Devil on the rise? Lisa Miller talks religion

Nov 17, 2011

From "Saturday Night Live" to political discourse, Satan has been making a lot of appearances lately.

Religion columnist Lisa Miller was online Thursday Nov. 17 at 12pm ET to discuss this trend and her column, which explores why belief in the devil is on the rise

Writes Miller: "Almost everybody believes in God (90 percent) and angels (75 percent) -- as they have, consistently, forever. But mid-century mainstream Protestantism had taken the fangs out of Satan ? until recently. According to a 2007 Gallup poll, belief in the devil is on the rise: 70 percent of Americans now believe, up from 55 percent in 1990. Figuring out what they mean is of the utmost importance."

So what to make of the devil's rising prominence? And how to does it relate to inbelief in Gobelief in God?

I believe it's because people are really scared now, for their finances, futures, families. When that happens voodoo looks more real, people pray to god more, and it's easy to see "the devil" in bad people/corporations. Personally, I'm an atheist and don't believe in god or the devil. It's amazing how freeing that is.

Yes, I think you're right. People want to attribute the bad things happening out there to something or somebody. This is the biggest theological problem in religion. How could a loving God who created the world create so much pain and hardship? A sophisticated religious understanding doesn't allow a believer to pull all the bad stuff on the devil.

On Twitter, @ cites the Bible and says "to believe in God you must believe in the Devil." Thoughts?

I'm not sure that's right. There are universalist religions that say, essentially, that everyone gets to heaven and there is no hell. That worst a person can experience is a kind of separation from God or distance from God.

Commenter Sajana writes: "Satan seems like a cheat... a way to keep God good while acknowledging that terrible things happen, and bad people exist. But it always bugged me, even when I believed in all this stuff, why would God allow such a thing in the first place? It's one thing if human free will allows for evil, its another to let an ageless, powerful demon to run around causing trouble. Such a thing means either God is negligent, complicit, or incapable."

You know, this is the question presented by the Book of Job. How does one stay faithful to God when God does all these terrible things. People have studied this question forever, and the answer is (I think) about continuing to wrestle and struggle and to have some humility in the face of this question. But certain people have abandoned God for this very reason and I have a lot of respect for that position too.

Here is a piece I wrote for Newsweek last year that addresses this question.




Do sound stats show belief in God holding, declining, or rising (apart from the atheists among us)?

It's about the same -- maybe slightly lower since the new atheists made their mark several years ago. It's been hovering at about 90 percent forever, and now it's about 86 pc. What's most interesting to me is the number of "unaffiliated" is rising fast. These are ppl unhappy with organized religion but who would still say they believe in God or a universal spirit.

I don't understand why people should be so quick to blame evil deeds on the devil rather than on those who commit them. Surely no one thinks anything other than greed and lack of ethics prompted the higher-ups at Penn State to cover up the horrifying rape of children. How does the devil come into it?

You should check out the SNL skit in which even the devil is horrified at the goings on at Penn State and decides to go back to his day job,  as a customer service rep at Time Warner cable.


Commenter TopTurtle writes: "Whether Satan exists is a silly question. The fact that lots of people believe in Satan makes it tragic in addition to silly."

Is there any benefit to believing in the devil?

I think Martin provides the answer in my column. It's a name for the thing that tempts you to do terrible things against your conscience. According to this view, God created people, but he created them with free will, and the Devil tempts people to act against God.  In our conversation, Martin talked about the three personas the devil takes on in people's lives, according to St. Ignatius.

1. the spoiled child: I want this and I want it now.

2. the false lover: the liar, the secret keeper, the unfaithful.

3. the army commander: the tyrant, the one who goes for the weak spot in others.

these are helpful ways,  I think, to think about the way humans are tempted away from what their moral consciences tell them.

Remember that skit or are you too young? While preachers may be declaring an increased presence of evil, or the Devil, people have seen saying the same thing for years. Just as they've predicted the Apocalypse was at hand. I remember when the EU growing to 8 members was supposed to show that the Beast with 8 heads was here. I recall the book "The Late Great Planet Earth" (the author spoke to our class at UCLA; that was many years ago).

Of course, the devil's been around forever -- both as a real belief and in more recent times as a joke. (As I was writing the column I kept thinking of the Mike Meyer's church lady on the SNL of the 1980s. "Could it be.... SAATAAN??) But the real increase in the number of believers in the devil according to Gallup was startling to me. And I agree with posters above that it has to do with some of the hard times we're going through and looking for causes or reasons.

