Do The Devil’s Work

Everyone is talking about NY Mag’s Jennifer Senior’s interview with Justice Antonin Scalia. This is the part that jumped out at me:

Can we talk about your drafting process—
[Leans in, stage-whispers.] I even believe in the Devil.

You do?
Of course! Yeah, he’s a real person. Hey, c’mon, that’s standard Catholic doctrine! Every Catholic believes that.

Every Catholic believes this? There’s a wide variety of Catholics out there …
If you are faithful to Catholic dogma, that is certainly a large part of it.

Have you seen evidence of the Devil lately?
You know, it is curious. In the Gospels, the Devil is doing all sorts of things. He’s making pigs run off cliffs, he’s possessing people and whatnot. And that doesn’t happen very much anymore.

It’s because he’s smart.

So what’s he doing now?
What he’s doing now is getting people not to believe in him or in God. He’s much more successful that way.

That has really painful implications for atheists. Are you sure that’s the ­Devil’s work?
I didn’t say atheists are the Devil’s work.

Well, you’re saying the Devil is ­persuading people to not believe in God. Couldn’t there be other reasons to not believe?
Well, there certainly can be other reasons. But it certainly favors the Devil’s desires. I mean, c’mon, that’s the explanation for why there’s not demonic possession all over the place. That always puzzled me. What happened to the Devil, you know? He used to be all over the place. He used to be all over the New Testament.

Scalia goes on to chastise the interviewer for not believing in the devil, or at least being surprised that Scalia believes in the devil. Scalia is a cheerful contrarian, and I think he’s deliberately messing with the interviewer, but he’s right that the devil is a mainstream Christian belief.

He’s wrong though when he says that “Most of mankind has believed in the Devil, for all of history.” The devil is a creation of the abrahamic religions, and even within those traditions there are a diversity of understandings of exactly what Satan is. None are more plausible than any other.

A favorite version is Milton’s proud and tragic Satan. He makes an appearance in Michael Moorcock’s Von Bek series of fantasy stories. Ulrich von Bek is charged by Lucifer himself to “do the devil’s work,” which translates to seeking humanity’s own self-redemption through reason and rationality.

If I’m going to be accused of being Satan’s tool, then I at least want to choose the version of Satan I’m beholden to. I can happily get behind whose primary goal is to see humanity save itself from itself.

  • watcher_b

    The devil is a creation of the abrahamic religions…

    Is he though? Ancient Judaism, I do not recall, does not have a “Devil” figure. You know, THE Abrahamic religion. My understanding is that the devil, as we know him, is a more “modern” (last few thousand years) construct. Deriving from Greek and Roman mythologies.

    I could be very very wrong here. I would love it if someone with much more knowledge than me could expand my knowledge of the history of the devil.

    • C.J. O’Brien

      All premodern societies feature widespread belief in evil spirits and malevolent supernatural forces and entities. And not just “belief” but, in anthropological terms, such concepts form the social framework in which illness, untimely death, and other misfortunes are experienced.

      Scalia doesn’t share this experience though, and that’s where his puzzlement comes from. Yeah, the devil “used to be all over the place”. Translated: that’s how our cultural forebears constructed reality. We don’t anymore, including Scalia. When he’s sick, he goes to the doctor, not the exorcist. So it becomes a matter of “belief”. So he is wrong when he says “most of mankind has believed in the Devil, for all of history” if he means premodern persons shared his sort of ancillary, tacked-on supernatural belief in Catholic, or any, doctrine while still generally viewing reality through the rational-empirical lens. That is, he’s not wrong because “the devil is a creation of the abrahamic religions,” he’s wrong because he misconstrues “belief” by anachronistically making his rather inconsequential attachment to a particular dogmatic theology equivalent to what was a major component of an entire worldview which he does not share.

      All that being said, the particular history of the development of the Devil from various mythologies in antiquity is an interesting topic; I know a little about it, which I will share if I have some time later.

      • Rod Fleming

        Clearly, you do know a little.

    • Rod Fleming

      OK. The Devil of Genesis is Enki, Sumerian God of Craft and Knowledge, thousands of years older than Hellenic culture. The Biblical Adam and Eve myth is a retelling of several conflated Sumerian myths, including Enki, Inana and the Gifts of Civilisation (the Mes)– Enki (who was often represented as a serpent) becomes the Devil, Inana becomes Eve, and the Apple from the Tree of Knowledge is the Gifts of Civilisation. There are at least three other Sumerian sources in the Genesis story. Why? Because the Jews worshipped a successor polytheism before coming into contact with monotheism in Egypt, where they were hired to build Pharaoh Akhenaten’s holy city of Amarna.

      However, the contemporary understanding of the Devil is as you say largely a Christian invention and much more recent, although it does also draw on mainstream Egyption mythology, which was re-established after Akhenaten died. Since practically everything in the NT, apart from the events immediastely surrounding Jesus’ death is borrowed from earlier sources, this should be no surprise.

      • C.J. O’Brien

        1. There is no Devil in Genesis, sort of the whole point. There’s a serpent. All the animals created by Yahweh are in the garden in Genesis 2, including a serpent. Yes, the West Semitic cultural matrix from which henotheistic Yahwehism came was heavily indebted to Mesopotamian mythology, but it’s not very useful to simultaneously point out that there are “several conflated myths” and also confidently draw one-to-one parallels between the various figures. There’s a cultural debt, there, a mythological context, a conversation among texts, not any sort of straightforward “retelling”.

