Oct/Nov 2005 Salon

The Problem of (with) Evil

by Thomas J. Hubschman

The first time I fed meat to my children they ingested with it Adam's curse. All the evil yet to come into their still brief lives was contained in those first spoonfuls of animal flesh, not just the scandal of carnivorousness but every horror—violence, suffering, death—our race is cursed with. I fed them mortality in the form of a fellow creature's corpse, an un-holy Communion which prefigured their own terrible fates. To have raised them vegetarian would not have given them a different destiny but merely postponed their knowledge of good and evil. Death comes to carnivore and vegetarian alike.

The phrase "problem of evil" contains all the elements of the dilemma. Evil is obvious in the form of wartime atrocity or even in the unintentional squashing of a bug that crosses our path. Death and suffering are all around us. But by calling evil a "problem" we express a moral resistance to it, a sense of shock and outrage. And problems must by definition be resolved or at least explained.

Augustine's Original Sin is one explanation. Darwin's Survival of the Fittest is another. Neither redeems us, returns us to a state of pure innocence. Neither offers more than a rationalization, leaving us still to cope with the shocking reality. Babies go on dying horrible deaths long before they are capable of sin and without ever having been asked if they choose to participate in the evolutionary struggle. We crave resolution, not rationalization. An infant's death by starvation or because his impoverished family lived in the path of a mudslide is not a theological difficulty, it's a nightmare. We pretend that we don't live that nightmare day in and day out, but soon enough we are reminded of it by a friend's cancer or by images of terrified refugees on our television screens.

But some primitive bacteria that live off thermal vents on the ocean floor may finally help us understand why.

If the cause for our predicament lies in some ur-state of human experience, we scarcely can go any further back into it than these tiny organisms which survive, without light, deep at the bottom of the sea. They live, we are told, off the chemical nutrients emitted by thermal vents, a steady, regular outpouring of warmth and minerals from deep inside the earth. Long thought an impossible place for any life to inhabit, these organisms do so well that astronomers hope to find their kin thriving on a moon of Saturn when a probe descends into its frozen surface. Paleontologists tell us that it is these life forms, dwellers of the deep dark oceans, rather than their sun-loving cousins that may be the earliest life forms on the planet and the ancestors of us all.

What's significant about these creatures for the problem of evil is not their durability or their immense longevity as species but the way they make their livings. Neither carnivore nor vegetarian, they survive by ingesting directly the minerals and organic compounds from the thermal vents. They neither toil nor do they spin, but live out their lives satisfied nonetheless and, presumably, without doing any deliberate harm to their fellows, except perhaps for some jockeying about for a better spot near the vents. Even if some of them do occasionally ingest a relative or the remains thereof, they do so merely to incorporate its nutrients, just as we humans eat lamb chops and drink cow's milk not, ultimately, because we love to kill things but because we need what is in the flesh of lambs and the milk of cows.

Life is easy, or so it seems, in the chemical gardens of those warm jets at the ocean's bottom as long as the vents don't stop putting out heat and food at a steady and dependable rate. But should they fail, the microorganisms that depend on that warmth and food must learn to find nourishment elsewhere. An alternative source would be the flesh of their fellow microorganisms. If what these bacteria do is seek out organic compounds and do so blindly, in every sense of the word, then we can hardly fault them for ingesting each other when the ordinary source of food fails them. In the darkness, one molecule must smell and taste like any other, even if it's part of your grandmother. Over time perhaps you learn to distinguish kin from those bacteria that have also learned to adapt to changing conditions but have done so in a slightly different manner from yourself. You learn to distinguish someone else's grandmother from your own.

Such organisms evolved by aggregating into more and more complex species until we end up with ourselves, the latest variety of humans and—thanks to our ability to successfully kill off every other species like ourselves—the last, agonizing over the reasons why we have reached such a dreadful state of sinfulness. We kill, we pillage not just other species, but our own kind as well. Aggression came in handy for those primitive bacteria which had suddenly, in evolutionary time, to fend for themselves, the warm teat of those thermal vents having abruptly gone cold and dry. Rape is a good way to pass on your genes, assuming you belong to a species that is sexually differentiated. And pillage is the equivalent of a feeding frenzy after a long period of deprivation.

It's a bit daunting, even disappointing, to see ourselves, the sovereigns of the planet, following a pattern of behavior that is not just primeval but essentially accidental. Adam's Sin is freighted with guilt but offers fertile ground for human imagination to concoct antidotes in the form of Mosaic, Christic, Islamic and other religious remedies. To see ourselves as descendants of one-celled organisms that turned to cannibalism by chance and then passed on this dreadful practice to its progeny simply because it was such an efficient and convenient means of sustenance is not a pedigree we prefer to own up to. Better Adam pitting his individual will against an all-powerful deity's. Better a curse on our species if that curse implies we are uniquely qualified to inherit the earth and achieve immortality. Better we see the torture and killing of innocent human beings by other members of their species as a moral or even a psychological defect than the hard-wiring of billions of years of struggle merely to get our hands on enough hydrocarbons to make it through the day.

Whether or not the specific details of our origins from thermal-vent-dwelling microorganisms proves to be accurate, accident—or, more properly, necessity—seems likely to be the reason why we got to where we are. But terms like Natural Selection infer, however unintentionally, some kind of direction to the process. Even the notion that organisms seek to distribute their genes as widely as possible throughout their own species implies intention. We have trouble imagining a world where purpose and direction do not exist. We don't even want to imagine such a world if we have to inhabit it. Better a tooth-fairy Mother Nature than no God at all.

