The Psychology and Reality of Evil

By: shenpa warrior
March 27, 2013

“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.

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8 Responses to The Psychology and Reality of Evil

  1. Howard on March 27, 2013 at 8:53 AM

    LDS thinking about good and evil is quite black and white. It is overly simplistic and very child like. It functions well as a primer but is never developed much beyond that and unfortunately many members take the primer quite literally. It motivates pre mighty change of heart people via. fear, guilt and shame. The modern LDS version makes kinder use of Santa’s check list to see if you will receive blessings or a lump of coal.

    In order to better understand good and evil it is useful to imagine the afterlife before Resurrection and without the temporal materialism that absorbes so much of our mortal attention. So what remains when all the mortal stuff is eliminated? Spirits. Spirits are people. What else are they? They are nothing else, just people! So what exactly is an evil spirit? Is it something different than a car jacker, a murderer, a rapist, a sadist, a gangbanger? No it isn’t. How could they be? We come in contact with embodied evil spirits in mortal life often unknowingly and when its knowingly generally without a lot of fear. So why should we fear them in spirit form? Because we fear spirits in general because we don’t understand them and if we fear even the good ones the evil ones must be really scary!!! So this is a very childlike fear. Evil is a very childlike fear. That’s really all there is to evil spirits so let’s not get to carried away with them or with evil.

    Is Satan some kind of super Rambo evil Batman type of spirit? Maybe, maybe not. If he is it’s just because he’s wise in the ways of the spirit world and the mortal world, an intelligent master criminal if you will. But I tend to see Satan as that part of each of us which opposes or impedes good making it quite different from what we hear from the pulpit. We have met the enemy and he is us1

    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. This works to a point if you relatively psychologically healthy as in garden variety neurotic and basically free from undesirable compulsions. If you’re not this approach just adds to your stress making you a basket case of self loathing due to repeated failure. If you’re smart and self confident you eventually give up and leave the church because you simply can’t live the pharisaical correlated gospel. If you’re not smart and/or self confident but you are honest you stay and continue to suffer. If you’re dishonest you might do what a lot of hypocritical Mormons like to do, just fake it and pretend to live it. A far better approach is to embrace ALL of yourself including the parts you judge to be sinful or unworthy or bad and take an introspective examination of them perhaps with the help of a therapist and work to change them instead of attempting control them through rote obedience. During my spiritual journey I went through 18 months of very deep and intensive repentance guided by the Spirit, it was very freeing and I can tell you that at that level repentance and psychotherapy are basically the same thing. The unexamined life is not worth living.

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  2. jmb275 on March 27, 2013 at 9:02 AM


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  3. jmb275 on March 27, 2013 at 9:15 AM

    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…(incidentally, therapy attempts to help people accept and own these “bad” parts rather than projecting them).

    Yeah, I think this is pretty unhealthy if I’m honest. This is why I don’t like the “natural man” ideas in Mormonism. It gives us the impression that if only we could overcome this natural tendency we’d be perfect. This leads to efforts to reject parts of oneself in favor of what is perceived as morally good. The trouble is that this ignores the reality that we develop many of these morally higher attributes THROUGH our experiences from the “natural man.”

    How does one develop empathy without experiencing pain and suffering? We teach that even Christ was brought low in order to succor us. Mormons recognize the necessity of evil, but it still creates shame as one seeks to reject it from their lives.

    I’ve found the Buddhist approach (similar to the approach in psychotherapy) of sitting with negative feelings, thoughts, etc. accepting and embracing them, and NOT reacting to them is light years more powerful than externalizing them as Satan’s influence to be overcome. Rather than treating the natural man as bad, and overcoming it as good, a healthier approach is to accept our whole selves, learn to combat our “shenpa” by sitting with it and embracing it.

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  4. Howard on March 27, 2013 at 10:35 AM

    I love the phrase “natural man” because it provides a short hand vocabulary to discuss this concept with. But the natural man is to be “thrown off” not *perfected* as the current church is ignorantly attempting to have us do with it’s strong focus on obedience and enforcement of prescribed behaviors. That attempt will end in failure even in healthy people because repression creates psychological blocks and psychological blocks impede spirituality and because perfect means complete, it does not mean total obedience.

    The natural man can be thrown off with psychotherapy, with deep repentance, and/or by following the Spirit through the mighty change of heart.

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  5. Mike S on March 27, 2013 at 12:19 PM

    I think a big problem is that our definition of “evil” is so fluid.

    - Drinking wine is “evil” and will keep you our of the temple, yet Joseph Smith drank wine IN the temple.

    - Monogomy is “evil” and led to the downfall of nations, yet polygamy is now evil and will get you excommunicated.

    - Women clamoring to pray in Sacrament in the 1970′s were “evil” and not following what the Lord wanted, yet now they pray every week throughout the world.

    - The list could go on and on and on.

    It’s actually easy.
    Love God.
    Love your fellowman.

    If we lived those two principles, the rest is easy.

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  6. Howard on March 27, 2013 at 1:34 PM

    Mike makes a good point again as usual. Ultimately there there is oneness or non-oneness and the path to oneness is defined by; all that isn’t love is fear.

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  7. Charlie on March 28, 2013 at 2:31 PM

    I believe that sin and evil are real. I note that we all contain the natural man. Some days I get things moving in a good way and am more peaceful. These are the days when I look to God. All too often I get distracted and negative influences can take root and my peace is lessened. That doesn’t mean I am flagrantly ignoring gospel standards but am more likely to feel worse.

    Are the negative influences internal or external? It doesn’t really matter. What matters is getting to grips with simple gospel living.

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  8. hawkgrrrl on March 29, 2013 at 10:01 PM

    Victor Frankl describes man as having both good and evil within – at all times. Those who did unspeakable acts of cruelty in the death camps did great acts of service and kindness later, and likewise, those who sacrificed for others in the death camps later were callous and cruel. We always have a choice how we will act. Our reasons for acting as we do are fluid and contextual. A kind person can become embittered. Pharaoh’s hard heart can soften.

    This actually makes me wonder. If God is an exalted human, does s/he also still have capacity and choice to do either great good or great evil?

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