Good and evil and the midnight hour

Oh, people, I’m having some big thoughts right now. (A friend of mine talks to her 3-year-old daughter like this; she asks her, “Are you having big feelings about this?” I love it.) The thoughts are all Glenn Greenwald’s fault. You probably haven’t heard of him, but he’s a former lawyer who blogs for and also writes for The American Conservative.

Greenwald wrote a book that just came out, called A Tragic Legacy: How a Good Vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency. I mentioned it before, and yes, it has replaced whatever other book I was talking about recently. On occasion, I demonstrate a lack of attention span that a six-year-old would find embarrassing. Whatever. Anyhoo, this book is disturbing on many levels but since religion is my focus these days, it’s principally disturbing on that level.

Why? Because it’s causing me to question a central precept of an awful lot of religion, not that I haven’t before. The book is about the presidency of George W. Bush (which you no doubt figured out) and specifically how his tendency to view the world and his role in it as a fight between good and evil. Greenwald says that the mistakes and disasters of Bush’s presidency have been caused by his tendency to make every decision from a good vs. evil perspective and fail to see any of the complexities – or even the facts – that are essential to understanding the situation and making a good decision.

Before we get off into bad territory, I don’t care whether anyone agrees that Bush has made terrible mistakes or whether you think he’s the greatest president ever. I happen to agree that some pretty disastrous thing have happened on his watch, but rather than create controversy over which things, I’d rather discuss the good vs. evil thing.

The book disturbs me because the good vs. evil aspect is one of the factors that has always put me off of religion. I care more about right and wrong than good and evil. The book points out that although some acts are easily categorized as good or evil (murder for nor reason = evil, saving someone’s life = good), a lot more are not as easily categorized. A lot of acts (and situations) are hard to characterize, or at least they require a lot of understanding before you can judge them one way or another.

Consider our decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. It was a tragic situation; a whole slew of factors added up to the decision to drop the bomb; and Japan probably sees us as evil for doing it but we see ourselves as forced to do it to avoid other evils. The war in Iraq is another such crossroads. Iraqis probably see us as evil for invading them, yet George W. Bush has pitched the invasion as a fight against evil.

At any rate, I’ve realized: Given how often it is that good and evil can’t necessarily be agreed upon; given how difficult it is to label motivations and actions as such, and how doing so depends on the person’s perspective and background; given all that, I’m realizing that I find religion troubling precisely because many of its proponents use it to justify their certainty about good and evil, a certainty that ultimately isn’t reasonable.

And now my brain is calmly shutting down on me. Quiet, it says. Must sleep. Okay. More on this tomorrow.


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