The Devil’s Work

"Scratch" from The Devil and Daniel Webster, 1941

I have many times pointed out that, despite my polemics against Christian apologetics and my critiques of Christian theology at vital points, I have no interest in persuading individuals to discard their allegiance to the Christian religion. None of my damn business, I always say! Some readers must think I am being disingenuous, intentionally misleading people, or sincerely deluding myself. Some fellow atheists no doubt wish I would just come right out and declare opposition, enmity, to Christianity and join them as comrades-in-arms. But I don’t want to, and it’s not from any desire to lull Christian readers/listeners into a false sense of security before I lower the boom. So I thought it might be worth trying to explain my approach in positive terms: what I am trying to do, not what I deny doing. And of course the natural way to begin is to compare myself with Satan. Here goes.

No, I’m not a Satanist, though I have occasionally thought how fun it would be to declare myself one. Just imagine the publicity: the first Satanist New Testament scholar! What a riot! It might even get me a spot on TV, you know, one of those quick “freak show” features. But no.

If you are a Bible Geek listener, you have probably heard me explain how the Satan character began as a special son of God or angel in charge of divine sting operations. The Satan (at first it wasn’t even a proper name, but a noun meaning “the Adversary” in the sense of a prosecuting attorney) was so zealous for the honor of his Lord that he kept close tabs on mortals and was quick to sniff out any whiff of pretense on the part of God’s ostensible servants. What was their real motivation? Let’s find out! So the Satan would mount a scenario to “try men’s souls.” Was Job really as pious as his reputation would suggest? Try taking away his material wealth, his family, then his bodily health and see if he’s still such a big fan of the Almighty. Is King David’s reliance on God’s mighty arm absolute, or does he have back-up plans in case God disappoints him? Maybe whisper in his ear that it might be prudent to take a census of available soldiers?

Obviously, all this is completely mythological. And that’s not just compared with modern, materialistic science. No, there is a far more serious clash with theology: the scenario of a deity sitting on his throne up in the sky, surrounded by a flock of godlings including a special agent in charge of security—it is sheer, polytheistic myth. Is that the god you believe in? No, of course your God-concept is defined (or redefined) by the philosophical reasonings of Saints Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, even if you’ve never heard of them. You’re kidding yourself if you think you’re getting your God straight out of the Bible. It’s far from being that simple. Do you believe “God” needs an intelligence agency? Isn’t he supposed to be omniscient? You take that for granted as “baked into” the very definition of God, but the Bible writers sure didn’t. But back to Satan.

Satan became a villain subsequent to the massive Persian (Zoroastrian) influence on post-Exilic Judaism. Jewish thinkers saw the utility of the Zoroastrian concept of Ahriman, the nefarious anti-god responsible for all the evil in the world. That would seem to get God off the hook! So the once-innocent Satan was retconned as a Jewish Ahriman. But notTemptation of Christ, Ary Scheffer, 1854 consistently. If you wanted to harmonize the conflicting concepts of Satan, I guessed you’d say he went from seeing if you’d get caught in the act sinning to trying to get you to sin. From testing to tempting.

But even in the New Testament, he’s most often depicted doing his old job, testing the servants of God, to see what they’re made of, as when Satan meets Jesus in the desert and asks if he’d want to change rocks into rock candy, leap tall buildings in a single bound, and swear fealty to him instead of God. He seems to be putting Jesus, newly crowned Son of God, through his paces. Like Yoda.

My diabolical task, as I see it, is that of the loyal opposition. I have too much experience, much of it quite positive, with religion in general and Christianity in particular, simply to fight against it tooth and nail. It would be pathetic and quixotic. It would say more about me than about Christianity. I would have turned into a crazy, bitter ex-boyfriend. No thanks.

I have seen so much of Christians of all stripes and of Christianity in its many variations that I cannot pretend there is no good side to it. There is much to be loved, and I still love it. And this sentiment seems to me basic to any study of religion, period. You have to try to understand Islam, Buddhism, etc., from all sides including the inside. Unless you see what is loveable about it, you will never see why its adherents love it.

I disagree with Christians in their beliefs (even while agreeing on many moral questions), but that doesn’t make me their enemy. Remember the saying, “Love the sinner and hate the sin”? My motto is “Love the believer but reject the belief.” Thus when I refute Christian apologetics, I am trying to defend the Bible, which they and I both love, from an opportunistic abuse of it. When I critique points of Christian doctrine, I am weighing it in the balance, challenging Christians to purify their creed, to get their act together. I am demanding they stop selling an inferior product. I may even suggest how they might go about it. For instance, getting rid of the sadistic superstition of hell which corrupts moral motivation and demeans a supposedly righteous and loving God. (I was already doing this a few paragraphs up when I pointed out the difference between biblical and philosophically chastened God-concepts.)

Personally, I have come to the opinion that the patient is too far gone, but that hardly settles the question. And no matter who is ultimately correct, it has to be in everyone’s best interest for Christianity to purify itself, to reduce the amount of mind-twisting nonsense it requires its adherents to sign on to.

So you see, I am playing the role of Satan, trying to keep Christians and Christianity honest, to make them honest, exposing their intellectual dishonesties, their suppression of their better judgment, out of loyalty to a party line. Such faith-based fudging corrupts and vitiates the faith in whose name it is deployed.

So says Zarathustra the Godless

Robert M. Price, Devil's Advocate

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