Theological Discussion of Satan and Evil on The O’Reilly Factor Exemplifies Need for Promotion of Ponerology’s Scientific Approach
Ponerology is defined as the scientific study of that which is called “evil.” The reason that we explicitly specify “scientific” is to distinguish it from other approaches to considering evil, such as:
- The philosophical approach – Considering evil abstractly, rather than in its real-world implications
- The artistic approach – Considering evil through literature, painting, poetry and so on
- The theological approach – Considering evil as potentially emanating from the supernatural realm
This last approach, the theological one, is extremely commonly employed in our present world. It may actually remain the most common approach to evil. And it was on display last week during a segment of The O’Reilly Factor.
Recently, the television miniseries “The Bible” portrayed the character of Satan as bearing a remarkable physical resemblance to President Barack Obama. Some found this offensive and, in the wake of the minor outrage, Bill O’Reilly used his March 21, 2013 episode’s “Factor Follow Up” segment to explore the question “Does Satan Exist?”
O’Reilly introduced the segment by saying:
“We wanted to update the status of Lucifer the Prince of Darkness. What is the current wisdom regarding him?”
To help answer the question, he interviewed two theologically-based guests:
- Rabbi Aryeh Spero, author of Push Back: Reclaiming the American Judeo-Christian Spirit
- Dr. Christopher Ruddy, Associate Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America
Ruddy believes there is an active God and an active Devil and that both actually influence human behavior toward “good” and “evil.”
The Rabbi believes that, at the time of creation, God allowed for the existence of an evil force in the world and within people, even if he does not believe in an actual being such as the Devil.
I was surprised that O’Reilly actually took objective enough an approach to question the Rabbi on what he meant by the word “force.” I took this as a small indicator that Bill really does want to understand the roots of evil, rather than simply resign himself to accepting clichés.
O’Reilly then asked the Rabbi how he explains those that, given free will, choose to do evil and what happens to them after they die.
The Rabbi claims that people choose evil because they are lazy or have ambitions or lusts and fail to bow to authorities.
“But it’s always a free decision unless you’re mentally ill and incapacitated.”
This point is really glossed over, even though, in my view, a major discussion is called for on what O’Reilly means by “mentally ill.” Does “mentally ill” only refer to those, such as psychotics, who are out of touch with reality and, therefore, make their choices on the basis of delusions and hallucinations? Or does it also refer to those, such as psychopaths, who are fully in touch with reality and simply biologically lack conscience to guide their decisions in compassionate directions?
Now, one of the things I like about O’Reilly is that he is very aware of and concerned with the problem of evil. He frequently talks on his show about the implications of the fact that there are in our world truly malicious and destructive people. And he seems genuinely curious about what underlies their behavior.
He displays this interest once again toward the end of this particular interview when he says:
“I wonder why so many people succumb to evil, though, because I believe that they know it…When you do something bad there is something inside you, whether you’re born with it or not, that says, you know, this isn’t right. You know the — the people who are slaughtering other people and maiming other people and betraying other people and stealing and all, they know what they’re doing is wrong. Yet they choose to do it anyway.”
The Rabbi replies that the reason is that they succumb to immediate gratification.
O’Reilly asks him “But don’t they think there’s going to be a payday down the road for that?”
The Rabbi says “They should. If they had the right type of religion and teaching they would understand that ultimately we’re going to be accountable.”
I find this exchange symbolic of just why it is so important that ponerology become more established and promoted. Here, O’Reilly has asked some extremely important questions that lie at the very heart of any attempt to truly understand our world and how to improve it. But, because he is asking a Rabbi, rather than a scientist who specializes in studying the objective realities of this subject matter, he receives a response that is, as I like to say, quite “fluffy.” It really leaves us with no deeper understanding of the answer to O’Reilly’s question or how to address the problem (and in fact conflicts with what some actual research says on the matter.) And that is a shame because even at this moment there are people who do know more about the actual answer to his question than these guests.
It would be similar to asking a Rabbi, rather than a physician or microbiologist, about the cause of infections. It may be interesting to hear the Rabbi’s opinion, but if you really want to know where infections come from and how to best prevent or resolve them, you probably want to talk to the men and women of science.
O’Reilly then says that he believes more people are choosing to do evil today than ever before in the history of the planet. When Ruddy disagrees, O’Reilly responds by re-asserting his view. This is another example of how strongly O’Reilly feels about this topic and its relevance to our modern age.
With the most popular cable news/opinion program in America for many years running, Bill O’Reilly has quite a prominent platform from which to help educate a very large audience about the dynamics of evil – one of the most crucial topics there is.
I don’t begrudge him featuring on his show, at times, the theological viewpoint on evil. It is one viewpoint and there is nothing wrong with it being heard.
But the scientific viewpoint on evil, I believe, has much more profound insight and actionable information to offer on this subject. This is why I feel so strongly about promoting ponerology – the science of evil.
So I’d love to see O’Reilly and other media personalities with a genuine interest in this subject spend more time featuring the many scientists – such as some that we’ve featured on this website – whose work in fields ranging from neurobiology to criminology to genetics sheds light on the sources of harmful behavior. Luckily, this is increasingly happening. Not only have we highlighted on this site cases where the media has covered ponerologic stories – whether through online news, television news or television shows – but it was observing this uptick in such media coverage that inspired its creation in the first place.
If you look at O’Reilly’s expression at the beginning of the “Does Satan Exist?” segment, when he announces the show’s desire to “update the status of Lucifer the Prince of Darkness,” you can make out a bit of a grin. Perhaps this indicates that he himself realizes what a “fluffy” topic this is to feature on his show. I’d like to think this is the case and that deep down, he too realizes that, while a Rabbi and an academic theologian may make for a somewhat interesting discussion on good and evil, if he really wants answers to the questions about harm and suffering that perplex him and millions of others, he’d be better off interviewing folks like James Fallon, Philip Zimbardo, Adrian Raine, Robert Hare and any of the others who have devoted their professional lives to bringing us objectively closer to those answers.
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Tags: art, aryeh spero, bill o’reilly, christopher ruddy, conscience, delusions, evil, free will, god, hallucinations, lucifer, mental illness, philosophy, problem of evil, psychopathy, psychosis, satan, supernatural, the devil, the o’reilly factor, theology
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