Someone who has decided everything is either God's will or the work of the Devil? To me it seems like the biggest copout there is. Something bad happens and people decide it's all part of God's master plan and we aren't meant to understand it. It's like they've shut off the part of themselves that provides for intellectual curiosity and self-discovery. How can you get through to someone who has taken the path of least resistance?

In monotheistic religions -- Christianity, Islam, Judaism -- it's impossible to attribute all bad to the Devil and all good to God, for the simple reason that God is God and the devil is not God. He doesn't have equal power, equal standing, right? Or else the fundamental concept -- the first commandment "I am the Lord your God you shall have no other gods before me" -- would be flawed.

The Devil's day job is a customer service rep at United Air Lines, not Time Warner Cable!

Don't get me started...

You've got "Wayne's World" on the mind -- Dana Carvey (Garth) was the Church Lady. Obviously, the Devil is scrambling your brain.

so sorry. you are right. i'm corrected.

Flip Wilson's Geraldine character!! I LOVED that show!!!!

This is slightly off the point, but I once asked the cartoon editor at the New Yorker how many cartoons had been drawn about heaven, and he said that heaven was second only to the desert island scenario in cartoons. heaven, hell, devil, st. peter -- all these have been fodder for jokes and pranks at least through the 20th century.

Hi Lisa, How would someone go about suggesting to a really smart, insightful national religion columnist (her name might begin with Lisa)... about reviewing a unique religious book: ten tough men finally finding faith (murderers, mafia associates, stage 4 cancer patients, executives, etc).  Yes, this is a little shameless. But my wife loves your work, and suggested I reach out--and this is my only chance - Hopeful in Swarthmore

My website is -- you can reach me there. I also have a Facebook fan page. And I'm on twitter @lisaxmiller.

Dear Ms. Miller: This from you is the nub of the problem: "You know, this is the question presented by the Book of Job. How does one stay faithful to God when God does all these terrible things. People have studied this question forever..." The answer really is simple, staring us in the face: There just is no evidence for any omniscient, omnipotent, or any other kind of supernatural god. Why is that so hard to see?

I'd like to recommend Bart Ehrman's book called "God's Problem." He's a religion professor at UNC and he's studied the Bible his whole life. He was once religious, but finally abandoned religion after contemplating te question of suffering and finding every answer unsatisfactory. I agree with the posters who say it's too convenient to blame random human suffering on the devil.


The Church Lady was Dana Carvey, not Mike Myers

right. my mistake.

...then God is either impotent or a sadist. There can be no other conclusion, yes?

I love the name "The Adversary" instead of Satan. It speaks to the great forces that tempt people away from good and the struggles people encounter to stay faithful, upright, optimistic, true, etc. This helps me, at least, understand the idea of the devil without having to give up on God.

Seems to me, anyone can claim the other side is Satan. People thought George W was the antiChrist. Couldn't those who believe in human contribution to global warming call polluters who are destroying the world Satan?

Yes, in a way this is Pagels point. There are folks who in the 2008 election were calling Obama the anti-Christ. Evil is what we call "the other" and "the other" is the thing that doesn't look/act/talk/raise their children like us. This is the LEAST productive way to think about the devil, in my view, for it creates boundaries between people and forces us to see the world in terms of "us" and "them."

Why are conversations on "the Devil" so Protestant-driven in the terminology, at least in popular culture? From a Catholic perspective we have a very well-developed understanding of the problem of evil and its relation to the existence of God, free will, etc. It's the very heart of the theodicy debate, and deals with Original Sin, the fallen nature of man, the concept of and need for grace, etc. Most of the popular discussions of Satan come down to some sort of Manichaeistic fight between the powers of good and the powers of evil that makes for good theatre, but hasn't been part of Christian philosophy since it was stamped out by Augustine and company. Can't we have a deeper discussion of this problem than "the devil made me do it?"

I think it has to do with the emphasis on apocalyptic theology predominant in American Protestantism especially since the early 20th century and the publication of the Scofield Bible.  American Protestants have long been preoccupied with end times and the Book of Revelation and the encoded predictions within Scripture (Harold Camping is a recent example). The devil has a major role in this drama, and so that's why his theatrics have been so prevalent. I agree with you that a deeper discussion of the nature of evil is more interesting.

