Terrorism…pornography…Donald Trump? Evil is a popular word these days in Mormon culture. But what is evil and what exactly do we mean when we say it? In the church, I think the word evil has a Satanic component. But non-members often understand it differently. Some dislike the word because of its supernatural religious connotations. When George W. Bush used the phrase “axis of evil” he was criticised for “religious crusading.” Others see the word evil as simply describing something which is “very bad.” With accusations of evil flying all around us these days, it might help us to understand each other if we try to unpack exactly what evil means for different people. I can think of four basic responses to the word evil depending on our political and religious proclivities.
1. Religious Conservative:
Evil is Satanic, against God’s will, and is wrong in all circumstances.
2. Religious Liberal:
Evil depends on the context and knowledge involved. Evil happens only when someone knowingly does something wrong.
3. Secular Conservative:
Evil is anything wrong, untrue, or demonstrably bad. Evil is anything contrary to universal laws of nature.
4. Secular Liberal:
There is no evil. Our choices are predetermined by culture and genetics. Evil is a cultural construct.
These categories (conservative, liberal, religious, and secular) don’t necessarily reflect any particular political party or religious affiliation. Rather, they are different approaches to truth. There can be Republicans who view evil liberally, and Democrats who view evil conservatively. These are not boxes to put ourselves in, but philosophies which we find ourselves gravitating to.
An Example: Is Pornography Evil?
A religious conservative says pornography is evil because it is Satanic and wrong (#1). But they also look for secular evidence to bolster this argument (#3 evil is anything demonstrably bad). They will focus on how unnatural pornography is, how it encourages violence against women, how it can destroy relationships, etc. Religious conservatives favour a pragmatic approach to truth. They believe that God reveals absolutes which are calculated to bring the best results in practice. Conservative secularists are similar to religious conservatives in that they also believe in absolute truths, although these truths are revealed by science, not by God.
A liberal might offer the following counter-argument: pornography is particularly bad for religious people, who believe it is very wrong, but maybe not as bad for people who don’t believe (#2 evil depends on context and knowledge). The Apostle Paul makes similar arguments regarding those who believe eating meat is evil, and those who don’t. “To he whom it is sin, it is sin, to he whom it is not sin, it is not sin.” Additionally, porn is not necessarily “evil” per se, but rather “problematic,” reflecting the built in paradoxes inherent in human sexuality (#4 our choices are predetermined culturally and genetically). We are genetically wired to crave sex in ways which cause frustration and conflict in human society. If we look at porn, we will be sexually frustrated, and if we don’t look at porn, we will probably also be sexually frustrated. There is no escape from the fraught nature of sexuality. Liberal arguments like these focus on context and nuance. Liberals see built-in paradoxes and hesitate to pronounce judgement in the absence of absolute certainties.
Drawbacks to Stark Categorisation
There are drawbacks to defining evil in only one particular way. Someone who understands pornography as Satanic opens themselves up to excess guilt and depression because they see their built-in sexual nature as Satanic. But a liberal who sees pornography as pre-determined culturally and genetically risks doing nothing to change that culture.
Most of us jump between categories. Liberals may adopt some conservative arguments. In the case of pornography, even though liberals believe human sexuality is fraught and paradoxical, some of them may accept that pornographic consumption is demonstrably bad (#3.) They may look for practical ways to “hack” our built-in genetic disposition to consume it. A “hack” could be anything, a 12-step program, accountability software, or cultivated habits of sexual control. Likewise, conservatives may find themselves adopting some liberal arguments: showing tolerance towards porn addicts because they recognise that they are acting according to their genetic dispositions, not simply making evil choices. This can help them have more patience with themselves and others as they struggle with problems we may describe as evil.
- Which of the four approaches to evil do you most closely adhere to? Do these reflect your political views as well?
- Is pornography evil and if so, why? Which of the four approaches would you take to describe it?
- If you are liberal in your approach to evil, do you sometimes adopt aspects of the conservative argument, opposing pornography because it is demonstrably destructive, even if you also see it as natural?
- If you are conservative in your approach to evil, do you ever adopt liberal arguments, showing more tolerance towards porn addicts because you recognise that they are acting according to genetic design?
- How might you describe the nature of other possible evils: terrorism, violence, war, etc?