Satan? You gotta be kidding. Didn't science fix that superstitious wagon for good? Didn't Valium and birth-control pills, those aspirins for the soul, chase him away like a mild headache?

Satan is that hooves-and-tail number that ended up on the cutting floor of the big movie we call the 20th century. Satan is the backwoods preaching bit they do right before they start handling the snakes. Satan is what used to explain crime and craziness before we learned it was a lack of job- training programs or sex education.

Check out the words of the 20th century's favorite prophet, Sigmund Freud. He said that Satan is a father substitute for people who are "too poorly gifted, too ineffective to make a living and belong to that well- known type, the eternal suckling . . ."

Satan, in other words, is for wimps and gimps.

Unless we're talking about Satan Superstar and Beelzebub Bestseller. And then it seems we can't get enough of The Fiend, the Prince of this World, the Evil One. In books and movies, he makes his presence known in everything from the fog to the soul of a St. Bernard, although where we like to see The Deceiver most is in children.

Parents: has your child been levitating at bedtime? Bellowing like the MGM lion with a Jesuit education? Vomiting pea soup all over the minister? These are the warning signs that the baby sitter has been letting him or her stay up late to watch "The Exorcist," "The Omen" or "Rosemary's Baby." Or maybe just the nightly news about the latest ritual murder, cattle mutilation or Manson-style massacre.

But note that Our Most Enlightened Thinkers don't worry that we'll be corrupted into actually worrying about Old Scratch because of this stuff. That's because they know that it's all a healthy inoculation against serious belief in Powers of the Air, a little dead tissue from the corpse of evil to get those antibodies of intellectual smugness pumping through our psyches.

"There are two equal and opposite errors about the devils into which our race can fall. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors."--C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters.

As Mick Jagger sings in "Sympathy for the Devil," Satan has been around for "a long, long year," and his job, in whatever culture he has appeared in, is generally to get blamed for evil, pain and bad luck. We get the word "Satan" from Hebrew, in which it means "the accuser" or "the adversary." Oddly enough, he doesn't make that many appearances in the Bible, and even when he does, it's subject to interpretation. Was that Satan behind those Foster-Grants in the Garden of Eden, or was it just a serpent incarnating evil?

Further on, Satan appears as a district attorney advising God to throw the book at Job. He tempts David to take a census. There are foreshadowings of the story of Satan as the prideful fallen angel in Isaiah, but it isn't until the New Testament, and the temptation of Christ in the wilderness, that we see him as clearly separate from God.

Right here, belief in Satan gets tricky. If God is all-good and all- powerful, why does he let Satan and evil exist?

This is known as "The Problem of Evil," and it's still a favorite lever for college philosophy professors who want to move undergraduate minds toward doubt, that deity of liberal thinking.

St. Anthony, the desert meditator, saw Satan as a pig. But the mass-produced model usually comes with hooves, horns and tail, sometimes half-human, like the classical god Pan, and often goatlike (as in goat-- the one you blame). Sometimes he has bat wings, too, signifying his past glory as an archangel who would rather "reign in hell than serve in heaven," as Milton put it when he made Satan a muscular and charming titan in "Paradise Lost."

These are all wonderfully easy not to believe in.

More persuasive is Dostoevski in The Brothers Karamazov:

"He was a gentleman . . . going a little gray, with long thick hair and a pointed beard . . . He had lived in good society, but bit by bit, impoverished by his youthful dissipations and the recent abolition of serfdom, he had become a sort of high-class sponger . . ."

By the 1940s, when Denis de Rougemont was writing The Devil's Share, there was scarcely anything left at all:

"Like the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, the Devil has in our day completely disappeared, leaving only a grin hovering in mid-air which is imperceptible to people in a hurry."

Satan is the ultimate absentee landlord, and we're keeping up the property very nicely for him. How pleased any devil would be to hear us preaching the fern-bar wisdom of two decades now: if it feels good, do it, because you only go around once and you want to cross the finish line saying: "I did it my way."

And don't above all don't repress anything. If you feel angry, for instance, be angry. After all, it's a certified sin, one of the seven deadly ones, and what more recommendation can you need for a good time?

And if we want to say the devil doesn't exist, that's fine, too.

"The Devil's cleverest wile is to convince us that he does not exist."-- Charles Baudelaire, in Short Prose Poems.

The most nothingness and absence of meaning we find in existence, the better the devil is supposed to like it.

Says Goethe's Mephisto: "I am that which cancels out . . . Everything in existence is worthy only of destruction, so it would be better if nothing existed."

Imagine how Satan must savor the most fashionable emotions of our time: paranoia, existential despair and free-floating anxiety. (Not to mention the collected works of Joan Didion.)

Here's C. S. Lewis on people in Hell: "They've got cinemas and fish and chip shops and advertisements and all the sorts of things they want. The appalling lack of any intellectual life doesn't worry them." It's just that there's this nagging sense of unreality.

Doesn't sound all that different from Georgetown.

That's Lewis's point, of course.

But since Satan doesn't exist, we don't have to worry about that. At least, it's nothing that a little group therapy and another real estate boom wouldn't cure.