Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Atheism and Evil

I recently listened to this debate on the perennial "Does God exist?" question between Peter Kreeft and Micheal Tooley.

Of course, the big issue for Tooley was the existence of evil in the world. How can there be a God (in the sense of all powerful, all knowing and all good) if bad things happen in the world?

Personally, I have never really thought much of this argument against God, even though Kreeft concedes that it is the most persuasive. I have a difficulty, for instance, in seeing the catastrophic tsunami of a few years back as "evil" in the same sense that the abuse of a child is "evil" or the fact that thousands die in the world every day of hunger when there is plenty of food to go around as "evil". The latter two examples are caused by human decision and action (or the lack of it). This, I think, is true evil, evil which has its source in the free will of human beings which is itself a good. The former, on the other hand, is a "natural" disaster, a disaster which came about because we live on a planet that is just a thin solid crust of land floating on a ball of molten metals. Yet were our world not "constructed thus", many other goods (such as a most fundamental good, the magnetic field of the earth) would not be able to exist.

Listening to the debate, I was put in mind of a novel by Anne Rice, Memnoch the Devil. While written before her 1998 reversion to Catholicism, this book struggles with the question of evil - and interestingly it is the Devil himself who accuses God of being "a monster" when he sees that that death and decay have a "natural" place in what at first appears to be a magical, marvelous, flawless creation. He reacts in anger against God, accusing God of being evil, and hence his rebellion against God. It is an interesting take on the old question.

So I was interested to read two articles on the First Things Blog just recently, which you might also find interesting.

The first is by Michael Novak, simply called "Atheism and Evil". The second is an interview of Anne Rice herself by Fr Dwight Longenecker. Tell me what you think.

4 Comments:

At Tuesday, August 12, 2008 6:07:00 pm , Anonymous Peregrinus said...

Personally, I have never really thought much of this argument against God, even though Kreeft concedes that it is the most persuasive. I have a difficulty, for instance, in seeing the catastrophic tsunami of a few years back as "evil" in the same sense that the abuse of a child is "evil" or the fact that thousands die in the world every day of hunger when there is plenty of food to go around as "evil". The latter two examples are caused by human decision and action (or the lack of it). This, I think, is true evil, evil which has its source in the free will of human beings which is itself a good. The former, on the other hand, is a "natural" disaster, a disaster which came about because we live on a planet that is just a thin solid crust of land floating on a ball of molten metals. Yet were our world not "constructed thus", many other goods (such as a most fundamental good, the magnetic field of the earth) would not be able to exist.

No, no, this won’t do. I grant you that we can make a meaningful distinction between, for want of better terms, moral evil (e.g. the Holocaust) and natural evil (e.g. the tsunami). but it seems to me just semantics to say that the latter is not really evil at all. Fine, let’s not use the word “evil’ for it, but the grief and pain of, say, parents who watch their child die in some random disaster or of some painful and lingering disease is real no matter what we call it, and that reality is a challenge to the claims of Christianity.

God has constructed a word in which this pain is not only possible but more or less inevitable. If we say that this is necessary for a “good” world, we are either saying that God is not omnipotent, which is to deny a key doctrine of Christianity, or that a “good” world free of pain and grief (and of every other “natural evil”) is a conceptual impossibility; that it is meaningless to speak of such a world. But (a) I have never seen anybody attempt a defence of the latter proposition and (b) to do so would be to deny the possibility of humanity’s pre-Fall condition, or of its destiny, as conceived and articulated by most Christians.

I confess I have no satisfactory answer to this challenge, but I do recognise it as a real challenge. And my response to it is two-fold.

First, although I don’t think Christianity has an entirely satisfactory response to this problem, I agree with Michael Novak in finding the atheist response even less satisfactory. The thought that there is no reason for suffering is not more comforting or more attractive than the thought that I do not know the reason. So the difficulty of the unanswered challenge does not persuade me to atheism.

Secondly, although Christianity doesn’t offer me a God who explains all this suffering, it does offer me a God who shares in the suffering; an incarnate God who chooses to stand with us and suffer with us. And that points to a God who understands us and responds to us; as much as we may cry out to understand why we suffer, even more do we need to be supported and assisted in our suffering.

 
At Wednesday, August 13, 2008 12:51:00 am , Blogger John said...

A rough analogy that recently occurred to me about this sort of debate...

Suppose you were an explorer who encountered a primitive tribe deep in the jungle. One that was untouched by modern civilization.

