In brief, the problem of evil is classically posed as a question of why evil should exist in the world if there is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent deity. By straightforward logic, one can argue that the existence of evil is evidence against the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent deity. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes, there are a lot of theodicies – attempts to defend the notion of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent deity against this argument – and there’ve been a lot of attacks on those defenses, and nothing’s really resolved because this is a discussion where your assumptions a priori matter a lot. There being no way to independently test the basic assumption (some god exists, that god is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent), the two sides tend to talk past one another.
In talking about some of these issues over at Jason Rosenhouse’s place, I summed up my basic take:
I think much theology is not aimed at proving a priori that any god exists, but in trying to explore the nature of a god which one presumes is extant, reasoning back from the creation to learn about the creator. Even most attempted apologetic proofs really fall into that category (though those offering them often seem not to realize that).
In other words, my sense is that folks like Francis Collins and Karl Giberson are not asking “should we believe an omni^3 deity exists given that evolution is true?,” but “what should be we believe about the omni^3 deity given that evolution is true?” I haven’t read the latest book in that line, and haven’t spent as much time with that literature as Jason Rosenhouse has, so it’s possible I’m wrong in this instance, but it’s certainly true in general. Indeed, it has to be. Theists don’t (generally) understand the mindset of atheists, and atheists don’t (generally) understand the mindset of theists. They have different unstated premises and so the logic they offer simply doesn’t compel the other side.
I don’t doubt that some theologians are really focused on a priori proofs, and that they really are taking the philosophical perspectives of nontheists seriously, and trying to revise their argument to get at the formal structure of arguments against theism, and informal perspective underlying those arguments. Like all generalizations, the ones above have exceptions, which don’t disprove the broad point. So in considering these questions, I’ll take the theistic assumption for granted here and there, but only to explore the ideas, and to explore why people might adopt those ideas. There’s been some ignorant speculation about why a nontheist might try to explore these ideas, so I figured I’d spell it out: You can’t engage an idea without engaging its best presentation, and you can’t engage an idea seriously without accepting arguendo the basic premises. If all you knock down are straw men and the weaker arguments, then you haven’t really accomplished anything. (It also helps not to attribute all disagreements to inferred psychological motives rather than plainly-stated explanations, but that’s a discussion for another day.)
Throat clearing aside, let’s get back to the problem of evil. There are three basic ways to explain why bad things happen to good people. It could be that there’s nothing in the universe which cares one way or another, the “shit happens” option. It could be that there’s something in this universe that likes making bad things happen to good people, the Loki option. Or it could be that the bad things which happen to good people are in service of some greater good. That last one is where the numerous branches of theodicy come in, and the first two don’t technically create a problem of evil.
Obviously, the first option applies to atheism, but it also covers a range of theisms. The Norse gods and any superhero, for instance, have some influence on the world, but aren’t omnipresent, aren’t omniscient, and aren’t omnipotent. They aren’t omnibenevolent, but even if they were, some bad things would happen that they couldn’t stop, either because they can’t be everywhere at once, or because other equally powerful forces are working against them, or because they do bad things through clumsiness, malice, oversight, or indifference. The God of Job also doesn’t seem to be omniscient (or else why would Satan bother arguing hypotheticals with it?), which helps explain why bad things happened there.
Then again, the example of Job also could take the Loki prong. The God in that case (and Satan, who was part of the polytheistic/henotheistic pantheon when Job was written) lets Job’s family be killed and his property destroyed just to settle a wager about the nature of piety. It isn’t so much malice as a certain indifference to human suffering, and a willingness to inflict suffering for reasons that are hardly justifiable morally (Job, after all, is “blameless” by premise). Of course, in a world without deities, there are still plenty of forces and entities that want to hurt good people, or that punish altruism in other ways. Dropping the theistic assumption doesn’t so much resolve the moral questions as make them easier to ignore.
For the third option, there are a few standard arguments, which the Stanford entry linked above handles pretty well (though there’s an odd probability argument in there and some other places where the author seems to take shortcuts). You can argue, like Pangloss, that this is the best of all possible worlds, and that what evil exists in the world is an inevitable result of natural laws (which are, presumably, the best of all possible laws) or of a divine commitment to the greater good of unchecked free will. You can argue that the deity, omniscient as it is, knows that averting evil action X would result in eviler action Y, and so allowing the lesser evil to take place is the best outcome. Or you can argue that there are reasons which are beyond our capacity to understand.
In this realm as in so many others, I side with Darwin, who wrote to Asa Gray:
With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.– I am bewildered.– I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.– Let each man hope & believe what he can.–
Certainly I agree with you that my views are not at all necessarily atheistical. The lightning kills a man, whether a good one or bad one, owing to the excessively complex action of natural laws,–a child (who may turn out an idiot) is born by action of even more complex laws,–and I can see no reason, why a man, or other animal, may not have been aboriginally produced by other laws; & that all these laws may have been expressly designed by an omniscient Creator, who foresaw every future event & consequence. But the more I think the more bewildered I become; as indeed I have probably shown by this letter.
