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The Good, The Bad and Theodicy

John Holroyd on the pitfalls of academic debates about God and evil.

In the classic spaghetti western The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (directed by Sergio Leone, 1966), three gunslingers co-operate and compete with each other in search of a cache of gold. None of them trusts either of the others, and in the final shoot-out ‘The Good’ character (played by Clint Eastwood) kills ‘The Bad’, leaving the third in the trio tied up on top of his share of the loot.

In debates about whether or not a benevolent, omnipotent, all-knowing God would allow evil and suffering in the world, both more and less is at stake than for the characters in the film The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. On both sides there is the honour of ‘winning’ or the indignity of ‘losing’ a public debate. But for many of the disputants who are religious these arguments are about matters of eternal significance for every person, whether they appreciate that or not. For some atheists, too, the issues have seemed imperative. Why waste one’s life on a delusion, they ask, especially when this God delusion can be made abundantly clear? Each party to this debate is engaged to some degree in a life commitment, pursued with passion and conviction.

In this article I will not seek to rehearse the arguments for or against the view that the existence of evil and suffering proves that there is no God. Instead, I want to stand back a little from such debates, observe them from a variety of perspectives and consider their ethical character.

So let’s be clear at the outset what is at stake. Epicurus gave us an early formulation of the ‘problem of evil’, a logical problem to do with believing in God. He wrote:

“God either wishes to take away evils and is unable; or he is able and unwilling; or he is neither willing nor able; or he is both willing and able. If he is willing and unable, he is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God, if he is able and unwilling, he is envious, which is equally at variance with God; if he is neither willing nor able he is both feeble and envious, and therefore not God, if he is both willing and able, which alone is suitable for God, from what source then are evils? Or why does he not remove them?”

In more recent times Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) coined the term ‘theodicy’ to refer to systematic attempts to defend belief in God in the face of evil and suffering, such as the arguments offered by St Augustine. In the last twenty years the New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, have brought such debates about theodicy to the fore, excoriating the God of the Bible and the God of the Qur’an for their alleged misdeeds. We might think of these writers, alongside sceptical philosophical heavyweights such as David Hume and John Stuart Mill, as anti-theodicists.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly 1
Theodicy: hiding in the monastery whilst evil flourishes outside?
‘Ugly’ Eli Wallach © Produzioni Europee Associate, United Artists still from film-grab.com

Obscuring Evil

I want to focus on the fact that there has been, for some time, a reaction against the type of philosophical debate that argues back and forth, critiquing and defending specific concepts of God in relation to problems of evil. This reaction has come from some philosophers who are themselves religious believers. Terrance Tilley, for example, in his 1991 book The Evils of Theodicy writes:

“The usual practice of academic theodicy has marginalised, supplanted, ‘purified’, and ultimately silenced those expressing grief, cursing God, consoling the sorrowful and trying practically to understand and counteract evil events, evil actions and evil practices. I have come to see theodicy as a discourse practice which disguises real evils while those evils continue to afflict people.” (Tilley, The Evils of Theodicy)

Let’s consider two closely related points that Tilley makes here. First, theodicy obscures the nature of evils actually occurring in the world. I would like to broaden this first point and add that on the other side of the debate the anti-theodicists are just as guilty of this. Second, and implied by the first point, philosophical debates about problems of evil and suffering in relation to God are problematic because they detract from other ways of coping with suffering, coming to terms with it and countering it. Because these other ways are of moral value this is a moral problem.

The first point here is to do with evil and suffering being transformed from something one experiences into a third person phenomenon. Awful physical or psychological realities for real people are distanced from us as they become objects of rational observation and analysis. The ‘phenomenological distance’ between the torture chamber and Auschwitz on the one hand, and the philosophy seminar on the other, needs much greater recognition if we are to be true to what is at issue. Acknowledging this involves accepting that academic debate all too easily encourages some severe limitations of perspective and understanding. If the nature of debate about the problem of evil obscures the nature of evil itself, then that is self-defeating.

This brings me to Tilley’s second point, that the debate between the theodicists and anti-theodicists can detract from other types of discourse, such as coming to terms with and countering suffering. Both the theodicist and the anti-theodicist can be guilty of this, though for good reasons Tilley focuses on how the theodicist is at fault. I want to take an example of this mentioned by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. Regarding an encounter with the Christian philosopher Professor Richard Swinburne, Dawkins writes: “I was on a television panel with Swinburne, and also with our Oxford colleague Professor Peter Atkins. Swinburne at one point attempted to justify the Holocaust on the grounds that it gave the Jews a wonderful opportunity to be courageous and noble. Peter Atkins splendidly growled: ‘May you rot in hell’.” (The God Delusion p.64)

Like Atkins, I recoil from the comments made by Swinburne. As I reflect on my own reaction to Swinburne’s remarks the problem is not so much that the idea is illogical (which it is). Rather I morally object to a profound misapprehension, a deafening detachment from the human situation, a rush to defend a specific concept of God while leaving humanity desolate. Swinburne might even be accused, from within his own faith, of idolatry, of turning concepts into something to worship and of making an altar piled high with human suffering for that purpose. But let’s suppose for a moment that Swinburne’s desperate apologetics made some sort of logical sense. This question would still remain: does the logic of the argument align with answers to the broader question of how to live one’s life? The philosopher cannot in some priestly fashion hand down answers to those on the front line of life. To think they can is once again to disregard the phenomenological and moral gap between Auschwitz and the seminar room. Part of Tilley’s point about the kind of apologetics we see demonstrated by Swinburne is that they exhibit values that need to be called into question. Prioritising defence of a concept of God over empathetic engagement with victims of suffering is a morally dubious option when seeking to defend the good.

