The Mechanism of Evil: Strategies and Methods of the Dark Side

From our service on November 7, 2021, a sermon by Pastor Eric Stetson. Watch video below.

Last month, we began a three-part series on evil. In the first sermon of the series, I began by discussing the reality of evil: what it is and why it matters. Evil is a very real and significant part of our world. Evil pulls people away from unity and harmony with God and each other, into a mindset of separation, discord, exploitation and destruction. Throughout history, people have been falling into this mindset and living according to the impulses of the flesh, which naturally lead us into evil through the competitive instinct of survival of the fittest.

Today, we continue the series by talking about the mechanism of evil: how evil actually works, to influence our behavior and our world. To a large degree, evil is the natural human condition, because of the wiring of our brains. Evil exploits this, and most humans are easy prey. The exploiters who target us may be negative spiritual beings from beyond this world, or human beings here on earth with a negative agenda.

But it’s important to realize that few beings, whether in the spiritual world or the physical world, actually think of themselves as evil. People usually do evil unwittingly. That’s true even for some of the most evil personalities in history. Even Hitler, for example, thought he was doing what was right, when he killed millions of people in his quest to create a thousand-year German empire. He didn’t call himself Dr. Evil or consciously believe himself to be an agent of the dark side. When he did terrible things, he did them in furtherance of what he believed to be worthy goals.

How does somebody’s mind get so warped that they can be addicted to conflict and sadistic domination and destruction of those they perceive to be their enemies — without even realizing that they have become an agent of evil? To varying degrees, this can happen to any of us. You don’t have to be as bad as Hitler to be, to some degree, a pawn of the devil on the cosmic chessboard.

The mechanism of evil begins with deception. As the Bible says, the devil is “the father of lies.” [John 8:44]. When we believe things that are untrue, it is much more difficult for us to play our part in God’s symphony, and instead we tend to become cogs in a satanic machine.

The mechanism of evil begins with deception. As the Bible says, the devil is “the father of lies.”

There are several big lies that influence people away from God’s plan and toward the plan of the Adversary. First and foremost, the lie that we’re completely separate individual beings, not interconnected and mutually dependent on each other and on God, the Source of All Being. Related to this, the lie that some races, nations, religions, ideologies and cultures are inherently superior and should have power to subjugate or even destroy others. Both of these are examples of excessive selfishness, inconsistent with the true reality and intentions of our Creator.

Supporting this selfish mindset is the lie that this material world is the only thing that exists, and that the spiritual world is only imaginary. Believing this tends to reduce people’s motivation to look beyond their natural impulses, such as the animalistic drive for incessant competition. If there is no God and no life after death, then it is logical to engage fully in the struggle for survival, indeed for victory in the highly competitive game of life, by pursuing material advantage over others, so as to more successfully pass on one’s own genes and memes to future generations. That’s literally how we’re wired to behave, when we ignore our higher spiritual callings as nothing more than a misguided fantasy.

Perhaps most insidious of all is the lie that evil doesn’t exist, or isn’t a big deal. Don’t worry, the forces of evil want us to believe, there aren’t any powerful beings and mechanisms trying to manipulate us for their own negative agenda. If there are, we can easily recognize them and resist their efforts and appeals.

In reality, if we aren’t always on the lookout for ways that evil may be manipulating us, we don’t often see it, and we act in ways that further evil agendas without realizing it. That’s why deception is such an important tool of evil. Getting us to close our eyes to what’s really going on enables evil to march onward in the darkness — and we become blind to the ways we’re unknowingly participating in its schemes.

Distraction is one of the key ways that evil keeps our eyes closed, by focusing our attention on things that are irrelevant to the moral and spiritual struggle of good vs. evil within our own souls and our world. The Gospel tells us the meaning of life: to seek God, love others, and put our talents to good use in the furtherance of God’s plan. Our time and energy are limited here in this world. When we get too distracted from our true calling, we waste what we have been given. That’s a simple and effective strategy of evil — keeping us distracted from what we’re really supposed to be doing, so that we dissipate our resources and accomplish little of eternal value.

Distraction takes many forms, depending on an individual’s desires and interests. Some people become addicted to pornography or excessive sexual gratification, turning a natural desire into an obsession. Some people waste huge amounts of time looking at trivial things online, like celebrity gossip or pictures of cute pets. Some people day trade hot tech stocks or cryptocurrencies, chasing the rush of the pump. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’m against sex, fun online content, or trading financial assets — in moderation. But whether you like naked humans, dog pics, or Dogecoin, if it’s distracting you too much from a more meaningful life, you’ve surrendered your spiritual agency to the mechanism of evil.

There are many addictive behaviors, and some of the most damaging are those that lead people to engage in unnecessary or unnecessarily extreme conflict. Evil wins a big victory when it can shift people’s attention away from doing good, toward fighting viciously against ordinary people whose views or characteristics trigger feelings of disgust, hatred, or hostility.

Recently, a whistleblower revealed that Facebook has been incentivizing conflict by giving more weight in its algorithm to reactions of anger. This means that extreme political posts, for example, are more likely to appear in your newsfeed. Whatever causes people to become filled with rage, click the “angry” button, and make long, ranting comments on the platform has been what Facebook pushes to the forefront of our consciousness.

Social media tends to be an addictive medium to begin with. And so, because of the algorithmic mechanisms that determine what we see on these websites, many people are increasingly becoming addicted to anger and the drama of fighting with people online. In other words, social media is turning ordinary human beings into internet trolls. This phenomenon has resulted in growing political polarization — even violence, as illustrated by the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol, which was fueled in large part by angry Facebook posts based on conspiracy theories and disinformation.

