Evil

By Carmen Cejudo

Introduction

When I say that word, what mental images pop up? Right… Evil is a very loaded and powerful word. You don't think of puppies and dew drops for a reason. Now I understand that the subject of evil is tricky to address. Nevertheless, in my presentation, I will attempt to illustrate that the concept of evil is a social construct created for the proper functioning of society and essential to our search for spiritual enlightenment and must in essence be taken as a part of its time.

Now, to properly discuss evil, we must begin on the same page. The American Heritage Dictionary describes evil as:

  1. The quality of being morally bad or wrong; wickedness.

  2. That which causes harm, misfortune, or destruction: "a leader's power to do both good and evil."

  3. An evil force, power, or personification.

  4. Something that is a cause or source of suffering, injury, or destruction: "the social evils of poverty and injustice."

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by the Houghton Mifflin Company.

These are the definitions of the noun form of evil. We are not so much interested in the adjective definition as those are corollary to our discussion of the noun evil.

So how do the different religions interpret evil? The following are my understandings of the religion’s teachings.

Hinduism

In my limited studies of religion, I have discovered that the eastern religions have a similar view of evil and view it as a duality of good.

Evil has no real existence, being part of the illusory world of phenomena. Hinduism sees evil in a light similar to that of Taoism, that it is part of the continuity of life. One of the main deities in Hinduism, Shiva, is both a creator and the destroyer. His consort, Kali, is the black, the destroyer of the universe at the end of the age of Kali. She is truly a vicious sight, usually portrayed as an old hag with gnarly teeth, a protruding tongue and a garland of human skulls and severed hands. Vishnu is the creator, Shiva is the destroyer, and yet Shiva, like Kali, is not necessarily feared. Rather they are revered for their power. It is understood that all that is created, including life and this earth, must inevitably be destroyed.

Buddhism

In Buddhism, there is no particular dealing with evil. Rather it is merely another aspect of suffering. Suffering is a product of ignorance. Once one is aware of oneself then one will recognize that one is capable of evil only in ignorance. Suffering and pain can be ended through the pursuit of truth and self knowledge.

A main tenant of Buddhism is also compassion. Because evil occurs in the world, it provides an opportunity for compassion, an empathy with those who suffer, for when one suffers all suffer. Like Hinduism, Buddhism sees evil in light of the whole of creation. We are not individuals, but rather a part of a whole and as such it does behoove us to understand evil and to attempt to eliminate it from our lives and that of others in general.

The Monotheistic Religions

Similar to the eastern religions, the monotheistic religions share a common view of evil as they are borne of a common history. A main tenant of Islam, Judaism and Christianity is that of God’s gift to man of free will. God is understood to be all benevolence and any evil that may arise on earth is a manifestation of humans’ wrong decisions. To quote Derek:

How can we resolve God's goodness with the presence of evil in the world? The best way we've found is the same as what you have pointed out, that it is Man, not God who creates evil when he turns away from God. God made it possible to choose evil as part of free will.

Surely this give us closure? Unfortunately not. It gives rise to at least two points that are just as difficult to reconcile:

  • The issue of ultimate responsibility. Suppose I create a bomb linked to a random fuse (or an AI algorithm), and the bomb goes off, hurting people, can I say that I am not responsible because it is the bomb, using its randomizer or AI, that creates the explosion, and not me? In other words, if God creates Man, and Man creates evil, doesn't the presence of evil still trace all the way back to God? Is it wrong then, to say that ULTIMATELY evil has its source in God? Ultimate power carries ultimate responsibility, so if God wishes to be the supreme being, he cannot dodge the responsibility of creating evil simply because he creates it indirectly.

  • If evil is Man's creation and not God's, then we cannot say God is the ultimate creator of everything in the universe. Man, too, has the ability to create. Thus God is not the only creator and cannot take sole credit for the entirety of creation. This contradicts the definition of God.

The problem of evil in contemporary philosophy is used as the basis for atheism. Because God and evil are incompatible, and evil surely exists, there must be no God.

But like the book of Job, the argument is made that God’s ways are mysterious and cannot be understood by mortal man.

According to Augustine, evil is the privation, or absence, of good, as darkness is the absence of light. It is possible, however, for something created good to diminish in goodness, to become corrupted, and evil has crept in when creatures endowed with free will—angels, such lesser spirits as demons, and human beings—turn away from higher, or more complete, goods and choose lesser, partial ones. Furthermore, according to Augustine, what at first appears to be evil may be understood as good in the context of eternity. From God's eternal perspective, everything is good.

In Christianity, much of what is talked about in respect to evil is its identification of evildoer and the punishment bestowed upon them. If you notice, the punishment for evil in essence is more evil for what is hell but unending and intense suffering? While I understand the basis for this view, I do not see it as a proper way to end evil. Instead what it does is instill fear of authority in people so that society runs much smoother. If you don’t obey the church, you will burn in hell. And by the way, the church is also the state.

As well, many stories pertaining to individuals in contact with the devil, perhaps if unscrupulous will make a pact with him are really just about how necessarily cunning evil is, to the point that if one does not know thyself, one is truly lost.

Social Construct of Evil

Don’t misunderstand me, though. When I say the concept of evil was created, I don’t mean to say that man created evil. Christians have a certain take on that, and I will address it shortly, but what I want you to understand is that the concept of evil was created, much like the concept of god to (see IR 318).

What we can learn here is that evil is in essence ever preset because we all hold the seeds for evil in some fashion. Not that men are born evil, but rather like the yin yang everyone contains a bit of darkness, of the antithesis of good. If one does not recognize the capability of inciting these shadows, perhaps the shadow will overtake you.

I do not believe humans are born evil. Rather, it is the contrary, if you look at children, even yourself, we are bring to harm others. It is only when we have detached ourselves from them, when in essence we have dehumanized another that we are able to commit atrocities against them. This is what happens in war. This is what happens in racism, and yes, this is what happens in meat eating.

And yet we do not find capital punishment as evil, but rather as retribution for evil committed. One must then take the definition of evil in the context of its age.

In attempting to gain further spiritual enlightenment, we must of necessity confront the problem of evil for by bettering ourselves, we must diminish our capability of performing evil, of being evil.

Evil is a word too often just thrown about. It has the impact of an immediate visceral reaction, and of course we all want to believe that we ourselves are not evil nor would like to perpetuate it.