May 10, 1997

Poll Indicates Diminished Role of Devil



Polls tend to show that Americans are a largely religious people, with something close to 95 percent claiming a belief in God, and large numbers saying they think that heaven exists, and so too do angels.

But the people who respond to those polls appear to have an easier time personalizing religious concepts of good than of evil. Events like the Salem witch trials notwithstanding, this is a nation inclined more to theological optimism than to pondering literal representations of faith's dark side.

For evidence, one might look to a recent finding by the Barna Research Group, market researchers in Oxnard, Calif., who reported last week that nearly two-thirds of Americans do not believe in the devil as a living entity.

In a nationwide telephone survey of 1,007 randomly selected people earlier this year, Barna's pollsters asked whether they agreed that Satan is "not a living being, but is a symbol of evil." Sixty-two percent agreed with the statement, while 30 percent disagreed; the remaining 8 percent had no opinion.

The results echo a survey Barna did two years ago, in which people were asked whether they thought hell existed as an actual location, "a place of physical torment." Only 31 percent said they thought it did.

Belief in a literal Satan can certainly find a basis in Scripture, not to mention inspiration from some of Western civilization's most influential literature, like Dante's "Inferno" and Milton's "Paradise Lost."

In the Bible, the devil appears, most famously, as Job's tormentor and Jesus' tempter. ("Get thee hence, Satan," Jesus declares in Matthew 4:10, rebuking the devil for having offered him "all the kingdoms of the world.")

So if less than one in three Americans seems willing to give the devil his due, academic authorities say, then that is a result of fundamental, long-term shifts in the nation's religious culture.

R. Scott Appleby, a historian at the University of Notre Dame, said that within the Roman Catholic Church, the influence of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s and the broader ecumenical movement, together with a greater interest by church authorities in the behavioral sciences, had pushed aside much discussion of hell and the devil.

Appleby, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at Notre Dame, cited an academic study of sermons preached by parish priests in the 1980s. It showed that talk of Satan "had diminished markedly," while far more emphasis was placed on topics like loving one's neighbor and being a good steward of the earth and its resources.

E. Brooks Holifield, professor of American church history at Emory University, said that among many Protestants, belief in the devil probably fell during "three big shifting points" in their religious culture -- in the 1830s, the 1890s and the 1920s -- when an emergent theological liberalism overrode Calvinist and fundamentalist thinking.

Anthony Delbanco, a professor of English at Columbia University, said he had reservations about poll questions that asked people to define their beliefs in "either-or" terms.

But Delbanco, author of "The Death of Satan" (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1995), a book about the shrinking role that the idea of the devil has played in America, added that the declining belief in Satan as a real being had contributed to a loss of the devil as a cultural symbol, which in turn, the professor said, carries its own problem.

"The vocabulary that the culture once supplied to explain evil has become impoverished," he said.

Yet there are many for whom the devil remains a reality, the ultimate and undiminished embodiment of evil.

Among those belonging to this group is most of the membership of more than 15 million in the Southern Baptist Convention, said William Merrell, that evangelical denomination's vice president for convention relations.

"I think the vast majority of Southern Baptists would believe that Satan is a real personage, not someone to be taken lightly," he said. "He is the implacable enemy of all God's people."

What is more, Merrell said that within Southern Baptist ranks, he had lately seen a resurgence of preaching and writing on the devil.

"I have quite a large number of new titles on Satan," he said. "I've got seven or eight books on my library shelf that are specifically related to Satan and his works."


Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company