Divine Evil?

I recently posted comments about the problem of evil. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam typically maintain that God is all-powerful and perfectly good. So how do we reconcile the following ideas?

(1) God is omnipotent.
(2) God is perfectly loving and just.
(3) The world is filled with tragedy and suffering.

This issue could also be called the problem of suffering, since some have tried minimize the extent of evil on Earth by defining nightmarish, excruciating suffering in ways that makes it technically not-evil.

Critics of religion have pointed out that according to the Bible God not only allows evil but directly causes it. For instance, after getting upset about human sinfulness, God decided to kill almost all living creatures by drowning them in a flood. That’s about as appropriate as using a hydrogen bomb to annihilate a gnat. And even if Noah’s flood never occurred, scientists say there have been several mass extinctions, including one which wiped out over 90% of all species. Furthermore, as Rick Gore reports in National Geographic, June, 1989, “Extinctions have claimed 99 percent of all species that have ever lived” (p. 669). Most mass extinctions took place millions of years before humans even existed. If animals have value and their suffering matters, what was the point of all this destruction?

An essay by David Lewis which was published in Philosophers without Gods, edited by Louise Antony, explored an argument about evil “that has been strangely neglected.” Most discussions of this topic “focus on evil that God fails to prevent. But we might start instead from the evils God himself perpetrates. There are plenty of these, and, in duration and intensity, they dwarf the kinds of suffering and sin to which the standard versions allude” (p. 231). Lewis then considers the idea that unredeemed sinners will go to hell. “The orthodox story is explicit about the temporal scale of the punishment: it is to go on forever. Many of those who tell the orthodox story are also concerned to emphasize the quality of the punishment. The agonies to be endured by the damned intensify, in unimaginable ways, the sufferings we undergo in our earthly lives. So, along both dimensions, time and intensity, the torment is infinitely worse than all the suffering and sin that will have occurred during the history of life in the universe. What God does is thus infinitely worse than what the worst of tyrants did. However clever they were at prolonging the agonies of their victims, their tortures killed fairly quickly. God is supposed to torture the damned forever, and to do so by vastly surpassing all the modes of torment about which we know” (p. 232).

What’s more, some Christian denominations teach that the vast majority of humans will go to hell. And these miserable creatures never asked to be born. Suppose God temporarily created each soul and asked, “Would you like to be born as a human on Earth?” – warning them that the odds were high that 99.99999999999999999 (etc.) percent of their existence would be unimaginably hideous. It seems to me that any rational individual would say, “Absolutely not!! I would much rather remain non-existent, but thanks for asking.”

How can theists deal with evil? First, they need to discard the notion of eternal damnation, an ungodly doctrine that is soiled with the fingerprints of human hostility and vindictiveness. One can also ameliorate this problem by denying God’s omnipotence. The claim that God has unlimited power is supported by visionaries who say they have directly experienced the fact that God is all-powerful. But how does one experience such a thing? Perhaps a thunderous voice proclaimed, “I am the Lord, and I hereby inform you that I am ‘omnipotent’ in the standard sense of that term used by teachers in philosophy of religion classes.” In most cases, however, I suspect that visionaries have simply felt an overwhelming power that staggered their imaginations. This led them to say that God is omnipotent, but they could easily have reached a more modest conclusion: God is far, far more powerful than anything else we know. How could one tell the difference between encountering absolute power and encountering power that is merely mind-boggling? So one way to solve the problem of evil is to say that God’s power may “only” be astonishing rather than entirely unlimited.

Some think this solution carries too great a cost. To say that the creator of the universe cannot always prevent evil might shake people’s faith. In praying to a deity whose power is limited, they could never be sure of receiving adequate assistance. On the other hand, even if God has limitless power, we cannot know whether prayers will be answered as the supplicant would wish. An omnipotent being is still constrained in various ways. For instance, it is impossible for an infinitely good being to choose to do anything less than the best. Sometimes doing what’s best might mean allowing bad things to happen because they will lead to a greater good. Christians certainly do not see it as “good” that Jesus died in agony, but they believe that his suffering led to (or was in some way closely connected with) our salvation.

