This was written after a group discussion on the ‘Problem of Evil’. Finished at Starbucks in Los Gatos 9-10-16.
Evil is a label to a visceral reaction to something or someone that elicits disgust within us. It lacks metaphysical understanding. Evil is a label to a kind of response, and neurobiology helps us understand that the feeling of disgust takes place in the brain; more descriptively in the amygdala and hippocampus. Therefore, emotional disgust is triggered when we hear of horrors such as mass shootings, genocide, rape, etc. To this feeling of disgust we have given the name: evil. As you can see, evil is not a supernatural phenomenon but an interpersonal phenomenon. We experience evil in relation to other human beings, especially when it involves innocent victims. For these reasons, genocide and rape are deemed evil; and people like Hitler, Pol Pot, and serial killers take on the title as well. But given its lack of metaphysical understanding, the word ‘evil’ has been most often used as a rhetorical weapon.
Evil is one those words that we use often, but struggle to properly define. Most often, we simply employ it for examples of atrocity or extremely malicious people. When people discuss this topic, the beginning questions is usually “What is evil?”. This framing of the question is metaphysical, and it suggests that we can determine whether evil exists or does not; however, the word itself lacks substance and exists in a sort of black hole of thought. It’s use in our language is simply a linguistic placeholder for something or someone extremely bad. Given that evil lacks an ontology, it’s history is one of theological relevance. The term ‘evil’ in a moral context in Western culture is viewed as an archaic term, a term best left to antiquity, a relic, a hangover from a worldview which even many people who – still today – think of themselves as religious would regard as an embarrassment. In common forms, evil has its roots in homicidal finger-pointing dating back to crusades and inquisitions.
This is precisely my concern: people blithely use the word ‘evil’ as an expedient and thoughtless way to eliminate justification. Using the term evil simplifies the complexity of morality. Therefore, we can say, for example, that any of the recent mass shootings were perpetrated by evil people without having to justify any claims. Or, Muslims are evil because they follow an evil doctrine. And we can’t forget what was en vogue during hurricane Katrina: the evil vileness of the gays in the French quarters who provoked God to send the evil storm. All of this demonstrates how we sling the term around without justificatory reasons.
The word ‘evil’ is not only a thoughtless way to get your point across, it is fosters a polarizing ‘us vs. them’ mentality. Perhaps you remember when President George W. Bush described Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address. Even now, the phrase evokes an instinctual sense of supernatural dread, which was precisely its purpose. The consequence of this rhetoric has fostered the idea of ridding evil in the Middle East and exterminating the evil doers. So how do you obliterate something (e.g. evil) that doesn’t have a substance? And if it’s evil people we’re talking about, then how does one qualify as being evil? For most cases, evil in the case of the Middle East simply means people who do not share our interests. In the case of our response to 9/11 in which there were 3,000 deaths, we retaliated by killing around 460,000 Iraqi’s. After the blood bath on both sides, shall conclude that Iraq is truly the axis of evil and we are the axis of good? Evil as such, is always evil to the victim, but never the perpetrator.
But why does evil, or gratuitous wrong-doing happen? Well, I like Roy Baumeister’s long respected thesis concerning the four root causes of evil. First, Baumeister says is the desire for material gain. What often distinguishes evil in these cases is not the ends, but the means. Second, is threatened egotism. Violence results when a person’s favorable image of self is questioned or impunged by someone else. Third, threatened idealism. When people believe firmly that they are on the side of good and are working to make the world a better place, they often feel justified in using strong measures against the seemingly evil forces that oppose them. Noble ends are often seen as justifying violent means. Human nature inclines people to align themselves in groups that square off against each other, each group seeing itself as good and the other as bad. Lastly, the pleasure for sadistic pleasure. This root is responsible for a much smaller proportion of the world’s evil than the others, and indeed most observations of killers, torturers, rapists, and similar evildoers indicate that only about 5 or 6 percent of perpetrators actually get enjoyment out of inflicting harm.
