God the underachiever
This piece draws on ideas found in William R Rowe’s The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism and Peter van Inwagen’s The Argument from Evil.
I’d like to discuss two interlocking ideas:
- The EPE (Evidential Problem of Evil) constrains what God can be like. Theistic belief can be rational, but allegiance to God is not compatible with just any set of values.
- The EPE is not the reason for my atheism. It is a reason to reject God if he exists.
Many believers, and even atheists, endorse a version of atheism we can call “friendly atheism”. This is where atheism exists alongside religion, or in a spectrum with it. Under friendly atheism, religion isn’t wrong or in need of reform. It’s another flavor.
I am a social progressive and liberal. I work for equality and fair treatment of all people. If any god exists, he clearly does not or can not treat people and animals fairly. If he were a government agency, I could not work with him in good conscience, even if he was doing the best he could. For instance, if I found that the Red Cross routinely ignored starving children, I would have to find another partner for my work in social justice. Incompetence is as bad as willful neglect in such cases.
Van Inwagen bravely begins his piece with this withering poem by Kingsley Amis. I can think of no better way to begin, either, so here it is. It’s called To a baby born without limbs:
This is just to show you whose boss around here.
It’ll keep you on your toes, so to speak,
Make you put your best foot forward, so to speak,
And give you something to turn your hand to, so to speak.
You can face up to it like a man,
Or snivvle and blubber like a baby.
That’s up to you. Nothing to do with Me.
If you take it in the right spirit,
You can have a bloody marvelous life,
With the great rewards courage brings,
And the beauty of accepting your LOT.
And think how much good it’ll do your Mum and Dad,
And your Grans and Gramps and the rest of the shower,
To be stopped being complacent.
Make sure they baptise you, though,
In case some murdering bastard
Decides to put you away quick,
Which would send you straight to LIMB-O, ha ha ha.
But just a word in your ear, if you’ve got one.
Mind you DO take this in the right spirit,
And keep a civil tongue in your head about Me.
Because if you DON’T,
I’ve got plenty of other stuff up My sleeve,
Such as Leukemia and polio,
(Which incidentally your welcome to any time,
Whatever spirit you take this in.)
I’ve given you one love-pat, right?
You don’t want another.
So watch it, Jack.
I agree that some believers can have rational grounds for believing in God. Which ones? Those who have had powerful religious experiences and who can accept an incompetent authoritarian God. But following God is not compatible with just any set of values. They can only follow him if they can accept God and the world as it is: deeply unfair, cruel and often capricious, with God at his limit, unable to do any better. Christianity, for example, says outright that it is an authoritarian kingdom with winners and losers. I can see no way to reconcile modern, liberal egalitarian values with any god who created this world, this way, whether he could have done any better or not! To follow God, you have to choose between him and your neighbor. In Christianity, Jesus made this explicit in Luke 14:26.
But what role does the EPE play in whether people believe?
I was a fervent believer as a child. As I matured, I questioned doctrines like the existence of hell, but kept God. As I learned more of science, my need for God-as-explanation diminished, eventually to nothing. As I built my social ties, my need for God-as-support diminished, eventually to nothing. That is why I became an atheist. I quit needing God. The EPE was not the reason I became an atheist. But it was a big bonus of not believing: I no longer had to explain God’s ways to myself or anyone else.
I’ve come to this conclusion by noticing how little traction the EPE has with believers. I compare it to my lack of outrage over eating meat. I agree with many of the reasons for vegetarianism. I just don’t care, and it seems I should! For some reason, I can’t muster the outrage that should accompany the evil of factory farming. It is the same lack of response many people have when they read Peter Singer or learn of the EPE.
If I really believed there was a God, I would be in a moral quandary. How could I follow a god who treats the least of those among us so badly? To answer this, I picture myself in North Korea. Knowing myself, I would hope that the Dear Leader was doing the best he could under the circumstances. I would go along to get along, particularly to protect my family. I doubt I would have the moral courage to rebel. I am only an atheist because I believe God is a bluff. I am not a misotheist, one who believes but hates and resists God. I’m not that brave. It seems that believers must believe that God is doing the best he can under the circumstances, despite his omnipotence. Lay believers seem to hope the experts like Plantinga have worked all that out. There wouldn’t be so many believers if God weren’t worthy of our devotion.
