Atrocity, Evil, and the Gods

It is easy to believe in the goodness of the Gods when you are safe, comfortable, and operating under the assumption that you are secure in your position. When all is well, it is very, very easy to believe that humanity in inherently good and that all the spirits of the worlds are benevolent. It is a pleasant deception. For many, it is a deception that they operate under for a very long time. It is a kind of ignorance that people mistakenly believe is innocence. Thus, when they talk about a loss of innocence, they are talking about when this state of ignorance is rather abruptly ended.

Sometimes, it ends with a death of a beloved pet. Sometimes, it is the experience of having a taste of the exquisite cruelty that humanity can muster in your life. Or, perhaps, it is witnessing an atrocity of some sort. Humans are very good at tricking themselves into believing that the horrors that happen in the world are all things that can not happen to them because they happen ‘far away’ or to ‘other people.’ We can muddle along with that false assumption for a while but something will invariably come along and rip that blindfold off and force us to look at the uglier side of existence.

In theology and metaphysics, the question as to what is the nature of the world brings us to a place where we must define what is ‘good’ and what is ‘evil.’ The most basic definition of evil that can be found is suffering. Some may add modifiers to that definition and say that it is conditional suffering wherein it serves no purpose for the person suffering and can not be avoided. Others may add the modifier that it is suffering that is inflicted upon another person for no purpose. The additional things that get defined as ‘evil’ all are attached somehow to this root concept that it is unwanted, purposeless suffering that we can not avoid.

When we consider things like the causal cruelty of bigotry, it is quite possible to declare it is a form of evil. Looking at that which deprives others of life and well being, it is almost universally agreed that it is a form of evil. Great tragedy that brings grief, pain, and deprivation into the lives of they who are afflicted can be called evil in many cases. The question arises, however, what of those events that are not enacted by human hands? We can look at mass murder and most any person you would discuss this with would agree it is evil. When a large body of people die from disease, malnutrition due to famine, or some form of natural disaster, we find ourselves confronted with the question of “Are the Gods evil for allowing this to happen?” It is a question that comes up even when we consider the acts of atrocity committed by humanity.

The question of ‘Why did the Gods allow this to happen?’ is not an easy one to answer. I don’t pretend to have the answers, only theories. And I acknowledge that my theories are incomplete and lack a great deal of information. To explore this question, though, we need to take a step back and look at what we are questioning. The assumption that is made when we ask why the Gods allowed something to happen is that the Gods have an influence over the event. From this belief, we find ourselves faced with a question: are the Gods omnipotent and do they have the ability to prevent these events from happening? If the answer is yes, the question arises as to why they allowed it. If the answer is no, then we are left to question what the extent of their ability to influence events may be.

These two positions are mutually exclusive, in some respects. Marcus Aurelius wrestles with this problem in his writings. So too did Buddha and many, many other ancient philosophers and spiritual teachers. Judeo-Christian thought argues that God is omnipotent, omniscent, and benevolent. From this argument, the question of evil demands that there is some sort of anti-God being that is the source of these deeds, hence the rise of the figure of the Devil.[1] Alternatively, it is possible to argue that the Gods are not omnipotent, omniscent, and/or benevolent. Many polytheist faiths present the Gods as having some sort of ‘flaw’ that limits their abilities in some fashion. From their limitations, the existence of evil arises as a confluence of failures, limitations, and deliberate choices by the Gods.

All of this is before you factor in the question of human free will. And this does not even begin to touch the question of predetermination, which is a rather squirrely subset to the free will question. For example, is the rise and fall of nations due to the will of the Gods or the ultimately chaotic, self-centered will of humanity.[2] Much of these questions are going to form the core of any religious worldview. It is good to examine them and consider them. I am beginning to wander away from the general purpose of this discussion, so I’m going to let that bit lie as it is.

No matter where you look, atrocity happens in the world. No matter where you look, there are tragedies unfolding that are both the fruit of human hands and natural forces. In some cases, the tragedies are especially horrific because it is a confluence of both factors. (Starvation in Latin America and the Caribbean is a good example of this, in my opinion. The problems with Zika and Malaria in South America are also good examples of how this comes together.) It is tempting to cast all of the responsibility for these things at the feet of the Gods or spirits of the worlds. Many people do, after all there is a reason why the Devil is a reviled figure. There is a problem with this approach, in my opinion, and that is we can not wash the blood off of our own hands in that fashion.

Far more evil is done by human hands than by the Gods or spirits in my opinion. The man who walked in to the Pulse in Orlando, FL and opened fire committed an act of evil. It is possible that this was done due to factors that he had no control over, I will allow for that. I suspect, however, the likelihood is far higher that he deliberately chose this deed. A person who kills because of a deliberate decision to do so that is made while of relatively sound mind is, in my opinion, far more morally culpable than the one who does so whilst laboring under some form of delusion.

When people ask ‘where were the Gods?’ and ‘why didn’t the Gods do anything?’ it is myopinion that the Gods witnessed the act of mass murder and aided the people who kept a cool head and did what they could to keep others safe. It is my belief that the Gods enabled people to do the best they could in that situation. It is also my belief that the Gods are not responsible for resolving human cruelty and human evil. Nor are the spirits of the world. It is something that rests entirely within human hands and responsibility. It is easy to blame the Gods for evil deeds done by humanity. No one wants to admit that humans have the capacity for this monstrous behavior.

Until we can acknowledge this capacity for monstrosity, we will continue to blind ourselves to the stressors that create situations that encourage these behaviors. We will deny that the murderer did not act in a vacuum, because it is painful and distressing to see how one person’s act of evil can arise within the supposedly civilized context of our own culture (in the case of what happened in Orlando). We will deny that such things are happening about us on a regular basis because we feel safer when we think it can not happen to us. The slaughter in Orlando is the responsibility of the man who pulled the trigger. He did commit an egregious act of evil. The Gods did not push him into this, though.

Is it possible that he was mislead by an ‘evil God’? All things are possible, thus I must confess it may be the case. I do not think, however, that is the case. The accounts from those who knew this man all point to him having a history of violence and animosity towards the people he killed. It presents a picture of someone who decided to act on these feelings and in accordance with previous behaviors. It is my belief that most cases of evil deeds are done for this sort of reason.

It leads us to honestly question if humanity is indeed good at the root of their being or not. In watching children and learning something of how they think between my formal education and just observing them, I think that humanity is, at their core, morally neutral. I think we are socialized to behaviors that are considered good and civilized. I think we are taught how to do these things and behave in this fashion. It is my belief that the Gods are our teachers in as many respects as they are ones whom we depend on for the existence of reality, for our very selves. I think that civilization and the concept of ‘good’ is something they taught us. I also think that they are continuing to refine these concepts and helping us to hone our understanding of them.

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  1. The concept of an anti-deity figure can be tracked through the history of monotheism to Zoroastrianism.
  2. Humans are, from what I have noticed, generally self-centered, except for when they’re not. They’re chaotic and hard to predict, often choosing to act in a manner that from a third party perspective goes against their apparent well being and long term goals, except for when they’re not. Human morality is hard to pin down and influenced by such a vast number of factors I honestly can not do the discussion any justice.
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