I have used the word dualism in these blogs to refer to a metaphysical theory that claims there are onlytwo kinds of “things” in existence: spirit and matter.  Each is said to have properties that are diametrically opposed to the other.  All phenomena of what­ever kind in this universe can be explained by one or the other.   I have consistently maintained that this dualism is erroneous, and because of its undisputed sway over the popular imagination due to traditional religion, distorts the human project. 

But there is another kind of dualism also fostered by religion that is much more dangerous.  It is a moral-cosmic vision that imagines the world ruled by two contending superna­tu­ral powers, “good and evil.”  This theory entered by way of Persia just before the beginning of the common era and ultimately meshed with “spirit and matter.”  Matter became associated with the evil power, and spirit with the good.  Since we are made of matter, the evil resides  within us.

Exploring the significance of cosmic dualism is not just an academic exercise.  For it seems there are no limits to the violence that people will employ to protect themselves from what they are convinced is an immanent annihilating force against which they have no defense.  The term I use for this force is “resident evil.”  It is taken from the horror movies where it is employed to evoke fear of an implacable inhuman enemy embedded in our flesh.  The “resident evil” storyline imagines a parasitic “t-virus” capable of turning humans into man-eating zombies.  Once infected, humans become agents of the evil force.   Belief in “resident evil” has not only been used to excuse unthinkable  behavior, but also unleashes an unparalleled ferocity — demonic hatred, visceral repugnance, and blind rage.  The fact that “suicide bom­bers” have become commonplace in our time should not blind us to what is behind this insane behavior: a horrified dread of invasive evil.

The fear of “resident evil” triggers a terrified reflex responsible for a level of self-imposed human torment that far exceeds what any other species suffers from the predation, natural disasters, diseases and death that are common to all living things.  Self-muti­lating and genocidal behavior is absolutely unique to humankind.  That fact alone suggests that the explanation lies in what is unique about us — what makes us differ­ent from the animals — our heads.   

Original Sin

But it has been traditional to ignore that clue, and to ascribe such behavior to the coercions of an alien force.  Wouldn’t human self-destruc­tion be proof enough of that?   After all, who attacks them­selves?  There must be an enemy out there!

It will be my thesis in this essay that it is exactly the reification and alienation of “evil,” — the claim that “evil” is a reality independent of human imagination and choice — that is one of the principal obstacles to the control of human violence.  This alienation is functioning even if we attribute “evil” to an innate corruption — a “flaw” — of the human organism.  For the “flaw” is not natural; like the “t-virus,” it is an alien reality.   It is not we who do evil … it is the “flaw” dwelling in us.  We are all familiar with that phrase and those sentiments.  Every version of “Original Sin,” no matter how simple … or how sophisticated, must identify something foreign, inhuman, as the source of all evil. 

Let’s take the Christian doctrine of “Original Sin.”  The traditional version is that “matter” became corrupt after the “fall” and no longer obeys the commands of the “spirit.”  Evil resides in our flesh.  Our “carnal” lusts and desires, now grotesquely deformed from the way “God” created them, refuse to follow the dictates of “spiritual” reason.  The body doesn’t belong here the way it is.  It is alien.  That means first of all, it has to be exposed  for the imposter that it is … for it comes disguised as ourselves.  It has to be treated as hostile and subdued … or it will destoy our “souls.”   Some very committed and knowledgable Christians took this quite seriously.  The great theologian Origen of Alexandria, who died a martyr in 253, actually castrated himself in an attempt to control concupiscent evil resident in his human flesh.  

This theory became the accepted wisdom of the western world.  If those who believed such things hated the “resident evil” in themselves, they necessarily hated it in others.  Being “human” did not correlate to an appreciative wonder at human diversity around the globe … it meant learning how to mistrust people of other traditions who were not aware of the contagion they bore in their flesh.  Thus was our humanity demonized by Christian theory, and it opened the door to the denigration, plunder and enslavement of dark-skinned primitive peoples.  Wes­tern racism comes from there, and from nowhere else. 


