A Few Kind Words for Satan

As an atheist, I'm often asked if I believe in Satan because "I have to believe in something." I point out that I don't believe in the existence of any supernatural forces, including Yahweh, Satan, angels or devils. But I can make theological and strategic cases for embracing the mythical Satan.

Satan comes out looking pretty good in Genesis. After God tells Adam he will die on the day he eats a particular piece of fruit, Satan (in a snake costume) tells Eve that the snack will give them knowledge. So they eat the forbidden fruit, enjoy their newly acquired knowledge, and learn that God was bluffing when he said they would die on the day they ate the fruit. A wrathful God then banishes the first couple from the Garden of Eden and tells them they must now work for a living. Adam and Eve presumably discover that ignorance is not bliss and that blind obedience is not a virtue. Though many Christians view this disobedience as the "original sin," I think Satan teaches humans that it's better to have freedom without a guarantee of security than to have security without freedom.

Interpretations of the biblical character "Satan" can motivate some people to live decent, rational lives. For instance: be curious and seek knowledge; question the sacred; reject authorities that expect blind obedience; encourage free inquiry; welcome diversity of opinion; judge individuals by their actions, not by whether they conform to arbitrary norms; respect the freedom of others, including the freedom to offend; and acknowledge the worth and dignity of the "out" group.

The word "Satan" in Hebrew means adversary. The Catholic Church recognized this adversarial role when it established in 1587 the position Promoter of the Faith, more commonly known as the devil's advocate. He was required to argue against declaring a particular dead person a saint, and to be skeptical of so-called miracles attributed to the deceased. Given the number of recognized miracles and named saints by the Church, I think most devil's advocates were probably incompetent (the number of miracles I accept is zero). Pope John Paul II must have thought that these advocates were too evidence-based, because he abolished the position in 1983, and then named to sainthood more than five times as many individuals as had all his 20th-century predecessors combined.

Although devil's advocates were Catholic, members of the Satanic Temple are mostly atheists. The Satanic Temple is a religion that rejects tax-exempt status because of its principled position against government support for religion. Were all religions to adopt this ethical practice, we could greatly reduce or even eliminate our national deficit. These Satanists might be having a little fun with the name, but their primary purpose is to promote secularism.

The Secular Coalition for America, of which I'm founder and president emeritus, includes thirteen national organizations offering a full spectrum of nontheistic viewpoints. They cooperate on issues that affect all secular Americans. Some of these organizations playfully refer to themselves as the "good cops" and "bad cops" of the secular movement, depending on how edgy they choose to be when they take on unpopular and controversial causes.

As for worse cops (the Satanists), initially I hoped they would quietly go away because of their potential to give atheists a bad name. I learned that I had been prematurely judgmental when Lucien Greaves, spokesperson for the Satanic Temple, gave a talk last month to my local Secular Humanist group in Charleston, South Carolina.

Many people dislike atheists even though they have never knowingly met one. I should not have made the same mistake about the Satanists. They have merely hit on a clever name to get publicity for promoting rational thought and separation of religion and government, which humanist and atheist groups also support. But religious believers are more troubled by "Satanists" because the term engages in their own religious narrative.

The Satanic Temple has gained international attention for its forays into the church-state debate by asserting equal rights for Satanists when religious privileges have been granted. The most notable example is in Oklahoma, where a Ten Commandments monument was placed on Capitol grounds. The Satanic Temple applied for a place on the Capitol grounds for a statue that would "complement and contrast" with the Ten Commandments monument. We shall see how the courts rule, knowing that government may not privilege one religion over another or religion over non-religion.

People accused of crimes have occasionally used a "Satan defense," blaming demonic possession for their actions. Some might even believe their own narrative, just as some people believe aliens have abducted them. And that reminds me of comedian Flip Wilson's character, Geraldine, who always excused her bad behavior with "The Devil made me do it."

Humor aside, here's my prescription for a realistic way to live. We should not thank God for our accomplishments or blame Satan for our failures. We should take responsibility for our actions.