Intimately bound up with human morality is the abstract we term 'evil'. It has to be abstract, because there is no 'evil' per se, there are only people doing evil things, ultimately in an attempt to satisfy the very same urge we all use to drive our volition. Evil is as evil does, you might say. Why then do religions seem so obsessed with anthropomorphising it? Why are they so determined to make out it's an entity in its own right, usually with horns, and a taste for red decor? Why is it so important for certain sects of Christians, for example, to have a 'Devil' to blame for their transgressions? I'm sure you can think of many reasons for this peculiar state of affairs, but here's one you might not yet have considered in any detail.
The main rewards and punishments religions promise are clearly outside this mortal coil; you have to die to experience them. That's a problem, because at some point even the most gullible apprentice sheep-wrangler is going to scratch his head and wonder whether it is, as his clod-farming friend said last night down the tavern, complete and utter bollocks. Evil gives religions a tool to re-energise subscriber beliefs, and combat the inevitable growing sense of unease a person with more than a couple of neurons must feel at the sheer unlikeliness of it all. It provides a distraction they can use to keep you compliant, to keep you tithing, offering an apparent benefit that happens in the real world, not a mysterious afterlife. We can all see the results of evil activity, and the effect it has on society, and we all on occasion indulge in less-than-perfect behaviour with consequent regrets. What better then than a magic system of forgiveness that enables you to stop feeling bad about having done something horrible? A way to instantly remove the responsibility for your actions from YOU, and pass it over to a handy scapegoat in the form of yet another invisible 'imaginary pal'?
If you accept the doctrines of the faith, then you too can be absolved:- that's a definite real-world benefit the typical field-tilling vassal can get his low-volume head around, and to the right kind of person it's reason enough to suspend the natural disbelief that a setup as bizarre as a typical religion would normally engender. Best of all from the point of view of the religions, this benefit, just like the post-death heaven, has no cost, over and above the time it takes to listen to the latest juicy indiscretion. Personifying evil allows the blame to be passed in a way that even the least sophisticated can understand. You're in the clear, because 'big boys did it, then ran away'. It's worth remembering that even as recently as Victorian times, the majority of the population were sufficiently unsophisticated to think of the Devil as an actual humanoid creature, liable to peer through your windows at night, or assault you physically as you stumbled back from that tavern.
Societies may have evolved since this brilliant wheeze was first hatched, but the need of typical humans to stop feeling bad hasn't, so this religious technique to keep you on the hook persists, right into the 21st Century. In reality, of course, it's a belittling strategy, because just as in the usurpation of your morality, religions are telling you clearly that you're worthless; not only can you not tell the difference between right and wrong, even when you've had it explained to you in a few simple commandments, you're still incapable of living 'righteously' because you're just a weak and feeble human, adrift in a bigly world of significances that dwarf your existence, a universe of super-humanoid forces that jerk you around like a bedraggled underfed whippet on a length of string. Once again, as with every aspect of religion, it has long-term consequences that are, shall we say, not good. Refusing to grow up and take responsibility for your own life and actions is a sure-fire way of guaranteeing you'll never reach your own maximum potential.
Not in this life, anyway.Evil is as evil does. Click To Tweet