evil people are born evil – they cannot change.

    Crap. Christianity makes quite a big deal about repentance. The belief in punishing wrongdoers simply derives from the belief that wrongdoing demands expiation, regardless of any rehabilitative or deterrent effect or considerations of public safety.

    The statement you’re calling crap wasn’t a statement about what Christianity teaches or doesn’t teach. It was a statement about what people actually say they believe about evil. Are you really unaware that people hold views that may be inconsistent with religious teachings? Those who report a belief in pure evil (regardless of any religious teachings), also tend to believe that people are born evil and that they can’t change. Apparently, many people hold these views. Citing religious beliefs at variance with these views doesn’t in any way show that people don’t actually hold these views.

  22. says

    @JonathanGray:

    if we accept the message from decades of social psychological research

    : ß

    Mr. Dunning, Mr. Kruger, please pick up the white courtesy phone.

  23. jonathangray says

    Dr X @24:

    That may be so, but since the article took as its starting-point people’s belief in the devil, and since lots of commentators on this thread made reference to Christian belief, it seemed reasonable to emphasise the distinction between orthodox Christian teaching and this strange belief in “pure evil” apparently held by many non-religious folk.

    @25:

    “But if we accept the message from decades of social psychological research … that otherwise decent individuals can, under certain circumstances, be compelled to commit horrible acts, even atrocities “

    Because nobody had an inkling of this basic truth of human nature before the advent of the “social sciences” …

  24. Michael Heath says

    jonathangray feebly attempts to avoid Dr. X’s devastating rebuttal of his previous post:

    it seemed reasonable to emphasise the distinction between orthodox Christian teaching and this strange belief in “pure evil” apparently held by many non-religious folk.

    As Dr. X pointed out, it’s an inherent part of our culture that people act out and hold beliefs that are often in conflict with their own holy dogma. That’s an attribute of Christianity we find continually acted out. Where the relevant context here is Christianity is the dominate religious influence on western cultural when it comes to supernatural topics.

    To use the weasel word, “apparently” and then employ a red herring for a relative handful of powerless “non-religious folk” is not going to go unnoticed in a venue of readers who are not victims of religious thinking. Your attempt to publically avoid the fact your prior post was absurdly wrong once again illustrates your dishonesty, cowardice, and inability to accept inconvenient facts.

    Sure there are some people who never were or are no longer Christians who hold a believe that disembodied evil exists, but they don’t have any significant impact on our culture and none on public policy. Instead our society suffers from the idiocy and delusion of believing in gods, devils, and disembodied evil due to the success of Christianity long permeating western culture, not because of these other yahoos who no longer practice one of the Abrahamic faiths.

    What we can celebrate here is that Christianity’s hold on western thinking continues to decline. Primarily because it can’t withstand scrutiny in a reality where it’s increasingly easy for people to obtain both the relevant facts and consensus explanations from well-studied, trained, and talented experts. Experts who also have fealty to continually improving processes that filters out the type of flawed thinking religionists require in order to promote faith over facts.

  25. says

    @JonathanGray:

    “Because nobody had an inkling of this basic truth of human nature before the advent of the “social sciences” …”

    So you’re equating a disputed, controversial inkling that some people had about human behavior with decades of recent research showing that situations exert powerful effects on ethical behaviors that had been widely assumed to be dispositionally-driven. In fact, if you pay attention to public discourse on crime and misconduct, it’s quite evident that among people unfamiliar situation research, which would be most people, the effects of situation are still grossly underappreciated.

  26. jonathangray says

    Michael Heath:

    It’s an inherent part of our culture that people act out and hold beliefs that are often in conflict with their own holy dogma. That’s an attribute of Christianity we find continually acted out.

    I don’t dispute your first sentence; I just fail to see how people acting at variance with Christian teaching can be called an “attribute of Christianity”.

    [Chrisitianity] can’t withstand scrutiny in a reality where it’s increasingly easy for people to obtain both the relevant facts and consensus explanations from well-studied, trained, and talented experts.

