Is Evil A Passé term? An Atheist’s Thought Experiment.

Gary Nolan (and THE Scrappy Doo)
Gary Nolan (and THE Scrappy Doo)

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be an atheist. Since I wasn’t always one, how might I feel differently than someone who never had faith to begin with?

For instance, there are people who behave as though they hate their respective deity, then call themselves atheists. I’d argue those people are deists who hate themselves, yet blame their god for their own shortcomings instead of accepting personal responsibility for the way their lives are turning out.

Mythological Greek God Zeus
In my mind, an atheist wouldn’t have any stronger feelings about God, Jesus, or Allah than they would about Zeus or Odin. To me, the only difference between mythology and religion is that the latter still has people who believe in it.

But one thing has curiously struck me lately; the concept of evil. Is this a passé term?

For those who are religious, evil is something put forth by the counterpart of their chosen deity. But I feel this term thwarts understanding of these acts by blaming a being like Satan instead of the perpetrator.

So let’s break down humans for a minute; or as we’re affectionately known in the biological community;  Animalia (Kingdom); Chordate (Phylum); Mammalia (Class); Primates (Order); Hominidae (Family); Homini (Tribe); Homo (Genus); H. sapiens (Species).

Regarding the kingdom classification of Animalia, that means that despite our own desire to feel special, we are ultimately just an animal in the animal kingdom. We are certainly the most intelligent, but there are many animals that are stronger, faster, or otherwise better adapted to their environment, as natural selection dictates.

So while we are special for our intellect, all animals have their own unique specialties, making us all special in different ways, or none of us particularly special at all; depending on how you want to look at it.

Homo-sapiens have evolved as well or better than any other species to life on Earth in many unique ways. For instance, because of our intellect, we’re the best at customizing our environment to suit our needs, instead of having to adapt like all the others. We build houses with air conditioning and heaters, after all.

We’re also intelligent enough to not only be excellent hunters, yet also quite adept at growing our own food. When’s the last time you saw an elephant planting a row of corn?

One trait that many overlook however, is our unparalleled linguistic skills. Because we are social animals, our advanced ability to communicate with others, whether it be face-to-face, or using technology such as the phone or internet, strengthens our society in ways other animals cannot achieve. Every time you ask for help and receive it, you’ve exemplified this.

Oddly enough, we’re the only animal smart enough to have observed and understood natural selection and the benefits it brings to life as a whole, yet we’re compassionate enough to try to prevent it by helping the weak among us instead of allowing them to succumb to whatever their inferior traits might be. If that’s not an ultimate display of commonly accepted morally benevolent societal behavior, I don’t know what is.

This can be seen in the way we help the disadvantaged through charity, medical care, etc. Or simply the endangered species list, where we actively work to preserve an animal that seems incapable of adapting to its environment as natural selection dictates it should.

Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin
But back to the term “evil.” The term conjures up names like Adolf Hitler, Paul Pot, Saddam Hussein, Josef Stalin, et al., who are often touted out as examples, and it seems quite fitting on the face of it.

The reality is that if we define murder as the killing of an innocent life, the animal kingdom is full of mass murderers. Cheetahs are mass murderers of gazelles, but maybe we will give that a pass since they eat them to survive.

Lions however, will often kill cheetahs, not for consumption, but just to eliminate the competition for food. Not very sporting at all, if you ask me. So are they evil too? Of course not.

So what makes them different from human mass murderers? The fact that we are smarter, or that we understand the value of empathy and therefore can associate with the victim? In reality, it’s just that we are societal in ways that many other meat eaters are not.

The concept of morality is generally thought to be a religious one, where you are either with or against a particular dogma. Some people would argue that morals are universal, but this is a false premise. Whether it be gay rights, abortion, the death penalty, drugs, prostitution, gambling, etc., what is immoral to some is moral to others.

If we throw out the religious component, morality would generally describe behavior someone does for the good of society, immoral behaviors are to the detriment of it. While many deists would argue that without religion, there would be no morality, Professor of Psychology, Dr. Michael Shermer explains the evolutionary benefit of commonly held moral behaviors here. Evidence suggests we would be just as moral without religion.

When people think of natural selection, they often use the phrase “survival of the fittest,” which can be misleading. It conjures images of some unyielding beast who kills anything that gets in its way. But societal beings are actually “fitter.”

If a strong violent psychopath were going through the neighborhood killing people, he might be successful if everyone in the neighborhood were also a sociopath and failed to band together to combat him. But if the others unite, the psychopath would likely end up dead due to simple strength in numbers.

They wouldn’t do it for the thrill of killing as the psychopath does, but simply for the betterment of their group. Via the death penalty, war, self-defense, and vigilantism, we tend to weed out the violent psychopaths among us for our own mutual benefit.

Lethal Injection Table
Lethal Injection Table

Many like to think it’s because we’re exterminating evil, but if there is no deity or anti-deity, all we’re really doing is preserving our societal construct.

