Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Evil In the Absence of Conversation

Not a day passes without each of us confronting the problem of evil.  We witness human beings in the name of their particular brand of religion commit atrocities and then acts of nearly incomprehensible altruism.  Both sorts of behavior are routinely attributed to religious motivations, ideas, and doctrines.  To say that those acts for worse are not truly religious or true to religion is but another religious claim that religion is only about being good.  Write over the human shadow whenever you can and religion will suffice to explain that evil is deviance and goodness our true project.  How’s that working out?

That people portray themselves as religious and as acting for religious reasons is enough evidence that we should take their version of religion seriously.  I am not unsympathetic to President Obama’s defensive admonitions that ISIL and other Islamic terrorists do not represent “true” Islam, especially in light of the demagogues of the Right who would use religion and their religion as a justification for their own barbaric claims and punitive “remedies.”  The President is incorrect about his parameters of “true” and “false” religion but let us not give any more succor to the incendiary forces than is necessary.  Senator Cruz last night advocated “patrolling” Muslim neighborhoods.  Mr. Trump concurred 100%.   (You can’t make this up so there is no particular reason to pause here to cite their specifics.)

If you are not appalled, I think you’ll find in your religion a reason to agree with them.  You wouldn't need to be religious to be appalled.  But surely religion provides every reason we need for nearly anything we want.  We’re still left struggling to explain the facts of evil and by that we mean the contumacious intention to inflict suffering on others.   When religion is posited as the remedy rather than the cause of such infliction we’re just as liable to dismal results as we are to saintly responses.  We needn’t be religious to enact either but religion more often than not comes into play.

Fewer people are asking me, the University Religion Professor, how millions of Americans take the likes of Donald Trump or Senator Cruz to be persons with the seriousness, judgment, and temperament to be President of the United States.  We all seem to know that people can be that angry, embittered, and willing to act punitively and violently against our fellow humans.  Last night hundreds of thousands voted again for Mr. Trump and for Senator “Patrol the Neighborhoods” Cruz for the leader of the “free” world.  Putatively sober politicians, like Jeb Bush, have now endorsed Cruz in an effort to stop Trump.  It’s hard to reason but not difficult to believe.  Belief is nearly always an impediment to better thinking.

I’ve written before about this and defer to the many fine pieces of political punditry addressing historical circumstances and our political failures.  But few have waded into our religious ineptitude as contributing to the failure to explain our selves.  In America we can simply be religious, our failures to explain sensibly can be devoutly riveted to theological stupefactions protected by 1st Amendment speech.

We are free to be as invincibly injudicious about religion as we choose to be within the confines of secular law.  And too often rabid sanctimony decides that particular religious postulates can preclude and preempt secular law, the kind where we the people are supposed to agree to govern ourselves.  Calls to round up the usual suspects provide news ratings that the 4th Estate seems unwilling to denounce and makes for “good politics” among the rabble.  What is left to offend any shard of remaining decency in an age where freedom means freed from and free to say anything?  We wouldn’t need religion to create any self-restraint either but does anyone think religion is not as much a part of the problem as it would be any remedy?

Religion providing the reasons people act not merely believe is not only real, it is often dangerous, and almost always difficult to discuss in America.  Without a serious conversation we humans are left merely to feel.  And that, as I will propose later, is no small part of the problem.  We’re not very good about taking about peoples’ religions or their religious motivations without falling into the usual impotencies of our unshared discourse.  A brilliant colleague of mine once jested that we need a Dr. Ruth Show for religion because the rest is pornography: people just doing it bereft of more serious reflections of value or worth.

I might further suggest that religious explanations have similarly failed us, not only because we Americans have such a desultory attention span for the subject of religion or because it is sequestered under the privacies insured by the 1st Amendment.  (Are they really?)  It is also the hollowness of our favored historical religions’ discourse that provides such inadequate explanation.

Let me be plain about what I just said in case I failed the usual tests of philosophers and theologians to be transparent.  But first: a thought-twister.  Never has so much been written about so little that is so important and has still failed us.  The ‘much written’ is theology, the ‘so little’ that is ‘so important’ is evil in the name of religion, and that theology has failed us is simple enough: its explanations for evil are not only anachronistic but further crippling our ability to think about the problem.  Western religion particularly is approaching insolvency in lieu of more modern abundant, can we say, honest understandings of our human origins and what lies within our nature.  And this is not for the lack of exuberant, copious rhetoric.  I am professionally aware of how many books are in theological libraries and how poorly the theologians serve us.  An ever-so brief review here.

Explanations of good versus evil are imprints of Western religious and cultural history modeled on fundamental claims about human nature: we are disobedient of God’s law, we have “fallen” from original grace and now miss our mark, the more literal sense of “sin.”  Once we were good and now, not so much.  We have only ourselves to blame (this is the good news) but the remedy is the source of goodness itself: God has provided. There is an intrinsic goodness (even if it’s not us) but first we require redemption (Christians) or better yet, surrender (Islam), well, if we could only just follow the rules (Judaism).   My point is that there is no lack of reasons “explaining” why good people do bad things or why bad things happen to good people.  There are whole professions devoted to the subject, and with them their own traditions and institutions.  We are loathe to decry religions’ inadequacies because we might offend adherents or sound presumptuous because religions have been so durable.  The religious seem to have survived enough of themselves to perpetuate their explanations.  God help us.

