Monday, July 14, 2008

Evil is Meaningless if God Doesn't Exist! Really?

Michael Heller, recent winner of the Templeton prize made the following common, but nevertheless astonishing, remark, and I paraphrase: "If you don't believe in God, evil is meaningless." Therefore nonbelievers are more likely to commit crimes and cause evil and suffering. Accordingly, a belief in God is required to protect us from the temptation of evil and the ravages of immorality. It's astonishing because there's no hard empirical evidence to suggest theists commit fewer horrendous crimes than nonbelievers. Consider the justification of slavery and segregation as biblical dictates, the Spanish Inquisition, the perpetrators of 9/11 and other acts of terror, the religious wars that historically have enfeebled Europe and now cause death and destruction. Consider Steven Weisberg's trenchant remark: "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil--that takes religion." But what's really astonishing is the supposition that if you don't believe in God confronted with human suffering and evil leaves you indifferent. If observing evil does not itself horrify one to realize it is something to eradicate, I can't see how the supposition that God exists will,. Indeed, evil and suffering in a religion crafted along the lines of the Abrahamic religions are more likely to be acceptable since the victims will be regarded with eternal life anyway.The ad hoc character of such reasoning is also revealed in Heller's remark:

"Various processes in the universe can be displayed as a succession of states in such a way that the preceding state is a cause of the succeeding one . . . (and) there is always a dynamical law prescribing how one state should generate another state. But dynamical laws are expressed in the form of mathematical equations, and if we ask about the cause of the universe we should ask about a cause of mathematical laws. By doing so we are back in the Great Blueprint of God's thinking the universe, the question on ultimate causality, . . . 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' When asking this question, we are not asking about a cause like all other causes. We are asking about the root of all possible causes."

It's simply a non sequitur to insist that the seeking the cause of mathematical laws, whatever that means anyway, requires appealing to "the Great Blueprint of God's thinking the universe." Moreover, if a preceding state is the cause of a succeeding state, how can there be a "root of all possible causes." Whatever that means, it would need a preceding cause to explain it. To reply that "the root of all possible causes" necessarily lies outside of the ordinary series of causality is completely circular. Presumably, one is attempting to explain whether there exists a cause outside of the series of causes, which serves as a first cause or ground. One needs to argue for that proposition not assume it in the premises of an argument.

In my view, there never has been a successful rebuttal of the problem of evil or suffering. Neither the freewill defense, the appreciation of good defense, the builds character defense, or the best of all possible worlds defense have been persuasive, certainly to intelligent lay persons. That God is necessary to appreciate evil and suffering is a hubris that flies in the face of what we know of the ordinary communal life of human beings. I don't need a reason to stop your suffering, but I certainly need one to start it.


Blogger Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

The meaning and problem of evil and suffering exist for theists and non-theists alike, although of course the claim that God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent presents unique difficulties (more poignant? quickened?) for the theist, hence the theodicy problem.

One recent attempt by a fairly sophisticated theist (he is well-versed in the analytic tradition and has impeccable credentials as a professional philosopher) to address the question of evil is found in John Cottingham's The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 18-36.

Near the end of his discussion of the theodicy question, Cottingham writes:

"There is always something presumptuous, almost distasteful, about attempts to discuss the problem of evil in an 'academic' context, from the armchair or the study desk. None of the above arguments are meant to constitute anything like a 'solution' of the problem, in the sense that they would enable someone to get it neatly crossed off, on the checklist of 'possible obstacles to theistic belief.' For the question has to do with real human suffering, something that we can only begin to understand properly through personal experience, and something whose qualities and dimensions it is fearfully hard to grasp fully 'from the outside,' in areas where our own experience falls short. What is more, religious allegiance for the believer can never be a matter of having sailed into the calm lagoon of faith, all problems and doubts left behind. It is something far more dynamic, even dangerous, charged with the kind of recurring anguish that is conveyed by the poet Hopkins as he recalls

'That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!)
my God.'

