The problem of Evil

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ColoradoGuy

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We've hashed this one out from time to time in various forums, but until now we've not had a proper spot to park the discussion. Since it's one of the Big Questions of existence, I'll start it out here: from whence comes evil? For non-believers this isn't so much a problem -- evil just is, in the same way the universe just is.

I can't speak for other religions, but the problem for Christianity has always been a version of this: how can a just God allow it; how can He allow the innocent to suffer? This has been explained (or finessed, really) in several ways (and with many variations of those ways) over the past two millennia. I tend toward the viewpoint first argued by St. Augustine -- Evil is distance from God, from the Light. Thus it is an absence of something, not a positive entity.

It seems to me that more conservative Christian traditions, particularly those with traditions leading back to Calvin, take an almost Manichean viewpoint -- with the world a battleground between God and Satan. (St. Augustine was much concerned with answering the Manicheans.)

I'd be interested in your thoughts about this, especially from the viewpoint of non-Christian traditions.
 

Ken

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dubious views from a non-believer:
I have a multitude of perspectives and opinions on questions as this. My everyday opinion is that if there is a God and He lets evil happen then He must not be a very nice God, to put it mildly. // From an intellectual standpoint I wonder if humankind's morals match God's. I'd honestly rather doubt it. If there is a God I'm sure he has his own way of evaluating events and happenings here and for us to presume otherwise is anthropomorphism carried to an ultimate extreme.

ps I honestly don't think it's true that non-belivers just accept evil as a given.
They are as unsettled (and mystified) by its presence as religious persons, for different reasons, of course.
 
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Ruv Draba

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In my secular humanist view, good is accidental and sporadic until we develop the compassion and knowledge to make it deliberate and frequent. The world's a cruel, heartless jungle but we can work toward making a garden of it. There are no guarantees that we'll succeeed, but it's our worthiest endeavour.

In such a view, the bad in what Christians call 'evil' stems from ignorance, fear, self-centredness, despair and occasional medical and psychiatric conditions. Since we can systematise our ignorance, fear, self-centredness and despair, we can systematise the bad we do too. And some of the bad we do is built systemically into our survival behaviours too.

In my view, 'evil' is just bad that we've laid taboos around; and sometimes it's more taboo than it is bad. Often our taboos are socially justified; sometimes they're not. Because I like rationality I like to separate the ideals and taboos from the practical consequences before I rate the good or the bad.

In terms of what to do about it, as a secular humanist I'd say that we're lucky because our fundamental human needs are very much the same -- what varies is our tastes in how we fulfill them. You need food, shelter, love, belonging, respect; so do I, but what that looks like may differ. I think that's sufficient to build a common human morality -- or at least a framework in which cultures can vary the details, as long as we don't get too precious about our ideals or our taboos.

So what to do about bad? Diminish it. Especially, work to diminish our systematised bad; the sort that makes the weak and vulnerable suffer. Work to enhance the good, systematise those parts that can systematise; celebrate the individual good that cannot be systematised.

How do we do that? Care. Observe. Learn. Question. Talk. Take action. Just basic human stuff.
 

AMCrenshaw

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So what to do about bad? Diminish it. Especially, work to diminish our systematised bad; the sort that makes the weak and vulnerable suffer. Work to enhance the good, systematise those parts that can systematise; celebrate the individual good that cannot be systematised.

Ditto.
 

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I take a simplistic view: evil occurs when someone does harm to someone else. Truly evil people seem to want to control others for their own end. Sometimes that end is simple control itself. As for God allowing or not allowing evil, it seems clear from biblical writings that we were given free will. That covers a lot of ground, IMO. If He intervenes, there is no longer free will. My little two cents worth.
 

Ruv Draba

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Some afterthoughts...

