Monday, 7 May 2012

Yes There Is (A Problem Of Evil)

Over at From Wine To Water, Ivan takes another stab at addressing the problem of evil. His main argument, simply stated, is this: the Bible doesn't depict God's love as anything like our love (in fact, it's alien and dangerous, it provokes fear) and therefore to say "how would a loving God allow [Auschwitz/cancer/the cancellation of Firefly] is to misunderstand the concept of love. I won't tackle the hermeneutic question of whether the Bible does depict God's love as sufficiently alien - that would be a pretty mammoth effort - but I will give another objection to Ivan's argument.

In his post, Ivan asks "What job are you expecting God to do? And how do you justify that expectation?" The implication here seems to be that there's no biblical justification for expecting God to make everything happy and easy. But I contend that there's a clear moral justification! In the words of the great philosopher Parker, power is directly proportional to responsibility. The more you can do, the more you ought to do. If, like God, you can do almost anything, you've got a near-infinite obligation to act all the time to help people. Imagine you gained the powers, not of God, but of Superman - you'd have to help out with natural disasters and suchlike, at the very least. How much more, then, ought God to do?

The only way out from this argument that I can see is to propose that God is already acting to help people, and since He's omnipotent you shouldn't second-guess Him. This is the position ridiculed by Voltaire in the character of Pangloss, and it's not a very good one.

Of course, it doesn't follow from this that there's no God - simply that if there is a God, he doesn't conform to our standards of morality. In Ivan's words, "there is not some God who acts toward you exactly like your loving Dad did, or exactly like you think a loving Dad should." [1] But this presents a huge problem for believers. If your God is infinitely loving and kind in a way that I can comprehend, however dimly, then I've got a reason for believing in the face of huge odds. If your God, on the other hand, is 'loving' in the sense that somebody who is born paraplegic is loved, then my reason vanishes. I don't want to be in God's love for eternity if it's the same kind of love He showed the Auschwitz dead. You can bite the bullet, like Ivan, and dismiss the problem of evil - but in doing so, you dismiss the main intuitive attraction of Christianity.

[1] The word 'exactly' there bugs the hell out of me, by the way. Would you tell a victim of child abuse that they haven't been treated 'exactly like you think a loving Dad should'? No, of course not. That word trivialises the very real, very horrific reasons that many people have to doubt the concept of a loving God.


  1. Thanks for weighing in, Philboyd! I'll offer three thoughts.

    First, it seems to me that you'll have a rough time appealing to morality to critique God. As you well know, I don't think we can justify any ultimate account of morality without a God (or some broadly comparable supernatural somethingorother). If you think you can overturn that view, I'd love to hear it. And if you want me to point you toward the posts where I've made that case, just let me know.

    Second, and relatedly, try for a moment to entertain the theistic conception of God. In the beginning was God—and that was it. No matter, no humans, no laws or standards looming over God, moral or otherwise. Then God freely chooses to create. Without any constraint or obligation of any sort, God freely chooses to bring into being a universe that would not otherwise be. Whatever might subsequently unfold in that universe, and whatever puny humans on one puny planet might come to think or feel—how does that begin to judge or constrain God?

    And lastly, as for the resemblance between divine and human love, or lack thereof, I'll just point back to our conversation here.

  2. No problem, Ivan, and I appreciate you taking the time to engage me on this.

    I'm aware that a justification of morality in general is very hard without a God - partly through reading your excellent archive of posts on the subject - but the people who pose the Problem of Evil do so from a moral perspective, whether it's justified or not. If your argument against the Problem of Evil is that there's no such thing as 'evil', why not just own up to that? As it stands, your criticisms of the Problem of Evil don't read like they need a blanket dismissal of morality to work.

    Secondly, I'll agree that what puny humans feel doesn't constrain God at all! This is a good point, which I'll think over. My immediate reaction, though, is that you're throwing away the idea of a personal God.

    (Where my thoughts are at the moment - and this will probably be a post of its own at some point - is that I'm not sure whether you can justify morality even with the existence of a God. When I actually think about it, I don't see how it helps!)

  3. If your argument against the Problem of Evil is that there's no such thing as 'evil', why not just own up to that? As it stands, your criticisms of the Problem of Evil don't read like they need a blanket dismissal of morality to work.

    That’s a very good question. I guess my answer to the problem of evil does reduce to claiming that there’s no such thing as evil—when juxtaposed with my atheism. But it doesn’t have to take that form. More broadly, and more flexibly, my answer to the problem of evil is that God defines morality. This can then be applied while affirming both God and morality, or while denying both. Does that answer your question?

    As for losing a personal God, or justifying morality with the existence of a God, I look forward to hearing whatever you have to say. In super brief, I’d say some things about God’s personal-ness that are similar to what I’ve said about God’s goodness, including acknowledging that it differs from human personal-ness. And I do see divine command theory as coherent, and as justifying morality in ways that can’t be done in the absence of all supernaturalism.