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Demon

One of the new writers at the rebooted New Republic, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, wrote a column titled Pope Francis’s Populist War on the Devil. It begins this way:

Pope Francis isn’t engaged only in earthly battles. He’s also waging a cosmic war against the power of evil, a crusade that has garnered considerably less press than his comments on, say, climate change or homosexuality. For Francis, as for scores of faithful Christians, this struggle isn’t abstract. It has genuine agents, real people — in this case, God and all the forces of heaven versus the fallen angel Satan and his league of demons. “The devil exists,” Francis stated last fall in an October homily, “and we must fight against him.” Francis’s openness about the role Satan plays in human havoc has reportedly brought about an increase in requests for exorcisms, as faithful people afflicted by ominous symptoms increasingly identify their troubles as demonic in origin.

So far, I agree with this. It’s true, as I’ve previously written, that Pope Francis is pushing a revival of belief in the demonic as part of Catholicism. But Bruenig isn’t just idly noting a trend. She’s suggesting that Francis’ liberal sympathies exist because of his belief in an actual, literal Satan. In fact, she argues that wider adoption of this belief would make everyone more moral:

But perhaps the most promising aspect of Pope Francis’s wholehearted belief in the Prince of Lies is the way it unites all of humankind in a single struggle… Lucifer’s works may warp and disfigure human intentions and human communities, but because the Devil is ultimately his own person, those evil acts are always separate from us, the whole of humankind. In that sense we’re all caught in the same drama, fending off a creature with malicious intentions and tireless energy… It is only a special kind of cosmic solidarity that can say we’re all in this together, all of us, forever — and in his crusade against Satan, Pope Francis has hit upon it.

This argument would be disturbing enough in any forum, but especially when it appears in a liberal publication from a progressive Christian writer whose politics I’d probably mostly agree with. Bruenig speculates that belief in Satan and demons makes us more moral because it encourages people to pull together in solidarity against an external threat. That’s a comforting piece of armchair theology, but that’s not how this works.

In fact, this gets it totally backwards. Belief in Satan has always, always served to demonize other human beings, to dismiss them as subhuman agents of evil who can be tortured, brutalized and killed without qualm. That’s because in Christian theology, Satan isn’t an external enemy who can be fended off, he’s an insidious force who secretly controls people and institutions without their knowledge. And if you’re sure that you’re a follower of God and that you’re acting in accordance with God’s will for the world, it’s only a very short step to conclude that anyone who doesn’t agree with you must be an agent of the Devil.

Bruenig’s piece doesn’t spare even a glance for the millions of people throughout history who’ve been tortured, warred upon and condemned because True Christians considered it their duty to purge all servants of Satan from their midst. And this kind of harm isn’t a relic of the superstitious and barbarous past, but is still happening today.

A few years ago, I wrote about the phenomenon of children being persecuted as witches in pious, evangelical-overrun Nigeria. The torments they’ve suffered, including at the hands of their own parents and communities, are horrific:

In a maddened state of terror, parents and whole villages turn on the child. They are burnt, poisoned, slashed, chained to trees, buried alive or simply beaten and chased off into the bush.

…Pastor Joe Ita is the preacher at Liberty Gospel Church in nearby Eket. “We base our faith on the Bible, we are led by the holy spirit and we have a programme of exposing false religion and sorcery… Parents don’t come here with the intention of abandoning their children, but when a child is a witch then you have to say ‘what is that there? Not your child.'”

There’s also the loathsome Helen Ukpabio, a West African preacher who travels the world spreading her belief that any child who screams or cries is a “servant of Satan”. Again, parents who believe her theology have committed dreadful deeds:

“Saving Africa’s Witch Children” follows Gary Foxcroft, founder of the charity Stepping Stones Nigeria, as he travels the rural state of Akwa Ibom, rescuing children abused during horrific “exorcisms” — splashed with acid, buried alive, dipped in fire — or abandoned roadside, cast out of their villages because some itinerant preacher called them possessed.

Children aren’t the only ones abused in the name of this diabolical Christianity. Other vulnerable people suffer as well, such as in Congo, where Pentecostal churches assume the mentally ill to be demon-possessed and “treat” them by chaining them to their beds and beating them.

However, it would be a mistake to assume that demonic theology is confined to backwater regions of Africa. It can be found right here in America, wreaking the same kind of havoc.

Just this past week, there was a horrible story in Balch Springs, Texas. According to police, the pastor of a Christian fundamentalist cult ordered a 2-year-old boy to be starved to death (his parents and the rest of the congregation cooperated) because, she claimed, he was possessed by a demon and this was the only way to exorcise it. When he was dead, they prayed over his body for a resurrection:

A pathetic scene captured on a YouTube video shows the pastor, Aracely Meza, trying to resuscitate his lifeless body with oil and incantations.

“God, all powerful, give him life. Now! Now! Now!” she barked into a microphone, cradling his corpse and stroking his hair.

Needless to say, the dead boy wasn’t miraculously restored to life, the pastor was arrested, and the boy’s parents have fled the country.

This isn’t a freak event. It’s far from unheard-of for children to be harmed or killed by exorcism ceremonies that are little more than torture under another name. Even in the best case, since demons don’t exist, these rituals can only hurt and not help. They prevent the genuinely troubled and mentally ill from getting the real treatment and therapy they need.

Even if dispensed with the best of intentions, Bruenig’s demonological ethics is shockingly naive. It’s tempting to think that the human tendency to divide the world into in-group and out-group can be overcome by redirecting the out-group to some extrahuman locus of evil. But since there are no real demons for us to identify and defeat, when we clash with each other, the mantle of scapegoat will inevitably fall back onto other human beings. And once we’ve identified our enemies as demonic, we’ve given ourselves permission to do anything to suppress them. As long as we believe in malevolent spirits who want to harm us, this cycle of atrocities will continue. Ultimately, only relinquishing belief in supernatural evil, not redoubling it, will bring more peace and justice into the world.

Image: Belief in this is not necessary for morality. Via Shutterstock.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...