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The Nature of Evil

The whole concept of evil has had quite a good run over the past several years, from our former figurehead’s imprecations against “the evil-dooers” to our ongoing fascination with the horror genre and from the fantastical imaginings of end-timers about life after Rapture to all-too-real atrocities committed both during war and outside of it.

It seems that many of us don’t really have a set definition for “evil” – we all kind of operate under the assumption that we know it when we see it. The problem with that sort of definition is that some people will point it out in areas where other people utterly fail to see it. For some, “evil” more or less equates to the Christian concept of “sin”. For others, it’s a concept of supernatural yin and yang. And then there are the weirdos like me, who aren’t satisfied with anything less than turning the thing around and looking at it from all angles to really pinpoint its meaning.

I did a lot of thinking about this years ago, and settled on this as my personal operational definition of evil: Evil occurs when one person or group of people compel another person or group of people, either through coercion or misrepresentation, into actions or circumstances which benefit the former at the expense of or to the detriment of the latter.

That sounds like a very wide net, and it is. It covers everything from predatory lending to slavery and the Holocaust; it also covers all the ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties of our imaginations if you accept “entity” as a sustitute for “person or group of people” – we fear the vampire, the werewolf, the zombie because he has no compunctions against separating us from that which is most dear – life itself – in order to satisfy his own narrow needs or desires. Pretty much every human being would accept these supernatural creatures as the very personification of evil – they want to kill us just because it suits their needs – ours don’t figure into the equation and are of no consequence.

But beyond that, a widely-shared definition of “evil” begins to fall apart rather quickly, with accompanying rationalizations about “necessary evil” from some quarters squaring off against chest-thumping celebrations of it in others. Too often, it seems to boil down to “it’s ok if WE do it.”

That’s why the wide-net definition is so superior. It’s certainly not a new idea; the Golden Rule has been around for thousands of years now. But clearly it needs more daily examination and application from quite a few of us.

This is a topic I think about quite a bit, because I see so much afoot in the world every day of my life. I’m writing about it now because of a confluence of things I’ve seen, heard, or read recently.

I read a comment somewhere the other day repeating the old saw about how people need religion to be moral; then today one of my heroes over at Sadly, No!, Tintin, posted a piece linking to nutbagger site Renew America, where the evil that’s plaguing America is defined as – you guessed it – TEH GHEYS! The author wraps it all up in righteous talk about how God hates them too so we have His holy blessing in persecuting them. And if the link Beth posted below is for real, in stalking them as well.

A failure to understand and apply the Golden Rule isn’t the only thing at play here but it’s perhaps the biggest issue. More bothersome, IMO, is the fact that this rhetoric is diametrically opposed to the biggest tenets of the religion that is alleged to support it.

Yes, there are several Biblical passages that condemn homosexuality. But it didn’t make the Old Testament top ten, so apparently God himself didn’t see it as one of the biggest threats to mankind. What did make it? Lying, something the very religious leaders who rail against the “evil” of homosexuality get caught doing on a fairly regular basis. Beyond that, there’s the fact that nowhere in any scripture is there any indication that ANY particular sin is worse in the eyes of God than any other. To cap it off, Christ (who changed the whole game, you’ll recall – that whole Old Testament was pretty much out the window after he came along) offered a few very brief commandments of his own – love God and love your neighbor. NOT “love your neighbor – unless he’s a fag” (or French, or both, Tintin). That’s the whole POINT of that commandment – love your neighbor, no excuses. Sure he’s a sinner – just like you are. If you have license to hate him for his sins, he has the same, and pretty soon the whole world’s blind.

That seems pretty clear to me; so why is it lost on so many of the true believers? Look, I can’t speak for God any more than any other human being can, and that’s the point. For one thing, since I lack a religion (at least any of the organized ones), it’s not my bag. For another, even if I was in the full embrace of any organized church, it would not relieve me of the responsibility of really thinking about what’s asked of me. That’s what “free agency” is all about. Just because some man behind a pulpit tells me that a holy war against the homosexuals is what God demands, I’m not off the hook with regard to comparing his claims against what’s written down there. He’s just a human being and prone to error.

That’s why I find my definition of evil so superior – it doesn’t rely on anyone interpreting or twisting a religious text to define for me who the bad people are – they are the people who do bad things that hurt other people. There are a lot of things that go on that according to Biblical scripture God really doesn’t like. But for the ones that don’t harm another person in the real, material world we’re living in, why should they be of any concern to me? You have to assume that if an omniscient and omnipotent being has a problem with that stuff, he’s entirely capable of handling it in the appropriate way at the appropriate time, and he’s pretty much made it clear that he’s the only one up to making the final judgement. Which leaves me free to love my neighbor and not worry about whether God likes his “lifestyle” or not. I could go on with making a case about why a true Christian religion would be expressed as being anti-homophobia, but I won’t. We all know that in many, perhaps most, quarters it’s being expressed as the exact opposite.

What it all boils down to is I think we’d all be a helluva lot better off if people would stop worrying so much about what some god or another thinks is “evil”, and worry a whole lot more about what constitutes evil against our fellow man here in the material world.  God may have a big issue with someone having a one-night stand, or being gay, or not being appropriately submissive to their husband, or whatnot – I can’t speak for him one way or another – but in the real world, those create either no or a whole lot less damage than the guy who bilks the elderly couple out of their life savings.  That’s why we don’t have, or have seen fit to remove, legal punishments for the former.  Now if we could only get to a place where we all agree on what constitutes real evil in this world, we might be able to impose and enforce appropriate legal punishments against the latter.

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