Why do people fail to acknowledge the reality of evil? My progressive friends––a list which is getting shorter and shorter––were baffled by the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. They lacked a vocabulary and worldview to describe what happened. If British literary critic Terry Eagleton is right, there are at least three reasons for the failure to acknowledge evil: the first being a semantic divorce between “sin” and “evil,” the second being a change in the story that the West is telling itself, and the third being a suspicion about the uses of rhetoric on evil. The first two reasons signal the apatheism of our age while the last reason signals the culture wars between religious and secular humanists. With his characteristic humor and insight, Eagleton writes in his latest book:
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. For high modernists, like Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, or the early T. S. Eliot, there is indeed something to be redeemed, but it has become impossible to say quite what. The desolate, devastated landscapes of Beckett have the look of a world crying out for salvation. But salvation presupposes sinfulness, and Beckett’s wasted, eviscerated human figures are too sunk in apathy and inertia even to be mildly immoral. They cannot even muster the strength to hang themselves, let alone set fire to a village of innocent civilians.
To acknowledge the reality of evil, however, is not necessarily to hold that it lies beyond all explanations. You can believe in evil without supposing that it is supernatural in origin. Ideas of evil do not have to posit a cloven-hoofed Satan. 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.
I welcome your feedback on this passage from Eagleton. Why do you think people fail to acknowledge evil?
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Some people might think the failure to recognize evil is “essentially a postmodern problem” whereas I think the postmodern condition has exacerbated the problem. Terry Eagleton offers a nice description of the postmodern condition, where “there is nothing to be redeemed”: the denial of sin will result in the denial of salvation. Failure to recognize evil is essentially an anthropological problem insofar as we are fallen creatures who are deceived about our own wickedness, assuming righteousness, and our need for salvation, assuming self-reliance.
If you’ll forgive my implicit argument from morality, if there’s meaningful evil (E)–the only kind of evil worth acknowledging–to acknowledge, there’s meaningful good. If there’s meaningful good (G), there seems to be something beyond nature that either is, or is the source of, this good (S). I realize this is wholly unverifiable, but I think Eagleton is downplaying not the notion of whether Evil directly implies the supernatural so much as whether it indirectly implies such–and thus, maybe whether the people who are so uncomfortable acknowledging it really are such as a result of apatheism or outright atheism. Having denied the supernatural (S), since E –> G –> S, ~S –> ~G –> ~E. Of course this explanation, in addition to whatever other flaws it may have, wouldn’t cover the occasional religious person who believes in the supernatural but not in evil. (Such a person might simply be inconsistent, but I don’t like explaining things in a way that has to assume lots of peoples’ inconsistencies.)
DAN: Thanks for your comment. I’m not satisfied with Terry Eagleton’s apparent agnosticism on the supernatural origin of evil. Is the origin of evil only supernatural – “Satan made me do it!”? Or is its origin supernatural (Satan) and natural (human)?
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