The horrors of the human condition, of what we do to each other, and what we suffer as denizens of the natural world, are beyond our human power ever fully to encompass with the intellect alone [Is this not one possible conclusion to be derived from the Book of Job?]. The world is a terrible place--even if it is also a place of great joy and beauty. But even in a world where the overwhelming majority led lives of comparative joyousness, the ultimate distress of one soul...would be enough to make things fundamentally awry. [....] What the theist has to hold the idea of vulnerability as inherent in this very idea of a physical universe of the kind we inhabit, even a divinely created one; and what faith has to build on to this (though this will take us beyond the reach of philosophy alone) is the idea that this very vulnerability may be the instrument of hope and redemption."

After an extended discussion of the necessity for according absolute priority to spiritual praxis, Cottingham notes that

"...a further crucial part of our task has been concerned with *integration*--the project of making sure that the religious outlook can consistently accommodate basic facts of common human experience that cannot without loss of integrity be denied. Thus, if one's religion is of the traditional theistic kind found in the three great Abrahamic faiths, it must in principle be able to tackle the *problem of evil*--the question of how all the flaws and sorrows found in our world can be seen as not ruling out, or making highly implausible, the claim that it is the work of a benevolent creator. Next, it is crucial that the ethical system or code of conduct that is integral to the religious outlook of the believer should possess the characteristics of a *genuine moral system*: it must respect our human digntiy and hence be such as to allow for the exercise of genuinely free choice based on rational evaluation, rather than blind obedience. Furthermore, our religious praxis, and the moral awareness that is inseparable from, should be consistent with our understanding of the *psychology* of human moral development, and the religious quest shown to be in harmony with what we know about the nature of human self-discovery and self-awareness. In addition, our understanding of the psychology of religious development should be supported by an understanding of how religious *language* operates, ahd how the complex semantic layering involved resists reduction to the kind of literalistic template suitable for science. Yet, despite the complexities of religious language (which often need to be understood in figurative and symbolic terms), it remains crucial that the metaphysical, doctrinal, or credal elements inseparable from a religious worldview must be at least *possible candidates for truth*--which means there must be at least some discernible content to what is believed; the claims of religion must not fall wholly outside the limits of intelligible human discourse. Moreover, on the *epistemic* front, even if we grant that a religious worldview is for a variety of reasons ineligible for the status of an empirically testable hypothesis, nevertheless the faith of the religious adherent has to be capable of being shown to be *not irresponsible or irrational.* And finally, returning to the moral front, the religious adherent must in principle be able to show that there is some discernible *link with goodness*--a plausible connection between the cultivation of religion and the attainment or systematic pursuit of a worthwhile life, construed not just as personal fulfillment but also in terms of self-awareness, self-purification and moral growth." (pp. 151-152)

7/15/2008 8:51 AM  
Blogger Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

I might have mentioned, by way of balance, the bulk of the catalogue of horrors from the late 19th, through the 20th and into the 21st centuries frequently have to do with forms of individual and collective identity and political ideology that are not, in the first instance, if at all, dependent on religious worldviews: from King Leopold in the Belgian Congo, Armenian genocide, and World War I, the Stalinist gulags, the Holocaust, the bombing of Dresden, Nagasaki, Hiroshima and later North Vietnam and Cambodia, the Chinese famine of the late 1950s-early 1960s (as much as 30 million people perished, many needlessly so), Mao's cultural revolution, the Khmer Rouge and genocide in Cambodia, genocide in Rwanda, ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, genocide in Darfur, etc., etc. This list, which could be much longer, does not even attempt to include what Johan Galtung describes as falling under the heading of "structural violence," that is, that sort of violence that is directly or indirectly generated by the character of prevailing political systems and regimes, and global socio-economic forces that are complicit in, when not often responsible for, the poverty, famines, hunger, malnourishment, poor health, and premature deaths that are the fate of far too many of our fellow human beings on this planet.

7/15/2008 2:31 PM  

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