The Concept of EVIL

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This article discusses the historical, spiritual, philosophical, and socioscientific perspectives on the concept of “evil.”

One of the more interesting and perhaps revealing aspects of the concept of “evil,” is that while the belief in its existence may be cross-culturally universal, how it manifests within a given culture relates directly to the norms and accepted moral standards of that particular culture.

Although seen as the opposing force of “good” by many cultures around the world today, by and large, evil has a regional definition that reflects types of behavior deemed threatening to societal stability.  Thus, what is perceived as evil in one cultural setting (the public display of breasts, for example, in Amish country, Lancaster, PA) is seen as a societal norm in another (such as on the beaches of Brazil or the French Riviera). 

In Lancaster it represents an insidious “evil” that could taint and undermine long-standing cultural mores, while in France it is a healthy and normal interaction with nature that few people give a second thought.

Middle Eastern Roots

Broadly speaking, most people of the Western World would probably define evil as "intentional negative moral acts that are considered cruel, wicked, selfish, or perhaps serving a demonic purpose: murder, maiming, rape, hurting a child, elder, or defenseless individual."

From the Judeo-Christian perspective, evil is often personified by Satan, the antithesis of God.  Although Judeo-Christian beliefs can be historically traced to Eastern philosophy–from ancient Indus Valley Aryan groups to Persia to Fertile Crescent indigenous cultures–the concept of “good vs evil” doesn’t manifest in cultural scenarios until the advent of Zoroastrianism and the worship of Ahura Mazda, in Persia (modern Iran), which has been traced to about 2,500 years BP–but is probably older.

Socio-scientific Perspective

While anthropology recognizes the concepts of good and evil as socio-spiritual reactions to societal stressors, psychology takes a much different perspective.  Psychology acknowledges that many human behaviors are “hard-wired” into human behavioral patterns, (and cross-cultural syncretism serves to embed these ideas into individual cultural fabric), and deviant behavior classified as “evil” is most often seen as nothing more than errant firing of neurotransmitters, brain-chemistry imbalances, or mal-developed wiring--or combinations resulting from head trauma. 

But even from this hard-science “nothing-happens-except-at-the-cellular-level” perspective, psychology recognizes that if an individual (or an entire society) perceives “evil” as a reality manifested in a particular manner or form, then it does in fact exist, and is as real and powerful as any other idea.

Many in the United States deem Charles Manson the very definition of "Evil"

Regardless of where the concept of “evil” may have originated, and regardless of ones spiritual, moral, academic, or cultural inclinations, the belief in evil is now so ingrained in the human condition that few individuals emphatically deny that it exists. 

And whether it’s an ancient philosophy born of a mythological drama (as with Zoroastrianism), a concept brought to this earthly realm by divine interaction (as seen in Judeo-Christian texts), or simply the manifestation of malfunctioning neurotransmitters, virtually world-wide, it is perceived as a component of moral and societal balance.  By what means the concept was introduced to the world, many would argue, is less important than how it ultimately affects day to day societal interaction.


Religion and Culture, Scupin

The Psychology of Religion, Spika

Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft, Stein and Stein

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