In William Blake's famous poem "The Tyger," the poet describes the tiger's ferocity and wonders about its Creator: "Did he smile his work to see? Did he who made the Lamb make thee?"
A telling question. A heart-felt, serious question.
The conventional understanding of God as all-powerful makes God responsible for both good and evil ("weal and woe"). People wrestle emotionally with the idea that good and evil could have their source in a single all-powerful being: Does God choose to do evil?
One response is a dualistic view of God, a "good" God figure and a "bad" God figure: in conventional terms, "God" and "Satan." In religious discourse today, many traditions resort to the idea of a "bifurcated" Power: Good vs. Evil, God vs. Satan.
People who think this way tend to classify other people as either on "God's side" or "Satan's side." It becomes a natural tendency to demonize anyone who disagrees. This bifurcated, "binary," right-wrong, good-evil way of thinking is a major source of violence, cruelty, and evil in the world. The moment we classify someone as "the spawn of Satan" is the moment we eliminate any need to understand, to feel compassion for, to love that person. The Lucifer Effect shows clearly that de-humanizing others is the first step toward evil actions.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said: "We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love...There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies." The division of the world into those who are "for us" and "against us" is not merely simplistic; it stunts our growth.
To understand the existence of evil, it helps if we don't get tangled up in conventional ideas of God. Consider: The whole scope of creation, over the 13 billion years from the Big Bang till now, is a still-developing process. From tiny vibrating strings of energy came particles and elements and stars and planets. The violence of the earliest planetary surface did not allow for life to exist. But as the Earth stabilized, life began in its oceans.
If we accept that the process leading to the emergence of humanity is a process, then it's possible to understand that the evils of natural disasters (and the"tyger") are inextricably linked to the evolution of intelligent life. Events we humans would experience as catastrophic were part of the process that preceded our existence.
Those events continue to occur because the world around us came into being through a process that began with the birth of our planet 4.5 billion years ago. So at least some of the evil we see in the world is the result of natural processes - the same processes that also produced human beings capable of empathy and compassion.
As for the evil that humans cause through callousness and greed...we have the capacity to learn from experience. All during our lives we learn from our personal experiences. As a species, we learn from our history. The future of the planet - and the nature of "future humanity" - depends on how we, today, respond to our experiences and our history.
Understanding the Lucifer Effect helps us to make better choices. If we are conscious of the existence of evil, and understand that extremes of evil are expressions of a potential that lies within every one of us, how are we to live moral and compassionate lives?
Every human being lives immersed in a human culture. That culture may be a moral environment. It may be an immoral environment. The lesson of the Lucifer Effect is that we must choose (consciously and intentionally) to look critically at the culture that surrounds us. When we step back from our culture's embedded assumptions, we take the first step toward moral independence...the first step toward changing the moral rules of our culture. Whether the changes are good or evil depend upon our choices. In the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, "The line dividing good and evil cuts through every human heart."
It is a challenge to accept the complexity and uncertainty of an unfinished universe, to bear responsibility as creators of the future. Evil is all around us, in the bad things that happen because nature is essentially untamed, and in the bad things that happen because human beings are still a work in progress. But we need not cry out against God when good people suffer terrible wrongs. And we should not wallow in frailty or helplessness.
Instead we must pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and create a universe that is more closely aligned with our best understanding of what is good. This is a great responsibility, but we do not have the luxury to abdicate. Whether we like it or not, our universe is unfinished. Maybe we see it as one where we work alongside God. Maybe we see it as one where we create both the idea of God and the reality. But when it comes to eradicating evil - Dorothy Day put it well: "No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There's too much work to do."
My colleague Rev. Brooks points out one of the great ironies of humanity's struggle against evil. Sometimes the fight itself can create the very evil we are trying so desperately to eliminate. Jesus had a fairly simple (but astoundingly profound) message: We are all flawed; we are all capable of evil; we all need to take responsibility for rising above our flaws. Humanity's rather unfortunate need to locate evil in "the other" not only de-humanizes the other, but it causes us to be blind to the evil that lurks within each of us. Quit blaming God. Quit blaming Satan. Quit blaming the people next door and the people on the other side of the world. Start working on yourself. Thanks again to Jennifer for framing these issues so clearly and so eloquently.
