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Secular humanist gives us the good word … about evil

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A friend writes about this BoingBoing from a member of a four-generation family of secular humanists (originally, an address to the Harvard Humanist Society, April 2010), asking for comments. See what you think, but this jumps out at me:

There’s a quote I love: “Evil is a little man afraid for his job.” I always thought some famous author said it, but I asked my 200,000 followers on Twitter today, and it turns out that Roy Scheider said it in Blue Thunder.

That’s another classic in not-true catchy slogans. Idi Amin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin … were hardly little men and were not afraid for their jobs.

That “little man” type, hardly an endangered species, is good at stamping in the mail and complaining about his co-workers and his bad back, but he only ever becomes a tool of evil when co-opted by genuinely evil – and not little – men. The worst he could do on his own is fail to call an ambulance when someone showed obvious signs of heart failure because he was busy hanging curtains or something.

Ordinary people can be evil. An older, somewhat flawed, but still useful book on what evil can look like in everyday life is People of the Lie by the late psychiatrist, Scott Peck. He recounts, for example, the case of a young man who had crashed up his car in an apparent suicide attempt. It turned out that his parents had given him the gun with which his elder brother had committed suicide as a Christmas gift. Then Peck interviewed the parents and … He became interested in studying how evil works in everyday life. But none of it was about littleness. Had they been more important people, the scope of their evil would have extended far beyond their own family.

Mostly, the rest of the published address is just more not-quite-truisms about growing up, but then there’s this:

At the end of The Eagle’s Gift [by Carlos Castaneda], Don Juan reveals to his student that there’s no point to existence. That we’re given our brief 70-100 years of consciousness by something the mystics call “The Eagle,” named for it’s cold, killer demeanor. And when we die, the eagle gobbles our consciousness right back up again.

He explains that the mystics, to give thanks to the eagle for the brief bout of consciousness they’re granted, attempt to widen their consciousness as much as possible. This provides a particularly delicious meal for the eagle when it gobbles one up at the end of one’s life.

People have died believing saner theologies.

Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.


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