We tend to see the world in terms of good guys and bad guys. That’s an easy message to understand, but it’s the wrong one.
Christianity teaches us that we are all sinful, but that’s not the whole story either. Two thousand years of telling people not to sin hasn’t changed the world.
Here’s how I see good and evil.
The first kind
This is the kind of evil the Bible calls the 7 deadly sins. They are wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. According to the Bible, these derive from the original sin of the Garden of Eden, but a more helpful way of thinking about them is that they are evolutionary adaptations that helped us to survive in a hostile prehistoric world. In our modern world, they need to be suppressed to some extent, but I think we need to face up to the fact that they aren’t ever going to go away.
In my world view, this first kind of evil is the least of our woes. You could call it accidental evil, as we don’t usually mean to do harm, we just end up hurting people because of our personal failings.
The second kind
The second kind of evil I call intentional evil. You might call people who carry out these evil acts wicked or sick. That’s because they are sick, or severely mentally ill. Or they may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. From what I understand, much of the prison population consists of people like this.
While this kind of evil is much more dangerous than the first kind, we could view the people who commit it as victims themselves. They suffer from mental problems that make them behave this way. One day we might find better ways to help these people instead of punishing them.
The third kind
This is by far the most dangerous kind of evil, and yet it can be seen as unintentional evil. It’s the kind of evil that leads to war, genocide, persecution and all kinds of hate. It arises out of some religious beliefs, nationalism, imperialism, fascism, communism and many other kinds of –isms. There are so many of these poisonous beliefs in the world and they spread like wildfire. Sometimes they are hard to spot.
The tragedy of this kind of evil is that it is committed by good people who believe they are doing the right thing. They are regarded as heroes by people who share their beliefs.
Yet the good news is that of all the three kinds of evil, this is the only one that is not hardwired into our biology. If we can rid the world of such beliefs, we can bring an end to war and the worst kinds of violence that afflict humanity.
How can we do that? Learn to recognize belief systems that promote hate, intolerance, bigotry and prejudice. Say no to those beliefs. Instead practise tolerance, acceptance, forgiveness and generosity. Embrace positive beliefs.
Beliefs are hard to eradicate, but by refusing to believe them or pass them on, we can create a “fire break” that helps to stop them spreading.