The “problem of evil” (the fancy term is “theodicy”) is everybody’s problem while we professionals charged to propose the better reasoning have particularly failed.  The problem isn’t merely a lack of clear thinking, rather it’s working with models that assert claims about humanity rather than derive them from the evidence.  Lemme make this clear too by way of contrast.  Evolution is a true theory not because it begins with an assertion about nature but because the evidence leads us to the model of explanation, a theory that derives from the evidence.  Arguments “from design” are the other way around: first there is the assertion that there is a Designer (aka God) and things proceed from there.  This kind of “theorizing” can be similarly criticized even in historians of religions like the great Mircea Eliade who told us first there is this reality called The Sacred.  From that claim there is somehow shared empirical (repeated, verifiable, subject to revision in further assessment) evidence of The Sacred we can discover as the true source of all religions.  Why consider an alternative explanation when all you need is faith in The Sacred.  (I am not making up the Capital Letter Thing either.  Professor Eliade’s editors seemed to let it pass as less than a capital offense.)

Just how we study evidence makes all the difference.  Eliade, like his Protestant doppleganger Rudolf Otto before him, create religious models insofar as the assertion, the premise is taken to be a self-evident truth (there is, you see, This Sacred Thing), which the evidence must then invariably go on to verify.  Are we encouraged, nay, required first to doubt that premise?  And what are we to do with the evidence that does not fit the model other than secure some further reason to verify the model?  Could there be a more plausible alternative explanation posited?  One that might better explain the evidence?  Right.  I didn’t think so either.  Religions don’t take kindly to explanations that don’t accede to their assertions, their beliefs first.  Faith follows because reasoned contrariety is only admitted if you concede to faith as a category of knowing.  Really?  In the 21st century faith can be knowing?  None of this is news.  Much less good news.

For the sake of full disclosure and with a keen sense of my own self-validating participation in the long and storied failure of such theological enterprise to explain reality adequately, allow me another moment of glib overgeneralization about the history of religions and human nature. 

In some examples of south Asian religions ---and I am happy to overstate the case just for the sake of a few pages of thinking aloud--- the basic assumptions about human nature are derived from shared empiricism about nature itself.  The process of arriving at the shared assumption (what is called siddha in the argument) is no small matter but rather must be first stated.  (Sanskrit student wonks should look, for example, at the opening sentence of Shankara’s Brahmasutrabhasya.)   We have to have a common human experience rather than accede to a claim.  Crucial distinction.  We have to agree that all humans cannot refute the basic assumption.  Next, we are not asked what makes humans different from other sentient beings but rather what all sentient beings must share in common.  There will be plenty of time spent looking for the distinctive-feature of human-being-ness but we can forego that quixoticy for the moment because such claims are typically unhelpful.  However, there is something here that can, I think, actually help us with our need to explain ourselves, especially because we feel and believe and then behave very, very badly.

The common assumption that directs our explanation is simple enough: sentient life desires and all information about being human flows from that fact.  Should we begin here in desire rather than in goodness, sin, law, or God’s plan, we begin to create an alternative explanation for our least edifying selves.

Desire is no mere slippery slope.  Rather it defines our embodied sentience as a persistent state of crisis.  Catastrophe is but a few sleepless nights or missed meals away.  On the heels of the ever-impending crisis of desire is fear and with that the precipitous devolution into anger, hatred, greed, delusion, and the rest.  We get what we want and it’s not enough, or we don’t get what we want and that’s too much bear.  But either way, as the Buddhas, Siddhas, et. al., have reminded us, desire is not a strange feature of sentient nature that causes us to fail or succeed, it is our very nature.  We live as imminent, even menacing, expressions of the crisis of desire.  Of course, the religious will then offer up some or another form of Ultimate remedy and solution.  (NB in the form of gratuitous advice: it is best to run away as fast as possible from any such capital-letter charlatans and their dozy elixirs.)  But notwithstanding how the chimerical and romantic impulse interjects itself into the messy business of “solving” the human condition to offer Ultimate solutions (liberation, nirvana, etc.), I would suggest that these traditions ---in stark contrast to the mainstream Western religions--- have indeed nailed the diagnosis. 

We want just like all living things want.  And that slope is not so much slippery as it is steep and then steeper until the crisis of our desire becomes a willingness to act in ways that satisfy those desires.  The other emotions and experiences follow from that first feeling: towards or away, attracted or averred, we want something.  Can we solve the crisis of desire?  Only at the cost of being human, of being alive.  Can human beings desire to inflict pain on others?  Do we really need a justification of evil to explain that?  What we need is to recognize (again) that our wants write over our needs as a matter of fact.  Religion, like politics, is more often the triumph of ideology over reality for the worse and occasionally too for better.


  1. We're all inhabited by the "hungry ghosts".

  2. Wow, thank you for this. Even more poignant given events since this was posted. It helps me understand why I can be a recovering scholar AND yogini: I wonder how theories of the self (or, in your post, something akin to questions of the human condition, what is our nature?) in eastern traditions that are blooming like wildfire in popular western yoga culture can be brought into serious dialogue with common sense traditions like those in the 18th c. work, Theory of Moral Sentiments. Why are so many veering towards "spiritual but not religious"? I think you imply a few reasons here: Yoga helps soothe the beast of destructive desire, and is more practical than problematic deduction, to be sure; but how can this rational-and-compassionate state be brought into everyday political (and religious, and politico-religio culture!) conversations, outside yogi circles? What can (CAN?) scholars/theologians (or even yogis) bring to the mass media table to elicit such dialogues? I don't know. But you have hit the nail on the head in terms of DIAGNOSTICS. Scary yet fascinating times. Thank you for your thoughts.