Satan as a Functional Theodicy, Part 3: The ACU Study

Over the last few posts I've discussed historical and theological perspectives that suggest that Satan serves some theodic functions. Specifically, Satan allows us to shift some of responsibility for the suffering of life away from God allowing relationship with God to be less complicated, conflicted, and ambivalent.

For a psychologist, theological and historical arguments are fine but the real issue for me is, do people really use Satan in this way? Does Satan really function as a theodicy in the minds of contemporary believers? Last year I sought an answer to this question.

The outcome of this research, as I said in the first post of this series, was presented in a paper presented at the annual SWPA psychological conference. Here's a sketch of the study.

First, I needed a means to quantify what I called "the strength of the Satan construct." That is, I needed to measure how active, involved, present, and powerful Satan was believed to be in the believer's life. So, I asked 278 ACU students questions like these:

1. Satan can cause misfortune, accidents, or illness to fall upon good people.
2. In my spiritual life, I feel I am involved in an ongoing battle against Satan.
3. I don’t think Satan can do much to interfere in people’s lives. (R)
4. Satan is a present and active force in human affairs.
5. Satan roams the earth actively seeking to defeat the people of God.
6. I don’t believe Satan attacks, harms, and/or interferes with people. (R)
7. I believe that Satan (or his agents) can influence people to act in evil or destructive ways.
8. Failing to respect the power of Satan in the world leaves you ignorant and vulnerable to his attacks.

Items were rated on a 1-6 likert scale (1 = Strongly Disagree, 6 = Strongly Agree). Note the (R) indicates a reverse-scored item (i.e., low endorsement of this items is scored to indicate high endorsement of the overall construct). Overall, if someone scored high across these items they have a very "strong" view of Satan.

Sidenote: How would you score on this scale? Low or high?

Okay, with a rough measure of the strength of the Satan construct I also needed a measure of what I called "theodicy complaint," the degree to which a person blames God directly for the pain and suffering of life. I created the following items to quantify this construct:

1. The amount of suffering and pain in the world makes me doubt that God cares about the world.
2. I blame God for the amount of pain and suffering in the world.
3. I think God has let the world get out of control.
4. God is responsible for allowing all the pain and suffering in the world.
5. It troubles me that God does not prevent pain and suffering in the world.
6. I am disappointed in God for creating a world full of pain and suffering.
7. It is largely God’s fault for allowing so much pain and suffering in the world.

Again, the scale is rated on the same likert scale as the Satan items.

Sidenote: How would you score on this scale? Low or high?

Okay, with these two measures in hand it is a simple matter to correlate the two scores.

So, here are the ways the correlation could come out:

1. They are positively correlated (as scores on one measure INCREASE scores on the other measure INCREASE). That is, people who have strong Satan constructs are also the ones who tend to blame God most directly about pain/suffering. This outcome would be the exact opposite of what our theory predicts.

2. The scores are uncorrelated. This outcome would indicate that Satan and theodicy issues are unrelated concepts. They have nothing to do with each other. Again, this outcome is against our theory.

3. The scores are negatively correlated (as scores on one measure INCREASE scores on the other measure DECREASE). This is the outcome we predict. That is, if Satan is functioning as a theodicy, people who have strong Satan concepts should be the ones who blame God LESS for pain/suffering. Conversely, those who have anemic visions of Satan are those who will tend to blame God MORE for pain/suffering.

The outcome: A statistically significant negative correlation.

Theology and history aside, it appears that Satan does function, at least partly, as a theodicy. People use Satan to feel better about God.

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2 thoughts on “Satan as a Functional Theodicy, Part 3: The ACU Study”

  1. This is fascinating.

    You might also be interested, for purposes of your research, in how I reacted to the questions...

    I would score VERY low on the theodicy complaint scale - just about bottom it out. Even though I think I have a pretty healthy understanding of the stickiness of theodicy problems, I found myself parsing almost all of the items - letting myself "out" based on the subjective element in them. In other words, I think, the world is a crummy place, but God is not responsible for it, so I'm not going to say I'm "disappointed" in God, for example. I would only say I'm puzzled or confused.

    Conversely on the Satan construct, I would - as you predict - score VERY high. However, almost all of my agreement was "theoretical," not practical. Yes, he CAN cause misfortune, he CAN interfere, he CAN influence. Although I'm not at all convinced that the SNL church-lady approach, blaming Satan for everything, is a healthy spiritual perspective and I generally try to avoid it. In other words, I WANT to score much lower on this one, but I CAN'T because it is worded in terms of POTENTIAL rather than actual, practical Satanic involvement.

    So...while I would psychometrically (right word? sorry if its not) come out as a guy who blames Satan for a crummy world, I don't intellectually come down that way at all.

    But...I've been told before that I'm not a very good/cooperative lab rat when it comes to this sort-of thing, so you should probably take my views with a grain of salt.

    Still, like I said, quite fascinating.

  2. Matt,
    Your comment makes me wonder if there may be other dynamics underneath the negative correlation. Given that the design is correlational, different causal models could be consistent with it. That is, the data is "consistent" with the underlying theory but by no means does it prove the theory.

    However, I do wonder about the theological landscape of people who do tend to resist blaming God. They may not overtly "blame" Satan. That would be a little simplistic. But a dualistic warfare model of the world would, I believe, attenuate complaint against God. I don't think the dynamic is as simple as shifting the blame for a specific source of pain from the God category to the Satan category. The "spreading of blame" may be more unconscious and diffuse, a worldview rather than specific conscious sets of causal attributions (e.g., X is to blame for this, but Y is to blame for that...)

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