Then there is the more sophisticated version of “Original Sin” proposed by Sigmund Freud.   He theorized the existence of a “death wish” embedded in organic matter, adduced to explain human self-destruc­tive behavior.   Freud’s hypothesis (cf Beyond the Pleasure Principle) was that the forces of equilibrium, which might be identified with entropy in physics, exert a pull on living organic matter to return to the inanimate state — the pool of inert particles from which all life emerged.  Sometimes known as thanatos,  the “death wish” counterbalances “eros” — the “pleasure principle” — the drive to live, to reproduce, to preserve the vital integrity of the organism. 

While Freud’s theory may be said to correlate, in a broad sense, with the findings of science, it is not science.  It is pure conjecture.  But it preserves the core dynamic we found operating in the theory of “Original Sin.”  Thanatos is an embedded organic drive, totally subliminal, beyond any human consciousness or control, that is responsible for self-destructive behavior.   Self-destructiveness is entirely attributable to something alien to human free choice.

I find this theory difficult to embrace for two reasons.  First, if, as Freud claims, it is the unsuppressible “pull” of all living matter to return to the inanimate state, then every form of life would manifest self-destructive behavior.  And yet none does, only humankind.  What does humankind have that no other living organism possesses … ?  The power to imagine and symbolize images with words.  If there is an explanation for for our unique self-mutila­ting inclinations, it must be in what we think and choose to do, not in the quarks and gluons of pre-integra­ted material energy.   

The second is that Freud confronts the issue in a highly conditioned environment i.e., early 20th centuryWestern Europe.  There is no attempt on his part to adjust for the influence of two thousand years of history that has molded Western man with “Original Sin.”  To discount such an intense, long-term and universal belief disregards the power of social conditioning.  What Freud was studying and trying to explain, I contend, was the effect on the European psyche of two thou­sand years of Christian “spiritual” formation.


But the most damaging belief is the personification of evil in “Satan,” imagined to be the god-like ruler of an evil empire.  Not only has the existence and function of Satan, the “Devil,” never been repudiated by the Church, it was actually reaffirmed as recently as 1992 with the publication of the Vatican Catechism.[1]  In ##391 to 395  the Catechism speaks about the “fall of the angels” as an event in which Satan and other devils were supposedly spawned: 

391 Behind the disobedient choice of our first parents lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God, which makes them fall into death out of envy. Scripture and the Church’s Tradition see in this being a fallen angel, called “Satan” or the “devil”. The Church teaches that Satan was at first a good angel, made by God: “The devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing.”(IV Lateran Council, 1215)

392 Scripture speaks of a sin of these angels. This “fall” consists in the free choice of these created spirits, who radically and irrevocably rejected God and his reign. …

393 It is the irrevocable character of their choice, and not a defect in the infinite divine mercy, that makes the angels’ sin unforgivable.  …

394 …   “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” In its consequences the gravest of these works was the mendacious seduc­tion that led man to disobey God.

395 The power of Satan is, nonetheless, not infinite.  He is only a creature, powerful from the fact that he is pure spirit, but still a creature. He cannot prevent the building up of God’s reign.  Although Satan may act in the world out of hatred for God and his kingdom in Christ Jesus, and although his action may cause grave injuries – of a spiritual nature and, indirectly, even of a physical nature – to each man and to society, the action is permit­ted by divine providence … .  It is a great mystery that providence should permit diabolical activity.

Satan, the “Devil,” is claimed to be a “person” of god-like abilities, “hell bent” on destroying “God’s” masterpiece, the human species.   He is attended by hordes of minor spirits — devils — who do his bidding.  They are all “pure spirit,” and therefore invisible, able to change locations with the speed of thought.  How all of these “spirits” are able to exercise such disruptive control over a corrupt “matter” which does not belong to them, when humans are virtually powerless over their own bodies rendered uncontrollably disobedient because of the corruption of that same matter, is not explained.  Besides, if they were damned to hell, how is it they are out and about and able to cause so much mayhem?   Also there is no explanation as to how “Satan” controls these “followers” of his, i.e., what coercion he applies to prevent each from going their own way.   They are, after all, by definition, “little devils.”

