There are very few times we trot out the word "evil" anymore. You get the impression we are supposed to have outgrown it or something. But while some people think we have outgrown the word "evil," evidence is still coming in that we haven't outgrown the reality.
Today's school shooting in Connecticut can be added to the long and growing list of such events that force us to resort to what we otherwise think of as linguistic anachronisms. "Evil," said Gov. Dan Malloy, "visited this community today."
When we go shopping for words to describe what the man who perpetrated the shooting did, none seem to quite fit—except one: "evil."
Using a word like this would almost make you think that what the man who mowed down 26 people, 20 of them children, was ... wrong—another word we try to avoid but find ourselves coming back to again and again.
Words like this don't fit in with our modern worldview. We now have scientific ways of thinking about these things. Our behavior, we are told, is merely the result of the previous state of our brain, affected by things like how we were raised—things that are out of our control. "Free will is an illusion," says atheist Sam Harris in his recent book Free Will:
Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we thing we have.Harris himself draws the obvious conclusion: people cannot be held responsible for what they do, at least not in any sense in which we have traditionally thought such a thing.
Under the modern secularist view, words like "evil" and "wrong" simply make no sense. They are relics of our religious past, when we were under the sway of the superstitious idea that there were objective moral standards in light of which human actions could be judged as being good.
They belong to a mindset that may have made sense before the onset of neuroscience and psychology, but which now has been rendered meaningless. A person's action can't be evil when we can explain it in purely therapeutic terms—as being the result of a faulty synapse in the brain, or a bad childhood.
Yet here we are, blowing the dust off of these hoary old terms. And the funny thing is they seem to work pretty well to capture the moment. It makes you kind of question the beliefs that caused us to put them into mothballs in the first place, doesn't it?