The problem of evil has become a topic of discussion again. I don’t think I’ve blogged about theodicy in any depth since 2006, so I guess it’s time to take it up again.

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

(Emphasis added)

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Gurdur
    March 21, 2011

    If you want sensible theists who are open to argument, you could do far worse than read my blog. You will find the sensible theists in the comments under the posts. Mostly British, some American. Also see my weekly blogs round-up, which usually links to some of them.

  2. #2 Anthony McCarthy
    March 21, 2011

    There is no universally accepted definition of “evil” in the human population, often what we’d consider contradictory positions are considered evil. I’d say that the intervention in Iraq is evil, many think it was either well intentioned but ill advised, some people think it was an expression of virtuous idealism. So, coming up with a rational explanation of evil in the context of the belief in an omnipotent, good, God starts out with that handicap. Add to that the fact that we are very limited beings while God is proposed to be limitless. We can’t hope to understand anything that is limitless, we understand things within limits.

    Maybe it’s because I was raised as a Catholic that the existence of mysteries that aren’t solvable doesn’t trouble me much.

    I’d think that the first thing for us to do is settle on a moral stand and see if we can come to a consensus on that, so we’ll, at least have an index point to work with. If we can’t come up with that, it’s not going to be possible to come up with any kind of non-subjective answer to the question.

  3. #3 Larry Moran
    March 21, 2011

    Joshua says,

    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.

    Let me introduce you to the problem of “naughty and nice.”

    One of the arguments against Santa Claus is that he can’t possibly figure out which children are naughty and which ones are nice because there are about one billion children in the world. Some of them are in remote areas without Facebook or cell phones.

    I don’t know why you and your philosopher friends aren’t trying to solve this huge problem. All you have to do is assume that Santa exists and you’re off and running.

    And have you heard about the problem of how many fairies can dance on the head of a pin? You start with fairies ….

  4. #4 Alvin
    March 21, 2011

    Larry,

    nobody argued of whether Mr. Claus and the fairies were really historically personages. Perhaps caricatures of the real deal? Dunno? But it would be assinine to lump coca cola’s fat santa and the faeries with Jesus, whos historical existence has been pretty much agreed upon by scholars including the godless bunch (e.g. James Randi)

    Oh Gawd, no more sound bites like these please

  5. #5 Alvin
    March 21, 2011

    Josh,

    Just stumbled upon your blog, nice post
    You said:
    “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”

    Does this sound like an evolutionary argument for the justification of evil? e.g. Evodicy

    It parallels one defense of soul-making in response to dealing with an omni-deity theodicy. All powerful and benevolent God brings about evil for the sake of long-term good (whatever that means?) Substitute God for elitist humans who know better justified by their divine right of being an expert and you get the Eugenics movement.

    You also pointed out the Loki prong of Job’s God, but its not just the pious nature that’s being put on the line here. But Job’s integrity to remain steadfast and resolute to place his trust on Yahweh as God inspite of the Chaos and contradiction around him. This is a defense against the ‘Genie God’ objections peddled by atheists, in which they claim as do Satan, that the Believer is pious because it pays. That the believer’s actions in doing good to his fellow man in obedience to his God is nothing more than selfishness being masked as virtue, which is hypocritical.

    Contra to God being a trickster, he’s more of a tester and examiner when put in this context. Putting it in an immanent perspective, would a skeptics belief in materialism be shaken, if he/she were to be subject to deprivations of family and wealth in the case of a natural disaster or an act of terrorism? Some people would readily pray to a god they don’t believe in, given the situation and under an atheology, there would be no difference, if they lived or died.

    Under theism, at least the believer can still hold fast to faith despite grevious loss and still be counted to heaven, they would be granted of having the dignity of making what little say they had despite huge traumatic loss of health, family or wealth, count in God’s eyes.

    Needless to say that both atheist and believer have no control over the natural surroundings and the actions of their fellow human beings in the matter.

  6. #6 radiomankc
    March 21, 2011

    I just couldn’t muddle through yet another over analysis of god. If you want to believe in God, and I see some evidence that there’s a spiritual world, take my advice. Visualize God in the George Burns, “Oh God, Book I and, Book II” versions.

