There is bloggery afoot on ye olde problem of evil. Russell Blackford got the ball rolling with this post, an admirably succinct essay on why evil and suffering pose serious problems to tradtional notions of Christian theism. Andrew Sullivan demurred here, and then elaborated here. Jerry Coyne was unimpressed with both posts. Coyne weighed in further, as did Sullivan here.
Okay, I think that is all of them. Regular readers of this blog are aware that I regard the problem of evil and suffering as a slam dunk against traditional notions of Christian theism. Theologians have squirmed and struggled for centuries to answer it, but they have nothing of value to show for their efforts. Their best arguments are merely weak, their worst are callous and cold-hearted.
But maybe I am wrong. So let us have a look at what Sullivan has to offer:
I have never found the theodicy argument against faith convincing. My own faith teaches me that suffering is part of a fallen creation that lives and dies – how could it not be? But it also teaches me that suffering in itself can be a means of letting go to God, of allowing Him to take over, of recognizing one’s own mortality and limits. That to me is not some kind of crutch. It is simply the paradox of the cross.
Have I mentioned recently that religious people baffle me?
What does it mean to say suffering is a means of letting go to God? What does it mean in practical terms to allow Him to take over? My own limits and mortality seem perfectly clear to me without invoking God. What insight will I gain into such things by writing God into my view of the world?
Human suffering makes perfect sense in the context of a material world that evolves without any regard for human needs or wants. It does not become puzzling until you insert an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God into the mix. If I am understanding Sullivan correctly, and given the vagueness of his writing I may not be, he is saying that suffering and death are an inevitable aspect of a fallen world, but that suffering can, at least, provide a means for drawing closer to God.
But then we have issues with the notion of a “fallen world.” Traditionally the fall has referred to a specific sin committed by actual people, Adam and Eve. Even if you prefer a more allegorical reading of the notion, we still have that the fall is a distinctively human notion. Animals do not sin and fall short of the glory of God, people do. It is here that evolution ratchets things up a bit, since it tells us that awesome quantites of death and suffering predate the arrival of humans on the scene.
As it happens, one of Sullivan’s readers made the same point. Here is Sullivan’s reply:
My notion of a fallen world is related to the fact of mortality, which embraces almost everything on our planet, and causes terrible suffering to animals as well as humans. The difference is that, so far as we know, only humans experience this suffering as a form of alienation; we feel somehow as if we belong elsewhere, as if this mortal coil is not something we simply accept, as if our home was from somewhere else.
This, in my view, is our intimation of God, nascent in the long march of human existence only in the last couple thousand years, and unleashed most amazingly in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Ni ange, ni bete. And from that disjuncture between what we sense of as our actual home and this vale of tears we perforce inhabit, comes our search for God. No reason can end that sense of dislocation because it is some kind of deep sense that is prior to reason.
That’s why I do not experience faith as some kind of rational choice or as some kind of irrational leap. I experience it merely as a condition of being human.
I’m afraid this is even more confusing than the first explanation.
His notion of a fallen world is “related” to the idea of mortality? I want to know what it means to live in a fallen world, not what the notion is related to. Obviously Sullivan does not believe the fall refers to something specific to human beings. To what, then, does it refer? There is a common argument in this area that what we perceive as the nastiness of nature is simply a consequence of living in a world governed by natural laws. If that is what Sullivan has in mind, then I wonder how a fallen world differs from an unfallen world. If mortality is just an inevitable aspect of nature, then what insight do we gain by describing this as a fallen world?
To me it looks like Sullivan is retaining a lot of religious terminology without retaining much of its content. We have seen this sort of thing before. In this post I described a conversation I had with Howard University paleontologist Daryl Domning on the subject of original sin. Domning had written a book called Original Selfishness that argued that the traditional understanding of original sin needed to be revised in light of evolution. Instead of thinking of original sin as referring to a specific sin committed by actual people, we should view it as a reflection of the selfish natures bequeathed to us by the evolutionary process.
It seems to me that science is doing all the work in that scenario. Domning is simply attaching the label “Original Sin” to what science tells us about our origins and natures. And Sullivan is simply attaching the term “fallen” to the world as we find it to be. In neither case do I see how the religious imagery adds anything to our understanding.
In his final post Sullivan responds to Coyne as follows:
For me, the unique human capacity to somehow rise above such suffering, while experiencing it as vividly as any animal, is evidence of God’s love for us (and the divine spark within us), while it cannot, of course, resolve the ultimate mystery of why we are here at all in a fallen, mortal world. This Christian response to suffering merely offers a way in which to transcend this veil of tears a little. No one is saying this is easy or should not provoke bouts of Job-like anger or despair or isn’t at some level incomprehensible. The Gospels, in one of their many internal literal contradictions, have Jesus’ last words on the cross as both a despairing, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” and a letting go: “It is accomplished.” If you see this as less a literal error than a metaphorical truth (i.e. if you are not a fundamentalist), you realize that God’s only son experienced despair of this kind as well. And resolution.
My own reconciliation with this came not from authority, but from experience. I lived through a plague which killed my dearest friend and countless others I knew and loved. I was brought at one point to total collapse and a moment of such profound doubt in the goodness of God that it makes me shudder still. But God lifted me into a new life in a way I still do not understand but that I know as deeply and as irrevocably as I know anything.
If this testimony is infuriating to anyone with a brain, then I am sorry. It is the truth as I experienced it. It is the truth as I experience it still.
That last line about what Sullivan knows as deeply and as irrevocably as he knows anything would have made a nice addendum to the big Ways of Knowing post. Obviously I would dispute that Sullivan “knows” anything like what he describes here.
Now, I am sorry to sound repetitive here but this is Sullivan’s third attempt to explain his views and I am still not sure what he is trying to convey. When he says that humans uniquely have the capacity to rise above suffering, I assume he means that humans uniquely have the capacity to seek out some higher reason for the suffering. A dog might know he is starving or in pain, but presumably does not have the ability to ruminate on the greater purpose served by his suffering. If by “rising above suffering” Sullivan just means that we are able to get on with our lives after a devastating event, then I would point out that most animals have that ability in spades.
But now we are simply going in circles. Explaining the higher purpose served by such relentless and seemingly gratuitious pain and suffering in the world is precisely what the problem of evil is all about. Sullivan thinks we can see some higher purpose to the relentless awfulness of nature and the world generally? Perhaps he will explain it to me someday because I can not fathom what it is. As an atheist I explain pain and suffering by the time-worn adage that excrement happens. I find this a fully satisfying explanation, and one that is consistent with the facts as I understand them to be. Sullivan obviously thinks I have missed something, but I would like a clear statement of what that could be. I still would like to know how I will understand the situation better by making God a part of my considerations.
As one of Sullivan’s readers has pointed out, the argument from evil is based on reason, while Sullivan’s answer seems based on faith. He can respond however he likes, of course, but I see nothing in these posts that suggests a well thought-out answer to the question of why an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God allows such ceaseless suffering and pain.
Sadly, this sort of thing is typical in responses to the problem of evil from religiously inclined people. It is why I frankly think the wisest thing ever said on this subject was said by Richard Dawkins:
This sounds savagely cruel but, as we shall see, nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous — indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.