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Is Religion the Root of All Evil? Is Dawkins Right?

Is Religion the Root of All Evil? Is Dawkins Right?

By Sam Vaknin
Author of "Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited"

''There is nothing that an omnipotent God could not do.' 'No.' 'Then, can God do evil?' 'No.' 'So that evil is nothing, since that is what He cannot do who can do anything.'


Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (480? - 524?), Roman philosopher and statesman, The Consolation of Philosophy

"An implication of intelligent design may be that the designer is benevolent and, as such, the constants and structures of the universe are 'life-friendly'. However such intelligent designer may conceivably be malevolent . (I)t is reasonable to conclude that God does not exist, since God is omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly good and thereby would not permit any gratuitous natural evil. But since gratuitous natural evils are precisely what we would expect if a malevolent spirit created the universe . If any spirit created the universe, it is malevolent, not benevolent."

Quentin Smith, The Anthropic Coincidences, Evil and the Disconfirmation of Theism

Nequaquam nobis divinitus esse creatum
Naturam mundi, quæ tanta est prædita culpa.

Lucretius (De Rerum Natura)

Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist, traces the roots of evil to organized religion and to faith itself: the belief in a God has spawned all manner of wickedness and malice throughout history, he claims.

But, religion is merely a private case of a much-larger phenomenon: Man's quest for meaning; the search for an organizing, exegetic, hermeneutic, overriding, all-encompassing, and all-pervasive principle; the yearning for sense and justice amidst apparent randomness and chaos.

Indeed, secular "religions", known as ideologies, have proven to be even more lethal and pernicious that the epiphanous variety. Nazism, Communism, and Fascism have wreaked more mayhem and death than any "divinely"-inspired counterpart. So did Nationalism and Liberal-Democracy.

This still leaves the perplexing question of Evil and its convoluted relationships with all manners and modalities of faith. Whether atheist, agnostic, or a fervid believer, the questions of why Evil exists; what purpose it serves; and how are evil and justice intertwined torment all of us on a daily basis.

I. The Logical Problem of Evil

God is omniscient, omnipotent and good (we do not discuss here more "limited" versions of a divine Designer or Creator). Why, therefore won't he eliminate Evil? If he cannot do so, then he is not all-powerful (or not all-knowing). If he will not do so, then surely he is not good! Epicurus is said to have been the first to offer this simplistic formulation of the Logical (a-priori, deductive) Problem of Evil, later expounded on by David Hume in his "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion" (1779).

Evil is a value judgment, a plainly human, culture-bound, period-specific construct. St. Thomas Aquinas called it "ens rationis", the subjective perception of relationships between objects and persons, or persons and persons. Some religions (Hinduism, Christian Science) shrug it off as an illusion, the outcome of our intellectual limitations and our mortality. As St. Augustine explained in his seminal "The City of God" (5th century AD), what to us appears heinous and atrocious may merely be an integral part of a long-term divine plan whose aim is to preponderate good. Leibniz postulated in his Theodicy (1710) that Evil (moral, physical, and metaphysical) is an inevitable part of the best logically possible world, a cosmos of plenitude and the greatest possible number of "compatible perfections".

But, what about acts such as murder or rape (at least in peace time)? What about "horrendous evil" (coined by Marilyn Adams to refer to unspeakable horrors)? There is no belief system that condones them. They are universally considered to be evil. It is hard to come up with a moral calculus that would justify them, no matter how broad the temporal and spatial frame of reference and how many degrees of freedom we allow.

The Augustinian etiology of evil (that it is the outcome of bad choices by creatures endowed with a free will) is of little help. It fails to explain why would a sentient, sapient being, fully aware of the consequences of his actions and their adverse impacts on himself and on others, choose evil? When misdeeds are aligned with the furtherance of one's self-interest, evil, narrowly considered, appears to be a rational choice. But, as William Rowe observed, many gratuitously wicked acts are self-defeating, self-destructive, irrational, and purposeless. They do not give rise to any good, nor do they prevent a greater evil. They increase the sum of misery in the world.

As Alvin Plantinga suggested (1974, 1977) and Bardesanes and St. Thomas Aquinas centuries before him, Evil may be an inevitable (and tolerated) by-product of free will. God has made Himself absent from a human volition that is free, non-deterministic, and non-determined. This divine withdrawal is the process known as "self-limitation", or, as the Kabbalah calls it: tsimtsum, minimization. Where there's no God, the door to Evil is wide open. God, therefore, can be perceived as having absconded and having let Evil in so as to facilitate Man's ability to make truly free choices. It can even be argued that God inflicts pain and ignores (if not leverages) Evil in order to engender growth, learning, and maturation. It is a God not of indifference (as proposed by theologians and philosophers from Lactantius to Paul Draper), but of "tough love". Isaiah puts it plainly: "I make peace and create evil" (45:7).

Back to the issue of Free Will.

The ability to choose between options is the hallmark of intelligence. The entire edifice of human civilization rests on the assumption that people's decisions unerringly express and reflect their unique set of preferences, needs, priorities, and wishes. Our individuality is inextricably intermeshed with our ability not to act predictably and not to succumb to peer pressure or group dynamics. The capacity to choose Evil is what makes us human.

Things are different with natural evil: disasters, diseases, premature death. These have very little to do with human choices and human agency, unless we accept Richard Swinburne's anthropocentric - or, should I say: Anthropic? - belief that they are meant to foster virtuous behaviors, teach survival skills, and enhance positive human traits, including the propensity for a spiritual bond with God and "soul-making" (a belief shared by the Mu'tazili school of Islam and by theologians from Irenaeus of Lyons and St. Basil to John Hick).

Natural calamities are not the results of free will. Why would a benevolent God allow them to happen?

Because Nature sports its own version of "free will" (indeterminacy). As Leibniz and Malebranche noted, the Laws of Nature are pretty simple. Not so their permutations and combinations. Unforeseeable, emergent complexity characterizes a myriad beneficial natural phenomena and makes them possible. The degrees of freedom inherent in all advantageous natural processes come with a price tag: catastrophes (Reichenbach). Genetic mutations drive biological evolution, but also give rise to cancer. Plate tectonics yielded our continents and biodiversity, but often lead to fatal earthquakes and tsunamis. Physical evil is the price we pay for a smoothly-functioning and a fine-tuned universe.

II. The Evidential Problem of Evil

Some philosophers (for instance, William Rowe and Paul Draper) suggested that the preponderance of (specific, horrific, gratuitous types of) Evil does not necessarily render God logically impossible (in other words, that the Problem of Evil is not a logical problem), merely highly unlikely. This is known as the Evidential or Probabilistic (a-posteriori, inductive) Problem of Evil.

As opposed to the logical version of the Problem of Evil, the evidential variant relies on our (fallible and limited) judgment. It goes like this: upon deep reflection, we, human beings, cannot find a good reason for God to tolerate and to not act against intrinsic Evil (i.e. gratuitous evil that can be prevented without either vanquishing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse). Since intrinsic evil abounds, it is highly unlikely that He exists.

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Jan/27/2012, 9:24 am Link to this post  

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