The study of evil: U of M course deals with the tough topic of evil

You might not think that evil or the moralistic struggle between good and evil would play a role in a university classroom setting, where a more common goal is to study things such as mathematics, medicine or literature. There may be arguments that some practices are good while some evil, but dissecting the concept that is evil always tends to be a tricky endeavour.

There is one place at the University of Manitoba, however, where evil gets a little more of the spotlight than it otherwise would. In the faculty of arts’ department of religion, an entry-level course entitled “Evil in World Religions” offers students somewhat of a different experience from their otherwise predictable routine. As eager first-year students make their course selections, the only description they have to discern whether or not they have what it takes to embark on a journey to discover the darker side religious doctrine is one short sentence: “The course introduces students to perspectives on evil in selected world religions.”

U of M religion professor Kenneth MacKendrick has taught numerous sections of Evil in World Religions over the last ten years. Teaching this course has been such a unique experience that MacKendrick was prompted to write a “memoir” of the process in GOLEM: Journal of Religion and Monsters.

In his memoir MacKendrick explains what he hopes will be the outcome of the course, but notes that most students enter the classroom with a preconceived notion of what evil is and how it should be characterized.

“My aims are programmatic: to develop a course of study that introduces students to the topic of evil without strong assumptions about what evil is.”

MacKendrick avoids “unreflective moralism,” but rather opts to centre his lectures around “the ambiguity of the concept of evil and its potentially limited cross-cultural applicability; the complex history of the study of religion and the extrication of the study of religion from theology; and, the vicissitudes of contemporary ethical and moral philosophy.”

An Evil in World Religions course syllabus, of a section MacKendrick taught in 2008, divides the study of evil in world religions into three parts: the anatomy of evil (defined as everything from the difference between what is pure and impure to monsters and sacrificial practices), illustrations of evil, and finally the relations between conceptualized evil in religion and modern criminal justice systems.

Readings for this course have included everything from articles on the notions of evil and death in European culture during the Middle Ages, to Sati worship practices in India in the twentieth century; from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem.

In taking this course one could develop an understanding of how evil is portrayed in many religions and how that portrayal influences the modern world. Though incredibly interesting, this class would not be for the faint of heart considering lecture after lecture is spent exploring topics of dread, disgust, monsters, death, and supernatural horror.

Then again, those keywords may well have piqued your interest enough to pick up a course calendar and check out the next time this Evil class might be available for you.