Evil Does Not Exist?

By | March 11, 2010

At a recent meeting of our local Humanist group we heard two guest speakers from the Bahai faith. Their talk was interesting and informative regarding this religion, one which most of us do not know very well. I was particularly interested in one remark regarding evil and suffering in the world. One of the speakers repeated a principle of the Bahai faith that evil is the absence of good, and has no positive reality in itself. Hence, for the Bahai there is no problem of evil.

You’re probably familiar with the problem that evil in the world presents for major mono-theistic faiths. The problem can stated in terms of “Epicurus’ old questions”:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? If so, then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence evil?”

[From David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion ]

The Bahai ‘solution’ to the question of evil represents one way taken by a number of advocates of religious theism in the history of this problem. A number of theologians and religious philosophers have argued that evil really does not exist, but is only the absence of positive reality.

However, for many others, including people of religious faith, this simply is not a ‘solution’. It is undeniably a fact that humans inflict evil on others. The suffering resulting from war, torture, even genocide, and gross injustice – all these are real. How can anyone be content to assert that only good things really exist (such as moral virtue and intellectual excellence) and bad aspects of life, such as evil, suffering, and ignorance really don’t exist? Surely this simply flies in the face of the facts of reality. Suffering, disease, persecution, and genocide are neither fiction, fantasy, nor illusion. They really happen to real people, whether we admit their reality or not.

Great literature and great art can bring home these unwelcome facts of life. For example, in his great novel, The Brothers Karamazov, (1879-80) Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote an emotionally wrenching exchange between two Karamozov brothers, Ivan and Alyosha (“Rebellion”). Ivan takes up the case of the horrendous suffering of children, something he cannot accept as justifiable or subject to theological, philosophical explanation. Even if someone were to prove that children’s suffering was a necessary condition for achievement of ultimate harmony, he would reject that ‘truth.’ The suffering of one innocent child cannot be justified by a higher purpose or harmony to be achieved, and certainly cannot simply declared to lack reality.

A recent PBS Drama “God On Trial” (2008) brings to life the ordeal of Jewish men imprisoned at Nazi death camp (Auschwitz) and awaiting execution. They put God on trail on charge of violating the covenant with the Jewish people. In the process we get a dramatic presentation of the indescribable evil inflicted on humans by other humans.

The implication that Ivan’s impassioned cries in the piece “Rebellion” and the profound search for meaning and explanation in face of Nazi evil by the victims at Auschwitz really do not refer to a positive reality is simply unacceptable. Resorting to the comforting belief that evil lacks reality simply will not do! When we try to make rational sense of human reality, evil and horrendous, suffering are factors we cannot wish away.

2 thoughts on “Evil Does Not Exist?

  1. Trace

    I am a Bahá'í and would like to add something to the discussion of the position on the "non-existence" of evil. As you say, suffering, genocide, war and torture all are real. These are all acts, or the results of acts that are in some way "informed" by evil. There are other equally real acts of kindness, solidarity, compassion, understanding, aid, and so on, that are "informed" by love. The reality of all these actions in our contingent world is not really the issue here. It is what "informs" these actions. I'd like to attempt a simple analogy here, without intending to reduce the seriousness of the issue. Maybe these actions can be compared to flowers from a plant. The plant draws nurturing material from the soil, and turns it into a flower which produces a beautiful fragrance. This is the climax of a plant's life, and in this action another plant is produced. When a plant ceases to do this, it rots and dies. Likewise, our lives find their greatest expression when we draw from the best we can in our experience of life, culture, etc, to produce the most beautiful and fragrant actions we are able to, actions informed by love and which lead to furthering life. When we don't do this, when our actions are not informed by the best we can draw from ourselves and everything that constitutes us, then the result is …actions that are evil, that are full of, at best, petty selfishness and lead to very unworthy ends, or at worst, downright damaging, destructive results. I hope this is food for thought!

    1. jbernal Post author

      Trace, thank you for the elucidation of the Bahai way of trying to understand the reality of evil and other things.


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