    You pray, he listens. He calms you, but moving mountains was figurative to start with. Literalists will always be disappointed when they try to consider that a busload of Church Children goes over a cliff on a Mexican Mountain.

    The answer is obvious. God wasn’t driving.

    That’s IT! Skip all the esoteric stuff. And certainly skip the superstition. What was the word? Theodicy? Or Theo-IDIOCY?

  7. #7 Josh Rosenau
    March 21, 2011

    Larry: Since I know you’re a fan of Stephen Jay Gould, I thought this quotation was apt:

    Even the standard example of ancient nonsense—the debate about angels on pinheads— makes sense once you realize that theologians were not discussing whether five or eighteen would fit, but whether a pin could house a finite or an infinite number.

    From Gould’s essay “Wide Hats and Narrow Minds.”

    The point being that this was tied not just to theological points, but to questions of whether an infinite number of infinitely small objects could fit in an infinitesimal space. Answering questions like that got us the calculus, physics, and the Enlightenment. Not so silly.

  8. #8 Renee Hendricks
    March 21, 2011

    I’m of the first camp: stuff just simply happens. I’ve heard time and again from “atheists-now-theists” how their life was just horrible. They accept “God/Jesus” and their lives are somehow transformed. I, however, had the opposite. My life was complete crap. I lived like that for 28 years. Once I stopped believing in something that simply wasn’t there, my life improved immeasurably. Because I took responsibility. When bad things happen, I take responsibility. When good things happen, I take responsibility. Religion allows people to relinquish responsibility. Nothing more.

  9. #9 msironen
    March 22, 2011

    I’m puzzled as to why invoking free will somehow seems to get a free pass in these discussion. And I don’t mean that in the sense that free will doesn’t solve it and not even in the sense that there being free will is controversial (hint: there isn’t), but in the sense that what most people mean by “free will” can’t take a slightest poke of an analytic stick without bursting into a steaming pile of incoherence. This is especially true for the traditional “theistic free will” which we supposedly enjoy by the grace of a deity.

  10. #10 Anthony McCarthy
    March 22, 2011

    Thinking about this and the things that motivated it more. Dealing with moral issues can’t, in the end, rely on something like a logical argument because too many parts of the argument aren’t self obvious truths. It requires persuasion to a position, you can use reasoned arguments but you can’t do it the same way you would make an argument in science or in other formal academic subject. Look at how history or the law is, where there isn’t a general consensus, there are persuasive arguments made that produce more influence or less. That’s how you proceed in this.

    That the devotees of scientism think that the process and the results are idiotic, as one of the wits above said, it’s anything but an intellectually facile thing. Science deals with relatively simple problems as compared to those of history, just as biology often deals with problems far more complex than many physicists do and for the same reason. The phenomena of life are far more varied and complex, but they are important to us in ways that many of the problems of esoteric physics aren’t, largely because it’s within our power to change our actions and so to change reality.

    I’m sure some of the scientistic among us would think it was excessively anthropocentric, but being alive, the problems of life are more interesting than the endlessly generated riddles at the Planck scale.

  11. #11 Anthony McCarthy
    March 22, 2011

    Religion allows people to relinquish responsibility. Nothing more. Renee Hendricks

    This is as absurd a statement as I’ve read from an atheist. The scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Jainism, Buddhism, etc. are full of encouragement to take responsibility for actions and warn of consequences of not doing so. It’s the determinist, would be scientific, forms of atheism that say “well, that’s what you’re hard wired to do, you can’t do much about it and anything you try will be ineffective”. And, for the entire history of it address of human activity that attempts to improve behavior are pointless if not counterproductive.

    One of the major slams that is made about religion is that it inhibits people from doing what they want to. Atheism has it both ways, it criticizes religion for repressing people and it also claims that it is uniquely responsible when people aren’t repressed.

    I would also like to point out the popularity of personal testimony in the confessional expression of new atheists. While, as for everyone else, they are the only expert on their own personal experience, that experience tells you nothing about anyone elses experience. Religious people have reported that their religion makes them take responsibility, that it makes them face the real nature of their actions and the effects those have on others. And religion is also responsible when people fall far short of following its moral teachings. Again, atheists demand on having it both ways, and that both of those ways be in their favor.

