Book Review: The Autobiography of Satan: Authorized Edition by William A. Glasser

The attention of many, if not most people, who see the title The Autobiography of Satan: Authorized Edition will be drawn to the word Satan. Actually, the key words are authorized autobiography. Autobiography is crucial because countless stories have been written or told about Satan’s life, motives and deeds. And while it would seem that any autobiography would, by definition, be authorized, the term here signals the deceit of the other stories and seeks to confirm this isn’t a fabrication.

We all should understand that even this authorized autobiography is fictitious. Yet a 2013 poll indicated that 57% of Americans believe the devil exists. In another poll that year more Americans expressed belief in the devil (58%) than evolution (47%). For William Glasser, president emeritus of Southern Vermont College, the time evidently seemed ripe for Stan to publish an autobiography.

Glasser, who combined his Ph.D. in English with a minor in comparative religion, advances a thoughtful premise. While certainly written from a freethinker’s perspective, The Autobiography of Satan isn’t predicated on some sort of grand clash of metaphysical beings. This is seen from the outset, as Satan flickers into existence when a prehistoric hominid puzzled over the spark created when he struck two rocks together. From this point forward, Satan’s story is that of and shaped by human history.

Even since prehistory, man faces the enduring shroud created by what we know and explaining what we don’t understand. For just as long, man has looked to gods for and as the answer to what mystifies us, including the problem of good and evil. Glasser traces the evolution of religious beliefs and how the unknown was transformed into and maintained as the exclusive province of the gods. Because this was outside human dominion, it was forbidden knowledge. And Satan contends that even the Garden of Eden, whether real or apocryphal, was conceived to keep man “distracted from becoming aware of your deplorable ignorance.”

In ceding the unknown, humans chose “to deify their ignorance.” And since the gods possessed all knowledge, some entity had to be responsible for enticing people to dare question or seek that which they — or their religions — considered beyond man’s ken. Moreover, since man deemed gods the source of good in the world, he needed to ascribe evil (the definition of which changed despite supposedly being the province of any particular religion’s deities) to some entity. Man piled all this on Satan’s shoulders, even though the reality was he was not cast out, waging war against any god or spawning evil in the world.

The only foe Glasser’s Satan has is “exalted ignorance.” And that is where hostility exists between Satan and religion. History as recounted by Satan is replete with efforts by religions to restrict knowledge and investigation because “they were fearful of what you might discover beyond the borders of their own beliefs.” According to Satan, considered by nearly all to be an expert in the field, the suppression of knowledge and free inquiry is “the true source of evil in this world.”

Satan’s recounting weakens as Glasser moves us into the present and even the future. Although shrewd and at times droll, the book also stumbles with perhaps too frequent, and occasionally trivial, interludes of dialogues between Satan and his scribe, Wag. Still, approaching Satan, or the concept of Satan, as a struggle over knowledge and not a battle between good and evil heightens the level of discourse over conventional notions of Satan. Granted, many will claim Glasser is simply vilifying religion. Yet anyone embarking on The Autobiography of Satan without preconceptions will find an intelligent, well-reasoned and insightful exploration of historical ideas and their evolution.

People will do anything to hide their own ignorance, particularly from themselves. Perhaps that accounts for why the pursuit of knowledge, throughout human history, has so often been twisted into something evil.

William Glasser, The Autobiography of Satan

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