As for those we consider evil, they’re just psychopaths, pure and simple. People lacking empathy and the innate desire to contribute to the advancement of the human race through societal behavior.

When we think of them as evil, we feed their ego by giving them the impression that they’re somehow closer to a deity or otherwise superhuman. But if evolution has worked in our favor because we are societal, they are actually inferior—arguably, mentally handicapped beings.

As psychological research continues to advance our understanding of the human brain, there is hope we’ll find solutions to mental disorders like sociopathy and/or psychopathy. But in the meantime, it would be nice if we stop sensationalizing these people by calling them evil; they’re just genetically and behaviorally defective. Elevating their status to something superhuman by calling them evil, will only encourage their behavior.

17 thoughts on “Is Evil A Passé term? An Atheist’s Thought Experiment.”

  1. I disagree with your use of the words defective, subhuman and inferior. Morality is relative, conscience is a burden and the weak fear the strong


  2. Gary, this is an interesting take with some merit to it. However, I don’t see what it has to do with religion or faith.

    Also — point of interest? By lumping Jesus in with God, Allah, Zeus, and Odin in the way that you did, you imply that he never existed. Don’t tell me you’re one of those peculiar atheists who denies that Jesus was a real person?

    Also, I think you are referring to sociopaths, not psychopaths.


    1. Upon further investigation, I find that both psychopaths and sociopaths exhibit anti-social behavior. Previously I was under the impression that psychopaths are delusional but not necessarily anti-social; however, it seems that they are typically anti-social as well. Please disregard the last sentence of my original post.


    2. “Don’t tell me I’m one of those…” Is kind of insulting language, don’t you think?

      But nonetheless, I make no claim about whether a person named Jesus existed at that time, I’m referring to Jesus the son of God. Which if I have come to believe there’s not enough evidence to support there is a god, then I must also say there isn’t enough evidence to support there is no son of god, either.

      I do not deny there is a God or his son, by the way. That’s an important distinction. I simply believe I don’t have the evidence to support a god at this time.

      As a proper scientifically minded person, I would not make an irresponsible unscientific statement saying that God, Jesus, Allah, Zeus, or Odin don’t exist, but that the burden of proof is merely on people making the claim that they do. I cannot prove a negative.


      1. You’re right; it is insulting language, but not necessarily directed toward you. I have come to respect you to a certain degree, and I was hoping that you wouldn’t disappoint me. That is why I used language that would catch your attention.

        You see, there are atheists out there who claim that Jesus of Nazareth was not actually a living, breathing person who once walked the earth. Whether you believe he was divine is irrelevant. He was as real as Caesar or Cleopatra. The historical and literary evidence toward that end is pretty conclusive. Since he was an influential historical figure, it would not be odd for even an atheist to have feelings of some kind about him, which is the context you used.

        Anyway, I always think it is funny when someone claims that Jesus never existed in an attempt to defend their atheism, especially while they simultaneously pretend to be smarter and more rational than all those superstitious religious folk. The idea that Jesus never existed amounts to nothing more than a conspiracy theory, if you ask me.


  3. Do you mean to say that you *are* an atheist who believes Jesus wasn’t a real person? Because as I said, it wasn’t necessarily directed toward you. Nevertheless, I seem to have offended you. I apologize. I will try to word my comments more carefully in the future.


    1. I was never interested enough to have an opinion about whether there was a real Jesus, so I have no opinion. But for the purposes of this post, that question isn’t applicable as I was referring to the son of God.

      I can happily accept that person existed as a person. As a son of god however, I do not believe any evidence outside anecdotal evidence from the Bible, supports a God or therefore a son of that god.


      1. Fair enough. But there is one thing I don’t understand. In a previous comment, you said, “I have come to believe there’s not enough evidence to support there is a god.” Yet, in this comment, you say, “I was never interested enough to have an opinion about whether there was a real Jesus.”

        My question is… How can you actively believe there isn’t enough evidence for a god if you’ve never been interested enough even to look into whether there was a real person named Jesus? I’m sure it has occurred to you that if there is a god, he possibly would have left historical evidence of his existence through one or more selected people (like Jesus). I mean, it’s sort of like me asserting that I believe there isn’t enough evidence that a device exists that can take man to the moon, but never bothered looking into the historical evidence of moon-walking claims.

        Perhaps there are more things in heaven and earth, Gary, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.


      2. Do you research Norse mythology? Or do you research L.Ron Hubbard? I don’t research any of that either.

        At first, I separated the son of god from Jesus the man, and you were ok with that, now you’re putting them back together. I think I’ve answered this as well as I need to at this point. I’m just not interested in either version of Jesus.


  4. Actually, I have researched some things of that nature, but I usually save my time for ideas that are fairly widespread and have withstood the test of time. (If there is a god who wants to be known, I assume he has the power to keep knowledge of himself alive in the world.)

