Existence precedes essence -- Jean-Paul Sartre
[This is part two of a three-part series on: Sin, Evil & Ethics. Make sure you read part one here.
As you may already be aware, there was a remake of the 1981 horror film, The Evil Dead that recently came out. It chronicles five friends who discover a mystical Book of the Dead, and summon a legion of demons. There is an unsettling point in the movie where a threatening voice is heard, and the following words arise: "You all are going to die!"
Now, some seeing this movie or even reading it here might get upset, but why? Have we over-spiritualized the notion of evil? Have we exhausted all the possibilities of trying to understand evil better? Have we simply relied upon old and tired methodologies to help us understand the nature of evil?
This article hopes to unpack these questions a bit more. My main claim is that we must demystify our religious attempts at trying to make sense of evil, which is a vulgar oversimplification and sanctification of evil. One way to do that is to realize this drive toward metaphysical evil [i.e., universal transcendent evil and etc.] and our desire to explain everything in a totality is itself highly problematic.
The metaphysical approach is ironically much too reductionist. What if in a materialist sense we approach the notion of evil, then we might encounter the following possibilities: Good-Good (which is the ultimate good or pure good, which only exists in fairytales); Good-Evil (which is when the good is perceived as evil); Evil-Evil (which is again the ultimate evil, only found in fables) and the Evil-Good is when some form of Good comes of an evil. Now this last one is going to highly problematic for many, because what I mean to claim then is that most of reality operates on the understanding of a Evil-Good (when it comes to addressing/labeling things as evil) -- then it means all evil has a purpose. Even if to teach us what we don't like about it. Even if it forces us to re-evaluate our existence or ethics or ontological object-relations.
Humans are not born evil. Ethics do not precede us. What I mean to imply here is that we are both not naturally ethical, or naturally unethical: We are neither. They are part of a wider nexus of human interaction -- a social contract designed to make us more "civilized." So what does it mean to be ethical? Does it mean that we follow a list of rules, like the 10 Commandments or some form of laws that have been developed by an over-arching system of coded behaviors [i.e., culture]? And to be ethical, does it simply mean not breaking these established laws? Again, even to uphold a systematic approach to ethics, is to make the ethics holy or above the human, thereby negating the human experience. In this sense, the last thing we need are a set of rock-solid ethics. They should be fluid and fragmented. What does this then do for pure evil?
THE HOLOCAUST WASN'T EVIL ENOUGH
Pure evil is that which I refer to as some essence of evil that exists beyond human experience. This belief in and of itself is a highly precarious position to hold, mainly due to the fact that it lets humans off the hook for their agency and choice. It allows us to walk away from atrocity with our hands clean. In this sense, when we speak of the Holocaust, the Crusades, the Inquisition, Syria, genocide, bombings and so on, we basically are saying that these events aren't evil enough. Mainly, by the fact that we want to try and blame God/Allah/Buddha/Krishna for our choices.
A materialist view of evil might be a more appropriate [not necessarily comprehensive] approach to how evil operates. A simple definition of materialism would be: What you see [in reality] is what you get. That there is no reality that exists beyond this one, and that matter is what makes up reality. [As a materialist, I understand that there are many other nuances I am leaving out, but for the sake of brevity, please read more here.
THERE IS NO CAUSE.
Let's ground this in reality to make sense of it all. Let's take the current "crises" in Syria's attempt toward self-emancipation namely chemical warfare in a civil war setting. Chemical warfare is a perverse gesture of power and fear-mongering, there is no way around it, people are being psychologically abused before the chemical agent is even released. Sarin is the chemical compound that has been in the new lately, and in its most simplest form is a compound element that turns our nervous system against itself. We end up being our own worst enemy, biologically speaking. However, there is something to take away in the actual compound itself.
What if evil is not found in one being or one event [i.e., The Fall in the Garden of Eden] but are set of factors [i.e., our personal environment, childhood, ideology, belief-systems, religious views and etc.]? That evil is not something "out there," which really turns evil into something holy and untouchable. It is the desire to never take responsibility for our actions or all of the listed elements above. In a vulgar sense, the desire for some causal explanation is not just banal, its downright lazy.
Or take for example the pseudo-catastrophe of the American "shutdown." Wherein some conservative Christian commentators are taking the stance that God is judging America for "turning its back on God." Now, I partially agree with this surface-level assessment, but I don't think it goes deep enough. Because in the attempt to say God orchestrated it, it doesn't take into account the past economic choices of Americans and American leaders. The immature inability to carry a credit card; Limiting ourselves to bi-partisan bureaucracy. There are many other elements here, but the point is, that we must be willing to de-mystify this desire to make sense of tragedy so quickly and easily. It's not that easy, it never has been. In the Biblical account of Job, God doesn't have an answer for Job on why the world is so screwed up. The being who supposedly created it all is just as dumbfounded as we are. That's important to note!
Now, I am not a utopian. I don't hold to the "perfect" world view. But it doesn't mean that we can't fight for something better. That we band together and begin being informed by the future. And what is the future?: The unseen. The unformed. Unlocked potential. The impossible being made possible. We must not let our belief systems have the last word -- to do so, is to seal our fate before we even have a chance to make a dent in history. The human project* is still open for discussion, but we have to embrace this as a possibility. I think we can begin to do this when we start de-mythologizing what we think we know about evil.
* The Human Project is a notion I am working on and will be out in my next book; Be on the lookout!
Also, I am working on a documentary/film that will be interviewing some of todays most brightest and controversial voices on the above and other subjects. I am in the funding stage, so do feel free to check it out and get more information on how you can support it here.
Check out more on our websites, where we talk more about this and you can book us for speaking here.