April 06, 2006


Imagine you are on Jeopardy and this “answer” comes up: “Religion which sees world as struggle between good and evil that will ultimately be won by a good God, followed by a day of judgment for all people where the good are rewarded and the evil are punished.”

Most people would probably say “What is Christianity?” or “What is Islam?” or “What is apocalyptic Judaism?” While those guesses are partially true, the best answer would be “What is Zoroastrianism?”

Zoroaster, aka Zarathustra, was an ancient Persian prophet who founded a religion based on dualism, or the struggle between good and evil. While Zoroastrianism has relatively few adherents today, the basic tenets of that religion passed on to other faiths. It influenced Judaism after the Babylonian exile, early Christianity, Islam, and much of western culture, even though it is largely forgotten.

When the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche attempted to overturn the Western legacy of morality, he used the ancient Persian prophet as his mouthpiece in Thus Spake Zarathustra. [Full disclosure: El Cabrero first read Thus Spake Zarathustra in high school, where it messed with his mind almost as much as the gasoline he sniffed in junior high.]

To the extent that we view the world in terms of the struggle of good vs. evil, and it’s hard not to, we are children—and sometimes prisoners—of Zarathustra. It’s hard to deal with evil, either theoretically or practically. Here are some common problems:

NOT ENOUGH ZOROASTRIANISM. One problem is not taking evil seriously enough. A danger of an overly optimistic theology or world view is that it leaves one defenseless against evil. In the real world, life feeds on life and there is a LOT of deliberate and unconscious cruelty. To ignore this is to encourage evil to grow and thrive. Imagine a body without a defensive system to ward off predators or resist infections. Or imagine giving out your credit card number to total strangers…

BAD ZOROASTRIANISM. More common is bad or naïve Zoroastrianism, of which a leading exponent is President Bush, who apparently sees the world in terms of a struggle between good and evil in which he is the leading, and perhaps the only, example of the former. The problem with locating evil totally in the other is that it blinds one to one’s own evil, which hypothetically speaking, might include starting unnecessary wars, legitimizing torture, eroding civil liberties, damaging the public good to enrich the greedy few, etc.. Hypothetically…

There is also a version of bad Zoroastrianism among the so-called “left.” This consists of seeing the United States as the only source of evil in the world. People who fall victim to this delusion generally haven’t had the opportunity to live under Stalinism or Taliban-type rule.

GETTING IT RIGHT. A more promising approach is to recognize that every person and group has a tendency to see him/her/itself as the center of creation and to view that perceived good to it as good itself, regardless of the consequences to others. Individuals and especially groups are very good at justifying their own injustice and unrecognized violence. The tools can include self-deception, religion, ideology, or culture. When people can’t impose their will by force, they often achieve the same results through manipulation.

People in power are not necessarily more evil than those who aren’t—they just have more opportunity to do harm. Further, bureaucracies, governments, corporations, i.e. the “principalities and powers,” have a momentum and force of their own that coerce and constrain even those highly placed in them. And the most insidious kinds of evil are those that mask and view themselves as holiness and righteousness.

A STUDY OF EVIL. This view is supported by research as well as tradition. As social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister wrote in his masterful study Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, “Evil usually enters the world unrecognized by the people who open the door and let it in. Most people who perpetrate evil do not see what they are doing as evil.” Baumeister found that some of the cruelest kinds of evil are perpetuated by those motivated by idealism and often by religion itself: “The usual effect of religiosity is to make war more brutal, not less…When the perpetrators are driven by idealism, the victims do not get much mercy.”

THE BETTER WAY. There’s a better way and most of the heavy lifting has been done for us by the proverbial Founding Fathers (with a Founding Mother or two thrown in). They realized that, as the Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr later said, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

Hence, they designed the remarkable system of checks, balances, and liberties that has carried us this far. Recognizing that every person, system, and interest is capable of abuse, they designed a government where each major branch of government checked the others and where all branches and powers were checked in turn by a populace guaranteed the basic freedoms and the right to free speech, a free press, freedom of religion, due process, and the right to assemble and peaceably petition for redress of grievances.

In their time, the principle danger was concentrated political power or tyranny; in ours, it is concentrated economic power or oligarchy. But the insight remains valid.

In the inherently ambiguous world we inhabit, the best we can do is to recognize the potential pervasiveness of evil and develop mechanisms of countervailing power by which we each limit the amount of damage that we can do to each other. And ourselves.

Thus spake El Cabrero.

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