Does evil exist? This questions vexes many religious liberals. Of course evil does exist;– but how do we define it, and what forms does it take? Can we call a person evil, or just a mass of persons, a society? Does evil have an existence apart from persons and societies, or does it only manifest in the real world?
To avoid such vexing questions, some religious liberals deny that evil exists. Some others claim that evil is a false construction arising from the errors of religious conservatives or fundamentalists. A larger number of religious liberals simply avoid using the word “evil,” substituting words like “inhuman” (even though it’s quite clear that humans are fully capable of evil), or “pathological” (which may imply that disease is at the root of all evil, or perhaps even that evil is at the root of some diseases).
I think it makes more sense to say that evil does exist, and I think it makes more sense to use the word where I feel that it should be used. I’ll give you an example. I believe that torture is evil. I can’t imagine that there would be any doubt about that fact:– torture is indeed evil. But to say “Torture is evil” causes a small problem, because now you have to define what you mean by torture. George W. Bush has said that torture is evil, and he has asserted that the United States does not use torture (the events at Abu Ghraib prison were an aberration caused by some individuals going against U. S. policy). However, some critics have charged that the United States has engaged in torture. Both these critics and George W. Bush agree that torture is evil, but they have different notions of what constitutes torture, and therefore they have different notions of what is, and what is not, evil.
So while evil certainly exists, we don’t all agree on what is, and what is not, evil. In fact, consensus about what is evil may change over time. Five hundred years ago, there was no world consensus that slavery was evil. People like Paul of Tarsus accepted that slavery was a normal part of the human condition. Most societies around the world had some form of slavery. Yet today, five hundred years later, slavery is illegal in all nations, and there is a worldwide consensus that slavery is evil. Over the course of the past five hundred years, the working definition of evil has changed to include slavery.
I’d say, in fact, that the working definition of evil is always “in play.” Working definitions of what evil is can and do change over time. The important contests about what is, and what is not, evil take place in the public realm, just as the debate about the evil of slavery took place in the public realm.
This may help explain why some religious liberals are reluctant to use the term “evil” — if the definition of “evil” can change and evolve, who are we to make pronouncements about what is, or is not, evil? But this notion may well be based on two false premises. First, it may be that there is no such thing as absolute goodness, or absolute truth, or absolute evil. The accomodationist tendencies of religious liberalism, our willingness to adapt to the changing times, would seem to indicate that we don’t believe in absolutes. The process theologians among us even say that God can change and evolve (assuming that you believe in God) — so how can there be any absolute truth, absolute goodness, or absolute evil?
A second false premise may well be the assumption that one can remove oneself from debates about evil by simply not using the word “evil.” But if the definition of “evil” is a debate that is played out in the public realm, then to remain silent is to participate in that public debate by abstaining (abstention is still a kind of participation). Further, religious liberals act in ways that indicate what they do think is evil — the religious liberals I know believe that sexism is evil, and they act as if sexism is evil, and such actions are (in a very real way) a contribution to the ongoing debate about what is, and what is not, evil.
Fortunately, most religious liberals are willing to use the term “evil.” In one way, it speaks well of religious liberals that they use the term sparingly. On the other hand, it seems to me that we have to be willing to engage in the ongoing public debate about what is, and what is not, evil. If we believe, for example, that torture is evil, we have to talk about what torture is, and we have to talk about whether the actual torturer is evil, and we have to talk about in what way the society that condones torture is itself evil, and we have to talk about what it means that other people have other definitions of torture. If we don’t talk about these things in public, then we are abstaining from deciding such moral questions.
Just some preliminary notes on the topic of evil. Debate and discussion welcomed.