Andrew Sullivan’s mushy theodicy

Over at Metamagician, Russell Blackford gave a short disquisition on the problem of evil: why does a benevolent and powerful God allow so much apparently useless suffering in the world?

Andrew Sullivan, at The Daily Dish, didn’t like what Blackford said. Here’s how Sullivan responded, justifying the existence of suffering:

______

“Russell Blackford argues that the paradox of suffering requires one to become an atheist. He writes that the “intellectually honest response, painful though it may be, is to stop believing in that God”:

[Blackford's words] [M]ost of the supposed explanations of evil make sense only in a pre-scientific setting. They are now absurdly implausible even at face value. In particular, most of the suffering that there has been on this planet took place long before human beings even existed. An all-powerful God did not need any of this. It could have created the world in a desirable form without any of it just by thinking, “Let it be so!” That’s what being all-powerful is about, if we take it seriously.

I have never found the theodicy argument against faith convincing. My own faith teaches me that suffering is part of a fallen creation that lives and dies — how could it not be? But it also teaches me that suffering in itself can be a means of letting go to God, of allowing Him to take over, of recognizing one’s own mortality and limits. That to me is not some kind of crutch. It is simply the paradox of the cross.”

______

Translation:  “the paradox of the cross” =  “I sure don’t understand, but I’m going to gussy up my ignorance with fancy words.”

When a tsunami sweeps away a bunch of Indonesians, when a baby dies of leukemia, when Jews were driven into the gas chambers of Auschwitz: how, exactly, are those ways of “letting go to God”?  Or of “recognizing one’s own mortality and limits”?  This is intellectual nonsense.  These are words without meaning. And they are insulting and infuriating to anybody with a brain.

I wonder what facts would make Sullivan find the argument convincing?  It can’t be the existence of yet more innocent people suffering needlessly, because, Lord knows, we’ve already seen enough of that.  In fact, I doubt that there is any evidence that would convince Sullivan that there’s a problem, which is why he has no intellectual credibility on the issue of faith. “His faith teaches him” means, of course, that somebody told him that suffering was part of God’s plan, and that’s why he believes it. For someone who’s supposedly an intellectual, Sullivan shows a distressing tendency to accept authority and avoid thinking for himself.

“How could it not be?”  Easy, if there’s no God.

102 Comments

  1. s. pimpernel
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    Exactly! Well said.

  2. Jim Sheppeck
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Jerry,

    Your suspicions about Sullivan are true. In a web debate with Sam Harris he admitted as much saying NOTHING could shake his belief in God.

    As a devout Catholic and an openly gay man suffering from HIV, Sullivan has many contradictions that he pathetically reconciles. So theodicy is weak? I find being a member of the Catholic Church that at every turn demeans homosexuals and complicitly spreads HIV weak. In fact, I’d call it immoral. Come to think of it, if Sullivan had real balls, he would have quit the Catholic Church but not Christianity.

  3. Badger3k
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Basically, Sullivan seems to interpret suffering as the chance to do nothing. I’d guess that the people killed in the tsunami were killed to give other people a chance to surrender to Andrew’s god, admit there is nothing they can do, and feel better about their inactivity.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted September 21, 2009 at 9:44 am | Permalink

      Yes, as a friend wrote me, ” . . .they never realize how it obliges them to have LESS compassion than they otherwise would. If all the suffering in the world is part of God’s plan and has a silver lining, I don’t really have to worry about it much…”

  4. Eric MacDonald
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    This is actually far more serious than not thinking. It is an act of fairly brutish selfishness that is underwritten by religious belief. Sullivan can comfortably sit there theorising about suffering, without experiencing much himself (at the time, anyway – just wait!).

    A German theologian (Joachim Kohl) and pastor who saw the light wrote a very interesting little book (ultimately translated and published as The Misery of Christianity), and he points out some of the implications of the theologia crucis, the theology of the cross, and it’s not pretty. It might be worthwhile quoting a few of his words:

    “Existing suffering was overcome by the powr of religion and ontologized, never criticized.”

    He says this in reference to the Christian stabilisation of slavery, which, as Augustine said, did not make free men of slaves, but good slaves of bad slaves. But it applies to any form of suffering. The suffering of Christ on the cross, as Kohl says, “serves as an alibi and as an illusion of consolation for the innocent sufering of other men.” (Both quotations from page 30 of the Penguin edition, 1971)

    It is important to recognise, as Sullivan’s rather pathetic little wheeze does not, that this has very immediate practical implications. It means that the church, almost everywhere, is opposed, not on the pretended consequential grounds that it always trots out for the occasion, but on theological grounds, to assistance in dying. Since suffering has already been dealt with in the way that Sullivan supposes, then it’s quite alright to let people suffer. It is accounted for in the theological ledger.

    This should make any sensitive, compassionate human being sick. And to suppose that this deals adequately with the problem of evil is so laughably silly that it should shame the person who thinks that it does. That it apparently doesn’t should a matter of some concern.

    • Eric MacDonald
      Posted September 21, 2009 at 9:51 am | Permalink

      Didn’t know about Sullivan’s HIV when I wrote the first paragraph, since Jim’s note crossed mine, so that might be hasty. I still stand by the rest. Besides, the fact that one person takes comfort from the thought of Jesus’ dying on a cross – this seems odd on the face of it – simply can’t be applied to others, as though it were written into the nature off things. This is what Kahl (sorry, misspelt his name above) means by the ontologizing of suffering.

      • Posted September 21, 2009 at 11:42 am | Permalink

        I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you. Sullivan is well-off. I doubt he “suffers” from his HIV status the same way underprivileged people do, especially HIV+ people of color (and I mean that both in terms of access to health care, and the amount of social stigma they are subjected to).

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted September 21, 2009 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      I hope I’m not out of line to point out that Eric MacDonald has personal experience with the church’s opposition to assisted dying.

      See here http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2007/06/27/suicide-assisted.html

      and here: http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=410

      • Eric MacDonald
        Posted September 21, 2009 at 10:18 am | Permalink

        Not out of line at all. Thank you, Jerry.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted September 21, 2009 at 11:13 am | Permalink

        It must be confining to live, like Sullivan, in such a small closed mind.

  5. Posted September 21, 2009 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Human papilloma, at it’s worst, is just a way of letting God take over. And what a great job *he* does.

  6. gingerbaker
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    “…But it also teaches me that suffering in itself can be a means of letting go to God, of allowing Him to take over, of recognizing one’s own mortality and limits…”

    As I said at Russel’s blog, the above sounds like Stockholm or Battered Wife’s Syndrome. Submit, accept that the beatings come from love and are for your own good. Love your oppressor.

    “My own faith teaches me that suffering is part of a fallen creation that lives and dies — how could it not be?”

    Substitute the word ‘cult’ for the word ‘faith’ and this becomes much more understandable. God sets up Adam to fall, and now every person until the end of time must suffer? And we are supposed to love and have faith in this guy? How can an intelligent person believe such a load of donkey offal?

    Only brainwashing at an early age can account for such behavior.

  7. Posted September 21, 2009 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    I’m certainly no theist, and I don’t think that engaging theological arguments is a good tactic. It gives these silly excuse-fests an appearance of legitimacy.

    OTOH, I have never been too impressed with the “problem of evil.” Here’s why:
    How do you define evil?

    Many years ago I took an economics class. The professor explained that economics is called “the dismal science” because once you understand how economic systems work, you realize, essentially, that somebody has to be at the bottom. It’s not all zero-sum but there are losers and there are winners.

