The Devil Is in the Details

May 17, 2015

Stone Mountain, Georgia made national news last week, albeit in the least favorable of ways.  At a recent graduation ceremony, now-former high school principal, Nancy Gordeuk, was caught “on cellphone video condemning people for leaving early by saying: ‘Look who’s leaving … all the black people.’”  Afterwards, she sent this apologetic message to parents via email: “The devil was in the house and came out from my mouth.  I deeply apologize for my racist comment and hope that forgiveness is in your hearts.”

As a sign of the growing prevalence of secularist assumptions in our society, by which even nominally religious people are influenced, Gordeuk’s reference to the devil was predictably mocked.  Paraphrasing her explanation, an atheist friend of mine quipped, “The devil made me do it!”  As a somewhat lengthy side-note, this catchphrase doesn’t even seem to be religious in its origin.  It was popularized (some say coined) by comedian and actor, Flip Wilson, who described himself as a "Jehovah's bystander".  The phrase is specifically used to mock religious people.  Any reference to the devil will invite this phrase in our increasingly secular society; heck, if I were an atheist, I might also be tempted to resort to such tactics (although I hope that I would ultimately resist this temptation, because it is totally lacking in charity).

Of course, Gordeuk never uttered this phrase.  She did, however, mention the devil.  Then again, it is quite common to mention drunkenness, bad temper, poverty, poor upbringing, or any of a host of other details in order to make sense of - though not necessarily excuse - terrible decisions.  I could be wrong, and perhaps I’m being overly polemical here, but it seems to me that the only reason why the devil explanation seems different to some people is either because they have already made up their minds that religion is nonsense, or because they're only nominally religious and really serve the idol of popular opinion, which has anathematized (so to speak) belief in such otherworldly forces.  However naïve and outdated some view this belief today, it is basic Christian doctrine that such forces exist, urging us to choose evil over good.  We cannot expect her to set aside this belief merely because fewer people accept it today.  It’s worth noting, parenthetically, that we should consider the possibility that we are overstating the extent to which she attributes her comment to the devil simply because news stories have chosen to focus on this particular aspect in their headlines.

But what of the claim that Gordeuk attempted to excuse her behavior by attributing it entirely to the devil’s prompting?  As another friend put it to me, “citing metaphysical forces as the sole impetus for human action negates the concept of free will and self-determination.  It absolves all of us of any responsibility for our actions.”

As a matter of fact, no movement has done more harm to the concept of free will than that of atheism (let me preface the comments that follow by emphasizing that I am not suggesting that all atheists subscribe to the view that I am about to address).  Viewing behavior as reducible to neurological activity, atheists like Sam Harris tend to see free will as an “illusion”.  Were Gordeuk an atheist, she might have been characterized as saying, “My brain made me do it!”

The truth is that religion affirms our free will in choosing between good and evil.  Without denying responsibility for her remarks or attributing "the sole impetus" for them to "metaphysical forces", Gordeuk’s explanation implies the reason why we often choose the latter over the former.  Indeed, if the latter never appeared to us as an attractive option - but was instead neurologically predetermined - then free will would be a meaningless concept.

For all I know, Gordeuk could be a rabid racist who, on that fateful day, simply failed to restrain what Peter Holley of the Washington Post surmises to be a deep-seated racial prejudice.  Perhaps her apology is completely lacking in sincerity, as so many appear to assume.  But since I cannot search her heart, I will not make these assumptions.  I can pridefully distinguish myself from her in not having ever uttered such bigoted comments, but I suspect that my rejection of racism has little to do with my own efforts, and is mostly the result of an upbringing and education that, though little fault of their own, others have not shared.  Hence why I am not too quick to reject her apology.  I’m certainly in no position to do so.  Are you? 

Amir Azarvan

Amir Azarvan is an assistant professor of political science at Georgia Gwinnett College.  He is the editor of a forthcoming book entitled Re-Introducing Christianity: An Eastern Apologia for a Western Audience (Wipf & Stock), as well as the editor-in-chief of Contemporary Faith Magazine.