Even if God is able to do anything, God’s choices about how to use this ability may be limited by factors beyond our understanding. Thus it might make little practical difference to believers if God is seen as extremely powerful rather than all-powerful. This would ease the problem of evil considerably.

Another, more radical approach, challenges the whole notion that the highest power is coercive power, the dominance of one force over another. Many respected religious teachers advocate process theology, which celebrates the persuasive, encouraging, inspirational power of God. Christian process thinkers such as John B. Cobb, Jr. see this liberating power revealed in the life of Jesus Christ. Citing extensive scholarly evidence, Cobb maintains that the idea of omnipotence was never emphasized in either Hebrew or Christian scriptures. Passages referring to “God almighty” actually mistranslate the ancient word shaddai. See http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3350.

While brute force is impressive, many theologians contend that the highest power is love rather than compulsion. Without divine compulsion bad things can and do happen, but process theologians would prefer this sort of cosmos to one in which a supreme super-controller orchestrated every movement of every molecule, every single second.

Roger Christan Schriner

Note: David Lewis’ essay was published posthumously after being edited by Philip Kitcher.

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

Philosophers Face the Problem of Evil

I’ve read a lot of philosophy in the past 20 years, and recently I’ve been reflecting on what makes philosophical thinking special. What came to mind was tenacity. In pondering life’s big questions, most people grapple with these issues until they reach a level of confusion that seems fairly satisfying, and then they stop. As Steven Wright has quipped, “A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking.” But philosophers are trained to push tenaciously for deeper insights even after they think they’ve found a solution.

Dealing with the problem of evil is a fine example. In the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, God is commonly said to be all-powerful and perfectly good. That forces theologians to reconcile these three ideas:

(1) God is omnipotent.
(2) God is perfectly loving and just.
(3) The world is filled with tragedy and suffering.

It is notoriously difficult to reconcile an all-powerful God’s love with the horrors experienced by countless living creatures. Many people think about this trilemma just long enough to grasp some straw that offers an easy resolution. Some say, for example, that God refrains from using divine power in order to leave room for human freedom. But this does not address the dreadful suffering that results from the existence of animals that can only survive by killing and eating other animals. In thinking about evil, theologians often ignore the distress of non-human creatures.

Another common response is to say it’s beyond human ken. We are simply incapable of understanding why evil pervades our world. Even though this might be correct, it’s a terribly dangerous gambit. Overlooking an enormous theological problem because there may be some solution we cannot grasp could lead us to rationalize almost any belief system.

Last week I posted some comments about Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life. Several of these scholars would identify with editor Louise Antony’s comment that hearing the “argument from evil” literally changed her life (p. 49).

Antony was troubled by a tragedy that supposedly was divinely ordained – the existence of limbo. “As the Catholic Encyclopedia certifies: ‘Limbus Infantium’ is ‘the permanent place or state of those unbaptized children and others who, dying without grievous personal sin, are excluded from the beatific vision on account of original sin alone’” (p. 288). “We are all born carrying the stain of original sin on our souls, and unless the stain is washed away through baptism, we are unfit to be in the presence of God.” This doctrine, and the whole concept of inherited guilt, made no sense to her. “This ‘fitness’ sounded almost aesthetic – as if the unbaptized righteous had body odor, or weren’t dressed properly” (p. 41). The Roman Catholic Church has evidently revised its cosmological map and eliminated Limbo, but I’m sure many have found this doctrine perplexing. Dr. Antony was not content with standard explanations, and concluded that Limbo was just wrong.

Stewart Shapiro also reports experiencing a seismic theological shift, this time in response to one particular tragedy: “I still remember the moment when the last remnants of my religious faith died. One day in February of 1984, I was driving and listening to a radio news story about David Vetter, otherwise known as the ‘bubble-boy.’” Born with severe combined immunodeficiency, David had lived for years in a plastic bubble, totally cut off from direct physical contact. When he was 12 he became ill and had to leave the chamber. “David then hugged his mother for the first time….” and he died two weeks later. “When I heard that story something in me snapped, and I have not had a sustained religious thought since” (p. 3).