  12. #12 F. Pauli
    March 22, 2011

    “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”

    Erm, not to nitpick but wasn’t this the god who said that mankind pretty much ruled the world right back at the start of the movie? Y’know, the whole Genesis thing? About dominion and all that? He seems a bit forgetful as well as psychopathic…

  13. #13 Larry Moran
    March 22, 2011

    Alvin says,

    nobody argued of whether Mr. Claus and the fairies were really historically personages. Perhaps caricatures of the real deal? Dunno? But it would be assinine to lump coca cola’s fat santa and the faeries with Jesus, whos historical existence has been pretty much agreed upon by scholars including the godless bunch (e.g. James Randi)

    We’re not talking about an historical Jesus. We’re talking about the problem of evil. The only possible reason for debating the problem of evil is if you accept the initial premises; namely that an omnipotent God exists and He is good.

    If atheists are prepared to do that in order to have a fun debate then why not debate some other, equally ridiculous, issues like those involving Santa Claus and tooth fairies?

    We all know the answer. It’s because belief in the Christian God merits some sort of special accommodation even if you don’t believe in such a god.

    Why? Why do atheist philosophers spend any time at all on arguments with premises they reject?

  14. #14 Ralph Dratman
    March 22, 2011

    I like the idea of discussing what God would have to be like, if one assumed there was a God. Since, using the everyday conventions of discourse, I have to say that I do not believe in any God, this mode of discussion allows me nevertheless to participate. Very good.

    But suppose the assumption were changed to posit multiple gods. That might also be an interesting discussion, albeit potentially a very scattered one. So, for example, a lecturer presents her theory of Hera, or a book is published about the personality of Thor.

    Would that be theology, or imaginative fiction?

  15. #15 Somite
    March 22, 2011

    Looks like I got here just in time. There is no evidence or reason to believe there is a god or anything supernatural. Therefore discussions about theodicy are reallly unnecessary. I’d be the last one to tell someone else what to discuss or enjoy but recognize that theodicy is for “entertainment purposes only”. Cheers!

  16. #16 Deen
    March 22, 2011

    @Josh Rosenau:

    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.

    There had to be? Why are you attributing a purpose to predation, death and desease? That’s not an evolutionary view at all. Or a scientific view, for that matter.

    Besides, aren’t predation and infection better understood as evolved strategies for gene propagation than as requirements for evolution?

  17. #17 Anthony McCarthy
    March 22, 2011

    I intuit that some new atheist blogger has taken exception to this post, thus the incipient mobbing.

    I expect that people will continue to find these questions interesting, much as they’re told not to by the ideologues of scientism.

    Larry, you do understand that Santa Claus is a folk character a couple of generations removed of St. Nicholas, don’t you? And as such Santa Claus is, at least, derived from someone who actually lived, unlike the myriad of shadowy actors in evo-psy explanatory myth so beloved of so many atheists. That is, until evo-psy goes the way of all soc-sci to the bone yard of discontinued “science”.

  18. #18 Anthony McCarthy
    March 22, 2011

    And have you heard about the problem of how many fairies can dance on the head of a pin? L.M.

    I did a little research tracing that “angles on the head of the pin” line and found that it had been traced to Anglican, anti-Catholic propaganda. It doesn’t seem to have been a question that troubled many medieval philosophers. Nor would it have because angels were believed to be incorporeal. It wasn’t that surprising as so much of the new atheism is influenced by the line of anti-religious invective that began in England as anti-Catholicism, a product of one of the more dishonest propaganda campaigns of the past several hundred years. It’s about as accurate as Fox’s Book of Martyrs, which, as William Cobbett pointed out, is more of a book of lies.

  19. #19 Veronica
    March 22, 2011

    Alvin

    Re: “nobody argued of”

    You’re correct. Noboby argues “of”; people argue “about.”

  20. #20 Robert Landbeck
    March 22, 2011

    “if there is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent deity” The question is incomplete from the beginning. It should continue: “who is active in the world to the benefit of humankind via those religious institutions that make such claims.” The reason the theodicy question arises is because of the glaring difference between the classic view of God offered by tradition, particularly the Incarnation and the realities of existence.

