EVIL AS ILLUSION: THE AMERICAN MIND-CURE MOVEMENT   Copyright 2010 by W. Kaufman

 

Let us turn to a religion which expressly claims to solve the Problem of Evil by proving that evil is unreal, an illusion.  I consider the case of Christian Science because it is the best known and most influential of a series of “mind-cure” movements which sprung up in the latter half of the nineteenth century in America, all of which promised some form of healing from suffering by changing one’s mental attitude towards evil.[1]  Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, like many of the mind-cure philosophers, claimed that evil is an illusion in the sense of an error of thought, a subjective mistake.  It followed that evil of any sort could be eliminated by engaging in “right thinking,” recognizing the illusory nature of evil.  The illusion is however persistent and powerful; Eddy concedes that overcoming the illusion of death is not to be expected for a long time.[2]  It is essential to Christian Science (and similar such movements) that the abstract claim that “evil is illusory” be experientially supported by “demonstrations” of the healing power of thought, carried out by Christian Science “practitioners,” as proof that evil is ultimately unreal.  It is this practical element that is supposed by Eddy to take Christianity and turn it into a “science,” hence “Christian Science.”

            Eddy’s principal work Science and Health, containing the essential teachings of her movement, is full of assertions that evil, including sin, sickness, disease, and death, is fundamentally unreal.  Jesus, Eddy declares, “scientifically  demonstrates” by “what are wrongly called miracles, that sin, sickness, and death are beliefs – illusive errors – which he could and did destroy” (S&H p. 343).  There is no pain, only “belief in pain” (153).  “What is termed disease does not exist” (188).  “We say man suffers from the effects of cold, heat, fatigue.  This is human belief, not the truth of being, for matter cannot suffer” (184).  “[E]vil is an illusion, and it has no real basis.  Evil is a false belief” (480).  “If God, or good, is real, then evil, the unlikeness of God, is unreal” (470).  “The dream that matter and error are something must yield to reason and revelation.  Then mortals will behold the nothingness of sickness and sin, and sin and sickness will disappear from consciousness” (347).  “Evil has no reality” (71).  “Suffering, sinning, dying beliefs are unreal” (76).

            Notoriously, Christian Scientists draw concrete practical conclusions from these abstract claims about the unreality of disease and suffering.  The faithful Christian Scientist does not visit doctors, use drugs, or seek medical help, for to do so would be to concede the reality of illness and disease.  Though Eddy insisted that doctors should be given “great respect” for their “motives and philanthropy,” nonetheless she holds that they are the unwitting means by which the false belief in illness solidifies its hold on us.  The religion of Christian Science is meant as a replacement for all physical healing.  When one is beset with an illusory belief that one is ill or in pain, one is not to consult a physician but instead a Christian Science “practitioner” who will help one change one’s thoughts and effect a healing through the power of mind alone.  The last one hundred pages of Science and Health is given over to case studies of those who have purportedly been healed from every manner of disease by following Christian Science principles.

            The doctrine seems clear enough: it is a perfect illustration of the thoroughgoing insistence that evil is a mere illusion.  The Problem of Evil, it claims, rests on a false premise, that evil is real, that there really are such things as sin, sickness, and death.  However, like any Illusion Theory, this doctrine must walk a tightrope between denying that evil is real (the essential solution to the Problem of Evil) while also acknowledging that the illusion of evil is quite real and urgently needs to be addressed.  That is to say, an extreme form of the Illusion Theory would have to hold that there is nothing that needs to be healed and no negative thinking to be corrected or cured, since all evil – even the illusory belief in evil – is unreal.  Hence to carry off the Illusion Theory is much more complicated than it might seem, for it must admit enough reality to evil to square with the obvious facts of the world, and yet deny that evil is truly real (whatever “truly” means).  Recall that even the illusory belief in evil is itself an evil in need of explanation – indeed, even if it is an illusion, it is experienced and felt as real evil, hence is every bit as bad as if it were real!  Hence we may reasonably ask of Christian Science an explanation of how the illusion came to be, and just what the ontological status of evil really is.