On the whole I agree with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong that “every response to the problem of evil has glaring defects” (p. 75). But what do you think? Is there a way to reconcile perfect love, absolute power, and the undeserved misery of countless creatures? I’ll share my own thoughts later on.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

Personal Journeys from Traditional Religion to Atheism

In my previous post I mentioned Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life. This book includes essays by 20 thoughtful non-believers, assembled by editor Louise Antony. Christianity Today recommends it to those who want to understand why people reject theism.

There’s a lot to say about this volume, and I’ll begin by appreciating the light that it sheds on the journey from theism to atheism. Most of the authors grew up in Christian or Jewish families. For some, religion never made sense. Others were initially devout but experienced a wrenching crisis of faith during adulthood.

Even those started out as committed Jews or Christians were often troubled by the hypocrisy they witnessed during childhood. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong recalls the time a new minister at his church preached in support of moderate drinking. The “alcoholics in the congregation” grumbled, and soon got rid of him. One day a black couple came to a big all-white church in town and half the congregation walked out (p. 70). And when Walter joined a Christian fellowship in college he discovered that no one wanted to listen to unorthodox ideas. He wrote a paper about which Biblical parables seemed to be authentic teachings of Jesus, and which might have been written by others. He was dismayed by the way his peers responded:

“I was ready to have my study criticized in a rational way, but they did not uncover any problems in my argument. They rejected it simply because they did not like my conclusion. What could be more dishonest? I wanted to get the facts straight. … I thought they shared my goals. They didn’t. They pretended to base their religious beliefs on arguments, but it was all a sham” (p. 72).

Joseph Levine looks back on his childhood, when he accepted the scripturally literalistic teachings of Torah Judaism: “I was taught that the world was literally created in six days almost six thousand years ago, and that the theory of evolution was mistaken” (p. 17). As a young man Levine was on the path to becoming a rabbi, but he began suffering from deep anxiety. When he probed for the sources of his distress, he discovered important moral and intellectual issues. The idea that the Jews are God’s chosen people seemed unreasonable, for example, but “it wasn’t until I lived in Israel that it began to cause serious internal conflict. It was there that I saw firsthand how Jews treated Arabs the way Jews were themselves treated in Eastern Europe” (p. 27).

Louise Antony also had painful struggles with theological doubt: “Somewhere along the line, I came to the conclusion that my inquisitiveness was sinful.” She even decided that “the questions had been put into my head by the devil, and … the whole world had been mined with dangerous ideas…. No one ever told me such a thing in so many words, but it seemed to me a good explanation for the taboo against thinking in religion, together with my apparent inability to respect it” (p. 44). “But then came the day that literally changed my life – the day when I first heard the ‘argument from evil’” (p. 49).

Several other contributors also struggled with the same problem. In a few days I’ll comment on what they wrote about divine power, divine love, and the widespread prevalence of tragedy and suffering.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

Thoughtful Atheist Essays

These days when people think of atheism, the “new atheists” often come to mind – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. Of these, all but Dennett are intensely anti-religious. Hitchens, for example, wrote a book entitled God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. But I’ve just discovered a book in which atheistic philosophers reflect on religion. In browsing through this volume I was impressed by the diversity of opinion expressed, and the general tone of respect for faith traditions.

The book is called Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, edited by Louise M. Antony, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Many of its essays express positive feelings about various religious traditions, even though the authors do not accept the doctrines of these organizations. Contributors include several whose work in philosophy of mind I have appreciated – Joseph Levine, David Lewis, Georges Rey, Kenneth A. Taylor, and Daniel Dennett himself. I look forward to reading these papers in detail, and I’ll share my reactions in a future post.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.


