Back when I was in college (many years ago!), one of “the” raging intellectual arguments concerned the absolute versus relative nature of evil. We weren’t far removed from WWII and the discovery of Hitler’s “Final solution,” and “relativism” was a dirty word. Most Americans looked askance at people who suggested that different cultures might judge behaviors differently.
I haven’t encountered replays of that particular debate lately, but a recent newsletter from Pew brought it to mind. The newsletter–reporting on studies conducted by Pew’s Research Center–included the following paragraph:
About half of U.S. adults (48%) say that most things in society can be clearly divided into good and evil, while the other half (50%) say that most things in society are too complicated to be categorized this way, according to a new analysis of data from a recent Pew Research Center survey. Highly religious Americans are much more likely to see society as split between good and evil, while nonreligious people tend to see more ambiguity.
Ah–either/or. Good or evil. Right or wrong. If only the world was that simple…
Back in those youthful college days, most of us ended up by concluding that the fight between relativism and certainty was being vastly oversimplified. Although certain behaviors (genocide, for example) could undoubtedly be labeled “evil” no matter the culture, the real world confronts us daily with situations in multiple shades of gray. It might be comforting to believe in an accessible bright line that divides always good from always evil, but in the messy reality of the world we occupy, that line is often very fuzzy–and what lawyers like to call “fact-sensitive.”
There’s certainly wise versus unwise, wrong versus right… and then there’s good versus evil….
I still recall my first conversation with an Episcopal clergyman who later became a good friend, in which we discussed the positive and negative role of religion in helping people cope with the growing complexities of modern life, helping them navigate an increasingly complicated social and technological environment in which affixing unambiguous labels like “good” and “bad” was increasingly fraught. He saw his job as helping his congregants deal with the inevitable ambiguities of modern life–helping them ask the right questions, rather than insisting that they accept simple, pre-ordained, one-size-fits-all “right answers.”
My youngest son insists that this is the test of good versus bad religion–the good ones help you wrestle with such questions; the harmful ones insist they have the only acceptable answers….I think it’s fair to say that the growing number of “unchurched” and secular Americans is attributable in no small measure to the large number of religious denominations that insist on acceptance of a particular, doctrinal, always-right “answer.”
The Pew analysis does provide illumination of a fundamental (pun intended) reason for Americans’ current polarization. Whether based on religion or a semi-religious political ideology, the emotional need to categorize other humans–the need to divide an increasingly complex world into simple categories of “good” and “evil” that corresponds with “us” versus “them”–is a significant contributor to our current inability to communicate, let alone live together with at least a measure of civility and mutual respect.
After all, if progressive policies are evil, rather than simply “unwise” or “mistaken,” then the “good” people–the Godly warriors who have affixed that label– are justified in ignoring democratic processes and the rule of law in order to counter that evil.
And as horrifying as it may seem, that’s where we are–reliving a throwback to pre-modern times, and to the religious wars the nation’s Founders they thought they were avoiding by erecting that wall of separation between church and state.
I’ve always realized that there were some folks who needed that bright line, the high degree of moral certainty that characterized simpler times–but Pew’s study found 48% of Americans endorsing that pre-modern mindset.
That explains a lot..and it doesn’t bode well for e pluribus unum.