    Suppose that kid washed out to sea is part of a trade-off against some even worse evil? Suppose that starving baby or the sick person is, somehow, the lesser of two evils?

    IOW, I’m not sure we have enough information about what might have been to evaluate the relative utility of the world as it is.

    This is not a defense of theology per se, but a statement that this particular argument is less than compelling to me.

    And of course I know I’ll get flamed. No worries, I wouldn’t post if I didn’t expect people to disagree with me.

    • Sophist
      Posted September 21, 2009 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      Many years ago I took an economics class. The professor explained that economics is called “the dismal science” because once you understand how economic systems work, you realize, essentially, that somebody has to be at the bottom. It’s not all zero-sum but there are losers and there are winners.

      Suppose that kid washed out to sea is part of a trade-off against some even worse evil? Suppose that starving baby or the sick person is, somehow, the lesser of two evils?

      The problem is that you are applying the logic of one that is bound by rules to one that makes them. Yes, as limited beings we are often forced to make zero-sum outcome decisions, or to choose between two evils. If you have lifesaving medicine for twenty, but you have two-hundred dying people who need it, you are going have to make some very hard decisions. An omnipotent, omniscient god, by definition, is never in this position. If “that kid washed out to sea is part of a trade-off against some even worse evil,” it is because god willed it to be that way, and not otherwise. God would never be forced to choose between to evils, because the sort of god being discussed here is subject to no force majeure. Such a god would always have another choice.

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted September 21, 2009 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

        Who makes these rules which God must follow?

      • Sophist
        Posted September 21, 2009 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

        Who makes these rules which God must follow?

        Nobody. That’s the whole point. Nothing compells the sort of god we’re talking about to do anything. If there is a choice between two evils it is there because god wants it to be there, not because god didn’t have any other choice. God always has another choice.

      • George Brundage
        Posted September 21, 2009 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

        Who makes these rules which God must follow?

        Nobody “makes the rules” and nobody has proposed them. Which is why it is amusing when people make silly rhetorical “gotcha” questions….

        The criticism of Sullivan’s blind faith is that an all powerful, all-knowing “good” God would, quite reasonably I believe, act in a much different manner.

      • Posted September 22, 2009 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

        But don’t the rules have to be internally inconsistent? That would impose constraints.

        Really, all I’m saying is that since we can’t know all of the consequences of an event, it may be presumptuous to call it “evil.”

  8. Posted September 21, 2009 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    His chant is just a ritual to drive away the doubts.

    Apparently it works. Doesn’t convince or answer, but it does displace the question.

    Glen Davidson

    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  9. tdd
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Secular-Philosophies/Is-Religion-Built-Upon-Lies.aspx

    A link to Sullivan’s debate with Sam Harris where Sully notes that he does not take kindly to evidence.

  10. Posted September 21, 2009 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    I have to disagree a bit: the existence of suffering has nothing to do with their being a god or not.

    1. This deity might be an indifferent deity.

    2. This deity might even be evil, such as this one.

    3. The usual argument is that our time on earth is temporary, and no matter how bad our suffering appears to us, it is overwhelmed by the eternal bliss that awaits us.

    Of course, I find none of the above convincing, and it is best just to dismiss the “why is there evil if there is a god” arguments as nonsense; “evil” and “suffering” are strictly human constructs anyway.

    • Posted September 21, 2009 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      “there being a god or not”.

      I know spel reel gud.

    • Posted September 22, 2009 at 8:02 am | Permalink

      I don’t think you understand the argument from existence of evil. The occurrence of suffering is not evidence against all gods imaginable, but evidence against an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good god – like the God of Christianity. There are only a few ways to resolve the contradiction between the existence of such a God:
      1. God is not all-loving, but indifferent or evil, as you have already said.
      2. God is not all-powerful, and unable to stop the suffering
      3. God is not all-knowing, and doesn’t know people are suffering
      4. Suffering is actually a good thing, either for you or others.
      5. God does not exist.

      Deists appear to go for option 1 (God is indifferent). Virtually nobody goes for option 2 and 3. Sullivan appears to go for option 4. Atheists, of course, go with option 5.

      In my humble opinion, anyone who chooses option 4 over any of the others needs to buy themselves a new moral compass, fast.

      • Posted September 22, 2009 at 8:21 am | Permalink

        “all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good god – like the God of Christianity.”

        But the god of Christianity is none of those things, if you believe the Bible. That god couldn’t defeat an army that had iron chariots. That god was jealous and killed people like the truck load; it really wasn’t good but demanded to be worshiped anyway.

        (kind of a “worship me in the right way and no one gets hurt” sort of thing?)

        That god clearly didn’t know what people were up to at all times, couldn’t predict how they would act and frequently lost its temper.

        Sure, it was gradually changed to become more palatable but the god that some Christians worship now has nothing in common with the god of the Bible.

      • Posted September 22, 2009 at 9:48 am | Permalink

        @blueollie: Shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Bible is not always consistent about these issues.

        And many Christians have some really elaborate excuses for why all the genocides in the Bible were in fact entirely justified. You know, like being really, really evil. Too evil for an all-loving, all-powerful god to be able to forgive them.

  11. Posted September 21, 2009 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    “the existence of suffering has nothing to do with their being a god or not.”

    True but it has everything to do with their being an omnipotent benevolent god, and vanishingly few believers believe in a malevolent god.

    —–

    Even apart from all the objections raised above, Sullivan’s breezy dismissal is totally irrelevant to the massive suffering of all the other animals. This is not a trivial matter.

  12. james
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    I’m not a religion scholar, but I’m guessing that the presence of evil is more a problem for Christianity than many other religions.

    The Greeks had pretty good explanations for the presence of arbitrary and evil events in the world.

    • Posted September 22, 2009 at 8:04 am | Permalink

      The Greek Gods weren’t all-powerful and all-knowing and definitely not all-loving. They were always scheming and plotting, both against each other and against humans.

  13. Posted September 21, 2009 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    From The Improbability of God edited by Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier.

    “An Atheological Argument from Evil Natural Laws” by Quentin Smith p 235

    “Not long ago I was sleeping in a cabin in the woods and was awoken in the middle of the night by the sounds of a struggle between two animals. Cries of terror and extreme agony rent the night, intermingled with the sounds of jaws snapping bones and flesh being torn from limbs. One animal was being savagely attacked, killed and then devoured by another.”

    An instance of an evil natural law, “sufficient evidence that God did not exist.”

    • Eric MacDonald
      Posted September 21, 2009 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      And Sullivan is content just to contemplate a man on a cross, and think that that is an answer! Isn’t that a statement of the problem?

      Nice quote, Ophelia. It is what people who think that evolution is compatible with Christianity simply do not see. Darwin saw it, and he shrank from it. Other Christians, not so sensitive to suffering, never noticed, and still, very often, do not.

    • Posted September 21, 2009 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

      Sufficient evidence that God is not Walt Disney. Think we might have known that before Darwin though.

      • Posted September 22, 2009 at 9:44 am | Permalink

        That’s a flip response to animal suffering. Darwin (for one) did better.

