Posted on 20 February 2012.
“The Devil lives in the Vatican. He has won over the confidences of people but naturally its difficult to find proof but the consequences are visible.”
— Father Gabriel Amorth, Chief Exorcist of Pope Benedict XVI
If Satan possessed the Pope, and his horde of demons took over every priest, bishop, and archbishop in the Vatican, would Catholics find out? What kind of evidence would be necessary to prove such a claim? And would any Catholic investigate or even suspect that such Satanic control is the case? What if this has been the case for hundreds or even thousands of years?
This is not a conspiracy theory. As a naturalist, I don’t believe in demons or Satan or any of the creatures and characters in Catholic mythology. What I do believe is that regardless of your religious beliefs, skepticism and doubt is necessary, especially when it comes to claims made by religion. I hope to convince you with the following intellectual exercise that even if you believed in God, you’d be better off believing as a freethinker.
If you’re a nonbeliever like I am, please humor me by playing along. If you’re a believer, however, I hope you’ll agree that the question is of utmost importance.
What if the deity you’re praying to is the Devil? What if the tenets you’ve been told to believe and the orders you’ve been told to obey have been devised to sound convincing but calculated to result in more evil than good? If faith can be used to justify belief in Satan in the same way it’s used to justify belief in God, can you possibly tell the difference?
The Devil’s Best Trick
“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” This line from The Usual Suspects is a rephrasing of a line from a prose poem by Charles Baudelaire titled “The Generous Gambler.” In the story, the Devil says that the only time he feared for his power was when a preacher exposed his best trick: convincing others of his nonexistence.
But I think Baudelaire doesn’t give the Devil enough credit. What would suit the Devil more is if he managed to convince the world that he and his minions were God’s representatives, and that God’s true representatives were sinners and demons.
If Satan existed, this would be his most effective tactic to win the War on Heaven. And he’d be doing it in a way that would insult God the most: What could be more blasphemous than glorifying Satan and demonizing God?
If Satan is as devious as he’s made out to be, then it’s exactly the kind of thing he would do. If he’s as powerful as he’s made out to be, then he could certainly do it. And if Satan could and would do such a thing, how can anyone tell whether he’s already done it?
The Satan Hypotheses
For the sake of this intellectual exercise, let’s consider the following hypotheses:
- Satan exists and he is extremely evil and extremely powerful.
- Satan and his demons are disguised as the Catholic Church hierarchy in the Vatican.
- Satan has been convincing Catholics of this fact since the first century.
- Satan would do everything in his power to maintain the deception.
- Satan’s goal is not to bring the world to a perfectly evil state but to keep the world at its most evil state possible at all times.
I’m sure that many of you would think that such things are so implausible they’re not even worth considering. But remember that even the Vatican considered the possibility: The Vatican’s resident expert on demons said that the clerical child abuse scandals were caused by Satan infiltrating the Church:
‘The Devil lives in the Vatican. He has won over the confidences of people but naturally its difficult to find proof but the consequences are visible.
‘We have cardinals who don’t believe in Christ, bishops connected with demons. Then we have these stories of pedophilia. You can see the rot when we speak of Satan’s smoke in the holy rooms.’
‘The Devil is invisible, he is a pure spirit. But in the people he possesses he can be seen through pain and blasphemies but he can also remain hidden.
Fr. Gabriele Amorth, Chief Exorcist of Rome
The Vatican takes Satan seriously, and will surely agree with my first hypothesis: Satan is extremely evil and powerful. And if our other hypotheses are true, saying that their no. 1 goal is to defeat Satan is a good tactic because it effectively deflects suspicion.
Aside from the clerical abuse scandals, there are historical atrocities — such as the Crusades and the Inquisition — that are so evil they can easily be attributed to Satanic infiltration or influence. There are also atrocities like slavery and the Holocaust that, although not directly done by the Church, were condoned or justified through Catholic dogma. On an interesting note, Father Amorth said that Pope Pius XII attempted a long distance exorcism of Hitler.
One thing these atrocities do is counter a common objection to the Satan hypotheses: God will never let anything so evil happen. If history has taught us anything, it’s that regardless of the possibility of God’s existence, great evil is not only a possibility, it’s a reality.