Having done research on the Afterlife, you must have come across Near Death Experiencers who had experiences with a Satan figure, Evil One, etc. Can you draw any conclusions from these experiencers about the validity of a Satan in the Afterlife?

i have never personally heard an nde talk about seeing satan -- but i know that not all near death experiences are pleasant, walk into the light type visions. more broadly, though, i don't believe that ndes actually give us any empirical evidence about an afterlife.  there are those would would disagree with me about this, but i can't see how a vision upon dying amounts to proof of anything but the experience of having had a vivid vision.

Most surveys are useless (there's another 25,000 people out of work!), because they have to make false assumptions in order to cram their question into a telephone call. I would say that it's very easy for people to respond "yes, I believe in the Devil" without that statement affecting ANYTHING, ANY ACTION whatsoever, in their lives. It's just a vague, random response - and has no bearing on their lives whatsoever.

I both agree and disagree with you about this. I think it's easy to say "yes, I believe in the devil" when a pollster calls you up at dinner time without having thought very hard about what you mean. But I also think it's important -- crucial even -- to try to probe what people do mean, because otherwise we make all kinds of presumptions about rligious belief that aren't real or true. (This is where the "all religious believers are crazy" stuff comes from.)  It's also important, on a personal level, to force oneself to examine one's beliefs. If you tell a pollster that you believe in the devil while you're cooking hamburgers in the kitchen, then what are you talkign about? what do you mean? these are conversations worth having.

Why else would they do so many bad things if they honestly believed in God? I think they just lie on surveys the same way they lie about their salary. If you really believed in God and heaven you wouldn't do so many bad things.

That may be the ideal, but it's not empirically true. All kinds of religious believers do bad things.  Also not true is the claim, made by many believers, that atheists have no morality.

I think believing in God is related to believing in the devil. The Devil is mentioned in the Quran many times and I think is mentioned in other holy books. People imagine the Devil, ugly and waiting in the hill to see those whom did bad things in their life. We as Muslims believe that Devil is created from fire whereas humans created from sand and he is the human's enemy. He makes bad things looks good to us. Thank you

This is interesting. Thank you.

Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! I feel like "the Devil" is in control of Congress, the media (generally), and almost everything else. All is being done for money, power and control. Thoughts?

I think this mess we've made is very human and we humans have to clean it up.

Do you consider yourself " born again?"

No. I'm  Jewish.

If 90% of Americans aren't mad as hell about the suggestions that come out of the Supercommittee, then they haven't done their job.

Are you suggesting the work of the supercommittee is the work of the devil?

 The most common warning in the Bible to beware of Satan. The Bible has several commands to those who should stop their worship of Satan/Baal/Molech etc. by "passing their children through fire" other words...God commands them to stop child sacrifice. Here's just one reference: The Vatican's Pontifical Bible Institute retired professor Malachi Martin's book, "Hostage to the Devil" says of Satan "...the belief that he does not exist at all is an enormous advantage that he as never enjoyed to such a great degree......Not to believe in evil is not to be armed against it." All of our ancestors throughout time have warned about evil as a real and dangerous thing. Funny how in a few short years we have developed a culture that disregards thousands of years of advice.

I certainly think it would interest readers to know just how much fear of hell and the devil motivated people in the Middle Ages. There were these descriptions of trips to hell, which circulated like pulp fiction. They were horror stories -- screaming people strung on torture racks and hooks, fire, snakes etc. -- and their purpose was to keep believers on the straight and narrow.  This was no SNL skit.

Ok guys, I'm out of here. Thanks for chatting. -Lisa

In This Chat
Lisa Miller
Lisa Miller is a contributing editor at New York magazine and the author of "Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife." She was a senior editor at Newsweek, overseeing the magazine's religion coverage, writing the weekly "Belief Watch" column and editing Newsweek's prominent "Spirituality in America" double issue.

Before joining Newsweek, Miller covered religion for The Wall Street Journal. She has also worked with The New Yorker, Self magazine and Harvard Business Review.

An award-winning journalist, she is the recipient of the 2010 Wilbur Award for outstanding magazine column. She is a frequent guest on television and radio, including the Colbert Report, the O'Reilly Factor, MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, NPR and others.
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