I want to take this direction of Tilley’s thinking but apply it to the anti-theodicist as well. Anti-theodicists argue that it is irrational to believe in a benevolent, omnipotent God given the existence of evil. They sometimes offer this as a reason for disregarding the strength that prayer or meditation, ritual, fast or festival may offer. For many anti-theodicists, such a collection of delusions, however comforting, will not shift the argument one iota. They say that following the arguments closely will involve us seeing, in the cold light of dawn, a universe without a God; a heartless world, a spiritless world in which we must be self-reliant and in which we will be all the better for that. This view assumes that the non-believer is correct in their arguments – something with which I have a great deal of sympathy. But it also assumes that because they are correct, the logical arguments have more weight in personal encounters with evil and suffering than all the positive experiences that a religious believer may have from their religious engagement. They should, in other words, relinquish that religious engagement and their life commitments thus far, for the sake of an argument. It is this second view with which I take issue. For many religious believers the task of alleviating suffering, of forging communal resistance against hopelessness and despair, is integral to their faith. It is not something that can be distilled from a set of beliefs, but rather an entire life system whose motivational force is its integrity. My point is that the logic of a specific argument about problems of evil should be seen from a first person perspective as part of a broader set of considerations about how to live life. Such considerations include the various ways of engaging with suffering that we find most effective.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly 2
Theodicy: searching for logical gold in the graveyard?
Sad Hill Cemetery © Produzioni Europee Associate, United Artists still from film-grab.com

Making Logic Moral

I do not wish to claim that philosophy of religion seminars are redundant, but I do want to make some remarks about their limitations.

At its best, the debate between the theodicists and anti-theodicists is both a logical and moral enterprise. Whether or not belief in an all-good, omnipotent God is compatible with the existence of evil is a question of great importance in the lives of many people, and the debate is an attempt to pursue that vital question. To do so honestly, to seek what is most reasonable to believe whatever one’s personal background or inclinations and however much one’s findings may clash with existing beliefs, is a moral pursuit. So I do not advocate a halt to this debate. Quite the contrary. It should remain part of an ongoing exploration both within and beyond academia. Clearly the debate can lead some people to believe in a God and others to lose their faith. These arguments are part of the fabric of many people’s deliberations and perspectives, but how the arguments fit together with personal perspectives is a complex question. It is often ‘reasonably’ driven not so much by some diktat from philosophers that one should be ‘logical’, but by the necessities of life. In our various searches for meaning, psychological survival or personal fulfilment, we are often concerned with what we think it is rational to believe or do. It is hard to justify a claim about what role an argument should play within the living of someone else’s life, without entering into dialogue with them, and into a genuine attempt to appreciate their situation in life. Thinkers from either side of the debate that fail to do this are clumsy; in this sense theodicy is indeed ugly. Discussions about problems of evil and suffering are at their best when the participants put aside the desire to convert someone to their own point of view, and instead are open to an exchange that aims to deal practically with suffering while simultaneously reflecting upon its nature.

You may imagine that I wish to lower discussions about problems of evil and suffering to a subjective level. I think this underestimates the connectedness of human experience within and beyond the question of believing in a God. Arguments about theodicy find their place within the context of living a life, and of living with others. To say this is to protest against Descartes’ disengaged rationality and allow that there are real issues that concern real choices about how to live life alongside disputes about the logical character of philosophical arguments. Believer and disbeliever alike will do best if they take this approach.

The most powerful reason for rejecting this kind of perspective is offered by many of the New Atheists. It could be put in this way. If belief in God is a moral hazard then persuading people to stop doing so would seem to be a moral good; and belief in God is a moral hazard; therefore arguing against theodicy is a moral duty. We should be clear however, that the theodicist typically believes they are similarly justified in defending God and in sometimes arguing for God’s existence. If they can persuade people to believe in God then, for them, this is a moral good and the lives of those converted will be immeasurably improved. This is a live debate not least because what the ‘good’ is by which life is to be morally evaluated is a matter of dispute. The constituents of moral evaluation, such as the importance of community, equality of opportunity, tolerance and individual freedom, are themselves at the heart of the disagreement. All the while, the sacred and the ‘secular sacred’ collide with no resolution in sight.

Sharing’s Caring

Yet a desire to understand and work together needn’t be obliterated by the fact of disagreement, as the philosopher Paul Hedges notes in his book Towards Better Disagreement: Religion and Atheism in Dialogue (2016). People are most able to reach mutual understanding about experiences they share. Humans of all religious persuasions and of none share experiences of grief, tragedy and the prospect of death. They also share the practical and ideological question that arises generally and in relation to suffering: how can we live life and continue living it in the worst of circumstances? Mutual exchange between faiths about this question is happening all the time. When the tsunami of 2004 devastated the lives and communities of Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Christians alike across parts of southeast Asia, many found a great deal of camaraderie within a variety of multicultures. Multicultures make up an ever larger proportion of human societies. They offer human beings rich opportunities to overcome the worst of life because at their best they offer unparalleled opportunities for the exchange of perspectives, lifestyles and values. Whether in our cities or on social media or in the global village, atheistic and religious perspectives alike will be richer for seeing themselves as integral parts of such a multicultural home.

Sergio Leone’s famous western was a morality play. A conflict between three characters plays out before us on a barren landscape before ‘the good’ ultimately wins out. The long argument over the problem of evil is also a morality play, but the overly abstract nature of the debate is giving the upper hand to ‘the bad’ and ‘the ugly’. It really needn’t.

© John Holroyd 2019

John Holroyd taught philosophy and religion for many years. His book Judging Religion: A Dialogue for Our Time will be out in a few weeks.

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