Reflections on Evil


Diane Perlman, Ph.D. | Substack - TRANSCEND Media Service

My 2008 Open Letter to Pastor Rick Warren on Evil

8 Nov 2023 – In light of current events, I am posting my exploration of evil, written 15 years ago.

On August 16, 2008, Pastor Rick Warren separately interviewed presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain at Saddleback Church, asking them about evil. I admired him for creating an impartial forum, treating the candidates equally. He modelled non-partisanship needed to elevate public discourse in our hostile polarizing political environment.

Here is a short clip of Warren’s first question to McCain. “John McCain vows to defeat evil in its many forms

As a psychologist with intense, lifelong interests in war, violence, enmity, and the Holocaust, my take on evil had more to do with psychology and cause and effect than theology. This letter attempted to raise consciousness about causes, including the role of humiliation, trauma and traumatic reenactment. I got a short letter back from him that he didn’t want to debate this. It was clear he misunderstood my intention to have a dialogue rather than a debate.

Although this letter reflects my take on evil within the human realm, I will simply note that I have often sensed that there were some dark forces going on and that some of what we call evil could not be explained by what we refer to as “human nature.” In recent years, I have become aware of some visible parties behind the scenes, like the World Economic Forum and the World Health Organizations’ with unknown players behind them, working on strategies for global control. There seems to be a dimension beyond our observable experience, forces of darkness that drive extremes of human behavior and lead to extraordinary suffering I also just saw Stanley Kubrick’s last film “Eyes Wide Shut” which points to this realm.

This letter deals more with events we observe in the world. Many use “evil” to explain something away, to disparage analysis and dismiss attempts to understand. “Evil” can be used to support policies that do not address or correct causes. Such policies provoke more violence and make matters worse. My intention here is to raise consciousness and understanding so that we can reverse and prevent evil.


THE BLOG – Huffington Post

Open Letter to Pastor Rick Warren on Evil – Diane Perlman

17 Oct 2008 – Updated May 25, 2011 (bolds added 2023)

Clinical and Political Psychologist dealing with enmity, conflict transformation, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, climate change, media, messaging and framing.

Dear Pastor Warren,

I am reaching out to you to open a new line of communication about evil, as tensions are escalating in various conflicts. I am grateful for the good you are doing and admire your commitment to civility and global issues. Your recognition of the science and morality behind climate change has elevated the Evangelical movement. Like you, I am a registered Independent and appreciate your efforts to heal destructive divisions in our country. Policies – based on beliefs – either increase or decrease cycles of violence. It is not about right and left, but life and death.

At your August 16 Civil Forum, you asked both presidential candidates whether they believed in evil, giving them four choices — would they ignore it, negotiate with it, contain it or defeat it. I humbly suggest more options, based on my purpose driven life’s work on the psychology of evil, and invite you to dialogue.

Can we prevent evil? Can we transform evil? Can we draw energy away from evil towards a higher force? Might attempts to defeat evil unleash more evil? Are there creative ways to reduce, dissolve, and eliminate evil? Can evil people be redeemed? How? Are people born evil or do intolerable experiences drive them to extremes? Can “normal” people do evil things when swept up in overwhelming situations? Does the sin of omission create evil?

There is a rich body of scientific evidence on these questions. I wonder whether this knowledge is consistent with your theology. As you have raised the Evangelical position on climate change, might you similarly elevate the understanding of evil, recognizing contributions from social science? I invite you to a joint venture with psychology. After all, “psyche” means soul. Perhaps we can explore together the convergence between religion and social science on responding to evil and magnify our ability to prevent and transform evil before it escalates beyond control.

Can we transform evil?

One of my favorite stories – and how I discovered your book, The Purpose Driven Life, is of Ashley Smith, mother and widow, taken hostage by Brian Nichols, escaped rapist and murderer. Inspired by your teachings, she deployed compassion, intuition, and radical empathy to transform evil, help Nichols achieve redemption, and save lives. Her respectful responses, including asking permission to read your book, reached his humanity and calmed him down. She made pancakes — as the Bible says, “Set a table before thine enemies.”

Had she behaved differently, she’d have been killed. If Smith had a gun and shot Nichols, she would have been applauded for “defeating evil.” Consider what lessons we would have lost.

Are people born evil?

Evil is fresh in my mind, reflecting on Nicole Dial’s memorial. She was working in Afghanistan to release child soldiers. The Taliban killed Nicole and three colleagues. Where did the evil Taliban come from?

St. Augustine said, “Never fight evil as if it were something that arises totally outside of yourself.” While defeating the “Evil Empire” we trained Afghanistan’s Mujahadin to overthrow a superpower. Their children were orphaned, traumatized, and raised in authoritarian madrassas without women, girls or tenderness. Their villages, elders, and culture were destroyed. We abandoned the Afghanis to misery.

Does the Sin of Omission Sow Seeds for Evil?

Even Republicans have speculated about our failure to help the Afghanis after our “victory,” using “our gold and their blood.” We can be so gripped by the immediacy of our cause, and relieved after achieving our goal, that we forget the suffering we leave in our path. Our focus on might, power and winning overshadows the consequences — trauma, vulnerability, and destabilizing asymmetrical dynamics — that produce greater violence.

A ton of prevention is worth a megaton of cure. There is a lag time between childhood trauma and young adult evil. Are we now sowing seeds to be reaped later? We pay more for killing than healing, more for punishment than prevention. Our motto should be “Do no harm. No new trauma.” Work now on healing, reconciliation, and reparations to “prevent the inevitable.”

Can we reduce or reverse evil?

