Saturday, January 7, 2012

Religious Explanations of Evil (Theodicies)

In my last post I discussed the "Problem of Evil." The existence of evil is a serious challenge to the God hypothesis, which claims that an all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing God designed the world we inhabit. However, this world has an incredible amount of evil (both natural and human-caused) worked into its design. Evil causes an incredible amount of suffering for all sentient life on earth. So the question believers struggle with is: "Why would God design the world in this way?" Theodicies are attempts by theologians to answer this very question. So, do their answers get God off the hook? I'll examine some of their theodicies in this post.

Some of the attempts to justify evil, that I feel are very weak (and others might too because they are not very popular) are the following:

1. There is no such thing as evil, so God is off the hook. What we think is evil simply doesn't exist. Events in this world are, as Voltaire's Pangloss says in Candide, "all for the best in the best of all possible worlds." Because this world, created by God, is the best of all possible worlds, then evil cannot exist in it. If it did, then it would NOT be the best of all possible worlds. Human understanding is limited; what we might think is evil, actually isn't.

This idea is ridiculous on the face of it if you have EVER watched the 6 o'clock evening news, or looked at ANY "Year in Review." Here's a photo review of 2011.  If someone can still say evil doesn't exist after looking at this (be sure to see all three parts), then maybe it would be better if there really was a hell for that person to rot in.

2. Evil is a matter of logical necessity, and hence evil is nobodies fault. Just as there is no such thing as a mountain without a corresponding valley, there is no such thing as good if there were no such thing as evil. Evil and good are simply polar opposites that exist out of necessity. Therefore, nobody is at fault.

However, are good and evil really as opposite as mountains and valleys, or black and white? Why couldn't God have designed an all good world, or at least a world without so much contrast in how people experience gratuitous amounts of evil?  And more to the point, if God is off the hook for designing a world with evil because evil is a logical necessity, then humans can't be held responsible either for acts of evil. If this were true, then nobody (God or humans) is responsible for their actions. But that excuse doesn't sit well at all with the idea of free will, moral responsibility, and eternal judgement.

3. Evil does not come from God, so it's not his fault. Evil comes from Satan, or from humans who are tempted by Satan and his minions, or because Adam and Eve ate the fruit. Therefore God is off the hook. However, in LDS theology, God is the father of Satan and his fallen angels. If God was all knowing, then He knew that Satan would fall, and the misery he would cause on the world, and allowed it all to unfold anyway. It's similar to someone letting their child have a play date at the house of a known child molester. If that child was subsequently molested, would anybody seriously maintain that the irresponsible parent is not at fault? Therefore, despite the attempt to blame the devil, the buck still stops with God for creating a world where Satan is free to roam.

Here's a justification (which is very popular) that seems to be a bit more sensible than the previous theodicies. Therefore it will take a bit more space to evaluate:

4. Evil is necessary to achieve some greater purpose. Therefore, evil can be traced back to God, but there is a good reason for it.

Perhaps evil serves to humble people so that they will believe in God. This just seems a bit manipulative and cruel. Why wouldn't God just give us better evidence of his existence instead of inflicting pain on us?

Perhaps, evil occurs so that people can be held accountable for their actions, and punished severely by God. This is the explanation given in the Book of Mormon for why Alma and Amulek couldn't use God's power to stop those wicked people of Ammonihah as they were burning women and children alive. God stopped Alma from saving innocent people so that God could punish the wicked people of Ammonihah (who were later slaughtered by Lamanites). Even in my most faithful of days, I was always uncomfortable with that justification.

Perhaps evil occurs so that we might be purified and improved by it. This is the analogy that C.S. Lewis uses when he  compares us to a block of granite that is being chiseled and molded by the masters hand into a beautiful sculpture. Another popular analogy is that of raw metals being refined and purified through the application of heat. This idea works well for analogies (diamonds are another one that comes to mind) but does it work with people? Do people become better when we torture or hurt them? If that logic were true, then why wouldn't I be justified for causing evil on others willfully? If I decided to start shooting people in the knee caps, and was later arrested for my crime, what would a judge think if I told them I was simply capping people's knees so that they would have trials in order to turn them towards God? I'd say that 20 to 30 years without parole would be appropriate. But why is God let off the hook for designing a world in which evil purposefully (or randomly) inflicts pain and suffering on people in order to purify them?

Perhaps, as philosopher John Hick argues, this life is a process of "soul-making." If we did not experience evil in the world, or the choice between good and evil, then we could not develop God-like virtues. This is particularly popular in the LDS world, since a core idea of LDS theology is that we are here on earth to be tested and tried. If we are found worthy, then we can continue our eternal progression in the afterlife in becoming a God or Goddess. The idea that we grow as we are challenged has merit because as we rise to life's challenges, we can develop virtues like bravery, hard-work, humility, patience, etc, etc. But why the gratuitous level of evil inflicted on people in Africa, the Middle East, Haiti, and North Korea? Why do they suffer so much more evil than the average middle-class suburbanite here in the US? And what about those who are killed in the process? Sometimes evil kills people (many times actually). Does this help anyone? How about the natural evil that kills millions irrespective of free-will or choice? Does being swallowed up by a tsunami help anyone? Does dying in childbirth help anyone? Does suffering starvation in the Horn of Africa enlarge anybodies soul?