Most deeply do I feel your generous kindness & interest.–
Yours sincerely & cordially | Charles Darwin
I don’t see how an omnibenevolent being with the power and knowledge to make anything would create a world exactly like the one we’re in, but I also don’t think I can put myself into the mindset of a (hypothetical) omnipotent being that exists beyond time and space, that was there before the Big Bang and will be there after. Who can guess what such a being might want, or what notions like good and evil and just and unjust might mean on that scale?
I raise the issue of justice because Jason Rosenhouse thinks that even if we strike omnibenevolence from the list, there’s still a problem for traditional monotheisms:
God is often said to be perfectly just, for example, which is not the same thing as perfectly good but which would certainly make us wonder about what justice is exemplified by letting animals suffer simply as links in an evolutionary chain.
This doesn’t work for me. First, because I think theodicies based on the importance of free will and allowing natural law to unfold as it will are largely capable of handling this point, since justice requires us to apply the laws equally to all. Second, because it doesn’t mesh with the Bible’s most direct comment on theodicy, a comment from God to Job about why bad things happened. Also because it doesn’t fit with my understanding of evolution.
I’ll leave the details of the first point as an exercise for the reader. To the second, which I’ll credit my reading of Bill McKibben’s The Comforting Whirlwind, I’ll point out that God’s speech from the whirlwind is largely indifferent to humanity, spending a lot more time on the wonders of the unpeopled places:
5 Who has let the wild ass go free?
Who has loosed the bonds of the swift ass,
6 to which I have given the steppe for its home,
the salt land for its dwelling-place?
7 It scorns the tumult of the city;
it does not hear the shouts of the driver.
8 It ranges the mountains as its pasture,
and it searches after every green thing.
This is not a god concerned with the day-to-day of human affairs (though we should note, the story starts with God pointing Job out, having obviously considered him and his wellbeing carefully). This is a god who values the wild animals and wild places, and who sees humans not as the pinnacle of all, but as one part of the world among many. Next to behemoth and leviathan, humans are trifles, as they are next to the mountain goat giving birth, the lion and its cubs, the ostrich and its eggs. (The literarily inclined will note the litany of parents and offspring in the whirlwind speech’s explanation of God’s attitude towards humanity, and might consider that the point is to draw a parallel with the way children sometimes find it cruel for parents to impose various rules, even when other adults know those rules are just and good.) Whatever process brought about humans also brought about ostriches which, God tells Job: “leaves its eggs to the earth,/ and lets them be warmed on the ground, / forgetting that a foot may crush them,/ and that a wild animal may trample them.” The wastefulness of nature is hardly alien to this god, and seems indeed to be part of the plan, for it says from the whirlwind: “It deals cruelly with its young, as if they were not its own…/ because God has made it forget wisdom,/ and given it no share in understanding.” Whatever the reason for this violence and death, it is not entirely accidental.
When I discussed these issues a few days ago, I made the point that omnibenevolence is not an attribute that the author of Job seems inclined to attribute to the deity. There is caprice here, but also a concern more for the process than for the particulars of each life. This focus on process gives a way out of existential angst in a nontheistic framework, too. We know that every child born will die, but rather than mourning that death from day one, we take hope in the children and grandchildren to come, and in the hope that ideas and values we pass to our children will thus live on.
In an evolutionary context, the suffering of animals in the evolutionary chain needs no explanation: there had to be predation and death and disease to weed out harmful alleles and to promote traits (genetic and cultural) that make the world today what it is, in all its wonder and all its sorrow. Death, disease, predation, and parasitism are undeniably awful, but they have to exist for life as we know it to exist, and for the process to unfold. While we could speculate about how the world would be if everything were poofed into existence, and if there was no death, no disease, but that clearly isn’t how things are, and if there is a god, it is not how that god chose to create. If we were to assume that there is a god and that that god is omnibenevolent, we would have to conclude that the evolutionary mode of creation is better than the alternatives in some sense, and our task would be to figure out how. I don’t grant those assumptions, but this is my rough understanding of what people who do adopt those assumptions are trying to accomplish in books like the Giberson/Collins book that Jason was writing about originally.
It should be said that the theodicies I think are most likely to succeed (which are generally based on “process theology,” which extends free will to all matter and thus could absolve the deity of even the outcomes of natural process) are mostly academic in reach. The theodicies we’re seeing for the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis in Japan are often of the “they deserved it” variety, which is a theodicy only consistent with a rejection of omnibenevolence (the Loki prong above). What that tells us about religion in America is a subject for another day.
I’ll close by noting that there are rank-and-file theists pushing back, fighting for a theodicy and theology that isn’t riddled with inconsistencies and doesn’t abandon omnibenevolence. If you don’t read slacktivist, and haven’t been reading his series on Rob Bell and Team Hell (start here, and continue here, here, and especially here), you’re missing out not just on a personal account of theodicy and related issues from a progressive, pro-evolution, pro-science, anti-authoritarian evangelical, but you’re missing out on fabulous writing. Slacktivist just moved blog hosts, so go visit.