Was Mother Theresa evil?

All of us get a little disconcerted when we discover that someone we like turns out to be an admirer of some public figure whom we think is awful.

For example, take those well-known authoritarian rulers who unleashed immense cruelty on their own and other peoples, subjecting them to arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and death. Hitler, Stalin, Suharto, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, and Duvalier are among the many names that come to mind. Most people do not admire these tyrants and do not hesitate to label them as evil.

But what would your attitude be towards someone who admires the very people whose actions you unhesitatingly condemn as beyond the pale? Even if that person was thoroughly admirable in other ways and would not personally even dream of doing the things that these despots did, would you still respect her? Or would you think her to be evil the way you think the people that she admires are evil?

We can even pose the question about a person even one step further removed. Would you think of as evil someone who admires someone who admires those evil despots?

The reason I pose these questions is because they form the basis of an interesting argument against religion that appeared in the December 2007 issue of Harper’s magazine (p. 28). It is titled Another Argument Against God and is authored by David Lewis and Philip Kitcher, based on the chapter Divine Evil by Lewis that appeared in the book Philosophers Without Gods (2007).

Lewis and Kitcher say that while the “existence of evil is logically incompatible with the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and completely benevolent deity” is a conclusive argument against god, there is also “a simpler argument, one that has been strangely neglected.”

Lewis and Kitcher start with Hitler as someone whom very few would dispute did very evil things. Now he asks us to consider a hypothetical person named Fritz.

Fritz is a neo-Nazi. He admires Hitler. Fritz’s admiration for an evil man suffices, we might think, to make Fritz evil . . . In this case, Fritz is evil, it seems, simply because it is evil to admire someone evil in full recognition of the characteristics and actions that express his evil. Evil is contagious, transmitted by clear-eyed admiration.

They authors then point out that accepting that premise put worshippers of god in an awkward position.

God has prescribed torment for insubordination. The punishment is to go on forever . . . In both dimensions, time and intensity, the torment is infinitely worse than all the suffering and sin that will have occurred during the history of life in the universe. What God does is thus infinitely worse than what the worst of tyrants have done.
. . .
Many Christians appear to be good people, worthy of the admiration of those of us who are non-Christians. From now on let us suppose, for simplicity’s sake, that these Christians accept a God who inflicts infinite torment on those who do not accept Him . . . Yet they knowingly worship the perpetrator of divine evil. Perhaps they do not like to think about it, but they firmly believe that their God will consign people they know, some of whom they love, to an eternity of unimaginable agony.

Of course, our friends do not see this as divine evil. Instead, they talk of divine justice and the fitting damnation of sinners. If Fritz is clear about Hitler’s actual deeds, he will tend to use similar locutions. Again, modest Fritz isn’t disposed to persecute the Jews in his neighborhood. Yet Fritz would approve of the persecution being carried out by the proper authorities. So too with the Christians. Perhaps they would grieve that the punishment was prescribed for us; perhaps they would blame themselves for not having done more. But, in the end, they would worship the perpetrator.

Among those of us who do not worship the perpetrator, there are many who admire worshippers of the perpetrator. We admire some of our neighbors; we admire religious people famed for their selflessness, their courage, or their scholarship – Mother Teresa, Father Murphy, Jean Buridan. Yet we also know that the perpetrator’s evil extends to them. They admire evil and are tainted by it. In admiring them, we too admire evil. Does the evil spread by contagion to us? What of those who admire those who admire those who worship the perpetrator? If admiration transmits evil, then eventually almost every living person will be infected. The more we are prepared to be tolerant in religious matters, the more the contagion will spread.

Where does this leave us? One option is that we treat as worthy people even those who admire ruthless dictators as long as they personally don’t do anything bad. The other is that we treat evil as a contagious affliction, transmitted by the very act of admiration, so that any admirers of evil persons are themselves to be classed as evil.

Since the eternal torment (which is undoubtedly torture on the worst possible scale) that god supposedly prescribes for those who do not worship him is worse than any evil ever carried out by any human, Christians (and other believers in god) should reject the entire concept of eternal torment in the afterlife. Otherwise they forfeit any respect from others because they have become evil simply by virtue of admiring and worshipping a god who is committing a massive evil. In other words, if religious people do not reject the idea of an awful divine retribution, then they are declaring themselves to be evil too. In fact, the more devout and religious such people are, the more evil they should be considered.

As Lewis and Kitcher point out, it is no use trying to evade the issue by arguing that the hell to which sinners are sent is a form of divine justice and is not an evil act by god. That argument should be rejected in the same way that we reject the actions of tyrants even they too can claim they are acting lawfully, according to the laws and procedures they themselves created. In other words, there is no essential difference between a tyrant who tortures and kills people who cross his path and a god who sends people to eternal torment in hell because they have gone against his will.

