Evil and religion are not necessarily related. Ancient societies held a complex approach to evil. Only now does the elitism of the modern era compel us to consider those early religions mythology. But a careful study of them reveals a very purposeful evolution into modern spiritual cultures, such as Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Evil too has evolved, informed by scientific discoveries, cultural and ethnic understandings and the progressive motion of religion, ethics and morality through time.
Evil is, at its core a lie. It is the antithesis of the truth, and since truth can be manipulated, interpreted and degraded, the line between evil and truth is terribly thin. The lie is certainly as old as mankind, undoubtedly the symptom of negotiations between our selfish souls and those of others. Separated from one another by the needs of the body and the ignorance of the mind, we are certainly suffering the legacy of those first lies, and, hence, their inherent evil. We may also be suffering the echoes of the first recorded lie.
There are few words as misused or misunderstood as the word Evil. For some it is the embodiment of the worst the human heart and mind can conjure. To others it is a living thing, an ethereal essence or spirit that tempts and persuades us to cruel and selfish acts. Some believe that Evil is its own power, one that must be crushed and driven from the world. To those who eschew that belief evil is a misnomer, a cartoonish way of describing a process. Some believe that strength and force are the only means of confronting evil, while others hold that if it can be dissected, and understood, that the roots of “Evil” can be treated or diagnosed before causing greater harm.
The Left wants to quantify and cure it, or at the very least gain the understanding to predict its rise. The Right wants to crush it out of existence with punishment and mercilessness. For the Right there is no reasoning, no understanding to that eternal curse. Indeed, the idea of sin and original sin, like the Right, holds that all of us are guilty of something, and only they understand how best to control those latent sins, mostly through force and intimidation.
Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, picking and choosing from those ideological extremes. In short, the debate over evil in the world is not simply a Right/Left issue, though the uses, or misuses, and perceptions certainly are. Those differences seem irreconcilable. As humanity struggles into the Twenty-first Century who wins the debate on Evil may very well decide the course of history.
There is a simple story from history that illustrates the point well. In 435 B.C. the Persian King Xerxes invaded Greece, in what, for millennium, was described as the first epic engagement between East and West. Dramatized by a blatantly propagandistic film “300,” the battle of Thermopylae has long been viewed as the battle that saved the West. On closer examination one might draw the conclusion that rather than saving the West, the battle may well have set humanity on a long unending course of conflict. Indeed, the Persians, though certainly contemporaries of a more primitive era, were perhaps more progressive and, arguably, more civilized than the Greeks who constantly squabbled among themselves and with their neighbors. It is merely a matter of perspective to understand that a Greek loss might have predicted an integration between East and West, a cultural interchange marked less by war than by commerce and a convergence of philosophies and ideas.
Indeed, ancient history is filled with cultural interchange between opposing and conquering societies. Celtic migrations into the Balkans overwhelmed indigenous Illyrian communities before being absorbed by them. The cultural assimilations lasted throughout their shared history. The warring Hittites were eventually absorbed into a number of Mediterranean cultures. The Greek influence in Egypt led to the Ptolemaic dynasty. The Phrygians, who found themselves caught between Greece and the Persian Empire, and so-called barbarian cultures conquered by Rome, took on flavors of those other societies. Even Pol Pot, the butcher of Cambodia, learned the art of revolution from the very French colonialists he fought against. An understanding on the true nature of evil is no different.
The purpose of this narrative is simple. The manipulative and coercive nature of the word evil must be diffused, or humanity risks stagnating in the swamp of it’s tribal and primitive past. The Right employs the word to strategically skew the argument in favor of religion. Simply if something or someone is evil then what more needs to be said? In a religious context there are simply two sides; Good and Evil. Their arguments do not rely on reason or progressive thought, but rather on regressive and simplistic emotion. The argument inherently divides the world into two parts, with the danger of individual biases and prejudices becoming battles of good and evil.
I saw this first hand in the Balkan during the siege of Sarajevo. Serbian nationalists used perceived historic animosities and current antagonisms to justify the wholesale slaughter of tens of thousands of Muslims, a religion they considered evil. Osama bin Laden, believing the West’s presence in the mideast was evil, organized an attack using civilian jetliners against the World Trader center and Pentagon. Evil becomes a rationalization for any belligerent act or retribution. In that regard there is a moral equivalency, because my idea of evil will never coincide with yours. The two positions, in that argument of intransigence, become irreconcilable.
On the other hand the Left grossly misunderstands the power of the word, as well as the tactics of the Right. It fails to comprehend that once the word is employed and excepted by an audience the argument is largely over, particularly in war, where fear and concern and paranoia invariably polarize opposing sides. It is very difficult to see a conflict in shades of gray when personal survival or the lives of loved ones appears to be threatened.
During the Bosnian war I met Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, Albanians and Muslims. Before the war they enjoyed secular lives. In a crowd it was impossible to tell one ethnicity or nationality from another. They spoke the same language and were bound by the same laws. Culture was less a matter of religion than of thousands of years of shared history. Most of that history, I should add, contrary to popular belief, in peace. The war magnified the minor differences of religion and nationality, and blew them out of all civil proportion. The fear, starvation and prospect of imminent death acted as a social smelting process, driving out so-called impurities to strengthen and protect the community. Worse it created a cycle of vengeance that prevented any chance for reconciliation.
Rwanda was much the same. As a relief organizer, I was told that those of the Hutu tribe were shorter and darker than their Tutsi counterparts. From piles of bodies, or the millions of suffering refugees flooding into neighboring countries, those differences were difficult, if not impossible to recognize. The conflicts were arbitrary, each side evil to the other. Every conflict is the same. In the end the premise is simple: There is no evil, only ignorance of the process of injustice.