    Sean Carroll expressed the same thought in even more breathtakingly inane language: “Due to the efforts of many smart people over the course of many years, scholars who are experts in the fundamental nature of reality have by a wide majority concluded that God does not exist. We have better explanations for how things work.” Uh-huh.

    Dr X:

    So you’re equating a disputed, controversial inkling that some people had about human behavior with decades of recent research showing that situations exert powerful effects on ethical behaviors that had been widely assumed to be dispositionally-driven. In fact, if you pay attention to public discourse on crime and misconduct, it’s quite evident that among people unfamiliar situation research, which would be most people, the effects of situation are still grossly underappreciated.

    I disagree. Do you really think the likes of Aeschylus, Dante, Shakespeare and Dostoeyevsky were unaware that both situation and disposition affect behaviour? That most ordinary folk haven’t always known what is a manifest truth of the human condition? What “public discourse on crime and misconduct” suggests to me is simply that most ordinary folk are wise to the fact that “situation” is increasingly used as an exculpatory gambit — “the poverty/injustice/genes/memes made me do it!” (By contrast, the devil has great power over the imagination and a limited power over the intellect but no power over the will.)

  27. says

    JonatahnGray,

    First you argue that most people knew about the influence of the situation versus dispostion by citing exceptional people, then you proceed to deny that these observations are true, because you know that the the devil has great power over the imagination, never mind decades of research evidence showing the great power of the situation. In the end, you’re offering an argument that can’t be tested/disproven as a counterargument to testable hypotheses that have been repeatedly tested.

    There are believers who understand the logical futility of entering a scientific argument armed with faith claims because the premises about reality and knowing in each case are fundamentally different. I generally suspect overwrought defense against doubt when believers feel compelled to argue from faith in a science discussion, as if to say: no really, I have proof that meets the scientists’ standards. Well, no, they don’t and cannot have such proof because the standards for knowing are entirely different. There are believers who get this, but a general trend I’ve observed: the more fundamentalist the believer, the more doubt must be denied leading to lots of futile arguing with people who are arguing from a fundamentally different approach to understanding the world. But perhaps this is a tautology because it may be the case that the best working definition of religious fundamentalism is the overwrought psychological defense against unbearable feelings of doubt. In other words, those made most anxious about doubt, must deny doubt to alleviate anxiety, and this presents itself as a brittle adherence to certainty. It’s that brittle nature of the certainty that then compels the fundamentalist to argue with everyone because everything that fails to support the rigid belief is a threat to it.

  28. says

    JonathanGray,

    An additional observation. As you continue to elaborate here on your beliefs, you appear consistent with the observation that belief in Satan and punitive attitudes positively covary.

    Another interesting aspect of your views: while you sneer at liberals who might question the fullness of responsibility based on situational factors, you emphasize a potent, external force that is highly imaginative in inducing people to engage in wrongful acts. Yes, I know about the conceptual hairsplitting that helps to remove qualms about the nature and extent of punishment for wrongful acts: in the end, you’ll say that the person who acts is solely responsible. Well, that’s a wish more than it reflects an understanding of influences, motive, decision and human action. We’re far from a complete understanding these influences, but we do know that locus of cause, behavioral determinism and free will are each inadequate to fully explain human actions. Want to add an untestable devil to the mix of influences? You still don’t have an understanding of culpability other than one that you want to believe in. You’ve no more figured out culpability than I have. Or maybe that’s wrong. I know that the evidence doesn’t provide simple answers. You need to deny that, which conveniently makes your punitive inclinations more morally palatable.

    So a question: do you punish a mentally ill person just as severely as one who isn’t mentally ill? Do you deny that such a condition could mitigate culpability? Does a person who pushes a terrifying demon (that is really a person) in front of a train deserve to be treated as culpable in the same way as a bank robber who shoots a teller who is slow to place the cash on the counter? If you answer no to these questions, how is that you know that mental disorder is a completely binary phenomenon dividing mental life into clear culpability versus no culpability?

  29. jonathangray says

    Much food for thought there, Dr X. Will endeavour to respond tomorrow (dog needs walking tonight).