Would you decide to bring them into the 21st Century as quickly as possible? Give them chainsaws, Jeeps, TV's and hunting rifles? Or would you hope to let them retain their simple culture and way of life? I imagine most of us would tend to chose the latter.

But you have then made a decision that would cause great suffering. For instance, the deaths of children that could be prevented by modern medicine. Or deaths by starvation in times of famine. And it would be very hard to explain your decision to those people, when they asked why you allowed suffering to continue!

The same thing would apply if we could talk to animals in the wild. Why do we not turn the veldt into a "wild animal park" where all the animals can live to a well-fed comfortable old age? It seems obvious to us, but probably the antelope would doubt our essential goodness.

We should have a little humility when it comes to these "why does God permit suffering" arguments, because whenever we ourselves have some "God-like" power, we will usually make decisions that allow suffering to occur...

 
At Wednesday, August 13, 2008 11:05:00 am , Blogger Schütz said...

Good comments both. I take John's point to be that we often don't know the outcomes of our own good intentions, so how can we judge the the good intentions of God?

Perry, you question my distinction between natural and human "evil". I think it is essential. Is an exploding volcano "evil"? No, of course not. It can be a viewed as a beautiful fact of the natural state of our world. Is it then "evil" if the only man who lives on the mountain is killed when the volcano erupts? No, that's tragic. Does it become "evil" if several thousand people are living on the mountain and are killed when it erupts? No, that is just MORE tragic.

We talk about "innocent people" suffering from natural disasters - but such rhetoric betrays the expectation that in a good world bad things will only happen to bad people.

Whereas when a human being, by conscious decision or by unconscious ommission, inflicts pain, suffering or death on another human being, that is, in my view, true evil.

The real question is about the existence of death and pain. Yet we know that both pain and death serve a purpose in creation. That was Anne Rice's point in Memnoch the Devil - this creation has death and decay programmed into it.

I think by using the word "tragedy" I am also pointing to something else. "Tragedy" implies story. When a volcano erupts and covers a whole city with its ashes, that's a story. Our lives, and in fact the entire history of the world, is a story - full of tragedy and beauty and comedy. It is God's story, and it is the "Greatest Story Ever Told".

Anne Rice, in her interview, speaks about her "apprenticeship in creating stories". In Novak's article he says "All the stuff of a good story depends on creation being not just a world of iron logic and unflexible arithmetic, but also a world of immense crisscrossing variation and "blooming, buzzing profusion".

Which leaves the question of heaven. However I conceive of heaven, I don't concieve of it as a place with "history" or "story". I don't think there will be historians or story tellers in the next world. Partly this is due to there being "no more tears" there - who can conceive of a good story without tears? But also, I always think of heaven more in the sense of a presence, a being, a state (a prayer, a praise, a song?) rather than a series of (fortunate) events.

Something to think about.

 
At Thursday, August 14, 2008 1:49:00 pm , Anonymous Peregrinus said...

Hi David

I accept that your distinction is valid; I just don’t think it’s a complete answer to the problem of evil.

Suppose we reframe the problem very slightly as the problem of suffering; why does an all-loving and all-powerful God create a world in which we suffer?

It’s a partial answer to say that good can come out of suffering; Among other things, suffering presents us with opportunities to grow, both as individuals and as a community. We can extend love to others; we can accept love from others. We can learn to love ourselves, which is the same thing as accepting God's love. We can come to know ourselves and others better. We can learn something about values and priorities. We can learn that suffering and love are inextricably tangled.

So maybe God tolerates suffering (and other negative things that we rather loosely lump into the category of “evil”) because they provide us with opportunities to grow that we would not otherwise have, and growing is a greater good than being constantly happy.

And we can go further, and say that there may be ways in which, apart from personal and communal growth, other good things can come out of suffering that we do not perceive.

All of this is true, but it’s still not a complete answer. We know that, if we suffer enough, we can be diminished and ultimately destroyed as human beings. We all know there is a level of suffering which humanity cannot endure, that leads to derangement, hatred, madness and, in the end, the destruction or disintegration of the human self. The destruction of what God has created in his own image cannot be good.

It is no justification to say that we may grow through the experience of watching someone else be destroyed, because God, if he is a good God, cannot do an intrinsically evil act so that good may come. “Have faith that there really is a purpose to all this suffering” is not an answer to the problem; it’s a platitude.

So that’s where I’m stumped. And I don’t think I’m alone. If you boil down what Job has to say on this, it comes to this; don’t look for an answer to this question, because you won’t be offered any answer that you can accept.

The challenge for us, I think, is not how to answer this question, but how to live, in faith and with integrity, when there is no answer.

 

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