Nine cents from this corner:
First, discussions of the term evil
remind me of discussions of the term God
, insofar as without a very rigorous effort to define and describe the terms, a whole lot of confusion and talking past one another seems to ensue, not that any of us ever do that here, of course. In any event, that would be my criticism of the podcast, because Emery and Scott didn’t make that sort of definitional effort. Despite that, our hosts did a great job of really listening to and responding to each other honestly and directly. And it was great to hear again from Scott and Emery whose calm and thoughtful voices always seem to wrap around my brain like a good old shoe fits on the other end of my anatomy.
Second, regarding defining evil (and maybe God), I wonder if a good tack might not be to start by considering or imagining what it is and what it is not. That is, for evil we'd consider a whole lot of different actions we think of as negative, with differing actors and contexts and motivations, and to then try to figure out what divides those that are evil from something we’d better characterize as simply emotion-based error or simply a mistake based on bad information or thinking or what have you. On first glance, this might sound banal and like a waste of time, especially if you don’t really try to do it…
(If you use historical examples in that exercise, the more you know about the actors and their backgrounds and the contexts in which they lived the better, unless of course, you just want to make lazy value judgements and attach convenient labels, not that any of us ever stoop to that, of course.)
Third, major kudos, thumbs and big toes up to Scott for his insight that much of his argumentation in the podcast regarding WHY
people do things we characterize as evil was very closely akin to a “god of the gaps” type of reasoning. In this case, however, the nebulous deity concept just gets replaced with the more-or-less equally nebulous idea of evil. Regarding the size of the explanatory gap remaining, however, I differ strongly with Scott. It seems to me that enormous progress on that front has been made, and that that progress is ongoing and even accelerating with new knowledge in a variety of fields including sociology, psychology, and especially neuroscience.
I can’t help but wonder if, for god believers (of any stripe), no “why” answer will ever seem satisfactory unless
it includes a theistic narrative.
Scott, I think, was also insightful in mentioning that a lot of what underlies theistic belief and belief in free-standing "evil" is the very deep human desire to imagine that our ideas of justice (or revenge) will somehow, even in the far future, be fulfilled. We non-believers, on the other hand, think that any justice that can be created must be created by human beings in the course of our temporal lives. And that means that we have face what we see as a fact that the world is not really a fair place and that justice can't and won't always
be met. Neither God nor Superman will save us. We have to do the work ourselves.
Fourth, regarding 9/11, as someone else mentioned above, it’s strange indeed to avoid mention of the god and “scripture” beliefs that were a primary and proximate motivation of the mass murders that occurred on that day and that also were a major contributing factor to much of the killing and suffering and sorrow that followed and still follows today.
And if one wants to say that evil is some sort of free-floating entity apart from the circumstances and frailties of the human brain, then isn’t it more than a little odd that so much really horrible evil occurs under the rubric of serving God? Oh, I forgot, that’s just evil/the devil trying to make God look bad and “turn people away” from God, right? Or maybe there's another explanation?
Last, Emery glanced past another subject, that of so-called “natural evil,” with his analogy about bacteria as organisms of similar, albeit simpler nature, than humans.
I haven’t seen it, but the new movie, Contagion
, might be thought-provoking regarding “natural evil.” As I understand it, the movie characters turn to science and reason and collective action / government agencies to save humanity’s bacon, so to speak. That is, they don’t tend to rely on prayer – maybe they’re just not “Christian Scientists.” (Nyuk, nyuk
BTW, this is also what real people, even the religious, do in dire circumstances. Well, most people, anyway. A couple of years ago there was a regional airliner that developed serious trouble over the Mediterranean. The voice recorder revealed that the pilots prayed for help – all the way to the splash before they and their passengers met the bottom of the sea. Contrast with, say, Sully Sullenberger’s landing in the Hudson River. Sullenberger has never said word one about belief in God, as far as I know. He just did his job, much like the first responders and other people a little farther down the river a few years earlier on that sunny Tuesday morning that has now become an “anniversary date.” Many of those brave humans, too, were surely non-believers.
Well, what do you know. I wrote another too-long post.
Those who know the most of nature believe the least about theology. - Robert Ingersoll