  30. says

    Dr. X:

    You like Mr. Michael Heath are attempting to teach a pig (said swine signing as Jonathon Gray) to sing. Spend more time drinking and playing X-box; those endeavors are consistently more rewarding than sparring with dickhead KKKristianists like Johnnyboy.

  31. Iain Walker says

    jonathangray (#23):

    Christian teaching is that evil is not a positive ‘thing’ or ‘force’ — it is understood as a privation, a lack or misapplication of the good.

    Setting aside the problems with this view, the Augustinian doctrine of privatio boni isn’t universally held by all Christians (and indeed a good many of them probably haven’t even heard of it). And while it may indeed be frowned upon by certain theologians, belief in evil as a ‘thing’ or ‘force’ is a fairly common religious belief. It comes bundled with many religious ideologies, as a cultural inheritance if not as explicit dogma, and can be explained by the same cognitive biases as many other religious beliefs (reification, a proneness to interpreting events in terms of agency etc).

    So trying to distance Christianity from this kind of belief isn’t really plausible. Christianity is a diverse family of belief structures linked by common descent from a 1st century fusion of apocalyptic Judaism and neo-Platonism, and it can – and does – incorporate all manner of beliefs. The fact that your particular version of Christianity is dismissive of the idea of evil as a ‘thing’ or ‘force’ does not mean that it is not a religious belief shared by many other Christians – Christians who have just as much claim to speak for “Christianity” as you do.

    In short, you’re pulling a No True Scotsman.

  32. Nick Gotts says

    Iain Walker@34

    Christianity is a diverse family of belief structures linked by common descent from a 1st century fusion of apocalyptic Judaism and neo-Platonism, and it can – and does – incorporate all manner of beliefs.

    No, no, you don’t understand. Christianity is what jonathangray says it is. Anything else is a snare and a delusion, invented by Satan.

  33. jonathangray says

    @Iain Walker:

    The trouble with the Scotsman gambit is that it too easily slides into the reductio and, by extreme attenuation, renders useless pretty much any definition or limitation. One could so stretch words upon the rack that every soul upon the planet could be classified as a ‘Christian’, with any protest from the orthodox drowned out by the wail of bagpipes.

    My unreconstructedly ecclesial definition of ‘Christian’ at least has the weight of tradition behind it. It may not be universally accepted but neither can it be blithely dismissed as a wholly arbitrary concoction of my own imagining. After all, our Lord did not declare “And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build a diverse family of belief structures called Christianity, and many shall have just as much claim to speak for Christianity as thou.”

  34. jonathangray says

    @democommie:

    I am given to understand that the initials ‘KKK’ are sometimes popularly taken to refer to that organisation’s great Triumvirate of Enemies, namely Kikes, Koons & Katholics. Which definitively disqualifies me as a “KKKristianist”.

  35. Iain Walker says

    jonathangray (#36):

    The trouble with the Scotsman gambit is that it too easily slides into the reductio and, by extreme attenuation, renders useless pretty much any definition or limitation.

    Which in this case it doesn’t – a quasi-phylogenetic historical analysis of what counts as Christianity is both defined and limited. Even a Wittgensteinian family-resemblance analysis would still impose limits on what would count as a Christian, without insisting that there was any one defining characteristic common to all Christians. (Both approaches are useful when making sense of diverse categories.)

    My unreconstructedly ecclesial definition of ‘Christian’ at least has the weight of tradition behind it.

    There are two big problems with your appeal to “tradition” here: Firstly, Christianity has many traditions, not just one, and while many of them run quite happily side-by-side, others are in competition. One Christian’s tradition is another Christian’s heresy. Secondly, not all traditions within Christianity weigh equally heavily in determining what counts as Christian and what doesn’t, and some have no weight at all. The doctrine of privatio boni, for example, is not included in the Nicene Creed or the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church, nor is it entailed by them. Augustine’s ad hoc response to the problem of evil hence has no obvious claim to be a defining tradition of Christianity, or something that Christians are obligated to believe in order to count as Christians.