Finally, what about the free-will theodicy? According to the free-will theodicy, evil exists because people couldn't choose to do good unless they were also free to choose evil. The potential for evil is therefore necessary in a world that is has maximal good in it. If we couldn't choose between good and evil, the alternative is that we would be robots who were forced to choose good (Satan's plan in LDS theology). The opportunity to choose evil is real only if people sometimes do choose evil. There can be no highest good without freedom, and freedom can't exist unless we can also choose evil.

I see two problems with the free-will theodicy. First, the people who suffer at the hands of those who exercise their "free-will" are usually innocent. One of the strongest replies to the free-will theodicy comes from Fyodor Dostoevsky's book "The Brothers Karamazov" where the irreligious Ivan Karamazov has a discussion with his brother Alyosha (who is about to become a monk) about why God would allow innocent children to suffer. Ivan recounts a story about a little girl who is abused, beat, and tortured by her parents until “her whole body was nothing but bruises”. The child, a five-year old, has a bathroom accident in the middle of the night, so her cruel parents make her eat her own excrement, smear it in her face, and then lock her in the outhouse in the cold Russian night. Ivan then says “Can you understand what a small creature, who cannot even comprehend what is being done to her, in a vile place, in the dark and cold, beats herself on her strained little chest with her tiny fist and weeps with her anguished, gentle, meek tears for ‘dear God’ to protect her - can you understand . . . why this nonsense is needed and created? Without it, they say, man could not even have lived on earth, for he would not have known good and evil. Who wants to know this damned good and evil at such as price? The whole world of knowledge is not worth the tears of that little child to ‘dear God.’”  If suffering is the ticket needed by God for our salvation, Ivan says he would “most respectfully return him the ticket.” To this blasphemy, Alyosha accuses Ivan of rebellion against God. 

Ivan’s reply to this accusation is to ask Alyosha to “imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fists . . . would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?” To which Alyosha answers softly “No, I would not agree.” 

But the real destroyer of the free-will defense is the fact that much suffering, if not most, has nothing to do with people exercising their free-agency. It simply ignores the fact that natural evil (suffering caused by disease, birth-defects, natural disasters) have nothing to do with people exercising their freedom of choice. Also ignored, is the fact that sentient animals (who feel pain and fear just as much as humans do) experience an incredible amount of suffering and pain. For sentient animals, including our closest evolutionary relatives such as chimpanzees, this evil serves no purpose at all. Animals do not have free will, they do not develop "souls" by choosing between good and evil, nor are they held accountable for eating each other alive, infanticide, or torture (such as the parasitic wasp that lays its eggs inside a paralyzed, but alive, caterpillar that dies only when the wasp larvae hatch and then eat it alive from the inside out.) 

Finally, it is not at all clear whether we have "free-will" to begin with. If everything in the universe operates deterministically, according to natural law, then why do we think that our choices are the only thing that operates free of the laws of determinism? Just because we feel free to choose, does not necessarily mean that we are. Just consider how much of our decisions hinge upon our environment (beyond our control) and genes (also beyond our control). If environment and genes influence our choices so heavily, then how can we be fully responsible for the "choices" we make? If our actions are beyond our control, then we should not be held fully responsible for them. This is why we hold children and the mentally ill to a lower standard when they commit a crime. They simply are not viewed as responsible as you or I. But if our own actions are determined largely by our environment and genes, then how responsible are we? Can God really hold us accountable if we don't actually have free-will? 

Therefore, none of the theodicies put forward by theologians completely resolves the "Problem of Evil." And since the problem of evil is not adequately justified by any theodicies, the atheist argument against God's existence still stands. God appears incapable of being simultaneously all-good, all-wise, and all-knowing. And, as I discussed previously, the God of ethical monotheism is the only God worthy of worship. However, if this God cannot exist, then whatever force, power, or being that might have made us (assuming it did) is not worthy of our worship or consideration. 


  1. Hi Josh,

    Glad to see you are back and posting again. The picture of the starving African Child was really tough to look at. The devastating realities of life in Africa are all to easy for us here in America to just turn a blind eye to. Kinda makes me want to say Hasa diga Ebowi. I want to recommend a book that deals with extreme poverty and what can be done about it. It is "The End of Poverty" by Jeffrey Sachs. I would be happy to send you a copy if your interested.

  2. Thanks for commenting my Skeptic friend. You'll be glad to know that some good people rescued the child in the photo. Lest anyone say that that is gods hand at work, thousands of other children, just as needy as this infant, didn't make it.

    I'd love to read the book you mention. Not sure if you have read "the Life You Can Save" by Peter Singer. It's really good too.

  3. I would say you're kind of right in your second attack of free will theology. To see the Biblical argument concerning why there is natural evil, then look no further than Genesis in the Bible. The sin of Adam effectively poisoned not only humans, but the world itself. (Remember, I am just stating the theological argument, which must be taken into account.)

    I would love to have a more streamlined conversation with you, because unlike others, you actually think your ideas through.