I’m facing an important deadline in preparing my new book, Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You. As a result, I’m taking a break from this blog for a few weeks.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

Einstein’s Antipathy Toward Atheism (and Traditional Theism)

I recently spoke to the Humanist Community in Silicon Valley, a group that meets on Sundays in Palo Alto. My theme was “Bridging the God Gap: How to Find Common Ground with Theistic Friends and Family Members.” Part of my presentation involved communication between atheists and unorthodox theists – deists, naturalistic theists, and those who believe in an impersonal god. Many (though not all) of these individuals are “functionally atheistic.” They do not expect deity to help them in any specific ways.

Even when their beliefs about the nature of reality are quite similar, there may be considerable tension between non-believers and orthodox theists. I think of Albert Einstein, for example. Einstein said some very negative things about atheists, and yet his own beliefs about the universe were similar to the world-view of scientifically oriented atheists such as Richard Dawkins.

Einstein used personal-god language to metaphorically speak of the universe and/or its laws. Sometimes he sounds like he might be speaking literally, as when he said, “That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible Universe, forms my idea of God.” But his statements rejecting a literal personal deity are numerous and emphatic. At one point he wrote, “It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but expressed it clearly” (cited by Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great, p. 271). Those who quote Einstein to support traditional religion are way off base.

Here’s a glaring example: In The Purpose-Driven Life, Rick Warren used Einstein’s famous statement that “God doesn’t play dice” to support the idea that God carefully plans each of our lives (p. 22). This is as blatant a distortion of Einstein’s intent as if an anti-gambling group had used this quote to show that Albert wanted to ban crap games.

Since Einstein sharply criticizes personal theism, one might think he would affirm atheism, but sometimes he condemns this lifestance. In Jesus Was a Liberal, Scotty McLennan quotes him as saying, “In view of such harmony in the cosmos, which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for support of such views” (p. 51).

I like to imagine Albert and Richard Dawkins having a beer together and sorting out their differences. Surely they could have looked beyond labels such as theist and atheist, realizing that what they had in common was much more important than that which divided them.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.

Congregational Humanism

The October/November edition of Free Inquiry focuses on religious humanism today, and emphasizes a phenomenon that Editor Tom Flynn calls congregational humanism.

Flynn defines congregational humanists “as persons who unconditionally reject supernaturalism, yet enthusiastically embrace forms and rituals drawn from the community life of the church, synagogue, temple, or mosque.” This sort of humanism is growing strongly, and may “even eclipse religious humanism as we have known it” (p. 18).

Jennifer Kalmanson article reports that the newer humanist communities are “[m]ore than just a ragtag collection of philosophically minded curmudgeons meeting once a month at a library …” (p. 41). (What an unflattering stereotype!)

One of the most important articles is by James Croft and Greg Epstein, who write that “atheists are coming together not to debate but to celebrate. Moving beyond discussions of the existence of God and the evils of religion, groups of nonbelievers are meeting to ask the big questions that animate human life: Who are we? Why are we here? How should we live? They listen, discuss, and exchange ideas. They share the joys and struggles of their lives. They deepen their relationships. They affirm existence as they listen to poetry or music; some even sing together. But most of all they seek, together, to live fuller, richer, more meaningful lives: lives informed by reason, infused with compassion, and guided by hope for the future of humankind” (p. 24).

My colleague in Unitarian Universalist ministry, the Rev. Bill Murry, analyzes the differences between religious and secular humanism. “Just as we can be good without God,” he writes, “so we can have spirituality without spirits” (p. 39). “I am a religious humanist because I believe life is best lived in community with those who share similar values, purposes, and goals. I am a religious humanist because I believe we need one another to help diminish our sorrows and increase our joys, and I find it especially meaningful to celebrate life’s passages with people who believe as I do” (p. 38).

If you want to find common ground between theism and atheism, consider learning more about religious humanism and liberal theism (e.g., naturalistic theism, deism, and process theology). These philosophies of life go beyond the standard theist-vs.-atheist stereotypes. Even when you don’t agree with their conclusions, their explorations will stimulate your personal reflections.

Roger Christan Schriner

To subscribe to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground, click the “Follow” link on the upper left.