When I was a Christian, every single Christian I knew had two completely contradictory opinions about Satan. First, everyone thought he was beyond infernally intelligent. But second, everyone thought he was a stone-cold IDIOT. If anything, this opinion holds even truer today than it did decades ago. Let’s look at both sides of that coin, and maybe see why the coin exists at all.
“A Pathetic Joke and a Cosmic Fool and Failure.”
Catholic author, conspiracy theorist, chest-thumper, and zinger-flinger Dave Armstrong somehow missed the message that Jesus wanted him to love his enemies and forgive seventy times seven. He finds way more pleasure in doling out abuse, dripping condescension, and blistering scorn. (Sometimes he insults people who know far more about his chosen topics than he does, like John Loftus and Edward Babinski. The responses he gets are uniformly satisfying and educational to read.)
In a post last year for a Catholic site, Armstrong informs his audience that “Satan is highly intelligent” — but also “a pathetic joke and a cosmic fool and failure.” After graciously allowing Satan this great intelligence, Armstrong denounces him as “silly,” “ignorant,” and “irrational.” For good measure, he calls Satan “an idiot and simpleton.”
Then we mosey along to his second paragraph.
There, Armstrong decides Satan is “stupid.” Mainly, his argument consists of this following (and unsupported) burst of mental arithmetic:
- Satan knew better than anybody what his god liked, wanted, demanded and expected.
- He didn’t need to be “a rocket scientist” to guess what would happen to him if he didn’t fall into line.
- He rebelled anyway.
- What kind of nitwit even does that? Only someone really dumb!
- Corollary: when TRUE CHRISTIANS™ like himself tell us unwashed heathens the totally-for-realsies penalties for rebellion and we reject their control grabs, we reveal to King Them that we are just as dumb as Satan is.
A Common Contradiction in Belief.
I’m focusing on this post because it reveals the toxic Christian playbook in such detail. Though nowhere near all Christians believe in Satan (or Hell, for that matter), the ones who do definitely qualify as toxic. Nor is this belief exclusively evangelical—plenty of Catholics just like Dave Armstrong believe in a literal Satan. So his opinion represents a commonly-held opinion in those nastier ends of Christianity. Indeed, I heard exactly the same sorts of statements about Satan in both Southern Baptist (SBC) and Pentecostal (UPCI) churches.
My various church leaders all taught the same exact things about Satan. He might be intelligent, but ultimately he ensured his own failure through his foolishness. Consequently, we both feared Satan and his demonic hordes and scorned them beyond all imagination. Even Christians who say that they know Satan isn’t an idiot, like this one over at Charisma, immediately turn around and paint him as undermining himself and pursuing policies that are well beyond poorly-devised.
Around Halloween every year, that doublethink around demons kicks into overdrive. Toxic Christians all turn overnight into experts on demonology!
The Reason for the Season.
Christians talk this way for a reason. They seek to reassure each other that while there’s everything to fear, they’re all perfectly safe because ultimately, Satan is easy to defeat because he is an idiot.
But their disdain, like their fear, runs deeper than that.
Imagine for a moment what it’s like to be a hardcore toxic Christian. (We’ll wait a moment for your shudder of revulsion to pass.) Just think for a moment about how their enemies think about them. And now consider what those enemies are like.
Who they love, and what causes they support. What their educational levels tend to be. Where they tend to stand in society. What they do for a living. Last of all, where the tides of public opinion seem to be turning with regard to who’s right and who’s wrong in the culture wars those Christians started and maintain even today.
Toxic Christians fear their enemies for their greater intelligence, popularity, and reach–and also for their apparent lack of fear of Christian threats and retaliation, which are such devastatingly effective tools in their culture. At the same time, they hate those enemies for what they see them as taking from the tribe.
Every terrible thing these Christians do is driven by one of those two emotions (and sometimes both at once). The harvest of those dark seeds is terror and rage. Indeed, terror and rage propel them. These emotions feel familiar.
