About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

S is for Satan... and Scalia

by Steve Neumann

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.

— Associate Justice Antonin Scalia

The Devil didn’t just go down to Georgia, he also went over to Moscow. In Mikhail Bulgakov’s surrealistic sendup of Stalin’s Soviet Russia, The Master and Margarita, the Devil appears to two citizens, Berlioz and Ivan, in a public park. The two are discussing, among other things, whether or not Jesus really existed, and the Devil inquires as to whether they are atheists — and it turns out they are. When the Devil then asks them if they’re familiar with the five proofs of God’s existence, Berlioz exclaims that they’re all worthless, and that mankind rightly gave them up long ago. Then the Devil — whose name, we later learn, is Woland — points out the irony in Immanuel Kant’s demolishing of said proofs, while at the same time constructing his own proof of God’s existence. All three characters come to an agreement on the absurdity of any proofs of God’s existence, but then Woland finally asks them: “If there’s no God, then who, one wonders, is directing human life and all order on earth in general?” It’s a common question often thrown at nonbelievers. In the novel, we soon see that it is the Devil himself who seems to be directing human affairs — at least in Soviet Russia.

The Devil. Satan. That Old Serpent. Lucifer. Beelzebub. The Prince of Darkness. He’s gone by many names and under many guises. In “The Master and Margarita,” he appears as a well-dressed but eccentric foreigner. At first, no one realizes he is the Devil, but then all hell breaks loose, literally, and no one is left with any doubt. By coincidence, Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Antonin Scalia believes that the Devil is an actual person. He’s certainly not alone, either: according to several polls, anywhere between 57% and 70% of Americans believe that the Devil is a real person. This comes as no surprise to those of us who live in the United States. As Scalia says in his interview when his interlocutor expresses her disbelief: “Are you so out of touch with most of America, most of which believes in the Devil?” Philosophically-speaking, Scalia’s arguments are glaringly deficient and, unfortunately, all too common. But what interests me most is the psychological aspect of holding on to a belief in the Devil as a real personage, particularly for someone of Scalia’s stature and station: a justice of the highest court of the (purportedly) greatest nation in the world, who was educated first at Georgetown University and then at Harvard University.

But first, we should briefly address Scalia’s reasoning. His first defense of his position is to cite standard Catholic dogma: if you’re faithful to the Church’s teachings, then you simply must believe in the Devil. Then he mentions the fact that a majority of Americans believes in the Devil. And Jesus obviously believed in the Devil. [1] How does Scalia know? It’s in the Bible. And he says “most of mankind has believed in the Devil, for all of history.” And, finally, feigning humility, he asserts that “more intelligent people than you or me have believed in the Devil.” So it seems all of Scalia’s arguments boil down to fallacious appeals to authority: first, religious teachings and texts; then the infamous majority; and, finally, so-called intelligent people. While it’s certainly possible for those who are considered to be authorities to be correct on a particular matter, it doesn’t necessarily follow that what they believe is true. For example, it may seem reasonable to say that Jesus and the many Church fathers who followed him are legitimate experts on the existence and nature of the Devil, but we must remember one thing: that’s where we get all of our information about him — and this is true of anything in the Bible (or any ancient text). Even sidestepping the issue of natural-vs-supernatural, a historical personage like King David — perhaps the central figure in historical Judaism — is essentially only known from the Hebrew Bible. [2] Of course, just because there is a paucity of corroborating evidence outside the Bible for David’s existence doesn’t mean he didn’t exist, or even that the Bible doesn’t get the details of his life correct. But the lack of such external evidence certainly makes it doubtful. So we’re left feeling like Woland and his two new acquaintances: the evidence, like the temple of ancient Jerusalem, is essentially rubbish. 

But let’s set aside the issue of the Devil’s ontological status. What would it mean for someone to believe in him? Well, to believe in the Devil is to believe that there is a power or force that is active in the world, with the ability to influence human thought and action to some degree. Traditionally, the Devil tempted humans to disobey God’s rules; kinda like Satan flippin’ the bird to God for kicking him out of heaven. But Scalia claims to know what the Devil is up to in our time, even opining on his strategy: “What he’s doing now is getting people not to believe in him or in God. He’s much more successful that way.” It’s really disheartening to read things like that. Here is a man tasked with providing his careful opinion on the most important issues of our civic life. His judgment is considered authoritative and final on interpretations of constitutional law. He has the opportunity to wield tremendous influence on the lives of millions of Americans. But why isn’t the Devil mentioned in any of Scalia’s opinions, dissenting or otherwise? 