My goal is not to dissuade you from using the term ‘evil’. Rather, my goal is to caution you concerning how you use the word. My contention is that we should look at evil as a person (or group) that is deficient in empathy? Empathy is our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion. Empathy means being able to understand accurately the other person’s position, to identify with “where they are at.” All of us lie somewhere on an empathy spectrum (from high to low). Your empathy gauge is organized by factors such as your bond with your parents, conflict resolution growing up, the cultivation and development of healthy relationships, and your ability to adapt and respond appropriately to difficult or traumatic experiences. In addition to these factors, your psychological and biological make-up (e.g. nature) must be taken into account. Of no fault of their own, people with sociopathic and psychopathic behavior struck out in life’s lottery. Let me remind you of Charles Whitman who, in 1966, shot 49 innocent people from atop a tower at the University of Texas who, upon an autopsy after his death, was found to have a tumor in his frontal lobe which controls executive judgment. He was labeled evil, but was he evil if he couldn’t control himself? Charles Whitman is a shining example of someone with zero empathy, but not evil incarnate.
I will now completely shift gears now from a secular critique of evil to a classical topic on: The Problem of Evil.
A Critique of the Christian Notion to The Problem of Evil
Let’s move now to the classical problem concerning The Problem of Evil. The magnitude of this topic in immense due to faith groups reliance on an Omni-God (omnipotent, omnisciencent, and omnipresent) who has the power to prevent evil but does not; has the knowledge of impending evil but doesn’t thwart it with good; and is present everywhere there is evil, but simply stands with arms folded while it happens. Throughout the last two-thousand years, the problem of evil has largely been regulated to theological domains. Given the topics ongoing vitality, along with the [supposed] answers it brings to life’s existential questions, not to mention the countless well respected theologians who have proffered responses – the problem of evil simply cannot be silenced.
Christianity and especially Christian apologetics, has been a never-ending quest of shifting, dodging, back-peddling, stuttering, and revising in order to appease the current Zeitgeist. This is evidenced by the fact that there is a second century Syrian way of being Christian, but also there is an 8th century Irish way, a 12th century Eastern Orthodox way, a 15th century Chinese way, and a 19th century Scandinavian Lutheran peasant way. Basically it’s been two-thousand years of, “Hey guys, last generation’s Christians had it all wrong; so this is how we’re going to do it now” – repeated ad infinitum.
But what’s wrong with evolving beliefs? Progress is good, right? Well, yes but when theological beliefs change every century then it makes God, in all of his immutable and all-knowing ways, look very confused and irrational. But that’s the least of this problem. The most complicating factor is that Christianity relies on the absolute Truth of God. Which truth? Should we trust the Truth of St. Augustine’s God of the 4th century or the Truth of Joel Osteen’s 21st century God? Keep in mind, both have theologies vastly different from each other.
The reason I bring up the Christian’s schizophrenic God is because when Christians attempt to reconcile the problem of evil, they have an endless arsenal of conflicting ways that God works and a vast array of conflicting attributes they employ to make God fit any conclusion they seek. So if we talk about omnipotence, are we referring to a Cartesian or Thomistic way of articulating God’s power? If we talk of free will, is it an Arminian or Calvinistic perspective? If its how God works in creation, are we talking about open or process theology? I could go on and on. My point is that it is futile for the secular person to discuss the problem of evil with the Christian because it’s similar to arguing for the omnipotence of Allah, the Mormon God, Santa Claus and the God of Scientology, etc. We can address the problem of evil all day long; devoid of any solid evidence, yet keep talking and talking about nothing.
Throughout my years involved in Christian ministry, I have concluded that Christians talking about God is like children constructing their Mr. Potato Head toy. With the Mr. Potato Head toy, you simply slap on any kind of lips, eyes, or nose you want. Ask any group of Christians to describe God’s role with evil, and you will get an array of ‘God descriptions’ where, like the Mr. Potato Head toy, God is constructed in man’s image. Ask 20 Christians “How does God reconcile the problem of evil?” and you will get 20 different answers. Given the plethora of theologies with regards to the problem of evil, it is best to focus more on the hiddenness of God, with respect to the problem of evil.
