The Ethics of the devil

Islamists and Christian fundamentalists tend to demonize opponents in a way that is alien to the attitude of most observant Jews.

Rafael Castro, | updated: 22:49

OpEds Why ethics?
Why ethics?
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A distinction is often made between Judeo-Christian ethics and Islamic ethics. Judeo-Christian ethics are supposedly mild and compassionate, whereas Islamic ethics embrace aggressiveness and violence. Nevertheless, my decade-long experience in social media suggests that fundamentalist Christians can be no less aggressive than their Islamic counterparts in denouncing not only each other, but also homosexuals, abortion activists and progressive politicians.

Even though traditional Judaism is opposed to these practices, few practicing Jews indulge in the demonization of opponents which is so fashionable in other milieus. This reluctance to paint adversaries with a broad brush encompasses Jewish attitudes to Muslims, which, far from being as hostile as the latest eight decades might warrant, are remarkably nuanced.

In order to understand why in many respects Christians and Muslims seem to be on the same page in their reaction to hostile forces, I propose a distinction between the combative ethics dear to most Muslims and many Christians and the constructive ethics embraced by Jews.

A combative view of ethics calls upon us to fight evil wherever it is found. A constructive view of ethics calls upon us to fight for goodness whenever possible. Thus, the person devoted to combative ethics will fight poverty, injustice and oppression, whereas the person devoted to constructive ethics will fight for wealth-redistribution (or wealth-creation), justice and freedom. This is not an academic distinction, but a crucial difference based on our essential understanding of ethics as primarily a fight against evil or a struggle for goodness.

At first glance, it appears unfair to distinguish Christianity from Judaism in this regard. After all, the Christian Gospels are less militant than most books found in the Hebrew Bible. It is Jesus, not the Prophets who invites his followers to love their enemies and turn their cheeks to them. Nevertheless, it is clear that most Christians don’t subscribe to the literal meaning of these words. This is not just a reflection of how hard and unrealistic such a course of action usually is. Tolerating evil also clashes with the Christian imperative to resist and oppose Satan.

In the Jewish tradition, Satan plays a very limited role. The Satan, or Ha-Satan, is merely the heavenly prosecutor who makes a case in the divine court against the sincerity of righteous figures like Abraham and Job. This is a far cry from the role that Christianity and Islam assign to Satan. Both in Christianity and in Islam the devil is a powerful force that opposes God’s designs and lures men and women to sin and perdition. In this regard, fighting and defeating the devil in Islam and Christianity is a prerequisite for God’s earthly will to be realized.


The importance attributed to the devil in a culture and religion is directly related to its inclination to engage in combative ethics vis-à-vis constructive ethics.
The importance attributed to the devil in a culture and religion is directly related to its inclination to engage in combative ethics vis-à-vis constructive ethics. In a world where Satan is viewed as omnipresent, goodness can only be achieved by fighting evil. In a world where the devil does not exist, the temptation to view ethics as a fight against evil is less appealing. It is thus not surprising that in Islamic milieus where the devil’s presence is acutely felt, the lure of combative ethics is far stronger than in Judaism or contemporary Christianity.

During many centuries Christianity was also under the spell of Satan. The massacres of cats which facilitated the plague, the Salem witch trials and the rhetoric of clericalist parties which in the 19th and early 20th century labelled progressive adversaries as satanic, highlights the crucial role of the devil in the Christian consciousness and ethical worldview. This is the most plausible reason to explain why both Islamists and Christian fundamentalists tend to demonize opponents in a way that is alien to the attitude of most observant Jews.

Focusing on the devil in order to account for differences in human behavior and worldviews in the 21st century may appear absurd. Nevertheless, given that the Manichaean worldview of Islamists and fundamentalist Christians is not shared by people who do not believe in the devil, it makes sense to pursue further research that ascertains how individual and collective attitudes towards the devil and ethics interact and shape each other.

It would be therefore extremely interesting to research whether the role people accord to the devil correlates with their preference for combative vis-à-vis constructive ethics. A scientific demonstration of this relationship could shed light on a crucial cultural and psychological factor – and on the malignant shade the devil casts to this day.   

Researchers and academics are welcome to contact the author at rafaelcastro78@gmail.com to jointly pursue this research project.




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