In an interview with New York Magazine, Antonin Scalia said that “most of mankind has believed in the Devil, for all of history. Many more intelligent people than you or me have believed in the Devil.” I think it’s fair to say that over the course of recorded human history, there have always been various incarnations of evil supernatural beings. The ancient Egyptians had Set, god of chaos and darkness, known for killing and mutilating the god Osiris. Mesopotamian religions had hundreds of evil demons like Pazuzu or Lamashtu. Even in New Jersey, we have one of our own.
I can’t get on board with Scalia’s views. I don’t believe in gods or devils. Both serve to misattribute the goodness of everyday people and shift blame from the acts of wicked individuals. But my real problem with Scalia’s statements is not his religious views. I take issue with how Scalia uses history in the service of fear mongering. He says that mankind has believed in the Devil “for all of history,” so I assume he does not just mean the Christian conception of Satan. While based on a slew of Abrahamic and Mesopotamian demons, the Devil as we know him has only been around for fewer than two millennia. Hardly “all of history.”
I’m sure Scalia meant that “the Devil” includes gods like Set or demons like Lamashtu. Yet Satan differs from your Beelzebubs, Samaels, and Molochs. He’s more hated, more feared. Set may have been unpopular with the Egyptians, but they still worshipped him every so often. Lamashtu was said to prey on the unborn in Mesopotamia, but the right necklace could keep her away. The ancient world always had evil, but rarely was there a single personification like the Devil. Satan as evil incarnate is a relatively new concept.
Scalia is dead wrong. He wants to convince you that living in fear of the devil is distinctive to humanity. Yet, monotheism, and the devil that goes with it, is a recent invention. We’ve only just begun to see evil as an active, unified force. Don’t let Scalia’s spurious argument convince you that the status quo is how it’s always been or how it should always be. I’m not trying to glorify the ancient world. I simply believe that ancient religions offered better depictions of evil. Regardless of what part of the past Scalia references when he says “all of history,” perhaps it is not a good model for the modern world. Scalia’s weak appeal to historical fears of the devil does not justify how we view evil today. I’d much rather live in a world where evil actions are attributed to the forces which made them, rather than some foul devil.