Evil As Signal of Transcendence
I admit it; I’m obsessed with evil. Not doing it, of course, but understanding it. It seems to me that evil is a basic fact of reality as we live and experience it. Evil is. And to call it anything other than evil, such as “harmful,” is to betray it, to minimize it, to fail to do it full justice.
Yes, this is another go ’round in my debate with atheism. One atheist interlocutor here recently admitted that “evil” is a term he would prefer to avoid because of its theistic connotations. Indeed. In my opinion, atheism, which is really naturalism, if it takes itself seriously, cannot account for evil. Not evil in its full and true sense which transcends all other concepts.
I have recently read two books that confirm my opinion about evil. One is a novel and the other is a philosophical tome. The first is (and I have mentioned it here earlier) The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. It’s an almost one thousand page novel written in first person as a fictional autobiography of a German S.S. officer during World War 2 (“Maximilian Aue”). Very often he stops the narrative of his life, including his participation in the Holocaust, to reflect philosophically on genocide. I have no idea what Littell’s intentions were, but the book works very well as a reductio ad absurdum of atheistic belief in moral absolutes. In the absence of anything and anyone transcending nature Aue (Littell?) finds justification for genocide. Of course, he admits, it will turn out to have been wrong (mistaken?) if Germany and its allies lose the war. But if they win…well, then it will turn out to have been the correct policy.
The other book is Susan Neiman’s Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy (Princeton University Press, 2002). God began to disappear in modern thought with the demise of rational theodicy in the withering critiques of Voltaire and other philosophes. According to Nietzsche, at the end of a long stream of philosophical wrestlings with reality in the absence of God (e.g., Schopenhauer’s pessimism), the mature person embraces reality as it is and does not hope for something else. Then came Auschwitz. The Frankfurt School of Social Philosophy (Adorno and Horkheimer) realized that “Auschwitz functioned as proof that some worlds are unacceptable. It demanded a return to all the machinery of transcendence that had seemed obsolete.” (307-308)
Indeed. Genocide is evil. Period. What else can be said instead? “Genocide is harmful?” To whom? Not to those who believe it is necessary for their own survival. In the face of Auschwitz and all that it represents (the slaughter of millions of completely innocent men and women to say nothing of children) “evil” is the only appropriate word. Auschwitz has forced philosophy to reconsider transcendence because no concept less than evil fits it and evil necessarily carries metaphysical baggage including transcendence (something above nature).
My friend and colleague Peter Berger coined the phrase “signals of transcendence” in response to the theothanatology of Hamilton and Altizer. A signal of transcendence is not a proof of God’s existence, but it is an attention-grabber-something that makes us think of something or someone above nature and forces us into cognitive dissonance if not contradiction when we attempt to deny that something’s or someone’s existence.
Evil has often been considered a disproof of God. I will dare to argue it is the opposite—insofar as we really mean it and not something else. The only justification for using the language of evil is transcendence. Nothing purely natural can rise to the level of evil; evil requires a standard of the good above what naturally occurs—an ought that transcends is.
The language and conceptuality of evil belongs within a theistic frame of reference. Atheists who use it are simply living off the leftovers of theism. Like my insightful atheist interlocutor here, they ought to discard it. But who can seriously refer to the Holocaust as a “mistake” or “harmful” or “pathological” without going further and calling it also evil? Sure, some will attempt it, but I dare them to have that conversation with a survivor of Auschwitz. And once you utter “evil” and mean it seriously, God is at least on the horizon. For without God (or something very much like God whatever you prefer to call him or it) evil falls back into being only a human value judgment which sucks the very power from it.
Note to would-be responders: I will not post your comment if it is not on topic, relatively brief, clear and precise. Stick to one thing, say it clearly, or ask one question that’s truly relevant. I will also not, of course, post comments that are insulting (e.g., “disingenuous”). Don’t waste your time composing a comment or question and posting it here if it does not contribute in a civil and respectful way to dialogue. The subject of this post is not the Bible or Christianity or even religion. It is theism—belief in a transcendent moral being—and atheism—denial of such a being’s existence.