Sunday, July 22, 2007

Rev Sam on problem of evil

Rev Sam has kindly allowed me to post a blog post of his for discussion, on the proviso I make clear it's not intended to be academically rigorous. Here it is:

As I see it the problem of evil is much more about how to live in the face of suffering, rather than being an intellectual nut to crack. This is the formulation I prefer:

P1: God is omniscient
P2: God is omnipotent
P3: God does not desire suffering
P4: There is suffering
It is incoherent to assert all of P1 - P4.

There are lots of ways in which religious people have responded to the problem, most of which take the form of denying one or more of P1-P4. I have some sympathies with all of those, in other words, I think that all of P1-P4 are complex truths which need to be broken down, and that much of the immediate force of the problem is lessened when they are broken down. But I don't think that this answers the real force behind the question, which I think is much more direct and relevant than most philosophical questions.

Some time back I took the funeral of a 33 year old man who had died in tragic and unclear circumstances. There was a suggestion that drugs were involved, but there were no clear answers. In talking to the parents, the father talked about how he had built a swimming pool in the garden for his son to play in, but that now his son was dead, "was it worth it?" In other words, the real problem of evil is one about the meaning of the suffering that we experience. In my ministry so far, I've discovered that those who can place some sort of interpretation on what they experience are far better able to cope with tragedy than those without some sort of guiding framework; in particular, those who lack any sort of religious faith can be totally overwhelmed by an experience such as this.

I think when any of us are faced with an overwhelming experience of suffering, there is a profound existential choice that is made - and all of the religious and philosophical arguments only come in to play after that choice has been made. The choice is about whether life is meaningful or not, and it is that choice which generates the various resources needed in order to live. In other words, when the problem of evil becomes one that is of vital importance to resolve - because life has just whacked you over the head with something awful - then you are forced into determining your own attitude.

If you resolve that life is meaningful, then you carry on building your life around whatever it is that you value, and you say that those things which you value are sustainable in the face of evidence to the contrary (the suffering, the logical problems etc). And I would say that as soon as you start to talk about those things which you value in this context, you are inescapably resorting to religious language. ‘To believe in God is to see that life has meaning’ (Wittgenstein) [The most coherent case against this is Camus' in La Peste, even though I don't think it holds up in the end.]

If, on the other hand, you resolve that life isn't meaningful then - I would argue - something essential for a good life is taken away, and you are left with suicide in various different forms, some of which don't immediately lead to a physical death. And religious language is meaningless.

For me, when I am faced with the logical arguments about the problem of evil (much the strongest arguments against the existence of a loving creator) I am content for there to be an irreducible element of mystery about it, and to say that although I can't answer the problem now to my own intellectual satisfaction, I believe that there is an answer. This is because I see the alternative as unliveable - I could not raise a family, and enjoy that raising, if I didn't experience it as 'worth it', whatever the future might hold for me or for them.

In other words, my answer to the problem is a choice about how I live, not a belief that I hold in my mind.

9 comments:

The Barefoot Bum said...

The obvious issue is this: "I would say that as soon as you start to talk about those things which you value in this context, you are inescapably resorting to religious language. ‘To believe in God is to see that life has meaning’ (Wittgenstein)".

Wittgenstein expresses the converse of Rev Sam's point, which is to see that life has meaning is to believe in God."

Moreover, while it's nice that you don't think La Peste quite rebuts this point, it would be nice if you even tried to establish it, more than simply assert it.

Of course, it's probably unconsciously but insulting, patronizing and condescending (which I've come to expect from all Christians) for Rev Sam to state that, "in particular, those who lack any sort of religious faith can be totally overwhelmed by an experience such as this."

The Barefoot Bum said...

From the atheist perspective, there is no problem of evil: Bad shit happens because the universe is simply uncaring of human happiness. Given that we swung down from the trees just yesterday in an evolutionary time scale, it's unsurprising that human beings act in stupid and harmful ways.

We atheists don't have to question our faith every time we stub our toe. Bad shit happens and we (usually) get over it. I've recovered from the deaths of friends (including the first girl I ever had a crush on in Jr. High) and other assorted profound suffering without being at all overwhelmed, my lifelong lack of faith notwithstanding.

If I thought that the death and suffering were the responsibility of an actual being, I might not be overwhelmed, but I would be even more angry at such a being than I am angry at the fools, hypocrites and slave-minded people who invent a being that exploits us so cruelly and then worships it.

Geoff said...

The problem with the Reverend Sam's reasoning is the jump to the universal. When a friend dies, I am concerned with one particular life: that of the person who has died. Was that life meaningful, and if so, how and why? Such a question is immediately, and naturally, answered with in terms of the particulars of the life concerned - accomplishments, relationships, successes, failures, happiness, and so forth. Over the years I have known lives that were rich and full of meaning, and some that were, frankly, less meaningful. Such distributions seem to occur in many aspects of the world.

So why the leap to universalize the question? Only the Reverend Sam can explain his motivation, but the temptation to play psychologist is irresistible. The death of another reminds us of our own mortality, and raises the question of life after death. The naturalist (atheist) has no truck with such superstitions; the confident believer has no doubts; but the hesitant believer must confront the question again. For them, "meaning of life" is bound up with souls, and survival, and being found worthy.

