Writing in The New Criterion, the always excellent Martin Gardner reviews Bart Ehramnn’s new book God’s Problem: how the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer. Since I am among those who think the problem of evil and suffering in its various forms is a real crackerjack argument against traditional Christian theism, I read the review with great interest.
The “review” part of the review is actually brief. What did Gardner think of the book?
Back to God’s Problem, the book that triggered my long-winded speculations. It is hard to imagine how a better, more persuasive volume could be written on why irrational evil implies atheism. When you read a book on the topic by an orthodox Christian, such as C. S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain, or his A Grief Observed about the death of his wife Joy from cancer, you sense Lewis’s agony as he struggles to believe his own arguments. It is not only his pain that troubles Lewis, it is also his awareness of the enormous amount of suffering that continues to plague humanity. By contrast, there is little agony in Ehrman’s book. There is only a huge relief over finally abandoning a youthful theism.
That’s clear enough. Guess I’ll have to pick up a copy. On the other hand, Ehrman’s earlier book Misquoting Jesus has been sitting unread on my shelf for a while now. Looks like I’m getting behind.
Most of the review consists of Gardner’s own ruminations on the subject. He writes:
Of course this is no problem for an atheist. Evils are simply the way the world is. But for a theist the problem can be agonizing. Indeed, it is probably why most atheists are atheists. There is an answer, though not one likely to persuade any atheist. Surprisingly, Ehrman only briefly mentions it in connection to Rabbi Harold Kushner’s popular 1981 book Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. (Emphasis added)
It has been my experience that something like the boldface remark is a mainstay in writing seeking to refute the argument from evil. I’ve always found it vaguely insulting. The goal, after all, is not to persuade atheists that God exists. It is instead the more modest one of persuading atheists not to reject God based on the argument from evil. If there is a good counter-argument, then I for one would badly like to hear it. Announcing ahead of time that your response to the argument from evil will not persuade an athesit is equivalent to conceding that you’re not making a strong case.
Skipping ahead a bit
The fact that stable laws are essential for any conceivable universe with sentient life at once makes natural evils inevitable. If someone carelessly loses balance at the edge of a cliff and topples over, you can’t expect God to suspend gravity in the region and allow the person to float gently down. If a piece of heavy masonry dislodges from the top of a tall building, and is on its way toward the head of someone on the sidewalk, you can’t expect God to divert its path or turn it into feathers.
And skipping ahead again:
It is easy to see how similar arguments apply to natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, lightning that starts fatal fires, and other natural evils. Laws of physics obviously apply to movements of the earth’s crust that cause earthquakes. Laws of rain and lightning make inevitable the occasional starting of fires. Deaths from quakes and lightning are the prices we pay for the laws of physics without which there could be no universe. Do I know this is why God permits such disasters? I do not. I only put the explanation forward (it goes back to Maimonides and even earlier) as the best I have encountered in the vast literature on the topic.
As Gardner notes, a lot of really sharp people have put forth this argument. I guess that means we must take it seriously. To me, alas, it seems transparently mistaken. It is all well and good that God had to endow the world with unbreakable natural laws, lest it be uninhabitable by creatures such as us. The question is whether he had to endow the world with the precise natural laws we find all around us. It is hard to argue that earthquakes and tsunamis are a logically necessary part of any world in which human-like creatures can leave.
Likewise, consider the misery caused by birth defects. Was it logically necessary that our process of embryological development be so inefficient and convoluted that tens of thousands of babies are born every year with crippling diseases and infirmities? Could it really be true that any other logically possible universe would leave human beings even worse off than this one? I would suggest the burden of proof lies with those who answer yes.
This is why I believe evolution presents an extra new wrinkle on the argument of evil, one that takes an already serious theological problem and ramps it up several more notches. For so long as we are discussing the God of traditional Christian theism, we can say with certainty that he was not logically compelled to use evolution by natural selection as his modus operandi. There is no reason at all why such a God could not have started the film, as it were, four billion years in. That orgy of suffering, violence, bloodshed and mass extinctions could have been avoided in its entirety. Whatever the state of the world at the precise moment when humanity arrived on the scene could have been produced ex nihilo by God.
Nor can we argue that fast-forwarding the tape would represent an illegitimate intrusion by God into the natural order. If we are to say that God created the universe, then at some point he did something. Gardner writes:
Leibniz’s vision can be given a contemporary form as follows. After God selected the best compossible universe–the one with the least amount of necessary suffering–he adopted what could have been the only way to create such a universe. Somewhere in a higher space he started a quantum fluctuation that triggered what astronomer Fred Hoyle derisively called a “Big Bang.” The bang generated a set of fundamental particles, fields, and laws–a fantastic mix in which you and I were there in potentia.
I fail to see how God doing all of that represents less of an intrusion into nature than simply creating us directly from the dust of the Earth, in precisely the way the Bible describes. The plan of creation described in the first chapter of Genesis is far more gentle and benign than the story told by Darwin. Explain to me, please, why that plan is logically impossible. Explain to me which of God’s purposes could only have been attained by four billion years of evolution by natural selection.
There is, of course, another issue with Gardner’s argument. That is his assumption that humanity was there in potentia from the start of the universe. My impression is that most biologists take the Stephen Jay Gould position on this, namely, that were we to rewind the tape and let evolution play out again, it is exceedingly unlikely that anything like humanity would evolve again. He famously jousted with Simon Conway Morris on this point. Personally I thought Gould won that debate in a rout. Regardless, it is very much at issue whether humanity or something effectively identical to it really was inevitable.
As with most serious theological musing, this sort of talk has little to do with religion as it is commonly practiced. The God of traditional Christianity is constantly intervening in the natural order; at least, the Bible is premised on the assumption that that is so. To this day many Christians pray in the serious expectation of having some effect on future events. They are not going to be happy with a conception of God that keeps him scrupulously out of the picture.
The remainder of Gardner’s essay contains many interesting nuggets, so I recommend reading the whole thing. He could well be right that this is the best argument ever devised for countering the argument from evil (though the fundamentalists’ refrain that it is all because of human sin should not be dismissed out of hand). If so, that reflects very badly indeed on what theologians have managed to accomplish.