This is the crux of it: If a person can believe that God can not do any better, then she can believe in God. But only callous, indifferent authoritarian types can follow God. This is because, if God can not do any better, God is maxed out, weeping with us but unable to answer any prayer, since he is already doing his best. He can’t do any less, either, because of his nature. This is Leibniz’s God, locked into this, the only actual universe, with useless free will in countless other, but non-actual universes.
Further, since humans can reduce suffering with Tylenol, believers must accept that humans are more free than God. I find it spectacularly implausible that an omnipotent God could not do what even a frail human can. It’s not impossible, though: Since humans are fallen, they would have the option of doing evil, which God does not. Believers can claim that God is acting through humans when administering Tylenol. But they would have to admit that a human COULD, acting out of her own fallen nature, relieve suffering that God could not. Again, not impossible, but not something most believers realize their beliefs entail.
So I don’t think that the Problem of Evil is the reason I am an atheist. I admit that it may be the absence of religious experiences of the appropriate kind that have left me free to seriously explore the grounds for disbelief. I may never have had a direct experience of God. I have worked to formulate a defensible naturalism, because it seems the most reasonable and parsimonious explanation of the world. I simply have no need for God to explain life, love, meaning or purpose. I don’t need God as a nightlight or secondary insurance for when people fail me. It has taken much effort, but I have accepted that humanity is alone, living in the natural world, and that it’s unlikely anyone will come to save us.
I doubt that I’d have the courage to reject God if I thought he was real. If I had had a deep religious experience of God, I’d probably believe and live with the EPE pinch. And like van Inwagen and Plantinga, I think I could reduce that pinch to an acceptable level.
What strikes me about the theistic responses to the EPE is that they settle for the mere possibility of reconciling God with horrendous suffering. It isn’t much of an achievement to place God in the ‘not impossible’ category along with flying pigs and orbiting teapots. Concerning the Logical Problem of Evil, I accept that it is not impossible that a loving God created this world, this way. But it amounts to a fine-tuning argument, where God is constrained in exactly the right way so that each instance and gradation of suffering is necessary even for God. To defeat this argument, all we would need to find is one Bambi or Sue. (Rowe cites the fictional Bambi and Sue as examples of horrendous, gratuitous suffering. Bambi is a lone fawn who dies slowly after being burned in a lightning strike. Sue is a murdered child.) Yet, the theist holds this up as some sort of victory. I suppose it is, but it’s hard to imagine a smaller one.
Philosopher Stephen Wykstra says humans can’t know what God’s reasons for allowing suffering are. He accuses Rowe of committing the ‘no-see-um’ fallacy. Just because we can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there. We don’t have the necessary “conditions of reasonable epistemic access” (CORNEA). For all we know, God could have morally sufficient reasons for every instance of suffering.
This is a distraction. The issue is not whether God has reasons for suffering, it is whether he could get by with less of it. For any response to the LPE (Logical Problem of Evil) to help theists, there would have to be mysterious necessary conditions that bind even the Creator. I think it could be shown that this is impossible for certain Creators. For any possible Creator, I doubt it can be shown it’s impossible, but as Rowe points out in The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism, it’s reasonable to conclude it is incredibly unlikely.
So, the informed theist lives in a fine-tuned world, full of interlocking events, the worst of which are, through unknown entailment relations, necessary for the best. There is nothing in logic or physics that points to such necessity, and such entailment relations actually may be impossible, but it’s not ruled out with our present knowledge. Theism like this is based on giving God an unreasonable benefit of the doubt. It is a view of a God so constrained that the world, once set in motion, would not be different with or without him.
Some theists actually try to guess what God’s mysterious reasons are. One reason is Heroism. Heroism might be so great, or important to God, that it’s worth some serious suffering. But D Z Phillips points out that heroes don’t do what they do to become heroes. Here’s the problem:
Say God allowed your wife’s heart to stop so that doctors could exhibit heroism. This is a genuine theodicy, as opposed to a mere defense, because it purports to explain God’s reasons, not just show that he could have some. His reason is to provide opportunities for heroism.
