Exploring the crossroads of religion, culture, and science through a Pagan lens

A Pagan View of Evil, Part 2: Psychology Finds the Devil Inside

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Pagans will never agree on one definition of evil, nor on one concept of where evil comes from.  The first post in this series discussed some approaches some pagans may take, based on common beliefs and hermetic laws.  But that was the “medium answer.”  Now I want to explore the long answer to how Pagans may think about the devil, sources of evil, and how this may differ from the beliefs of Christianity or any other mainstream religion.

Damh the Bard’s song “Green and Grey” holds more than just the idea that evil comes from free will.  What I think he’s actually getting at is that evil is not a result of an outer “devil” that tempts us, but rather that ultimate source of evil behavior is inside each and every human being.

On the face, this might seem to agree with the Christian idea that we are all born sinners who need Christ to save us from Hell.  It doesn’t, though.  Pagans tend to believe that this world is sacred, not fallen, and therefore all people are sacred and all elements of this physical world from food to sex to exercise are expressions of the divine worth celebrating.

But people make mistakes.  Most of those mistakes stem from a part of us that is selfish, emotional, childish, fearful, or protective.  It is these impulses, these parts of ourselves, that often cause us to do “bad” things.  These parts of ourselves are not evil, but they may cause us to do things that appear to be evil.

In the Temple of Witchcraft tradition, we learn a three-soul model.  The highest self is that eternal part of you, your shining self that continues on after you die.  The middle self is your incarnated soul that dies when you do.  The lower self, or Shadow, is that more emotional, fearful part of you.  It’s not evil, but it’s primal.  It can be your friend if you listen to it in balance with your other souls.

Different traditions call it different things, but this is a common theme in many pagan traditions, especially witchcraft traditions.  It’s not just a religious thing, either.  The shadow is similar to Sigmund Freud’s “id,” that selfish part of us that seeks pleasure at all costs.  He even split the id into Eros, or love instinct, and Thanatos, or death instinct.  We all get pleasure from happy things, but we also get pleasure from destructive things.  Just look at violent video games and movies.  Both the Eros and the Thanatos, if given full reign, can lead to bad behavior.

Pagans would be more likely to believe along these lines: No one is inherently bad or evil.  Our actions may be evil, but we do those actions out of a misunderstood impulse that stems from our shadow.  We are all sacred and good, but we are all equally capable of making bad choices.

Science backs us up on this.  While Freud’s ideas are unprovable through any verifiable scientific method, social psychologists have studied evil behaviors extensively.  Interest began after the Holocaust, when people all over the world reacted in horror to revelations of genocide and torture performed by the Nazis.

How could an entire nation let this happen?  People at the time wondered if there was just something wrong with Germans.  Psychologists performed a set of famous, disturbing experiments to research this problem.  Here are some of the concepts they discovered:

  • Obedience: Stanley Milgram’s brilliant experiment on obedience still “shocks” people to this day.  In a deviously deceptive test, Milgram proved that 75% of people would give a deadly electric shock to another person if an official-looking person tells them to, even when the victim is crying in pain.

  • Conformity: Solomon Asch’s famous line experiment proved that people often go along with a crowd, even when the crowd is clearly wrong.

Conformity, evil, paganism

The subject in the middle questioned, but went along with the wrong answer chosen by the actors around him. Is he evil?

  • Deindividuation: The classic Stanford Prison Experiment dramatically showed that normal people, stripped of their basic identities and placed into a new situation, will conform to group behaviors even if they don’t like those behaviors.


Group Polarization: Normal people get pulled toward extremes, whether those extremes are “good” or “evil.”

  • Group Polarization:  You may go to a movie with friends and think that the movie was mediocre. if your friends loved it, you’ll gravitate toward loving it too.  People do the same thing.  People do the same thing in more severe situations as well: When we have a medium belief and everyone else moves to the extreme, we tend to get pulled to the extreme as well.  Just take Fox News effect on the general public as an example.
  • Groupthink: When we have a leader we admire, and we shut out all dissenting voices, we make bad decisions.  This is one of the main factors behind cult behavior.

It’s not as poetic as calling it your Shadow or your Thanatos, but these well-documented phenomena have been shown to be some the major motivating forces behind bad behavior in humanity.  People aren’t evil or “born sinners,” but we all have the potential to make terrible choices.  The good news is, we are rarely in situations so extreme that our bad behavior could be considered “evil,’ so most of are actively engaged in good for most of our lives.

Pagans usually see all things as sacred, even the Shadow.  The Shadow teaches us about ourselves and about humanity.  It informs us about the potentially harmful emotions deep inside us.  If we listen to it, we learn what motivations lead us toward harmful behavior and can negate them.  It’s a part of us, but it’s not all of us.  It’s not even most of us.  By partnering with it, we can make choices that are not compelled by blind emotion.  We can move toward our highest ideals…and that will be the last part in this series.


Author: Tim

I am a teacher, a theater lover, and a High Priest in the Temple of Witchcraft. I love to point out the places where the everyday world, arts, science, and religion intersect. I stand for interfaith cooperation and the belief that people of all religions, political beliefs, and nationalities have more in common with each other than differences.

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