On Saturday, The Huffington Post published an article entitled “Paganism: An Overview of one of the least understood modern religions.” Overall, without diving down the rabbit hole of details and variables, it was an accurate introductory article. A friend of mine shared it on Facebook, which led to a comment that hit upon one of the least understood portions of my religion: Do Pagans believe in the Devil or that evil exists?
Short answer: No. “Evil” and “Devil” are part of another system of thought, one we don’t subscribe to.
The medium answer, however, is slightly more complicated. Most of us believe that while there may be people in this world who do terrible things, there is no entity that embodies the idea of ultimate evil. If evil exists, then it is a choice that humans make. Instead of blaming our nasty behaviors on some flaming, spite-filled spirit, we take full responsibility for our own actions. Hopefully, we learn from them and take action to improve our lives with honor and dignity.
This answer is best expressed through Damh the Bard’s beautiful song “Green and Grey.” The song tells the story of a priest who encounters a Pan-like god of nature playing his pipes in the forest. The pastor shrinks away from the horned figure. The piper, however, wishes only to have a conversation. The priest accuses the god of being the source of all evil, and the piper god smacks him down at every accusation:
“The priest said, ‘All evil comes from your hand’
The piper said, ‘If evil is, then it lies in the hearts of man,’
‘But you lead us, you tempt us, to rape, to steal, to kill’
The piper said, ‘Whatever happened to free will?’”
If there is evil in this world, it is from Mankind’s own choices. If we do bad things, then that is our choice. Just as we can’t blame McDonald’s if we overindulge in their products and become obese and unhealthy, we also can’t blame a nefarious spiritual entity for our bad decisions. We must deal with the consequences ourselves. It’s freeing, but that freedom is also scary. We have no scapegoat and must accept the brunt of our actions head-on.
How many times have rapists used an excuse like “But she wore a short skirt”? The implication is that men can’t control their own actions. The truth is that no matter how much a woman shows off her legs, the evil comes when a man makes the choice to rape that woman. Period. No excuses. It’s easy to blame the tempter, but in the end the man made the choice to hurt another human being. That’s where evil lives.
The same is true when we go with the excuse of “The Devil made me do it.” The entire idea of a Devil is a cop out.
The problem of evil is a difficult one for monotheistic faiths, for they have to deal with the classic hammer blow by the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
Monotheism has attracted the masses over the past two thousand years, but that attraction has often come at the point of a sword. It had to be that way, because monotheism’s answers to the problem of evil are unsatisfactory to many of us, right back to Epicurus.
Paganism, on the other hand, posits a universe full of energies and deities with varying powers, interests, and moralities. Our gods are not perfect. Like any of us, they have their passions and their problems. They love and they hate; they create and destroy; they have their triumphs and their failures. They are us like us, but on a higher level. Pagans refer to this as the Principle of Correspondence, “As above, so below,” but the greater idea is that the gods are just like us. They, like us, range from incredibly wonderful to neutral to nasty. Most of them are somewhere near the center. Polytheism is a lot like the bell curve.
One of the easiest Pagan explanations for evil comes from the Hermetic Principles. I’ve already quoted to Principle of Correspondence: As above, so below. The gods and other cosmic entities are just as varied in their morality, victories, and failures just as we are here on earth. Our imperfection here in the physical world reflects the same imperfection in the world of the gods, as it also reflects the same imperfections in the world below. Both our highest and our lowest ideals are reflected in the way we live here on earth.
Other Hermetic Principles help us to define our conception of evil. Among them are:
- The Principle of Mentalism: All of us are thoughts of the Divine Mind. We are all thoughts within the mind of the Creator. If we are of the creator, then we are part of the creator. Therefore, we are part of the Creator’s efforts to understand him/herself. Just as we entertain a series of good and bad thoughts to help us define ourselves, the Creator is doing the same thing as he/she seeks to understand his/her creation. As above, so below: how are we creating evil or good within our own mind?
- The Principle of Polarity: Everything is dual and everything has extremes. Every action you see has a gradient of natures attached to it. From your own view it may seem evil, but if you put yourself into the mind of the person doing it, it might seem good, neutral, or somewhere in between. Every action in this world has results that are good for some, neutral for others, bad for others, and somewhere along the spectrum for still others. Nothing is specifically and inarguably good or evil.
- The Principle of Rhythm: Everything has its ebbs and flows. What may seem like a dark and horrible thing now could be the source of strength and happiness later. Just like the economy goes through regular cycles of boom and bust, our lives do the same thing. Periods of darkness painful as they are, may lead us to understand more about ourselves and empower our regrowth and rebirth.
- The Principle of Cause and Effect: Every effect has its cause and every cause has its effect. Whatever you see going on in the word had something that made it happen. Whatever you do in the world will lead to future effects. Even the most difficult and evil of circumstances has causes somewhere in the past, and everything you do will lead to some kind of consequence, whether positive or negative. The most awful choices we make are the effects of previous decisions. The most seemingly evil events in history are the results of previous events and current historical realities. There are plenty of evil figures in history, but their actions are consequences of what was going on at the time they lived. As unhinged as many of these figures seem to us now, they were products of a unique interaction of cause and effect that could never be re-created in modern times. The French Revolution began with the idea of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” and ended with the Reign of Terror. The Vietnam War started with an attempt to keep communism at bay but ended with a tragically unnecessary slaughter of young men from both sides. That bloodshed led to protests, which led to terrible incidents like the shooting at Kent State and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, who had transformed his civil rights work into a powerful message of peace. Nothing is isolated; everything has an origin.
That’s the medium answer. The long answer contains an intricate combination of core elements of paganism with the findings of social science. Both Good and Evil have more faces than a simple God vs. Devil theology can account for, just as the Principle of Polarity asserts that there are many more gradations the the morality spectrum than the blacks and whites that this subject is normally relegated to can adequately represent.
The National Guard units who killed student protesters at Kent State have bared the mantle of “evil” since May 4, 1970, but they saw themselves as protecting democracy against the evils of communism and a threat against national security. They thought they were doing good. Nothing is clear. We have the benefit of hindsight, but they were acting in the moment.
There is so much more to say. Psychology has researched the problem of evil within the minds and behaviors of human beings. I’ll expand on the scientific and religious views of evil as this series continues.