            Unfortunately it must be said that on this question Eddy’s doctrine is simply confused.  It is easy to pull out of Science and Health any number of assertions that evil is unreal, but also many assertions that are directly contradictory.  The following are just a few of many possible examples:

 

 

Matter is unreal (92, 584)                                Jesus was resurrected as matter (45)

 

Evil is caused by “mortal mind” (591)             “There is no mortal mind” (103)

 

Man is incapable of sin (475)                          Without punishment, sin would multiply (11)

 

Death is an illusion (584)                                 The Disciples were punished by death (47)

 

Suffering is unreal (76)                                                Jesus had to suffer (40; cf. 36-37).

 

            Indeed, a closer inspection of Science and Health reveals that it contains not only the Illusion Theory, but also virtually every other theory that could be invoked to explain evil as well.  Thus Eddy suggests in one place that suffering is probationary, a series of “trials” which teach us not to rely on matter (66; despite the fact that she claims suffering is unreal); that evil is Retribution for human sinfulness (5-6, 11, 23, 240, 497); that it will be compensated for in an afterlife (5, 29, 97); the Dualist view that the world is a battleground of conflicting powers (96); the anti-dualist view called Monism, in which the belief in “two opposite powers” is declared to be false (66).  She even suggests that evil is a Privation of good (“Matter is spirit’s contrary, the absence of Spirit” (173)).  Most of these alternative explanations for evil is incompatible with the basic argument that evil is unreal.  At the very least, they render the claim of evil’s unreality simply puzzling: why would God’s retribution for our sins be merely illusory?  Why would we be compensated in the next life for illusory suffering (would the heavenly compensation be illusory as well?)?  If the trials are necessary for our spiritual growth, why are they not real trials (with real suffering)?[3]

            Even worse is the conceptual muddle Eddy creates in trying to explain how she can claim that suffering is punishment for our sins, and yet that both sin and suffering are themselves merely illusions.  She clearly endorses the claim that sin is real: “sin brings inevitable suffering” (11); “Divine Science reveals the necessity of sufficient suffering, either before or after death, to quench the love of sin” (36).  But she also clearly holds that both sin and suffering are illusions, indeed even that “Man is incapable of sin” (475).  This leaves us with an apparently incoherent jumble of two contradictory positions, a strange mixture of Retributive and Illusion accounts.  Thus we are given such inscrutable pronouncements as the following: “It is error to suffer for aught but your own sins” (391); “suffering is an error of sinful sense” (23); it is not sin but the “belief in sin” that is punished (497; cf. 188); “Christ came to destroy the belief in sin” (473); error is a culpable form of “moral ignorance or sin” (483).  What the difference is between my sinning and my merely believing I am sinning, it is difficult to say (should I be punished, if I believed I was sinning but I did not really sin?).  We seem to end up with the strange view that man cannot sin, but can only believe he is sinning, and that his illusion of sinning is punished with the illusion of suffering, though he needs to believe the suffering is real so that it may serve as a proper punishment for his false belief that his sin was real!

            There is yet a further difficulty.  It is no easy task to construct a coherent theory that asserts that evil is merely an illusion, as we have seen.  But one of the particular dangers with any such theory is the tendency to collapse into the even stronger claim that, not only are the evil aspects of the world illusions, but the entire world itself is merely an illusion.  This is because in this world, good and evil are so closely linked that it is difficult to see how one could have one without the other.  Thus for example one of the virtues of wood as a building material is its solidity and strength, but it is precisely this property that make getting hit by a baseball bat so painful.  We can burn wood as fuel, but the very same property makes houses vulnerable to burning down.  We value a good sharp knife that cuts the turkey effortlessly, but any such knife will cut human flesh equally effectively if the knive slips.  The great reward of winning a competition (sporting event, political race) implies an equally great disappointment for the loser.  Free will makes it possible to choose virtue, but also vice.  The individuality that we so prize makes us unique, distinct, and self-determining, but it also can alienate us from others.