Rev. Curtis Webster
By Rev. Curtis Webster | Posted on October 19, 2009, 12:24 pm
The Lucifer Effect website has certainly been a great source for new and useful information, and I've thoroughly enjoyed the writings of Reverends Brooks and Webster on the Theology Blog. Readers should be aware of other sources for relevant research by Dr. Zimbardo and others (he often refers to them as "oldies but goodies"), and these are listed here on The Lucifer Effect website as Related Links <lucifereffect.com/links.htm>.
The "Z" site <zimbardo.com> is where I obtained an essential on the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, "Fighting Terrorism by Understanding Man's Capacity for Evil." That edition of the article, as published in the quarterly Fresno Area Psychologist, contains an introductory note which declared rightly "the extremists in our country will begin to publicly model a mentality not too dissimilar from that of our newest enemy of the state." At the conclusion of George Orwell's Animal Farm, the "more equal than others" ruling pigs are now standing upright and, while negotiating with neighboring farmers, have become indistinguishible from their former human enemies.
In the "Fighting Terrorism" article, Dr. Zimbardo points out that the work of "our intelligence and military forces has the collateral danger of modeling revenge and retaliation at a national level that can become a stimulus for individuals to adopt a similar orientation. [This] fuels the cycle of violence started by the terrorists," accelerating fear and anger, aggression and intolerance.
Zimbardo cautioned us that regarding a terrorist attack as "'senseless,' 'mindless,' 'insane,' or the work of 'madmen' is wrong [because] it fails to adopt the perspective of the perpetrators, as an act with a clearly defined purpose that we must understand in order to challenge it most effectively." Interestingly, at that same time, our president seemed to dismiss Zimbardo's instruction in saying "We will have no compassion for our enemies."
If you enjoyed reading about the Stanford Prison Experiment in The Lucifer Effect, there is a fine presentation and supplemental materials available at <prisonexp.org>. In Zimbardo's 1972 article "The Pathology of Imprisonment" (not on these websites but continually included in James Henslin's Down To Earth Sociology), we learn "that the mere act of assigning labels to people and putting them into a situation where those labels acquire validity and meaning is sufficient to elicit pathological behavior. This pathology is not predictable from any available diagnostic indicators we have in the social sciences, and is extreme enough to modify in very significant ways fundamental attitudes and behavior."
Moral restraint, compassion, and forbearance in our dealings with others are encouraged in biblical writing, and disinhibiting and dehumanizing are discouraged. Fundamental among Jewish and Christian beliefs is the command "You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord" (Leviticus 19 v.17-18). Perhaps David and Solomon were tempering their behavior with this command while contemplating these matters in their own lives:
"Be angry, but do not sin; commune with your own hearts on your beds, and be silent" (Psalm 4 v.4);
"Do not devise harm against your neighbor, while he lives in security beside you. Do not contend with a man without cause, if he has done you no harm" (Proverbs 3 v.29, 30);
"With his mouth the godless man destroys his neighbor, but through knowledge the righteous will be delivered. He who despises his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding keeps silent" (Proverbs 11 v.9, 12); and
"Like one who takes a dog by the ears is he who passes by and infuriates himself with strife not belonging to him" (Proverbs 26 v.17).
On the "Z" site <zimbardo.com> I found a range of publications that seem to progress in their themes:
three articles on the psychological impact of terrorist alarms used in the name of national security;
a chapter-length discussion on people turning to evil, contributed to another researcher's book but no doubt a seed for Zimbardo's The Lucifer Effect;
commentary on the report of the American Psychological Association's Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS Report), encouraging fellow professionals to hold to ethical standards regardless of another's instructions to, or compliance with, the contrary; and
a terrific review of past and present accomplishments in the fields of psychology, published in the journal American Psychologist.