        2. There is no evidence that the brief period of enforced Atenism as monotheism in Egypt had any influence whatsoever on the eventual monotheism of the Yahweh cult, nor is there any basis for the idea that “Jews” (utterly anachronistic term requiring scare quotes) were hired to build Akhetaten (modern al-Amarna) or involved in any way with Akhenaten and his megalomaniac reforms (it wasn’t monotheism that he invented as much as it was totaltarianism), or, as my note implies, that there even was a identifiable West Semitic group in the 14th century BCE that can be identified as the forebears of the Hebrews. Yahwehist monotheism is a much later development, possibly as much as a thousand years later.

        • Rod Fleming

          1. On the contrary, the identification between the Devil and the serpent in the Garden of Eden is extremely widespread. It has been referenced countless times throughout Western religious culture, and there is absolutely no doubt that the serpent in the Garden of Eden is one of the sources for the Christian concept, another being the Egyptian Set.

          The Garden of Eden story is a direct retelling of the Sumerian myth I have already mentioned along with that of Gilgamesh and Enkidu and snippets of a few others, such as ‘Inana and the Huluppu tree.’. It amounts to a very great deal more than ‘a cultural debt’ but is specifically a combination of these stories. If you don’t think such a mixture amounts to conflation then please educate yourself:

          con·flate (kn-flt)

          tr.v. con·flat·ed, con·flat·ing, con·flates

          1. To bring together; meld or fuse: “The problems [with the biopic] include . . . dates moved around, lovers deleted, many characters conflated into one” (Ty Burr).

          2. To combine (two variant texts, for example) into one whole.

          Which latter proves my point.

          2. There is plenty of evidence to support the case that the people later known as the Jews (or their antecendents, if we must share your pedantry) were indeed hired to build Amarna, and it is unquestionable that they were exposed to monotheistic ideas there, though it did take another 600 years or so (not 1000) for the Jahwist monotheists to gain the upper hand, during the reign of the vainglorious King Josiah. Akhenaten most definitely did invent a monotheist religion; it is arguable that all such are intrinsically totalitarian, but that does not alter history: Akhenaten’s cult was monotheistic sun-worship. I suppose one could argue that Judaic monotheism was actually invented independently by the people later known as the Jews, but since 1. They had been in Egypt at the right time and 2. they borrowed everything else, that is extremely unlikely.

          • Michael

            1. The conflation of Satan with the serpent is not a modern idea, but there is no evidence it is much older than 2000 years. There is absolutely nothing in Genesis to suggest such a connection, and Satan is never mentioned in the book. A figure now rendered as “The Satan” is mentioned sometimes in other books in the Hebrew Bible, but again it is not the same figure. If you are looking for original intent, it is just wrong to say that the devil was in the garden.

            2. It is not pedantry to point out that Judaism did not exist until around the time of the Babylonian captivity. It’s not just a naming thing, the religion did not exist. Hebrew existed, but even that language probably wasn’t around in the fourteenth century BC (certainly the written language wasn’t). But all that aside, could you point out any of this “plenty of evidence” that even Canaanites were in Egypt at the time? It is now widely accepted by historians that the Hebrew accounts of slavery in Egypt are not factual.

            Oh, it’s also worth pointing out that early Yahwist religions almost certainly were not monotheistic. There is no definitive evidence of monotheism until, again, around the time of captivity.

            • kessy_athena

              Take it easy, guys. There’s no need for throwing names around. These beliefs evolved gradually over many millennia, and for the most part you can’t really point to a particular date and say that this is where a certain belief started. A lot of this is just a question of where you draw the lines.

              Isn’t the prayer to Aten virtually identical to one of the main prayers the Abrahamic religions use? It seems pretty clear that Atenism was an influence on later monotheism to some degree.

              It’s certainly true that belief in dangerous or harmful spirits and gods was nearly universal, but I think there’s a meaningful distinction to be made between “dangerous” and “evil.” The idea of evil as some sort of elemental force is somewhat peculiar to Christianity. Even in Islam, Iblis isn’t the sort of mastermind behind everything bad that happens that you see in christianity. I think the more common attitude is more akin to how people view tigers or other large, dangerous animals. They are dangerous and will do you harm, but not really out of simple malevolence.

            • Michael

              Isn’t the prayer to Aten virtually identical to one of the main prayers the Abrahamic religions use?

              No. Comparisons between the Great Hymn to the Aten and Psalm 104 have been drawn, but they’re pretty questionable. The two certainly aren’t “virtually identical.” There is no evidence of significant influence of Atenism on Judaism.

              Also, nobody has “thrown names around” except the names of ancient kings.

  • Light_Sleeper

    It would be more accurate to say that Satan is a creation of Abrahamic religionists. The “satan” of the Bible is a rhetorical adversary, not a recurring character. Expecting to find Satan “in the flesh” would be like hearing a series of insensitive jokes and then trying to track down the real-life Ms. Dumb Blonde.

    Lucifer and the garden’s serpent are references that some have tried to graft onto the “Satan” concept — a sly bit of retcon work that helps to provide the generic “satan” with the characteristics and personality that popular culture now attributes to him. The rest of the work has been done by Dante Alighieri and centuries of fear-mongering preachers.

    It is a nice irony that a Constitutional textualist would choose to disregard the motives and misreadings of the centuries of authors and editors who have reinterpreted the Bible for him.

  • dexeron

    I always thought that the devil was more borrowed from some Zoroastrian concepts. Of course, it took the Abrahamic folks and their successors to really refine him into the jolly old chap that we all know and love today.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Off-topic: Syndicated advice columnist treats atheism in a straightforward manner.
    The day is coming when this sort of thing is no longer surprising.

  • Noelle

    I like Mr. Diety’s ex Luci as my Satan-figure.

  • vjack

    Excellent points! The Christian bible says very little about Satan. I wonder if the Satan in which Scalia believes is more of a literary Satan, and if so, which one.