    Japan offers an obvious example. When massive natural disaster strikes, and both the religious and non religious, atheist, agnostic, pious and impious, gay and strait, good and the bad, children and adults, are all simply wiped off the face of the earth without mercy or pity and with it a considerable chunk of civilization destroyed, closing ones mind to the great questions and implications are not so easily avoided. For here is where faith and fate might as well be interchangeable. Where faith is subject to fate and without value, where God, at least the conception of God provided by religious tradition, is exposed as an empty and bitter cup.

    To speak of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God is nonsense so long as faith has no access to those resources and cannot deliver one outside the whims of fate. http://www.energon.org.uk

  21. #21 Robert Landbeck
    March 22, 2011

    “if there is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent deity” The question is incomplete from the beginning. It should continue: “who is active in the world to the benefit of humankind via those religious institutions that make such claims.” The reason the theodicy question arises is because of the glaring difference between the classic view of God offered by tradition, particularly the Incarnation and the realities of existence.

    Japan offers an obvious example. When massive natural disaster strikes, and both the religious and non religious, atheist, agnostic, pious and impious, gay and strait, good and the bad, children and adults, are all simply wiped off the face of the earth without mercy or pity and with it a considerable chunk of civilization destroyed, closing ones mind to the great questions and implications are not so easily avoided. For here is where faith and fate might as well be interchangeable. Where faith is subject to fate and without value, where God, at least the conception of God provided by religious tradition, is exposed as an empty and bitter cup.

    To speak of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God is nonsense so long as faith has no access to those resources and cannot deliver one outside the whims of fate. http://www.energon.org.uk

  22. #22 steve oberski
    March 22, 2011

    @Anthony McCarthy I did a little research tracing that “angles on the head of the pin” line and found that it had been traced to Anglican, anti-Catholic propaganda.

    But Josh just told us that questions like that got us the calculus, physics, and the Enlightenment.

    Are you saying that calculus, physics, and the Enlightenment are Anglican, anti-Catholic propaganda ?

    Who am I to believe ?

  23. #23 steve oberski
    March 22, 2011

    @Anthony McCarthy The scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Jainism, Buddhism, etc. are full of encouragement to take responsibility for actions and warn of consequences of not doing so.

    So letting a book of fairy tales tell you to take responsibility is “taking responsibility” ?

    Sounds more like relinquishing responsibility.

  24. #24 Anthony McCarthy
    March 22, 2011

    steve oberski, calculus, physics, the Enlightenment, which are you proposing to apply to the phony question of angels on pins?

    Are you implying that Catholics are unable to master calculus and physics? Because there have been quite a few Catholics who have done both.

    You seem to know about as much about the history of mathematics, physical science and the Enlightenment as most new atheists, which is about as much as they read in NA polemics, in other words, nothing real.

    “So letting a book of fairy tales tell you to take responsibility is “taking responsibility” ?

    Sounds more like relinquishing responsibility.”

    Posted by: steve oberski

    A specimen of new atheists insisting on having it both ways, as mentioned above. Both that religion pardons people from taking responsibility for their actions and, when it encourages people to take responsibility, that that also means it means that that people who read that aren’t taking responsibility. As has been noted before, new atheists are all about heads I win, tails you lose.

    Your statement would apply to any text that encouraged people to take responsibility for their actions, religious or secular. You can understand that, can’t you? That’s a real question.

  25. #25 steve oberski
    March 22, 2011

    @Anthony McCarthy

    How very strident of you Anthony.

    I’m just connecting your ravings about Anglican, anti-Catholic propaganda and Josh’s novel take on the history of the Enlightenment. Take offence if you will, but these are all your ideas, presented from a different viewpoint with the intention of showing how absurd they are.

    Responsibility is an innate human quality, it quite likely has evolutionary underpinnings, we can certainly see other human attributes such as altruism and kin selection among our extant primate cousins.

    As seems to be your wont, you infer far too much from far too little information (this could be an operative definition of religion), I’m an old, old atheist, and I’m certainly not a specimen.

    By all means keep on applying your convenient labels, given the sectarian and divisive nature of religion, it just goes with the territory and it’s certainly easier than contributing to a vigorous debate in the marketplace of ideas.

