What follows is a consideration of the demonic in a post-religious sense. My application of the term demonic is obviously indebted to my Christian upbringing, but regardless of the problems with the idea of demons, I believe it is a term worth redeeming.
Because my thinking on the subject refers so heavily to a personal sense of possession I experience periodically, which it is both impossible and unproductive for me to describe in a clear manner, it will be helpful to give a concrete description of the demonic before proceeding to its essential character.
The demonic is seen in certain large-scale human events: the procession of Nazism during the second world war and the waves of medieval anti-semitism it drew from; Mao’s great cultural revolution and other anti-historical movements like, in some incarnations, Calvinist Protestant iconoclasm and the Puritan witch-hunts. The demonic is also seen in more localized incidents and movements: the Westboro Baptist Church and its ilk; most adolescent suicides and murder-suicides like the Columbine and Virginia-Tech shootings (not all suicides should be considered demonic, adolescent suicides tend to be demonic because they involve a submission rather than, like stoic suicide, a decisive positive action); certain pathological murderers and rapists who admit no sense of conflict about their actions. Anyone who can be seen as fighting a loosing battle against their urges or desires should not be considered demonic, as the demonic does not operate from an exaggeration of essential needs.
Like the divine, the demonic is a concept which should be allowed to survive in atheism. The demonic is related to the divine in that it is a facet of the subjective lived experience, but its connection is deeper: the demonic is the inverse of the divine. While the divine is universal, found in all things, and especially in the greater things (astronomic structures, long-form historical narrative, etc.), the demonic is insular. While the divine is calm, the demonic is frantic, even crazed. While the divine unfolds though all time so that it is beyond lived-time, the demonic derives its greatest horror from the minutia of time – the ever-shrinking, ever-reducing time that is found is undistracted waiting. The demonic is the specific rejection of the divine; put most succinctly, the demonic is the essence of the human experience without the divine.
Like the divine, the demonic has been heavily personified, and because of this it has been almost completely emasculated as a legitimate image. The man who sees Satan in his every misfortune is either insane (akin to the man who believes himself to be Jesus), or deludedly caught up in his own self-importance. Post-Enlightenment humanism demands that we take responsibility for the abstract evil in our lives and accusations of demonic presence only enable self-pitying passivity.
Yet the demonic, although over-applied, is in the world. It is present most clearly in the blindly fanatical – the desire, born of consuming hatred, to destroy all one would love so that which one despises will also perish. The character of the demonic is that it is entrapping; because it denies, on an aesthetic and emotional level, the validity of cool-headed logic, it tends to become more convincing the longer it is indulged. The demonic pattern of thought is attractive precisely because it is radically self-indulgent, it permits no questioning of a notion once it has been accepted, and so it tends to build on itself in an increasingly virulent rejection of the divine. The strength of the demonic is this absolutism. The demands it makes are emphatic and so, unlike the rational, whose proscriptions must go through a process of verification and legitimization, the demonic can initiate a fatal strike before resistance can be mobilized.
The operation of the demonic is fundamentally individual. From an outside perspective it appears violently insane, but because of the appeal of its total self-indulgence, it is contagious even if it is not actually persuasive. The demonic should be not considered merely irrational, the irrational tends to end almost immediately in disaster because of how badly it corresponds to objective reality, rather, the demonic is counter-rational: it denies rationality as ineffectual and its overriding impatience makes rational counter-argument ineffective.
The only way to combat the demonic is the descend to its level and appeal to the essential human impulses that it perverts. The divine is profoundly attractive, and it has a calming effect which serves to placate the crazed demonic attitude. Once calm the demonic tends to disintegrate; once the frantic circling of the demonic presence has stopped, normal rationalization resumes and the counter-arguments against whatever the demonic has inspired can come to the surface and erode the emphatic resilience that characterizes a demonic outlook. Because the demonic does not make arguments but rather asserts, it must constantly re-assert to maintain control of the psyche, from this comes its frantic, impatient, crazed, nature, but once the divine has had its calming effect the re-assertions become increasingly infrequent and rationalism can have an effect between them.
The tendency of humans toward excessive destruction is well documented and historically undeniable, and the inability to account for or address these patterns is the principle failing of contemporary secularism. Modern atheists have no satisfactory way of dealing with the experience of evil that does not revert to a moralistic framework. This is why the concept of divinity is so important, it offers an answer to the problem of the demonic that a simple materialism cannot supply without denying its own anti-moral framework. Some elaboration of this atheistic divinity would seem beneficial at this point.
Divinity does not mean divinities. Although the personification of divinity is important historically and very valuable in terms of symbolism, the divinity intended here is not a divinity of beings. Divinity is not an existent thing any more than goodness or justice. Divinity is that character of things that so surpass man that all our being pales in comparison to its majesty. We are irrelevant next to it, but not the anxious irrelevance of exclusion, the awesome irrelevance of being absorbing by the truly greater. This is why divinity has its calming effect, it shows us how little we are, how small all our concerns are in comparison to the movements of the universe. The demonic is always self-absorbed – the actions of and to the self are of utmost concern – the divine breaks this by showing how marvelously inconsequential the self and all its concerns are.
This dualism of demonic-divine should not be regarded as a Zoroastrian creative-destructive dichotomy or a Chinese yin-yang. Although the demonic is usually destructive, that is not its essence and is rather a byproduct of humans possessed by the demonic. Demonically-minded humans tend to be destructive because their level of frantic self-absorption is so counter to all healthy human activity. Likewise, the divine is not really a creative force, although creative forces often have aspects of divinity. Additionally, the divine and the demonic should not be regarded as equal-but-opposing forces. Although the demonic is an implicit rejection of the divine, the divine is not likewise an implicit rejection of the demonic and operates completely without regard to it. In this way divinity and the demonic are much more similar to the Christian notions of God and Satan, in which one is clearly superior to the other.
The demonization of people and their actions often has a strong escapist element. The term “evil” is used mostly when we do not wish to consider the causality behind an event, mostly because we are afraid of what we might find. Demonization allows us to dismiss people, to set up a goodpeople-badpeople dichotomy and wholly separate ourselves form that which we find morally repugnant. This, in turn, helps to dogmatize our moral framework, and lead to the demonization of any who challenge it. It is my hope that the definition of the demonic that has here been argued, as an understood force within human life, negates this use of demonization while also retaining the valid experience of evil. The purpose of carefully defining the demonic is not to distance ourselves from that which we consider evil, but rather to understand its operation so as to better combat it.