The Psychology of Belief, Part 2: The Myth of Pure Evil

In thinking about how religious belief goes wrong (and, thus, how it might go right) I need to back up and discuss some fascinating work on the roots of evil by the social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister.

In Baumeister's very good book EVIL: INSIDE HUMAN VIOLENCE AND CRUELTY he begins by suggesting that our current mythology of evil needs to be rejected if we are to look objectively about the roots of human violence. Baumeister starts by dismantling what he calls "the myth of pure evil."

When we think of evil, Baumeister suggests, we tend to use a schema with three parts. These are:

1. Evil is intentional harm.
2. The perpetrators of the harm are sadistic, they enjoy harming others.
3. The victim is innocent and good.

Consequently, when we put all this together, evil is a sadistic force that randomly inflicts gratuitous violence on innocent, unsuspecting victims.

Now it is certainly true that sadists, serial killers, and child molesters walk among us. But Baumeister points out that by focusing on these people as much as we do in the news media, movies (e.g., Silence of the Lambs), or books, we dramatically fail to understand how very rare these kinds of people really are. They account for only the smallest fraction of human violence. To put the point bluntly, you are many times much more likely to be killed by your spouse than a sadistic serial killer.

So, what causes most human violence and cruelty if "pure evil" isn't doing most of it? What Baumeister found is this: Victims. The real irony of violence is that it is perpetrated by "victims." Victims kill and create more victims. Perhaps some examples would be helpful.

When we look at WW II Germany how can we explain what happened? We cannot explain the Holocaust with the myth of pure evil. It is too simple to say that the Holocaust occurred because "Hitler was an evil man." That is certainly true, but it does not explain how Hitler was able to gain and exert such influence. Why wasn't Hitler dismissed as a crackpot? The Holocaust needed the explicit and/or implicit support of the average German citizen (see "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust" by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, a remarkable book). Was Germany simply full of sadists? No, it was full of victims. In the minds of ordinary Germans, their treatment before, during, and especially after WW I, created a seething sense of injustice in the common man. Thus, in many ways, the average German saw WW II as completely justified. Hitler was able to capitalize on the general feeling that Germany had been victimized.

Look at 9/11. The men who highjacked those plains felt fully justified in their actions. They were "evil" to us, but in their own minds they were victims. Victims of American capitalist imperialism.

Look at the violence between the Palestinians and Israel. Both sides feel they are victims in this fight and, as a consequence, the violence rolls on. (BTW, this dynamic explains the escalating anger and hatred between the political left and religious right. Basically, both sides feel that they are victims, victimized by the other. The liberals feel victimized by the Bush/Gore election, among other things, and the religious right feels intellectually marginalized by the left. In short, since both sides feel they are victims, the anger and hatred escalates.)

Finally, most violence and murder in the world is done by people we know and love. Being killed by a stranger is very rare. If my wife were to be killed, I'm automatically the first suspect. If I, the husband, were the killer, what would be the most commonly cited motive? Guess.

If you guessed that he discovered her having an affair or that she was threatening to leave him, you're dead on. And guess what? When husbands kill wives the husbands often feel that they are the TRUE VICTIM. That she had hurt him FIRST. Ironic, isn't it? (For more on the psychology of homicide see David Buss' "The Murderer Next Door.")

What does all this have to do with religion? Well, basically, violence doesn't come from evil. It comes from people who are in the grip of the vision that they have GOOD REASONS and JUSTIFICATIONS for their actions. And these people are like you and me. They ARE you and me. And guess where an excellent repository of reasons to hate or hurt people comes from? You guessed it. Religion.

More on that tomorrow.

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One thought on “The Psychology of Belief, Part 2: The Myth of Pure Evil”

  1. Excellent blog post... i read the happiness hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, and that is where i learned about this book by Baumeister. What Haidt said about the myth of pure evil has stuck with me, and I must say what you shared here added to it. Thanks.

    so yeah, seeing how the sense of being a victim tends to be at the root of much of the worst evil, really shows how necessary forgiveness is

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