One of my readers, which you may have read about during the gay marriage debate, posed a wonderful question to me. He asked, "As an Atheist, what is your view on evil, and where does it come from?" I figured this would be a question on a lot of your minds, so I decided to post my recent article which is being published in the national magazine, 'American Atheist,' as part of the January edition.
Madmos, this is one is for you.
EVIL: The Bad Debate
During religious debates, as we Atheists reject spiritual theories altogether, we are often challenged to explain the presence of evil. How could there be such harsh acts, wrong-doing and bad people if pure evil does not exist in spiritual form? We must keep in mind, that most of the people asking that question feel they are staring into pure evil at that very moment! It must feel a bit intimidating, like looking into the eyes of a lion, and asking “Why do lions eat people?”
In addressing this challenge, we must concede that the word evil has literal definitions equating it to ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’; therefore, the word itself cannot be discredited altogether. In an effort to accurately convey our message, we must address this conceptually by asserting that we are only referring to the ‘spiritual’ use of the word, as in “Where does the spirit of evil come from, and how does it exist?” Effectively, we are debating why bad things happen.
When posed with such a question, at first blush, it appears to be a powerful debate technique used by our opponent, in which the believer attempts to lead the nonbeliever into speaking religious language. We are surly expected to respond with something about ‘Satan’ or ‘demons’, or perhaps answering with the obvious ‘opposite of good’ theory, at which point we are trapped into defining good and its source. As American Atheist Press author David Eller warns in his book Atheism Advanced, we must be careful not to “speak Christian”, and only debate in terms which are meaningful. There is a difference between a word having a definition, and having a true meaning. The book's example points to unicorns. We all know the definition and can picture one, but what meaning does it really have? There is no real substance or truth to a unicorn; therefore it is a meaningless term with a definition (Eller 2007). We can apply that frame of thought to the word evil. While we can all recite a basic definition of the word, no one could ever define its true meaning, or provide a real source. It is hardly a meaningful term in the spiritual sense. We can only assume it derives from a lower or bad god, and begin to project our opinions. When believers profess that evil is the opposite of good, we should ask them to give good a meaning, not just a definition. It may seem like semantics, but isn’t that really what religion is built on anyway?
Pointing back to David Eller, his recent book also mentions a psychologist by the name of Roy Baumeister, the author of Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty (2001). He finds that people tend to blame their own negative behavior on external sources, stating that they are relatively good people in bad situations. When surveyed, these same people attribute the negative acts of others to evil; blaming their deviant personalities (Eller 2007). This study only furthers the notion that spiritually evil, and pure evil are simply fictitious excuses for negative behavior without accountability.
Regardless of the semantics involved, or studies we have done, believers will often resort to their own experiences, citing an ‘evil feeling’ at a point when they lost control. This in fact does happen, but hardly has anything to do with evil spirits.
In studying cognitive psychology, we learn that when a person reaches a level of stress, especially in the forms of fear or anger, blood flow to the brain is actually restricted, thereby reducing the ability to think clearly. The body is then pumped with adrenalin and cortisol, which must be expressed in some way. Some people cry (expressing most of the cortisol in the release of tears), others express adrenalin with anger and violence, and some of us do both. There is no doubt that persons under the influence of their own stress will make poor decisions, act violently, and perhaps even describe the experience as ‘out of body’, because they didn’t have full control; but evil has nothing to do with it. This further perpetuates the long running fallacy of believers explaining that which they do not understand as spiritual.
So what are child molesters and rapists? What was Hitler, if not evil? There is no doubt that bad things and people exist in the world. However, they do so out of many reasons other than pure evil inside them. Personal choices, genetics, greed, wrongful motivation, and misinterpretations all contribute to a person's negative actions. In fact, in a speech, Hitler said “I believe today that I am acting in the sense of the Almighty Creator. By warding off the Jews I am fighting for the Lord's work.” It is evident, that in Hitler's mind, the Jews were evil. But was Hitler? Or did he simply misinterpret religious doctrine, and become wrongly motivated to commit mass murder? Perhaps he developed mental disturbances that caused his actions; but spiritually evil? In order to put that claim on him, we would have to obtain an objective meaning of the word, and again, that appears impossible due to its meaningless status.
Early humans blamed evil for hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters. Now, we understand the meteorology behind the storms, and can confidently state an evil spirit is not sending storms as torture for mankind. In the study of law, we find that humans have blamed evil forces for their wrong-doing since crime was recorded. In criminology, the psychological study of the criminal mind, we find the statement “Where gods reign, demons exist as well” (Winfree & Abadinksy 2003). According to the same authors, in Understanding Crime, Theory and Practice, a further correlation was made by the early psychologist Dr. William Sheldon, who noted that during the phases of embryonic development, a human baby begins to take a specific physical form. Once a particular body type dominates, it is called the somatotype. Upon studying 200 young criminals and comparing them to 200 college students, a specific difference was noticed by the doctor. A majority of the criminals belonged to the same somatotype, which differed from the students' (Sheldon, 1949). This suggests that ‘evil’ in humans may not be a spirit at all, but perhaps an inherent deformity during embryonic growth that is invisible to the naked eye.
To further add to the impossibilities of evil spirits or pure evil, we ask the question, “Why are good people good?” Let me remind the readers of the secular humanists’ work to help the homeless, volunteer, and reach out to those in need. Hundreds of thousands of secular humanists across the world have a strong sense of family pride, and strive daily to succeed both materially and ethically. If a god is said to be responsible for the good in the hearts of secular humanists, why did it not place the fundamentals of belief there as well? We ethical nonbelievers are living proof that a person can have good will without a god’s will.
Condensing the theory of evil down to five parts, we see that 1) A person does not need a good ‘spiritual source’ to be good; 2) People can perform evil acts when they think they are doing good ones; 3) A person can exhibit evil traits due to developmental bias; and 4) There has been no source proven as an absolute necessity for either good or evil. This only leaves one final statement: 5) An ‘evil spirit’ is not necessary for negative acts to be performed. As we now see, multiple things can lead to the appearance of evil, yet evil has never truly appeared. In the words of Delo McKown, “The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike.” Evil is no more existent in the absolute form, than good, gods, or unicorns!
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Baumeister, Roy. 2001. Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. New York: Barnes & Noble Books.
Eller, David. 2007. Atheism Advanced: Further Thoughts of a Freethinker. Cranford, New Jersey: American Atheist Press.
Sheldon, William. 1949. Varieties of Delinquent Youth. New York: Harper and Row
Winfree, L. Thomas & Abadinsky, Howard. 2003. Understanding Crime: Theory and
Practice, Second Edition. Belmont, California: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.