    • Eric MacDonald
      Posted September 21, 2009 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      Not quite the same thing. The difference that evolution makes is vital. Remember that Darwin read Malthus on population. This is the clue to the success of natural selection. There has to be excess fertility, otherwise adaptive mutations won’t be chosen. I don’t know what the by what factor this requirement increases the amount of suffering, but it must be considerable. So its not just that its not a Disney world; it’s a worse than Disney’s worst dream squared kind of world.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted September 21, 2009 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

        “The difference that evolution makes is vital.”

        Since no one has cared to define evil or suffering soundly, it’s hard to discuss it. But I would suggest for the purpose of this side topic that both are constructs [here: feelings] of minds.

        That means that they aren’t tied to evolution at all, minds are contingent outcomes and AFAIU many biologists highly unlikely. Most of the ~ 3.5 Gy of evolution on Earth there was no suffering or evil at all, and currently most organisms doesn’t suffer or are victimized.

        But even when minds exist evolution often act to minimize suffering. Predators preferably prey on sick animals due to evolutionary constraints, and likewise they prefer to minimize time to kill because of such.

        [It is also IMHO now highly likely that we can make AIs and have them suffer without involving evolution at all. There are neural net models of neocortex that learn by spontaneous emergence of symbol like behavior.]

        I don’t get the Malthus reference at all. AFAIU this layman understand, you don’t see populations work as Malthus thought. Nor is selection based solely on positive fitness, as I understand it.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted September 21, 2009 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

        And what about positive fitness in social animals like naked mole rats or humans? Surely mutations with such can fix even if there is reproductive suppression (pheromones respectively birth control)?

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted September 21, 2009 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

        Sorry, hormones perhaps. Dunno if naked mole rats uses pheromones to operate their behavioral control.

  14. Sara
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    but this is easy to explain, God is good and he is responsible for all the good stuff, but humans have free will and thus we have evil, humans are the cause of a lot of evil! The entire world and all it’s living contents was punished cause Adam and Eve ate that juicy juicy apple. So although God is punishing us it’s not his fault, it’s ours.

    Let’s leave aside the fact that an all-knowing all powerful god must have known they’d eat that apple and thus punished them for doing something he knew they’d do, but we all know logic doesn’t really enter into this, or reality.

    Some days I can’t believe I have to assume a story is true and argue against it.

  15. Chayanov
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    This is just more of the “those dumb atheists don’t understand how complex and sophisticated my personal beliefs are”.

  16. JAF
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Xians of all kinds get around the problem of evil by using one or both of these arguments:

    *There is no such thing as evil.
    *God is not capable of stopping evil.

    The thing that really bugs me is that they say these things, which make perfect sense, then they turn around and say that it isn’t what they’re saying.

    Sorry, but “God has to allow us to suffer for our own good” means that either God is incapable of alleviating your suffering and/or that your suffering is not actually evil.

    I’ve pointed it out to several of them, and they just keep saying, “No, that’s not what I mean.” And then the whole thing is repeated ad nauseum.

    I’ve also pointed out the I strongly disagree with them that suffering is not evil. I vehemently oppose that point of view on moral grounds. However, I have no problem accepting that there may be a careless, thoughtless, trickster god. I don’t actually believe there is, but at least there’s a logical possibility.

  17. Posted September 21, 2009 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Andrew Sullivan is an openly gay man who supported the Republican party and George W-for-“worst” Bush.

    Having performed the magical contortions of thought and ethics needed to make that possible, merely believing in an all-powerful authority figure who lets people suffer terribly and die for kicks is quite small potatoes.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted September 21, 2009 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      Andrew Sullivan is an openly gay man who supported the Republican party and George W-for-”worst” Bush.

      So now we know he has impaired reasoning facilities.

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted September 21, 2009 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

        To be fair, he did vote for Obama.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted September 21, 2009 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

        Not everyone gets them all wrong. Even Dumbya got one right. I wont say which one, I don’t want that debated here.

  18. Grant N
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    –That to me is not some kind of crutch. It is simply the paradox of the cross.”–

    I posit that Sulli’s paradoxical cross IS actually his crutch, and it’s nailed to the ground and he can’t help but spin. Consequently, shooting himself in the foot every time ’round. Now that is what I would describe as suffering, even if you can’t feel the pain.

  19. JefFlyingV
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Does Sullivan’s mindset create the idea of his deserving AID’s because he sees himself as a sinner? Fulfillment belief system that I don’t appreciate or understand.

  20. eyelessgame
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    I do know some theists who at least recognize the conundrum — that in the presence of suffering one cannot justify an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent deity.

    So their solution is to jettison omnibenevolence — their god keeps a huge permanent torture chamber, after all, and they need to justify that.

    Which makes them not mushy, simply terrifying. They worship a Cthulhoid monstrosity and are at peace with that fact.

    • Tulse
      Posted September 21, 2009 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      Which makes them not mushy, simply terrifying. They worship a Cthulhoid monstrosity and are at peace with that fact.

      I think calling their god “Cthulhoid” is extremely unfair — to Cthulhu. He didn’t intentionally create all of humanity, and doesn’t intentionally torture his creation (heck, the Lovecraftian entities barely notice we’re here).

      It’s the difference between a man inadvertently treading on ants, and a man holding a kidnapped child in his basement and continually beating her. The first may be horrific from the ants’ perspective, but I know which man is more of a psychopath.

    • Posted September 23, 2009 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

      Weirdly enough, this is precisely what I ran into over at Russell Blackford’s blog. God is good only to those who love him. The rest can burn in hell, literally.

      God is then no different from a superpowered psychopath.

  21. Posted September 21, 2009 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    I think the Jewish response to the Holocaust has led to thinking that’s much better than Christian apologetics. There’s a forthright admission that we don’t understand how God could allow such evil. I take it that’s Elie Wiesel’s response and you can also see that attitude in the appealing book “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People” (Kushner).

    There’s also a shift in thinking about God and prayer. The idea of God watching over people and helping them is dropped from much Jewish thinking. If he didn’t care about people in the gas chambers, it’s just obscene to think he’s going to help out with your football game–or really with anything. You just don’t hear that kind of stuff much in Jewish circles.

    I think there’s even an acceptance of agnosticism as a not-unkosher stance (so to speak). I think all of that is much better and more honest than the twists and turns of desperate theodicies, even if I’d go a step further myself and say “no God.”

    • Eric MacDonald
      Posted September 21, 2009 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      Absolutely, Jean. I agree with you there. A lot of the Jewish theology that came out of the Jewish experience in Europe has some very profound things to say about the nature of evil and our response to it. I think Richard Rubenstein’s book After Auschwitz is, in many ways, truly profound, and well written too. (I have an autographed copy of the first edition (not autographed to me, however)). But he never really got to serve as a rabbi, more’s the pity. So agnosticism is not entirely kosher. (Well, then, of course, he took a lot from the Christian atheists Altizer and Hamilton, so that might have been his offence.)

      There is, on the other hand, a strain of Jewish thought since the Holocaust which holds that God (or should I say G-d?) may in fact be abusive, yet even so we must praise him. That has always been hard for me to understand.

      And I have never quite understood Wiesel about this. In Night he seems to suggest that God is dead – ‘there he is, up on the scaffold’ – but on other occasions he seems more orthodox.

      Ah, but my knowledge of Jewish thought is so slight, perhaps I haven’t got sufficient information to justify a comment.

