He was nodding to that great fictional antagonist of the Bible, and Christian fable: the devil.
Looking back, Satan provides a wonderful precedent for free-thinking folk: he said ‘no’ to theocracy. It is instructive to read the Bible in light of his rebellion.
As the story has it, the devil was not always a straightforward enemy. In Job, Satan the angel had a cordial relationship with Jehovah. After questioning Job’s loyalty, he was deputised by God to take Job’s property, and give him horrible diseases. (As one does.)
But later in the Hebrew Bible, and in the New Testament, Satan became the traditional adversary: first, of Israel, then of all faithful souls. In 1 Chronicles, he tricked David into taking a census of his warriors – a proud decision, questioning the Lord’s power in winning battles – and in Luke possessed Judas to betray Jesus to the priests and temple guards.
By Revelation, Satan was a kind of spiritual general, leading armies against the forces of God. Without giving away too many spoilers, God won:
And the devil… was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
(As one does.)
The impression of Satan, bolstered by Milton, is of a rebellious angel – like an assistant prosecutor who gave up law enforcement for crime. But the devil’s villainy is subtle. We cannot blame his violence or trickery – Jehovah is quite happy to slaughter Egyptians and toy with Job. (In fact, the Lord’s unconfirmed body count is impressive.) What made Satan an adversary worthy of eternal torment was not this or that crime, but his pride.
Pride was rightly a virtue for Greeks like Aristotle, but for Jews and Christians it was a vice. “Everyone that is proud in heart,” says Proverbs, “is an abomination to the Lord.” Jehovah’s motivation for attacking Satan was not what the angel does with his independence, but that he was independent at all. Likewise for men: to reject God’s kingdom is to be guilty of pride, and deserve torment.
(In this, Jehovah is also a wonderfully dramatic character: Love me, or I will burn you for all eternity. “Heaven and hell and humanity are,” wrote Nietzsche in The Wanderer and his Shadow, “supposed to exist – to satisfy the vanity of God!”)
These are only stories, of course. There is no good evidence for gods or devils. But like Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov and Prince Myshkin, or Euripides’ Medea, the Bible invites a reply. With its often-extreme characters and plots, it suggests genuine moral questions – hypotheticals, which test convictions: the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ once recommended by Nietzsche.
Christopher Hitchens, who described himself as “the only person who’s represented the devil pro bono,” also said ‘no’ to the holy book. One of his memorable ideas was what he called “anti-theism”. That is, he was not simply an atheist, defined by lack of belief in biblical supernaturalism. Hitchens was against the Abrahamic god, and his earthly officers.
If the creation stories were true – and Hitchens did not grant this for a moment, but this is a hypothetical – Hitchens refused to obey them. The depiction of divine authority painted by the Bible was abhorrent to him.
“I do not envy believers their faith,” he wrote in Letters to a Young Contrarian, “life would be miserable if what the faithful affirmed was actually the case.”
Of course there was a certain devilish romance to Hitchens. David Runciman, writing in the London Review of Books, described Hitchens as one of those political romantics who are longing for “something, anything to happen, so that they can feel themselves to be at the heart of things”. Put another way, there was an egotism to his anti-theism, which loved conflict as much for the footlights as for the dénouement.
Nonetheless, Hitchens’ refusal of divine consolations, particularly during his final illness, demonstrated a laudable conviction, which rightly struck a chord with many modern atheists. Like Hitchens, they were frustrated by the faithful’s credulity, but more angry with the Christian hierarchy, which Hitchens once compared to a divine North Korea.
In this way, biblical stories can be literary provocations, goading or annoying readers – atheist, agnostic or Christian – into demonstrating their commitments. They provide bold, sometimes beautiful fictions – we can suspend our disbelief long enough to be horrified, saddened or baffled.
The Bible can also reveal common delusions, like divine exceptionalism: the belief that the universe is not only interested in one person, family, tribe or nation, but also intervening heroically on their behalf. Version of this delusion recur in American ‘manifest destiny’, Jewish proclamations of the promised land, and everyday professions of ‘the secret’, in which the cosmos concerns itself with one’s parking spots. In other words, the Bible can be a lesson in the fallacy of specialness, magnifying its scope and scale.
The Bible also demonstrates the difficulties of overcoming overly anthropocentric conceptions of the cosmos. Metaphysical conceit prompts the faithful to see their own psychological characteristics in the world; to see the universe as painted in their own image, which is then reflected back at them as ‘god’. In its understandable failure, the Bible highlights the contrasting achievements of science: incremental and collaborative, driven by doubt. These are still human concepts, but they are, contrary to stereotypes of scientists as robotic savants, often more impressively imaginative than the holy books. There are many divine creators in history – the idea of curved space-time is a rarer achievement.
In short, read with a little devilish scepticism, the Bible can be instructive reading – to say nothing of its moments of lyricism and powerful symbolism. Likewise for some religious rituals, art and architecture, which, as Alain de Botton has argued, can suggest healthy secular equivalents. As an epic or saga, the Bible makes exciting, edifying or interesting bedside reading.
But sadly the holy book has too much authority, whether this is as revealed truth, or a source of special symbols and metaphors to be interpreted by clergy or laity. Its extraordinary success is too often purchased at the cost of a richer education. As ex-Muslim author and science educator Alom Shaha puts it in The Young Atheist’s Handbook, “there is greater knowledge, deeper wisdom, and more profound truths in other, no less fictional, books.”
In this light, the Bible provokes two important refusals from critical intellects; two devilish ‘no’s. First, it portrays a hypothetical monarchy, which is a clarifying abomination for many free-thinking moderns – romantics or otherwise. We need not be satanic to see the Lord’s violent, narcissistic tyranny as unenlightened, uncivilised. We reject the Lord’s rule as we might reject the capricious brutality of Odin, or the manipulative snobbery of Henry James’ Osmond, in The Portrait of a Lady.
Second, the Bible prompts a more worldly refusal. The book was written, distributed and marketed as something of an encyclopedic guide to life, which makes other books obsolete at best, and burnable at worst. And rightly so: if one believes one has the eternal and universal truth, one wants to spread the good news. But the Bible is a poor handbook for life – at times poetic or penetrating, at times bigoted, misogynistic, myopic. To raise children to worship this one book as sacred, above all others, is to deprive them of over two millenniums of beautiful, moving and profound writing; to rob them of their cultural birthright, by teaching them to treat literary treasure as fool’s gold.
When it comes to the holy book, one has a little sympathy for the devil.
Damon Young is an Australian philosopher, writer and the author of Distraction. View his full profile here.