Satan is Good, God is Bad: our shifting moral compass and why atheists are throwing the Devil under the bus

I went to Skepticon 5 expecting a group of heretics that would get a kick out of my inversed reading of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which claims that Satan is the hero of the story (which was actually the mainstream reading before it became the “mistaken reading”, and is now coming into vogue again by top Milton scholars).

I was surprised to find that Satan makes atheists uncomfortable. Atheists already have a huge image/perception problem, with the religious proclamations that people can’t be good without God and that therefore all atheists are “evil.” Christians already think of atheists as nearly synonymous with Satanists; hence atheists have an uncomfortable relationship with Satanists and don’t want to be associated with the Devil.

Even more so than the term “Atheist”, “Satanist” has an immediately powerful negative connotations. And on the one hand, I definitely think that those people who wish to create a secular political and social force big enough to stand up to religious groups that are trying to make their faith-based beliefs govern the private lives of the rest of us, need to think about how they are perceived because it does impact the message being shared.

But there is still a very good reason to rescue Satan from his eternal cell of automatic-guilt; punished for a crime he was created to commit, as essential to the Christian plan of salvation as Jesus himself, and stereotyped into a boogey-man of evil and terror in order to frighten people into the arms of God.

Why should we give Satan a second chance, a new trial?

Why should we listen to his voice at all?

Because the term Satan is a wall, a barrier, a defense.

Religious people used to use the words “God” or “Holy” or “Divine” to sanctify their beliefs and values, and those terms were unquestionable. Why? can be answered by “Because God said so.” Humanists, atheists and skeptics have trampled this apparent barrier, forging through the taboo protecting sacred topics from inquiry and doubt, and demanding answers through rational discourse. As a result, Christians and the religious have lost one of their most precious defenses – the appeal to the tautology that God and Holy and Divine are automatically synonymous with the term Good – and inviolable, because “Good” is a universally positive statement that no one can disagree with or question.

But the flip side of this same theme is that of Evil, represented by Satan. Christians will call atheists “Satanists”, and atheists have to struggle to prove that they are not evil, they are not Satanists, that in fact they have positive moral values. But strangely, the literary figure of Satan has always represented some of the same values that humanists and atheists champion – like freedom, equality, the right to choice, to representative politics, the right to bear arms and rebel.

Trying to distance itself from Satan, who is actually an ally and forerunner to the movement, a powerful influence on the development of the very values humanists proclaim, is a failed project and appears disingenuous. Atheists are already quick to judge God and remove his protective labels of “Good” by identifying and criticizing the depravity of his actions recorded in the Bible and other literature – why shouldn’t they take the obvious and natural next step of taking a deep and penetrating look at the devil and questioning the common social assumptions concerning his actions? Shouldn’t the religious identification of Satan with evil values automatically lead atheists to question its validity and predict that Satan – as the polar opposite of the God they deny – represents the values that they hold dear?

Instead, atheists and Christians alike continue to condemn Satan as evil and allow the traditional stereotype that he is a liar, untrustworthy, sinful, etc. to stand. But if our society agrees universally that Satan represents negative values, isn’t it all-too-easy for everyone to continue making the counter association between God and Good values? Somehow Satan, God’s nemesis and opposite, has been completely cut off from the moral discussion concerning belief in God, and while God’s virtuousness and existence is being challenged, Satan’s deviousness is not.

The Paradise Lost Connection

If you grew up in a Western country, you are probably a Satanist. If you find this offensive, it’s because you’ve been taught that “Satan” is evil incarnate, and “Satanic” is a synonym for “bad”. However the Western values that are so cherished today, including equality, personal autonomy, the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are all values that were deemed as categorically Satanic by religious authorities when they first emerged.

They were promoted and defended by liberal, usually anti-religious, freethought thinkers and criticized, condemned and punished by Church authorities. Nevertheless, thanks to the artists, philosophers, poets and writers who turned away from religion and embraced a humanistic value system that celebrated life, experience and the pursuit and conquest of our desires, who saw in the courageous pursuit of personal growth and fulfillment of desires the true meaning and value of life, these values triumphed and became integral to contemporary society.

Nowhere is this link made more clear than in the reaction to Milton’s Satan in Prometheus Lost, which inspired a direct chain of influence – a chain I hope to reclaim in the book I’m working on, Satan is my Hero.

For the past several decades, literary theory has focused almost exclusively on championing minority voices and challenging “majority narratives”. Universal meaning has broken down into fragmented, traumatized, unrepresented narratives – the subaltern, the colonized, the victims. The battle cry of contemporary literally theorists, based on Foucault, Derrida, Badiou, and Zizek, is to challenge authority, to resist definitions, to be fluid, to cross boundaries, to “Deterritorialize”.

In the humanities, very few topics are off grounds. Due to the explosion of popular media featuring traditional “evil” characters like witches and vampires as protagonists (Twilight, Harry Potter, etc.), there have been hundreds of conferences and literary papers discussing this new breed of heroism.

