Satan is losing the battle for people's minds. This is a clear trend, and it's been mounting for a long time. The basic reason is that evil has gotten a lot of competition. Are schizophrenics possessed by the Devil? Raise your hand if you say yes. A century ago, countless more people would have raised their hands than today, when we use "sick" in place of "evil" for many things, including psychosis. The more replacements we find for evil, the weaker Satan grows. After all, the Devil is the embodiment of absolute evil, the kind that admits no other explanation. His fortunes decline when valid explanations are at hand.

Besides psychosis, we attribute criminal behavior to a host of influences -- poverty, domestic abuse, peer pressure, social resentment -- that overshadow the simple word "evil." Centuries ago, the first word that would come to mind when a murder took place would be "sin," opening the door automatically to think about the great tempter and progenitor of sin, the serpent in the Garden. Today, if we fail to understand why sadistic violence occurs, we might fall back on a phrase like "pure evil," but even then we don't automatically insert Satan's name or make him the cause. We simply mean an evil that passes understanding -- for the time being. Understanding can grow, after all.

And it does grow. Leaving aside the dwindling number of fundamentalists who have made the Devil a core belief, fewer people see the hand of Satan at work around them. Abu Ghraib was a horrific example of human nature at its most depraved, but who did the media rush to for explanation? Psychologists, not preachers. If you take the most evil acts in the world, such as the Holocaust, you must run out of human explanations first before you resort to supernatural ones. These human explanations for evil include the following:

• Hiding dark secrets.
• Feeling ashamed and guilty.
• Repressing feelings of deep anger and hostility.
• Denying painful truths, such as past abuse.
• Imitating the worst actions of one's peers to gain approval.
• Hatred of authority.
• A deeply rebellious streak that acts out as self-destruction.
• Ungoverned impulses of sex and aggression.
• Repression of the shadow side of the psyche.
• Hatred of "the other."

A toxic cocktail of these all-too-human tendencies fueled Abu Ghraib, the Holocaust, and Islamic extremism. No supernatural agency needs to be ascribed. When anyone believes that Satan is a universal force, the enemy of God loosed upon creation, I ask a simple question. How much evil was there in the universe before human beings came along? If Satan is so cosmic, why did he wait billions of years to appear on the scene, until the day when the Old Testament was written? And what about cultures like the Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and ancient Indian that had no concept of Satan?

The rational mind has no trouble discounting the bogeyman, so it's our irrational side that we must calm, with all its shadow fears and shameful impulses. Does Satan perch there, in the darkness we dare not confront? Religious believers haunted by a strong sense of sin may believe this, but look around at all the agnostics and atheists leading normal lives without the notion of absolute evil. They would seem to be the choicest prey for Satan, since they have no faith in God to protect them. But the Devil seems to keep his distance, and there's a simple reason why.

Satan is a projection of human fear, anger, and guilt. He used to be such a major projection that he dominated psychological life. In an age of faith, Satan held a monopoly on evil. Now our minds have expanded, light has been shone on every level of the psyche, and a great change occurred. Satan stopped being strong because we stopped needing him so much. We took responsibility for evil away from him, and although it's hard to face the fact that human evil trumps supernatural evil a hundred to one, the good news is that being human, it's something we can heal.

Published in the Washington Post

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