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Greta Christina recently wrote a wonderful review of the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), an analysis of the unconscious defense mechanisms people use to rationalize their bad decisions. She’s absolutely right that this is a book everyone ought to read (I need to find a copy myself), and her review makes some points that I think are important enough to justify shining a spotlight on.

I’m no anthropologist or psychologist, but I like to think of myself as at least an amateur observer of human nature. And one of the facts of human nature which looms the largest is our incredible moral duality. Human beings, as a species, present an astonishing paradox. On the one hand, human beings are capable of tremendous compassion, altruism and generosity. There are countless people who selflessly give their effort, their resources, even their lives to bring about the good of others, asking no repayment except the knowledge that they’ve worked for a worthy cause. It would be unnecessary for me to cite examples; we all know people who are like this.

On the other hand, human beings are also capable of incredible cruelty, depravity and viciousness. We wage wars, inquisitions, pogroms, witch hunts. We are all too easily led by malignant demagogues, all too easily whipped up into frenzies of savagery and hate, and all too easily persuaded to treat strangers and outsiders as subhuman and to visit the most horrific atrocities on them. Again, I trust there’s no need to cite examples; anyone versed in history can come up with far too many.

It seems unbelievable that two such contradictory impulses could exist within the same human nature, but this is undeniably the case. Our selflessness, our lovingkindness, our sense of justice is deeply rooted in mind and instinct. So is our hatred, our chaos and our evil.

Both these impulses, no doubt, come from the evolutionary process that created us. Throughout human prehistory, our ability to be kind and giving was a necessary part of living in groups. Human beings are ill-equipped to survive alone, and the better aspects of our nature are what made it possible for tribes and societies to hold together. But just as true, there were those who were our enemies and would have destroyed us. Our impulses toward violence, aggression and tribalism protected us in those between-group conflicts, even as they perpetuated them.

Until the true story of our origin was known, religions throughout history have noticed the strange amalgam of human nature and sought to explain it. Christianity’s explanation, in particular, was a peculiar stroke of theological genius: by postulating an originally good human nature tainted by sin, they invented a structure that let them claim credit for the good acts of their followers while disavowing the bad ones. When Christians perform generous and selfless deeds, as many of them do, the apologists claim that their saving belief in Jesus was what made that goodness possible. When Christians do evil, again as many of them do, those apologists seek to rationalize it away as the result of sin. In reality, people of all belief systems perform acts of tremendous good, as well as acts of terrible evil. They both arise from our nature, they are both part of our heritage. No special theological explanation is needed for either one.

In the past, both these impulses were necessary for survival; either one, if untempered by the other, would have led to humanity’s downfall. But in the present day, as societies have run together and merged into a global community, as our technology has magnified our impulses both for good and for ill, we can no longer afford for our loyalties to be divided between light and dark. The consequences of unchecked aggression, of letting the worse side of our nature get the upper hand, are too serious.

And just as bad is the misguided attempt of some people to deny that this problem even exists – which we have an unfortunate tendency to do. Greta Christina’s post describes this common rationalization:

We have a tendency to think that bad people know they’re bad. Our popular culture is full of villains cackling over their beautiful wickedness, or trying to lure their children to The Dark Side. It’s a very convenient way of positioning evil outside ourselves, as something we could never do ourselves. Evil is Out There, something done by The Other.

It’s fully understandable why we have this defense mechanism. Who wants to think of themself as capable of evil? But at the same time, this tendency is extremely dangerous – because it leads us to believe that we aren’t the kind of people who could do such things. And the people who really and truly believe that are the ones who are most likely to end up committing the blackest evils – because they never consider the possibility that they’ve gone astray. Since they’re the good ones, whatever they do must be in the service of Good and Right. (This dynamic is all too visible in the presidency of George W. Bush, which is thankfully drawing to a close…)

The writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who experienced firsthand the terrors of the Soviet Union, was well acquainted with the evil that can be done by people who are infallibly convinced that they’re laboring in the service of good. In his work The Gulag Archipelago, he laid his finger on the central problem:

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 is willing to destroy a piece of their own heart?

And yet, as impossible as this seems, it is what we must do if humanity is to survive in the long term. How can we excise part of our own nature? I don’t claim to have the answer, but there’s one thing I can suggest.

As I wrote all the way back near the beginning of this blog, we can’t fight influences on our behavior that we’re not aware of. This applies with added force when it comes to the dark side of our nature: people who deny that they possess such a capability often turn out to be the ones in which it does the most damage. Recognizing that we all have this capability, that the potential for evil is not an aberration but a universal human trait, might make people better at recognizing the warning signs when it threatens to emerge within themselves and others, and using that awareness to avert the worst-case scenario from coming to pass.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...