    For example, I looked into Mormonism several months ago. I found that the Book of Mormon apparently originated from one man who claims to have interacted with an angel and translated some golden tablets, which the angel then conveniently took back (thus, no golden tablets to serve as evidence). Moreover, no evidence of the cities mentioned in the Book of Mormon has been found. Needless to say, I am not convinced that the Book of Mormon is an authentic communication from a deity.

    The Hebrew Scriptures, on the other hand, are a different animal altogether. Historians generally agree that they were written by many different people over the space of hundreds or thousands of years, and there are some very old copies in existence. Archaeological evidence has generally supported the historical claims in these books. Certain books (like Daniel), if they were written when they purport to be written, provide striking evidence of foreknowledge of the rise and fall of major world empires. I’m not saying this is proof, but they are not so easily dismissed as the Book of Mormon.

    The Apostolic Scriptures (New Testament) were also written by numerous people, many of them eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus’s life, and Paul, if not an eyewitness, was certainly an unlikely convert. There are some very early copies of these writings in existence as well, accompanied by the existence of a fervent group of early believers. The early history of Christianity is not shrouded in secrecy; it is attested to by historians such as Josephus (who was not a believer; hence he had no reason to fabricate it). None of this is easily brushed away. The question isn’t whether Jesus of Nazareth existed; the question is whether the evidence weighs for or against his claims.

    Also, there is another thing I find fascinating: the Jewish people, after nearly two thousand years of exile and dispersion, have retained their identity and faith, resisted assimilation, survived a Holocaust, and now almost beyond comprehension, many have returned to their ancestral home in Israel, which is now a country again. In addition, for such a tiny country, they are surprisingly dominant in world news and politics. The exile and return are consistent with the ancient claims of the Hebrew Scriptures regarding the people of Israel. Is there really something to their claims of being God’s chosen people?

    I apologize if I’m boring you. I just find it so cliche when self-styled atheists assume that theists have never examined the evidence for or against their faith or other faiths, when they themselves have never bothered examining any historical evidence. Take it as a compliment that I think you’re better than this, Gary. If you’re not even interested in the idea, maybe it would be more logical to call yourself an agnostic (or even an apathetic). I know it doesn’t sound as educated as “atheist,” but perhaps it would be more honest. I’m sorry in advance because I probably just hurt your feelings, but I am trying to help you be more logical here.


    1. I use atheist because it’s the most convenient and understood term. Many don’t know what agnostic really means. I would actually call myself an agnostic atheist. Again, I’m open to the idea that there is a creator, but I am only open to scientific evidence, not anecdotal evidence such as the Bible, Quran, etc.

      In the truest sense, I an atheist because I do not believe. But the issue will always be that there are people who are make an unscientific claim that there is no God, and I do not do that. So how do I differentiate myself from those people? I call myself an agnostic atheist. But then people don’t know what that means, and I’m back to using just atheist. I can’t win either way.

      You note that you read about other religions, and that’s because that interests you. Science interests me. Not anecdotes from books largely inconsistent with what we know via the scientific method. I’m not interested in them because they are unscientific in nature.

      I don’t know if you read books on physics or other scientific literature, but if you don’t, that’s OK. We should all read what we enjoy reading and learning.


      1. Well, that’s understandable, although I’m surprised if many people who read your blog don’t know what agnostic means. Certainly I understand that you are intellectually agnostic, but functionally atheist. My main issue is that you assert you believe there is no evidence of a god. If I were in your shoes, I would qualify that statement as “I believe there is no scientific evidence of a god.” Saying there is no evidence is an awfully broad statement.

        Actually, science and math are my first loves, and I have two engineering degrees and work as an engineer. As you can imagine, I’ve read plenty of science books in my life, some for school and some for fun. In my experience, science addresses natural phenomena, and almost by definition, a deity would be outside nature, so I’m not sure what scientific evidence you were expecting to find.

        I do understand if you are put off by the nonscientific nature of religious books such as the Bible. I think that many religious folks have unnecessarily made creation and evolution, for instance, points of contention with scientists, much as happened with heliocentrism. The Bible and other works were not intended to be science textbooks, and the authors were only human beings, after all (none of whom were around to experience creation — in fact, one of my favorite verses is, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”). That doesn’t mean that none of them contain any genuine accounts of interaction with a creator.

        I guess what I’m getting at is that as much as I love science, it doesn’t answer my most important questions, and I don’t expect it to. I know this sounds strange, but science by itself just doesn’t satisfy my sense of reason and intuition. I put all the pieces together, and I see big chunks missing from the puzzle. I think that is true for a lot of people. Therefore, I don’t think it is quite fair to generalize from saying you believe there is no scientific evidence, to saying you believe there is no evidence [whatsoever]. Does that make sense?


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