  26. #26 Anthony McCarthy
    March 22, 2011

    How very strident of you Anthony. steve oberski

    Irony is never far off when it’s the new atheists talking.

    I’m just connecting your ravings about Anglican, anti-Catholic propaganda and Josh’s novel take on the history of the Enlightenment. SO

    All I did was mention the documentation that traces the “angels on heads of pins” to anti-Catholic polemics. I would like to know what document of scholastic theology that it’s supposed to come from, if that isn’t true. You have any idea? As seen on the new atheist blog chatter, it’s just one of those pat phrases that’s supposed to prove the erudition of the person reciting it for the edification of their fellow ideologues, though I’m sure most other people are more in danger of rolling their eyes than in nodding in fraternal synchrony.

    I’d have to let Josh speak for what he meant, that’s what I meant.

    Responsibility is an innate human quality, it quite likely has evolutionary underpinnings, SO

    “Responsibility is an innate human quality”, possibly though you’d have to account for its seemingly scanty presence and its greatly variable expression in human beings, both among individuals and in single individuals at different times, sometimes varying even in apparently similar circumstances. Which extreme variability leads me to doubt that it’s genetically based. However, as mentioned in my first comment on this thread, the inability to come up with a reliable, consensus definition and reliable test for the presence of “responsibility” would seem to be a handicap for any attempt to insert it into evolutionary science.

    I’ve wondered, but never researched known genetic traits that display the incredible variability, at times contradictory, of manifested expressions as these alleged behavioral “traits”. “Religion” as an allged evolutionary adaptation is one of the most amazingly varied in expression, given the amount of contradictory behavior and expressed believe that is supposed to constitute this “adaptation”. The question of how opposite actions are supposed to produce the same reproductive advantage is avoided only by the fact that literally nothing is known about possible religion in prehistory, every word that is said about that by anyone is pure invention.

    “we can certainly see other human attributes such as altruism and kin selection among our extant primate cousins.” SO

    Oh, can we. Given what I just said about our problems with dealing in any reliable way with the presence of “responsibility” in human beings, who could, at least, articulate something about their perceptions of their state of mind, I very much doubt that there is any reliable means of identifying “altruism” among primates who can’t articulate anything to us. We have no idea how they perceive their actions, never mind their motives. Anything that any human says about that is subjective. It might be accurate or it might be inaccurate, it might be influenced by a range of ideas believed in or held by the person doing the analysis, perhaps most problematically, their professional ideology. I wouldn’t bet a nickle on the social sciences coming up with so much as a clean, non-ideological, observation of it.

    “I’m an old, old atheist, and I’m certainly not a specimen.’

    It was your typical insistence on having both ways of seeing something adding up to being your way that is the specimen I pointed out. I’ve seldom known a fundamentalist who didn’t insist on that, and the new atheists are probably worse than most. You see, they believe they’ve got the great oracle of “science” on their side.

    The sectarianism of the point about Anglican polemics against Catholics is the product of other peoples research, I have, however read in many places that a search of the documents of scholastic philosophy have been unable to find any mention of it, not to mention the new atheist fantasy that it was a major issue in Catholic theology.

  27. #27 Paul Wright
    March 22, 2011

    I’m not very sure what position this article is actually arguing for.

    There are otherwise very intelligent people who’ve started by assuming an omnimax God and then working out what the world shows us about him. I’m not sure why we’re supposed to think that this is a good way to proceed, though.

    Suppose I assume that God is omniscient, omnipotent and just as bad as he can be. Those pesky neo-sceptical neo-strident neo-atheists keep asking me how come there’s so much good in the world, but they’re just displaying their ignorance of theology. I have a whole host of arguments developed by learned believers over the centuries. Oddly enough, they look rather like the ones developed by those heretics who believe that God is just as good as he can be. But I’m not impressed by the heretics, either: theirs is just a bad parody of the true religion, of course, which illustrates their lack of respect for it.

    This symmetry between the positions of the good-theist and bad-theist is Stephen Law’s Evil God argument, and you should probably read the paper for more of it.

    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?

    Sceptical theism, the position that we cannot know the mind of God, is all very well, but many theists think that we can know the mind of God when it suits them. For example, we can know that God is good, or, as Francis Collins believes, that God sent his Son to die for your sins because he loves you, and so on.

    Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion should be required reading for people getting into these debates. He didn’t know about evolution, yet he demolishes the argument from design rather neatly. On God’s ineffability and goodness, he notes that a person

    may be fully convinced of the narrow limits of his understanding; but this will not help him in forming an inference concerning the goodness of superior powers, since he must form that inference from what he knows, not from what he is ignorant of. The more you exaggerate his weakness and ignorance, the more diffident you render him, and give him the greater suspicion that such subjects are beyond the reach of his faculties.

    John D gets into more modern responses to sceptical theism along the lines of Hume’s second quote. He writes that such an attitude “creates problems for theists because many of the arguments they adduce for the existence of God rely, implicitly or explicitly, on claims about what God is likely to do”, and examines a paper on the subject by Rob Lovering.

    If your purpose is to argue that there’s some sort of ineffable force that created the universe, well, maybe, but there’s little reason to suppose it was a single person, still less that that person had much to do with Jesus or Mohammed or whoever.

  28. #28 Alex SL
    March 22, 2011

    Theists don’t (generally) understand the mindset of atheists, and atheists don’t (generally) understand the mindset of theists.

    I will freely admit that I don’t understand how religious people think – trying to even just imagine a worldview that accommodates theism with what we know about cosmology, evolution and history, with deep time and deep space, etc. gives me a headache.

    However, I suspect you will find yourself mistaken because there are lots of atheists who once were theists, fundamentalists even, and a few who came the other way. So while nobody will be able to claim that they understand all the mindsets found on the other side, or can guarantee that they understand, say, Collins, you will find people who can do what you ruled out above.

  29. #29 Hamilton Jacobi
    March 22, 2011

    The point being that this was tied not just to theological points, but to questions of whether an infinite number of infinitely small objects could fit in an infinitesimal space. Answering questions like that got us the calculus, physics, and the Enlightenment. Not so silly.

    I was just re-reading Newton’s Philosophiæ Theologis Principia Pinheadia last night. It’s amazing the level of insight that man was able to develop from a careful analysis of such apparently silly questions.

  30. #30 Anthony McCarthy
    March 23, 2011

    Paul Wright, while the new atheists are strident, they are, almost to a person, the opposite of skeptical, They are absolutely certain of what people should believe. As seen by the durability of the “angels on pins” hoax, when the provenance of the line is clearly grounded in an invented polemic – they believe all kinds of untrue things.

    I first found this out when I expressed entirely non-religious skepticism about their just so stories of the entirely undocumentable behavior in the Paleolithic, not to mention earlier in the numerous species, ages and, it is possible, entirely lost cultures that separate us from our nearest primate relatives. Also in the enduring superstitious faith in memes, which aren’t much different from angels whispering in peoples ears, at least in the evidence that they exist. At most because their existence is an attempt to insert a bit of materialism into a gap in knowledge, though, actually it’s more like a chasm. Often these days, it’s to turn their words into flesh, in the form of things like “religion genes”.

    The idea that atheists aren’t prone to faith is contradicted by just about every aspect of their thought. I don’t know an atheist who isn’t remarkably credulous about one of a buffet table of creeds, Nietzsche, Freud, Skinner, Marx(who had the wisdom to disavow Marxism), Dawkins, Dennett,… you name it. Just about every atheist believes in something without evidential foundation. Often of a stridently ideological nature.

    Much of what they blithely say about “religion” is apocryphal, if not mythic, often ascribed to people who don’t hold with it but who can also actively reject it. Yet pointing out that they are demonstrably wrong makes no difference. They are as bent on believing it in the face of contradiction because they want to believe it, they want it to be true. They enjoy the belief that their belief is superior to the beliefs of their adversaries, either religious or their ideological opponents among atheists. The strife among many of the adherents of those atheistic faith traditions I mentioned above has been, at times, vicious, at times violent, though in only some of them have they been so in opposition to the asserted tenets of the belief. Many of them have viewed violence as a positive force. The history of atheists with power in the 20th century is bathed in blood, no less so than that of monarchs in the centuries when you could pin their whole sale murder of “theists”. The difference is that you couldn’t say that Stalin or Pol Pot was at odds with their professed beliefs, though I’m sure Karl Marx would have wanted a rewrite, whereas the crusaders or conquistadors were certainly not acting in accord with the gospels.

