What is Evil?
How do we define it? How do we recognize it? Some things are merely inconvenient and unpleasant, such as the dog forgetting his house-training, or winter starting in early October with four feet of snow, or the transmission going out on the car on the day you lose your job. These things don’t rise to the level of evil, in my opinion. We’d like to avoid them, but they are hardly the stuff of calamity.
But then what IS evil? Humankind’s uncaring, hateful actions toward one another surely qualify. Yet, without some external standard, how can we be certain? I believe that evolution is inadequate to account for western society’s standards of good and evil. We consider many things to be good that neither perpetuate the survival of the individual nor of the community, nor contribute to the transmission of healthy genetic code to the next generation. We consider many things to be evil that DO accomplish these evolutionary goals. Where do our ideas of good and evil come from?
On a non-behavior level, we must consider natural evil. Take for example the Black Death, which has been in the news of late. During portions of the 14th and 15th centuries, the Black Death killed approximately 75 million people — horribly — and that in a population far smaller than today’s. Such a thing could be considered to be a part of natural population control of course. Most of the deaths occurred in over-crowded and filthy cities where huge swaths of the population suffered from exposure and malnutrition. The powerful and rich kept themselves aloof, well-clothed and housed and well-nourished, and were therefore more likely to survive. Yet we still cite it as an evil (and I agree). Nevertheless there is a certain lack of logic to this point of view, if held by a person who denies the existence of an ultimate arbiter of good and evil. It is an adaptive adjustment of a population grown too large for the land to support it, and it is the weak and less suited for survival who are culled.
Over the past ten years, an average of 78,000 people per year died in natural disasters. Some years are much more lethal than others, of course, with actual numbers for any given year varying widely. Many more people were affected negatively, either by personal injury, loss of loved ones, or loss of resources needed for survival and thriving. We can’t lay the blame for this on biological evolution, except perhaps to say that people living in areas less suited for thriving are less likely to sustain large populations. Inhabitants will move if they can, and in an evolutionary sense, those who are able are probably more suited to survival. Be that as it may, I think it’s safe to say that most of us are horrified at such events. We are at a loss as to where to place the blame, and for those of us who believe in a supreme being, it’s tempting to lay such events at the feet of said being. Presumably such a being could have intervened and chose not to do so. Or worse, we might judge a people who suffered such a disaster to be under the judgment of a punishing and vengeful god. In other words, we might feel they deserved what happened to them.
But what IS evil? Based on secularism and evolution, I would have to conclude that evil consists of that which thwarts the progress of a species and nothing more. From that perspective, evil might consist of a family insisting on caring for their aged mother suffering from Alzheimer’s and thus diminishing their own resources for survival and perpetuation of their genetic heritage. It might consist of a powerful man sacrificing to care for the weak and vulnerable and thus diminishing the survivability of the more viable population of his village. It might even consist of aiding disaster victims, thus encouraging the rebound of a population which would be better established in a more survivable location.
This is not the definition of evil I see when I read atheists demanding why a good god does not put an end to evil. Why do they define evil in the same way that I, a follower of Jesus, would define it? Logically, based on their stated beliefs, their only concern should be with the advancement of the species. Yet they have a higher view of things. These good people honestly care for the “least of these,” of whom Jesus also spoke. Why do they care?
First, I believe that God has placed in all people a basic understanding of what is good and what is evil. One finds extraordinarily good and giving people in all cultures. Often they get themselves “crucified” in one way or another, but we do find them in the most unlikely places.
Second, Judeo/Christian ethics have profoundly influenced western societies. Our particularly high view of ethics comes from our cultural environment, and for those of us in the historically Christian world, that means an environment heavily influenced by Christian ethics. Flawed and scandal-ridden though the history of the church has been, there have always been many true believers among the relatively powerless, and these have passed their strange values of loving one’s neighbor even at one’s own expense on to those around them. The whole of western society is steeped in biblical ethics like a cup of strong tea. THIS is where the atheist — the one who protests the pains of humans he has never met and who contribute nothing to his survival — gets his angst from. He knows that this is wrong because first, he has the fingerprints of God on his heart, so to speak. In addition, if he is one who has been under the influence of the prevailing western culture, that is how he was raised.