Angelic “rebellion” is declared to be an irrevocable rejection of “God.”  This “irrevocability” is traditionally grounded in the me­ta­physics of a branch of mediaeval theology called “angelology,” which claims that each angel’s essential being is ratified in a single self-actuating choice.  How these “once-and-for-all” spirits can then begin to react to the sequence of events on earth in order to corrupt and seduce humankind is not clarified. 

 The Catechism says, “It is a great mystery that providence should permit diabolical activity.”  A mystery indeed!  In this conception, what they call “providence” turns the business of living a good moral life into a dangerous game … with the principal dangers provided  by “God” himselfThe absurdity here becomes self-evident.  For if it requires “God’s permission” for the devil to be unleashed, who then, I ask, is responsible for what he does?   Thus, to my mind, does the Roman Church in its official doctrine blaspheme, by painting “God” as a trickster who uses “evil” as a plaything to trip people up.  If this inanity were true, any decent human being would be morally superior to “God.”   Absurd!  The Church that insists that all this actually occurred, undermines its own credibility, but that such things are, moreover, declared to be infallibly true, in my opinion, borders on the psychotic.[2]

In all these cases “evil” cannot be conquered without divine help.  “Original Sin” is an insuperable flaw, dwelling like a parasite in the human organism, passed on from parents to children “by propagation, not by imitation[3] that cannot be extir­pa­ted.  With Satan, we have an insidious intelligence, a god-like power, hordes of obedient minions and a fiendish passion that we cannot defend  against.  Only the miraculous power of “God” can save us from these sources of depravity and dysfunction.  So it is no great surprise that the Roman Church promotes the factual reality of both these theories of “evil.”  In such a world, evil can come at us at any moment, from anywhere, outside or inside, and it can “devour” us because we have no ability to withstand its power.  We are utterly dependent on “divine” help, mediated through the Church, against Satan and our own innate degeneracy.  The combination — a true one-two punch — is devastating.  The only thing we can do without divine help is to try to elimina­te  the source of the evil by exterminating it.  Does this sound at all familiar? 

“natural” evil

Whereas the fact is, there is nothing “supernatural,” independently personal, or inescapable about evil.  Evil does not exist outside of human (mis)percep­tion, choice and behavior.  Evil is not a “thing” or a “person” or an open suppurating wound.  Evil is what we do when we allow our conatus — the urge and instinct for self-preser­va­­tion and self-enhancement — to be improperly activated by things that have nothing whatsoever to do with our well-being.   Evil is what we do when we don’t know what we’re doing.  It has no independent existence whatsoever in any form or fashion.  There is no “corrupt matter,” there is no Satan — there is no “resident evil.”  And most cer­­tainly there is no “God” who “gives permission” to Satan to torment, punish and test human­kind.  Evil is simply human error set in motion by a misinterpretation of what is really threatening to our well being, or conversely, what is really of benefit to us.  What is evil is what doesn’t work  … it’s what we do when we haven’t yet figured out what does.[4]

A long time ago I was in “group therapy.”  Two of the people in the group were a young married couple, and the woman was slowly emerging from a severe catatonic break­down.  (Catatonia is a psychosomatic disorder where the body “shuts down”: the victims actually lose the ability to see, to hear, to speak, to function.)  The cause of it, in her case, was “shunning.”  She belonged to a religious group that was so strict about inter­marriage with outsiders that when she married the “wrong kind” of person, the community, including her family, shut her out completely.  The effect on her psyche was devasta­ting.  When I met them, she was doing better, and working hard to understand what had hap­pened to her.  It was a revealing experi­ence that I never forgot.

There is no way to explain this phenomenon except by recourse to a binary  belief system.  There has to be a “world of light” separate from and opposed to a “world of darkness” for it to make sense.  The “sinner” falls into “darkness” and the rest of the community must “shun” her to keep the darkness from spreading.  It is the psychic equivalent of annihilation, and the young woman’s body “got the mes­sage” and reacted accordingly.

