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The Concept Of Evil In Religion

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Although the concept of evil is one that has long held a ubiquitous presence in our society, it is something that most people do not seriously consider to be applicable to their own lives. In today’s digital age, people are faced with an oversaturation of media informing them of tragedies that occur across the world every day; given this, it is only natural for people to isolate the atrocities they witness from their personal lives. It would not be strange, for example, for one to turn on the television, see a criminal being presented, and assume that their evil is something that simply exists as it does in its current form – some foreign entity that only appears in certain people. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, evil is something that is developed in a person – something that anyone can be susceptible to under the right conditions, without discrimination.

Evil is not inherent upon birth. When an infant is first born, it is impossible for it to comprehend abstract concepts such as “good” or “evil”. All of its actions are driven purely by instinct, whether that refers to its physical or emotional drives. Having not yet developed a sense of morality, an infant does not have the capacity for immorality. This quickly changes as the infant grows older – it can be argued, for instance, that a person may not be evil upon birth but could carry a predisposition to become evil later in life. This is undoubtedly true, with genetic factors existing that can cause people to become more prone to aggression and violence. However, professor of development psychopathology Simon Baron-Cohen sheds insight into the limitations of this theory, stating that “human behaviour is never more than 50% determined by genes” and that “there is no gene that will inevitably lead to psychopathy”1. In the novel The Bad Seed by William March, the character Rhoda is presented as a young girl who, for seemingly no explainable environmental reasons, carries psychopathic traits. It is later revealed that her ancestry included an infamous serial killer, with the implication being that she inherited the “bad seed” genes for psychopathy from her. However, the above information informs us that not even Rhoda could have manifested evil without the necessary conditions, even if she was more susceptible to it. It follows that if people are not born inevitably evil, it must be something developed over one’s lifetime.

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For evil to arise within a person, specific conditions and circumstances are usually present. For most people leading an ordinary life, there is no reason to stray away from the socially acceptable – what is generally considered to be “good”. It is behaviour that deviates from these societal norms that is the exception, and so it makes sense that such anomalous behaviour tends to originate from aberrant social settings. People who “commit anti-social acts or break the law”1 usually live or are placed in such an environment. This concept is explored in the novel Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, wherein Raskolnikov, a poverty-stricken ex-student living within a morally bankrupt society, commits murder for money. Having been denied money from a pawnbroker and overhearing a conversation discussing the benefits of her potential death, he becomes utterly convinced in killing her. The film A Simple Plan also explores this concept, but from a different angle; rather than depicting the moral descent of a person surrounded by criminality, it follows an otherwise normal person who becomes faced with temptation. Hank, confronted with a large sum of abandoned money, becomes swayed into taking it despite being an upstanding, law-abiding citizen his whole life. However, it is this initial act of greed that sets into motion the future murders he commits in order to protect that seemingly harmless secret. In both of these cases, the recurring idea portrayed is of how the warped mental state arising from such aberrant social settings can pave the path for evil.

As an ultimately subjective concept, evil is affected by personal beliefs and values. Under normal circumstances, a person’s moral compass would prevent them from committing malicious acts. Within this domain, there exists several things that most people can universally agree are immoral, such as murder and rape. It is the variance between people’s moralities, caused through environmental factors, that create the divide between good and evil. For a real-world example, take Nazi Germany. Through systematic indoctrination of fascist ideology, the persecution of an entire race of people could be justified because weren’t viewed as human2. Another more modern example is ISIS, a terrorist organisation that justifies killing others in the name of their deity3. The point of commonality between Raskolnikov, Nazi Germany, and ISIS is that none of them believe that they are evil – through some form of ideological justification, they are self-assured in the righteousness of their actions. The innate empathy that usually causes people to think “murder is wrong” is squandered underneath an upbringing of criminality or of indoctrination. Can we then classify them to be objectively evil? The answer to that is “no”. The premise that one can objectively classify something as good or evil in the first place is flawed, since such concepts are merely products of the human mind; things are only evil because they are collectively believed to be evil. For this reason, the above cases can be considered examples of evil because they contradict humanity’s shared sense of morality. They, like all cases of evil, are deviants and aberrations of the human condition.

Evil is not an easy concept to grasp. It is neither tangible nor is it visible; people know it exists but can’t seem to agree on what it means; it is everywhere around us but there is no objective way to measure it. Most importantly, however, it appears in the hearts of people. When confronted with sheer malevolence, it can be easy to forget this fact – that evil manifests itself not in the form of a demon, a spirit, or a ghoul, but as another human. That is not to say that one should sympathise with mass-murderers or condone their actions in any way, but rather that one should not avert one’s eyes from the true nature of evil. That evil is not a static trait possessed by some people – that evil is created, not born.

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The Concept Of Evil In Religion. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 5, 2023, from
“The Concept Of Evil In Religion.” Edubirdie, 17 Feb. 2022,
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The Concept Of Evil In Religion [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 17 [cited 2023 Feb 5]. Available from:
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