Secular humanism differs from religion in its pursuit of moral improvement in a few areas:
  1. We don't have a body of comforting myths to tell us that the endeavour is destined to succeed. On the down-side, if you get miserable about humanity you have to find your own way out of that (and there are some ways to do that). On the up-side, it can also make you very pragmatic.
  2. We have to work out what is good and why. While some theologians have argued that secular human morality is built on sand, that hasn't been my experience. You can hit bedrock on human good pretty quickly if you stop filling your hole with mythic sand.
  3. You don't have to meet some tribal norm to play. As a secular humanist I'm very happy to fund and support endeavours by Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and secular groups -- based on how sincere and well-conceived the endeavour is, how competent and ethical the people are and how much good I think the thing will do. I get a bit sad when I see religious tribes directing their funding nigh-exclusively toward cultivating their own. I don't object in principal to religious tribes getting into a race -- I'd just like to know what the heck the finish-line is.
 

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I take a simplistic view: evil occurs when someone does harm to someone else. Truly evil people seem to want to control others for their own end. Sometimes that end is simple control itself. As for God allowing or not allowing evil, it seems clear from biblical writings that we were given free will. That covers a lot of ground, IMO. If He intervenes, there is no longer free will. My little two cents worth.
In fact I was toying with starting a thread about that other great Christian conundrum -- the Free Will Problem. It has a long and knotty history in theological debates. (Augustine had a lot to say about that one, too.)
 

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Some afterthoughts...

  1. We don't have a body of comforting myths to tell us that the endeavour is destined to succeed. ...
Not all those beliefs are so comforting. And remember, Ruv: one person's myth is another's faith, so tread softly there, please.
 

Ken

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some theologians have argued that secular human morality is built on sand

Implying that the premises supporting it ultimately can't be proved?
Take stealing by way of example.
To religious persons it's wrong to do this as it goes against the ways of the bible, I'd suppose.
Why does a secular humanist consider stealing wrong?
And what part of the line of reasoning behind this conviction do the mentioned theologians consider to be equivalent to myths?
 

AMCrenshaw

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1. We don't have a body of comforting myths to tell us that the endeavour is destined to succeed.

As a peacemaker, I can say that more often than not, certain things seem to get worse rather than better. For me, I never saw anything easy about following in Christ's or the Buddha's footsteps, nothing vaguely comforting. Generally, they have warned me that suffering is at the center of the human condition.

2. We have to work out what is good and why. While some theologians have argued that secular human morality is built on sand, that hasn't been my experience. You can hit bedrock on human good pretty quickly if you stop filling your hole with mythic sand.

Yeah, I agree with this. I would add "sentient being" to "human" good. I think what is good for sentient beings is complex, and can't be summed up in a few words, but I don't think it's difficult to make small movements at a time, find things that become pretty obvious over time (rape is clearly wrong, for example, and it is also clear why). At the same time, as we learn more about what human beings need to not just survive, but to thrive, toward a greater well-being, it becomes easier to state what goodness means and how to go about attaining it.


AMC
 
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Pilot

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In fact I was toying with starting a thread about that other great Christian conundrum -- the Free Will Problem. It has a long and knotty history in theological debates. (Augustine had a lot to say about that one, too.)

This is one of those areas where I tell myself, KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Since theology is based on ideas, not tangible facts, the gates are wide open and one man's thoughts are as good as any other's. My answer was to accept the teachings of the Bible and try to understand as much of that as possible. While I can't believe the writings literally in some cases, the Bible is a wonderful history book and template for living a decent life. It would be difficult to ask for more than that, IMO. I've discovered over the long years that it's not necessary to understand everything. Some things just "are".
 

Ruv Draba

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Not all those beliefs are so comforting. And remember, Ruv: one person's myth is another's faith, so tread softly there, please.
Yes, sorry. I should explain that I've been using 'myth' in the anthropological sense, not the pejorative sense. I don't mean 'religious belief' or 'falsehood' but any stories that we're not disposed to question. Every culture has them. And quite rightly, you've pointed out that some religious myths are not at all comforting.

Myths are often treated as sacred. It can be taboo to challenge them. I believe that making a myth taboo is a matter of custom more than faith, but I agree that it's a courtesy not to challenge sacred myths unless invited.

Secular humanism has had its myths too.

