“Lucifer is the adversary of everything that Christ stands for. He embodies all that is evil, false, immoral, and devoid of any trace of goodness or divine light. He is the enemy of God and of every human being who seeks to follow Christ.” 1

Psych of Religion #5: The Psychology of Evil

A 2005 article in the British Journal of Psychotherapy looks at evil through the lens of psychology. 2 Here are some of the major points.

Evil is a reality, and is distinct from sin. Evil is a very human, naturally occurring state of mind. Evil is not only “sinful” but is “bent on negation or destruction of goodness and ultimately, life itself.” Evil takes sin and adds destructiveness and a lack empathy for others. Due to the feelings of horror that accompany evil, we project it outside of ourselves as an ‘other’ (e.g. we call this “Satan” or “Lucifer” or “the devil” in Western culture). This not only helps us deal with the negative feelings, but helps us to still believe in a loving God.

Lucifer’s fall is a potential warning for everyone. Lucifer being evicted from heaven is a symbol of one’s “final break” with good, and identification with evil. This identification provides protection from the present pain resonating from a background of rejection, abuse, and neglect by caregivers, re-enacting one’s own suffering. Feelings of loss that would naturally result from this “breaking bad” are not mourned, but dealt with through viewing this as a triumph. Hell is viewed as heaven in a reversing of values. Adding this hatred of goodness to one’s own unmet needs provides protection from accepting that there is no good left inside.

Possession can be seen as an internal phenomenon. We can understand demonic possession as a metaphor for destructive aspects of our own psychological functioning. Many of us feel that certain parts of ourselves are sinful or unworthy or bad, so we exert a lot of effort to keep these “bad” parts away. For some people, these “bad” parts are externalized and objectified as “evil spirits” or “demons” or “Satan.” While people generally do not like feeling controlled, possession allows them to avoid the shame and anxiety of this “bad” part actually being a part of us (incidentally, therapy attempts to help people accept and own these “bad” parts rather than projecting them). Our brains unconsciously process these “bad” parts as something external.

What about Satanists? People in Satanic cults often feel like they were rejected as children, suffering cruelty by their parents and banished from their families. Thus, they identified as “outsiders.” A satanic cult gives them an opportunity to act out their story in a very dramatic way, becoming one with Satan in opposition to God. They become the perpetrators of cruelty by unconsciously reversing their childhoods of victimization, projecting their own hurt and vulnerability onto others. Satanists are also often narcissistic, highly independent, contemptuous of others, and act as if they are omnipotent.

Satanism provides a very powerful yet unconscious defensive strategy (with a mythical, organizational, and ritual structure) for siding with his or her destructive or “bad” part. This “enemy within” is “befriended and supplicated,” and a Satanist no longer has to be frightened of monsters if s/he becomes the monster, and can possess the demon’s own powers. Becoming a monster is preferable to innocence, vulnerability, and victimhood. The person ultimately has no room for guilt, and freely expresses all of his or her sadistic fantasies. These fantasies not only defend against underlying feelings of impotence and inferiority, but are a means of revenge.

How does this relate to an LDS context? Does evil exist as a category or more as a spectrum? Discuss.

1. Newsroom, Answering Media Questions About Jesus and Satan.
2. Ivey, G. (2005). ‘And what rough beast…?’: Psychoanalytic thoughts on evil states of mind. British Journal of Psychotherapy, 22, 199-215.