    • Eric MacDonald
      Posted September 21, 2009 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      I meant to say that, while charming in its own way, Kushner’s answer doesn’t really satisfy. He merely subtracts from God’s power, instead of God’s goodness. I have never found this particularly satisfactory, though I know suffering people whom it has helped. Better to subtract from God’s existence, I think. Why is this such a forbidding option, if we can think of God as limited -obviously very limited – in power?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted September 21, 2009 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

      Which explains the old joke:

      Q: What do you call a Jew who doesn’t believe in God?

      A: A Jew.

      • Posted September 21, 2009 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

        Big laugh.

        Eric, Kushner doesn’t really satisfy, but at least you don’t get all those awful platitudes about how everything’s really for the best. I will have to look for the Rubenstein book.

    • Eric MacDonald
      Posted September 21, 2009 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      Yes, you’re right Jean. Theodicy minus the platitudes makes more sense. Perhaps that’s why it’s a help to those who are suffering. I have given it, in my time, to quite a few.

      • Posted September 21, 2009 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

        Yes, Jean, I take your point on this. Judaism has more resources to deal with these sorts of problems – partly because it’s more accepting of non-literalist forms of religion.

  22. Michael Heath
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    I certainly do not defend Mr. Sullivan’s flawed thinking on this matter. However, we should put our objections on this one trivial matter within the context that there are few if any bloggers as effective as Sullivan in revealing the dysfunctional thinking being employed by the modern-day conservative movement and its many sub-movements – including the Christianists – even as Sullivan continues to self-define himself as a conservative somewhat defective Christian.

    I claim trivial for two reasons. One, Sullivan rarely uses his bully pulpit to make theistic arguments or when he does, does so in a manner that shames conservatives rather than attacking Science or the culture and politcs required for science to thrive.

    Secondly, I thought Harris soundly thumped Sullivan in his debate with him. My memory of their debate without re-reviewing the exchange was that Sullivan conceded all of Harris’ major arguments with the exception of Sullivan defending an argument from personal experience; though still conceding how weak such an argument is and why we should embrace secularism.

    From that broader perspective, Sullivan continues to be a great ally to both Science and the politics neccesary in order for Science to both thrive and be influential in the culture. He also continues to be one of the most effective advocates revealing the vacuity of anti-intellectualism and others who oppose science.

    That shouldn’t stop us from criticizing him when he’s wrong, but it shouldn’t go ignored either.

    BTW, I happen to be a daily Sullivan reader who also reads this blog daily as well.

    • ritebrother
      Posted September 21, 2009 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

      I concur with this. Sullivan is on many (most?) issues either progressive/liberal or “liberaltarian”, tortured Catholicism aside. At least he is a prominent voice in reminding his fellow travellers of the historical emphasis of cultural Xtianity (and indeed scriptural Xtianity) on the liberal stances they despise. In following his blog, it is clear that it is not easy for him to maintain his theology.

      • Posted September 21, 2009 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

        I too am a daily Sullivan reader who also reads daily and contributes occasionally to this blog. Andrew is a bundle of contradictions, sometimes infuriatingly wrong, but at least as often insightfully on track, a tireless promoter of the idea that, whatever religion might provide to the believer (and he clearly thinks it provides something to himself), faith arguments as such have no validity in the public policy sphere, and a ceaseless critic of Republican (and other) attempts to establish Christianity (or anything else) as the American state religion.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted September 21, 2009 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

        Thanks Greg. It appears that Sullivan gets more than one thing correct.

  23. Michael
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    So his god routinely kills millions of innocent people to communicate a vague lesson to Andrew Sullivan?

  24. TreeRooster
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    I do agree that the problem of suffering requires a lot of mental gymnastics to get around, even in order to argue for the possibility of existence of a good and powerful God.

    Here are a few of those gymnastics, though, with the invitation for rebuttals. Warning: time travel ahead.

    0) The best possible creation includes free will, since only freely chosen love allows the full experience of vicarious joy.

    1) Free will consists of the option for an individual to make a selfish or altruistic choice.

    2) When the first free agents blew their chance at this choice, they basically asked to experience selfishness as an instinct.

    3) Their granted request was to be recreated at the tale end of a biological evolution ruled by randomness and competition, guaranteeing both the experience of selfish instinct and of suffering.

    (Suffering is a spectrum of mental states of pain and anxiety, due to the warning systems built in to organisms who evolved in a less than hospitable environment. That doesn’t make it any less terrible!)

    4) Suffering actually holds the key to the recovery of the originally intended altruistic nature of the free agents. That is because it forces them to choose between selfishness and altruism, when confronted with another suffering creature.

    5) Therefore suffering is a temporary necessary evil. It allows us to recover our true humanity via sympathy for the sufferer. The greater evil would be the lack of any altruistic experiences in the universe, neither sympathy nor the end goal of sympathetic joy. (Buddhists call this latter great good “Mudita.”)

    I admit that this sort of thinking is only an attempt to show that a solution exists to the problem of evil, rather than any evidence of God’s existence.
    So I’ll start by offering some criticsm of this argument. Why should so many innocent individuals (including animals) suffer so terribly for a choice they didn’t make, even if it benefits the whole? This requires some real creative thinking: maybe we were all part of the decision making process in some spirit world. It may lead one to hope for a time-travelling God to alleviate pain in the past as part of a complete redemption of creation.

    • Eric MacDonald
      Posted September 21, 2009 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      Quite frankly, TreeRooster, this is bizarre. It’s a kind of hodge-podge of Christianity, Buddhism, and goodness knows what else.

      You go wrong right at the start, because you assume the creation of a free being, as though the whole process of evolution didn’t take place at all. Whoosh! There he is! And now he can choose to be selfish or altruistic!

      Didn’t happen that way, as just a little dip into history would tell you, quite aside from evolutionary biology, psychology, etc.

      Good heavens, you even think we know what free will is! But we don’t, as a little dip into philosophy and psychology would help you see.

      Think of your own growing up. When did you start to be free? What were all your hormones, drives, cultural (especially religious, obviously) and parental influences doing all that time? What makes you so confident that when you choose something it is a “free” choice? And what do you mean by that? Being free in any approximate sense takes a great deal of thoughtfulness and mindfulness. Most of us don’t manage it much of the time.

      Sorry, Rooster, you’re in the wrong tree. You certainly can’t find a solution this way.

      • TreeRooster
        Posted September 21, 2009 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

        I confess to the bizarre combination.

        The word “free” is certainly imprecise in this discussion. A free particle usually is assumed to have no forces acting upon it. We don’t mean that kind of freedom, of course. Rather I use free to mean “not completely determined by pre-existing conditions, and not random.” That really isn’t a definition, I know! Some philosophers have given up on a definition of free will and decided to leave it defined only in terms of “the experience we have when making a choice that we feel could go either way.”

      • Eric MacDonald
        Posted September 21, 2009 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

        See my next note below.

        Still that won’t do, don’t you see? You’re positing an original creation of beings with free will. Given the evolution of hominids, when did that happen? Does it even make sense to speak in these Adam and Eve type terms?

      • Posted September 21, 2009 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

        Part of the trouble, TreeRooster, is that this definition of freedom is pretty incoherent, as you acknowledge. That’s true of any definition of freedom or free will that is supposed to get God off the hook.

        I do think we are sometimes, even often, able to act with what I’m content to call free will, but it’s not the kind of free will that could get God of the hook for all the suffering. This is leaving aside that the suffering is inevitably built into evolution once it produces creatures with reasonably complex nervous systems, and that it was piling up long before our species came into existence.

    • Grant N
      Posted September 21, 2009 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

      This is addressed to the nth degree in Bart Ehrman’s book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer.

