Rosenhouse, Benson and Blackford on Sullivan on evil

Jason Rosenhouse, Ophelia Benson, and Russell Blackford have chimed in on the discussion (which Russell actually started) of Andrew Sullivan’s theodicy.


Update:  Sullivan battles back in two posts on The Daily Dish (see links and my response in the comments to this post).  But, like a hooked fish, he’s getting weaker as he fights. And Jason has sunk another hook here.


  1. NewEnglandBob
    Posted September 23, 2009 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    The one person on Blackford’s blog who defends Sullivan makes all kinds of accusations of atheists and is guilty of the the things he accuses. Typical of slimeball tactics.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted September 23, 2009 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      That person, ‘David,’ appears to be the troll David Heddle. I think he’s caused trouble over at Pharyngula.

      • Tulse
        Posted September 23, 2009 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

        I would definitely not call Heddle a troll. He’s a very “vigorous” Calvinist, and asserts as normative a Christianity most other Christians wouldn’t recognize, but he is always ready to engage the specifics of an argument, rather than just spew out posts. He may be wrong, and he may post a lot, but he’s not a troll.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted September 23, 2009 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

        Calvinism is nearly as bad ad evangelism or fundamentalist Islam.

      • Chayanov
        Posted September 23, 2009 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

        Actually, Heddle is more likely to be insulting and refuse to acknowledge that anyone else might know something about Christianity in general or Calvinism in particular.

      • Moses
        Posted September 23, 2009 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

        I would. I’ve gone around with him too many times in too many places and he’s played the litany of troll-games.

        My biggest problems are with the incredible sloppy thinking he demonstrates in his anthropomorphic personification of the universe. Especially during the G. Gonzalez tenure flap over at Panda’s Thumb where he was a condescending, inaccurate, sometimes out-right lying bore as he constantly flapped his idiotic gums about fine-tuning.

        Which, in my book, continues to cast a harsh, ironic spotlight on his constant condensation of others. Something he did just this morning in another thread.

        So, even as he condescends about the “lack of intellectual rigor” of others, I still remember the wacko-doctrine Christian that cannot acknowledge that it takes little imagination to recognize that if our universe had slightly different laws it is perfectly conceivable that life would arise in accordance with those laws. That his privileged planet view is just one possible view.

        He’s also played some of Demski’s canards with the probability of life evolving. How “improbable” it was, almost to being impossible.

        Of course, I’m not surprised at what you’ve said. Over-all, you’re a bit nicer and more tolerant than I am.

      • rwaa
        Posted September 24, 2009 at 1:59 am | Permalink

        “it takes little imagination to recognize that if our universe had slightly different laws it is perfectly conceivable that life would arise in accordance with those laws”

        This is an ignorant comment. The point of the “fine tuning” argument is that it appears that slightly different laws would result in a world without stars or planets or even molecules.

      • Matt Penfold
        Posted September 24, 2009 at 6:53 am | Permalink

        One thing you have to watch with Heddle is that he will take perfectly ordinary words and redefine them to mean what he wants to mean. He will then use those words but fail to make to clear he is using them in non standards ways.

        It is not very honest.

      • Posted September 24, 2009 at 9:01 am | Permalink

        He’s close enough to being a troll that it makes little difference. He doesn’t engage, he just speechifies – at great length. He seems to have taken over Russell’s blog at present.

    • Posted September 23, 2009 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

      I tried to engage him, and I don’t think he’s a troll per se, but he seems to be a selective poster (i.e. he doesn’t address rebuttals, leading me to believe that either he can’t or he’s fishing for some type of response).

      It is bizarre the way he admits that he worships a monster without apparently saying so.

  2. Posted September 23, 2009 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Sullivan is doing what the IDists do, taking data that point to causes other than religious ones, and claiming that because religious apologetics have categorized these data as mysteriously fitting into some sort of mythic “plan,” the religion is thereby vindicated.

    Meanwhile, Sullivan explains nothing about evil and its sources, any more than Behe explains the “poor design” of Archaeopteryx.

    Glen Davidson

  3. Posted September 23, 2009 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    The oeuvre of Ivan Milat, David Parker Ray and John Bunting is part of the magical, mystical journey. Yay!

  4. Tulse
    Posted September 23, 2009 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, you’ve really gotten under Sullivan’s skin – he’s now got two posts today that mention your exchange.

    In the former:

    he has this statement:

    “Pain in the physical world is actually a necessity for survival”

    which I think the OED could use to illustrate the phrase “begging the question”.

    And here:

    when he says:

    “Many survive suffering – most, in fact. The question is whether it is overcome, rather than endured. For that, something beyond mere physical processes are necessary. Which is where religion has its place.”

    I think he’s saying that atheists don’t “overcome” suffering, something I take offense at.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted September 23, 2009 at 1:05 pm | Permalink


      Thanks for this; I’ve stopped following Sullivan’s rationalizations. I do note in the first post that he claims I said that “suffering disproves God’s existence.” RIDICULOUS! I said no such thing; I said that the suffering of innocent people without apparent cause casts doubt on the existence of an all-loving and all-powerful God. Surely Sullivan can’t be thick enough to not apprehend the argument!