Evangelicals often urge their fellows to step up their efforts to ‘save’ the people they know by telling them how sad they will be if their loved ones end up in hell. As a result of my atheist writings, I occasionally get dark warnings from some people that I can expect a rather unpleasant afterlife. I have always found such warnings to be amusing. It had not occurred to me, though, that the people making such statements are the equivalent of admirers of Hitler. Next time I get such a comment, I will refer them to this post.

POST SCRIPT: Crazy sports fans

That Mitchell and Webb Look takes on the weird sense of identification that some sports fans have with their teams.


  1. Paul Jarc says

    This isn’t really counter to your argument, but it’s worth stating that we can admire a person for some of their qualities and actions, while recognizing that some of their other qualities and actions were evil.

    Regarding Hell, many religious people would say (and I think this is the official Catholic dogma) that this torment is self-inflicted, rather than inflicted by God. To deliberately reject God is to suffer for lack of communion with God, and after death we become more aware of the difference, and so suffer more.

    Eternity is still a problem, though -- it suggests that God is either unable or unwilling to give people a chance to repent after death.

  2. Greg says

    Yeah. This is a topic I’ve often used when speaking to religious people. I’ve found they usually counter by saying exactly what Paul pointed out. Self-inflicted torment. If I’m in a nasty mood I tend to wait for that particular counter. If it is self-inflicted and god isn’t responsible why did he make the place?

    “It was not by original plan and design for men and women--for human sinners. It was prepared for the Devil and his angels.” -- christiananswers

    Oh really? So god made a colossal mistake and didn’t see this coming? Not very omnipetant if you ask me.

    To add to this, who decides whether or not I believe in god? Would that not be god himself? So in this hypothetical story world… god judges me.. determines that I’m “not worthy” and then I self-inflict an eternity of torture? Or is this an automatic “do not pass begin, do not collect 200, go straight to jail” type of thing?

    If its automatic then what happens to a baby that dies shortly after birth. The baby doesn’t know a thing about any religion. According to their argument this baby should go automatically to hell for eternity. I’m sorry but this god sounds like the most evil, sick and depraved entity I can imagine. Oh wait what was that…. god makes exceptions? So-oo… he DOES control who goes into hell and who doesn’t? What is the time limit on a baby before it loses the right to get this special treatment? Does this work for people who’ve never even heard of christianity?

    Is it only once you’ve learnt about jesus/god and you reject him are you liable to go to hell? If thats the case shouldn’t the whole world stop preaching the bible effective immediately! I mean if no one knows of jesus no one can make the mistake of choosing the “wrong” path and we’ll all go to heaven.

  3. mgarelick says

    Mano — I think you’re on the wrong track here, for a couple of reasons. The simplest problem is that, from the theistic point of view, God is just by definition, and while this is circular and indefensible as a logical matter, it clearly invalidates the comparison with evil humans.
    But that’s not my real problem, since I don’t really care what the theistic response to you would be. Rather, I would submit that comparing admiration of God to admiration of Hitler et al. amounts to embuing God with a degree of reality that is inconsistent with, well, reality, and probably not something you intended to be doing. In this light, it becomes clear that the comparison of admirers is not really apt. The reality of Hitler is settled, pretty much; we can agree to a great degree on what he was like and what he did. So, if a person admires Hitler, we can draw some pretty concrete conclusions about that person’s character. God, on the other hand, is a construct; there is no objective reality to God’s infliction of eternal torture. Therefore, the Christian believer does not “know” about it, and thus the moral quality of the believer’s admiration of God, in light of said eternal torture, is difficult to assess. Further, because of the lack of objective reality, we don’t really know what exactly the Christian even believes about God and eternal torture. So, I would hesitate to ascribe a kind of transferred evil to a theist who professed a belief in Hell. (As an aside here, I think there is a spectrum of beliefs regarding Hell; one local radio evangelist says that Hell is what will be on earth after the Rapture and will be a temporary situation, and that the real consequence for the unsaved is simply that they will die and cease to exist.)
    A second reason why I am unsatisfied with your discussion is that I think there’s something more cogent to be said about the Hell belief. To me, it reveals something very fundamental about the believer directly, without any need for the sort of reflected evil that you talk about. There is a basic disapproval of humanity, that people in their natural state (i.e., unsaved) deserve severe punishment. There is the inability to come to terms with the reality that, in many instances, bad deeds go unpunished. This is a problem for people who can conceive of no more creative response than punishment for the problems we face. Finally (since I’ve run out of time for this writing), there is the deep irrationality (well-illustrated by Greg, above).

  4. Jared says

    Interesting analysis mgarelick.

    Thanks for consistently providing fertile topics of discussion, Mano.

  5. says

    Many interesting and well-explored arguments here though one might rightly argue that the admiration of a person for positive believes/bahaviours need not preclude the reverse. As for Mother Teresa -- would she today be described as a fundamentalist?

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