So to the Reverend Sam, I would suggest that in times of grief he should concentrate on the person, and eschew the universal. It's the human thing to do.

Eric said...

BarefootBum said: "From the atheist perspective, there is no problem of evil: Bad shit happens because the universe is simply uncaring of human happiness."

I disagree with this. The atheist is bedeviled by the -- or, more accurately, 'a'-- problem of evil too, but in a different way: the atheist has to explain why he believes certain acts (or states of mind or whatever) are evil. BarefootBum himself suggests that there is evil in the world ("bad shit happens"). Of course, many atheists resist using the term 'evil,' but it seems difficult to argue that any of the many rough synonyms they use are in fact distinct from the acceptation of the term. The problem is usually put this way: if I know I can get away with some horrible act, and if I will benefit from it, why shouldn't I do it? (This is sometimes called the Problem of Good -- how can an atheist call some act 'good' and assert that we 'should' act in ways that conform to this standard, and not in ways that violate it?) I know that there are similar difficulties with theistic answers to this question (e.g. the problems with Divine Command theory), but my interest here is in how we atheists and agnostics can justify our use of these terms. An example of the difficulty that even very clever atheists have in dealing with this problem can be seen in the debate between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson on the "Christianity Today" website. Hitchens never gets beyond the "goodness is an instinct" or "goodness is innate" response (which is of course very weak, since we also have contradictory instincts -- or so it seems -- and that therefore what is needed is what Lewis called a 'tertium quid,' or a 'third thing,' to help us decide between two or more competing instincts). I apologize if this seems off topic with respect to the original post, but I wanted to respond to the very common (and in my view mistaken) notion, put forth by BarefootBum, that atheists are immune to the problem of evil.

david ellis said...

There's so much worthy of criticism in Rev Sam's remarks but I'll just try to hit the highlights.


The choice is about whether life is meaningful or not, and it is that choice which generates the various resources needed in order to live.


This assumes that what makes life meaningful is something EXTERNAL to the experience of living itself (in this case, God).

Rev Sam's position involves the implicit assumption that nothing in life is of INTRINSIC value, in and of itself, by the nature of the experience itself.

An assumption that seems obviously false to me.


in particular, those who lack any sort of religious faith can be totally overwhelmed by an experience such as this.


I can only say of this claim that in my own life, as an atheist, it has not been the case. When my mother died at a pretty young age I did not find myself less able to cope with the grief than other family members (who are all christian). I have also not observed anything of the sort with any of the other atheists I've known. The ones, in my own experience, who were least able to cope have been more often people of conventional theistic beliefs who were never of a very committed or reflective nature---those that have not thought long and carefully about life and death.

The philosophically inclined atheist is, at least in those I've observed, equally well equipped to deal with tragedy as the deeply religious person.

The Barefoot Bum said...

Eric: You're trying to change the subject. In any event, I write extensively about a naturalistic view of ethics in my series on Meta-Ethical Subjective Relativism.

Jeremy said...

Though I agree with many of the above comments, one paragraph of the original post really leaps out at me:

For me, when I am faced with the logical arguments about the problem of evil (much the strongest arguments against the existence of a loving creator) I am content for there to be an irreducible element of mystery about it, and to say that although I can't answer the problem now to my own intellectual satisfaction, I believe that there is an answer. This is because I see the alternative as unliveable - I could not raise a family, and enjoy that raising, if I didn't experience it as 'worth it', whatever the future might hold for me or for them.

In other words, though I recognise the logical problem posed by the issue of evil/suffering, I persist in believing what I originally did... because I couldn't face it emotionally if it were any other way.

Though I can sympathise with the statement, it's no argument at all. It's the confusion (or charitably simply just the confession) of reality vs wishes. No doubt if you stick your head in the sand like an ostrich, the problem doesn't seem quite as pressing.

Not much of an argument against the conclusions of those who choose to do otherwise, though.

Rev Sam said...

Hmmm. Although Stephen did say that it wasn't meant to be academically rigorous, there seems to be a reluctance to allow that fact to enter into the various assessments. Consequently - as I thought it might - the fundamental point I was trying to make seems to have been missed, in order to, eg, get me to justify my parenthetical comment about Camus. I'm intrigued to know Stephen's take on it.

One thing I would change if I was rewriting that post now (I wrote it two years ago) is the point "those who lack any sort of religious faith can be totally overwhelmed by an experience such as this." I agree that sometimes people with religious faith can be overwhelmed by such experiences, but it usually entails losing their faith.

david ellis said...


One thing I would change if I was rewriting that post now (I wrote it two years ago) is the point "those who lack any sort of religious faith can be totally overwhelmed by an experience such as this." I agree that sometimes people with religious faith can be overwhelmed by such experiences, but it usually entails losing their faith.


Actually, the thing most of us disagree with in that statement is not the idea that religious people can be overwhelmed by grief. Its the idea that atheists are significantly more likely to be find it overwhelming.

Most of us simply don't see anything of the sort in our own lives or our atheist friends and acquaintances.

The simple fact, in my experience, is that the vast majority of people, both theist and atheist, manage to cope with grief and tragedy. I've seen very few of either camp overwhelmed by it.