Another objection to the Satan hypotheses would be a similar theistic response to the Problem of Evil: God allows evil so that good can be done. Although some good certainly came out of these — people learning lessons, helping others, etc. — Satan’s goal is not to prevent all good but to lead others to commit a lot of evil. And seen from the perspective of the Satan hypotheses, such an objection is the kind of justification consistent with Satan’s deception. What would be a more devious way of promoting evil than convincing people that Evil is good for Good?
The Inquisition: Godly or Satanic?
Now consider the fact that even though such evils were caused by the Church, Catholics still believe that the Vatican represents the voice of God. This fact would still be consistent with our hypotheses. And if Satan has been using his power to deceive Catholics since the first century, then ignoring Catholic evils (or interpreting them as good) would be the response we could expect of Catholics who’ve been brainwashed for centuries.
“But what about the Bible?” some would object. “If such a thing were possible, wouldn’t God warn us by writing it in his Holy Book?”
Remember that if this scheme is to work, Satan would have been there from the beginning. And convincing people would have been a lot easier back then when people were more credulous and skepticism was not held as a virtue. All Satan would have to do would be to convince uneducated desert-dwellers I’m certain that even the least educated modern-day criminal is capable of such deception. What more the Prince of Deception himself? Even if Satan managed just this and then kept his distance, time and tradition could have done the rest. What more if his influence was present in each step of a process that took two thousand years?
I’m sure that more than a few Catholics reading this will start to feel some doubt. What if all this is true? What if I’ve been praying to Satan all my life?! Most — if not all — will probably respond with the following word: faith. If you doubt anything that the Church teaches, you fight it with faith. If you can’t do something the Church commands, you fight it with faith. If you doubt the Church — let alone Jesus or God himself! — you fight it with faith.
If our hypotheses are true, how do you think faith would fit into the picture? Would Satan convince people of the virtues of having faith? Would Satan’s scheme work better with people having faith in the Church?
Consider the following statement: I don’t fully understand what the Church commands, and it runs contrary to my logic and common sense, but I have faith that God — in his own mysterious way — has a reason, so I will believe, I will obey. Is this the kind of statement that would support our hypothetical Satan’s scheme?
The God Hypothesis
If a good God existed (in addition to the version of Satan above) he would know what his adversary was up to and would try to counter it. He would also know that his adversary would try to distort whatever teaching he tried to impart. So this good God would beat Satan by embedding in his human creation something to counter Satan’s deception: doubt.
And he wouldn’t have to take a thousand years (and countless lives) to write a single book to hold all his teachings. It would be enough to give short and simple reminders such as this:
“It is proper for you Kalamas [the people of the village of Kesaputta] to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blameable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill, abandon them.
“…Do not accept anything by mere tradition… Do not accept anything just because it accords with your scriptures… Do not accept anything merely because it agrees with your pre-conceived notions… But when you know for yourselves—these things are moral, these things are blameless, these things are praised by the wise, these things, when performed and undertaken, conduce to well-being and happiness—then do you live acting accordingly.”
This is taken from the Kalama Sutta, what one Theravada monk calls the Buddha’s Charter of Free Inquiry. I’m not trying to say that Buddha is God and Buddhism is the right religion. But within the context of our hypotheses above, this type of religious message makes Satanic infiltration less plausible. And even if people religiously adhered to this kind of message, I’m sure more good than evil would come of it.
But what does the Catholic Church think of such messages? Right from the start, such relativistic and individualistic ideas have been demonized — the first infallible pope included such statements in the Syllabus of Errors. Which is exactly what we’d expect if the Satan hypotheses were true.
If You Worshipped Satan, Would You Know?
If you’re a Catholic, I’m sure you’d agree that there’s something to gain by knowing how to verify that you are indeed praying to the proper God. Ask your priest and I’m sure they’d agree that such skepticism is a good idea. If they don’t, then, well…
If you do find a way to disprove the Satan hypotheses (even if you’re not Catholic) please post it in the comments section below. I have sincerely tried to think of a way to disprove them, but have failed. In the end, all I could think of was faith.
UPDATE: A fellow freethinker told me that Stephen Law has posed a similar challenge earlier as the Evil-God hypothesis. I haven’t read it entirely, but it seems like a more comprehensive and sophisticated version of the Satan hypotheses above. You can read about the Evil-God hypothesis here.