ABC recently hosted a debate among a four-panel group about the existence of Satan. Satan believers included pastor Mark Driscoll and former prostitute, Annie Lobert, founder of Hookers for Jesus. Nonbelievers were Bishop Carlton Pearson and Dr. Deepak Chopra, physician and writer on spirituality and mind-body medicine.

Like me, you might be wondering why a former prostitute and a spiritual healer were the best panelists ABC could conjure for an assumingly theological debate. If you actually watch the debate, then, like me, you might realize spectacles like these are only that – pure fanfare – no more seeking justifiable reasons for belief than a full-time prostitute seeks reputable employment.

However, the debate does expose at least one important piece of information. According to a 2007 Gallup poll, 70% of Americans believe in the devil.

70% of people across the country believe in some sort of pernicious boogeyman that somehow meddles with human souls and controls a number of actions, behaviors, and events. 70%!

Perhaps even more interesting is that belief in the devil seems to be somewhat inversely proportional to belief in god. While belief in god has slightly decreased (as of 2007), belief in the devil has gradually increased. Why? Gallup attributes some of the discrepancy to question bias.

Some older Gallup surveys included the Devil in a list of things such as witches, reincarnation, and ghosts. The three surveys conducted since 2001 have included the Devil in a list of more directly religious entities. These changes make it difficult to ascertain if there has been a real change in belief structures, or if the changes are due more to respondents' views of which "type" of Devil is being discussed.

Despite which type of devil is being discussed, belief in some type of devil entity still seems to be a national pandemic. But this still doesn’t answer the question, “why is belief in any type of devil on the rise?”

Daniel Dennett attributes such beliefs to our intentional stance, our “deeply rooted […] urge to treat things – especially frustrating things – as agents with beliefs and desires [1].” E.B. Taylor similarly considered animism, the belief that nonhuman objects possess “souls”, to be the root from which religion evolved.

Dennett’s intentional stance theory makes sense. Humans have beliefs, desires, and actions, and it’s only human to project these human traits onto other things, like hurricanes, even though they’re not human.

“That hurricane wanted to destroy New Orleans because it didn’t like the people living there!”

But that still doesn’t explain the increase in belief in the devil, especially when science explains so much about the natural world. Perhaps that’s our answer. It seems that the more naturalistic answers science gives us, the more people ignore science, preferring to cling to the supernatural, to the deeply ingrained meme of animism. To borrow from another of Dennett’s books, Freedom Evolves, science is the crow who tells Dumbo he doesn’t need a magic feather to fly. Science breaks the spell, and we’re all too intoxicated by it to be disenchanted.

[1] Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Daniel Dennett, page 117

Calvin: Do you believe in the devil? You know, a supreme evil being dedicated to the temptation, corruption, and destruction of man? Hobbes: I'm not sure that man needs the help
~ Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson

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Comment by Andrew the Fluffer on March 31, 2009 at 12:13pm
I like how belief in a god decreases while belief in a devil increases. What is up with that?


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