    After all, our Lord did not declare “And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build a diverse family of belief structures called Christianity, and many shall have just as much claim to speak for Christianity as thou.”

    Maybe he should have, then. It would have saved an awful lot of misery and bloodshed.

  36. jonathangray says

    Dr X:

    First you argue that most people knew about the influence of the situation versus dispostion by citing exceptional people

    Not exactly. My citing of “exceptional people” was not intended as evidence for the claim that “most people” knew about situational influences. (That claim was not, in fact, supported by any argument, it was more along the lines of a brazen assertion.) The exceptionals might show a profounder insight than most people, and the ability to embody that insight in works of creative genius, but they are essentially representative.

    then you proceed to deny that these observations are true, because you know that the the devil has great power over the imagination, never mind decades of research evidence showing the great power of the situation

    I’m afraid I’m not quite sure what you mean here. I don’t deny situations exert great influence and I don’t see how belief in a devil with power over the imagination might lead one to deny that.

    There are believers who understand the logical futility of entering a scientific argument armed with faith claims because the premises about reality and knowing in each case are fundamentally different. I generally suspect overwrought defense against doubt when believers feel compelled to argue from faith in a science discussion, as if to say: no really, I have proof that meets the scientists’ standards. Well, no, they don’t and cannot have such proof because the standards for knowing are entirely different.

    Whether religious and scientific claims are based on different “premises about reality and knowing” is an interesting question. I’m inclined to think this is the case, with the proviso that “fundamentally different” need not imply “mutually exclusive” (and that apparent contradictions, when they emerge, owe less to the nature of scientific inquiry and more to certain unacknowledged metaphysical assumptions to which the modern scientific enterprise has regrettably and unnecessarily hitched its wagon).

    Be that as it may, I don’t think such considerations have much bearing on my scepticism about the ‘social sciences’. I’m sceptical about the ‘social sciences’ because their observations too often strike me as being, at worst, vitiated by a pervasive leftist bias and, at best, crashingly banal statements of the obvious, lessons which any neurotypical person would have learned from the school playground.

    you appear consistent with the observation that belief in Satan and punitive attitudes positively covary.

    That’s probably because both those beliefs are part and parcel of the orthodox Christian worldview and are so likely to be found together, not because the one leads directly to the other.

    you sneer at liberals who might question the fullness of responsibility based on situational factors

    It would be more accurate to say I despise liberals who who talk out of both sides of their mouths, one minute championing informed consent (free choice) as the determinant of ethical acceptability, the next minute emphasising situational influences as a means of ethical exculpation.

    We’re far from a complete understanding these influences, but we do know that locus of cause, behavioral determinism and free will are each inadequate to fully explain human actions. Want to add an untestable devil to the mix of influences?

    It’s not a matter of wanting. If there’s good reason to believe in that devil, you have to take him into account.

    So a question: do you punish a mentally ill person just as severely as one who isn’t mentally ill? Do you deny that such a condition could mitigate culpability? Does a person who pushes a terrifying demon (that is really a person) in front of a train deserve to be treated as culpable in the same way as a bank robber who shoots a teller who is slow to place the cash on the counter? If you answer no to these questions, how is that you know that mental disorder is a completely binary phenomenon dividing mental life into clear culpability versus no culpability?

    Well the hypothetical example you gave, the hallucinated demon, was a clear case of a delusion that prevented the sufferer from correctly perceiving physical reality. There’s nothing in his actions to suggest malevolent intent — had a demon actually taken physical form (if such a thing were possible) then pushing it under a train would be an eminently rational and moral act. The situation doesn’t seem that different in principle from a hunter who mistakes a person in the woods for a dangerous wild animal and shoots him in ‘self-defence’. If we lock the mentally ill person up and let the hunter go free, it’s not because we think the former is more culpable but because we fear he is less responsible. Now contrast that with a hypothetical case of someone who hears ‘demonic voices’ urging him to commit murder — whether the voices are a hallucination or a genuine demonic locution makes no difference to the culpability incurred if he acts on their advice.

