By Douglas Anele

In  African traditional religion, evil in the form of calamities and misfortunes,  is  almost always traced to supernatural causes. It is considered as punishment from the spiritual realm for committing what the Igbo call nso ala or abomination.

This conception, like all religious explanations of evil, is unscientific and cannot explain why evil also befalls new-born babies who cannot commit nso ala. Even if one brings in the idea of reincarnation and argues that the child is paying for misdeeds committed in a previous life, the reply would be that no one knows for sure that humans reincarnate, and  even if they do, why they must be punished in another life. Judaism, the aboriginal religion of the Jews, offers two explanations of evil.

The first explanation is that evil is punishment sent to sinners by Yaweh. The second is that Satan is the originator of evil. The second explanation was inherited by Christianity. Indeed, Jesus was confronted twice on the problem of evil, and his responces on both occasions were evasive (see Luke,13:1-5 and John,9:1-3) Some Christian sects, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, believe that God sometimes allows evil for the good of man.

Superficially, this explanation is attractive, but it is not consistent with the notion that God is omnipotent, because it implies that sometimes God can achieve the good only through evil. Still, even if evil leads to good eventually, it does not follow that the evil was no longer evil – or else Christians have no good reason to condemn those who tortured and crucified Jesus, because his death made possible the salvation of the world. As far as I am concerned, evil is evil, no matter what good might result from it.

If Nazism produced some good – and if we search thoroughly  we  may  find some – should any reasonable person excuse Hitler’s extreme madness on that account? Slavery led to the emergence of African-American communities in the United States – perhaps a good thing. Does it then follow that slavery was not evil?  Hinduism and Buddhism, two prominent religions in Asia, present interesting perspectives on the problem of evil. According to Upanishads, the core philosophical text of Hinduism, there is only one ultimate reality, Brahman.

Everything in  the universe, including humans, is the manifestation of Brahman. Therefore, it is an illusion for a person to think that she or he is separate from Brahman. In Hinduism, evil is the product of man’s attachment to material things, which leads to repeated reincarnations (samsara). The individual can achieve liberation from evil by purifying himself, and transcends karmic forces. Such a person returns back to Brahma and ceases to reincarnate.

Siddharta Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, taught Four Noble Truths which explain the cause of suffering and how it can be eliminated. These are (1) there is suffering in the world; (2) desire is the cause of suffering; (3) suffering can be stopped; and (4) suffering can be stopped by eliminating desire. Buddhism, like Hinduism, advocates detachment from material things and meditation as the route to liberation. I agree with the two Asian religions that desire leads to suffering or evil, and that detachment from material things helps to  eliminate it. However, not all desires are evil.

For example, the desire for spiritual development, for knowledge, is not evil. Moreover, it is not possible for a human being, as flesh and blood, to completely detach oneself from material things. I   believe that what causes problems for us is desire powered by greed and avarice. In any case, the type of evil that arises from natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and earthquakes cannot be explained satisfactorily on the basis of human behaviour.

Stoicism, a school of thought in ancient Greek philosophy, posited a pantheistic view of the universe which affirms that God is the soul of the universe, whereas the universe is the body of God. In the universe, everything happens according to the laws of nature. Therefore, in the deterministic worldview of the stoics, there is really no evil in the world.

When we say that some things are evil, we are simply admitting our ignorance about the role that very thing plays in maintaining the order and harmony in the cosmos. Plotinus and St. Augustine reflected deeply on the problem of evil, and their views on the subject are strikingly similar. Plotinus ascribes evil to matter, because matter occupies the lowest position in the ontological placement of entities in the universe.

Matter lacks being and  light, which is exactly what evil is. Plotinus believes that evil is not an entity; it is not a positive thing but a negation of being. As a result, Plotinus advises us to detach ourselves from material things to allow our souls to ascend into the spiritual world. St. Augustine adopted the doctrine of Plotinus that evil is a privation or negation of being. But with respect to moral evil, that is, evil committed by man, Augustine explains that it is the product of man’s misuse  of his free will, in the form of evil choices he makes.

The view that evil is a negation of being is not only obscure, it is a futile denial of what every one knows is the case : that evil is real. The fact of evil which lies beyond human powers is too obvious to require elaboration here. Denying this fact by arguing, as the stoics did, that evil plays a role in maintaining cosmic harmony, is harmful, because it can make us blind to the frailties of the human situation, and the urgent need to  do whatever we can to ameliorate it.

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