I have used the word dualism in these blogs to refer to a metaphysical theory that claims there are onlytwo kinds of “things” in existence: spirit and matter. Each is said to have properties that are diametrically opposed to the other. All phenomena of whatever kind in this universe can be explained by one or the other. I have consistently maintained that this dualism is erroneous, and because of its undisputed sway over the popular imagination due to traditional religion, distorts the human project.
But there is another kind of dualism also fostered by religion that is much more dangerous. It is a moral-cosmic vision that imagines the world ruled by two contending supernatural powers, “good and evil.” This theory entered by way of Persia just before the beginning of the common era and ultimately meshed with “spirit and matter.” Matter became associated with the evil power, and spirit with the good. Since we are made of matter, the evil resides within us.
Exploring the significance of cosmic dualism is not just an academic exercise. For it seems there are no limits to the violence that people will employ to protect themselves from what they are convinced is an immanent annihilating force against which they have no defense. The term I use for this force is “resident evil.” It is taken from the horror movies where it is employed to evoke fear of an implacable inhuman enemy embedded in our flesh. The “resident evil” storyline imagines a parasitic “t-virus” capable of turning humans into man-eating zombies. Once infected, humans become agents of the evil force. Belief in “resident evil” has not only been used to excuse unthinkable behavior, but also unleashes an unparalleled ferocity — demonic hatred, visceral repugnance, and blind rage. The fact that “suicide bombers” have become commonplace in our time should not blind us to what is behind this insane behavior: a horrified dread of invasive evil.
The fear of “resident evil” triggers a terrified reflex responsible for a level of self-imposed human torment that far exceeds what any other species suffers from the predation, natural disasters, diseases and death that are common to all living things. Self-mutilating and genocidal behavior is absolutely unique to humankind. That fact alone suggests that the explanation lies in what is unique about us — what makes us different from the animals — our heads.
But it has been traditional to ignore that clue, and to ascribe such behavior to the coercions of an alien force. Wouldn’t human self-destruction be proof enough of that? After all, who attacks themselves? There must be an enemy out there!
It will be my thesis in this essay that it is exactly the reification and alienation of “evil,” — the claim that “evil” is a reality independent of human imagination and choice — that is one of the principal obstacles to the control of human violence. This alienation is functioning even if we attribute “evil” to an innate corruption — a “flaw” — of the human organism. For the “flaw” is not natural; like the “t-virus,” it is an alien reality. It is not we who do evil … it is the “flaw” dwelling in us. We are all familiar with that phrase and those sentiments. Every version of “Original Sin,” no matter how simple … or how sophisticated, must identify something foreign, inhuman, as the source of all evil.
Let’s take the Christian doctrine of “Original Sin.” The traditional version is that “matter” became corrupt after the “fall” and no longer obeys the commands of the “spirit.” Evil resides in our flesh. Our “carnal” lusts and desires, now grotesquely deformed from the way “God” created them, refuse to follow the dictates of “spiritual” reason. The body doesn’t belong here the way it is. It is alien. That means first of all, it has to be exposed for the imposter that it is … for it comes disguised as ourselves. It has to be treated as hostile and subdued … or it will destoy our “souls.” Some very committed and knowledgable Christians took this quite seriously. The great theologian Origen of Alexandria, who died a martyr in 253, actually castrated himself in an attempt to control concupiscent evil resident in his human flesh.
This theory became the accepted wisdom of the western world. If those who believed such things hated the “resident evil” in themselves, they necessarily hated it in others. Being “human” did not correlate to an appreciative wonder at human diversity around the globe … it meant learning how to mistrust people of other traditions who were not aware of the contagion they bore in their flesh. Thus was our humanity demonized by Christian theory, and it opened the door to the denigration, plunder and enslavement of dark-skinned primitive peoples. Western racism comes from there, and from nowhere else.
Then there is the more sophisticated version of “Original Sin” proposed by Sigmund Freud. He theorized the existence of a “death wish” embedded in organic matter, adduced to explain human self-destructive behavior. Freud’s hypothesis (cf Beyond the Pleasure Principle) was that the forces of equilibrium, which might be identified with entropy in physics, exert a pull on living organic matter to return to the inanimate state — the pool of inert particles from which all life emerged. Sometimes known as thanatos, the “death wish” counterbalances “eros” — the “pleasure principle” — the drive to live, to reproduce, to preserve the vital integrity of the organism.