    Try pointing any of that out to a new atheist and watch as they frantically defend their faith.

  31. #31 Josh Rosenau
    March 23, 2011

    The claim that the angels on a pinhead (originally the point of a needle, FWIW) originated as anti-Catholic propaganda is unsubstantiated. Compare Cecil Adams http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1008/did-medieval-scholars-argue-over-how-many-angels-could-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin to Cecil Adams: http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2364/do-fish-fart-plus

  32. #32 Paul Wright
    March 23, 2011

    Anthony: you appear to have taken a single word from my comment and used it to go off on a monologue about “new atheists”. I find your obsession a little odd: did a “new atheist” bite you as a child? Do you ever feel new atheists are conspiring against you, or laughing at you behind your back? There are pills you can get these days, you know.

    My point was that theodicies are bankrupt. This article was written to address the psychology of believing in Biblical inerrancy in the face of prima facie internal and external contradictions, but I think it applies to theodicy too: of course there are ways to make any horror compatible with belief in a good God, but this is uninteresting, since compatibility is too low a bar. As Law’s paper argues, similar arguments will do to defend an evil god too, and, of course, the observed universe is compatible with the non-existence of, say, the Christian God.

    Now, to the matters about which you wrote. In general, it’s good to have evidence for beliefs if you’re interested in them reflecting reality. If those child-biting atheists don’t have evidence for their claims, well, more fool them, but the fact that “new atheists” sometimes do silly things makes it no more likely that there’s a God (which, of course, there isn’t); nor is God’s existence more likely if Stalin was an atheist. The article you’re looking for here is Reversed Stupidity is Not Intelligence.

    Your argument veers dangerously close to the “everything is a faith position; atheism is a religion, therefore my religion is as valid as atheism” apologetic. This is a Bad Argument, although it’s also one that atheists unfortunately succumb to sometimes.

    To address specific cases you mention is hard, as you seem to assume your readers have knowledge of your own rich inner life. As I result, I had to guess about “entirely undocumentable behavior in the Paleolithic”: if you’re a creationist, there’s nothing I can do for you. If you’re worried about popular evo-psych, you’re in the excellent company of P.Z. Myers and Jerry Coyne, who I can only suppose are Not True New Atheists.

  33. #33 julian
    March 23, 2011

    Yeah… whatever. I guess I’m just numb to accusations of having to much faith in science or worshipping it or whatever the latest bs getting thrown at me is. You know comment section I kinda liked the article.

  34. #34 Verbose Stoic
    March 24, 2011

    Paul,

    ” … of course there are ways to make any horror compatible with belief in a good God, but this is uninteresting, since compatibility is too low a bar”

    But when the claim is that that horror and a good God ARE incompatible, I think getting compatibility is good enough. And I will say that the reason the Problem of Evil is of interest at all is that it isn’t obvious that you can indeed make them compatible.

    “… makes it no more likely that there’s a God (which, of course, there isn’t);”

    You seem to use “of course” quite often for claims that are no where near as obvious as you think they are.

  35. #35 Anthony McCarthy
    March 24, 2011

    Paul Wright, I would say that among the bigger names of the new atheism that PZ is one of the cagiest, avoiding the psychological speculations of his good pal, Dawkins. Which is one of the reasons I didn’t name him in that comment. Coyne, while a real scientist and a rather good, if humorless, writer, leaves a more mixed picture.

    He and Coyne do have some ideological superstitions, one of those being that science is incompatible with science when one of their favorite occupations is to slam working scientists who are also religious, the existence of whom is real world, and so, definitive refutation of their belief. So, like the true, would be, disbelievers who follow the list of atheist ideologies I gave, they are quite able to believe in things that are not only without evidence but the refutation of which is known to them.