  37. jonathangray says

    Iain Walker:

    a quasi-phylogenetic historical analysis of what counts as Christianity is both defined and limited. Even a Wittgensteinian family-resemblance analysis would still impose limits on what would count as a Christian, without insisting that there was any one defining characteristic common to all Christians.

    Such analyses have no authority to make definitions.

    There are two big problems with your appeal to “tradition” here: Firstly, Christianity has many traditions, not just one, and while many of them run quite happily side-by-side, others are in competition. One Christian’s tradition is another Christian’s heresy. Secondly, not all traditions within Christianity weigh equally heavily in determining what counts as Christian and what doesn’t, and some have no weight at all.

    “I am tradition.” – Bl. Pius IX

    The doctrine of privatio boni, for example, is not included in the Nicene Creed or the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church, nor is it entailed by them. Augustine’s ad hoc response to the problem of evil hence has no obvious claim to be a defining tradition of Christianity, or something that Christians are obligated to believe in order to count as Christians.

    Even if the doctrine could accurately be described as “ad hoc”; even if Augustine had not been an eminent Doctor of the Church; even if another eminent Doctor of the Church, Aquinas, had not accepted the doctrine — I fail to see how the second quoted sentence logically follows from the first, for all your use of the word “hence”.

    Maybe he should have, then. It would have saved an awful lot of misery and bloodshed.

    Then you’d best take it up with Him.

  38. says

    Christian teaching is that evil is not a positive ‘thing’ or ‘force’ — it is understood as a privation, a lack or misapplication of the good. Satan is not the ‘Spirit of Evil’, just an evil spirit.

    Actually, there are plenty of Christians, in many denominations, who very clearly believe in “evil” as an essence or spirit existing independently of evil acts and people who do evil things. And they’re very vocal as well as numerous, so you really can’t say that belief is not part of “Christian teaching.”

    I just fail to see how people acting at variance with Christian teaching can be called an “attribute of Christianity”.

    When a superstition influences what Christians believe and teach, that superstition becomes an attribute of Christianity. Just like racism became an attribute of German fascism.

    Belief in an active, purposive force promoting evil certainly disabuses one of the utopian liberal view of the world.

    Um, no, you really don’t need such a belief to reject ANY utopian view of the world. All you need do is observe that people are imperfect and subject to lots of whims, emotins and desires that lead to bad actions.

    On the other hand, many of the most prominent modern reactionary thinkers are atheists who are led to their harsh, Hobbesian view of reality by nothing more than observation of human behaviour.

    Actually, some of the most hateful and reactionary views of humanity come from religious authoritarians looking for excuses to keep people scared and compliant. Those hateful old fools teaching people to hate and be ashamed of their own nature are not atheists.

    My unreconstructedly ecclesial definition of ‘Christian’ at least has the weight of tradition behind it.

    No, it really doesn’t — traditions change more than people like you admit, and different sects have different traditions. the single, monolithic, unchanging “Tradition” you cite doesn’t really exist.

    It would be more accurate to say I despise liberals who who talk out of both sides of their mouths, one minute championing informed consent (free choice) as the determinant of ethical acceptability, the next minute emphasising situational influences as a means of ethical exculpation.

    In other words, your hatred of liberals is based on pure falsehoods. I’ve been a liberal and had liberal friends all my life, and I’ve never heard one liberal either “championing informed consent (free choice) as the determinant of ethical acceptability” (whatever the fuck that even means), or “emphasising situational influences as a means of ethical exculpation;” let alone doing both at once. Your accusation is nothing but vague fuzzwords — non-falsifiable at best — and has no connection to observable reality.

    If there’s good reason to believe in that devil, you have to take him into account.

    I’m still waiting to hear even one such good reason.

  39. Iain Walker says

    jonathangray (#40):

    Such analyses have no authority to make definitions.

    This comment is psychologically revealing but otherwise not remotely relevant. Authority has nothing to do with defining categories – what matters is utility.

    “I am tradition.” – Bl. Pius IX

    More of this irrelevant obsession with authority. That Signor Mastai-Ferretti liked to stroke his own ego says nothing useful or informative about Christianity as a phenomenon.

