Saturday, February 17, 2007


Yesterday's news reminded me that, while scientism may be as much an article of faith as is evangelical fundamentalism, the latter offers one thing to its adherents that the former pretty much ignores. That item is the question of the nature and origins of evil, and I was reminded of it when I heard the BBC report that, not content with their "ethnic cleansing" in Darfur, the Janjaweed Arab militia were now following the non-Muslim refugees from Darfur into their camps in Chad to continue with their massacre. (It may also be that evil was on my mind, having not only read J. M. Coetzee's review of Norman Mailer's The Castle in the Forest but also seen Mailer interviewed by David Ulin on Book TV.) As Berlin points out in "The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West," one of the essays in The Crooked Timber of Humanity:

Knowledge, for the central tradition of western thought, means not just descriptive knowledge of what there is in the universe, but as part and parcel of it, not distinct from it, knowledge of values, or how to live, what to do, which forms of life are the best and worthiest, and why. According to this doctrine – that virtue is knowledge – when men commit crimes they do so because they are in error: they have mistaken what will, in fact, profit them. If they truly knew what would profit them, they would not do these destructive things – acts which must end by destroying the actor, by frustrating his true ends as a human being, by blocking the proper development of his faculties and powers. Crime, vice, imperfection, misery, all arise from ignorance and mental indolence or muddle. This ignorance may be fomented by wicked people who wish to throw dust in the eyes of others in order to dominate them, and who may, in the end, as often as not, be taken in by their own propaganda.

In other words scientism objectifies evil and reduces it to an "error of knowledge," thus disregarding the dramatistic perspective that evil is the result of one or more motivated actions. For better or worse religion tends to honor this dramatistic perspective, which is not to say that it offers the sorts of "solutions" we would expect from scientistic thinking. Indeed, we could say that religion is more realistic in confronting evil because most religious teachings address, in one way or another, means for enduring the experience of evil, a methodological stance that is not part of the scope of scientism. The moral question then arises of whether or not one should merely endure evil or commit to opposing it. Now we are definitely in the thick of the stuff of dramatism, but we need to remind ourselves that the opposition of evil in narrative (particularly fiction) is a far cry from its opposition in "real life." Fortunately, there are many non-fiction narratives that address how ordinary people have managed to oppose evil with means at their disposal, rather than the heroic exertions of the Homeric epics. As I have already observed, such narratives tend to be shunned by the commercial mass media; but the stories are still there. They may not further the ends of consumerism; but, in our current state of affairs, we probably need them more than ever!

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