There is a very interesting post on the Quixotic Infidel blog about a new book by Philip Zimbardo called The Lucifer Effect. There is also a talk by Zimbardo available online. His lecture (and apparently the book as well) focuses specifically on how good people end up doing horrendous things. Although this is his primary interest, he does actually talk about Lucifer as a figure in Jewish mythology, also using Escher’s “Angels and Demons” as an example. The talk is extremely powerful, and shows just how quickly we can find ourselves doing things that we earlier explicitly said “No way, I’d never do that”.
The entry on Quixotic Infidel also shares a particularly striking photograph of Nazi soldiers enjoying blueberries at Auschwitz. In the Zimbardo lecture, the specifically religious aspect comes up in a discussion of Jim Jones, and it seems quite clear that the ability to manipulate people to do evil is not limited to religion – and the evidence also shows it is not limited to men, either, contrary to the expectations many might have. The key issue is authority. Where religion becomes something that can lead to evil is when religion teaches us unquestioning obedience to authority. We all influence children to respect authority. The challenge is how to teach our children, and how to create communities (religious and secular), and how to live in such a way that we can exit a situation in which, if we remain, we shall do (or have things done to us) that are unthinkable.