Is Satan dead? (1996) | THINK TANK

Is Satan dead? (1996) | THINK TANK

Ben Wattenberg: Hello. I’m Ben Wattenberg. A new book says that Satan is dead and, surprisingly,
that we may be the worse for it. Well, do we need the devil to keep us on the
straight and narrow, or perhaps does Satan provide some people with an excuse to do the
inexcusable? Joining us to sort through the conflict and
the consensus are Andrew Delbanco, professor of humanities at Columbia University and author
of “The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil”; Bernard McGinn,
professor of theology at the University of Chicago and author of “The Antichrist: Two
Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil”; Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete of the
John Paul II Institute; and Robert Alley, professor of humanities at the University
of Richmond. The topic before this house: Is Satan dead? This week on “Think Tank.” For centuries, people often accounted for
evil acts by saying, “The devil made him do it.” Today the devil seems to have been lost in
the details of psychology, sociology, biology, and the law. Do we have good reason to mourn the death
of the Dark Prince? Let’s give the devil his due. Ever since he tricked Adam and Eve into eating
the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, Lucifer has captivated the imagination. The Bible warns, “Be sober, be vigilant,
because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about seeking whom he may devour.” The Italian poet Dante put the King of Hell
at the frozen center of his inferno. In “Paradise Lost,” John Milton portrayed
Lucifer as a regal rebel against God who proudly declares, “To reign is worth ambition, though
in hell. Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” But more than a literary figure, believers
contend that the devil whispers constantly in the ears of likely sinners. Even cathedrals are adorned with Satan’s
image as a reminder that evil is everywhere. But in the 19th century, when the philosopher
Friedrich Nietzsche pronounced that “God is dead,” the devil was mortally wounded
as well. In this century, it is argued that Sigmund
Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, convinced many that sin is only mental illness and reduced
Satan to a figment of the imagination. Is it only a coincidence that as the belief
in Satan and hell fell off, the 20th century became the most brutal century in human history,
witnessing the rise of evil dictators like Stalin in the Soviet Union, Hitler in Germany,
and Mao in China. In his widely discussed new book, “The Death
of Satan,” author Andrew Delbanco worries that without the symbol of Satan, we have
lost a useful target in the battle against evil. Welcome, gentlemen. Let me start with you, Professor Delbanco. Do we need the devil to guarantee good behavior? Andrew Delbanco: Well, Ben, you know, the
title of my book comes from a poem by Wallace Stevens in which he says the death of Satan
was a tragedy for the imagination. And I found myself trying to think about what
that means. I think one way of thinking about it is to
recognize that evil and suffering and pain are a part of everyone’s life and that people
need a framework for understanding the meaning of these experiences. If you turn on the television and you see
starving children and the evidence of massacre and cruelty and brutality, and then the next
moment you see a shaving cream commercial, which is the way our experience seems to go
these days, you need some way of talking to yourself, of understanding how these phenomena
are possible and what’s the difference between the image of cruelty and the salesmanship
image. Satan used to help us to think about these
issues. It was a powerful idea, and I think we ought
to think about what it means that we don’t have him in the same way anymore. Ben Wattenberg: All right. Monsignor Albacete, how about that? Do we need the devil to guarantee good behavior? Lorenzo Albacete: As such, no, I don’t think
so. I don’t think we do. We need — I would reverse it — we need
God. We need God or something to stand by God. I think we need authenticity to self; we need
to love. Actually, moral behavior based on fear of
the devil is less praiseworthy than one based on love for God or someone else. Strictly speaking, we don’t need the devil,
but we need to experience responsibility, and it is there I think that the problem arises. We have lost the experience of being responsible
for our behavior. That experience was put in such symbolic religious
terms, and then we have lost them, be it — at both ends, because we have the same problem
with God. Ben Wattenberg: Professor Robert Alley. Robert Alley: Well, I think that the imagination
could be directed in such a way as to find alternative responses if we can get rid of
the myth. When the settlers from Europe came to this
land, they came as a result of the discovery that the myth that the earth was flat did
not hinder them in imagining what else might be there. So you take with a nod to the past the realization
that the imagination is now set free, it seems to me, to find genuine responses to what I
think is evil and to ask ourselves, can we stop scapegoating and begin to talk about
it in a more rational fashion in relationship to public service and public responsibility? Ben Wattenberg: Professor Bernard McGinn will
conclude our once around here. Bernard McGinn: I guess I would say that we
need the devil and his human psyche, antichrist, not so much in order to do good, but to help