      I listened to about half of the audio book and had to give up, because it invariably needs the comic relief of the Simpsons between each chapter. Bart (Ehrman) expounds the plight of those who suffer, or have suffered, so completely that the reader (or listener) empathetically suffers as well. It is a tough slog, but you are left changed and humbled by his scholarship.

    • Posted September 22, 2009 at 8:29 am | Permalink

      Your version of the free will argument assumes literal creationism, and creationism has already been refuted by scientific evidence.

      But even in general, the free will argument doesn’t hold up, even if I would grant you the weak premises it’s based on. The problem is this: People die or get disfigured or lose their homes in natural disasters all the time, and there is no free will involved in any of this suffering. Don’t tell me an all-powerful God couldn’t stop a tsunami if he wanted to. Or that he couldn’t have created a seismically stable world for us to live on.

      So you’re left with your suggestion that suffering is actually good for us. Not a very satisfactory “solution” to the problem of evil at all, and I really hope you don’t actually believe this.

  25. Posted September 21, 2009 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    The only useful thing about Sullivan’s remarks is that they provide an excellent example of how Christianity turns people into poor thinkers. All of the theological gloss and gymnastics in the universe cannot turn the basic premise of this religion into anything more than an illogical and cruel circle of nonsense.

    Here it is:
    God creates man; God baits man; Man falls for bait; God gets angry and curses man’s descendents; Man must live in suffering until God decides that he’ll come down and die disguised as a jew who will call himself God’s son and talk to God as if God is someone else; God/son says he has to die to save man from the curse that God put on man because man can only be saved via blood because that’s how God is appeased; God/son isn’t crazy about dying but makes sure there’s as much torture involved as possible to be sure man knows that God loves man; God/son is resurrected by God; Man must then wait for God/son to come back; Until then, man must continue to suffer just like he did before the salvation death; If man doesn’t say he believes in all of the above, then he’s damned to hell no matter what he does or say or thinks; oh, and God always knew every part of this would happen because he’s God and this is his plan.

  26. Eric MacDonald
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    After I posted that note in reply to TreeRooster, I felt that I had ‘come down on him’ rather hard, as the saying is, and needed to soften the blow a bit. I really didn’t mean to be mean.

    However, I’m just reading Dawkins’ new book, The Greatest Show on Earth (great book) – and no, Jerry, I haven’t got yours yet, but it is on order – and I had just come to the point where he is talking about all the makeshift design that evolution produces, and he ends the chapter with a quote from Colin Piggendrigh saying that the whole thing is “a patchwork of makeshifts pieced together, as it were, from what was available when opportunity knocked.” (371).

    Well, that put me in mind of TreeRooster’s contribution to the discussion, and at once it came to me that, of course, that is what theodicy is: it’s a makeshift patchwork of supposed justifications pieced together, higglty-pigglty, as occasion demands, and only so far as occasion demands. No one before Darwin, for example, had to take evolution into account. Most theodicists miss the trouble that evolution causes for theodicy even now, though some don’t, but each time a new consideration comes up, there’s another piece of the patchwork quilt of excuses for God. “That’ll do for now,” they say, “tucking it back into the closet.”

    But Sullivan’s rather smug attachment to the theologia crucis really is contemptible. He doesn’t even try to understand, and that makes the offence much worse.

    • TreeRooster
      Posted September 22, 2009 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      Good morning,

      I do agree that the present condition and history of theodicy looks like a patched and repatched bit of cloth. In fact Christian theology in its various forms is pretty cobbled together itself. This weak state is exacerbated by the inclusion of all sorts of ridiculous superstitions and fabrications, inserted due to ignorance or for political reasons or both. It does become tempting to consider it all nonsense.

      This description, though, would apply to any area of knowledge in such an incomplete and polluted state. I think it is worthwhile to reject some ideas, including the silly thought that God is planning some kind of eternal torture for those who fail to give intellectual consent to a dubious creed written by a committee. The veracity of other claims, however, might need to be labeled as undetermined.

      In fact, it may turn out that the only things remaining after the culling are an ethic of alleviating suffering, and a small set of hopes: for a comforting afterlife and an eventual explanation of the meaning of this one! If love is the greatest of the triple “faith, hope and love,” then perhaps hope is a close second and faith (as blind belief) is a distant third.

      As for whether there is even a patchwork solution possible: the problem of prehuman suffering is tough (even if there was a pre-evolution existence of created beings in some kind of multi-past). Just as tough is the sheer awfulness of particular examples of suffering, and the huge amount of accumulated suffering. I don’t know.

    • Posted September 22, 2009 at 8:56 am | Permalink

      That’s something I’ve noticed too. I often see believers who only look at the argument at hand, and forget about the big picture. When presented with a long list of objections against their idea of a God, they may well be able to refute every single one of them – but along the way, they’ll likely use counter-arguments that contradict each other, or confirm some of the atheist arguments. Often, it’s just a series of dodges that will get you right back where you started.

      For example, when trying to refute the argument from evil, believers sometimes point out that God may have a different understanding of good and evil, that is simply beyond our understanding.

      But that means God is not “good” under our definition of “good”. We can’t know if he’s “good” under God’s definition either, because we can’t understand God’s definition. It also means that our sense of good and evil does not come from God. This causes all sorts of new problems for the believer, and so he dodges on.

      Until, of course, it ends with “I just believe it, and that’s that” or something similar…

  27. Tim Harris
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    I have quite a bit of respect for AS’s position on torture and for his covering of the Iranian revolutioon. I had no respect whatsoever for his silly, excited and disgraceful support for the Iraq War, and for the many morally offensive things he said then. And I have no respect whatsoever for the sheer infantility on display in his remarks on suffering. The key, of course, is that word ‘fallen': we are ‘fallen’ beings, therefore we deserve our suffering. And then there is the ‘paradox’ of the cross that somehow makes things all right. Really, the infantility on display here is stunning (one recalls the probably apocryphal remark of the Jesuit about the importance of instilling dogmas into children before they get too old). ‘Fallen creation’, ‘paradox of the cross’ – these are just words that Sullivan in a wholly infantile way is investing with some kind of mystical force (you really do see this with children), and that he has never genuinely thought about because they are mantraic bedrock of his ‘faith’. One understands and sympathises with what, as a sufferer from HIV, he has been, and is going, through, and one can certainly sympathise with his need for a crutch (though it was not one that, say, Socrates or Hume needed as they lay dying), but to have gobbledygook as your crutch? One can do better than that, surely.

  28. Tim Harris
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    AS has been trying to explain himself on his blog. Apparently ‘we’ have a ‘deep sense’, which is (very conveniently) ‘prior to reason’, that our true home is really elsewhere, and this accounts for our search for God. That is to say, our ‘fallen-ness’ is something we experience. (Cardinal Newman had similar childish intimations – or, perhaps, they were things that he in fact learned somewhere, and did not come frrom nowhere, or from God; and, like AS, he was never able to outgrow them).But what if ‘we’ don’t? And what if ‘reason’ cannot be so conveniently separated from the rest of our faculties, and is (as it surely is) an inextricable part of them? But unexamined dependence on the ridiculous myth of something called ‘Reason’, which supposedly exists independently of, and stands against, ‘Faith’ and ‘Experience’, allows such as AS to proceed obliviously on their way, like a duchess in a slum, hand in hand with such as the Ineffable Eagleton.