Many people are increasingly becoming addicted to anger and the drama of fighting with people online. … Social media is turning ordinary human beings into internet trolls.

Evil wins when people think their ideological opponents, who think or live differently than them, are evil. That’s because, in what they perceive as a righteous quest to defeat evil, they start doing evil things themselves in response. They rationalize their morally questionable conduct as justified to defeat a terrible enemy.

We see this, for example, in Trump supporters who hate liberals so much that they believe it may be necessary to overturn the results of elections that don’t go their way. Likewise, left-wing activists who think the police are so racist that urban riots are justified.

These extreme attitudes and actions arise from people’s addiction to ever-increasing levels of drama and strife. The mechanism of evil is always working to shift people’s attention to their negative emotions against people and ideas they hate, disdain, or are afraid of; keep them engaged in the conflict; and escalate the level of conflict to a fever pitch. That’s a powerful algorithm — whether literally or figuratively — to make the world a miserable place. It’s how wars begin, and wars produce the most suffering of just about anything human beings can do to each other.

Power hierarchies are another social system or structure where evil can flourish. People with lots of power tend to become arrogant and may abuse their power to pursue their own ends. This is especially likely in situations of conflict between different groups of people, such as a war, a culture war, or a pitched political battle. People will often “sell out” to evil, wittingly or unwittingly, to achieve some “greater” goal they believe in. If in a position of power, this means wielding one’s power immorally. If in a subordinate position, as most people are, it means obeying immoral authorities or excusing the corrupt conduct of leaders who share one’s ideology or the interests of one’s identity group, such as a nation, race, religion, or political party.

Idealistic people who have sold out to evil are among the most dangerous people in the world. Whether as leaders or followers, they will do just about anything for their cause, leaving a trail of misery in their wake. That’s because they believe they are actually doing good, and that imposing some suffering on others is justified to bring about their grander vision. Tragically, the world’s history is full of such figures of self-deception who have seduced whole societies, or enough people at least to cause a lot of problems for everyone else. They are the engine that keeps the mechanism of evil moving.

Idealistic people who have sold out to evil are among the most dangerous people in the world. … That’s because they believe they are actually doing good, and that imposing some suffering on others is justified to bring about their grander vision.

One of the best illustrations of this concept in fiction, in my opinion, is the character of Martin Heusmann in Amazon’s original TV series, The Man in the High Castle. Based on a novel by bestselling sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, High Castle is an alternative history epic in which Nazi Germany invented the atomic bomb first and used it to win World War II.

Loosely based on the real-world Nazi architect Albert Speer, Martin Heusmann is a high-minded engineer who wears business suits and projects an image of a well-meaning gentleman, speaking eloquently of his desire to “build a better world” through grandiose public works projects. Heusmann’s vision extends to social engineering on a magnificently dystopian scale. He disagrees with Hitler for making a permanent alliance with the Japanese; instead, he believes the Empire of Japan should be destroyed before they can build their own nuclear weapons and challenge German supremacy. He engineers a coup against Hitler and assumes power of the Nazi Reich. Falsely blaming Hitler’s assassination on Japan, he prepares to launch a nuclear war to exterminate the Japanese and conquer the entire planet. It would be “the last war,” he says with a utopian passion, for then all humanity would be united under one government instead of wasting our resources on endless wars between competing nations. After dropping hundreds of nukes, says Heusmann, “the real work — progress, perfection — can finally begin.”

This wolf in sheep’s clothing — this terrifying creature in a business suit — believes he should take these actions because, as he says with satanic pride, “There is no God in heaven. That means it’s up to us to turn this life into heaven on earth.” Only by attaining absolute power to implement his diabolical plan can his idealistic dreams be realized. If that means wiping out half the planet in a nuclear apocalypse, better get on with it — things will be better in the end.

This is the essential worldview of the sold-out idealist taken to its logical extreme. When you sell out your moral integrity, believing it’s a necessary evil on the path to ultimate righteousness, you become part of the mechanism of evil and indeed its driving force. Whether knowingly or not, you use whatever power you may have to twist the systems of society into tools of an agenda that leads away from God’s plan and toward the plan of Satan.

The mentality personified by the fictional Martin Heusmann has been all too real, in many world leaders and their fanatical followers and movements throughout history. No matter their nationality, ethnicity, religion, or political philosophy, the basic impetus is the same: to subjugate and destroy whatever, and whoever, stands in the way of perfection as they see it. Christian crusaders, Islamic jihadists, white supremacists and “white man’s burden” colonialists, and various flavors of fascists and communists have all been notable examples. Today’s “woke” social justice warriors, despite what many believe to be their good intentions, could become just as corrupt and authoritarian if they gain enough power.

No matter what worldly way of thinking is in charge, it can feel daunting to go up against the powers that be. The mechanism of evil is embedded deeply into so many aspects of life, that we ourselves become embedded within corrupt systems that seem totally beyond our control. These systems push us to become worse versions of ourselves. But we should push back against evil nonetheless, and strive to retain our integrity.

Despite the challenge of resisting a world that seems almost banally rigged to produce negative outcomes, a single soul is not powerless to create positive change. Witness the example of Chiune Sugihara, the ordinary government bureaucrat we learned about earlier in this service, who courageously broke the rules of his position to do the right thing and save the lives of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. Anyone who has the guts to do it can throw sand in the gears of the mechanism of evil, through conscious acts of noncooperation and defiance of norms that deserve to be challenged.

In my next sermon — the third and final part of this series — we’ll continue the theme of overcoming evil. The mechanism of evil may be powerful and overwhelming, but there are ways we can reduce its power over ourselves and others, that we may heal and break free.

Watch on video (starting at 8:35):