Let’s Talk about Evil-Theologically
A recent Wall Street Journal (WSJ) opinion piece by Lance Morrow asserted that “Not That Long Ago Evil Really Meant Something.” A popular Netflix comedy series “The Good Place” deals with issues of good and evil, sometimes seriously. The issue of the meaning of “evil” is rising again. I have raised it here many times before.
Is anything really, objectively, absolutely, universally evil without God or something like God?
That is the question I want to address and you won’t be surprised by my answer if you have followed me here for any time at all: No. In purely secular language, staying consistent with a purely secular outlook on reality, “evil” has to be defined differently from in religious language based on a truly transcendent outlook on reality. As different as they were, both Immanuel Kant and Søren Kierkegaard saw this and insisted on the necessity of God for objective ethics that includes absolutes of good and evil.
Without some concept of God, or some transcendent, eternal person-being like God, “evil” can only mean what I (or you) find abhorrent or what a particular culture (or most people in the world) find abhorrent. But it is only a matter of temporal, changing perspective; it cannot include anything immutable or absolute.
Now, of course, many secular people, including many very astute moral philosophers, have tried to base absolute ethics on this world alone without God or anything like God. G. E. Moore argued that “good” and “evil” are intuitive, instinctive, built into us by nature. But that is simply a secular analogue for God or something like God. And it is difficult to prove.
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Here is what I ask: Was slavery absolutely wrong, evil, even when almost everyone thought it was right and good?
A person who believes in God or something like God (e.g., Plato’s ultimate “form” of “the Good”) can say “Yes, it was.” A person who does not believe in God or anything like God cannot really say that. Or if they say it, what they mean must be “Now that we, most intelligent, enlightened people, find slavery abhorrent, we project our enlightened perspective back into the past and retroactively call it then evil.” But does that make it evil—then? It does not.
This is the strongest evidence for God—that everyone believes in evil and at least acts like evil is more than just “what I find abhorrent” or “what my culture finds abhorrent” or “what most enlightened people find abhorrent.” When someone defines evil that way, which few actually say but many show they mean, you can always find a society somewhere in the world, even today, that practices evil and calls it good and all you can say is “I find that abhorrent.”
Now, I know what some will say—that science can demonstrate that some actions are detrimental to the whole of humanity including the person who calls evil good and acts on that.
I am not convinced by that argument, mainly because it smuggles into itself a different meaning of “evil” that empties it of its power. “Evil,” then, becomes merely “What is detrimental to humanity.” So what? It certainly appears that a certain Asian dictator believes that it would be good to destroy all of humanity rather than allow his country to fail to achieve his dreams for its supremacy over other countries. Hitler thought it was good to destroy all of Germany (an order his general and Albert Speer did not carry out) rather than allow the Allies to occupy it and take over its infrastructures and people.
These dictators were/are wrong. But why? What makes them wrong—other than “we” find their attitudes and potential actions, plans, real actions (e.g., the Holocaust) abhorrent?
Without God or something like God there is no avoiding it—evil becomes subjective and even a tool in the hands of culture warriors who have or want to have the power to decide what is good and evil based on their own visions of right and wrong.
True, many religious people have also misused God (or something like God) to promote their evil intentions and plans and actions. But that doesn’t mean appealing to God is useless against them. In fact, the fact that they believe in God is exactly HOW we can flatly contradict them.
Once a society moves away from God, evil becomes less than really evil. That’s the point. The concept of “evil” has, in the past, always depended on something or someone transcendent who is the standard of good and evil, right and wrong. Once there is no transcendent standard of good and evil, right and wrong, society falls into a situation of combat using power to enforce groups’ visions of good and evil and there is no one and nothing to appeal to to settle the disputes and fights. Power becomes the ultimate arbiter of good and evil.
Evidence for God? It lies right there within anyone who acts like evil means something more than what he or she or his or her society finds abhorrent.
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