What is evil? Does it even exist? Are there evils spirits or “Forces of Evil”?
This isn’t a question most Pagans spend a lot of time worrying about. Many of us are non-dualists. Many more are unhappy with the way some other religions use the label of “evil” to avoid taking a serious look at unpleasant events and unpleasant people.
But I’ve heard the subject discussed a couple of times on recent podcasts (which I won’t name because they promote conspiracy theories). And beyond that, the matter of evil is a universal human question – sooner or later we’re going to be confronted with it.
So I’ve been thinking about evil.
Our tendency for binary thinking
I don’t know if binary thinking is rooted in the workings of our brains or if it’s simply a product of our evolutionary environments. Possibly the first, definitely the second.
If you’re a pre-modern-human hunter-gatherer without the capacity for language (say, homo habilis), you don’t need a detailed and nuanced taxonomy of animals. You need to know “this animal I can eat” and “that animal will eat me.” The ability to make quick binary decisions – before you either miss out on your dinner or become dinner – is literally the difference between life and death.
We aren’t so very different ourselves. How many times have you heard someone talk about whether an activity is “safe” given the Covid-19 pandemic, usually in the context of “if it’s safe to do X then it’s safe to do Y.” This ignores the fact that nothing is 100% safe (nor, for that matter, 100% dangerous). There are only degrees of risk, and degrees of necessity.
So it’s no surprise that we tend to divide things into “good” and “evil”.
Our tendency for human-centered thinking
I think most people – and certainly most Pagans – understand that hurricanes and grizzly bears aren’t evil. They may cause death and destruction, but they’re just part of Nature, doing what their nature is to do.
We’re less certain – in practice if not in thought – about less human-like creatures, such as spiders and snakes.
Is a coronavirus evil? Or is it just doing what coronaviruses do?
When it comes to spirits, too many of us are heavily human-centered. We think every category of spiritual being from Gods to elemental spirits are here to be our guides, teachers, and helicopter parents. Those who support us, we call good. Those who don’t, we call evil.
But like the grizzly bears, many of these spirits are just doing their own things for their own reasons – reasons that have nothing to do with us.
We are beings of inherent dignity and worth, but the universe isn’t all about us. And just because something – or someone – is at odds with us doesn’t make them evil.
What even is evil, anyway?
The first definition in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary says evil is “morally reprehensible” or “arising from actual or imputed bad character or conduct.” That’s a rather vague and subjective definition.
Morals are culturally dependent and subject to change. Even if we move from good/evil to a less dramatic dichotomy of good/bad, it’s still hard to get away from defining it as “what’s bad for me.” I don’t think we can ever get completely away from the subjective nature of good and evil.
Intent matters. If someone runs over you with their car because they hit a patch of ice, that’s different from running over you because you were protesting in a way they didn’t like. Their intent doesn’t change your injuries, but it changes how we think about them.
Evil is very difficult to define. The best I can do is “causing harm intentionally or callously.”
Some behavior is so horrible it is properly classified as evil
Are you following the Ghislaine Maxwell story? She was – among other things – the “procurer” for Jeffrey Epstein’s sex ring that raped and abused underage girls. She was finally arrested on July 2 and is being held without bond. She knows a lot of bad things that were done by very powerful men – a lot of people are waiting to see if she “commits suicide” or “acquires a fatal case of Covid-19.”
General descriptions don’t tell the whole story. Victims tell about false promises of easy money, emotional manipulations, and thinly veiled threats of physical harm or death. Even if we ignore the underage problem, this wasn’t consensual sex work that should be legal. This was rape, the same as if Maxwell and Epstein had put a gun to these girls’ heads.
This story from last year from Vanity Fair drives the point home. It ends with a quote from someone who knew Maxwell:
When I asked what she thought of the underage girls, she looked at me and said, “they’re nothing, these girls. They are trash.”
“Illegal” is completely inadequate to describe this – speeding is illegal. “Immoral” puts the focus on the sex and ignores the manipulation. “Bad” and “harmful” are true but not nearly strong enough.
The only word that adequately describes such callous and harmful manipulation of vulnerable people is “evil.”