Ideally, manipulating these two emotions will produce either a lessening in their own fear or an increase in others’ fear, which will bring about an increase in their own power and holdings–or a lessening in that of their enemies. That motivation about covers moral panics in general. But it applies beautifully to all the other awful stuff they do.
So when they talk about Satan, they need to stress that yes, this boogeyman represents yet another reason to feel panic and terror. But he must also be presented as a buffoon–as someone who absolutely poses no threat to a Christian who is properly obedient to the religion’s various demands. He must be portrayed as an enemy who will ultimately lose completely to their side.
Obey, or Perish.
The takeaway that Christians absolutely will catch, even if outsiders to their culture don’t, is that only through proper obedience can a Christian win against their enemies so dramatically that they may respond to this huge and terrifying risk with insults, mockery, and scorn. However, if they leave the tribe, then they will no longer be safe from this vast and terrifying enemy. They will open themselves up to his worst. And ultimately, they will find themselves on the losing side at the end of the world.
In this worldview, literally the only way people can protect themselves from Satan is to obey Christian demands. Why, even the Bible tells them that–over and over again! Remember ol’ Job, who lost every good thing he had in the world because his god made a cheap bet with Satan? We find this verse in the book relating his story:
If they obey and serve [their god], they will end their days in prosperity and their years in happiness. But if they do not obey, they will perish by the sword and die without knowledge.
So toxic Christians need a threat so ghastly and over-the-top that it effectively scares the pants off their intended victims. But then they also need a way to ensure that those victims immediately connect mentally to the safety these extortionists offer through absolute obedience. Once their victims realize that obedience neutralizes the threat, they will submit and fall into line.
Then and only then will they be safe.
The Evil Overlord List.
So, Lone Starr. Now you see that evil will always triumph because good is dumb.
Dark Helmet, Spaceballs (before losing because he’s dumb)
Satan needs to be both enormously powerful and intelligent and ridiculously, laughably stupid as well easy for literally any fervent Christian (even and especially a young child) to defeat.
In short, Christians need Satan to be an Evil Overlord.
When I look at how Christians conceptualize Satan, it always makes me think of the Evil Overlord List. Begun in the mid-1990s as a way for Trekkies to vent their frustration with stale tropes, this list (and its sequel) outlines things that Evil Overlords have figured out over time.
Like take #2: “My ventilation ducts will be too small to crawl through.” Or #14: “The hero is not entitled to a last kiss, a last cigarette, or any other form of last request.” Here’s one for Thulsa Doom, #34: “I will not turn into a snake. It never helps.” Hopefully the American government has figured out #87, “My vats of hazardous chemicals will be covered when not in use. Also, I will not construct walkways above them.”
Ultimately, these lists poked fun at the trope of awesomely-intelligent-yet-FOOLISH bad guys. They also asserted that if someone’s really that intelligent and really wants to achieve a certain goal, then it behooves that person to learn from mistakes and improve tactics that fail.
Christians need Satan to be completely incapable of such growth and wisdom.
Insulating the Bubble.
. . . although the devil be exceeding crafty and subtle, yet he is one of the greatest fools and blockheads in the world, as the subtlest of wicked men are. Sin is of such a nature, that it strangely infatuates and stultifies the mind.
Jonathan Edwards, “The Devil.”
The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 1839, p. 612
Indeed, as smart as we might be, if we refuse to purchase their product or give way to their control-grabs, then toxic Christians will call us idiots, fools, and worse to our faces. They won’t even see a single thing wrong with going from wheedling extortionist sales pitches to vicious insults, if they notice they’re doing it in the first place. It’s just so much a part of their culture that they are immersed in such spin-on-a-dime rhetoric.
