What do you think is the root cause for humans treating others so badly?  Money, religion, death, imperfect evolution, ...

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The concept of evil becomes religious only when we say that its source is an evil spirit, and thereby evade our own human responsibility for it.

Though the word 'evil' did not begin as a religious term, strictly speaking, in today's English parlance, it is most definitely related to anything not in line with morality/religion. Morality itself is from French, it defines the rules of conduct. Rules set forth by the churches, evil is that which disobeys church doctrines.

Atheists would indeed benefit from not using this term, and consider each gesture of human kind based on its impact on the rest of life, and not just human life.

I think it is fear. Fear they will not get everything they need (and want.)  There won't be enough to go around and someone else will get what should be coming to them.

I've always thought of evil as enjoying hurting another person or animal.  

Of course in my use of the word, when I get upset with someone, I tend to use it to mean making other's life unpleasant by being uncaring.  It just expresses my strong feeling about the matter.

I think Ruth has made an interesting comment also.  I've stopped using most religious words, but I still use evil when I feel strongly about something because I haven't found another word to replace it.

There are a few other religious words or phrases that I've not found a good replacement for.  I don't use them when taking to others and I miss using them.  Some are:  "Ugly as sin", "Satanic", Son of Satan", and "Bitch of Satan".

I've always thought of evil as enjoying hurting another person or animal. 

That is sadism :)

But yes, even though I'm a third generation atheist, I've only in my 40s begun to cleanse my vocabulary of stupid faith parlance. It is a large task!

Yes people can become what I call evil.  We have a moral nature, and when people hurt others longterm, they have to make excuses for it and go into denial.  So there is a part of them that hurts people, that is dissociated from an obvious cause.  

This can start with children.  Some children who grow up in an abusive family, cope with it by identifying with the abusive parent and hurting other children or animals.  They may be a favorite of the abuser, they have it relatively easy compared to the child who's the scapegoat of the abusers.  And when they grow up, hurting is a part of their personality, but a dissociated part - they don't know why they hurt, they don't think of themselves as hurtful people. 

Honesty is crucial for getting out of this.  But it's very difficult because it's a terrible thing to acknowledge that one has caused so much terrible pain.  People may be forced into honesty if they're convicted of a crime.  Repentance, recognizing that they have hurt people and saying they're sorry, might be crucial too. 

Not only does evil exist, there's an anatomy of evil.  Obeying orders to hurt people is an aspect of evil, and perhaps it comes from that identifying with the abuser mentality.  Evil people are in some way dead inside, their being is diminished. 

This is separate from shaming evil people, making them "other".  You can see evil as simply a phenomenon, a very real human possibility. 

Religions incorporate this understanding of evil, repentance and honesty, but it isn't inherently linked to anything miraculous. 

Discarding this understanding of evil along with the miraculous assumptions is dangerous.  It could dehumanize us and legitimize evil. 

I don't know how evil relates to sexual sadists.  The S&M people have their own ethics and as long as the object of their sadism consents, I don't know that it's evil. 

Laura, your understanding of psychology is as good as your understanding of physics.  But let me add one point, extending your statement Obeying orders to hurt people is an aspect of evil.

Many of the soldiers who are suffering from PTSD as a result of their time in Iraq and Afghanistan have had moral injuries.  They are haunted by the harm that they have done to other people, even if they have done it under orders or according to the rules of engagement.   They have committed evil, they feel ashamed and guilty, and they cannot accept themselves for having done that.

And even that is "nurtured" not innate. It all depends what form of "morality" one is inculcated with in the formative years.

When you said "Obeying orders to hurt people is an aspect of evil," it reminded me of The Milgram Obedience Experiment in 1961 where a normal law-abiding person thinks he is delivering a shock to another person.  

http://psychology.about.com/od/historyofpsychology/a/milgram.htm.  

The instrument they are to use is labeled with voltages from 30 volts to 450 volts and the terms including "slight shock," "moderate shock" and "danger: severe shock." The final two switches were labeled simply with an ominous "XXX."

They would hear the person being shocked plead to be released, bang on the wall, or even complain about a heart condition, and finally be silent.  65% of the participants delivered the maximum shock.  

They usually became very agitated or angry with the "professor" conducting the experiment, but continued anyway.  The "professor" would tell them that it was painful but safe and urge them on.  If they refused, he would finally say "You have no other choice, you must go on."  They obeyed the authority figure.  The fact that the experiment was sponsored by Yale also added to their willingness to continue.

Before participating in the experiment, when people are asked "If a person in a position of authority ordered you to deliver a 400-volt electrical shock to another person, would you follow orders?  Most people answer like I would, with an adamant no!

When asked how many people would deliver the maximum shock, Yale students responded like I would have with 3%.

I'm sure I would not deliver more than 30 volts no matter what the "professor" said to me.  Of course I would never find out because as soon as it was revealed to me that I had to shock someone, I would say no, and leave.  

Not that I'm a big fan of Oprah, but some of you may remember the show she did over a decade ago which questioned why we "crime". Cuz in the end, we all "crime" in some way or another.

She posed the question: If you could kill with thought, and be certain to not be caught, would you use that power.

My personal answer is I most certainly would. Prison life is a major deterrent to me.

The ethical component is do we not do it by morality or by fear of punishment.

Most people think themselves perfect and deserving of adulation by peers. But the reality is only 10% of murderers are ever caught. There is a very significant portion of the population which doesn't give a flying fuck about murdering and actually acts upon that idea, and then there is another component of society like me who only don't do it because of the associated risk.
Add to that all other "big" crimes such as theft, rape, bullying, it's pretty safe to say that morality is all a big lie, imposed upon us by religion.

Moral absolutism (such as presented in the Humanist Manifesto) is my biggest break for not wanting an atheist society at this point. An atheist society that would stick to the present day moral code I would find nearly as undesirable as today's civilisation. A massive waste of time.

I dream of the day when atheists will sufficiently distance ourselves from modern religious moral codes and make up a new code which does not place Human dominion over all and service to husband first. It's not life that is precious, it is quality of life.

Spud, you are a truly civilized person! Although the experiment could not be done today because of ethics laws, I wonder how many would follow orders. We are trained by parents, religion, education and government to obey. WRONG! The goal should be to think critically, draw on moral and ethical principles for guides.  

Fear, whether it be the fear of the unknown the strange or the different and this fear can be used by politicians, religious leaders and rabble-rousers to manipulate the population. I composed a short video with some of these issues in it - http://youtu.be/-gjE41E60_4

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