A Different Angle: Hiddenness of God
The best strategy for the secular, regarding the problem of evil, is to avoid going down the path foundationless arguments concerning God’s role with evil in the world. Rather, the hiddenness of God gets to the heart of the matter. Perhaps the one Scripture verse I regard as [T]ruth is found in Isaiah 45:15, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior.” Focusing on the hiddenness of God is better than the problem of evil because it focuses on relationship [or lack thereof] between God and his people. Ultimately though, the Christian ends up sounding like the insecure teenager that says, “Yeah, I’ve got a girlfriend, but you don’t know her because she goes to another school” which is analogous to having a personal relationship with God that they cannot provide evidence for. Just as the girlfriend is hidden, so is God.
Why is God hidden? If God wants something from me, he would tell me. He wouldn’t leave someone else to do this, as if an infinite being were short on time. And he would certainly not leave fallible, sinful humans to deliver an endless plethora of confused and contradictory messages. Consider one of the great atrocities of the 20th century: The Holocaust. The Christian notion leaves us with a God – with all the grotesque torture, mass slaughter, and pervasive starvation of the Holocaust – who simply stood watching with arms folded. In all of this horror, God leaves us with the sound of crickets; and numerous self-contradictory answers within Scripture. There simply is no agreement or clarity to question: why does God allow it?
God leaves his people in the dark to the fundamental facts of evil. Chemists all agree on the fundamental facts of chemistry. Doctors all agree on the fundamental facts of medicine. Engineers all agree on the fundamental facts of engineering. So why can’t all humans agree on the fundamental facts of salvation, morality, and evil? There is no more reason that they should be confused or in the dark about this than that chemists, doctors, and engineers should be confused or in the dark.
Maybe God is hidden because he doesn’t want to violate my free will? However, think about this: If a doctor wants a patient to get well, he is not vague about how she must do this, but as clear as she can be. Can you imagine waiting for your biopsy results and the doctor never gets back to you, ever? This doesn’t fly in our world. She explains what is needed in terms the patient can understand. She even answers the patient’s questions, and whenever asked will present all the evidence for and against the effectiveness of the treatment. She won’t hold anything back and declare, “I’m not going to tell you, because that would violate your free will!” Nor would any patient accept such an excuse. To the contrary, he would respond, “But I choose to hear you,” leaving the doctor no such excuse.
Consider this with regard to free will, what are the negative consequences of God altering the psychological complexion of Osama Bin Laden at birth, and infusing a worldview based on pacifism and love into the people surrounding his environment? Would we really fault God for stepping in and denounce God for violating free will? What parent on this earth, if they had omnipotent power, would not change the biological make up of a fetus that is born with the neurological underpinnings of a psychopath? I simply cannot accept this irrational argument that God allows and permits evil simply because many millennia ago Eve was hungry for some fruit. How is that for an explanation? We have genocide, natural disasters, world wars because Eve has a sweet tooth.
God is Obvious?
Christians, on the other hand, say God is not hidden. Many contest the hiddenness accusation by saying the God acting in creation is blindingly obvious. They contend that God’s handiwork is in the beauty of creation. Christians point to answered prayers and miracles where God came through for them. They reference back to times when they were at their lowest point, yet, God was there granting peace and speaking truth into them. But can we really take these subjective experiences and make metaphysical claims?
If a woman in India prays to Brahman for healing, and the healing occurs, does that mean Brahman is God? If a Muslim hears Allah’s voice and conviction to focus more on humility, is he hearing from the one true God? And what do we make of the millions of testimonies of Mormons experience of miracles and inner-transformation from a God that Christians say is non-existent because it’s not the Judeo-Christian God? Perhaps both I and the Christian are wrong, and many Gods are working through a plethora of religions? More probably, perhaps, people easily attach a supernatural phenomenon to experiences because that’s what religions do: provide answers to life’s most deeply existential questions by providing comfort, a purpose, and meaning.
