The Problem Of Evil: Why Do “Good” People Do Bad Things?

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Published April 11, 2007

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• E-mail Lauren Green

Thank you so much to all of you who wrote in about Sunday's special, "The Passion: Facts, Fictions and Faith."

There were so many wonderful comments, and I was overwhelmed by the positive responses! Next week I will write more about the special, and answer some of your questions about working on the project. It was indeed a life-shaping experience.

This week's blog is actually from a story a week before Easter. But it's a 24-7 subject.

— Lauren


I have worked in the news for the past, well, several years, and I've seen a recurring theme: that people, who appear normal and lead seemingly good lives, can commit very horrible crimes. Two recent examples that first come to mind are the Amish school shooting and the debacle at the Abu Ghraib prison.

History is rife with state-sponsored systemic evil, like Nazi Germany and the genocide in Rwanda, where a regular person's sense of right and wrong can go haywire in a political whirlwind that can reposition one's moral compass.

These two events that were committed by individuals, and the historic laundry list of bad regimes horrify us — and, at the same time, give us a secure sense that we would never commit such heinous crimes or get caught up in systems like that. But, could we … or would we?

A couple of weeks ago I interviewed psychologist Dr. Philip Zimbardo, author of the book, “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.” The book is based on the landmark Stanford Prison Experiment that took place 33 years ago. The experiment started with 24 regular college guys, who took the role of either guard or prisoner. In just six days, these normal boys turned the experimental prison into a house of horrors. Dr. Zimbardo says, “The guards began to use their power to dominate, to control, and ultimately, to crush the prisoners. So that meant that within 36 hours, one of these normal healthy kids had an emotional breakdown, and the same thing happened on day three, four and five.”

What Dr. Zimbardo discovered was how any normal person can quickly succumb to evil, under the right conditions. He then asks the question: “What makes people go wrong?” He found that it wasn't just a few bad apples causing evil, but a “bad barrel.” The system itself created the cauldron for evil to grow and be nourished. It's the same philosophy behind a “mob mentality.” And, unless people are aware of the dangers, they can easily get sucked in.

One of the interesting things about “The Lucifer Effect” is how a secular psychologist is embracing a theological term like “evil.” The secular world has many psychological and medical terms to describe the various human conditions. But “evil” conjures up images of the supernatural, a throwback to an age of ignorance, where there was a lack of “understanding” about simple psychiatry. “Evil” is a place with many unopened doors and untraveled, darkened corridors of the mind — something that's out of control. And in a sense, that's what Zimbardo means: the turning of a screw can happen so slowly. The vast distance that one travels, from a place of goodness and safety, to a place of horrors and mayhem, is almost imperceptible.

Evil is a term theologians know very well. In fact, it was an atheist who admitted to me that religion was discovered long before science, the pervasiveness of man's evil nature. But one of the perplexing issues about evil, at least theologically, is its origin. Where does it come from? Theologians really don't have an answer. And there have been volumes written about it.

We can, however, mention Lucifer's plight of being thrown out of heaven for challenging God's authority, and in so doing, metamorphosed from God's favorite angel, “the light bearer,” into Satan and his devils. But it still doesn't get to origin. And really, origin is a red herring, because it's a device used to assess blame. It's as if to say, if we discover the origin of evil we can rid it from ourselves and from the world, and lead happy, pleasant lives, with nothing that can harm or hurt us. Just as Alexander Solzhenitsyn says:

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who wants to destroy a piece of his own heart.”

So, Dr. Zimbardo has tapped into the evil that religion has fought against since the very beginning. And it's great the secular and sacred worlds are somehow finding common ground.

But the difference could be that religion's take on evil comes with a standard. For instance, the Bible talks about the fruit of the spirit, verses the acts of sinful nature. The “fruit of the spirit” being, “ love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” And some acts of sinful nature are “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, envy…” (Galatians 5:22) And, the list goes on.

What other learned types point out is that we're always quick to find evil in others, but rarely in ourselves. Yet, if we were to write down all our actions, thoughts and deeds for just one day, we would all find that we'd fall very short of the standard, by which we hold others up to.

In his book, Dr. Zimbardo exposes a physical prison that fostered evil, but he also says emotional and psychological prisons can bring about great evil as well. Emotional prisons like anger, hate, un-forgiveness, shyness, loneliness, discord and jealousy are all small prisons, housed within these fragile human bodies.

And world-renowned theologian Ravi Zacharias has a nice summation in his book “Can Man Live Without God”: “Until we come to that point of recognizing our own spiritual impoverishment, our enslavement is greater than if we were merely shackled”


• E-mail Lauren Green

Lauren Green serves as a religion correspondent for the FOX News Channel. Prior to this, Green served as a news anchor for “Fox and Friends,” where she provided daily news updates and covered arts for the network. You can read her complete bio here.


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http://www.foxnews.com/story/2007/04/11/problem-evil-why-do-ldquogoodrdquo-people-do-bad-things