Who the devil are you?

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At first, of course, he was the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Then Pope Gregory the Great saw him in the shape of a flying pig and, not unnaturally, banished the beast from church. With the Renaissance, writers like Dante encountered a more human figure, encased in ice and weeping tears of frustration. Next came Milton's brooding Byronic anti- hero and a succession of literary and cinematic offspring in which the Devil got more than just the good tunes.

But now it's all over for Satan. The personification of evil is on the way out. His trident was this week decommissioned by the Vatican after the theologians of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of Sacraments decided they needed a "more subtle and sophisticated" interpretation of evil for the millennium.

Evil is a force rather than a person, said the head of the congregation, Cardinal Jorge Medina. He was introducing a new Roman ceremony of exorcism to acknowledge the fact that psychological disturbances and illnesses such as epilepsy and schizophrenia have often been misinterpreted as diabolic possession. It insists that clergy take guidance from psychiatrists before getting out the holy water. And it offers a new ritual, with more sombre language and fewer baroque adjectives, dropping all talk of "the Prince of Darkness" in favour of less dramatic phrases such as "the cause of evil".

It is a sign of the times. Church-folk now regard the Devil, according to Peter Stanford, the devil's (unauthorised) biographer, as little more than the black sheep of the Christian flock. He is "the disreputable relative with the dark past whose family cannot quite disown him for fear of somehow compromising themselves, but about whom they remain tight-lipped".

In theory, every diocese has its own nominated demon-evictor. But when I asked the Catholic Media Office to track one down I was told: "It's not really an active profession. When the film The Exorcist came out we kept getting requests to produce one, but most seem to have lapsed because they have nothing to do."

In desperation, Peter Stanford, when writing the Devil's biography, travelled to Rome to talk to Fr Gabriele Amorth, the president of the International Association of Exorcists, and dispeller of devils to the Pope's own diocese, where perhaps they have more need of such things than do the phlegmatic English. But even there, it transpires, of the 50,000 people who have consulted Fr Amorth over the years, a mere 84 could not be explained in terms of conventional psychiatry. And most of those were people who had been dabbling in the black arts - by which, presumably, he did not simply mean Italian politics.

Modern men and women must now, the Vatican has decreed, watch out for wickedness elsewhere. Of course, every culture has found its own ways of handling the issue of evil but the character who personifies it has had a long history. In the early days - in Egypt, Canaan, Mesopotamia and Persia - the Evil One was on an equal footing with God in a great cosmic battle between good and evil. This dualism surfaced again in modern psychoanalysis. For Freud, God and the Devil were originally the same entity, later split into two figures with opposite attributes - the Devil as a symbol for all that men secretly desire in a sexual sense, but which they cannot openly admit for social reasons.

The confusion entered the picture with the Jews, who set out with one overall divine principle which included good and evil. Then, during their exile in Babylon, they subdued their sense that God had abandoned them by focusing on the wiles of Satan. The Evil One became an even more substantial figure in the New Testament. He tempted Jesus for 40 days and nights in the wilderness, and Christ had to cast out Satan's minions from possessed individuals all across the Holy Land.

Satan had become, as Stanford puts it, the leader of the official opposition. Yet this was also the beginning of the end for Beelzebub. For the Christian theologians who followed insisted that, since Lucifer was a creature, his power could not be equal to that of the Creator. After Christ's victory on the cross, said the early Church father Origen, the Devil - though he continued to snap at the heels of humankind - had been defeated. Though St Augustine linked sex with sin and the snares of Satan in a legacy of sexual pessimism which has dogged Christianity since, the imagery of the Devil came to be at odds with the theology.

The paradox for Christianity was that God was supposed to be both all- powerful and all-loving. The problem was, in the succinct summary of the Enlightenment thinker David Hume, that either God was willing to prevent evil, but not able, which made him impotent. Or he was able, but not willing, which made him malevolent. Or, as Woody Allen put it: "If it turns out that there is a God, I don't think that he's evil. The worst that you can say about him is that basically he's an underachiever." Either way Satan was doomed not to come out on top.

But it has taken the Vatican a long time to work through the logic. Even after the revolutionary Second Vatican Council, Paul VI, when asked in 1972 about the greatest need facing the church, replied as a medieval pontiff might have: "Let our answer surprise you as being over-simple or even superstitious and unreal: one of the greatest needs is the defence from that evil which is called the Devil. Evil is not merely a lack of something but an effective agent, a living spiritual being, perverted and perverting. A terrible reality, mysterious and frightening..."

The present Pope, by contrast, for all his doctrinal conservatism and his apocalyptic language on other subjects, is rarely heard to utter the name of Satan. Perhaps this is because he grew up in a world where - after Marx - economic, political and social factors are seen to drive history. Beasties and ghoulies were the obvious vehicles for evil in earlier ages which emphasised power of the individual in history; in an age when a complex interaction of economics, politics, personality and sexuality are thought to be the determinants of human action then evil will be located elsewhere too.

Science and psychology, which rose in influence as religion declined, long ago came to their own conclusions. So did secularists. "A belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness," as Joseph Conrad put it in Under Western Eyes. Even other churches have reached a similar conclusion. "If evil is the question, the Devil is not necessarily the right answer," said the then Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, earlier this decade. Myths get at what is beyond reason, but they must seem to be real if they are to serve any purpose, and the Devil no longer seems real.

There are some for whom the Devil continues to be a reality. Charismatic evangelical preachers continue to warn their flocks to check their luggage coming home from abroad, in case a foreign demon has slipped into their bags. The Devil was a constant fear to the adepts of the Order of the Solar Temple cult which, in recent years, lost dozens of members in mass suicides/killings in isolated Swiss and Canadian hideouts. In Rome, Archbishop Milingo, who was moved from Lusaka to a desk job in the Vatican after his embarrassing combination of Catholic ritual and African exorcism, continues to offer deliverance to hysterical Italians.

Elsewhere the word "evil" has come to be the acceptable synonym for Satan. And its use is on the increase. Not always appropriately, says Peter Stanford, who raised an eyebrow over the Times leader written in response to the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands in 1982 in which the word "evil" was used no fewer than 10 times.

What the process of demonisation does is refuse to allow our imagination beyond a certain point so that we become estranged from those we deem evil. So that Milosevic or Saddam in their callous calculations, or Myra Hindley or Rosemary West in their apparently emotionless detachment, become figures beyond the pale - incapable of redemption, as is Lucifer in orthodox Christian theology.

It is too early, suggests Peter Stanford, to write Satan's obituary. "He retains," says his biographer, "a place in the popular soul of Christianity, the catch-all character to blame for actions too terrible to ascribe to a loving God and too frightening to put down to dark urges in the human psyche."

It goes beyond Christianity. We still feel happier with the old technique of locating evil outside ourselves, the individuals we hold dear, and the institutions which act in our favour. We still look for something to get us off the hook of taking full responsibility for our actions. We are still looking for the Devil Incarnate. We may, in these enlightened times, have forgotten his name. But he is just too useful to kill off quite yet.

Poetic Licence, page 8