  29. Pareidolius
    Posted September 21, 2009 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    Every time I read the word theodicy, I see the idiocy, kind of like a grammatical version of pareidolia.

  30. Stephen Wells
    Posted September 22, 2009 at 2:50 am | Permalink

    I think this argument demonstrated that to Sullivan, _other people are not real_. He’s unconcerned about the deaths of infants, about tsunami victims, about the Holocaust, because those were just _other people_, not him, and their suffering is just a means for _him_ to feel how wonderful and complex his god is.

  31. scott
    Posted September 22, 2009 at 4:14 am | Permalink

    I would like to say something in reference to the comments above about the “Jewish Response” to the holocaust, that was posted above by Jean Kazez.

    I agree with everything she said, but would like to add this: the “Jewish Response” never included “blaming” Christianity.

    Why?

    Well it was impossible to blame Christianity. So we live in a world where Darwin and Richard Hawkins can be blamed on the Holocaust but Lutheranism can’t … Darwin noticed that the Galapagos Finches had adapted to their various niches, Luther wrote a 65,000 page book on the theological reasons why the Jews should be eliminated, yet we still commonly hear that Germany had become “godless” and then the Holocaust happened.

    So is it possible that the Jewish Response to the Holocaust did not include a full accounting?

    • Eric MacDonald
      Posted September 22, 2009 at 5:08 am | Permalink

      It’s just as well to point out that Christianity did a lot of blaming itself. Much has been written about the history of Christian anti-Semitism since the Holocaust, much of it very insightful. Not enough is said now about the anti-Semitic nature of Christian scripture, which is shot through and through with language condemning the Jews. The gospel of John, for example, or Paul’s letter to the Galatians are writiings in which anti-Semitism reached a fever pitch, and this kind of thing has coloured Christians’ perceptions of Jews ever since. Jonah Goldhagen’s A Moral Reckoning (for all its faults) has a useful catalogue of verses in the NT which are essentially anti-Semitism. His challenge that the church answer with some kind of clarity about the language uses in the NT has not been met, but it should be.

      It is perhaps worthwhile pointing out that the Qu’ran contains assessments of Christianity and Judaism which are in many ways equally damning, and no one seems to notice. I think they should.

      This is not entirely relevant to a thread about theodicy, except insofar as religions who speak about a good and loving and just God contribute generously to the amount of suffering in the world. They might try to do better.

      • scott
        Posted September 22, 2009 at 7:44 am | Permalink

        Hitler is commonly associated with Darwin. For crying out loud, Ben Stein just made a movie which was essentially images of the Third Reich juxtaposed with the Beagle, interspersed with lamentations from the discovery institute.

        I have never seen a film, that clearly intersperses the cross, German Lutheran nationalism and Kristalnacht.

        Can you name one popular film that was designed to implicate Christian Theology as a contributing justification for the pogroms?

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted September 22, 2009 at 10:25 am | Permalink

        Darwinism had nothing to do with Hitler or Nazi-ism. Social Darwinism had nothing to do with evolution by natural selection. It was an ideology created from the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’.
        Ben Stein is a lunatic and a moron. His film is filth.

  32. George Brundage
    Posted September 22, 2009 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    For someone who’s supposedly an intellectual, Sullivan shows a distressing tendency to accept authority and avoid thinking for himself.

    Oh, I should point out the adjective you’re looking for that describes Sullivan’s intellectualism is “psuedo.” He’s a big damn phony. And, like I’ve many times in many places, I do read his blog, but it’s for the readers and trends, not because he can write or has insight.

    Though I will say, compared to the worthless hacks that replace him on vacation, he can at least put forth a coherent paragraph.

  33. Steve
    Posted September 22, 2009 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    I actually enjoy Sullivan and say what you will about him on this topic he has been at the forefront of several worthwhile fights – holding the current and former administrations accountable for their support of torture the most obvious. But his transparent “punt” on this question did disappoint me. I sent him the following email:

    You write:

    ” But it also teaches me that suffering in itself can be a means of letting go to God, of allowing Him to take over, of recognizing one’s own mortality and limits.”

    I don’t understand this line of thought at all. How many creatures do you know who are not mortal? How many creatures, human or otherwise, do you know who have no limitations? Do you honestly need a religion to recognize that?

    I have no religion though I do have a belief in a God of some sorts. My belief system is kind of complicated for me to even articulate but suffice it to say it is a mixture of Buddhist and Daoist thought combined with some Dietism and Pantheism. I was raised Catholic but even at a young age never bought into the religion, I’ve always believed there’s a creator out there, even a caring one, but not one who can intervene. God as the catalyst but then only able to observe.

    I have four kids, all 9 and under. They are fully aware, within their capacity to formulate the concept, about death and suffering. My nine and seven year old perhaps much better than the four year old twins. They’ve yet to suffer the loss of an immediate family member but friends and neighbors have and they understand that life does not go on forever, at least the older two but kids get less credited than we like and I would bet the younger two do as well. They’ve developed this appreciation without the benefit of religion and since they are average kids I would assume throughout the history of mankind this acknowledgement of mortality is attained quite easily without the need of a religion. (More so in the past as the life expectancy was much shorter than today).

    Back to suffering. The notion that you have to suffer in order let yourself go to God smacks a tad like something that could be used to justify the Spanish Inquisition. Let me relay a story.

    One of my twins was born with CDH (Congenital Diaphragrammatic Hernia), a hole in his diaphragm. While in the womb his bowels and parts of his spleen and stomach passed through the hole and landing on top of his developing left lung. This is a rare condition with a high mortality rate. To make a short story of it he had corrective surgery three days after birth, spent nine weeks intubated in the NICU, almost died twice, had 5 chest tubes inserted, collapsed his good lung 3 times, had 15 line of medication including experimental use of Viagra and then had to suffer through withdrawals of morphine and other meds as he recovered.

    God did that? In what way did his suffering allow him to let go to go to a God he had no concept of? If, as the popular verse that is used by the pro lifers goes, God knew him in the womb before he was born why didn’t he fix him in the womb before he was born?

    I don’t type that in anger for I had fortunately resolved before his birth that God does not intervene. What happened to him was an act of nature, no evil, no God, in his case just some defunct chromosomes which did not enable his diaphragm to form correctly. And in the sense that God did not choose him (or us) to suffer, God had no part in his saving. Science and medicine and some very dedicated humans saved him. Which is the same reason that the little girl that was in the NICU with him with the same condition didn’t survive. Science and medicine and dedicated humans could not save her. Or our friends in England which we made through the support group for CDH we belong to whose son also died.

    I think the sooner we learn that we are all we got, that God, either through inability or indifference does not intervene, the better off we all will be. Not that suffering will end or world peace will beak out but the less we are relying on the religious crutch the better off we’ll be in general.

  34. Lightbearer
    Posted September 22, 2009 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    What I find bad is Sullivan’s inability to explain concepts in a way that makes his point clear to non-believers.

    What he’s talking about in not gussied up ignorance, but gussied up Submission. Submission is a key concept in every Abrahamic version of God worship. Your self-worth comes from your ability to serve, to commit one own will and desires in service to another. If this sounds pathological and servile, then look at real-life examples: military service (about as submission-oriented as you can get; I should know: I was in the Army for eight years (Persian Gulf War)), working for a company, working for a cause.

    Andrew’s remarks make sense in that light; his problem is that he is submitting to an entity that, from all observations, doesn’t exist.