Interestingly again, at the same time Dr. Zimbardo was finding good in the work of psychologists everywhere (late spring 2004), our president was declaring these as "the end times," a biblical expression denoting the fall of a society, marked by "wars and rumors of wars," lawlessness, wide-spread deception, and neighborly love going cold (Matthew 24, 2 Timothy 3, and 2 Peter 3).
As stated in The Lucifer Effect, "it is only by becoming aware of our vulnerability to social pressure that we can begin to build resistance to conformity when it is not in our best interest to yield to the mentality of the herd" (page 265). "Want people to resist authority pressures? Provide social models of peers who rebelled" (page 272). We need more of such models today, at all levels of society. Dr. Zimbardo recalls for our benefit Sherif's autokinetic effect / ambiguous reality experiments, Asch's line comparison / group conformity experiments, and Milgram's blind obedience to authority experiments in chapter 12 of The Lucifer Effect, demonstating those vulnerabilities to social pressure. In chapter 16 he gives us a hopeful outlook by nurturing the hero in us all. And the Lucifer Effect Theology Blog offers relevant, thoughtful, and inspiring writing by Reverends Brooks and Webster, weaving history and current events with biblical wisdom and the empirical findings of social scientists.
There are some we share our world with who have taken the ploughshares of good psychological research and fashioned them into swords of violence and ruthlessness. They reject democratic discussion, insulating themselves with an authoritarian communication style. Be mindful that it is we ourselves who bring their worldview into reality by compliance and willfully relinquishing our freedoms. The Lucifer Effect website (along with Zimbardo's text and valuable reference notes) is a best source to be informed and for learning how to resist unwanted influences. Adults raising a child can find themselves catering to the endless whims of a tyrant, such that it is the child raising the adults. Restoring command starts by adults asserting "We live here, too!" and resuming life's work with the practices and principles of mature human beings. "Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all transgressions" (Proverbs 10 v.12), and the choice of response is always our own. These things I believe.
Thank you, Doctor Zimbardo, Reverend Brooks, and Reverend Webster, individually and collectively, for your work and getting it out there for us to implement, and for your models of integrity, courage, and good will.
By NaiveScientist | Posted on October 24, 2009, 8:38 am
DEAR NAIVE SCIENTIST
WHAT A LOVELY STATEMENT, THAT I THANK YOU FOR SHARING WITH ALL THOSE FOLKS OUT THERE WHO MAY CHECK IN ON THE ELOQUENT AND INSPIRING WRITINGS OF MY COLLEAGUES, REV. BROOKS AND WEBSTER!
WHEN ONE WRITES A BOOK, AN ARTICLE, A CHAPTER, A BLOG
IT IS A SOLITARY ACT THAT ONE HOPES ACTUALLY REACHES INTO THE MINDS OF PEOPLE "OUT THERE." BUT ONE NEVER KNOWS BECAUSE MOST PEOPLE NEVER ACKNOWLEDGE HAVING LISTENED OR LEARNED. I RECENTLY MEET A MAN AT A CONFERENCE WHO SAID MY COURSE IN INTRO PSYCH AT NYU IN 1962 CHANGED HIS LIFE FROM A WANDERING INDIFFERENT STUDENT TO A HIGHLY MOTIVATED ONE THAT WENT ON TO EARN A Ph.D. in clinical psychology and has been teaching and practicing to this day. But had I not met him in a chance encounter he might never have shared this impact I had on him 47 years ago!!
It is really vital for us to let our parents, teachers, family and friends know when they have made a significant difference in our lives.It not only is rewarding, it can enable them to keep doing it knowing their message is meaningful.
warm personal regards
By PHIL ZIMBARDO | Posted on November 16, 2009, 1:38 am
Great job for sharing this with us. I am indeed glad that I was able to read your opinion on the matter of everyone having evil and good inside of them. I know that everyone have good and evil inside of them but they should read this and then read the book The Lucifer Effect to understand how to control that amount of good and evil.
By Peter R. | Posted on January 21, 2010, 10:05 am