The future appears to be global, and if we want to thrive there, the concept of "pure evil" has to be discarded. As fuel for hostility, nothing is more combustible. After 9/11, angry mobs massing in Baghdad against the U.S. weren't just seen as unemployed young Arab males — they became symbols of unrepentant hatred, while jihadists became evil monsters with no regard for innocent lives. The more evil we projected onto "them," the aliens threatening our safety, the less human they became. If the future becomes global, however, projections of pure evil have no breathing room anymore. Everyone is becoming our neighbor, and with the dissolving of borders, everyone must be seen as human, however angry and extreme their actions.
I think the loosening grip of the Satan myth is a touchstone for change. Two weeks ago I participated in a televised debate on the existence of Satan. Some speakers were still firmly holding on to the traditional image of Satan as a supernatural demigod, rival to the real God, arch enemy of human happiness, and at the most basic level, a personage one can meet face-to-face. Yet whenever I or someone else on my side of the debate suggested otherwise — that evil is rooted in human behavior, that foisting evil off on a mythical figure was a copout from taking responsibility for our own bad impulses — there were positive reactions from the audience.
This and many other signs indicate that Satan is on the wane. We are in the aftermath of the age of faith; church attendance has been steadily declining in the U.S. and Europe for decades. As part of this religious waning, Satan has also declined. So much so that it's hard to remember a time when educated, free-thinking people reserved at least a tiny, secret corner where belief in Satan — or pure evil — resided.

More importantly, a positive kind of spirituality has arisen that doesn't need Satan. He is necessary in the battle for souls that pits good against evil in the scheme of Christianity. Without the threat of damnation, the incentive for salvation is severely weakened. But many cultures have had no need for absolute evil, including the Greeks, Romans, Hindus, and Buddhists. Quite often these cultures had supernatural explanations for bad events (e.g., demons, imps, mischievous and capricious gods), and it is almost universally believed that the afterlife will be different for evildoers and the virtuous. An innate sense of fairness makes it hard to think that wrongdoing doesn't eventually arrive at a just punishment. But millions of people who reject religion or pay it almost no attention lead perfectly well-adjusted lives without the threat of Satan hanging over them.

Of course, there were still some boos when I called Satan a primitive aspect of human belief, tearful pleas for me to come into the light, and even not so veiled suggestions that I was doing the Devil's work. I came away from the debate saddened by the testimonials from fervent believers who claimed to have met the Devil personally or to have barely escaped the fires of damnation. But Satan has lost a lot of his mojo nonetheless. In an age where serial killers are labeled as psychopaths rather than agents of sin, we can examine contributing factors like child abuse, peer pressure, mental disorders, impaired brain function, and other things that fall under the rubric of sick rather than evil.

The study of psychology, long rooted in aberrant behavior and neurosis, is itself shifting. The new field of positive psychology has begun to establish what makes people happy instead of what makes them unhappy. This is an important distinction, because instead of being one step away from divine punishment — as everyone must be if all are sinners — we could be one step away from the happiness that is our birthright. In the aftermath of Satan, the expansion of well-being promises to replace the eternal battle between good and evil, which only served to make evil more powerful than it has any right to be.

Published in the San Francisco Chronicle

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