    Even if the doctrine could accurately be described as “ad hoc”; even if Augustine had not been an eminent Doctor of the Church; even if another eminent Doctor of the Church, Aquinas, had not accepted the doctrine — I fail to see how the second quoted sentence logically follows from the first, for all your use of the word “hence”.

    The inference is abductive, not deductive. The Nicene Creed is generally considered by most self-styled Christians to constitute the essentials of Christian belief (with Jehovah’s Witnesses and some evangelical Protestant groups disagreeing with some aspects, though, and Quakers rejecting the idea of creeds altogether). Ditto the 39 Articles for the Anglican Communion. If the hypothesis that the doctrine of privatio boni is essential to Christian belief is true, then one would expect it to turn up in the more common statements of what Christians are supposed to believe, or for it to follow naturally from them. Since it doesn’t, this counts as evidence against the aforementioned hypothesis, and supports the null hypothesis that the doctrine is not an essential or required part of Christian belief.

    Then you’d best take it up with Him.

    Once I’ve finished taking Dolores Umbridge to task for her treatment of muggleborns, perhaps.

  40. jonathangray says

    Raging Bee:

    Actually, there are plenty of Christians, in many denominations, who very clearly believe in “evil” as an essence or spirit existing independently of evil acts and people who do evil things.

    Name some.

    When a superstition influences what Christians believe and teach, that superstition becomes an attribute of Christianity. Just like racism became an attribute of German fascism.

    I thought racism was always part and parcel of German fascism (by which I assume you mean National Socialism). In any case Christianity and fascism are not comparable in this respect since Christianity is (or claims to be) founded on divine revelation whereas fascist ideology makes no such claim.

    Um, no, you really don’t need such a belief to reject ANY utopian view of the world.

    I never said such a belief was absolutely necessary to reject utopianism, merely that it helped.

    All you need do is observe that people are imperfect and subject to lots of whims, emotins and desires that lead to bad actions.

    Yes, which was why I went on to say:

    “On the other hand, many of the most prominent modern reactionary thinkers are atheists who are led to their harsh, Hobbesian view of reality by nothing more than observation of human behaviour.”

    Actually, some of the most hateful and reactionary views of humanity come from religious authoritarians looking for excuses to keep people scared and compliant. Those hateful old fools teaching people to hate and be ashamed of their own nature are not atheists.

    I know there are plenty of religious reactionaries, among whom I’m happy to count myself. My point was simply that the new generation of intelligent young thinkers and commentators who call themselves neoreactionaries (as opposed to conservatives, libertarians or paleoreactionaries) tend to be of the atheist persuasion.

  41. jonathangray says

    Iain Walker:

    Such analyses have no authority to make definitions.

    This comment is psychologically revealing but otherwise not remotely relevant. Authority has nothing to do with defining categories – what matters is utility.

    Your privileging of utility over authority when it comes to defining categories is psychologically revealing. The relevance of authority should become apparent the moment one asks: “Utility for what? And for whom?”

    Forget about nebulous ‘Christianity’ for the moment and just consider the particular ‘Christian tradition’ known as Roman Catholicism. In recent decades some conservative Catholic commentators have gloomily pointed to surveys which show a significant number of Catholics have only the haziest understanding of what is meant by the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. At worst their understanding of this doctrine is formally heretical. (This is not the result of conscious heresy but of the slipshod methods of catechesis that have taken root in the Church over the past half-century or so.)

    Now suppose this situation became so widespread that the vast majority of Catholics, both clerical and lay, held such heretical beliefs, all blissfully unaware that they were heretical. The official teaching is still on the books; the dogma has not changed. But so compromised have the channels for the transmission of dogma become that this is practically irrelevant.

    According to your purely utilitarian “quasi-phylogenetic” criteria, one could say this means that the doctrine of the Real Presence (which, after all, is not in the Nicene Creed) is now longer an essential part of Catholic teaching. One could say that ‘Catholicism’ is best understandood as a diverse family of belief structures, a collection of different ever-evolving traditions, all of which have an equal right to define themselves as representing authentic Catholicism.