While Freud’s theory may be said to correlate, in a broad sense, with the findings of science, it is not science. It is pure conjecture. But it preserves the core dynamic we found operating in the theory of “Original Sin.” Thanatos is an embedded organic drive, totally subliminal, beyond any human consciousness or control, that is responsible for self-destructive behavior. Self-destructiveness is entirely attributable to something alien to human free choice.
I find this theory difficult to embrace for two reasons. First, if, as Freud claims, it is the unsuppressible “pull” of all living matter to return to the inanimate state, then every form of life would manifest self-destructive behavior. And yet none does, only humankind. What does humankind have that no other living organism possesses … ? The power to imagine and symbolize images with words. If there is an explanation for for our unique self-mutilating inclinations, it must be in what we think and choose to do, not in the quarks and gluons of pre-integrated material energy.
The second is that Freud confronts the issue in a highly conditioned environment i.e., early 20th centuryWestern Europe. There is no attempt on his part to adjust for the influence of two thousand years of history that has molded Western man with “Original Sin.” To discount such an intense, long-term and universal belief disregards the power of social conditioning. What Freud was studying and trying to explain, I contend, was the effect on the European psyche of two thousand years of Christian “spiritual” formation.
But the most damaging belief is the personification of evil in “Satan,” imagined to be the god-like ruler of an evil empire. Not only has the existence and function of Satan, the “Devil,” never been repudiated by the Church, it was actually reaffirmed as recently as 1992 with the publication of the Vatican Catechism. In ##391 to 395 the Catechism speaks about the “fall of the angels” as an event in which Satan and other devils were supposedly spawned:
391 Behind the disobedient choice of our first parents lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God, which makes them fall into death out of envy. Scripture and the Church’s Tradition see in this being a fallen angel, called “Satan” or the “devil”. The Church teaches that Satan was at first a good angel, made by God: “The devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing.”(IV Lateran Council, 1215)
392 Scripture speaks of a sin of these angels. This “fall” consists in the free choice of these created spirits, who radically and irrevocably rejected God and his reign. …
393 It is the irrevocable character of their choice, and not a defect in the infinite divine mercy, that makes the angels’ sin unforgivable. …
394 … “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” In its consequences the gravest of these works was the mendacious seduction that led man to disobey God.
395 The power of Satan is, nonetheless, not infinite. He is only a creature, powerful from the fact that he is pure spirit, but still a creature. He cannot prevent the building up of God’s reign. Although Satan may act in the world out of hatred for God and his kingdom in Christ Jesus, and although his action may cause grave injuries – of a spiritual nature and, indirectly, even of a physical nature – to each man and to society, the action is permitted by divine providence … . It is a great mystery that providence should permit diabolical activity.
Satan, the “Devil,” is claimed to be a “person” of god-like abilities, “hell bent” on destroying “God’s” masterpiece, the human species. He is attended by hordes of minor spirits — devils — who do his bidding. They are all “pure spirit,” and therefore invisible, able to change locations with the speed of thought. How all of these “spirits” are able to exercise such disruptive control over a corrupt “matter” which does not belong to them, when humans are virtually powerless over their own bodies rendered uncontrollably disobedient because of the corruption of that same matter, is not explained. Besides, if they were damned to hell, how is it they are out and about and able to cause so much mayhem? Also there is no explanation as to how “Satan” controls these “followers” of his, i.e., what coercion he applies to prevent each from going their own way. They are, after all, by definition, “little devils.”
Angelic “rebellion” is declared to be an irrevocable rejection of “God.” This “irrevocability” is traditionally grounded in the metaphysics of a branch of mediaeval theology called “angelology,” which claims that each angel’s essential being is ratified in a single self-actuating choice. How these “once-and-for-all” spirits can then begin to react to the sequence of events on earth in order to corrupt and seduce humankind is not clarified.