As William James argued, it is the subjective and revelatory aspect of religion that gives it the most purchase: “the feeling of certainty that religious claims are true. But when one has a religious experience, what is “true” is only that one has had an experience, not that its contents convey anything about reality.” The statement, “I’m hungry,” can be seen as extrascientific knowledge. Indeed, any feeling, notion, or revelation can be seen as subjective truth or knowledge. What that means is that it’s true that you are feeling that way. What that doesn’t mean is that the epistemic content of your feeling is true. That requires independent verification by others if we want to demonstrate that Brahman or Allah or the Christian God is actually revealing himself in creation. Me and the rest of the world are still waiting for one of those Gods to come out from hiding. Pointing to the Grand Canyon and telling me of someone’s cancer going into remission because of prayer is not providing any demonstrable evidence; you’re just stating what happened and your conclusions based on your feelings.
As a secular humanist, I have wished for things and they have come true. I have seen [what seems like] one-and-a-billion odds come to pass in my favor. I have employed secular meditation that comforted and lifted me out of the depths of despair after my life took a spiral downturn because of my de-conversion. Honestly, as I look back at the last eight years has a secular humanist, I can say my life now has more meaning, value and significance than when I was a fervent Christian. Even though this is my subjective reality and truth, you will not hear me make a metaphysical claim. You will not hear me proclaim that positive wishful thinking is the one [T]ruth and that there is a secular God up in the sky that will comfort you in your despair if you meditate on peace.
If I Was God …
I want the Christian to pose this question to themselves: If I was an Omni-God, what would my world be like? For me, I have zero doubts that my world would be far greater than the one that the Christian God has made. If I took over the world today, I would immediately alleviate all needless suffering in the universe. All guns and bombs would turn to flowers. All garbage dumps would become gardens. There would be adequate resources for everyone. There would be no more children conceived than the community and the environment could support. There would be no need of fatal or debilitating diseases or birth defects, no destructive Acts of God. And whenever men and women seemed near to violence, I would intervene and kindly endeavor to help them peacefully resolve their differences. That’s what any loving person would do. Only a sadist would create the world that we have now.
When Christians hear this, they commonly remark, “But that means you take away people’s free will!” Wrong. I would limit freedom in the same way that the Christian God limits my freedom now. Hasn’t God limited my freedom to heal people, my freedom to see the future, and my freedom to predict hurricanes? I would do similarly by restricting people’s ability to cause gratuitous pain and evil. The free-will argument carries very little currency within the scope of God and evil, yet Christians continue to grasp onto it.
“Evil” is the best word we have to describe horrific people and events. The roots of evil tend to flourish through threatened egos, threatened ideals, an insatiable hunger for material gain, and, very rarely, through sadism. Nature and nurture also play a part. Culturally, equalizing opportunity can perhaps reduce the tendency to resort to violence. A strong cultural belief in the rights of individuals and in the inability of noble ends to justify violent means can help prevent idealism from fostering brutality. We cannot forget, however, that biological factors can also play a role in fomenting evil within a person – independent of a loving family and environment. As an aside, think of how much violence is perpetrated by men as opposed to women. We can see from this that, higher testosterone levels also feed into the evil mind. And finally, cultivating empathy is crucial. The more empathic humanity is, the less prone we are to engage in us vs them or the Biblical division of sheep vs goats that we find in Gospels. The ability to contemplate what it is like to walk in another’s shoes has a profound impact on our individual and group morality.
All this to say, that really bad things do happen; but the roots of evil are interpersonal, not supernatural. Furthermore, we can discuss the problem of evil on a purely secular level without delving into the multi-variable convoluted ways proffered by the Christian theory. Empty responses such as “God has a greater plan,” “His ways are above yours,” “His actions on earth are not dependent on your human analysis,” “The evil he allows may help you appreciate His goodness more,” “The evil you experience is to help you learn and grow” – gets us nowhere.
This essay is not to convince the Christian to stop being Christian. Rather, it is to encourage rational thinking on a very sensitive issue concerning the problem of evil. The Christian can still have faith while adopting a secualr understanding of evil. Faith and fact reside in antithetical domains (see my essay of fact vs faith). For the Christian, faith can be an intersubjective hope and comforting belief that need not cross into metaphysical claims. This way, when we teach children about right and wrong and evil and goodness, we are speaking on the importance of cultivating virtuous and empathic relations with humanity, rather than on a supernatural world where God remains in the dark.