us to understand the evil that we do and the evil that’s present in the world. And I don’t think we need them in a literal
sense. I do think we need to take them not literally,
but seriously, and I mean by that that a kind of meditation on the symbolic value that these
mythical figures have stood for is still very, very essential to culture. And a study of their history tells us a lot
about the way in which evil has affected human history. So I think they’re necessary symbols. Ben Wattenberg: You say the devil is a symbol. Does anyone here believe the devil is real? Lorenzo Albacete: I do. Ben Wattenberg: You believe that Satan — Lorenzo Albacete: I’m a Catholic priest. Ben Wattenberg: Excuse me? Lorenzo Albacete: I’m a Catholic priest. Yes, I do. Well, what I mean by real, you see, I don’t
believe in your image. I believe all the language expressing that
reality is symbolical and obviously reflects all kinds of both personal, cultural, historical
conditioning. But I think behind it is the claim that in
the human experience, there is an experience of a reality that is beyond, a reality that
is anti-love, anti-personal, if you wish, that is beyond the possibilities of human
action — before, it precedes it. One is in the context of that reality. Again, as I say, that is an experience. The myth — I don’t see how one can get
rid of myths because myth is the way we express these experiences. Ben Wattenberg: We have seen public opinion
polls that show inordinately high percentages of Americans believe in the devil. I don’t know, it’s something — 70, 80
percent. Are they believing typically something that
you are not believing, in a real devil, a real Satan, because even you, monsignor, are
not quite saying, “There he is. His named is spelled S-a-t-a-n” or whatever. Lorenzo Albacete: I won’t say that because
it is a mystery. The reality exceeds the words. It can only be approached through symbolic
language. There is — the error starts in the Bible
itself. You do not find a systematic presentation
of this. You find even contradictory accounts. But there is like a continuous experience. The moment you try to systematize it into
he or the standard image or even the idea of a fallen angel, a pure spirit, which is
a very sophisticated way, you’re forcing the evidence. So I don’t think — I think the reality
is there. I think it has to be at the personal level
because the dialogue about love or failure to love, I think one loves or fails to love,
is an interpersonal reality. If evil lies in that area, then its origin
has to do with persons. I can only leave it like that. Bernard McGinn: But there are many millions,
certainly, of Christians, fundamentalist Christians and even others, for whom Satan or antichrist
is still taken in a very literal sense. I mean I think that was the — Ben Wattenberg: Right. Bernard McGinn: Obviously, none of us, I think,
here are taking it quite in that literal a sense. Andrew Delbanco: No. When the Puritan theologian Cotton Mather
about years ago wrote a book called “Wonders of the Invisible World,” it was a book about
this fallen angel who came from this other world and started to wreak havoc in a place
called Salem, Massachusetts, and to bewitch people. Now, I have no problem with the concept of
an invisible world if by that we mean the recesses of the human psyche, which are still
in many respects invisible to us and in which, clearly, there reside the capacities to act
with unimaginable brutality. I think we need to think about those capacities. Bernard McGinn: But, you know, if we externalize
Satan language or antichrist language, the danger is always to be able to objectify it
in somebody else, and that’s why I think it’s so necessary that we recognize that
these symbols are both external and internal. And I’m not sure this should have that much
effect in, let’s say, the neutral language of politics. It seems to me that it should have a very
great cultural effect — I think that’s what you’re arguing in your book — in
terms of the cultural discourse and the social discourse, in which we recognize the evil
within ourselves. But that can be dangerous if they’re objectified
into saying, “Because you stand for this, you’re present the forces of Satan and antichrist.” Ben Wattenberg: How do you deal with this
situation? You all seem to agree, I think, that modern
society suffers from an erosion of the belief of certain absolute values, that we have lost
the concept of evil. And yet when various groups on the right or
the left — I’m thinking now, specifically, the Christian Coalition is often attacked
and accused by liberals for saying, “Well, you want me to behave the way you want me
to behave because you have — you think you have a lock on absolute values.” Now, how do you square that circle? You wrote a book about it. Surely you can do that for us, Andy. Andrew Delbanco: Well, the absolute value
that I would like to see returned to the center of public discourse is the value of respect
and what the romantic poets call the sympathetic imagination. That’s not the same thing as what the fundamentalists
are saying when they say, “You have to live the way I live” or “Your family structure
has to be the same as my family structure” — that that’s the model for us all. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have to,
I think, have this value of the individual and the rights of the individual at the center. Bernard McGinn: You know, the absolute value
that I think is most often forgotten is the value of responsibility — that is, taking
