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So, this was pretty bad. I mean, I fully acknowledge my biases on this particular subject, but apart from disagreeing with the majority of what William Hart had to say on the subject of evil, I just thought it was a pretty poor book.
Part of me wants to write a fairly scathing critique, because we all know negative criticism is more fun to read than positive, but I'm afraid it would just digress into being petty and biting before I got too far.
Hart's whirlwind tour on the idea of evil and its causes takes twelve quick chapters. The first tries to find a working definition of the term, the last offers some hope for the future and serves as a worthy conclusion, and the ten in the middle each take one idea relating to the origin or practice of evil and expounds on it. The bottom line for each of these chapters seems to be "Question X is not a sufficient definition for evil for Reasons Y and Z." As a result, he attempts to mash together several of the ideas into a nearly-working definition of evil in the last chapter. Splendid.
The logic doesn't quite hold up, however. As is often the problem in this discussion, the defining of one term necessitates a concrete definition of another. In this case, what is "harm," and in which cases can it be considered "extreme"? (To be fair, Hart touches on the fact that these are tricky questions in his book, but he leans heavily on them anyway)
Regardless, this is not a book whose intention is to give a concrete answer to the question of "What is evil?" (which sort of begs the question, why did he bother?) Rather, its intent is to give us a window into the shifting opinions and attitudes toward the nature of evil throughout history. And while Hart pulls out plenty of interesting quotes and sound bites, I never felt like I was getting an accurate depiction of most of the movements and ideals he was presenting. This is primarily because I know he was often grossly misinterpreting many of the biblical passages he cited and his conclusion that the world has essentially moved past the idea of Satan seems to fly in the face of a statistic he cited in the same chapter that the majority of people still believe in the existence of Satan.
Is the dominance of religion evident in Western society? Absolutely. Is that a foregone conclusion that religion is on its way out as a dominant theme in human thought? Hardly.
Do a few quotes from evolutionary psychologists spell certain doom for religious, superstitious, or or other faith-based forms of reasoning? History suggests otherwise. Nevertheless, after the third chapter, Hart strongly suggests that current perceptions of God and Satan be left out of the debate, as his impeccable expostulation has already rendered the concept obsolete.
Incidentally, I am not a firm believer in Satan as the source of evil. He didn't create it, he chose it. But that's a completely different blog for a completely different day, and according to Hart, that's not one of the options anyway.
Just a couple more quick notes, because it's taking almost as long to write this blog as it takes to read the book.
He's not as funny as he thinks he is. It felt like he had a quota of sarcastic comments and/or bizarre pop culture references he had to get in per chapter. As they old saying goes, "Reference Buffy the Vampire Slayer once, shame on you. Reference Buffy the Vampire Slayer twice, shame on...well, you again, actually."
I think Hart really spins quotes and stories to fit his own agenda. I know he does it with the Bible, so I'm pretty sure there's probably spin going on elsewhere. Take, for example, this quote in the chapter about the historical demonization of women: "Next, consider that other foundation stone of Western society, the Old Testament. 'Adam and Eve in the Garden' sounds homey enough, except that this story is a vicious slur against women and no less than a divine certification of all females as evil." O-kay....
While I could see one taking that interpretation (and admit that, through history, some have), I think it's pretty easy, scripturally, to shoot it down. He also argues that Greek mythology always presents the woman as some evil beast while creating strong masculine heroes. Right, because the male gods of Greece were constantly the virtuous ones, and there were no virtuous female characters or races (as there were clearly no villainous men).
Half truths only add up to a half-assed argument. And, more often than not, that's what you're left with in Evil: A Primer.
I could go on, but there are others who'd be far better suited and better equipped to do so. And of course, as anybody could easily and justifiably shoot back, this is just MY opinion.