So I was a little taken aback when, in my first graduate class on Milton’s Paradise Lost I suggested the Satan had all the qualities of an epic hero, I was denounced.  Apparently, not only is that flatly untrue, but it is exactly the mistake that Milton purposely and cleverly lured me into – by presenting Satan with heroic qualities, the unsuspecting reader will let their guard down and be convinced by Satan’s rhetoric, proving just how crafty the devil really is, and why we need to be on our guard against him.

It was obviously very complicated, the professor told me, and as I was just a graduate student I couldn’t get it, but take his word for it, the most reputable scholars in Milton study all agreed that Satan was the bad guy, that we needed to be careful – that viewing him as the hero was a rookie mistake. I had been fooled, by Satan, he told me; but that was exactly Milton’s intention: to show me how tricky Satan can be. I pointed out that Milton himself was a revolutionary, that he tried at one point to overthrow the king, that he believed in rule by merit and was against rule-by birth on principle – and that Satan’s speeches in Paradise Lost exactly mimic Milton’s own political views.

Doing my own research, I found that Milton’s Satan was viewed as a hero by the Romantics, then the Modernists. The revolutionary, anti-religious spirit sparked by Milton’s Satan had massive importance to the development of contemporary human rights, the political revolutions of Europe and America, and the philosophical and political thinking of America’s founding fathers and the Rationalist/Enlightenment thinkers that preceded them.

Milton’s Satan was perhaps the single greatest influence on contemporary cultural values. With all this in mind I decided to write my PhD Thesis on Satan as the Hero of Paradise Lost, and explore his social value and import. After writing my first paper, the professor in my first year told me “don’t take the easy way out.” Viewing Satan as a hero is simplistic. It’s old fashioned – the Romantics can’t have been right, they were mistaken. Literary theory has progressed since then.

I wondered why it was so difficult to view Satan as the Hero. This prejudice against Satan has also clearly steered literary reaction to other great texts of the western literary tradition. Captain Ahab, for example, is scorned as the crazy, monomaniacal fool who persisted in his “ludicrous” goal, and this pride and determination led directly to his death. The traditional reading of Moby Dick has been that “God” or the Forces of Nature lie outside of mankind’s control, and we have to learn to be humble and learn to accept things that are beyond our understanding and control.

But isn’t this a religious interpretation? What crime was it for Ahab to pursue a whale? He was Captain of a whaling ship, after all. Should he have instead listened to the superstitions of his crew and avoided certain whales that were bad luck? Should he have avoided the defining battle and challenge  of his life, to chase weak and easy whales for  a quick profit?

Likewise, in the proto-science fiction of the various Faust-figures (including Manfred, Dr. Frankenstein, and more recently hundreds of movies warning of the dangers of AI, invention, and scientific exploration) – pulling back the curtain into the nature of the universe in order to gain more power and control is always portrayed as evil, and meant as a lesson against unmitigated scientific progress.

I found a persistent and wide divide between my western values, self-belief, confidence, self-determination, courage, bravery and pioneering spirit; a sense of rebellion in the face of tyranny and authority (cultivated in particular by nearly every Hollywood movie I’d ever seen); the right to resist slavery by force, the right to change your mind, the right to start over, to quit your job, to make mistakes; the right to be your own person – between all of this and the traditionalist, conservative readings I was being taught in regards to Paradise Lost.

Satan is a temptation, I was told; according to Stanley Fish, Milton is using reader harassment to trick readers into feeling sympathy for Satan to prove that Satan can’t be trusted and to show how powerful his rhetoric can be. No matter what Satan says, no matter how rational, backed by evidence, and apparently true it is – even if his arguments convince and persuade us, we must close our ears entirely and refuse to believe him; and instead to place faith in God, even if he appears on the surface as a mean and foul tyrant. We must distrust our own reading of the text and place faith in scholars that tell us what is really happening beneath the surface. This has been the mainstream way to read Milton for the past 50 years. It is an ugly, silly, and scholarly weak position; and yet it is the same ideology under which Satan is unanimously presented in TV, Movies and Contemporary Literature.

It was with much joy that I realized that I was not alone in questioning this academic stagnation: recent scholarship is again accepting the classical interpretation that Satan really is the hero of Paradise Lost. Hence, CS Lewis’ introduction to Paradise Lost warning readers against the crafty Satan has been replaced by one written by Philip Pullman, whose “Dark Materials” series is deliberately structured as an “Anti Paradise Lost”. Neil Forsyth turned the tables with his book The Satanic Epic.

But even though the scholarly tide is turning, and research into Satan as a Hero is once again tolerated, the public disavowal and refusal to listen to the voice of Satan is so fierce that even atheists have been forced to distance themselves from him.

Hence, the purpose of my book is to give Satan a fair trial – to ask what laws he violated, and with what reasons he did so, and more generally to ask when transgressing such laws is morally justifiable; to review the evidence against him, and hear his own defense; if guilty, to see if the punishment is commensurate with the crime, and if innocent, to liberate him.