responsibility for the evil that one commits. We live in an age when the easiest thing is
to say, “It wasn’t my fault” or “If I happened to do that, I’m not really responsible
because of XYZ.” One of the things I think that’s so potent
about the notion of Satan and Satan’s influence, if you read it both internally and externally,
is the recognition that yes, indeed, we can be responsible. Andrew Delbanco: You know, on this point of
— go ahead. Lorenzo Albacete: No, no, please. Andrew Delbanco: On this point of responsibility,
I think it’s very much at the center of what we’re talking about, and this notion
of individual responsibility has become a kind of mantra in American politics in the
last few years. There’s a lot to it. But if you take the example of the out-of-wedlock
birth, for example, and we say, look, this young woman is responsible for herself, for
her sexuality, for her relationships, and we must hold her to that standard, I sympathize
with that up to a point, but the religious tradition that we are talking about also requires
that we take account of our collective responsibility, of our corporate responsibility for the conditions
in which this young woman is growing up. And it’s the balance between these two,
I think, that we have to try to retrieve. I think the theological tradition gives us
a way to do that. Robert Alley: It seems to me that one of the
things that we do have is a demonizing of politics in this country, which is the exact
reverse of what the founders would have intended as the art of policymaking and governance. It was a craft and something worthy of a career. Now we are being told that politics itself
and the whole public policymaking arena is evil. Bernard McGinn: Satan is alive and well in
the political arena. Ben Wattenberg: Let me just — Monsignor
Albacete has been remarkably quiet. Lorenzo Albacete: All kinds of satanic interruptions. Ben Wattenberg: Right. [Laughter.] Lorenzo Albacete: The public policy I think
should be based on the experience of the dignity of the human person, as the human person is
the one absolute moral norm, that there be human person respected in all its dimensions. Now, the problem starts when one starts to
disagree as to what those dimensions are. In my belief, that includes — the roots
of personal identity go beyond even the psychological into the realm that I call the spiritual. That is to say, they go beyond into the very
life of the mystery that we call God. The end result is that respect for the human
person and its freedom. The problem is that sooner or later, people
will want to go beyond value talk to truth talk and say values are based on what? What is the reality that sustains the values? Otherwise, you have to keep the people entertained
at the level of values sustained only by stories. Well . . . Ben Wattenberg: Why is it that in recent years,
religious leaders have stopped talking to their flocks about the devil? Is that accurate? Lorenzo Albacete: Yes, it is — [Cross talk.] Bernard McGinn: — of a literal interpretation
and maybe they’re not adventurous enough to try to dig out this kind of symbolic deep
meaning, and they feel if they’re going to talk about this, people are going to think
they take the devil or other figures in that history in a very literal fashion. This is why I think the serious but not literal
interpretation — Lorenzo Albacete: Because of the horrors that
have been done in the name of the devil. Bernard McGinn: Exactly, and particularly
the scapegoating and the externalization. Robert Alley: We’re assuming here, and I
think all four of us seem to be in agreement on this, that there is something of value,
some essential character to good as opposed to evil. And that runs counter to much of what’s
going on in our society, and I find it difficult to talk in terms that do not, in the final
analysis, say that there’s something particularly good and proper about the way things can be
done, as opposed to the wrong way. And the relativistic approach, which is fairly
common in our society now, is a problem, I think, particularly at the academic level. Lorenzo Albacete: I really think what was
said here is correct. Our concern should be at the other end, in
a positive way about good, the dignity of the person, and to talk about that and to
— that is what motivates people. But we have lost that. We grasp, we don’t — it’s an experience. Ben Wattenberg: Isn’t — just in terms
of the human psyche — isn’t the devil more interesting than God? Lorenzo Albacete: Well, you know how sad. I’ll tell you, the answer is no. No. However, in the sense that sin is far more
interesting than virtue. Ben Wattenberg: There are more movies — excuse
me? Pardon? Lorenzo Albacete: In the sense that sin is
more interesting than virtue, but the reason is because we have such a low view of conviction
about or experience of God as love, as ecstatic, divine — ecstatic, eternal love. You may or may not believe in God, but what
do I mean when I say God? I don’t mean the first unmovable prince
— no, the philosophical God. I mean the God who is love. Bernard McGinn: But in a sense, evil is the
other great mystery. You know, if God is the great mystery by excess,
evil is the great mystery by defect. Philosophers and religions for millennia have
wrestled with trying to give explanations for evil, and none of them can really explain
it. Lorenzo Albacete: We never really — Bernard McGinn: So it is the mystery of defect,