That’s how Christians could insult Stephen Hawking after his death as “a brilliant fool.” They did so because, as that Christian writes, “amidst all his brilliance he failed to grasp the most important thing – the existence of God.” It’s how Ray Comfort, the most dishonest, ignorant huckster of them all, could declare that what he perceived as “an atheist revival” was based upon “the lie that atheism is intelligent when obviously it’s not.”
By contrast, these same Christians think that at least they have grasped what their tribe considers to be “the most important thing.”
They need their enemies, real and imaginary, to be inferior to themselves–and thus defeatable.
NSFW language, but DANG this is funny.
Perfect Contempt Casts Out Love.
I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.
Darth Vader, who “blew it when it comes to the Contracts Clause.”
Toxic Christianity is an incredibly hierarchical worldview. Every toxic Christian group employs a complicated reckoning to work out a sort of Order of Precedence within their ranks. Every single person a toxic Christian encounters gets categorized immediately as higher on the ladder or lower than themselves. Those above them have the power to control them–and also to punish them if they don’t obey perfectly. By turn, they themselves may control and punish those lower than themselves.
As a consequence of belonging to this social system, their entire world consists of jockeying for power. Part of their goal is to protect themselves from as much abuse as possible; the other part is to abuse others at will. That’s why Christians have such a horrible reputation for abusing retail workers and restaurant staff; such workers always occupy the lowest rungs on the ladder, in their minds.
They must perform this intricate calculation on the fly and with every new meeting or get-together, because they face some steep penalties for miscalculating if they seek to control or abuse the wrong person. Nor do they wish to obey or be obsequious toward someone they consider beneath themselves.
In toxic Christian minds, high intelligence and power typically belong in the upper rungs of the ladder. So when that intelligence and power belongs to someone who is decidedly not a tribemate, they must find some way to bring that person low again–to be beneath them, and thus eligible to be abused and controlled. Such Christians must abuse Satan, as the first and most glorious divine creation (by Christian reckoning), quite a bit before he becomes an easily-manageable proposition for the average fundagelical.
The Nice Guys of Christianity.
If while reading along you thought about that retaliatory explosion of abuse that “Nice Guys” spew when people reject them on dating apps, then you understand the whole point of today’s essay. That’s why that abuse happens: to set aright a horrifying up-ending of the social order in some awful person’s mind.
That same dynamic might well be what’s happening with Christians who need Satan to be an idiot. If they engaged with the idea of him as an intelligent, adaptable, resourceful, far-thinking, and logistics-minded foe, that might become too much to imagine defeating. If, in their folklore, he behaved like an Evil Overlord who’s figured out a few things, then he might become just a little too difficult to defeat. And if defeating him becomes too complicated, then their listicles and books won’t sell nearly so well.
Worst of all, such a dire miscalculation might accidentally lead toxic Christians to view their tribal enemies with less hateful, more nuanced eyes. Many psychologists think that it’s almost impossible to love someone we view with total contempt. But it’s a lot easier to love someone portrayed realistically and sympathetically.
One can see why they resist the idea so much.
The Love Mandate.
Now, contempt might be fine by us. I don’t know about you, but I’m way past caring how bigots, hatemongers, and literal Nazis feel about my criticism. However, not to put too fine a point on things, Christians–even toxic ones–exist under a divine mandate. They must show love toward their enemies.
Sure, they can redefine “love” as much as they like, even to the point of flatly contradicting their own Bible’s exceedingly-clear definitions. We won’t accept their bastardization of the word, even though our acceptance would really help them out. We know what love is–and isn’t. And we know we ain’t seeing it in toxic Christians.
NEXT UP: That time my Evil Ex tried to become “a professional Christian” radio broadcaster. YES. He tried to be a mini-me of BOB LARSON. This whole episode matters because it’s a big part of why I deconverted and how y’all came to know me at all. And I’ll tell you all about it–next time! Then we’ll look at some of the not-unexpected fallout of that recent post about how much Christians’ hearts hurt over our non-belief. Whew, it’s going to be a busy week! See you soon!
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