Questions for Atheists: Why is there Evil (Part 2)

This post is part of a series written in response to creationist Michael Egnor’s Eight Questions for Atheists.  You can check out all my responses to date at the series index.

In part one of this answer, I wrote about evil that befalls people, and this half of my answer will focus on the evil committed by people. When I talk about evil actions here, I’m going to leave aside incidental evil – evil that is not deliberately willed, but which is the result of a lack of knowledge or a failure to do due diligence and think about the consequences of and motives for your actions. I do believe that carelessness can be a kind of evil, and that moral goodness requires us to break these habits, but that will not be my focus.

I want to focus on evil actions that are deliberately willed. I don’t think all evil actions are willed by people who recognize and/or revel in their behavior as evil. That is the mindset of psychopaths. Most evil actions are taken by people who can recognize the harm they are doing to others and then ignore it. We put our behavior out of mind entirely or imagine some higher need that excuses our behavior and dampen any twinges of conscience.

To behave immorally, even in small matters, requires us to practice ignoring the pain of others and the moral sensibilities that are stirred by that pain. Every immoral act is at least a temporary numbing of your conscience, or, in Harry Potter terms, the wounding of your soul.

So, as long as there are opportunities for small lapses, it is unsurprising that some people will hurt themselves too deeply and become desensitized to larger and larger sins. We take this phenomenon for granted in some cases (this is the deep horror motivating the ban on child soldiers). We debate policies meant to address the consequences of desensitization (I’ve written about PTSD and sin for soldiers (twice)). These examples are extreme, but the basic mechanism is present in most of our lives.

None of us are capable of processing and responding to the pain and need of everyone we will encounter. (I fall particularly short of my duty when I interact with homeless people in New Haven.) Since most of us cannot recognize the reality of the all the suffering in our own cities, let alone the world without being overcome by despair, we learn to tune it out as a coping mechanism. But, no matter how necessary this adaptation is, we cannot ignore its consequences. Practicing distance, ignorance, or coldness will take a toll. We are constantly giving ourselves training in callousness. It’s not surprising that the habit stays with us.

Sometimes, it’s confusing when I co-opt the language of Christianity and talk about humanity as Fallen, especially since I don’t believe there ever was an Edenic period when humans were not subject to these failings. It might suffice to say that I believe humans are insufficient. We are not up to the task before us.

This post has been crosslinked to my Sin and Immorality series. I’ll be developing this idea further for that series, focusing on the most productive ways I’ve found to try to act morally without being overwhelmed by my own insufficiencies, and the part of Christianity theology I most wish were true.

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  • Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    OK, my two cents. But I make no claim to being a New Atheist.Just an atheist.Maybe a bit old fashioned, in fact.1) Why is there anything? Ultimately and basically, it just is.As Heidegger wrote, “Being spurts up.”(I forget where.)2) What caused the Universe? If you mean this in some scientific sense I have no idea.You should ask a cosmologist.If you mean it philosophically then nothing at all.3) Why is there regularity (Law) in nature? It just is.Why not?4) Of the Four Causes in nature proposed by Aristotle (material, formal, efficient, and final), which of them are real? Do final causes exist? None, ultimately. No.5) Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence? Personally, I say because we are subjects. See Plato, or maybe Descartes. Or maybe Husserl.But not all atheists would accept that answer.Certainly not the New Atheists who all seem committed to physicalism.6) Why is the human mind intentional, in the technical philosophical sense of aboutness, which is the referral to something besides itself? How can mental states be about something? It just is. They just are.7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.) Morality is a socially encouraged and manipulated illusion aimed at social control. Moral beliefs or claims, though universally illusory, may to a degree reflect our own genuine values. As to those genuine values, no doubt evolution and genetics have something to do with determining them, as does life experience.But, again, these are my answers and others may well disagree.8) Why is there evil? It just is.Epicurus and Lucretius were not technically atheists, but I am sure others have noted as much.Hume is questionable. Many experts think he was a deist – specifically, a believer in a finite God who was the Architect and Designer of the world as we know it, who built it out of materials he neither created nor designed.