and in that sense, I think it always has a very deep and powerful attraction. Andrew Delbanco: Defect and privation are
the words, and it’s interesting to me as we talk about sin here that the terms that
have come up are self-deception and self-love. And those are terms which imply that something’s
missing. What’s missing is an outward love, an apprehension,
an appreciation of something outside the self, which can be called God or transcendence;
it can be called the sensibility of another human being. It’s a very tricky problem for our society
because it’s an individualistic society, so we believe in self-love up to a point. We believe in pride. That’s what America is built on. But we have to have that other side of the
continuum or we’re lost. Robert Alley: And that — it seems to me
that the individual cannot be divested of the ego. The individual has an important role to play,
and there is a selfish center, but there is also the center of the other. I’d go back to Jefferson’s last words
to Madison, when he said, “Take care of me when dead,” suggesting, one, that he
is concerned about fame and the fact that he has done something, but what has he done? He has done something good for all people
as best he could. So that’s the context: I’m doing this
as a person, as an ego, but I’m doing it in terms of others. And I think that’s something we’ve somehow
lost in an overemphasis on what’s wrong with being an individual. There is everything to be said for that. Ben Wattenberg: Let me go around the room,
starting with you, Professor McGinn, and see if we can come up with a short word of advice
from our four moral philosophers here. We have an audience out there. If there was one thing you could tell them,
what would it be? Bernard McGinn: I think I’d remind people
that evil is both internal and external and that the great symbols of history, symbols
like Satan or antichrist or other figures, give us cause for thinking about the evil
within ourselves and how it relates to the evils that we see in society. But the real danger is just to project these
images outward on other people and to think that we’re not involved and responsible. Ben Wattenberg: Bob Alley from the University
of Richmond. Robert Alley: Well, I am convinced that evil
as a concept has to be personalized both for oneself and for — people make evil. And we have to assert that there is an evil
there, and there is a good that is potential and an evil that is potential, and try to
work through the process, which I think is largely political — and political is the
way we as persons deal with each other — and try to find ways to use the system to heighten
the role of us as persons in creating an environment that is for the good, in spite of the fact
that we recognize evil in ourselves and in everyone else. But don’t personify it with some name or
location. That I think is — I think that is bad. Ben Wattenberg: Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete
of the John Paul II Institute. I have now given you an electronic flock. You can give a sermon. Lorenzo Albacete: That’s it, yes. Cyber Monsignor now is a video. When I read the book and I knew I was coming
here — Ben Wattenberg: Professor Delbanco’s book? Lorenzo Albacete: Yes — I said, well, I
need a point of departure, a little talking point, and there are many things I could read. But the first thing I read was the story “The
Diary of a Country Priest” by George Bernanos. It was a discussion about Satan and hell. And I would end with this by quoting from
the book: “Hell is not to love anymore. Hell is not to love anymore.” So what I would have to say to people is:
Do not be afraid of love. Love means the vulnerability of giving yourself
to another. It’s risky, it’s dangerous, but follow
that path, as St. Augustine said, and do whatever you want. Ben Wattenberg: Well, I don’t know how you
top that, Andy, but you can try. [Laughter.] Andrew Delbanco: I can’t top it. I think hell means not being able to love
is the right thing to remind people. I think the internal and external nature of
evil is the right thing to remind people. And although the realms of love and political
life are different, there is a connection. I think we have to recognize, yes, our responsibility
for ourselves, but we also need to recognize our responsibility for one another. That means not flagellating the girl in the
ghetto who has had a baby out of wedlock, but talking with her, teaching her, and also
recognizing our responsibility for making it possible for her to be taught and to live
in a decent world where her best human aspirations can be realized and satisfied. Ben Wattenberg: OK. Thank you, Andrew Delbanco, Bernard McGinn,
Lorenzo Albacete, and Robert Alley. And thank you. Announcing the “Think Tank” contest for
the best political bumper sticker. Part 1, submit your entries for or against
the likely Democratic nominee, President William J. Clinton. Entries must be received by February 1. The winning bumper stickers will be announced
on “Think Tank” and awarded a prize. Later in Part 2, we will run a similar contest
for the likely Republican presidential nominee. So please send your bumper stickers and any
other comments and questions to New River Media, 1150 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC,
20036. We can also be reached and entries may be
submitted by email to [email protected] or through the World Wide Web at For “Think Tank,” I’m Ben Wattenberg. Announcer: This has been a production of BJW
Inc., in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content.

