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Good Evil and Pesky Humans

Posted by TomHodden on November 22, 2010 at 4:34 PM

A short look look at understanding evil (or the lack there off)

from a witer who always struggles with convincing

evil characters...

 

I just read two sentences in the same forum post that made me choke in astonishment. A guy called Ray from Australia (or so he claims, on the internet he could be anybody) started his post by telling me the thing about Christians was they were morally aware enough to love everybody, even those of us who don't believe in Christ as God. This would have been a wonderful sentiment it's just he went and ruined it by explaining how his version of God was love and understanding, while the Muslim version of god was Satan. Very loving and understanding. This, by the way, is a man who was supposed to be talking about if religion was essential for somebody to make moral judgements but had decided not only was religion essential, it had to be Christianity as “other religions” use suicide bombers, stone each other to death, hate women, hang gay people, and only Christian nations take in refugees (not entirely true), which does not make it hard to guess which “other” religions he meant.

 

Now mindless bigotry aside, his core argument as this: Christian nations are more moral precisely because they are Christian. And the people who grew up in this environment owe their moral guidelines to the religion. I pointed out I find this insulting for two key reasons: First of all, I do not follow a religion, and no I don't count “atheist” as a religion because no two atheists share exactly the same principles, and I would like to think that more or less I am a good person. Or at least no worse than anybody else. Secondly, for every accusation you want to throw at Islam (or Christianity, or Hinduism, or well, any religion) there is something that can be thrown back at you. Now Ray implied that I attacked his Christianity when I listed examples of how and why Christianity could be seen as harbouring immoral people in their ranks. Now I can understand this point of view, and I will go into the examples I gave shortly, but if anything the defence of the Christian should be more than enough to question if the view of others was unfair.

 

Now, do not fall into the same trap. Do not mistake this as a missive against the Catholics, or the Anglicans, Mormons or any one else who has faith, Christian or otherwise. I have no doubt that religion can be a great tool for encouraging discussion of your morals, and can offer community support. If you have a faith I whole heartedly hope it brings you happiness and makes you take a peaceful attitude to life. I just do not believe it is the only path to morality. People with or without the guidance of your religion or any other, can be perfectly capable of love, hate and the spectrum of morality.

 

So my main question, and one of the key foundations of my personal view is thus: If your religion is the only way to know right from wrong, does it follow that anybody who lived before your chosen flavour of religion was created or reached your shores incapable of morality? Does it follow that anybody who did was religious but still indulged in sin mistaken, not as moral as you, or a statistical anomaly? Now this again, is not an argument against a religion, it is a discussion of where good and by extension evil hold root, a discussion that I think is a valuable one for those who intend to write in our chosen genre of horror. As although evil is by no means essential to horror, it is one of the strongest themes. Sooner or later we all find ourselves trying to fit in the head of an evil character we are creating, and knowing how and why they are evil will mean understanding not just how they see themselves, but how others see them. And by “others” we mean the society around the character. No evil dictator believes they are a tyrant, from their own perspective, but those who live under their tyranny will think differently.

 

This leads to an even bigger question, that cuts to the very root of the statements made by Ray from Oz. We have to ask, has Christianity formed the morals and laws of the “English way of life”, or has English society caused Christianity to mutate and evolve. I am using England, and Christian history as an easy example, for reasons of familiarity from both me and you dear reader.

 

So let us start at the beginning. Before Christianity, there was a lot of history in the UK, and a lot more pre-history. Now, I am not going to pretend that the Celts, Britons, Romans, Angles, Saxons or Vikings were part of some utopian society, but all had law, all had order, in some form or other, and it is not hard to imagine from the evidence at hand, that all had their own forms of morality. It is easy to concentrate on the violence and brutality of the ages, but let us remember: Those did not go away any time soon once the bible arrived. Those blood thirsty Vikings? They had a vital role to play in converting the land to the cross. Canute is a thoroughly misunderstood soul. Far from being a dim witted thug who could not stop the tides rolling in, he was an astute politician who knew full well he was going to get wet feet. Canute was an early convert to the cross, and his court did not appreciate him ceding power to the church. He should be as mighty as any god. So Canute offered to put it to the test, to humiliate his advisers and prove God would always be mightier than man. By the time England was unified under a Christian banner, what was the moral state of the nation? The Christianity of the time was with out a doubt very different from our own. It apparently endorsed a feudal state, where you and I would be serfs, owned by our lord, scraping a pittance to care for his land. Slavery of the most humiliating kind, with restricted rights and law and order at the hands of few oppressing the many. This too is a state of play that would only slowly change piece by piece.