The Catechism says, “It is a great mystery that providence should permit diabolical activity.” A mystery indeed! In this conception, what they call “providence” turns the business of living a good moral life into a dangerous game … with the principal dangers provided by “God” himself. The absurdity here becomes self-evident. For if it requires “God’s permission” for the devil to be unleashed, who then, I ask, is responsible for what he does? Thus, to my mind, does the Roman Church in its official doctrine blaspheme, by painting “God” as a trickster who uses “evil” as a plaything to trip people up. If this inanity were true, any decent human being would be morally superior to “God.” Absurd! The Church that insists that all this actually occurred, undermines its own credibility, but that such things are, moreover, declared to be infallibly true, in my opinion, borders on the psychotic.
In all these cases “evil” cannot be conquered without divine help. “Original Sin” is an insuperable flaw, dwelling like a parasite in the human organism, passed on from parents to children “by propagation, not by imitation“ that cannot be extirpated. With Satan, we have an insidious intelligence, a god-like power, hordes of obedient minions and a fiendish passion that we cannot defend against. Only the miraculous power of “God” can save us from these sources of depravity and dysfunction. So it is no great surprise that the Roman Church promotes the factual reality of both these theories of “evil.” In such a world, evil can come at us at any moment, from anywhere, outside or inside, and it can “devour” us because we have no ability to withstand its power. We are utterly dependent on “divine” help, mediated through the Church, against Satan and our own innate degeneracy. The combination — a true one-two punch — is devastating. The only thing we can do without divine help is to try to eliminate the source of the evil by exterminating it. Does this sound at all familiar?
Whereas the fact is, there is nothing “supernatural,” independently personal, or inescapable about evil. Evil does not exist outside of human (mis)perception, choice and behavior. Evil is not a “thing” or a “person” or an open suppurating wound. Evil is what we do when we allow our conatus — the urge and instinct for self-preservation and self-enhancement — to be improperly activated by things that have nothing whatsoever to do with our well-being. Evil is what we do when we don’t know what we’re doing. It has no independent existence whatsoever in any form or fashion. There is no “corrupt matter,” there is no Satan — there is no “resident evil.” And most certainly there is no “God” who “gives permission” to Satan to torment, punish and test humankind. Evil is simply human error set in motion by a misinterpretation of what is really threatening to our well being, or conversely, what is really of benefit to us. What is evil is what doesn’t work … it’s what we do when we haven’t yet figured out what does.
A long time ago I was in “group therapy.” Two of the people in the group were a young married couple, and the woman was slowly emerging from a severe catatonic breakdown. (Catatonia is a psychosomatic disorder where the body “shuts down”: the victims actually lose the ability to see, to hear, to speak, to function.) The cause of it, in her case, was “shunning.” She belonged to a religious group that was so strict about intermarriage with outsiders that when she married the “wrong kind” of person, the community, including her family, shut her out completely. The effect on her psyche was devastating. When I met them, she was doing better, and working hard to understand what had happened to her. It was a revealing experience that I never forgot.
There is no way to explain this phenomenon except by recourse to a binary belief system. There has to be a “world of light” separate from and opposed to a “world of darkness” for it to make sense. The “sinner” falls into “darkness” and the rest of the community must “shun” her to keep the darkness from spreading. It is the psychic equivalent of annihilation, and the young woman’s body “got the message” and reacted accordingly.
If evil exists independently of human perception and choice, then there are only two possibilities: there has to be EITHER an independent, absolute “principle of evil,” a Satanic “God” as powerful and original as the “good God” to explain it, OR the “evil” world would have to exist dependent on the good world and its “God.” Now, the latter scenario is exactly what our tradition has always maintained, because it insists that “God” controls everything. But please notice: this would mean that “God” ultimately is the author of evil, for he is the “reason” why it exists at all. Think about it: God has total control … Satan and his buddies can do nothing without divine permission. It is utterly, utterly absurd.
But if the only “evil” there is, as I claim, comes from a false application of the energies of the conatus then all these absurdities diappear. “Evil,” like every other thing we do wrong is a mistake, whether inadvertently or maliciously chosen, and reflects a failure to include all the relevant effects of our choices.
If there is no world of damnation into which we descend, then all immoral activity, even the most heinous and tragic, is simply an erroneous choice. It is radically reformable, and the agent of that error does not have to be annihilated or exterminated.