There exist effective, nonviolent strategies capable of reducing evil and producing enduring security. Quick fixes backfire. Psychology, conflict analysis and other social sciences describe what works — addressing root causes, basic human needs, legitimate goals, just grievances and healing traumatized societies. These include identity, dignity, sovereignty, and safety. The Marshall Plan and reconciliation processes are examples.

Can we negotiate with evil?

Only those with psychological intelligence, social skills and sound intentions can negotiate successfully. Those who do not believe in negotiating, lack understanding and skills. Backing people into a corner is not negotiation. Punitive, coercive pressures including threats, isolation, sanctions, and rejection provoke fear, humiliation and defiance. Demonization, zero sum, and concrete black-and-white thinking block imagination and foreclose options. Tension reduction, positive inducements, and win-win strategies work better.

During the Cuban missile crisis President Kennedy’s used psychological intelligence, allowing face-saving ways out. Resisting pressure to be “tough,” he probably prevented nuclear war. North Korea responded better to inducements than threats. There are many similar examples.

Can we contain evil?

Before invading Iraq, Sadaam Hussein was contained by IAEA (International Atomic Energy Association) inspectors and media exposure. He was no longer committing atrocities. Shooting with cameras is more effective than shooting with fire. Research conducted by the Global Nonviolent Peace Force on unarmed accompaniment shows that being watched inhibits violence. Containing evil buys time and space to resolve problems without bloodshed.

Might attempts to defeat evil unleash more evil?

What has made the state into hell is that man wanted to make it his heaven. – Holderin

Simplistic, superficial attempts to “defeat evil” eventually create more. Might dividing the world into good guys and bad guys provoke the evil we are trying to prevent? We always get to be good, and so do our enemies. According to the “mirror image of the enemy” (Bronfenbrenner) each side believes themselves to be noble, just and true, while the other is hostile, aggressive, and evil. This system does not contain the seeds to resolve the problems it intends to address. There is no endgame — only escalation.

21st century security -globalization, asymmetrical dynamics, the internet, and WMDs – renders old notions of warfare obsolete. The “War on Terror” creates “The War on the War on Terror” (the law of opposites). People are more dangerous when afraid, attacked and morally outraged. If we study the emergence of extremist groups, we discover that attempts to dominate, control and defeat, instead fuel and strengthen our enemies’ resolve and intensify their identity (as attacking us has provoked increased patriotism). Absorbed by our own security needs, we do not see how our actions make others insecure and self-protective. The way to be more secure is to make your enemy more secure.

The Iraq war has traumatized millions and horrified billions. “Defeating” Sadaam Hussein, at huge costs has radicalized individuals and groups, increased recruitment and multiplied terrorist incidents seven fold. Before the war my colleagues and I predicted this inevitability and tried to warn the public and politicians.

Overthrowing Iran’s democratically elected President Mosaddegh in 1953 created conditions for the rise of fundamentalism. This is not about blame — but understanding and preventing. I now fear that Israel and/or the U.S. may provoke and/or attack Iran. Gripped by existential fear, intending to prevent another Holocaust, they might provoke a wider holocaust. Our fear-based reactions increase the popularity of Ahmadinejad, anti-American sentiments, and make it harder for Iranian moderates. If we are careful, Ahmadinejad will lose the next election.

Can we draw energy away from evil towards a higher force?

Ahmadinejad is not Iran. Mutual threats fuel hard-liners on both sides and ratchet up hostilities. Few Americans realize that Iranians held candlelight vigils for us on September 12, 2001. They enthusiastically helped us with intelligence with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Then Bush placed them on the Axis of Evil and threatened them. Still, in 2003 Iran made a secret offer to the US to accept Israel, defund Hamas and Hezbollah, and more — desiring to improve relations with us. The Bush administration ignored this. Then they elected Ahmadinejad and started their nuclear energy program.

We could have prevented evil — and we still can. We can recognize good faith initiatives, building on significant mutual interests — which also exist between Iran and Israel. We can shift focus to the Supreme leader, who has more power than Ahmadinejad. We eliminate the Iranian threat by tension reduction and transforming our relationship.

Does evil exist?

My journeys through evil include Dachau concentration camp, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Palestinian refugee camps. I have worked with Holocaust survivors and severely abused people. My friends include a former Cambodian child soldier, and a Rwandan whose loved ones were hacked to death who teaches reconciliation.

What is evil?

Evil is “man’s inhumanity to man.” I imagine a force field into which some people are plunged by intolerable life experiences. Much evil is a form of traumatic reenactment. Many perpetrators, including Nazi leaders, have histories of severe humiliation and/or abuse. Jewish law forbids humiliating another, as stealing their dignity, equivalent to shedding blood.

Allowing climate change, by ignorance and denial (sins of omission), is evil. Poverty, which you address, creates evil. Nuclear weapons, policies, programs are evil. Relying on violence (war) instead of more proven nonviolent approaches perpetuates evil. All of these harm innocent people.

For me, the presence of evil in the world is a stimulus to dig deep inside, bring out the best in ourselves and others, and figure out what is necessary to rescue people from that layer and prevent others from being sucked into it. Might you call this God’s work? If people are created in the image of God, does it follow that we are responsible for preventing, healing and transforming evil, and redeeming people, groups and nations when possible?

Do these ideas support or contradict your religious beliefs? Both religion and psychology have been misunderstood, misused and abused. Maybe we can bring out the best in both for a higher purpose.


Diane Perlman, PhD   is a clinical and political psychologist, devoted to applying knowledge from psychology, conflict studies and social sciences to designing strategies and policies to reverse nuclear proliferation, to drastically reduce terrorism, reduce enmity, and to raise consciousness about nonviolent strategies for tension reduction and conflict transformation. She is a visiting scholar at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, is active in Psychologists for Social Responsibility, the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, and on the Global Council of Abolition 2000. Some of her writings can be found on her websites,  and Email:

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