While I was exercising between my last post and this, I realised that there was a period in the late 19th century where many secular humanists bought into a myth of human destiny, influenced perhaps by modernism. I think it caused some offence among theologians at the time. How did these upstart humanists imagine that human destiny would be so easy to secure? I think that the myth began to fall apart around the Great War. I don't believe that it's very popular these days, but some theologians still equate secular humanism to those modernist notions of manifest human destiny.
 
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Ruv Draba

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Take stealing by way of example.
To religious persons it's wrong to do this as it goes against the ways of the bible, I'd suppose.
Please bear in mind that every culture regardless of its spirituality has its own customs surrounding property. Many are not Abrahamic or Roman sorts of customs.

When I was in Vanuatu for instance my guide explained that all the land had some sort of ownership, but it wasn't considered stealing to climb a coconut tree and get some food unless the owner had displayed a 'taboo fern' in a coconut shell. It meant 'this food is taboo for you'. Otherwise, the land may be owned (really more a form of stewardship) but the coconuts on it are not -- although cutting down a coconut tree on someone else's land was always considered an insult. I also saw a canoe laying untended by a weather-station, upon which was written the graffito 'I CAN FAK [sic] ANYONE WHO DESTROYS MY CANOE'. (Please note: destroys, not uses).

My personal thought is that everyone needs security and trust. When everyone has the things they need then for me, property management comes down to either observing custom, or else arguing with your tribe as to why custom should change. As long as people have enough, feel safe and can trust one another I don't see it as a moral issue.

Harder is when people don't have enough and start fighting over rights, such as shelter, water, food, resources. If that fighting is within the tribe then the tribe's own morality is tested. If it's between tribes (as it so often is) then the morality of humanity as a whole is tested. As a secular humanist my concerns lie equally with equity and safety; when tribes start ripping themselves or each other apart I cease to care much about the customs of tribe. I don't believe that I'm much different in this from many humanitarian religious folk.

As far as I can tell, nobody has the answers for some of the worst cases of human rights abuse. I think that the objectives are obvious: equity and safety; but I don't believe that there are systemic answers in how to get there.
 
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Guffy

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The evil in the world IMO causes all Christians who think about to question God, especially when the evil is personal. And how Satan fulfills his purpose in this world is a complete mystery to me. However studying Satan in the bible does give me some personal insight into evil. And by personal I mean the evil within me. Satan’s problem is one of pride, and my own road to sin (evil) is also pride. When I think I know better than God or my interests are more important than God’s that leads to sin. It is this sin that brings evil into the world. Most of the time, the bad things that happen to us all are the consequence of sin by ourselves or someone else. Many of the bad things that happen to innocents are caused by others. But certainly not all, and in fact many suffer for, what appears to us, no reason, and that is where the question comes in. Typically, “why me God” or “why the children”. I have no answer for this. But I do have comfort for it. I want to stress that I am not offended but I don’t think of that comfort as a myth, I think of it as a revelation for God. That revelation tells me that what happens in this world is not as important as the world to come. I have no proof of an after life but I believe it because of the evidence of eternity in the way humans live. We express a belief in eternity in many ways.

Ruv, I enjoyed your arguments a lot. With or without a belief in God, ignorance, fear, self-centeredness, and despair are certainly responsible for (dare I say all) most of the evil that people cause in this world.
 

Roger J Carlson

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dubious views from a non-believer:
I have a multitude of perspectives and opinions on questions as this. My everyday opinion is that if there is a God and He lets evil happen then He must not be a very nice God, to put it mildly.
God cannot win in this debate. If he allows evil, he's not very nice, some would say evil himself.

But what is evil? Isn't it ultimately selfishness? Putting your own wants and needs over those of all others? When those wants become extreme, we call it evil: rape, murder, theft. But even "little" sins are selfishly motivated.

But if God did not allow evil, wouldn't that have been a selfish act? Thinking only about himself and his needs and wants? Think about it. If God did not allow evil, he could not allow independent thought. This conversation could never even happen.

God allows evil because he allows choice. Choice involves the risk that some people will make really, really bad choices. But it's really just a matter of degree rather than kind.

When people talk about evil-doing they are talking about other people's evil, not their own. It's good to stop people from doing evil to me. But what if I couldn't do evil? Not even think about doing evil? Would I really want a world like that?