            Hence it is extraordinarily difficult to construct a theory in which all evils are eliminated without also eliminating everything of positive value.  Eddy does not attempt such an explanation, as to how we can eat sharks for nutrition but they cannot eat us for the same reason.  Nevertheless she ends up sliding almost imperceptibly into the World-as-Illusion theory.  Hints of this are seen in her claim that matter itself – not just evil – is unreal (92, 584).  But this means that all of the good aspects of matter must also be rejected as unreal: the pleasure of a good meal, the beauty of a sunset, the exhilaration of vigorous exercise.  In fact, she does seem to endorse just such a position ultimately: “Now is the time for so-called material pains and pleasures to pass away, for both are unreal” (39, cf. 76).  But this means that not only evil, but an enormous amount of good, is unreal, an illusion.

            If so, then the theory is radically different than at first appearance.  For now the entire external visible world, all of its good together with its bad elements, is a delusion.  This is a very different sort of claim from the idea that it is merely evil that is an illusion.  Moreover, it would seem to make the very idea of a Christian Science healing nonsensical.  A healing, whether of a broken limb or the flu, presupposes that the material world can be changed by eliminating the negative aspects of it and returning us to pure good: health, happiness, pleasure.  But instead, now it appears that even the good aspects of the world – unbroken limbs, health in general – are every bit as much an illusion.  So even the desire for healing is a false and dangerous delusion, for it equally commits one to belief in the material world.  If the material world is simply an illusion in toto, then we should be quite indifferent to whether the illusion appears in the form of bad thing or good things, pain or pleasure.  Even to desire pleasure over pain is to fall prey to the very same illusion, and is just as misguided.  One should rather not care the least bit how the material world chooses to appear to one: even to seek a healing demonstrates that one has been seduced by the delusions of the external world.  In fact, this Stoic approach is suggested by some of the hymns composed by Eddy: “So when day grows dark and cold, tear or triumph harms…” links both success and failure as equivalent; in another hymn she writes: “It matters not what be thy lot…Through storm or shine pure peace is thine, what’er betide.”   But this is not the conventional view of Christian Scientists, most of whom rather adopt the position that it is just the evil aspects of the world that is an illusion.  And of course it raises the further problem: if the material world is an illusion, then presumably only “heaven” and the realm of “spirit” are real.  But when we are cured of the illusion, do we immediately find ourselves in heaven?  Do we cease even to exist in this world?  Do we no longer need to make decisions, choices, and actions in this world?  And what would such a state of being look like?

            Finally, it is worth noting that there is no good empirical evidence of the effectiveness of the healing powers of Christian Science, even apart from the conceptual problems with the notion of healing.  The few major medical studies done of Christian Scientists do not support its claims.  One stud found that Christian Scientists had double the death rate from cancer as non-Christian Scientists, and a 1989 JAMA study determined that female Scientists (who are much less likely to resort to medical help) had on average a lifespan four years shorter than non-Scientists, while male Scientists (who accept more medical assistance) lived two years less than average.[4]  These results are even more striking when one considers the fact that Christian Scientists as a rule do not smoke, drink, or use illegal drugs, behavior which should substantially increase their overall health and longevity; Mormons for example also follow the same behaviors yet have no restrictions on receiving medical care, and accordingly their longevity is among the highest in the world. 


 

[1] A history of these movements is given in The Positive Thinkers.

[2] See Science and Health p. 348 (“I have never supposed…that sin, disease, and death would not be believed for an indefinite time”).

[3] The astute reader will have noticed that in one of the above quotations, Eddy says not merely that suffering, sin, and death are unreal, but that these “beliefs” are unreal (76).  If we take this literally, then the theory is even more mysterious: even the illusion turns out to be an illusion!  McTaggart points to the infinite regress problem endemic to Illusion Theories: “However many times we pronounce an evil unreal, we always have a reality behind, which in its turn is pronounced evil” (210).

[4] (See Journal of the American Medical Association, Sept. 22, 1989, Vol. 262 No. 12).