Just great stuff (from a very long e-mail you should read in full):
You want a secular account of evil? Here it is. Evil does exist, like most other phenomena granted a label by human culture. It is what we’ve semantically converged on: a universally-understood though fuzzily-bounded descriptor of that which goes against our current moral framework. This framework contains some fairly absolute elements dictated by wiring in the brain that was selected for to maintain strong, cohesive communities (e.g., sharing is good, the golden rule), and some fairly relative elements developed through cultural evolution over time. Too relativistic for you? Consider this: isn’t it better to arrive at an account of morality through social consensus (in evolving popular opinion informed by expert ethicists as well as the changing realities around us), rather than through religious fiat based on interpretation of just those parts of millennia-old writings that happen to still remain relevant in modern times?
The religious accounts of good and evil, your reader would be wise to recall, have frequently demanded the persecution of outsiders and gays and had nothing proscriptive to say about the systemic enslavement of women (or anybody else). Throughout history, it’s been conservative, and usually more religious, forces that have clung to older notions of morality, while progressive, doubting voices have updated it, resulting in the First World formulation broadly agreed on today that prizes equality, compassion and individual liberty. I dare any critics of “moral relativism” to explain how their own absolute values weren’t improved via moral drift from the pro-slavery, genocide-neutral, anti-women’s rights precedents of the past. Where will it go from here? Nearly impossible to say, though with global society so interconnected now, there’s less inter-society selective pressure/freedom to drive drastic changes. But even abandoning that comfort of absolutism that enables us to imagine a distant future with morality totally like our own, I believe the humanist take on morality is enormously positive, wherein we as a society take responsibility to craft and maintain a consensus of good and evil that can feel right to each of us, is logically consistent, and allows us to make the best of our reality, rather than squabble over which antique scroll serves as an authoritative template for right actions.
But if you’re still looking for something that “redeems” evil by telling us that suffering isn’t really so bad because there’s some Grand Intentional Reason why it exists (though one which we can never know, and to which we can’t appeal for any measurable guidance), then I guess the secular account can’t really help you. But it seems to me the real vacuum is in your unwillingness to grant humanity its personal responsibility, not in the secularists failing to provide you with a poetic enough ghost story.