What God did was allow us to make our own choices and accepted the consequences of that. It meant that some of his creation would actually turn their backs on him; claim he doesn't even exist, or if he does exist, he's evil for having given them the choice.

This was, in fact, a selfless, rather than selfish act. I actually consider that pretty nice of him because he didn't have to.
 

MacAllister

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Guffy, perhaps. But alternately, the existence of evil in the world is also why--no matter how challenged I find myself with regard to faith and religion--I cannot simply dismiss spirituality, religion, and the concept of a Power greater than we can comprehend.
 

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The evil in the world IMO causes all Christians who think about to question God, especially when the evil is personal. And how Satan fulfills his purpose in this world is a complete mystery to me. However studying Satan in the bible does give me some personal insight into evil. And by personal I mean the evil within me. Satan’s problem is one of pride, and my own road to sin (evil) is also pride.

It is particularly useful to look at the N.T. in a glossed edition to see what words are translated as Satan.

That being said, in medieval texts about sin, beginning with Augustine, all the other human mis-behaviors/sins extend from pride.
 

Guffy

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I agree that the presence of evil is one of the reasons to believe in God. As much as we like to say that evil is a part of humanity without some guide it would be difficult to recognize evil.
 

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We've hashed this one out from time to time in various forums, but until now we've not had a proper spot to park the discussion. Since it's one of the Big Questions of existence, I'll start it out here: from whence comes evil? For non-believers this isn't so much a problem -- evil just is, in the same way the universe just is.

I can't speak for other religions, but the problem for Christianity has always been a version of this: how can a just God allow it; how can He allow the innocent to suffer? This has been explained (or finessed, really) in several ways (and with many variations of those ways) over the past two millennia. I tend toward the viewpoint first argued by St. Augustine -- Evil is distance from God, from the Light. Thus it is an absence of something, not a positive entity.

It seems to me that more conservative Christian traditions, particularly those with traditions leading back to Calvin, take an almost Manichean viewpoint -- with the world a battleground between God and Satan. (St. Augustine was much concerned with answering the Manicheans.)

I'd be interested in your thoughts about this, especially from the viewpoint of non-Christian traditions.

I view Good and Evil as arbitrary social standards. With no moral authority, and a world of people working in their own self-interest, it is only natural that helpfulness, generosity, and a caring attitude would tend to be considered Good, while selfishness, violence, and hatred would tend to be considered Evil.

Even these tendencies not concrete. Help the wrong person, or help someone for the wrong reasons, and that is evil. Harm the right person, for the right reasons, and that is good.

And even with these exceptions, the ideas of Good and Evil differ from person to person, sometimes so vastly as to be unrecognizable. I, for instance, find it abominable that someone could fart in an elevator, and I believe firmly that elevator farters should be stoned to death on sight. But someone with no nose would never understand this.

And even after this disclaimer, different cultures -and indeed, different individuals- define harm and help in different manners.

Thus, I say good and evil are arbitrary.

#

God as a loving creator and omnipotent being does not necessarily have to match any one person's or any one culture's definition of "Good." Millions of people can die in a calamity, and one can certainly blame God - but in doing so, they forget that such a being would have the perspective to see these events clearly, and in meta spiritual terms.

Or perhaps God's perspective is so elevated that we look like ants to him. And in looking like ants, the level of compassion granted to us is significantly smaller than we feel we merit.

Much as I regret that the rain will drown many of the ants in my back yard, and although the ants may consider me strong enough and compassionate enough to rescue them (I throw them candy every so often. I love watching ants move around.), I have neither the time nor the inclination to go try to keep them from drowning.
 

Ruv Draba

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If God did not allow evil, he could not allow independent thought. This conversation could never even happen.
I've seen this argument a lot, but never understood it. It seems to hinge on God being the sole definition of good. I'm okay with that in principle, but isn't there a lot of independence between kinds of good too? The kind of comfort I give is very different to the kind that Mrs Draba gives, say. I fix problems, she soothes. Are we different because evil exists or just because good admits variety?
 
