Good and Evil

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The writing prompt of the week asks what evil means to me.

Well, I don’t believe it’s a thing, something that exists on it’s own. As an atheist/humanist I obviously don’t believe that the devil makes people do things. That would be  very convenient, but no, people do bad things because we’re human. We are responsible for our own values and rules and behavior.

I suppose that, in order to talk about what evil means to me, I should explain what atheism means to me, or rather, what kind of an atheist I am.

I think that,  in America anyway, conservative Christians tell one another that atheists believe that everything is pure chance and DNA and cells and whatnot; that life has no meaning and that therefore anything goes; atheists have no morality because meaning and morality comes from God. It’s this kind of nonsense that makes Dr. Ben Carson, the number two Republican candidate for president right now, say that it’s Christian morality that makes a father jump in the water to save his drowning son.* As if non-Christians wouldn’t jump in the  water to save their drowning son, or any other child for that matter.

I believe that wanting to help a child in mortal danger is a universal urge. It’s in our nature. Anyone who would only save a child because someone with authority has told him that’s the right thing to do has some serious mental problems. Evil? No. Just really troubled.

I don’t believe in good and evil as concepts we get from a god or gods or from a book. There is no such thing as a god; we humans have to determine for ourselves what is good and what is bad. And we do. Claiming that a god wants us to behave a certain way, or that bad behavior is instigated by a devil is just one of the ways in which humans deal with these concepts.

I don’t believe that good and evil are absolutes. From the beginning, humans have been group animals and as such we have had to figure out what is acceptable behavior, since our behavior affects the people around us. As societies developed, our sense of morality evolved and we started creating laws. These laws are always changing, because societies are always in flux. What was considered good or bad four thousand years ago in the Middle East is not necessarily still considered right or wrong now, at least not in the West.

I can hear conservative Christians right now saying: see, another example of atheists and their relative morality. As if Christian morality is absolute.

Christians pick and choose which morals they wish to adhere to and when as much as anyone else. Thou shalt not kill–well, except when a person is bad, then we get to put him down like a dog. Thou shalt not steal–well, except when I believe that my aversion to gay marriage is more important. Thou shalt not commit adultery–well, if I get caught I’ll just ask God for forgiveness and guess what, he always gives it. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you–well, except when we can find excuses in the Bible to hate them or to treat them as inferiors.

In other words, people decide what is right and wrong and this is always in flux. I do think that, if you look at history, humanity is gradually becoming better. As people know more–about history, our natural surroundings, the human psyche and group psychology–we become less superstitious (we no longer burn witches or believe that lightning means a god’s having a temper tantrum) and more accepting of people who are different, as long as these differences don’t hurt anyone.

We are also defining what “hurting someone” means more precisely. It’s not only killing, cheating on your wife, stealing. It’s also being racist or prejudiced toward people outside your immediate circle. It’s pedophilia, slavery, dictatorship. It’s not having empathy for others.

As information is more available, our understanding and acceptance of others grows. At the same time our understanding and anger over hurtful behavior toward others also increases.

Take the huge fire in a clothing factory in Bangladesh a few years ago. Hundreds of women died in the flames because the building wasn’t up to safety codes. With Internet, the whole world heard about it and everyone was appalled. It soon became clear that Western clothing stores were ultimately responsible and in order to save their image, they quickly made improvements to their buildings and set up a better inspection system. I don’t know anything about the follow-through, but in the short run, anyway, people decided it was wrong to have women work under such conditions and those responsible made some changes.

Yes, I’m aware I have been talking mostly about good and bad, right and wrong and not so much about good and evil. This is mainly because I associate the word evil with religion and the devil and evil as being something that exists apart from humans–something the devil introduces you to. That’s not part of my reality.

Also, when I do think of evil, I consider it to be just something extremely bad. Bad, worse, evil. And again, it’s relative. The majority of Germans had convinced themselves that systematically destroying Jews was okay; most people consider that evil. The death penalty is carried out in a “humane” way in America; torturing someone to death would be evil. But what is “humane” when it comes to killing anyone?

Well, that would depend on your ideas of right and wrong.

* I have spent hours trying to retrieve the interview where Carson said this, but all the fragments of recent interviews are about the shootings, abortion, being a real black man, etc. Apparently nobody noticed what he said here, or nobody watching thought it unreasonable or worth pointing out. Anyway, if anyone knows in which interview he said this (I think within the last week, possibly two), please let me know. I’ll keep looking, too.

4 responses to “Good and Evil

  1. Peter Waterschoot

    ‘Good and Evil’, ik ben sinds jaren een trouwe lezer van je stukjes en vind dit je beste. Tegelijk heb ik het gevoel dat je nog veel meer wil/kan schrijven over deze onderwerpen. Over alles wat ergens met religie of geloof te maken heeft, heb ik de indruk. Voor de fundamentele christelijke gelovigen in Amerika en elders: ‘Er zijn studies en observaties die aantonen dat chimpansees die in groep leven vormen van empathie vertonen, hun voedsel delen en tegelijkertijd durven bepalen wie vandaag wel of niet een extra druif of stukje banaan krijgt, afhankelijk van wie in de ogen van de gulle aap het verdiende of niet, (goed of slecht was)…. Hopelijk laat de evolutie deze harige genetische verwanten nog een tijdje wachten voor ze voor soortgenoten met een afwijkend kleurtje of mening gaskamers beginnen bouwen.



    • Hi Peter, bedankt voor het compliment. Ja, ik wilde ook schrijven over de emoties en behulpzaamheid van dieren, ook tussen dierensoorten, maar dat is voor een andere post. Ik zag ooit op Facebook een video van een paard dat een chipmunk uit z’n waterbak redt. Er zijn ook groepen chimpanzees die vlees eten en die groepen zijn meer agressief tegenover andere groepen. Ik geloof dat ik niet al te lang geleden iets hoorde van zo’n groep die anderen aanvielen met scherpe stokken…


  2. Peter Waterschoot

    Als ik me niet vergis is er een link tussen het eten van vlees en een hogere productie van het mannelijke hormoon Testosteron. En Testosteron is nog steeds het rode Ferrari-, ik durf alles-, ik verover alle vrouwtjes- en het vecht-, knok- en voer graag oorlog hormoon.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Vlees is ook de reden dat de hersenen van mensen zich verder ontwikkelden. Er is ergens een groep chimpansees gevonden die vlees eet en deze groep is agressiever dan vegetarische chimpansees, en ze vallen andere groepen aan met verscherpte stokken…


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