If evil exists independently of human perception and choice, then there are only two pos­sibilities: there has to be EITHER  an independent, absolute “principle of evil,” a Satanic “God” as power­ful and original as the “good God” to explain it, OR  the “evil” world would have to exist dependent on the good world and its “God.”  Now, the latter scenario is exactly what our tradition has always main­tained, because it insists that “God” controls everything.   But please notice: this would mean that “God” ultimately is the author of evil,  for he is the “reason” why it exists at all.  Think about it:  God has total control … Satan and his buddies can do nothing with­out divine per­mission.  It is utterly, utterly absurd

But if the only “evil” there is, as I claim, comes from a false application of the energies of the conatus  then all these absurdities diappear.  “Evil,” like every other thing we do wrong is a mistake, whether inadvertently or maliciously chosen, and reflects a fail­ure to include all the rele­vant effects of our choices.

If there is no world of damnation into which we descend, then all immoral activity, even the most heinous and tragic, is simply an erroneous choice.  It is radically reform­able,[5] and the agent of that error does not have to be annihilated or extermina­ted.

It is interesting that Paul Ricoeur’s acclaimed book on evil confines itself to the “sym­bo­lism of evil” (one level removed from the subject of our enquiry); it does not tackle the issue of its reality.  And his pamphlet-sized follow-up volume, is revealingly entitled “Evil: A problem for philoso­phy and theology.”  Of course it’s a “problem.”  People like Ricoeur who are committed to a religious vision, hide behind their “phenomenology” to avoid directly challenging the cos­mic dualist claims of “salvation” and “damnation.”  They ambi­guously suggest that the “psy­cho­logy of evil,” which they do  address, “says nothing” about the possibi­lity of a cosmic me­ta­physi­cal “resident evil” — a question which they, inexplicably, do not  address.  But I have no such loyalties: I stake my claim on the exclusive thrust of the conatus  — which is to exist.   The conatus characterizes all of existence.  There is no “resi­dent evil.”  Evil, I say, is in the mind and choices of man; nowhere else.  It is then trans­ferred by habit to the human organism.  Habit and repeti­tion (leading perhaps to addiction) is the only “resi­dent­ ­evil” there is, and in that form it is a derivative of im­mo­ral behavior  not its cause, and dies with the organism.  It lives on in others in only the same ways: through ideas and habits of thought and practice — imita­tion.  Evil is a purely human phenome­non, a pro­duct of the virtual world that is created by our heads.  It is a function of our heads … and only our heads can bring it under control. 

The true role of Religion

Given this clarification, the role of Religion, then, is turned around 1800:  Religion should coun­teract, not reinforce  the belief in the inde­pen­dent existence of evil.  Our Religions, however, inspired by “the Book,” have unfortunately perpetuated belief in a reified indepen­dent evil.  Reli­­gion should rather restore to hu­man beings the domin­ion over what they do.  Religion should once and for all refute the bogus claims that there is any other world, resi­dent evil or damnation.  There is nothing that forces us to do what we do not want to do.  There is nothing happening in the universe except the inno­cent, intention­less ope­ra­tions of the natural world.  There is neither a “God” helping us, hurting us or testing us, nor is there any indepen­dent source of “evil” dedicated to our destruction whether in the form of a corrup­tion of our flesh or a Satanic god-person who “goes about like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour.” 

Jewish theologians insist that the myth of the Garden was created precisely to say that human evil is human — it was not created by “God,” it does not antedate hu­mankind.  The first three chapters of Genesis, they emphasize, is a ringing declaration of the unmixed goodness of God and his Creation.  The meaning of the story of the Garden is that evil comes from human choice … nowhere else.  The serpent is a symbol of hu­­­man rational calculation and the “selfish intent” is nothing but the natural bent of the cona­tus.  From this point of view, Augustine’s nightmare that the “first sin” produced a meta­­phy­si­cal transfor­mation of our flesh so profound as to turn evil back into an original organic condi­tion over which we have no control, actually reverses the Genesis authors’ inten­tion. 

