The hero rides triumphantly off into the sunset while the villain gets his just desserts. We all secretly enjoy the struggle between good and evil and in many ways, it is extremely satisfying to see the good guys defeat the bad guys in a blaze of glory. The concept of good and evil exists in every culture. They are necessary social forces influencing how humankind decides to interact with itself. Yet is appears paradoxical that human beings have such a disturbing capacity to be evil as well as good. What drives a person to be shockingly violent while another willingly risks their own life to help someone they do not know? Moreover, in a time when destructive technologies and artificial intelligence continue to develop and strengthen, it is critical we understand the human race’s capacity for good and evil.
It would be dangerous to suggest that some people are inherently ‘good’ while others are inherently ‘bad’ or ‘evil’. Human nature is significantly more complex than this. Every person has a combination of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ qualities and history provides countless examples of ‘good’ people doing ‘bad’ things. Advocates genuinely believe they are fighting for a just cause against an evil enemy and once the evil factions are overpowered or killed, peace and goodness will reign supreme. This would suggest then that there is an interdependence between good and evil.
Today, people live in a symbolic environment. Mass media such as broadcasting, publishing, and the Internet provide our main source of daily information, thereby bringing virtually everyone into a shared culture. Humans live in a world experienced, created, and maintained largely through many different forms of storytelling. According to Dr Walter Fisher, USC Professor of Communication, “narratives play an important role in the (informal) enculturation of humans in a society and can be viewed as one of the primary vehicles for the ritual maintenance of society’s morals and values over time.”
Before the advent of mass media, parents or community elders would tell stories to younger generations, like fairytales and myths, to explain how the world works. Nowadays, television, film, newspapers, radio and social media platforms act as our storytellers, integrating individuals into the established social order by offering specific demonstrations of values and behaviours. Consequently, what we see and hear via mass media is the product of society legitimising a certain identity and social order.
As such, we learn about life, people, places, power and family life through either real or simulated media representations. Stories represent what and who counts as good, important and valuable in our culture, through selecting and highlighting certain aspects or models more frequently than others.
Think of the plots of any action movie: James Bond, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones; the bad people are usually easily identifiable. Representations of evil, they are ruthless, maniacal, without remorse, going to any lengths to get what they desire. The audience is made to feel that it is okay, righteous and pleasurable even, to see the good guys inflict violence upon them. Because the villains like to hurt people, it’s okay to hurt them. Because they like to kill people, it’s okay to kill them. After all, they are evil and evil must be destroyed. But what is this kind of story really teaching us?
Today, the issue is not whether a story is an ennobling one, a good myth to live by, but will it sell? The more special effects, seemingly impossible stunts and plot twists and turns, makes for high ratings or a box office hit. Stories espousing good and evil sell because they are easy and simple to understand, yet from a religious viewpoint this can be dangerously deceptive. It keeps us from looking deeper, from trying to discover causes.
Until the last 150 years or so, the most important stories for most people were religious. Religion dates back some 5 500 years, designed as a form of social control to ensure the survival of groups or individuals. Religion also helped explain natural phenomena and became a convenient mechanism for social interaction. From an historical perspective, religion served a purpose; it gave people of limited knowledge a way to make sense of themselves and their surroundings on a sparsely populated planet.
However, not all religions view good and evil in the same way. Buddhism focuses on the three roots or ‘poisons’ of evil: greed, ill will and delusion. Instead of the struggle between good and evil, Buddhism teaches that the problem is our lack of self-knowledge; do we truly understand what motivates us? This viewpoint implies a very different way to address the issues of ignorance and desire.
In Islam, the problem of evil and human suffering is either the painful result of sin, or it is a test. The Islamic holy book or Quran states that when humankind chooses to act in ways that are not in accordance with the divine plan, he will experience suffering of some sort. Therefore, the objective of Islam to help humanity understand the purpose of suffering and offer guiding principles in how to overcome various forms of evil.
However, over the centuries, religion has continued to give ground to science. Religious psychologist, David Wulff, suggests that we need a new ethos for an Age of Science, a new morality that incorporates the findings of science and applies scientific thinking and the methods of science to tackling moral problems and resolving moral dilemmas. Wulff proposes that in the modern world, organised religion is simply inadequate to the task. Indeed, there would appear to be an undeniable connection between monotheism and violence. As many conflicts have been fought on these principles, it seems evident that monotheism has proved an ineffectual prescription for morality. Not only does religious affiliation not make one more moral, it can lead to greater intolerance, racism, and the erosion of other values cherished in a free and democratic society. The rise of numerous activist groups and strained international relations highlight that religion may not be the solution but actually part of the problem. As psychologist and science historian Michael Shermer proposes, “If a greater percentage of the world’s population believe in God than ever before in history and if the world is going to hell in an immoral handbasket as never before, then the argument that we cannot be good without God would seem to be refutable.”