      In his second post he says that humans can uniquely transcend suffering because they have self-conscious minds that can “overcome” suffering. So what? Natural selection could certainly build in anti-trauma features in a brain, and even if that’s not the reason why pain slowly diminishes, it doesn’t say anything about the existence of God, much less the importance of God in transcending suffering. As I pointed out, even atheists can transcend horrible life circumstances. I’ve known many who have, and if Sullivan says otherwise he’s just wrong.

      I feel sorrier and sorrier for Sullivan. He tries to rationalize his faith intellectually, but in the end he just gets mired up in hifalutin’ prose. He should just admit that he believes in God for emotional reasons, and has no answer for why the world is full of undeserved suffering.

      I just wish he’d answer my challenge and tell me one thing that would make him give up his belief that suffering is necessary for God’s world (or one thing that would make him stop believing in God). In return, I’ll tell him FIVE things that would make me believe in God!

      • Posted September 23, 2009 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

        Somehow I have this sense that soon Sullivan will be telling us that anaesthetics and narcotics are wrong to use, because they go against god’s plan that we suffer pain.

        Don’t his posts, particularly the latest one in which he notes that pain receptors enhance survival (gee, thanks Andy, we’ve never noticed–ha ha), logically point to such a conclusion?

        Glen Davidson

      • tdd
        Posted September 23, 2009 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

        Jerry, I think the answer to your question is in the debate with Sam Harris.

      • tacitus
        Posted September 23, 2009 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

        What does it even mean to “transcend suffering?” Why is that any different than coping well with suffering?

        If one man who loses his legs remains wheelchair-bound while another puts on prosthetic legs and goes on to break 4 minutes for a mile, how has the latter “transcended” his suffering any more than the former? It could just as easily be his own way of coping with it. There is certainly no religious or supernatural explanation required.

        The same goes for those who turn their suffering into an opportunity to help others. It’s a well known fact (though perhaps not well-known enough) that most people find volunteer work highly rewarding. Added to that, when you have suffered, say, from breast cancer, it gives you a keen insight into what others are going through and thus the empathic impulse to help others in your situation is only natural. That is makes you feel better psychologically no doubt makes it easier to cope with your own suffering too. It’s a win-win situation.

        What about those who suffer terrible losses through bereavement? Again, overcoming such terrible suffering is admirable, but what is the alternative? If you wallow in your suffering forever, then you might as well give up (and more than a few do). The only other option is to pick up the pieces and move on with your life, no matter how difficult that is. Indeed I believe scientists have been able to figure out some of the ways in which our brain helps us do that.

        There is simply no need for religious explanations for any of this. In fact, in some ways doing so diminishes those who do overcome their suffering in admirable ways, giving credit to someone else who supposedly made it easier for the sufferers to cope and overcome.

      • Posted September 23, 2009 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

        One integrates suffering and may gain perspective, but there is nothing metaphysically transcendent or teleologically poignant about it.

        Freud and Jung were walking together one afternoon and witnessed a man who had recently succumbed to a wheelchair. Jung turned to Freud and said, “Look how well that man is dealing with his predicament.” Freud replied, “What other choice does he have?”

    • Posted September 24, 2009 at 7:04 am | Permalink

      I think Sullivan is used to writing apologetics which are read by religious people.

      Almost any explanation, no matter how weak or even completely failing to address the problem, suffices for the intended audience. That’s why apologetics read like drivel to those who want an actual explanation or answer.

      Do this often enough, and it’s easy to imagine one is making sense without ever giving a straight answer to a simple question.

  5. Sully Fick
    Posted September 23, 2009 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    The best minds will tell you that when a man has begotten a child he is morally bound to tenderly care for it, protect it from hurt, shield it from disease, clothe it, feed it, bear with its waywardness, lay no hand upon it save in kindness and for its own good, and never in any case inflict upon it a wanton cruelty. God’s treatment of his earthly children, every day and every night, is the exact opposite of all that, yet those best minds warmly justify these crimes, condone them, excuse them, and indignantly refuse to regard them as crimes at all, when he commits them.
    – Mark Twain, Letters From Earth

  6. NoName
    Posted September 23, 2009 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    I wonder why nobody ever mentions Bart Ehrmans book “GOD’S PROBLEM”?

    It makes it very clear that there is no solution to this problem.

    • Posted September 23, 2009 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

      It was mentioned in a comment to one of the earlier posts.

  7. scott
    Posted September 23, 2009 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Andrew has subtly shifted from the Amazing Person Of Jesus … to “religion” in general.

    Religion, can’t be a coping mechanism, it is what allows us to “overcome”.

    For example, science merely endured polio, it didn’t “overcome it”.

    If Salk had been kept in the pickle factory ghetto, instead of being admitted into NYU, perhaps Andrew could have had the profound personal experience of “overcoming” the debilitating effects of polio, whilst all around him his friends were (insert Wordsworthian phrase for “killed” here).

  8. scott
    Posted September 23, 2009 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    I want to recommend, especially for its memorable two last sentences, this, by Heather MacDonald.