    As to your charge that I’m dangerously close to saying “everything is a faith position; atheism is a religion, therefore my religion is as valid as atheism”, I only addressed atheist fundamentalism which believes it is in possession of knowledge about the existence of God or other supernatural entities when what they have is belief, faith by another word. They, furthermore, are almost to a person believers in some materialistic faith tradition, such as the ones I listed, none of which have any evidential basis, all of which develop in odd parallel to competing, related, competing religious sects. My experience is that the materialistic faithful as as prone to extreme agitation when the lack of genuine scientific verification is pointed out, on occasion some of the more overtly political ones generate violence. There are more liberal atheists who don’t pretend that their belief is based in science who don’t deserve to be included with the new atheists, the liberal atheists I know don’t have any desire to be mistaken for them.

    I first became interested in this was through reviewing the history of the left in the United States, influenced by the book The Long Detour, I have come to believe that it is that strain of atheist ideological dominance of a large part of the intellectual the left that is responsible for its notable lack of success in the period after various pseudo-Marxist ideologues became overly influential in it, merrily alienating the working poor and creating decade after decade of futility as they fought among each other over the minutia of ideological purity as a cover for their fight over the tiny bit of turf they had access to. In the mean time it was groups such as The Christian Leadership Conference which was making real progress through mobilizing a mass movement. I’d like to help steer things in a more productive direction instead of further into obscure if obnoxious futility with the new atheists’ old line materialist fundamentalism.

  36. #36 Anthony McCarthy
    March 24, 2011

    That should read, “He and Coyne do have some ideological superstitions, one of those being that religion is incompatible with science”.

    Josh, my notes say that the snark about angels on heads of pins has been traced to William Chillingworth, who was an ex-convert to Catholicism who became very anti-Catholic and others in England hostile to Catholicism. It was retained as a stock phrase in English anti-Catholic invective.

    The position of Aquinas as the official theologian of the post Tridentine Catholic church, would make an attack on him, pretty much an attack on Catholic orthodoxy. I doubt that the English language tradition of atheism, steeped in British public schools and universities, picked it up anywhere else.

    The context in which the “angels on the heads of pins” sitting or dancing, is recited, is invariably hostile. It is used to dismiss the enormous literature of theological writing, as being a waste of time.

    I’ll bet that if you surveyed new atheists that a significant number of them would believe it was a major question in that literature, when it wasn’t and isn’t. As Aquinas said, angels were held to be incorporeal and questions of locations and dimensions in physical space don’t apply to them.

    I’d guess that most modern theologians aren’t especially interested in angels, I’d guess that a considerable number of them don’t believe in them and that virtually none of them believe in them as popularly conceived of. Not that new atheists would care to find that out before they blithely recite that line from their catechism.

    I’d recommend the Duino Elegies as about the most interesting thing I’ve come across mentioning them. But that’s poetry, not theology.

  37. #37 Keith D
    October 4, 2011

    I appreciated this post. I realize that I am a few months later than the rest of the comments, so I am unsure if anyone will ever read this.

    I found this blog admist my research for an upcoming speaking engagement on the topic which shares this post’s title “Why do Bad Things Happen to Good People?” at a student club meeting at a local Community College. Your blog has definitely provided some good ground work for my preparation.

    I would like to make two comments about your general comments and methodology. My attempt here is not to argue theism or nontheism, but simply to point out two places where you may want to expand your discussion. First, you mention “three basic ways to explain why bad things…” However, there is a fourth way which does not cleanly fit into any of your three categories. Theistic in nature, it is the school that believes that evil is the unintended consequence of freewill and that it does not have any sort of positive telos. Instead, evil will eventually be eradicated by the restoration of creation. Now, obviously these is an argument that has already assumed the existence of a deity, however, it does not fit into any of the “three main ways.”

    Secondly, you mention the book of Job from the Bible – what Christians call the Old Testament. The difficulty about referencing Scripture in the context of philosophical or theological argument is the tendency to universally apply a single verse or passage. In other words, while your arguments from Job have some weight, to truly argue from the Bible, you would have to hold these verses in tandum with other verses that talk about God’s relationship to evil and humanity. For example, you may find more verses in the Bible that support the human-divine relationship as a positive thing than you will verses that support the argument that God does not care about the day-to-day activities of humanity.

    Obviously, any writer is limited by the space and time available and it is impossible for any one individual to completely cover every aspect of this conversation in a blog post. Again, I appreciated your words and will likely be visiting your blog again.

    -Keith

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