The best way to get rid of evil is to change our ideas about it. The two concepts about evil that do nothing to end it are, first, the concept of cosmic evil embodied by Satan, and second, the concept of human evil as a permanent human inheritance, part of our nature.
If you Google the phrase "Americans believe in heaven," you find that about 90 percent do, with 75 percent believing in hell and 70 percent in the devil. Those statistics remain fairly uniform from poll to poll; it's strange that there's a drop off between heaven and hell since the two go together in the mind. However, it seems possible that believing in the devil is a matter of having nothing better to put in his place. Evil so perplexes people that attributing it to a cosmic Prince of Darkness provides some explanation at least. It saves the trouble of taking responsibility for evil ourselves.
As a practical matter Satan is all but useless. The number of people who have met him is minuscule. After coming back from near-death experiences, only a small fraction of reports picture hell and its torments; the vast majority experience a benign light and feel a divine presence. Perhaps this is a sign, psychologically or spiritually, that Satan is withering away --over 85 percent of Americans say that they expect to go to heaven, and fear of hell isn't used so intensely by organized religion to frighten children anymore.
Despite the prominent place that old-fashioned sin and the devil occupy in fundamentalism of every stripe, Satan has been culturally evolving over the years. Theologians now describe him as an archetype, myth, psychological projection, or a symptom of guilt and shame. It is indisputable that Satan rises and falls according to changing conditions in society, which means that evil is changing, too. Original sin, which once brought evil into the world as an inevitable birthright, has largely been replaced by evil as a psychological force, which means it has the potential to be treated as a mental disorder and healed.
Inherent evil, whether satanic or human, becomes more real under the following conditions:
-- People feel they deserve punishment instead of healing.
-- A culture believes in the Satan myth.
-- Believers pay attention to that myth and give it value.
-- Guilt is projected outward on to demons instead of healed inside.
-- Wrong-doing accumulates without a means for finding forgiveness, atonement, or purification.
-- Children are put in fear of demons and told that they have power.
Evil, satanic or psychological, becomes less real under the following conditions:
-- People feel they deserve healing instead of punishment.
-- A culture is aware of how myths are made.
-- People are self-aware and take responsibility for their own emotions.
-- There is a belief in forgiveness, healing, and atonement.
-- Outlets for negative energies are found (through therapy, sports, open dialogue, healthy family dynamics, education, etc.)
-- Children are not conditioned to believe in demons ad other external enemies.
-- Society promotes the evolution of consciousness.
By these standards one can say that modern America is moving further away from Satan, as it has been for a century. What's harder to measure is whether the grip of evil has been easing psychologically. The most important step is to accept responsibility for one's own sense of wrongdoing and judgment against the self. Evil isn't an inevitable part of human nature once we realize that we have the power to shape human nature and make it evolve.
Perhaps that sounds too optimistic given the prevalence of fanaticism and religious fundamentalism in the world, and I'm not slighting war, crime, and other forms of destructive violence. But I take heart that dying people no longer tremble at the prospect of meeting Satan and that those who come back from near-death experiences haven't met him. In addition, the number of people dying in mass warfare has declined drastically, along with despotic regimes. Slim evidence, I know, but promising.
Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 80 books with twenty-two New York Times bestsellers. He serves as the founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing. His latest book is The 13th Disciple: A Spiritual Adventure.