Are God and Satan Real?


ABC Nightline recently staged two debates.  In one, participants argued over the question "Does God Exist?" The other, last night, debated the question "Doe Satan Exist?" Rarely have a witnessed a more brilliant display of unnecessary silliness for want of an evolutionary worldview.  (I'm referring to ABC News, not the participants.  Deepak Chopra mentioned evolution a couple of times and Carlton Pearson was a beautiful model of generosity of spirit.)  Without a deep-time understanding of our brains and the nature of human language, such questions are regarded not only as legitimate, but important. From a meaningful evolutionary perspective, however, questions such as "Does God Exist?" or "Does Satan Exist?" are revealed to be misleading at best, and demonically distracting at worst.

Do dreams exist?  Are they real?  Subjectively, of course they are!  But are they real objectively?  Well, it depends on what you mean by "real".  Certainly dreams are natural and experiential—and are subjectively realistic.  And dreams are, of course, correlated with very real brain activity as well as chemical, hormonal, and other physiological changes.  But fortunately for me, when I dream about Angelina Jolie I don't need to worry about Achilles (aka, Brad Pitt) stalking me down in a jealous rage—or my wife divorcing me.

I expect to write more on this subject in the not-too-distant future.  Until then, I invite interested readers to see the following previous posts of mine and a few passages from my book, Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Sciene and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World.

The Silly Debate Over God's Existence
Metaphorical gods vs. Reality/God: Part 1
Metaphorical gods vs. Reality/God: Part 2
God is NOT a Supernatural Terrorist

There is indeed a force devoted to enticing us into various pleasures that are (or once were) in our genetic interests but do not bring long-term happiness to us and may bring great suffering to others. . . . If it will help to actually use the word evil, there's no reason not to. —ROBERT WRIGHT, author of The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are—the New Science of Evolutionary Psychology

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Gordon MacDonald, a fellow evangelical leader who also experienced a fall when a sexual impropriety became public, wrote this commentary for Christianity Today a few days into the Ted Haggard saga:

I am no stranger to failure and public humiliation. From those terrible moments of twenty years ago in my own life I have come to believe that there is a deeper person in many of us who is not unlike an assassin. This deeper person (like a contentious board member) can be the source of attitudes and behaviors we normally stand against in our conscious being. But it seeks to destroy us and masses energies that—unrestrained—tempt us to do the very things we "believe against." If you have been burned as deeply as I (and my loved ones) have, you never live a day without remembering that there is something within that, left unguarded, will go on the rampage.

Tellingly, MacDonald speaks of a "deeper person" within each of us, a kind of "assassin" that "left unguarded will go on a rampage." Evolutionary brain science confirms how right he is! Any of us whose lives have been damaged by slipping in our commitments and thus following our deep impulses knows what Gordon MacDonald is talking about. Evolutionary brain science helps us comprehend why: the deepest and most difficult to control urges are those whose territory resides within the fortress of our ancient reptilian brain. When those drives take over, "we" are no longer in control. Something else is. And it can feel like an assassin; it is destroying our lives against our will. This sense that something not-us nevertheless tempts and even controls us can be seen throughout history, though it is given different names. It has been called Satan or the Devil. Freud called it the Id (German: "It").


Understanding the unwanted drives within us as having served our ancestors for millions of years is far more empowering than imagining that we are the way we are because of inner demons, or because the world's first woman and man ate a forbidden apple a few thousand years ago. The path to freedom lies in appreciating one's instincts, while taking steps to channel these powerful energies in ways that will serve our higher purpose. Even so, "demonic possession" is a traditional night language way of speaking about someone who is compelled to act in harmful ways. "Demonic temptation," in this sense, is anything that would have us disregard the well-being of the larger holons of which we are part (our families, communities, world), or the smaller holons for which we are responsible (our bodies, minds, principles). It is my hope that-however evolutionary theologies manifest in the future-there will be room for traditional language (demonic possession), scientific language (reptilian brain), and metaphorical night language born in our own time (Lizard Legacy).

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From a science-based, evolutionary perspective, there is no place for belief in a literal Satan—an otherworldly being with demonic intent—just as we no longer find helpful the notion that God is an unnatural entity divorced from, less than, and residing somewhere outside the Universe. Nevertheless, personalizing or relationalizing the forces of evil—especially those within us—can be helpful, whether or not we choose to use the words Satan or the Devil.