Evil, as Augustine would have it, provides justification for the total dependency of the indi­vidual on “supernatural assistance.”  For him that meant the Roman Church.  The correlation between the two should not be ignored or passed over as coinciden­tal.  I am con­vinced that Augustine elaborated the doctrine of Original Sin in the com­pletely in­human form he did — gutting the intention of Genesis and insisting that unbaptized babies merited eter­nal torment — with the full intention of establishing the absolute indispen­sa­bility of the Church for salva­tion.  I claim that each side of this cor­re­lation implies the other.  You can’t have an inde­pen­dent “resident evil” without precipita­ting the search for a “supernatural” mechanism of salvation … and you cannot have a Church that is “absolutely necessary for salvation” with­out a belief in a supernatural “evil” from which we need to be “saved.”

 Tony Equale


[1] It might just be coincidental that Cardinal O’Connor of NY performed exorcisms and publicized it.in the early ’90’s.  He specifically adduced fear of the Devil as a “help to maintaining belief in God.”

[2] There is a traditional counsel that says that a clear sign of diabolical influence is the claim that “Satan does not exist.”  This provides a “fail-safe” mechanism that insures that belief in Satan will never be challenged for it directs the full force of the “terror” of evil at the dissenter.

 [3] Council ofTrent1545

 [4] There is no intention to deny the crippling, immobilizing effect of emotional disorder.  Emotional equilibrium is a pschosomatic balance that can be severely disrupted.  The intense anxiety that may attend these conditions may yield to the kinds of religious imprecations that have been directed in the past against “resident evil,” because that’s the symbolism they take on.  I am not denying human vulnerability to emotional disturbance or to any number of other “mental” disorders, I am simply saying that none of it has a metaphysical ground.  It is all in our heads, and we use our heads to neutralize its power over us as best we can. 

 [5] (Of course we are speaking philoso­phi­­­ca­l­ly here, not “psy­cho­logi­cal­ly.”  If someone has, by repeated choices and habit, gotten to the point where change is no longer probable, then it is a ques­tion for other disciplines, like psychiatry or the courts.  Here philosophy simply declares there is no ontologi­cal “resident evil.”  “Evil” is what and where we think it is.  And there is no divine help beyond what we do with our heads.)


5 comments on ““RESIDENT EVIL”

  1. Your view that what we so often call evil is really ignorance reminds me of the Buddhist view that what we call sin is really a form of our incompleteness. It seems to me the two are not dissimilar, though being a cognitive type myself, I think I prefer ignorance.

    Interesting comment on Freud. I gave him up decades ago because he seemed to me to be too much of a secular version of Catholic dogmatism. It is never possible to discover any evidence that either is wrong on anything. If you disagree with the Pope you are a sinner; if you disagree with Freud, you are repressing the truth about yourself because you are afraid to acknowledge it.

    I never reflected before, though, on how much Freud’s id, ego, and superego in so many ways reflect the assumptions of Western Christianity. Even though Freud was a Jew.

    • tonyequale says:

      Terry, hi! I think we don’t realize that “Christianity” after two thousand years has totally molded western culture in its own image and likeness. It’s not a matter of “religion” or “beliefs” any longer. Ways of thinking and feeling, assumptions about oneself, one’s body, one’s sexuality, one’s “self” as soul, and a myriad of other things have nothing to do with currrent doctrines or belief. They are the result of two millennia of conditioning and if you live in the “West” it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew, Muslim, protestant, avant garde Catholic, or a Christopher Hitchens atheist, you are formed in the cultural preferences and assumptions of Christianity … and probably the mediaeval version. If what Freud was encountering was truly the pschic life of an educated European, he was encountering cultural christianity.


      • Tony, yes, yes, yes! I could not agree more. My realization almost forty years ago that it takes more than giving up one’s overt beliefs to give up Catholicism has turned into an endless discovery. The acculturation pervades to the very depth of one’s self. As you say, it doesn’t matter if you are Freud or Hitchens. Of course, being married to an English, Protestant, male sociologist of religion has done a little to speed the process of enlightenment. But he too is socialized in the same culture of christianity. Terry

  2. flawlor@bluecrab.org says:

    In my experience there are many Catholics who have dismissed the idea of “the devil” as a metaphor. Along with the rejection of old Satan goes the belief in an actual place called Hell and the related ideas of angels and of an actual location called Heaven. These matters are treated as a sort of myth or metaphor similar to Santa Claus. Interesting old notions that have a place in the transition from childhood. You place these doubting ideas into a theological and philosophical context. As a followup for the average reader I envision a booklet like the ones on racks at the rear of churches, “The Devil, reality or myth?” The history, the ideological context, the implausible implications of the beliefs, make sense of it all.

