A lot of religions and philosophies are misunderstood to varying degrees, but if I had to pick one religion or philosophy as being the most misunderstood it would be Manicheanism. First propounded by the prophet Mani (or Manes) in Persia in the third century C.E., this religion viewed the universe as consisting of a battle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. God was good, but was not all-powerful, which is why there was evil in the world. Human beings and other material things were a mixture of the forces of light and forces of darkness; the task of human beings was to separate the light from the dark by shunning evil and doing good deeds.
In modern day America, the term “Manichean” is used disparagingly, as a way of attacking those who see political or social conflict as being wars of good vs. evil. A Manichean view, it is argued or implied, depicts the self as purely good, opponents as demonic, and compromise as virtually impossible. A recent example of this is a column by George Will about the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Will describes Iran as being “frightening in its motives (measured by its rhetoric) and barbaric in its behavior,” and quotes author Kenneth Pollack, who notes that Manicheanism was a Persian (Iranian) religion that “conceived of the world as being divided into good and evil.” Of course, Manicheanism no longer has a significant presence in modern-day Iran, but you get the point — those Persians have always been simple-minded fanatics.
Let’s correct this major misconception right now: Manicheanism does NOT identify any particular tribe, group, religion, or nation as being purely good or purely evil. Manicheanism sees good and evil as cosmological forces that are mixed in varying degrees in the material things we see all around us. Humanity, in this view, consists of forces of light (good) mixed with darkness ; the task of humanity is to seek and release this inner light, not to label other human beings as evil and do battle with them.
If anything, Manicheanism was one of the most cosmopolitan and tolerant religions in history. Manicheanism aimed to be a universal religion and incorporated elements of Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. The most dedicated adherents of Manicheanism were required to adopt a life of nonviolence, including vegetarianism. For their trouble, Manicheans were persecuted and killed by the Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim societies in which they lived.
The Manichean view of human beings as being a mixture of good and evil is really a mainstream view shared by virtually all religions. Alexander Solzhenitsyn has described this insight well:
It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.
Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: they struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.
This is what Manicheanism teaches: the battle between good and evil lies within all humans, not between purely good humans and purely evil humans.