Let’s assume that no Wall of Separation between Church and State exists. Laws are written within the context of an understanding of human nature. They can be written as a punishment for certain behaviors, or they can be written as a deterrent for undesirable behaviors of which humans are deemed capable. And, of course, current jurisprudence is underwritten by a belief in free will — albeit with some caveats with respect to extenuating circumstances, usually in the sentencing phase. Surely the Devil should be considered an extenuating circumstance, a force majeure? Perhaps even the supreme extenuating circumstance (no pun intended)? Even though Scalia believes that the Devil has changed his strategy — from overtly tempting people into disobeying God to covertly leading people to disbelieve in Him — that still allows for the possibility that the Devil is a contributing factor in individual human behavior. And as those who are “faithful to Catholic dogma” like to tell us, a lack of belief in God leads to all sorts of moral wickedness and everything that “favors the Devil’s desires.”

Scalia doesn’t say if he’s ever seen or met the Devil — or even if he’s ever seen or met Jesus. Given Scalia’s belief that the Devil has “got wilier,” I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d say that he’s never seen him. But many people claim to have seen (or at least heard) Jesus. In hipster Evangelical Donald Miller’s popular memoir, Blue Like Jazz, he describes his friend Penny’s experience of God. In fact, he goes so far as to say that “Penny is living proof that Jesus still pursues people.” 

Apparently Penny had an unusual experience while studying in France, where she met one of Miller’s other Christian friends, Nadine. He claims that Penny wanted nothing to do with religion; but her and Nadine hit it off because Nadine was very interested in Penny’s past. As a result of their blossoming friendship, Nadine’s type of Christianity became intriguing to Penny and they would go on to have many conversations about it. Penny started reading the Bible with Nadine, and they would eat chocolate and smoke cigarettes together while reading. Then, one night, Penny was “pretty drunk and high,” and claimed to have heard God speak to her. God allegedly said, “Penny, I have a better life for you, not only now but forever.” 

More recently, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson talked about his Christian faith in a recent documentary entitled The Making of a Champion. He says: “I had a dream that my dad passed away and that Jesus came into the room and he was basically knocking on my door, saying, ‘Hey, you need to find out more about me,’” Wilson said. “So that Sunday morning I ended up going to church and that’s when I got saved.”

There are many more anecdotes like those above. You may even know people who claim to have had this sort of experience. Many nonbelievers would likely call them “crazy.” I’ll respectfully call them “dubious at best.” I’m reminded of C.G. Jung’s psychoanalytical technique for greater access to the unconscious psyche — what he called “Active Imagination.” According to Jungian analyst Lawrence Staples at the Jung Society of Washington, Active Imagination is “a technique developed by Jung to help amplify, interpret, and integrate the contents of dreams.” 

One takes, for example, a figure that has appeared in one’s dreams... One starts to converse with the figure in writing. One challenges the dream figure and lets him/her challenge the dreamer. The dreamer asks the figure why he appeared in the dream. He asks the figure what it wants from him.

Jung’s own autobiography is full of such experiences. For him, and for those psychologists who have followed in his footsteps, it is an efficacious procedure that can be taught and honed. Interestingly, there has been recent research into what we could call Religious Active Imagination (again, no pun intended!). T.M. Luhrmann’s book “When God Talks Back” was published last year. I haven’t read the book, but the New York Times published a review of it. Luhrmann’s hypothesis is that “Evangelicals believe in an intimate God who talks to them personally because their churches coach them in a new theory of mind.” Like the Jungian discipline of Active Imagination, the religious believer’s experience of the Godhead is “more like learning to do something than to think something... People train the mind in such a way that they experience part of their mind as the presence of God.” Emphasis in the original.

The fact is, though, that regardless of how (or if) someone like Scalia comes to believe in the reality of a being like the Devil, they don’t really live as if he exists. Most people are High-functioning Supernaturalists. And perhaps that’s why it’s easy for Scalia to exclude any mention of him in his opinions. Of course, if the Devil truly has gotten wilier, maybe that’s exactly the way he wants it! 


[1] I don’t deny that Jesus was a real person; but I do deny that he still exists, and that he did any of the things he is purported to have done in the gospels. 

[2] Yes, there have been two questionable archaeological finds with alleged references to a “House of David,” but even if they’re accurate, it still tells us nothing about David’s life or personality.


  1. I liked the Master & Margarita reference! That was the first book I read in Russian, a long time ago. :)

    I'm glad you noticed that neither Scalia, nor most Americans who believe in the devil, actually alieve in the devil. This is both an indictment of their consistency and an exoneration of their (instrumental) rationality. I sort of cringe when atheists act as if the whole of society is genuinely crazy.