It is interesting that Paul Ricoeur’s acclaimed book on evil confines itself to the “symbolism of evil” (one level removed from the subject of our enquiry); it does not tackle the issue of its reality. And his pamphlet-sized follow-up volume, is revealingly entitled “Evil: A problem for philosophy and theology.” Of course it’s a “problem.” People like Ricoeur who are committed to a religious vision, hide behind their “phenomenology” to avoid directly challenging the cosmic dualist claims of “salvation” and “damnation.” They ambiguously suggest that the “psychology of evil,” which they do address, “says nothing” about the possibility of a cosmic metaphysical “resident evil” — a question which they, inexplicably, do not address. But I have no such loyalties: I stake my claim on the exclusive thrust of the conatus — which is to exist. The conatus characterizes all of existence. There is no “resident evil.” Evil, I say, is in the mind and choices of man; nowhere else. It is then transferred by habit to the human organism. Habit and repetition (leading perhaps to addiction) is the only “resident evil” there is, and in that form it is a derivative of immoral behavior not its cause, and dies with the organism. It lives on in others in only the same ways: through ideas and habits of thought and practice — imitation. Evil is a purely human phenomenon, a product of the virtual world that is created by our heads. It is a function of our heads … and only our heads can bring it under control.
The true role of Religion
Given this clarification, the role of Religion, then, is turned around 1800: Religion should counteract, not reinforce the belief in the independent existence of evil. Our Religions, however, inspired by “the Book,” have unfortunately perpetuated belief in a reified independent evil. Religion should rather restore to human beings the dominion over what they do. Religion should once and for all refute the bogus claims that there is any other world, resident evil or damnation. There is nothing that forces us to do what we do not want to do. There is nothing happening in the universe except the innocent, intentionless operations of the natural world. There is neither a “God” helping us, hurting us or testing us, nor is there any independent source of “evil” dedicated to our destruction whether in the form of a corruption of our flesh or a Satanic god-person who “goes about like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour.”
Jewish theologians insist that the myth of the Garden was created precisely to say that human evil is human — it was not created by “God,” it does not antedate humankind. The first three chapters of Genesis, they emphasize, is a ringing declaration of the unmixed goodness of God and his Creation. The meaning of the story of the Garden is that evil comes from human choice … nowhere else. The serpent is a symbol of human rational calculation and the “selfish intent” is nothing but the natural bent of the conatus. From this point of view, Augustine’s nightmare that the “first sin” produced a metaphysical transformation of our flesh so profound as to turn evil back into an original organic condition over which we have no control, actually reverses the Genesis authors’ intention.
Evil, as Augustine would have it, provides justification for the total dependency of the individual on “supernatural assistance.” For him that meant the Roman Church. The correlation between the two should not be ignored or passed over as coincidental. I am convinced that Augustine elaborated the doctrine of Original Sin in the completely inhuman form he did — gutting the intention of Genesis and insisting that unbaptized babies merited eternal torment — with the full intention of establishing the absolute indispensability of the Church for salvation. I claim that each side of this correlation implies the other. You can’t have an independent “resident evil” without precipitating the search for a “supernatural” mechanism of salvation … and you cannot have a Church that is “absolutely necessary for salvation” without a belief in a supernatural “evil” from which we need to be “saved.”
 It might just be coincidental that Cardinal O’Connor of NY performed exorcisms and publicized it.in the early ’90’s. He specifically adduced fear of the Devil as a “help to maintaining belief in God.”
 There is a traditional counsel that says that a clear sign of diabolical influence is the claim that “Satan does not exist.” This provides a “fail-safe” mechanism that insures that belief in Satan will never be challenged for it directs the full force of the “terror” of evil at the dissenter.
 There is no intention to deny the crippling, immobilizing effect of emotional disorder. Emotional equilibrium is a pschosomatic balance that can be severely disrupted. The intense anxiety that may attend these conditions may yield to the kinds of religious imprecations that have been directed in the past against “resident evil,” because that’s the symbolism they take on. I am not denying human vulnerability to emotional disturbance or to any number of other “mental” disorders, I am simply saying that none of it has a metaphysical ground. It is all in our heads, and we use our heads to neutralize its power over us as best we can.
 (Of course we are speaking philosophically here, not “psychologically.” If someone has, by repeated choices and habit, gotten to the point where change is no longer probable, then it is a question for other disciplines, like psychiatry or the courts. Here philosophy simply declares there is no ontological “resident evil.” “Evil” is what and where we think it is. And there is no divine help beyond what we do with our heads.)