 

Was that because Christian values were dripping into the society? The church of the time would hardly think so. The church was an important part of the society, and made no great cries to change the status quo. It may not have shared the views of the monarchy all the time (Thomas the Becket, for example never being afraid to get to the point in an argument-baddum tsh!) but neither did it petition for universal suffrage and incapacity benefit. Look at the freedoms we take for granted now. We can not imagine the modern Catholic or Anglican churches supporting torture, or slavery, or serfdom. And yet these were perfectly accepted for great swathes of our history as perfectly acceptable in a society generally considered pious. More than accepted, utilised. If we look for the strongest case we are drawn to the Witch Trials, the crusades, and the worst of all cases. I am sure there were people who did not enjoy these facts of life, but we have to wonder: If the church imposed its values on society, why did those values take so long to be met. And in the mean time were the general population not yet capable of moral judgement because they were not yet the modern view of “Christian”?

Of course not. The people alive at that time were perfectly capable of knowing right or wrong.

 

But those views were, and are, changing. As society changes the views of the church flow and change too. The church being made from members of the society (and not always vice versa). The serfs and peasants and yeomen knew no other way of life and to assume the church had a higher view on the long game may be true, but no more than the villager dreamt of being the lord. The church grew roots in the UK as the calender neared one thousand AD, it was the seventeenth century before William Wilberforce made his historical declaration to the house of commons to start the wheels turning that would end the slave trade. And he faced fierce opposition. Let's not forget that the Russian Orthodox Church was the religion of choice while the tsars debated the emancipation of serfs in the decades before the revolution, and the American Civil war is often (wrongly) characterised as half a country fighting for the right to retain slaves. This were major events with ramifications that echoed throughout all of society. Such events still happen today. It is not fair to characterise the Irish catholic faith as child molesting monsters, but it is as wrong to pretend these people simply did not exist or were in some way mistaken. They were Christian and they still carried out a terrible crime. More than that, they were responsible for guiding their flocks moral judgement. Once more, I do not characterise an entire church community based on isolated case, but I do see them as a compelling proof that your faith is no assurance of morality.

 

For myself I choose not believe in any given faith for strictly personal reasons. In part it is as simple as this: I need neither the carrot of a reward in the next life, or the brimstone of punishment to convince me to do the right thing. The very fact it is the right thing should be enough. I would like to think we all have a basic potential for common human decency, and yes, it will be influenced by the society around us, but so do we influence the course of history. The church, like it or not, is a part of that history, and yes, it has extended influence, but so to has it been influenced. Name a religion and there will be communities across the globe that worship it in different ways, with different lore and law. There will be people in that society who stray from the nominal worshipper to the extremist. No society remains static, the core values (if we agree with them or not) become rooted and grow deeper and stronger if idolised, or wither and die if rejected. The trick, for writing a villain or understanding a new point of view, is to start with the moral common ground, and then to ask why the rest is seen differently, looking at those differences in terms of history, culture, and belief. Rather than just condemn them as being “because that is what they are like.” Our hypothetical tyrant has reasons and justifications for his actions.

 

The trick is to put them into a model you can understand if not condone.

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2 Comments

Reply TomHodden
3:20 PM on November 23, 2010 
well, I got a notification for a comment, but it aint 'ere...
Reply Shaun Hammel
1:04 PM on November 25, 2010 
Ive always felt that true morality came out of some kind of physiological/psychological function of the mind. You can literally 'turn' a perfectly law-abiding 'moral' person into a killer by adding a little tumor to a certain part of the brain. Their impulse-control can become so eroded, they will do things they would not do under pre-tumor conditions. This to me is not an evil person.

Evil is calculated destruction for the glorification of the Self. The self-preservation instinct run amok. But it is also adherence to a dogma past all reasonable evidence to the contrary. Good then becomes a balance. A flow of opposites.

One of the more preposterous notions some hardcore Christians have is if you deny Christ as your Savior you are actually committing an 'immoral act'. It doesn't matter you give half your salary to charities, walk old ladies across the street, never stole anything in your life, feel great empathy for the victims of a tyrant's corruption, etc...

Tribal ethics vs Universal is also an interesting subject. There are some 'moralities' out there that are valid for a singular group only. These are very attractive, and usually rule the day, because of their weight given to family, those WITHIN the circle. Anyone outside their circle is fair game to fuck with.

To get at what is truly universally moral is sort of a William of Ockham game I guess. Pare away everything down to the simplest terms of how an individual can best live within his inherited or chosen group. Avoid conflicts with others, protect, respect other people that you care for.

I have in the past committed certain 'immoral' acts... shoplifting for one. How much guilt is involved before I feel bad about it? In some ways morality is an interplay with the mind/self and guilt over past actions. In terms of writing 'evil' characters, maybe once again, it goes back to the idea I have of the writer's necessary damage himself. He has to experience this damage. Make it a part of himself somehow. Not to mimic the actions really, but still become possessed with it. Try an exercise: fantasize or imagine murdering someone innocent. Don't make it a character, make it you who is doing it. Examine your feelings. Can you do this? Is it necessary even to understand evil? Is that what you really want anyway? To understand?

And now Im rambling and probably lost in a maze of lies. :)