    Scalia's comment about the interviewer's being out of touch is interesting. Although obviously I'm on the interviewer's side on the object level, Scalia has a point: intellectuals are very out of touch with how the majority lives & believes.

    If you want more anecdotes about religious experiences, the classic is William James' "Varieties of Religious Experience". This is a fascinating book that is both psychology and philosophy, as James attempts to provide a sort of philosophical defense of the validity of conversion experiences. Ultimately it is not very convincing, but it is clever, and James is a fantastic writer.

  2. It's quite arguable, what with Atwill in the air right now, that David is MORE likely to be mythical than Jesus. His name, after all, may be nothing other than a resyllabilization in the consonants-only Hebrew of the Canaanite god Dod.

    Oh, and to build on Master & Margherita? Walter Kaufman's Critique of Religion and Philosophy's a good read.

    1. I offer a third option, not new to me, but updated, on both traditional ideas about a historic Jesus and mythicism: http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2013/10/jesus-reality-and-jesus-mythicism-moved.html

    2. Enjoyed reading your post. "Dating Acts to 115 CE or so, it wasn't "Christianity" before 100 CE." Why this is so hard to get across when discussing Jesus with Christians never ceases to amaze me. They always come back with "Upon this rock . . . ." And if I say, "So?" I get this look like I'm a doofus.

    3. Exactly. Acts says that Christians were first called that in Antioch, and since I date its composition to about 115, as noted, I doubt Christianity was called that before 100. Simple enough. Given that some early Church fathers of the East came from this area, Antioch's a likely spot for the provenance of Luke-Acts.

  3. Hey Plato, shadows are real, and those shadows in your cave are real too. =

  4. He's an odd one, is Justice Scalia. As for the devil, though an interesting expositive device in fiction, he seems to me to be something we use as an excuse for God and for ourselves. He's God's alibi, as it were, for the fact that the universe is sometimes disagreeable and we are as well (he represents one of the ways to respond to the Problem of Evil. And he functions well as an excuse for our own misbehavior also; "the devil made me do it."

  5. In Soviet Russia, Devil goes to you!

  6. Many liberals speak as if Scalia were the Devil.

  7. "just because there is a paucity of corroborating evidence outside the Bible for David’s existence doesn’t mean he didn’t exist, or even that the Bible doesn’t get the details of his life correct. But the lack of such external evidence certainly makes it doubtful."

    Can you elaborate on what you mean by doubtful, and how you arrive at it? Do you have a specific methodology in mind for evaluating the percentage likelihood that a historical figure existed? What are your estimates for David, Jesus, Socrates, Mohamed, Julius Caesar, or Napoleon? How far off from your estimate can someone be before you think they're being unreasonable?

    "You may even know people who claim to have had this sort of experience. Many nonbelievers would likely call them “crazy.” I’ll respectfully call them “dubious at best.” "

    Likewise, can you clarify what "dubious at best" means, and how you get there? If one were to experience a supernatural presence, there are a range of theories they could use to explain the experience: It could be the result of mental illness; it could be active imagination; it could be some mental process we don't really understand; it could be an elaborate hoax; or it could actually be caused by a supernatural being. It's not clear how to assign likelihoods between these explanations, but it seems reasonable to shift weight to the last one if the experiences continue over time, if there are no other signs of mental illness, and no signs of someone committing a prank. Do you have in mind a specific procedure for evaluating the theories that you are using to conclude that all these claims are all dubious? Is it unreasonable for someone to use a different evaluation procedure that yields a different result?

  8. The link to the interview is here: http://nymag.com/news/features/antonin-scalia-2013-10/

    I liked the part about the Stupid but Constitutional stamp being sent to him. No telling the quantity or type he'll receive this time.

  9. At least Scalia makes his position clear: He has no respect for natural humanity. But he does respect supernatural beings.

  10. they don’t really live as if he exists.
    Heh. You could say the same about most religious people and their God figures.

    1. A useful exercise is to consider for which things in your life it is the case that you live as if they were false, even as you affirm their truth.

      This problem is not limited to religious believers, by any means.

    2. This problem is not limited to religious believers, by any means.
      A curious paradox is that some religious behavior we despise is usually a logical consequence of a belief . for e.g. I really dislike evangelicals like Jehovah's witnesses proselytizing me at bus stops or at my home - but if you really believe I'm going to hell , and you want to help me , proselytizing me is the logical outcome. On the other hand I usually have no problem with people who dont bug me or anyone else about their beliefs. But if they believe in a Hell they essentially don't care if I'm going to roast for eternity - sadists :)!


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