Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Even so one might ask, "How can malaria, which kills millions each year, not be called evil?" 

I try to turn that around and wonder how the evolutionary process could produce us and fail to produce the mosquito and the malaria parasite or something similar? The same process produced the honey bee, the butterfly and antigens in our bloodstream. We are only one of many millions of life-forms on earth. Some of these forms are more successful than we are. What's so special about us that we should complain about a process God put in place?

Some would retort that this is no comfort to a parents whose child has been killed by malaria. I would respond, "Why not? How can we accept life in this world, but only on our own terms? Besides, grief at such a loss is itself a natural process, to be dealt with, lived with and overcome as well as may be. The death of a child by natural processes isn't the end of life on earth. Are we so egotistical as to imagine that we are more important than any other life form? And anyway, if we're worth our salt we can if we wish destroy malaria eventually, just as smallpox and poliomyelitis have been destroyed."

My statement may not be typical, but it does demonstrate the difference between one contemporary outlook and the older one which lays everything at God's door in what might be termed an immature way.

There remains a much more serious and difficult question: How can God allow evil to be perpetrated by humans? This is sometimes known as the "Auschwitz question". How can a good God allow the degree of human evil which resulted in the death of some six million Jews in concentration camps during World War II?

Such suffering can, I think, rightly be called "evil" since it appears not to be the outcome of a natural process, but rather the result of wilful human choice. Surely, we ask, it must be right to call the perpetrators of such deeds "evil"?

It's important, I think, to go back to basics at this point. We must ask a number of preliminary questions:

  • On what basis and against what standard is any human act to be called evil?
  • If we can agree what the standards are, then why and how do people perpetrate evil deeds?

First, the standards. It appears, according to Roy Baumeister (and I rest heavily on his research at this point [8]) it isn't as simple as it seems.

[1] Evil, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. This seems a silly thing to propose. It goes against everything we know about the nature of evil, doesn't it? But the research shows that those we call evil never think of themselves in such terms. They have their reasons - often good ones - for doing what they do. Whose values are to prevail? Why should the identified victim's point of view always be taken?

[2] Most of us, when we address evil, demonstrate strong stereotypical positions. There is for all of us a myth of pure evil, almost always perceived as coming from outside our own sphere. That is, we are never evil. We are always the victims of evil deeds. It's always the other person who's evil. We always have right and good reasons for doing what we do - unlike those we identify as evil.

[3] When we examine the reasons for what we call evil actions, it's always a matter of judgement to call them "good" or "bad". Every society has differing judgements about such matters. Who is to judge which are right and which wrong? Although it may seem obvious to an outsider, who is to say with absolute certainty that an act of genocide in East Africa is evil? It is an undoubted tragedy. But who can unravel all the elements which contributed to it? How is it that those who did the killing don't necessarily think of themselves as evil? The evidence is that they have great difficulty is doing so.

It should be apparent that evil isn't, as so many think, simple or easy to pin down. Even to define it as an act which intentionally harms another without their consent leaves many grey areas.

Having opened up doubts, I think it remains clear that there are evil acts and evil people - though there isn't an external "force" of evil in some sort of spiritual or metaphysical sense.

A central question for any caring person attempting to be "good" (whatever that means) is, "How, given the subjective nature of evil, do I avoid becoming evil myself? If people we call evil don't perceive themselves that way, might it not be that I am evil without knowing it?"

[A] It might be that I am evil in the eyes of some. For example, some Christians regard this website as satanic. Perhaps they are right and I am indeed evil in writing these things.

[B] Given that we define evil for ourselves, that there appears not to be an absolute standard by which to recognise evil, there is a definite process by which we all may come to carry out evil behaviours. Studies of those who have committed atrocities like mass murders or torture reveal a gradual progression. Small acts of cruelty are followed by crueler and crueler acts until a person is completely desensitised to the sufferings of others. In other words, the way to evil is down a gentle slope. Nobody becomes "evil" overnight.

[C] Baumeister reports that "Egotism is an important and pervasive cause of evil." Self-esteem is rightly recognised as important for our physical and mental health. Egotism is self-esteem gone wrong. It is a positive view of oneself and one's rights which bears little relationship to reality. An egotist who thinks he or she has been hard done by will be very much more likely to take out on others his or her sense of injury. Such acts will appear completely justified to such a person.

[D] An aspect of the myth of evil is that evil people are supposed to enjoy hurting others. This, as researchers have discovered, isn't true. Only the insane enjoy torture, for example - and then only the very few. A paranoid schizophrenic can't be called evil because normal human perceptions are absent. The rest of us do "evil" things for what we think are very good reasons - and we don't usually enjoy doing them. On the contrary, the evidence is overwhelming that sane people who do evil things suffer great harm. They are tormented by what they are doing and experience enormous mental stresses. At best a person can eventually become so hardened that the negative effects of evil acts are no longer felt, though they usually continue all the same.

[E] Inflexible ideals are, the evidence suggests, a breeding ground for evil behaviours. As a certain Henry Adams is reported to have said, "It's always the good men who do the most harm in the world." Baumeister writes, "Many of the greatest crimes, atrocities, and calamities of history were deliberately perpetrated by people who honestly and sincerely wanted to do something good." I would revise this slightly by remarking that someone convinced of absolute truth and rectitude must of necessity regard those who disagree with him or her as inferior. It's but a small step from there to the start of a progression of behaviours which lead to what we call evil.

The picture of evil which the data reveal is somewhat more complex than I have laid out here. As with such matters, the deeper one goes the more twists and turns are revealed. But I think it's fair to conclude the following:

  • Evil can be explained satisfactorily by examining human behaviours, at both personal and social levels. There is no need to posit external "spiritual" powers which tempt us to commit evil acts. That we do evil things is our own choice.
  • Because evil is in the eye of the beholder, it seems we should be cautious about labeling other people "evil". They are probably doing the same to us - correctly from their point of view.
  • Nevertheless there seem to be some behaviours which are regarded by most people as intrinsically evil. It seems that they are those which can't be thought of as in any way to the good of humankind. It proves difficult to be precise at this point.

    - There might be societies in which, for example, killing enemy children is a norm. The killer may feel no ill effects from doing so because the act may be fully justified in terms of what his or her society thinks is good or bad.

    - But I find it hard to imagine a society which deliberately set out to destroy the natural environment as a matter of good behaviour. That is, it's hard for most people not to think of such activities as evil (if they consider the matter at all, that is).
  • If ordinary people are to be concerned about evil, it seems that their concern might have a dual thrust:

    [1] Because it may not be as easy as some think to identify what are evil behaviours and what are not, perhaps we might take some care about jumping to conclusions about what is or isn't evil.

    [2] A large concern will be to examine ourselves to check that what we are doing isn't harming others by our standards and theirs. It may be easier than we think to start down the slippery slope towards evil. That is, confrontation, conflict and violence may always be the easy way out. More difficult, yet more rewarding, may be the effort to understand another point of view however strange it may be.
  • Nobody would propose that we shouldn't pursue our lives with a degree of drive and enthusiasm. But it appears that those of us who tend to think we have final answers, who claim to have captured some or other absolute truth, might beware. Evil acts seem to spring more easily from fanatical idealists than from those who question the veracity of their conclusions about themselves, other people, and what life is all about.
  • Evil as a fruit of egotism presents a challenge. By definition, the true egotist can't easily, if at all, be persuaded to seriously review his or her sense of self. The potential for evil acts is patent.

[A different type of discussion is in Evil: Another Approach. See also Graeme Hunter's challenging article Evil: Back in Bad Company]

[8] Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, 1999

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