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small axe

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The following is merely my personal opinion, my personal perspective:

'That there is a Devil
There is no doubt;
But is he trying to get in us?
Or trying to get out?'

I think Evil is a human and a moral issue.

It's hard to imagine animals or machines being 'morally evil' -- Even intelligent ones.

The wolf pack that eats your loved ones were simply being what wolves are and doing what wolves do. And I credit wolves with keen intelligence and self-awareness (maybe a sort of dreamlike awareness)

If we imagine a machine Artificial Intelligence, capable of thinking a trillion times faster than humans, sensing a trillion times more than humans ... I can still understand how Intelligence is a separate thing than Morality.
A machine that recognized a threat to its existence (imagine THE TERMINATOR mythos, of the SkyNet AI that wakes up and realizes it must exterminate the human race to protect itself) could kill without moral content.

Me considering Intelligence separate from Morality may be where I disagree from 'secular humanism' -- because I suppose (correct me if i'm wrong, if you can explain why) that they imagine that Morality is inherent with Intelligence, which I don't.

My position would be: Morality must flow from a source higher than mere Human-ness. Why? Because if I am human and YOU are human, and we disagree about the "morality" of a given issue ... there is no logical reason why YOUR "morality" should bind me.

Some would say "morality" is a social construct, so that the Individual is bound to a morality that serves the good of the majority, or of the society, etc. That doesn't defend the Individual from the whims (and errors) of the Society, however.

Morality is an inner, individual choice and an inner, individual reality.

TERMINATOR: SARAH CONNORS CHRONICLES is coming on. I'll continue after I have recieved further moral Understanding of the Machines ... :)
 

ColoradoGuy

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I agree that the presence of evil is one of the reasons to believe in God.
That's a very intriguing statement, one I think many would find counter-intuitive. Many say that the wonderful beauty of the universe confirms their belief in God, yet you seem to be saying the opposite. Can you elaborate?
 

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This is only one reason, the beauty of the huge unimaginable universe or of a tiny flower or sea shell is evidence of God to me, but without God, the ultimate good, how do we know what evil is? It’s not just what harms us or our family. Why do we stop fighting when our enemies surrender? Why not just keep fighting until their all gone? Some civilizations have done this but most of the world recognizes this as evil. Why is rape wrong if you’re just trying to increase the chances that your tribe will thrive by having more children? The world does not have one uniform view of evil, but we all do have a view of evil. If good and evil are arbitrary social standards, where did they come from? It’s not survival of the fittest. We can see the difference when we study the animal world. We share much with animals but not morality. There is something extra in us that allows us to see good and evil beyond ourselves.
 

Ken

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But what is evil? Isn't it ultimately selfishness? Putting your own wants and needs over those of all others?

...sometimes there's a selfish aspect to what one considers evil, as when ones stock porfolio loses value, and they look for someone to blame. But often evil is altruistically based: seeing suffering of those completely unconnected and unrelated to one, in another part of the world, even, and emphasizing with their pain, and at times wondering how God could allow such to happen.

And in turn, if there is a God up above, He doesn't necessarily have to want to eliminate evil for his own sake, but for ours, which wouldn't be selfish but beneficient.

Will and freedom of choice are debatable issues even before being introduced into a discussion as this, for we really aren't even certain if we have free will to begin with from a philosophical perspective, at least. So in eliminating our ability to do evil God might not actually be hampering our free will, odd as it sounds.

And just to reiterate the last part of my post above, my intellectual take is that "God" has His own morality, for lack of a better word, and that it is do to this that evil exists in the world. And really, how could He not? God is a billion times smarter than all of us combined, so how could we possibly imagine that He thinks like us and shares perspectives in common with us?
 

Guffy

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And just to reiterate the last part of my post above, my intellectual take is that "God" has His own morality, for lack of a better word, and that it is do to this that evil exists in the world. And really, how could He not? God is a billion times smarter than all of us combined, so how could we possibly imagine that He thinks like us and shares perspectives in common with us?

It is understanding this that allow me to question without losing faith. God's ways are not my ways and his thoughts are not my thoughts. This is very cold comfort for someone that is hurting, but it helps me in my rational moments.
 
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