    Another, related aspect would be the consideration of very similar mythologies in many other cultural traditions whether primitive or contemporary. This brings up the common origins of our own tradition, not in a causal sequence but based on the way we humans try to make sense of our selves, our experiences, our common psychology.

    • tonyequale says:

      Frank … thanks for your comment. I’d like to relate to both points. They are each very important:

      On the first, I was utterly amazed in the early ’90’s when that flap about exorcism was so publicly played up by O’Connor. It was he who volunteered information on the occurrence of exorcisms in his diocese. He was not at all critical of the film “The Exorcist” but rather saw it as something to nudge people into the church. He was shocked at the “satanic” imagery of the contemporary rock music and together with his stand on abortion seem to have been convinced that the devil was abroad in the land. I don’t remember his comments later about what Monica Lewinsky did to Clinton in the Oval Orifice, but I am sure it confirmed him in his suspicions. As I said in the essay, the fact that the Vatican Catechism came out at the same time with its reassertions of the christian legends of Satanic history, might have been only a coincidence. But what was clear, and still is, is that there is an unmistakable regression going back into a mythological fundamentalism on the part of the Catholic Church that is very disturbing, as it reinforces the inanities we are hearing from the Pat Robertson abnd Jery Falwells of this world.

      In my opinion, there is no doubt whatsoever that the nighrmares we thought we were safely rid of can return and completely displace two hundred years of rational science. It happened before. It happened in ancient Rome. Hundreds of years of Greek philosophy, Stoicism, Epicureanism, neo-Platonism, the thinking of Lucretius, Marus Aurelius and an entire culture that was moving away from superstition, … with a few decrees, anathemas and banishments by the emperors after Constantine and the Romans were burning synagogues … something they had never done before. Just like the HUAC phenomenon, we can be overtaken by this kind of imagery and its implications. The Church lends enormous pretige to these superstitions. I continue to attack them because the entire dogmatic rationale of the Church is based on them. People may feel compelled to change Church doctrine if they are forced to look at its absurdity.

      This brings me to your second point about similar myths in other traditions … of course, like the Muslim, where we westerners are considered “satanic.” I mentioned we can see the insanity there because we are the brunt of it, but we fail to see the “beam” in our own eye. The “phenomenological / psychological” apporach of someone like Ricoeur tries to latch onto these “themes” as they manifest themselves across the board of cultures. He helps point up the archetypal wellsprings of these ideas. But we also have to recognize that this approach, by providing a deep psychic etiology, also SUGGESTS that these notions are not superable. They are another display of “resident evil” something that we cannot overcome, that necessarily takes possession of us. I believe the phenomenological appraoch is used as a substitute for a solid metaphysics that begins with the unreality of these myths, no matter how archetypal they are.

      I am pushing for two things … (1) the deep DOCTRINAL REFORM of a Church that continues to spew out this garbage to the detriment of mankind. The Church cannot be allowed to continue with its mediaeval dogmatic base. It is insane and inhuman. The “reforms” that the “false prophets” are willing to settle for, reform nothing. They are liberal clap-trap that leaves all this supernatural hocus-pocus in place. The challenge to Catholicism must be at this deep level right across the board. The work of Jesus was to call for a simple human sanity in response to the benvolent generosity of creation. There is nothing supernatural … good or evil. Everything is natural … and everything is good. End of story. If there is anything “evil,” it comes from us, nowhere else.

      and (2) a philsophical / scientific reform that establishes the primacy of science and its “handmaiden” cosmo-ontology in order to prevent the ersatz usurpations by pseudo-philosophical “resolutions” of the phenomenological / pyscholicical / anthropological escapists who would have us settle for some culturally accepted version of “what is” rather than a scientific and “objective” attempt at determining what really is. In other words, Metaphysics, in its proper form as coswmo-ontology, must be re-installed as the base and bedrock of all subsequent thinking, whether it be scientific or philosophical. Cf MM part I.


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