  35. pwadoc
    Posted September 22, 2009 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    What is suffering other than the biological response of our imperfect bodies to a world we can only partially perceive? Given how little we understand of the world, how can the existence of suffering be an argument for or against anything? Your point assumes we know much more about the nature of universe, and how we are situated in it, than we actually do.

  36. Tel
    Posted September 22, 2009 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    If theodicy is a problem, then there’s no such thing as a moral novelist. From the perspective of the characters, the author is omnipotent, omniscient, and outside time as they experience it. Obviously those characters are not strictly speaking “real” to us – but there are more than a few Christians and other theists who think that this world isn’t strictly speaking “real” to God, so I think the analogy holds.

    So why should an author allow such suffering? Wouldn’t it be better not to write at all, rather than inflict such suffering on an unsuspecting figment? If that were the case, then we’d be right to label fiction writers (along with many other creative people) as morally degenerate and denounce all their books as examples of sadism. But I think most people wouldn’t agree with that. We generally absolve authors, so I see no reason to use it as an argument against a deity.

    Why is there suffering in the novel? Because without conflict and the attendant suffering that goes along with it, there’s no story and no deeper meaning. Characters have to die, suffering – even pointless suffering – has to happen. Antagonists must be allowed to oppose protagonists. Consequences have to be “real” (within the confines of the book’s world). Otherwise, the story falls apart.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted September 22, 2009 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      This is a nonsensical analogy because there is no suffering in a novel. It is all fiction, just like the bibles and the Koran and all the other ‘holy’ fictitious stories. A story is just a story.

      …so I see no reason to use it as an argument against a deity.

      Just because you can not see, that doesn’t mean it is invalid. It is just your limitation.

  37. jdhuey
    Posted September 22, 2009 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    @tel 35

    “I think the analogy holds.”

    I disagree. No human author is omni-benevolent toward his characters – he is using them to tell a story. They are means to an end and not an end unto themselves. Also, as a human, the author is limit: intelligence, knowledge, skill, time, motivation, etc. Fundamentally, a tri-omni god is just inconsistent with the world we see around us.

    • Tel
      Posted September 22, 2009 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      So it’s impossible for an author to love all of the characters in his book? That doesn’t seem right to me.

      The author is limited in terms of this existence – but not from the perspective of the characters he’s created, who don’t live in the world we see around us. There is no thought a character can have that the author can’t know, and the author can cause anything he likes to happen within the book. He can write a flashback scene followed by a scene from the “future,” then return to the “normal” timeline. He can even retcon things (though this is usually very damaging to the plot). From the perspective of the book he’s writing, he is tri-omni.

    • jdhuey
      Posted September 22, 2009 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

      Sorta depends on what you mean by ‘love’ – a pretty mushy and ill defined word, especially in this context. No author is looking out for the best interest of his characters – he is looking out for the best interest of the story. I’ve heard of authors that have cried because they came to a point in the story that they had to kill or really hurt their favorite character. So, if you want to define omni-benevolence as caring more about the whole of the creation more than what happens to anybody within that creation, then fine but then that is not what people usually mean by God’s benevolence.

      • Tel
        Posted September 22, 2009 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

        I actually have the opposite experience – it’s usually only when an individual has something truly awful happen to them that devout Christians start pulling out the “in the long run” explanations, and benevolence comes into question. (Which is, I suppose, why theodicy is an issue at all).

  38. Peter Beattie
    Posted September 22, 2009 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    We’re seriously talking about a “problem” that wouldn’t exist but for a premise that somebody pulled out of their arse? Come on, guys, there are more important matters for intelligent people to be talking about and arguing about. Health care, climate change, education — take your pick. Time is a valuable resource, and there are matters at hand that are truly urgent, so why not just leave the stupid questions alone.

  39. Steven
    Posted September 22, 2009 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Here is a classic strawman argument formulation: “‘His faith teaches him’ means, of course, that somebody told him that suffering was part of God’s plan, and that’s why he believes it.”

    Christians hold that we have access to spiritual observations and can learn from them. If that’s true, it’s pretty obvious that “his faith teaches him” can have a different meaning. Since it is clearly true to Sullivan, his argument is presumably intended to be read at face value, not reconstructed through the belief-structure of someone who dismisses the premise from which his positions are formed.

    I am also a Christian, and I have learned things through my faith. But I did not grow up as a Christian; rather, I embraced Christ later in life, without the aid of Church or Christians. Were someone to tell me that everything I have learned from Christianity was told to me by someone else, I would conclude that I am listening to a person who has no idea of what he’s talking about. I can make a similar conclusion here.

  40. Bert
    Posted September 22, 2009 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    What I find most irritating about this debate is how you guys are constantly jumping on Christians for disrespecting and belittling you; and what response do you have but to turn around and do the same thing. So they say to you “You athesists have no morality and are going to hell” and you say “You Christians believe in a stupid unscientific fairy tale.” It reminds me of a bunch of Fifth Graders arguing on the playground.

    Suffering is an intrinsic part of existence. Most of you take it as evidence that there is no God. That is your fundamental right as a sentient creature. But it would be nice if you could learn a little tolerance for those who do keep faith in God in the midst of suffering. And don’t pretend like a religion founded on One murdered by the collusion of religion and Empire has no understanding of suffering. You want Christians and Muslims to show respect for your own worldview while you show nothing but contempt and condescension for their own.

    Atheism is an honest I would even say brave world view. But why must this New Atheism base itself so on intolerance for any form of religion. Yes, I know you are trying to make the world a better place and all that. But terrorism would still exist without religion. If Israeli’s and Palestinians stopped being religious there would still be the problem of land and resources which drives that conflict.

    Okay, now you are free to call me an idiot along with the most read blogger on the internet.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted September 22, 2009 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

      Your characterization of what atheist want is way off base. We aren’t looking for respect from theists. Why would we? We want theists to keep their delusions to themselves. They should stop trying to force their rules, dogmas and ways of living onto us. They can go believe anything they want, as long as they keep it to themselves.

      It isn’t a matter of worldview, it is a matter of freedom. Leave us the fuck alone. We are not just intolerant of their lunacy, we want it out of our lives.

    • Posted September 23, 2009 at 12:08 am | Permalink

      “Suffering is an intrinsic part of existence. Most of you take it as evidence that there is no God.”
      Completely false.
      The problem of evil does not falsify the notion of a god any more than pointing out that the Flying Spaghetti Monster was written as fiction and thus is not true.
      What the problem of evil does is illuminate an inherent problem in the idea of a benevolent ‘God’ – in particular one who holds the interests of mankind above that of all other creatures and who has created the world for mankind’s benefit.
      The theodicy problem does not invalidate the idea of a deistic uninvolved god.
      Intelligent people can convince themselves of the truth of silly arguments. It happens all the time and pointing out that a particular argument is silly (or falsified by evidence or logic) is not the same as calling that person stupid. When we go to the trouble of explaining why the argument is silly and the explanation is completely ignored or obscured by flowery non-responses I think its rather unfair to split the blame 50-50.

  41. Bert
    Posted September 22, 2009 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    A more eloquent response than my own:

    http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/09/theodicy-round-three.html#more

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted September 22, 2009 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

      It is not eloquent, it is him being a martyr and saying “look at my suffering”. It is childish. He wants his daddy. boo hoo.

