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image25The first sin was not the eating of an apple (or even a pomegranate). No, it began when mankind (or at least Eve) gave an ear to the Serpent, or so the story goes, at least according to my old Bible-as-Literature prof. I try to keep that in mind whenever I find myself cast in the role of that Serpent, or at least one of his servants.

I am speaking of course of those moments when someone tells me that I worship Satan, or that I serve him. It is common enough to see this charge leveled at atheists, at least on the net. I doubt its occurrence is limited to that context.

I must say that it took me some time to wrap my mind around the concept. You might think it would be a little difficult to worship an entity in which you don’t believe. I certainly did. But it turns out to be remarkably easy to serve him, he does all the work for you, even without letting you know about it. I have been reassured many times that my actions serve the dark lord, regardless of my own conscious intent. I have also been told that deep down I know this to be the case, whether I will admit it or not. It’s always fascinating to find out what I know and what I believe, especially when it has the makings of a good horror story.

Just think of it; you have two competing stories!

– On the one hand, I would like to think of my story as one of a sincere guy tapping away at the keyboard in the hopes that he can present a reasonable case for a position that he thinks is correct. In the end maybe I can teach something to someone, or perhaps learn something from a well-reasoned response. We could call this the intellectual exchange model of the disc… hey you! Wake up, dammit!

– Okay, on the other hand, you have a minion of Lucifer operating under the auspices of the Dark Lord himself to invest ordinary binary code with the force of evil and send it out to work its insidious wonders on unsuspecting believers. The argument itself is hardly important; it serves as a vehicle for some sort of insidious power.

renaissance-the-school-of-athens-classic-art-paitings-raphael-painter-rafael-philosophers-HD-WallpapersHonestly, it doesn’t take much effort to figure out which is the more interesting story. (Sigh!) And if you too count yourself as a vocal non-believer, this whole thing probably rings a bell or three in your own experience.

In truth, there is little one could do to answer such a claim, that one serves Satan, because of course every answer you give would be subject to the same suspicion. This is why I am inclined to think of the story of Adam and Eve here. …and of the Serpent. The trouble really does begin for that narrative in the decision to listen to that serpent as it is an act of disloyalty to God. To speak with His enemy at all is itself unthinkable! Subsequent troubles could hardly be surprising; they are the narrative consequence of willfully opening oneself to an evil message. If that’s the way some believers see the input of atheists, then that doesn’t bode well for anything along the lines of, um, constructive dialogue.

I do think this is the model behind the charge that atheists serve Satan. It not merely some bit of empirical confusion about what we do and don’t believe, so much as it is a warning about the nature of any message we happen to carry. That is precisely the point of casting atheists in the role of Satan’s servants; it is in effect to construe our every word and deed as an evil which one ought not to give reasonable consideration. It isn’t really even the metaphysics of this proposition that matters; it’s the pragmatics. Simply put, the moral of the story is don’t listen to anyone who casts any sort of doubt on God.

I have tried myself and seen others attempt a range of different responses to this kind of charge, but lately I am inclined to accept it.

I’ll be your huckleberry.

250px-GustaveDoreParadiseLostSatanProfileI don’t mean to say that I actually intend harm to others, but I am simply done trying to convince certain parties that I (or other atheists) can be good without God. If these are the terms, then I sometimes want to say ‘so be it’. I will not give those who make such accusations the satisfaction of trying to plead innocence from the bottom of a poisoned well.

The whole accusation smacks of manipulation of course, but it is not merely manipulation, because some people actually do seem to believe it, or at least they say that they do. In its own right, this sort of charge is actually a fascinating example of the limitations of reasoning.

Another of my old professors, Maurice Finnochiaro, used to talk about the study of argumentation as an historical phenomenon. He was interested in meta-argumentation, arguments about arguments. And in its own way this little gift of frustration for an unbeliever is in fact an argument about an argument. It is a clear and concise statement about the prospects for constructive discussion, albeit a rather pessimistic one.

The viewpoint in question is very much informed by the outlook of Spiritual Warfare. It reflects a range of suppositions about the spiritual powers at play in the world. It is the same sort of thinking that finds Satanic messages in so many rock&roll lyrics, Devil Worshipers in Day-care centers everywhere, and demons in Hentai images. It is the same thinking that leads to talk of protecting baby-Christians (those new in the faith) from exposure to other views, and it is the same sort of thinking that plays havoc with the lives of homosexuals in Uganda and other places where some Charismatic Christians go to press for policies they could never manage in the west. But seriously, my list of horribles aside, the point is that there is a body of religious tenets behind the sort of charge that atheists serve Satan. If we are inconvenienced by the whole thing, chances are we should count our blessings.

…though we won’t actually want to call them ‘blessings’ of course.

But the charge of Satanic worship, absurd though it may be to the mind of an unbeliever is a good reminder of the reflexive nature of reasoning. It would be a swell world for rationalists if we could divide all the ideas of humanity up into those about which we reason and then a separate list of ideas about how to reason about the items on the first list. It would be swell if that second set rested safely outside the scope of disagreement, a sort of neutral arbiter in our disputes. But it just doesn’t work like that. And in this as in any other debate, one must remember that among our disagreements we often also differ on the significance of the disagreements themselves. In other words, part of the argument is also always about the nature of argumentation itself.

Sometimes we are fortunate enough to discuss (or even debate) people with whom we share enough assumptions about the nature of reasoning to proceed with a constructive discussion, even in the face of vast disagreements over issues like belief in God. Folks may not flip their whole belief orientation on the basis of a single conversation (or even thirty of them), but sometimes we shift a little, modify an assumption, or even simply come to appreciate the aesthetics of a well argued point from the other side. Such discussions can be rewarding and pleasant exchanges, …if that is, one starts with a range of assumptions that makes it possible.

Some people just don’t make those same assumptions. When someone says that atheists serve Satan, they are sending a very clear signal that they are not down for the discussion, at least on any terms which would give an unbeliever a chance. To do so would already be a betrayal of their faith, and a mistake exposing them to tremendous evil (evil carried by you and I, my unbelieving friends). It is also a signal that the clear significance of your words (to that person) lies not in the quality of your reasoning so much as an impersonal force over which you may not have conscious control. That force will be the focus of the accuser, not the cogency of any argument you make.

So, what’s a devil to do?

Honestly, I don’t know.

Damn me anyhow!