So, upon seeing your stricken wife, do the doctors’ hearts leap, grateful for the chance to grow their character and exhibit heroism? Well, if they do, they’re not being heroic, are they? They are being self-aggrandizing.
This is a general problem with Heroism theodicies. They fail to match what moral agents really do in difficult situations. They are self-refuting due to the fact that, if we seek hero status, we fail to be hero-like. Real heroes don’t seek hero-dom. They exhibit courage, but only to help a person, not to help themselves.
For hero-making to work, no human should know that being a hero will build their soul. So, God should keep his hero-making aims secret. But oops, theistic philosophers (like John Hick) spill the beans.
Theodicists act as God’s defense attorney. And of course God deserves a good defense. But their aim is acquittal, not the truth. So, they often exhibit an unsavory, detached confidence that the most grievous suffering, say, of a child who dies horribly, has a reason.
Well, Hitler had reasons. Reasons are irrelevant. The issue is whether God could do with less suffering. And if he can’t, are his aims worth the tears of even one child? And if they are, can we ever countenance using kids in such a way?
So, there are two options. One, he can do with less of it. Two, he can’t.
Either option strips God of qualities essential to his nature. He is either disinclined to reduce suffering or he can’t. In the second case, we can preserve a careful version of omnipotence. It’s not God’s fault he can’t do logically impossible things. This is not a theodicy, only a defense, since it doesn’t specify what the constraints on God are. It only says it’s not impossible that they exist. This is a very weak position, like saying it’s not impossible that Bigfoot is real.
So the believer must face the fact that humans are more free than God. Because of their fallen nature, they can do evil. When those doctors helped your wife, it is possible they were doing evil. Without epistemic access, we humans are in no position to know that they were doing God’s work or the work of their own wills, which could be good, neutral or evil.
If God works this way, we should welcome suffering for ourselves and others. We should never try to mitigate it lest we interrupt his scheme. Throw away your toothbrush. It’s an instrument of the Devil.
van Inwagen spends a lot of time on his ‘n-1’ theodicy. He asserts that, when atheists object to the amount of evil in the world, they aren’t just talking about God doing better, they want God to remove all the suffering. This position assumes that the best world is one with no suffering at all, and that’s not obvious! The best plan might include opportunities for Heroism or Persistence, for example. I get that, if God’s plan required any suffering at all, he had to draw the line somewhere. van Inwagen says God’s “plan requires the existence of countless horrors”, horrors that communicate to now-fallen man the need to be reconciled to God”.
But God did not have to ordain that plan in the first place. After The Fall, he could have let errant man wander unmolested. Only a possessive boyfriend would make your life miserable when apart from him.
Theists can respond that that wouldn’t be Just or Loving. God would do the most Just and Loving thing available. Believing in God is to believe that the non-human-caused aspects of this world are the most loving things God could have ordained. And it requires us to submit to God’s plan of reconciliation without requiring that the Plan submit to an external moral standard. And if the Plan doesn’t meet any standard other than itself, it means nothing to say it is moral. Believers give up Goodness when they follow God’s plan without question.
So, the Problem of Evil is often not what persuades someone to believe or not to believe. If one is an atheist, it is a bonus to be freed of explaining God’s ways to man. If one is a theist, it is a puzzle like finding Waldo: where is that rascal, God, among all this blood? But there is never any doubt that he is there.
No, it seems belief-formation works in other ways. The EPE was one of the first chinks in my faith, I know that. But the real reason I dropped faith and God was that I didn’t need them anymore. Then, it was a relief to realize it had all been bogus anyway. The EPE was just one more sigh of relief, one more thing to be grateful for as an atheist.
I am overjoyed that the pageant of suffering I see every day in the news is mostly truly senseless. If even one of the horrors occurring daily was there to drive someone back to God, it would make it worse, not better. It would mean we are all hostages, fated to return to a cruel God or pay for refusing his advances.