In this post over at HuffPo, Rabbi Adam Jacobs serves up one of the standard replies to the problem of evil. After recounting a harrowing story of having to subject his 16 month old son to a difficult medical procedure, he writes:
I have found this story to be helpful for explaining to people the nature of suffering. In truth, our ability to perceive what is happening around us is extremely limited; as Thomas Edison once said, “We do not know one millionth of one percent about anything.” With such limited and flawed faculties, how can we rightly expect to have any more perspective about the nature of that which is occurring to us than a 1-year-old child does about the necessity of a surgical procedure? We cannot.
This view is known as skeptical theism. In Among the Creationists I use the example of taking my cat to the vet to illustrate the same idea. My cat is incapable in principle of understanding why I inflict such misery on her. But I do it anyway, because my understanding of her situation is far greater than her own.
Alas, this response to the problem of evil is very unpersuasive. It is not so much a resolution to the problem as it is an admission that we have no decent reply. It is based on the dubious idea that our understanding of our own situation is so poor and confused that what we perceive as horrible suffering is actually in some way for the good.
Granting this as an acceptable reply, how can we then ever have a sensible conversation about morality? If we see so dimly and understand so poorly, then why should we trust our moral intuitions about anything? If horrors like the holocaust, or a tsunami that kills hundreds of thousands of people, find their justifications in obscure realities known only to God, then why should we believe we understand anything at all about what is right and wrong?
The problem of evil is the most obvious and serious challenge to belief in God, which is why religious scholars have devoted so much effort to defusing it. Their failure has been so complete that a desperation move like skeptical theism has become very popular. As theologian John Haught put it in an impressively candid moment in his book God After Darwin:
There is, I think, no easy answer to the problem of suffering. It is an open sore that theology can never pretend to heal. Inevitably, all theodicies fail.
If only all theological writing were so clear and blunt! Haught, of course, is completely correct.
The problem, though, is that theologians routinely do pretend that they have healed it, and that brings me to the title of this post. The specific arguments they make, such as the free will defense or an appeal to our redemption in the next life, just flat don’t work. Worse, they make religious folks just seem foolish and callous.
Looking at it from a religious perspective, a far better, and more honest, response is to forthrightly admit it as a genuine, unsolved problem, but to argue that it is not enough to shake their faith. Scientists do not abandon a successful theory over a few small anomalies in the data, they could argue, and their belief in God is similar. For them, there are so many aspects of the world and of their experience of it that is rendered comprehensible by believing in God that one anomaly in the data, seemingly gratuitous evil and suffering in this case, is not enough for them to abandon their belief. It is not as though atheists have snappy answers to every existential question. We are stuck with a healthy dollop of mystery regardless of our worldview.
Obviously that won’t convince an atheist like me. But it’s an honest reply that does not trivialize the problem.
Whenever I read high-brow essays on the problem of evil, I am always reminded of an old Saturday Night Live. Joe Montegna plays a guest on a radio call-in show. He is trying to attract tourists to New York City, despite the high crime rate and other problems. At one point he says something like:
You have to remember, for every one person who is brutally beaten and robbed, three people visit the Museum of Modern Art!
It’s no worse a reply than what the theologians trot out.