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"The Problem of Evil"


Tthe problem of evil is built on our limited evolution as a species, though we have come some distance in the last 3000 years. The problem of evil is built on our freedom to treat others and ourselves well or badly. At the same time we resist changing even in a direction we define as positive, since it upsets the biologically based homeostasis that has made it possible to survive as a species.

It is important to not do hurtful things in the name of what is positive. We can easily agree with this idea when we think of Western culture and the ideals to which we are generally committed.

But we have difficulty understanding and dealing with gross evil, such as rape and murder, and now terrorist acts such as the September 11 attacks on the Trade Towers and Pentagon. Thousands died in those events, while millions died in World War II. Evil abounds, and it seems often to be a force in the universe that has a life of its own. Evil sometimes seems to have a kind of subjective power over us, so that we objectify and humanize evil by calling evil the work of the devil.

I propose an alternate view, that people by their commitment to certain values commit acts that are evil and destructive. In that view, people create evil by their destructive decisions and actions, and there is no devil. Or, if you please, the devil is us.

My hypothesis that evil is generated by people and not "satan" is built on the belief that we are all free to manage our lives in whatever way we wish. As a result, we are free to pollute or sanctify the environment in which we all live, a spiritual environment.

But why would anyone pollute his or her own space? The only motive I can think of that is powerful enough is the desire to survive. That may seem to be a preposterous idea, that polluting one's own environment could be a means of survival.

Take a moment to follow along this chain of thinking and logic. Suppose a terrorist grew up in abject poverty, as many did in Afganistan (and parts of the USA). Suppose he believed he didn't matter to anyone, was just another unwanted child who was used and abused by anyone physically stronger.

Such a child can easily come to the conclusion that since he has no value to anyone, he will survive by his wits with little consideration for anyone else, grabbing what he can whenever and wherever he can get it, manipulating others to survive. This is the foundation of a lifelong struggle for survival.

Suppose that child continued to struggle and endure much physical and emotional pain as he grew up. He would understand the meaning of "jihad" in its original and actual meaning of "struggle." His whole life could be summed up as a struggle to survive by someone of no importance

It is easy to understand that our hypothetical person would want revenge upon those who oppressed him and be ready to place blame to focus his rage. We can empathize with the pain and desperation that such a person would feel attempting to survive in a world in which he has no options for anything better.

By the time this person is an adolescent, he is ready to be recruited into a system that promises to value him as an important person. That system can offer him a way to get the revenge he seeks by targeting an enemy defined as his oppressor and the oppressor of all mankind: Satan himself.

The new "family" he joins helps him understand that his lifelong struggle to survive, his jihad, can now become his opportunity to finally be vindicated and valued by his family and by Allah through destruction of the enemy who would destroy him. His struggle then becomes a holy struggle to kill the enemy, a "holy Jihad." That he may give his life in the struggle is more affirmation of his personal value and guarantees eternal affirmation with Allah.

Thus the traditional Islamic meaning of jihad is perverted into a rallying flag for destruction, a triumph over evil, from his point of view.

Understanding how this can happen does not endorse it, but does give us a perspective on the long term solution. As we eradicate hunger, pain, and suffering, and help every human to have the opportunities we take for granted in the USA, we eradicate the breeding ground for those who create evil.

While I have used the example of the evolution of a terrorist, the emotional process is similar for an American murderer, abuser of women or children, or rapist, etc. The soil for growing people who commit evil acts is a grounding in poverty and pain. Some emerge from that crucible as saints. Others come to personify evil.

What shall we do? In the long term we can raise to a high priority our cultural commitment to eradicate poverty wherever it exists in our world, just as we eradicated smallpox. This is the long term war against evil that is not likely to be fully won in our lifetime.

Short term, we protect ourselves and others from those who would destroy anyone's basic rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The pursuit of happiness does not endorse the right of for anyone to attempt to destroy those rights for others.

These are the same basic values I have described as affirming the value of each individual (life), the autonomy that allows each person to make his or her own decisions (liberty), and to live life his or her own way (the pursuit of happiness). Those are ironically the very rights, when lived out, that relieve the suffering of those who would destroy them for others.

These thoughts may seem a far cry from matters of loving relationships and spirituality, but they are not. The application of values that would erase poverty are the same values that create intimacy in relationships and allow us to be connected to all people in a loving way. They are the values that create love in the spiritual dimension of life.

The living out of fundamental values affirming the importance of every life and the right of each of us to manage our own lives let us sanctify the spiritual dimension of life and experience a serenity that is self-validating.


2001 by Benjamin B. Conley, All Rights Reserved

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