But what should we make of Jesus, the Buddha and the others who preach a morality that seems to contradict the law of the jungle, watery and otherwise? Is the Sermon on the Mount mere wishful thinking, an illusion that a moral authority exists beyond whatever serves our selfish human needs? Why have we developed a moral consciousness at all?

Morality is not exclusive to our species. Other animals are, if anything, more rigorously moral than ourselves, if by morality we mean sticking to a code laid down by specific ancestors. Species other than humans rarely kill their own kind and generally only kill other species in order to meet their immediate needs. Dogs and cats usually work out their territorial claim through posturing and compromise. Humans exterminate, kill for pleasure, eat themselves to death.

Even so, some of us forgo these practices when presented with an alternative code of behavior. Something in us responds to injunctions against acting always in the most selfish manner possible, even inspires us to act in a self-sacrificing way. Such people actually enjoy being good and seem called to it, just as others find their true selves in what we call sin. To deny the validity of one kind of behavior and not the other, to maintain that Jesus and Buddha are bucking the course of evolutionary necessity, is no more reasonable than to say that a platypus or a kangaroo is irrelevant to the course of evolution.

Also, if we distinguish the religious impulse from morality we have a very different scenario from the one we are typically presented with. Western religions teach conflicting theories about human behavior and wrangle endlessly about what God intends for us to do. They are also notorious for getting mired down in ways of thinking that may have been appropriate thousands of years ago but refuse to take into account—at least not more than selectively—what we have learned about ourselves and the universe in the meantime. Even so, a core impulse persists: the need to discover, even to have a relationship with, the mystery of our lives and the world we live in; the absurdity of death; the meaning of love. Atheists feel these imperatives no less than practicing believers, and among scientists there persists a percentage of believers that roughly corresponds with that in the general populace, much to the confusion of atheists and believers alike.

Jesus is reported to have said that few among any generation would understand his message, much less follow it. We can assume he was not excluding those who would call themselves Christians, since their number over the past two thousand years has been legion. But he was speaking to Jews, so we can assume that his message did not fall on fertile ground there either, even though Jews made up the bulk of Christians, as they came to be called, in the first two hundred years of Christianity. Assuming the percentage of Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims who understand the essential message of their faiths is the same as it is for followers of Jesus, then only a minority of the human race actively aspires to anything more than a primitive belief in a primitive God, preferring to live according to a code that would have been familiar to our ancestors 100,000 years ago. If we temper our savage impulses, we do so not for the sake of any deeper mystery but in order to stay out of jail or in good odor with our spouse or boss.

But do the moral minority, the ones who do hear the Buddha and the Christ, represent something contrary to what scientific knowledge has demonstrated, or do they stand for something just as valid, perhaps even an evolutionary stride forward that simply has not yet caught on with the general population?

Jesus seems to have preached that it is important to have a personal relationship with God, that private and public morality—he apparently remained an observant Jew—was a matter for the background, not the focus, of human consciousness. The purpose of good works and avoidance of evil was not to gain merit but to bring you closer to God, i.e. to the personal fulfillment for which we were created. The world, even the civil authority under which we live, is merely a condition of our existence and a possible means for our coming closer to a loving Father. A person who does not help the sick and the disadvantaged, who does not try to alleviate the suffering caused by mudslides and revolutions, is not really seeking God, Jesus says, because those activities are among the means everyone is to use to bring her- or himself closer to that Goal. Evil, he implies, whether physical or moral, is not where we should be concentrating our attention. Whores can be closer to God than rabbis; thieves cab be better people than philanthropists. The important thing is to realize your humanity by realizing your divinity.

Paul and his followers altered this essential message by directing the focus of this relationship with God exclusively toward the person of Jesus as the redeemer-Messiah, and later generations of Christians made the Catholic Church the sole purveyor of a personal salvation from original sin. But the central message of the itinerant preacher we call Jesus, though never meant to reach beyond the borders of Jewish Palestine, was something more universal and perennial. Was it a step forward for the human species or just a sentimental wish-list of a man out of step with history, not to say ignorant of evolutionary necessity? For those who respond to the message, its truth is self-evident in the same sense that Jefferson meant that word when he wrote the American Declaration of Independence. Who says that "these truths," or any truths, are self-evident? The answer is: those for whom they are.

Agriculture must have seemed a foul and pernicious life style to many when it was first practiced. We now think of the family farm as a kind of Eden, or the closest we can come to Eden after the Fall. Scarcely a thousand years ago "democracy" was a word that stood for the basest human instincts. The essential Christian-Jewish-Buddhist-Muslim message is still mostly honored in the breach. We pay it lip service, bow our heads when the cameras are on us in the Rose Garden, then give the order to kill and maim. A phenomenally high number of Americans believe in God but also support a strong military and accept killing as a necessary, even God-ordained activity for Christians to pursue, citing many a text from the Old Testament.

Yet, what's remarkable is not how many people turn away from the evil in the world without trying to do anything to alleviate it, but how many are moved to act against it. They turn up in unpredictable ways, touched by something Christians call "grace," an inexplicable motivation that springs from deep inside them. It even moves them to act contrary to the religious disciplines out of which they have come. You come upon such people in every walk of life, no less so among those who have fallen to the bottom of society as among clergy or faithful church-goers. They seem happy with their lives, however humble or difficult those lives may be. They are never ideologues or dogmatists and are more willing to listen than to be heard. And they care deeply about the world around them and about their fellow creatures.

They must be the few from among the many who are chosen, who have found God, i.e. their true selves, not in a church or synagogue or mosque but through some marvelous process that we may as well call a mystery.


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