Sources of evil?

Since September 2001 we have become more aware of how religious belief can promote evil deeds. This is not new, however. The history of evil perpetrated in the name of religion has been discussed by authors such as Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great), Sam Harris (The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation) and Michael Jordan (In the Name of God : Violence and Destruction in the World’s Religions).

One would have to be blind to disagree with these authors. However, I think the problem of their analyses is that it is restricted to considering only religion. This doesn’t help us understand the origins of evil in secular situations or evil activity carried out by mankind in general.

None of these authors claim religion inevitably leads to evil. As Richard Dawkins said in a recent Newsweek article “It would be absurd to suggest such a thing: just as absurd as to generalize about all atheists.” Nor are they denying the evil carried out in the name of non-religous causes. They don’t deny the terror of Stalin or Mao, for instance. However, one can be left with that impression – especially where they quote (as does Dawkins in the above article) Steven Weinberg: “With or without [religion] you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.” I think this quote is demonstrably wrong, because it limits evil to religion.

The Lucifer Effect

Phillip Zimbardo has discussed at length the factors making good people do bad things in his book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. This covers scientific experiments such as his own “Stanford Prison Experiment.” It also describes his investigation of the Abu Ghraib prison atrocities by US troops in Iraq. Murder of Jews by German troops in the Holocaust, the My Lai massacre by US troops in Vietnam and torture in the US global gulag are also discussed.

Zimbardo points out that authorities usually blame these atrocities on dispositional factors – the character, personality and psychological pathology of the individual perpetrator. An example of this was blaming (by the US military and government) the atrocities at Abu Ghraib on a “few bad apples”. Zimbardo’s research showed the role of situational factors – prison organisation and regime, uniforms and clothing restrictions, dehumanising procedures, etc. – in these sort of atrocities. Evil can be perpetrated by “good apples in a bad barrel” – the source of evil should be searched for in the system rather than the individual.

What are the situational factors that promote evil activity?

  • Authoritative situations – people of authority and rules that have to be obeyed (“I’m just following orders”);
  • Separation of decisions from effects (commanders don’t physically carry out their own orders, modern warfare often separates cause and effect as in the case of a pilot not physically encountering the effects of his/her bombings);
  • Dehumanisation of individuals (uniforms and non-identification of perpetrators and their victims in prisons, police forces and military);
  • Dehumanisation of victims (considering opponents less than human which is encouraged by uniforms and dress codes, racism and derogatory language and beliefs, falsely attributing beliefs and attitudes to opponents);
  • Ideology – a belief system propounding absolute conviction of your own correctness, a set of rules for how people and society should be organised and behave, a demonisation of your opponents, an atmosphere of threat, etc.

Evil arising from organisation and ideology

I believe Zimbardo’s analysis provides a more humane and fruitful way of understanding “evil” actions. Rather then demonising the German people because of the Holocaust, or the Russian and Chinese people because of the Stalin and Mao terrors, we should look at the historical and social factors producing these phenomena. We should look at the organisational and ideological factors which encouraged good German, Russian and Chinese to commit evil acts.

And we shouldn’t be smug about this. We should also consider the situational factors leading to evil being done in the name of our own country and belief. We should consider the possibility that, given the appropriate situational factors, we are all capable of committing evil deeds. Zimbardo’s book encourages us to recognise organisational and ideological factors promoting evil and to resist those pressures. It encourages the heroism of “whistle blowers” and others who are prepared to stand up to these pressures.

Situational factors promoting evil are common in times of war. Military organisation promotes dehumanisation of soldiers and demonisation of opponents in order to encourage violence and murder. But these situational factors can also occur during times of peace. Political organisations often encourage belief in their infallibility, have authoritative organisation and demonise their opponents. People can enter political organisations with the most humane motives but end up supporting lies, deceit and political violence “for the good of the party.”

And there are plenty of examples of this situation with religious organisations. Religious ideologies are particularly prone to encouraging belief in infallibility, charismatic (authoritative) leadership, authoritative organisation, arbitrary rules governing individual and social behaviour, intolerance of dissent and demonisation of opponents. All these are recipes for encouraging good people to commit evil deeds.The promotion of irrational faith makes religion particularly vulnerable to this approach. As Richard Dawkins says in the Newsweek article quoted above: “It is easy for religious faith, even if it is irrational in itself, to lead a sane and decent person, by rational, logical steps, to do terrible things. There is a logical path from religious faith to evil deeds.”

It takes ideology

But, of course, these characteristics can also apply to other ideologies as well. They occurred in the political organisations governing some former communist countries. They also occur, to a greater or lesser extent, in the political organisations governing many countries today.

We should all be aware of, and fight against, these dangers in our own organisations and societies. We should be particularly aware of the the dangers of blind and irrational faith common to some religious and political movements (for example, the Maoism of the “Cultural revolution). Considering the danger of extremism in many ideological and political movements I am tempted to rewrite Steven Weinberg’s quote as:

With or without ideology you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things it takes ideology.

Related Articles:
Society’s ” Christian values”
Religious diversity includes “non-believers”
Destiny of Christian privilege?
Common values, common action?
Special rights for religion?
Family planning and the inhumanity of religion
Is religion the source of morality?
Religion and violence
Morals, values and the limits of science

2 responses to “Sources of evil?

  1. Well thought piece, Ken.

    I must give you full kudos.

    My favourite part was your mention of the unfortunate reality that we all are capable of evil, given the ‘right’ (wrong?) situation.

    An interesting question is that of how we define or recognise evil, however…

    For example, the same action can be both good and evil depending on the circumstance. The obvious example being holding someone down and not letting them move, etc. In one situation, this is an act of blatant assault, and in another (i.e. forcing a rapist off of his/her victim and holding them down until police arrive, etc.) it is an act of heroism.

    That’s an obvious example, but many everyday actions might not be distinguished so universally or clearly. A random thought is also that individuals and organisations which perform/sponsor evil deeds could often (of course) view these deeds as actually being ‘good’.

    So whose definition of evil is the best?

    Ultimately, it is a matter of judgment. Wise judgment is an invaluable thing in human society, I reckon.

    I also suppose that this wise judgment is urgently needed in the more everyday areas that I quickly alluded to above… I suggest that evil grows and festers from ‘small’ to ‘large’…

    A man does not shoot his partner and children because of what he had for tea – there is likely a multi-plex of influences (there’s that word again – ‘influence’) on the man’s life which lead him to this point…

    Very thought provoking, Ken. Again, well done.




  2. Pingback: Mass atrocities require idealism « Open Parachute

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