Deliver Us from Evil

Barbara Smoker

Belief in a perfect god-creator requires the balancing concept of demonic evil to account for the unsatisfactory conditions of life for sentient creatures. We who discard the first have no need of the second.

Both concepts, in Judeo-Christian terms, are absolutes. The rationalist sees the conditions of life as a mix of good and bad in varying degrees.

The word evil is, however, also used more widely. In modern times, it is often watered down and used as an adjective synonymous with “wicked”—to describe, for instance, a cruel tyrant. Even the cruelest tyrant, however, is never wholly evil: Hitler, they say, loved his dog, Blondi, and would even take care to save the life of an insect.

In ancient times, on the other hand, evil was a potent noun, encompassing not only human wickedness but also all natural disasters from earthquakes to plagues. That is its connotation in the Lord’s Prayer—though why a supposedly beneficent and omnipotent God should require his creatures to appeal to him to deliver them from evils, let alone fail so often to do so, is left unresolved as the philosophical “problem of evil.” To the unbeliever, of course, evils present no philosophical problem—only the practical problems of striving to overcome them.

In its later theological sense, “evil” specifically denotes the diabolic exercise of a human free will in sinning against God—the concept of sin being the Genesis picture of it as, essentially, disobedience. In that fable, the act of disobedience is portrayed as the choice made by Adam and Eve, the first human beings, to partake of the forbidden fruit of the tree that imparted knowledge of good and evil. (It is never explained how they could possibly sin before they had acquired that knowledge!)

Since sin is defined as an offense against God, it follows that humanists, having no belief in a God or gods to be offended, can hardly be said to sin in the theological sense. And they do not see disobedience as necessarily a vice at all.

Believers still regard obedience (not only to God directly but also through his recognized earthly representatives) as a pre-eminent virtue; whereas, to the humanist, obedience must be subject to personal responsibility, assessing its likely consequences for good or ill.

Zoroaster (or Zarathustra), in the sixth century b.c.e., founded an ascendant gnostic movement named after him. As with all gnostic schools, Zoroastrianism held that salvation came through knowledge and the victory of good over evil. It also attempted to reconcile monotheism with the all-too-obvious failure of life’s aspired perfection by positing the creation (by God, Ahura Mazda) of twin spirits, one of which was to choose truth and light, the other falsehood and darkness: good and evil, spirit and matter—each forever pitted against the other. (A merger later evolved between the good twin and the creator.)

However, in the monotheistic Judeo-Christian tradition, this dualistic solution of the problem of evil has never been seen as a really satisfactory solution, since it obviously raises the further problem that, if God were responsible for creating everything, he could not escape responsibility for creating the spirit of evil—in Christian mythology, Satan. It is all very well to say that Satan was a fallen angel, originally created as Lucifer, who exercised his free will in a challenge to God, but why would an omniscient creator stand aside while one of his creatures deliberately spoiled all his perfect plans?

In Islam, Lucifer becomes Iblis and Satan Shaydban, while Muhammad compounded the persistent enigma with his doctrine of predestination.

In the third century c.e., the founder of Manichaeism, a Persian named Manes who grew up in the Zoroastrian tradition modified by multiculturalism, had wrestled with the problem of evil and finally taken the bull by the horns with a radical solution: the two principles of existence, personified as God (the Father of Greatness and Light) and Satan (the Prince of Darkness), must have been coeval. Thus, Satan was not created by God.

Combining disparate elements of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Judeo-Christianity, and Mithraism, Manichaeism aimed to be an ecumenical, universal religion. Manes operated, with missionary zeal, in Mesopotamia, which was a melting pot for many different religions and schools of philosophy. It was therefore the ideal place to absorb, exchange, and synthesize cultural trends, and, though Manes himself was martyred by the fundamentalist Zoroastrians, who regarded him as a heretic, Manichaeism became the most successful of all the gnostic movements and spread throughout the known world.

Like Buddhism, Manichaeism was ascetic, its devotees renouncing the world and all the pleasures of the flesh—whereas humanism stands firmly for a wholehearted acceptance of whatever joys life has to offer, restricted only by the avoidance, as far as possible, of doing harm or neglecting others.

Though essentially dualistic, the Christian churches have generally regarded Manichaeism as a major heresy.

They have tended to brush the problem of evil (or, more specifically, the problem of suffering in the attenuated context of divine goodwill) under the carpet. But it keeps emerging around the edges—to be exposed by atheistic philosophers, who ask how it can possibly be reconciled with God’s supposed beneficence. At the same time, a vague theodicy is seized upon by such fundamentalist believers as today’s president of the United States to justify their crusades against “enemies of the Lord.”

With pre-adolescent mentality and powerful fervor, Bush unknowingly espouses a sort of Manichaeism, polarizing good and evil in the world and in its peoples and parroting his sound-bite “the Axis of Evil”—though he himself sees no need, apparently, to renounce affluence and the pleasures of the flesh. To him, middle America—prosperous, white, and Christian—reflects the divine light; and he himself is directed by God, in Old Testament terms but with modern American technology, to exterminate socialism, secularism, and indistinct foreign lands. For America is “God’s own country.”

Humanism, from a more level-headed standpoint, presents a comparatively universal outlook; and, since perfection is impracticable and absolute evil nonexistent, it continually strives for the better to prevail over the worse, rather than the perfect over the diabolic.

Barbara Smoker

Barbara Smoker was hands-on president of the National Secular Society (U.K.) for twenty-five years (1971–1996).


Belief in a perfect god-creator requires the balancing concept of demonic evil to account for the unsatisfactory conditions of life for sentient creatures. We who discard the first have no need of the second. Both concepts, in Judeo-Christian terms, are absolutes. The rationalist sees the conditions of life as a mix of good and bad …

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