Mental illness isn’t the cause of evil
We’re good, rational, well-educated people. We laugh at “the devil made me do it” – and rightly so.
But we still struggle to understand how someone can do the things Ghislaine Maxwell did, or that the Nazis did… or that the people who lock refugee children in cages are doing. And so we use the vocabulary of our wider culture, which attempts to psychologize everything – we assume they’re mentally ill.
Mental illness is not an explanation for evil. We look at people like Jeffrey Dahmer and assume they must be mentally ill. Sometimes they are.
But the vast majority of mentally ill people don’t do terrible things, and putting the stigma of evil acts on them is incredibly harmful. They’re already struggling to make it in a world that isn’t designed for them and mostly tries to pretend they aren’t there.
And also, many perfectly “sane” people do horrible things.
Blaming evil on mental illness is the modern equivalent of blaming it on demonic possession. It’s an attempt to distance ourselves from human behavior that disgusts us but is all too common.
We all have the capacity to do great evil
Perhaps Hitler and Göring were inherently evil people. But does anyone believe all the Germans who supported and enabled the Nazis were categorically different from you and me? In this country we’re taking another look at men who did great things but who also perpetuated the evil institution of slavery. Do you really think you’re inherently better than Thomas Jefferson?
The point is not to whitewash history or to roll out the tired old argument that people were “a product of their times.” The point is that even people who are otherwise “great” or otherwise “ordinary” can still do evil things – and that includes you and me.
We don’t like to think about this.
We try to distance ourselves from it.
But we can only run so far.
I think we sometimes do evil things not because we are inherently evil or “fallen” or any of the other tropes of Christianity. Whatever else we are, we remain imperfect animals who often operate out of self-interest, social pressure (especially the pressure of social systems), and lack of empathy.
That doesn’t make evil deeds any less evil.
I still see some people who, if they don’t identify as Pagans certainly operate in the Big Tent of Paganism, argue that there are spirits who are inherently evil. They say these spirits delight in corrupting us – they’re part of The Forces of Evil.
I find these arguments unconvincing.
Many of these people are trying to distance themselves from the evil humans do – and that at some level they’re capable of doing, even if they refuse to think about it. If evil is caused by evil spirits, then all we have to do is avoid the evil spirits and we’re OK. It’s not that easy.
The idea of a war between Good and Evil is attractive, but this is another example of binary and dualist thinking. Reality is many competing interests, in this world and in the Otherworld.
It’s also another example of human-centered thinking. Like wolves and bears, and like less predatory animals such as elk or even cows, most spirits that are considered evil are just trying to do their own things in their own way. The fact they aren’t interested in the welfare of humans isn’t very different from how most humans think about animals they don’t see on a regular basis.
This idea that Forces of Good and Forces of Evil are competing for the souls of humanity makes us feel important… more important than we really are.
Some spirits feed on pain and suffering
We like to think we’re at the top of the food chain. Go swimming in shark-infested waters or hiking in grizzly bear country and we quickly realize we are not.
Why should the spirit world be any different from the ordinary world?
I’m no demonologist, but there’s enough lore from enough different cultures from all over the world to understand that there are spiritual beings who get something from our pain and suffering. Is that just how they eat, like a lion eating your leg? Do they think of us like many of us think of chickens and pigs, as a legitimate source of food? Are they the spirit world’s equivalent of Jeffrey Dahmer?
I don’t know.
The stories of demons have been written by their enemies. At the same time, our ancestors who interacted with them weren’t fools. As with the stories of the Fair Folk, we ignore our ancestors’ warnings about dangerous spirits at our peril.
There is no Evil, only evil
Evil is one of those things that we know when we see it, but we still have trouble defining it. After all this consideration, I don’t know that I’m any closer to a definition than I was when I began.
Much of our talk about evil is intended to comfort ourselves: to explain behavior that horrifies us and to distance ourselves from the people who do it. It lets us tell ourselves that we could never do such things, even though history shows that given the right circumstances, we probably would.
We need no Forces of Evil to make us do evil things.
At the same time, some human behavior is so horrible that no other term properly describes it. We need “evil” in our vocabulary not to tell ourselves we could never do these things, but to make it crystal clear that we must not do them.