GOOD AND EVIL
The most unfortunate belief to evolve in religion is that evil is caused by some diabolical entity, or entities, with supernatural powers. This concept allows people who knowingly commit antisocial acts to attribute their actions to an outside force, thereby absolving themselves of accountability; it permits an easy escape from one’s own conscience and enables an individual to continue with their negative behaviour.
Various religions have approached the subject of evil in different ways. The Abrahamic (Western) beliefs use Satan, created in the late writings of the Old Testament, as the personification of evil. Originally the ancient Hebrew religion maintained that evil came from God, as punishment for man’s misdeeds; but a crisis in the Hebrew faith made it necessary to change the doctrine. In 597 BCE Jerusalem surrendered to the Babylonians, and the city was subsequently destroyed in 586 BCE; this began half a century of Jewish captivity and exile. By the end of this period it was beginning to look like Yahweh (the god of Abraham) was unjustly tormenting the Hebrew people.
Reading the books of the Old Testament from the period encompassing the exile demonstrates the doctrinal problems the religion was experiencing. The followers began to assume a “doomsday” attitude, and concluded that God had broken his covenant due to the disobedience of his people. After decades of trying to appease Yahweh without success it became apparent that the religion, in its present form, provided no hope to the believers.
In 539 BCE King Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylonia, and freed the Jews in 538 BCE; earning himself a messiah reference in the Bible. The Persian duality concept of good (ormazd) and evil (ahriman) led the Old Testament writers to develop a similar doctrine; and between 538 BCE and 518 BCE, the contemporary characterization of Satan was first introduced. The Ha-satan of old was actually God’s assistant who, while Yahweh was asleep or preoccupied, spied on mankind: reporting people’s sins to God, who would then bring evil upon these transgressors. Changing Ha-satan, God’s friend; into Satan, a god-like enemy, allowed the religion to blame what was previously perceived as punishment from God on a new and opposing figure, creating an Abrahamic form of duality.
Although the name Satan only appears in four books of the Old Testament, and is prominent in only one (Job: a folktale written between 500 and 250 BCE), by the time Christianity appeared, this representative adaptation of Persian duality had become widely accepted in Judaism. Christians expanded the role of Satan, and brought him almost to the same level as their god. The New Testament books removed much of the “free will” that was present in the ancient doctrine by suggesting that ormazd and ahriman were manifest in Yeshua ben Joseph and Satan, respectively; with each having the ability to control a person’s mind (or soul). This now meant that God was only connected with good, Satan only with evil, and humanity was a helpless pawn in the staged competition between the two entities; man always vulnerable to possession, if not eternally vigilant. When Islam was developed using the Judeo-Christian beliefs as a foundation; the contemporary version of Ha-satan, and the accompanying duality doctrine, became part of Muslim ideology as well.
Many Western sects have moved away from the absolutes present in the early doctrine, and have adopted positions closer to the views held by Eastern religions, which place more of a responsibility upon the individual; although Eastern beliefs still personify evil in the form of demons. The human tendency to give substance to evil serves three purposes: it puts abstract philosophical concepts into a form that people can understand, it allows people to project their moral deficiencies onto something/someone else, and it attempts to explain what is perceived as an unjust world.
In a world supposedly ruled by loving, fair gods; events occur that appear to be unjust: corrupt and selfish individuals can live long and carefree lives, while righteous individuals can endure lifelong suffering. Because of this, theists usually attribute life’s inequities to evil entities; avoiding the alternative of applying it to their deities. Such an approach has failed to resolve numerous enigmas created by mystical duality. To allow evil beings to override the intent of the gods, is to suggest that divine will is not omnipotent. To permit diabolical entities to afflict mankind as a test of virtue, is to admit that the gods are not omniscient; for if the deities already know whether you are good or bad, they are then simply tormenting the innocent without cause, and are consequently evil themselves. Stating that the choice between the opposing forces is part of free will establishes that (apart from negating omniscience) evil exists as an alternative, because the gods created it. There is no way to allow for religious duality without either making the gods fallible, or responsible for evil. After debating the subject over the last thousand years, theistic philosophers have concluded that “God works in mysterious ways, and we cannot comprehend his intent.” This, obviously, is not an answer, but an attempt to avoid the paradox.
