Sunday, July 18, 2010

The existence of evil

Terry Eagleton, not a professed Christian, on evil, via Christopher Benson at Evangel, A First Things Blog:
People differ on the question of evil. A recent poll reported that a belief in sin is highest in Northern Ireland (91 percent), and lowest in Denmark (29 percent). Nobody with a first hand acquaintance with that pathologically religious entity known as Northern Ireland (the greater part of Ulster) will be in the least amazed by that first finding. Ulster Protestants clearly take a dimmer view of human existence than the hedonistic Danes. One takes it that Danes, like most other people who have been reading the newspapers, do indeed believe in the reality of greed, child pornography, police violence, and the barefaced lies of the pharmaceutical companies. It is just that they prefer not to call these things sin. This may be because they think of sin as an offence against God rather than as an offence against other people. It is not a distinction that the New Testament has much time for.

On the whole, postmodern cultures, despite their fascination with ghouls and vampires, have had little to say of evil. Perhaps this is because the postmodern man or woman—cool, provisional, laid-back and decentered—lacks the depth that true destructiveness requires. For postmodernism, there is nothing really to be redeemed. ....

.... It is true that some liberals and humanists, along with the laid-back Danes, deny the existence of evil. This is largely because they regard the word “evil” as a device for demonising those who are really nothing more than socially unfortunate. It is what one might call the community-worker theory of morality. It is true that this is one of the world’s most priggish uses... But to reject the idea of evil for this reason works better if you are thinking of unemployed council-estate heroin addicts rather than serial killers or the Nazi SS. It is hard to see the SS as merely unfortunate. One should be careful not to let the Khmer Rouge off the same hook on which delinquent teenagers are impaled.
And, from the comments, Tom Gilson:
You say the “failure to acknowledge the reality of evil” led to bafflement among your progressive friends after 9/11. Here’s another picture of the same, from just a few weeks after the event (emphasis added):
The campuses, once citadels of opposition to military action, generally are quiet, in part, said author and commentator David Rieff, because this generation of students is hamstrung by the “politically correct” education it has received since kindergarten. “The nice kids have been taught that all differences are to be celebrated,” said Rieff, currently a visiting professor at the University of California Berkeley, “and they’re in full cognitive meltdown. Their homeroom teachers and guidance counselors never told them that there are people in the world who mean them harm.”
This denial of evil is dysfunctional, for it is a denial of reality. But atheists/agnostics have little or no conceptual space in their worldview for evil, especially an objective view of it, so they have a philosophical stake in denying its existence—against all the empirical evidence.
Note: I initially said the Eagleton was "definitely not a Christian." A friend thought that went too far.

Failing to Acknowledge the Reality of Evil » Evangel | A First Things Blog