12 thoughts on “Is Satan dead? (1996) | THINK TANK

  1. I feel that the story of satan is best to keep people on the straight an narrow. If you are good you get rewarded with heaven. If bad you are punished in hell. I would rather see people be good because it is the right thing to do…not because they fear punishment or desire a reward.

  2. You need to exist in order to be dead.There is no Satan and there has never been a Satan or a God for that matter.These are just concepts used to help keep children compliant,if you are turning grey and still believe these fayre tales it's well past time for you to grow-up.

  3. Satan is not dead, he just moved to US.
    Murder, rape, pillaging, countless suffering, every possible crime this country committed in last 70 years, yet most Americans think that USA is the beacon of hope, justice and righteousness in the world. And that it is nazis and communists who are bad.
    No dictator or despot have caused as much pain as US does, on a regular basis, around the world.
    Nazism is responsible for deaths of around 55 million people. Communism death toll is somewhere between 100 and 150 million. Capitalism body count is 300 million at the lowest end of estimates.
    In the end the Devil is merely human projection of own malice.

  4. Excellent discussion. Funny how things don't change, I could well have been listening to Jordan B Peterson for much of this…

  5. If Oliver North delivers weapons to Kohmeini & Iran why does Iran says USA are hypocrites and threatens with slogans like " death to USA" ? IF Iran was axess of evil why did Oliver North provide Them with arms even thou it was against THE will of Democracy & what THE mayority of what THE American People voted for???

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