Numerous religions rely on forms of “Heaven” and “Hell” to enforce the ultimate justice they see as lacking in the real world. There are significant differences in the way Eastern and Western belief systems approach these concepts. In many Eastern sects paradisiacal reward is an escape from the cycle of physical existence; and the punishment is to remain within it. Abrahamic religions generally portray Heaven as either an ethereal place that is separate from reality, or as a “new” corporeal world governed by mystical, rather than physical, laws. Hell* is seen as a spectral location where people suffer for their sins, or as a place that serves as a restriction from heaven. [* translated in the Bible from the Ancient Hebrew word 'Sheol’, meaning ‘grave’. To go to hell, is to go to your grave; to die]
The idea of eternal damnation to Hades has some serious flaws. First of all, if we assume the existence of an anthropomorphic god, as created by Western beliefs, it follows that his judgment must be unquestionable. Therefore, if you were condemned to Hell, it would be undeniably just; you could not question your fate in any way, because your presence there would confirm the existence of God, and establish right from wrong, with no gray areas. If your consignment to perdition is, without doubt, the ultimate demonstration of what is right; then Hell must be perceived as a place of justice, not evil.
Another problem with the concept of perpetual condemnation concerns the purpose of punishment: which is to protect others from the actions, or potential actions, of an individual, and to rehabilitate. To protect others only requires segregation, not torture. To segregate someone who has ceased to exist (died) does not make sense. If gods are incapable of ending ethereal human existence, and must therefore eternally fear the actions of these sinful entities, then the power of such gods ranks only slightly higher than that of human “souls”.
The commonly held perception of Hell is perpetual suffering with no hope of release; which does not rehabilitate the offender, it exacts revenge. The concept of vengeance actually serves no purpose. It does not alter the past. Whatever occurrences provoked the desire for revenge are not changed by retribution. Eternally punishing a person in some sort of afterlife is obviously not intended to change their behaviour; it’s a little late for that. The threat of revenge works to restrain individuals from committing evil actions during their lifetimes, but the act of vengeance alone is merely to demonstrate that there is substance to the threat. There is no such demonstration in mystical retribution. To perpetually torment someone for no other reason than for the sake of vengeance, is an act of evil itself.
This is not to say that the ideal, of mystical entities and locations representing evil, serves no purpose in society. Such doctrine controls people by capitalizing upon their fears. The system works, but not well enough to diminish the rate of “evil”; nor will it be as effective in the future, as more and more people abandon religions such as Christianity. Conditioning people to fear “Hell” and “Satan”, and to seek “Heaven” as a reward; is the easy route. It provides a level of control constraining the masses from self-serving pursuits, while requiring a minimum of effort from the people who try to keep society relatively safe. A system that permits individuals to believe that their immoral desires can be blamed on an “evil” outside force, and that they can be forgiven their transgressions by appealing to a “good” force, while feigning regret, is not a system that actually prevents antisocial deeds from occurring, but is only a methodology used to justify and excuse such deeds; it minimizes accountability.
Altruism is acting for the benefit of other people: sacrificing a portion of one’s income by donating to charity is defined as an altruistic act. Most religions use altruism as their definition of “good”. The “golden rule” (do unto others as you would have them do unto you), which has existed from the beginning of recorded history, is the cornerstone of the religious form of altruism; termed Ethical Altruism, it means that one should act in the interests of others. Performing unselfish deeds, in order to help others, earns one a paradisiacal reward upon death. There is one problem with this: it is not altruism. To be motivated into aiding others due to a promise of the greatest compensation possible for doing so, is actually a self-serving act. If the intent is to behave in a seemingly selfless manner, with the goal being something that ultimately benefits oneself, and failing to behave so means that you will be eternally punished: you are not acting for the sake of others at all, but only for yourself.
There has been considerable debate over the ages about the principle of altruism. Many contend that the only people who can perform an altruistic act are atheists, because they have nothing to gain from it. Theists counter with the argument that, although atheists are not pursuing a mystical reward, they still benefit from feelings of accomplishment, satisfaction, and joy; and therefore have actually acted with selfish intent. The result of this form of argument is that Ethical Altruism does not exist, because everyone stands to gain, in some manner, from such actions. This opinion is widely held, and is true in principle when you consider that Ethical Altruism is empirical: it is learned behaviour.
People do act in selfless ways which are not self-rewarding in any tangible manner. In times of crisis, there are individuals who will sacrifice their own lives in order to save others; they do not formulate intent, but simply react to the situation. This type of innate response is called Psychological Altruism, and the ideal that people are good by nature is based on this form of altruism. Instinctive morality of this sort is contrary to the beliefs of some Western religions, which use the concept of “original sin” to suggest that man is actually evil by nature, and that good behaviour is learned through theistic doctrine: Ethical Altruism. Since even religious arguments establish that this sectarian empirical morality, by its very structure, cannot exist; we are left with innate morality.
