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

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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

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