Key Thoughts on Evil
In the Hebrew Bible, evil—a euphemism for sin– is anthropomorphized in the following statement; “You will be accepted if you do what is right. But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out! Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you. But you must subdue it and be its master .” I suppose a quote from a sacred text seemed appropriate when it comes to a discussion of evil. Aside from being a literary device the conflict between good and evil sounds a lot like a religious experience. The Hebrew Bible is replete with examples of the classic dichotomy:
And the LORD God planted all sorts of trees in the garden — beautiful trees that produced delicious fruit. At the center of the garden he placed the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil… But the LORD God gave him this warning: “You may freely eat any fruit in the garden 17 except fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If you eat of its fruit, you will surely die” (Genesis 2:16&17.) According to theologians in the Christian doctrine there is “original sin” which is something that all humanity inherited from Adam and Eve though views differ somewhat depending on if you’re protestant (John Calvin, a well know protestant reformer refers to total depravity as being a human condition); or Catholic—who believe that a state of sinfulness is in contrast to the state of holiness but that humanity isn’t necessarily culpable for Adam and Eve’s particular sin. In Eastern Orthodoxy they prefer the term “ancestral sin” that is passed on from generation to generation. The doctrine of original sin is not found in Judaism as it is a Christian belief based on Paul the Apostle’s statement that “Therefore just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12)
Judaism teaches that the soul is pure at birth and that humans are born with yetzer ha-tov (a tendency to do good) and with yetzer hara (a tendency to do evil). Islam doesn’t have a doctrine of original sin but it does teach that there are those who do good and those who do evil and evildoers will be punished in an afterlife. A more atheistic view was expressed by one of the survivors of the 911 attacks in NY City. From the transcript of the PBS Frontline report, Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, Ian McEwan, Author and atheist proclaims, “I don’t really believe in evil at all. I don’t believe in God, and I certainly don’t, therefore, believe in some sort of supernatural or trans-historical force that somehow organizes life on dark or black principles. I think there are only people behaving, and sometimes behaving monstrously.
And sometimes their monstrous behavior is so beyond our abilities to explain it; we have to reach for this numinous notion of evil. But I think it’s often better to try and understand it in real terms, in real, you know, either political or psychological terms. There’s something, at the same time, very, very attractive about this word. It’s sort of- it’s a great intensifier. It just lets us say that we thoroughly abhor, you know, this behavior.
So I think we have to beware of treating September 11th as the only and most spectacular event of human cruelty. There’ve been many acts of cruelty, some of them on an even larger scale. I think it’s inherent. I think one of the great tasks of art is really to explore that, all those many, many sides of human nature.
Mr. McEwan correctly points out that when something happens with the same disastrous proportions as 911, it’s easy to fall back on some sort of religious notion of good and evil. My personal bias has already been revealed and that is that there is no such thing as magic—at least not the type of magic that purports to enlist the assistance of supernatural forces–because magic is simply science that is not fully understood or a type of technology that is hidden. Still, it is undeniable that there is evil in the world in terms of something being profoundly malevolent and one of the ironies of 911 is that we often think of religious people as being custodians and protectors of virtue but these Islamic extremists viewed the taking of thousands of innocent lives as an act of piety. That type of twisted thinking is the reason why some people really hate religion.