    And there is no reason why one could not extend this hypothetical scenario to show that any doctrine — from the supremacy of the pope to the divinity of Christ — is not essential to Catholic tradition. One is careering down the slippery slope to the reductio.

    Which is not to say a “quasi-phylogenetic” analysis might not have utilitarian value from a merely sociological perspective; it is to say a sociological perspective doesn’t have the last word.

    “I am tradition.” – Bl. Pius IX

    More of this irrelevant obsession with authority. That Signor Mastai-Ferretti liked to stroke his own ego says nothing useful or informative about Christianity as a phenomenon.

    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

    If the hypothesis that the doctrine of privatio boni is essential to Christian belief is true, then one would expect it to turn up in the more common statements of what Christians are supposed to believe, or for it to follow naturally from them. Since it doesn’t, this counts as evidence against the aforementioned hypothesis, and supports the null hypothesis that the doctrine is not an essential or required part of Christian belief.

    Perhaps it does “follow naturally from them”. If evil were a positive ‘thing’, it must have either existed independently of God or been directly created by God, which would seem to contradict God’s omnipotence and omnibenevolence.

    Once I’ve finished taking Dolores Umbridge to task for her treatment of muggleborns

    No doubt a much-maligned and much-misunderstood lady.

  42. Iain Walker says

    jonathangray (#44):

    The relevance of authority should become apparent the moment one asks: “Utility for what? And for whom?”

    For communication amongst language-users, of course. In this case, for language-users to communicate meaningful distinctions between Christians and non-Christians in the widest number of contexts, in a way that minimises self-serving ideological bias (e.g., sectarians arbitrarily trying to hog the mantle of Christianity for themselves).

    And the only cases in which “authority” is relevant in determining the meaning and scope of a categorising expression are those where precision is particularly important for facilitating shared understanding – e.g., the standardisation of scientific terminology. And even then, such standardisation derives its “authority” from the consensus of those involved, and remains open to revision as the consensus changes.

    Forget about nebulous ‘Christianity’ for the moment and just consider the particular ‘Christian tradition’ known as Roman Catholicism.

    Yes, by all means let’s forget about the actual topic of discussion. Although thank you for conceding the point that “Christianity” is a vague term that does not easily lend itself to hard and fast definitions.

    According to your purely utilitarian “quasi-phylogenetic” criteria, one could say this means that the doctrine of the Real Presence (which, after all, is not in the Nicene Creed) is now [sic] longer an essential part of Catholic teaching.

    This doesn’t follow. Firstly, diversity of belief within a group due to ignorance of the actual party line is not comparable with diversity of belief between groups, due to having consciously different party lines (so your analogy is a false one). Secondly, different criteria can be useful at different levels of categorisation. While a quasi-phylogenetic approach is useful in distinguishing Christian from non-Christian groups, it does not follow that an “essential doctrine” criterion will not be useful in distinguishing between at least some of the various sects within Christianity – especially hierarchical and authoritarian bodies like the RC Church, who like to make a big thing about official doctrine. So there’s no problem or contradiction in describing the doctrine of the Real Presence (or indeed the doctrine of privatio boni) as an essential Catholic teaching, irrespective of what ordinary lay Catholics may believe, while still utilising a more historical approach for determining the scope of the much broader term “Christian”, and hence determining what plausibly constitutes a “Christian teaching”.

    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

    Oh, Pilty. Only you could quote Humpty Dumpty without irony.

    Perhaps it does “follow naturally from them”. If evil were a positive ‘thing’, it must have either existed independently of God or been directly created by God, which would seem to contradict God’s omnipotence and omnibenevolence.

    You do realise that there are a bevy of theodicies which are entirely consistent with God creating evil, whether directly or indirectly, whilst supposedly still remaining both omnipotent and omnibenevolent? For a Christian who accepts such a theodicy, the doctrine of privatio boni would be quite irrelevant.

    No doubt a much-maligned and much-misunderstood lady.

    Yes, I’m sure that if she weren’t a fictional character, you’d have got on very well indeed.

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