Psychological Altruism is the result of “species awareness”: the instinctive knowledge that the good of the species is paramount, and what is best for the group, is ultimately best for the individual members thereof. Earlier in this work, we covered the instinctive moral laws present in nature. These universal laws, particularly the social codes, are why Psychological Altruism exists. The contention, that since something beneficial for the species consequently benefits the individual within it, and is then self-rewarding; misses two key points: an action may be to the advantage of the components of the whole, but not necessarily to the one specific component; and an act that lacks conscious intent of eventual gain cannot be seen as having a selfish goal. People are generally unaware of the reasons why they are motivated by Psychological Altruism, they simply respond to stimuli.
Trying to define altruism as the purest form of “good”, while debating what exclusively unselfish behaviour actually means, accomplishes very little. An action can be purely selfish in intent, yet have consequences that benefit a large number of others. Conversely, actions with the most altruistic of motives, can lead to considerable unforeseen harm. Good and evil are not so easily defined. In an earlier chapter, we used child labour as an example of foresight; but it is also a demonstration of how “good” intentions can lead to “evil” results.
An imaginary scenario can demonstrate the difficulties of separating good and evil into easily recognizable forms. An airplane with one hundred passengers is in flight, when an accident kills the crew, and seriously disables the aircraft. A passenger, feeling himself to be the most competent person remaining, takes the controls, and with the assistance of Air Traffic Control, safely lands the plane; and is hailed as a hero. Is this altruistic? No: the passenger acted in order to save his own life. It was a self-serving act which also saved the lives of ninety-nine other people. Failing to act would have cost him his life, and taking the controls if there had been a better qualified person on board would likely have the same result. By definition, the act is in no way altruistic.
Now let us say that, in this example, the damage to the aircraft is such that our passenger has to throw half the people off the plane to lighten the load, or it cannot land safely. He has killed fifty individuals in order to save fifty lives: otherwise, everyone would have died. Would he still be seen as the same hero, as in the first case? What if the decision to sacrifice the passengers was based on the knowledge that there was a ninety percent chance that the airplane was too heavy to land, with a ten percent chance that all one hundred could be delivered to safety? What about a fifty percent chance; or only a ten percent risk of crashing without lightening the load? Where does the perception of a heroic deed change into a selfish one? How would people judge our hero if the plane was certain to crash unless he tossed only five people overboard; and he was Caucasian, and ejected only the dark-skinned individuals? If there was only a five percent chance of the aircraft being too heavy, even the most selfish of individuals would be likely to take the risk, rather than kill half the occupants. Does this suggest that, no matter how self-serving a person is, there is a point where some level of altruism is acceptable? What if, when faced with the task of having to sacrifice half the passengers, our hero threw forty-nine overboard and then leaped out as well? This is certainly an altruistic act, but by removing the person most competent to land the aircraft (himself), he has increased the odds of the plane crashing, and may have doomed everyone. Is this purely altruistic action also an “evil” one as well?
A “good” deed is not necessarily altruistic, nor is a selfish one always exclusively “evil”. The instinct for self-preservation is tempered by the innate drive to protect the species, and vice versa. These seemingly opposing drives are actually complementary, and balance a person’s instinctive response to a situation: in this way, self-serving acts can have species-serving consequences; the reverse being true as well. Why don’t we see consistent results from this balance? The empirical moral codes that society instills into the population interfere with a person’s “first instinct”. Reactions are biased toward the selfish response, due to the influence of society. Religions promote a selfish goal: everything you do is intended to lead you to an ultimate personal reward. The elite need the masses to be materialistic, in order to fulfill their own self-serving needs: everyone must work productively in order to have the material things they are conditioned to desire, and consequently make their employers wealthy. Humans are trained to adopt artificial economic and nationalistic groups as their “pack”, in order to allow one group to gain materialistically at the expense of another. These influences, and many more like them, have made the concepts of “good” and “evil” into transitory principles; which can change according to the needs of the people controlling society.
We have these manifestations of “Heaven” and “Hell” and personifications of “good” and “evil” because basically, humans are loath to accept responsibility for their actions. The ideals that allow people to avoid accountability come with a substantial cost: because we await some form of mystical retribution, we permit, and even encourage, evil and selfishness to flourish. If Hell is an example of ultimate justice, then a place where injustice is commonplace must represent true evil: that place must be the type of world mankind has created. If Heaven is a place that provides happiness and freedom from temptation, it exists as a state of mind, because these qualities are within oneself, and can exist in the type of world we have created. Humanity requires no outside intervention in order to create “good” and “evil”; we are quite adept at providing both, and have the ability to determine how much of each we allow to exist.