  42. reboho
    Posted September 22, 2009 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t Andrew arguing a form of Common Consent? Just because he believes that there is a god doesn’t mean there is a god. Just because he thinks there is a god doesn’t mean that atheists are in denial. There is no innate or inborn need for a god. We are taught there is a god, therefore we believe the god exists. If some of us weren’t taught or were taught wrong, that’s not a concern. Most of us believe there is a god, so there is one. You atheists are so silly.

  43. Posted September 22, 2009 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    I affirm what ‘pwadoc’ said, but I would go much, much further. Those who claim the suffering of animals as a problem for theodicy imagine that we can get inside the subjective experience of animals; that we can determine that a salmon caught by a bear feels what we imagine we would feel in that situation. But even in evolutionary terms, this makes no sense at all. Humans have an encompassing, adaptive intellect, so that suffering makes sense for us; the ability to feel pain allows us to avoid the painful stimulus the next time. For an animal that acts on instinct, suffering, the ability to subjectively experience and reify pain and terror, would pose an evolutionary disadvantage. An antelope that does not experience PTSD has better prospects for reproduction than an antelope that does.

    In any case, I find the relative weights assigned to the data in this case instructive. Testimony of believers inspired by faith over 10,000 years: lies or delusion. Speculations about the subjective experiences of animals: rigorous proof.

    Just to quell an objection: raising the probability that animals do not suffer does not justify animal cruelty, although it goes a long way toward justifying the use of animals in research and agriculture.

  44. andyet
    Posted September 23, 2009 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    Perhaps the goal is not the most perfect world but the most free. As such we stand delicately balanced between chaos (where freedom becomes meaningless) and perfection (where freedom is not possible).

    When contemplating why evil exists in a world made by a benign deity, it helps to remember that God is not a behaviorist.

    Evil comes in two flavors, physical evil (hurricanes, plagues, earthquakes, disease, old age, etc.) and moral evil (murder, theft, abuse, hatred, etc.). The first deals with the fact that the universe is often a painful and unjust place where the innocent suffer. The second deals with the evil committed by less than perfect humans on their fellows.

    Moral evil is relatively easy to answer: God gave us free will to chose either good or evil. God did not wish to create a race of mindless, puppet automatons lacking the ability to chose. For all the evil done by man throughout history, our current situation is preferable to being a mindless slave. Those who would prefer otherwise in effect want to be slaves.

    Furthermore, love isn’t love unless it is freely given. For God to force us either by design or will to love Him always would result in the making love meaningless. God is not a rapist. As the Good Book says, “God is Love”. The ability to chose evil (and all the resultant pain and suffering caused by men) was given to us for the sake of love. Do we pay too high a price for love? I honestly don’t know. But the other alternative (quoting thought policeman O’brien in “1984”) would be “God is Power”. He could stop the gulags, concentration camps, etc. only by making the whole universe itself a concentration camp — with Himself as commandant.

    God chose love instead of power, because a perfect world was to horrible to contemplate.

    Physical evil is a bit trickier to address. Why do good and innocent people suffer? Why is suffering even possible? To make pain and suffering impossible, the universe would have to be perfect — and frozen in its own perfection. Since any change would mar its inherent perfection, such a universe would be a dead place where change and growth. Perfection = completion = death. It would be a dead place devoid of life. If moral evil is the price we pay for freedom and love, than physical evil is the price we pay for life.

    One response to the existence of physical evil might be that the intensity of the evil is relative and our response to it dependent on what we are conditioned to accept. We can imagine a world with fiercer hurricanes devastating whole continents or a world with nothing more intense than light breezes. The inhabitants of the second world (not knowing anything worse) might complain about the breezes and wonder why a benign God allows them to exist.

    There are also an infinite number of potential universes that contain more opportunities for ‘physical evil’. Universes, perhaps, where tsunamis are as common as thunderstorms. Or conversely, in a less violent universe, the inhabitants might wonder why a kind and loving God allows paper cuts to occur.

    To sum up, perfection is an absolute state. The slightest movement, even of a single atom, would mar that perfection. Such a universe wold be frozen and lifeless. By definition, a perfect universe cannot change, therefore change is never desireable for a perfect universe.

    There is a story that God created a perfect universe before He made our own. Not liking the results — a place of eternal death — he cast it aside and began work on the deliberately imperfect universe we live in. The first universe still exists. It’s called Hell.

    But why do the innocent suffer and why do evil people prosper? Well this brings us back to free will. Even if the potential for free will existed, it wouldn’t mean much if the universe had a built-in system of rewards and punishments designed to coerce behavior. So does anyone wish that God was a Tyrant, using the physical universe as a system of rewards and punishments, and humanity reduced to the level of pigeons inside of a BF Skinner box?

    And so we have a world where innocent children die or are born handicapped, people through no fault of their own suffer the pains of living, and evil people often live happy lives of material contentment. But it beats the alternative. As I said at the start, God is not a behaviorist.

    One of the many things I find baffling about Atheists is their claim to be “free” of control and superstition, unlike us poor sheep-like believers. You claim to desire freedom from control and freedom of thought above all else. Yet here God has set your mind free to chose and the universe free to be alive, without safety or security or guarantee. Neither the mind enslaved nor the universe frozen.

    And yet you’re not happy.

    If God is not a behaviorist, the Devil most certainly is. This is apparent from the opening scene in Job where Satan bets God that Job is only good because he has been physically and materially rewarded. And that’s the whole point of the story, whether we should be good no matter what or be good only if things are well. God’s answer is as obvious as it is harsh. For those who would wish that God was a behaviorist, coercing them and making slaves of them, God has this to say, “Gird your loins like a man.”

    A perfect universe would be a place of perpetual slavery and eternal death. An imperfect universe with its pain and suffering is far more preferable. So stop your friggin whining.

    A free universe full of life is no place for pussies.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted September 23, 2009 at 9:10 am | Permalink

      andyet uses many words and basically says very little:

      “God is love” nonsense to justify a delusion.

      Suffering is due to not being a perfect universe – what a bunch of laughable word salad nonsense that is.

      One of the many things I find baffling about Atheists is their claim to be “free” of control and superstition…

      No, we do not make that claim, we are human and have faults. That is a red herring/straw-man argument.

      Like I said: many words little content by andyet.

      • Posted September 23, 2009 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

        I you want to make the argument that a benevolent Creator would not allow suffering, it would help to explain how we can have freedom without choice, choice without consequences, and consequences without (some) evil ones.

    • articulett
      Posted September 25, 2009 at 2:33 am | Permalink

      I’ve never heard an atheist “claim” what andyet claims we claim, but I imagine his verbiage helps him convince himself that is invisible sky buddy is real.


5 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] erupted in ye olde blogosphere over one of Andrew Sullivan’s dumber remarks. P.Z. Myers and Jerry Coyne respond with the ridicule that Sullivan has [...]

  2. [...] v. Sullivan, Round III Filed in General on Sep.22, 2009 Jerry Coyne and Andrew Sullivan are still bashing each other furiously over the so-called ‘problem of [...]

  3. [...] Andrew Sullivan’s mushy theodicy Over at Metamagician, Russell Blackford gave a short disquisition on the problem of evil: why does a benevolent and [...] [...]

  4. [...] Coyne responds [...]

  5. [...] Why Evolution is True Jerry Coyne is a world class scientists and a best selling author. His blog keeps you up to date on new discoveries in evolution and new results in zoology. He also pulls no punches on his assault on superstition. [...]

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 28,571 other followers

%d bloggers like this: