A reader writes:

Your reader asks, what does Darwinism have to say about evil? The answer, of course, is that current evolutionary theory has nothing to say about evil - it is a scientific theory, not a system of morals. It just happens to be a correct scientific theory that seems to have ramifications for theories of human behaviour. If theology is merely "a set of concepts and terms, a language, that we use to make sense of our situation", it is an incomplete and inaccurate set of concepts, if it does not take evolution into account, because the fact of our evolution is part of our situation.

Your reader also seems to be under the impression that it is only religious thought that gives us some way of making sense of our situation, of giving guidelines for how to behave, or how to stop evil behaviour. There is a centuries-long history of secular Western philosophers - Hume, Kant, Rawls, and Singer are just the tip of the iceberg - who argue for systems of ethics and sets of morals, without invoking God. Or take the work of Marc Hauser, who is systematically investigating our moral instincts from an evolutionary perspective, and who seems to find that human moral behaviour is mostly the same, cross-culturally, regardless of religion. Or take the work of Philip Zimbardo, who has used insights from psychological experiments to analyse the human capability for terrible behaviour such as that which caused Abu Ghraib, and who gives very firm and concrete suggestions for preventing further such evils.

Another reader:

There's quite a bit in this one reader's comments that perfectly exemplifies what so frequently causes me to lose respect for the religious point of view.  Here we've got simple ignorance, sloppy logic, and also a shirking of personal and societal responsibility.

In a sadly common display of ignorance of basic evolutionary theory, the reader wrote:  "do they really expect us to believe... evolution... ends in Hiroshima...?"  No respected scientist would claim natural selection itself provides a moral framework, and evolution is not a teleological process pushing organisms toward some absolute pinnacle of either fitness or morality.  Evolution explains how we got to be what we are, not who we ought to be, so let's dispense with pondering what the "Darwinist" description of evil is (unless we are also to ponder why the "plate tectonics-ists" haven't yet given their definition for the morality of continent arrangements).

It is so fitting that this reader also puts the word "truth" in quotation marks, and dismisses the actual concept of truth (what is accurate, as opposed to what feels good to believe) as "misguided." There's a tremendously disturbing abdication of personal responsibility in that, particularly in not thinking through the social consequences.  When your "truth" about what's right and wrong--whatever your particular non-evidence-based beliefs hold that to be, based on what you need to be real rather than what is--is pushed into policy by your fellow believers (for example when pastors openly instruct their congregations how to vote, when Mormons are commanded to donate to ballot initiative campaigns, or when mobilized church activism helps determines the outcome of major party primaries), that policy has real effects on our all our lives, not just those who also like the same fairy tale you do.  And furthermore, when you teach this "truth" to your kids, you're shaping more young minds not to recognize the difference between truth and "truth," while usually not giving them any say in the matter, raising another generation of "truth"-pushers.

There seems to be an irreconcilable difference of opinion on whether it is wise or just to believe (and teach) a comfortable, descriptive "truth," regardless of any actual truth in objective reality, just so that you have a framework that readily "explains" evil.  Many in this theodicy debate have seemed to suggest that it's right or perhaps even noble simply to propagate beliefs based on their mood-altering effects and not bother with the detail of whether or not they could possibly be valid (in that old, pesky sense of "historical accuracy").  To me, even beyond the concrete policy consequences, this is obviously the height of intellectual vapidity; frankly, I find it impossible to imagine a defense that doesn't collapse into solipsistic ennui (e.g., what I feel is the only reality I can be sure of, so my feelings trump external evidence).  It's crushingly cynical (and of course anti-humanist) to suggest that humanity isn't equipped to deal with something as complicated as the real truth and must be coddled with sugar-coated fairy tales so that suffering makes sense in some grand scheme.  It's also crushingly unwise to endorse the notion that it's better to say something and be wrong than to say nothing (in other words, better to be certain than right).

You want a secular account of evil?  Here it is.  Evil does exist, like most other phenomena granted a label by human culture.  It is what we've semantically converged on:  a universally-understood though fuzzily-bounded descriptor of that which goes against our current moral framework.  This framework contains some fairly absolute elements dictated by wiring in the brain that was selected for to maintain strong, cohesive communities (e.g., sharing is good, the golden rule), and some fairly relative elements developed through cultural evolution over time.  Too relativistic for you?  Consider this:  isn't it better to arrive at an account of morality through social consensus (in evolving popular opinion informed by expert ethicists as well as the changing realities around us), rather than through religious fiat based on interpretation of just those parts of millennia-old writings that happen to still remain relevant in modern times? 

The religious accounts of good and evil, your reader would be wise to recall, have frequently demanded the persecution of outsiders and gays and had nothing proscriptive to say about the systemic enslavement of women (or anybody else).  Throughout history, it's been conservative, and usually more religious, forces that have clung to older notions of morality, while progressive, doubting voices have updated it, resulting in the First World formulation broadly agreed on today that prizes equality, compassion and individual liberty.  I dare any critics of "moral relativism" to explain how their own absolute values weren't improved via moral drift from the pro-slavery, genocide-neutral, anti-women's rights precedents of the past.  Where will it go from here?  Nearly impossible to say, though with global society so interconnected now, there's less inter-society selective pressure/freedom to drive drastic changes.  But even abandoning that comfort of absolutism that enables us to imagine a distant future with morality totally like our own, I believe the humanist take on morality is enormously positive, wherein we as a society take responsibility to craft and maintain a consensus of good and evil that can feel right to each of us, is logically consistent, and allows us to make the best of our reality, rather than squabble over which antique scroll serves as an authoritative template for right actions.

But if you're still looking for something that "redeems" evil by telling us that suffering isn't really so bad because there's some Grand Intentional Reason why it exists (though one which we can never know, and to which we can't appeal for any measurable guidance), then I guess the secular account can't really help you.  But it seems to me the real vacuum is in your unwillingness to grant humanity its personal responsibility, not in the secularists failing to provide you with a poetic enough ghost story.

And so the contempt deepens. I am glad to post these responses but have no desire at this point to converse with people whose utter disrespect for the religious life and contempt for people of faith is fathomless.

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