When I need to muster extra resolve against my inherited proclivities, especially regarding the lure to lie for the sake of status, sexual attraction, or the temptation to indulge in feel-good substances, it occasionally helps for me to see those tendencies as something other-as not me. That sense of otherness makes it easier for me to "witness" my unchosen nature—my instincts—and thereby gain the calm objectivity that distance affords, rather than being ruled impulsively by it. These inherited proclivities are not me, and yet they are within me. I shall never be entirely free of them.

"I Don't Know That Guy!"

Folksinger Greg Brown wrote a song titled "I Don't Know That Guy." It is a funny and poignant reminder of how challenging our Lizard Legacy can be. Here are the first two verses:

Me, I'm happy-go-lucky-
always ready to grin.
I ain't afraid of loving you-
ain't fascinated with sin.
So who's this fellow in my shoes-
making you cry?
I don't know that guy.

Who took my suitcase?
Who stole my guitar?
And where's my sense of humor?
What am I doin' in this bar?
This man who's been drinking,
and giving you the eye-
I don't know that guy.

Evangelical opinion leader Gordon MacDonald, as already mentioned, referred to these tendencies as a kind of assassin within. In saying that we feel "tempted by Satan," we mean exactly that. For many Christians today, the words "tempted by Satan" may still be helpful in dealing with the most troubling aspects of our unchosen nature. For me, "Satan" is still a useful term, but with this proviso:

From the standpoint of evolutionary faith, "Satan" points to nothing that can be believed or disbelieved. Rather, "Satan" as the great Tempter is something that every human experiences by virtue of having an evolved brain. Why? Because the human brain was not designed by an all-knowing, otherworldly engineer God. It was evolved by the living immanent, omnipresent God, and the world of today is a far cry from the world of our prehuman ancestors. For me to publicly use the word "Satan," however, would shut down the listening of those toward the liberal pole of Christianity—not to mention anyone outside the Christian or Islamic perspective. But what if we begin talking about our "reptilian brain" or, better yet, "Lizard Legacy"? What a lighthearted, playful way to get real about the most serious challenges that we, as individuals, face in right living; that is, abiding in integrity!


'Satan' can, indeed, bring temptation by way of our Lizard Legacy. Nevertheless, our brainstem and cerebellum are vital for life. Without our Lizard Legacy, we would starve and leave no off spring. Without our Lizard Legacy, every stumble would result in an injurious or fatal fall, and we would not have learned to walk in the first place. Without our Lizard Legacy, we would have to remember to breathe. Finally, there would have been no physical impetus for our Furry Li'l Mammal (our paleomammalian brain) to have evolved the bliss of romance. Yes, there is Original Blessing, in abundance. But, oh, the challenges!


'Satan' can and does use the most seductive of disguises-from sex, friendship, and righteousness, to power, profi t, and patriotism—in order to tempt us away from concern for the common good. Most dangerously, Satan can kidnap our Higher Porpoise (our prefrontal cortex), as when a zealously religious young man straps on a chestful of explosives and boards a bus, or when leaders of a nation-state react to a terrorist act at a scale that escalates the problem, all the while fanning the fears and invoking the patriotic assent of its citizens. Where is salvation to be found under these circumstances?

My experience of Evolutionary Christianity suggests that as our understanding of the Wholeness of Reality (God) expands and evolves, so too, naturally and inevitably, will our understanding of the meaning and signifi cance of salvation. From a holy evolutionary perspective, salvation is not something that can be believed in or not believed in. It simply is. What we call "salvation," like "sin," is an undeniable part of the human experience.

To know the joy of reconciling when I've been estranged; to experience the relief of confession when I've been burdened by guilt; to taste the freedom of forgiveness when I've been enslaved by my resentments; to feel passion and energy when I've been forlorn; to once again see clearly when I have been self deceived; to find comfort when I've been grieving; to dance again when I've been paralyzed by fear; to sing when I've been short on hope; to let go when I have been attached; to embrace truth when I've been in denial; to find guidance when I've been floundering—each of these is a precious face of salvation. No matter what our respective beliefs, we all have experienced salvation in these and other ways.

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