    Andrew’s “projection” of our own admirable traits onto a deity, does indeed obscure the “human condition” … and Andrew conflates obfuscation with transcendence.

    The Polio Vaccine is “transcendence”. Plumbing and clean water are “transcendence”.

    Andrew, contrary to his assertion, has not transcended HIV. He is “enduring” HIV, he is “coping” with the virus and managing the virus.

    He has not transcended it. I hope that he does transcend it, and I hope that day comes soon.

    Andrew’s writings assume a “human condition” – and this condition is what religion has always been “wrong” about. It is that religion gets the human condition wrong that motivates so many to “criticize” it.

    “And the experience I am describing is not the preference for a fancy limo, but an attempt to live as humans in the face of unspeakable injustice and suffering.”

    Are the particulars of this condition, radically different since the Age of Reason? I sure miss all the chances to console my self with the cross at infant funerals, and the deprivation of the traditionally high rates of maternal deaths during childbirth have deprived me of wearing my veil of tears more often.

  9. Posted September 23, 2009 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Sullivan’s position promotes myopia concerning the multitude of injustices and/or suffering edured by so many. The non-committal, religious attitude of “everything happens for a reason” is both cruel and dismissive. It packages suffering and redefines it as a twisted form of divine transmogrification.

    Sullivan’s psychological motivation is an attempt to create a buffer against the capriciousness of nature. It is this very cognitive maneuver that allows many to feel protected and safe but eschews facing hardships directly in favor of ephemeral anodynes.

    If a tornado kills a family of five, sparing only the mother, we can understand this as the undirected misfortune of a rotating column of air that connects to other clouds near the earth’s surface (a tornado will demolish a church with as much indifference as it would a pornographic video store). There is no need to say that the tornado happened so that a concerned, estranged relative would call and newfound ties could be established. Building relationships based on tragedies is not why the tragedy occurred in the first place; rather, it is a testimony to the ability of others to mobilize and offer solace in the wake of destruction. Similarly, if someone loses a close friend to cancer it is not a sign from the gods to appreciate friends. This type of reasoning is short-sighted, conspicuously simplistic and transparently insensitive to the misfortune and those who suffered or died as a result. It acts as a cognitive buffer akin to psychological denial and prolongs misunderstanding of reality.

    This is not to say, however, that wisdom cannot be gained from the experience—just that it is not intrinsic to the incident.

  10. Neill Raper
    Posted September 23, 2009 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    It kills me that people find it so hard to let go of these fundamental belief systems. They will revise and revise until the whole thing loses all meaning. I personally find that materialism is the most emotionally as well as intellectually satisfying position given the world we live in. People assume automatically that Christianity must be the most emotionally satisfying belief system because it posits that there is a God who loves us and so if the facts tell otherwise we must not have all the facts. In fact we are stuck in the world we have and I would hate to think that there some all powerful force behind this mess. That not only suggests that he is fine with all this suffering but that in some way the world is fated have all the suffering in it by the very nature of its design. However with no cosmic driver at the wheel I am free to simply focus on the good and work to minimize the bad. If there are definite rules those rules can be reliably tweaked to our advantage.
    Of course this is not an argument for materialism, but it certainly runs counter to the idea that we should all be bummed out that there’s no space daddy.

    • Posted September 24, 2009 at 4:52 am | Permalink

      To me, Christianity was very frustrating, largely because of the problems others have mentioned here — such as why God allows such widespread and apparently senseless suffering. For a long while, I went down a road similar to that Sullivan is extolling, but I gave it up when I realised that most of my explanations for it were nonsense.

      I find naturalism more emotionally and intellectually satisfying — and it also has the immense advantage, as nearly as I’ve been able to tell, of being true.

      • Neill Raper
        Posted September 24, 2009 at 9:58 am | Permalink

        You would think that this whole “atheism leads to despair” thing were true there would be more, I don’t know, atheist in despair. What do they think we are all just lying for the converts. I suppose many of them have just been lied to though. Of course it should be noted that in some communities coming out as an atheist can cause you to become unhappy. But that’s really because your family will shun you. Its like the statistics cited that the children of homosexual couples have social problems in school. Therefore homosexuals should not raise children. Of course they don’t tell you that the “problems” they experience in school (more accurately “problem” they experience in school) is homophobia.

  11. Neill Raper
    Posted September 23, 2009 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, “fated TO have”

  12. Drew
    Posted September 23, 2009 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    Am I the only one who keeps misreading that as “thidiocy”?

    • gillt
      Posted September 24, 2009 at 7:59 am | Permalink

      I tend to place stress on the “o” in Theodicy, making it sound more like Oddicy.

  13. Posted September 23, 2009 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    Sullivan’s continued attempts to redefine what he really meant, trying and failing to rescue the jumble of the original post reminds me of Josh Rosenau’s attempts to do the exact same thing (I think it’s five follow on posts now from Josh, each one digging himself in deeper). I guess it’s too much to expect these people to think through their arguments first, before they inflict them on the rest of us.

  14. Posted September 24, 2009 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    I’ve suffered enough trying to “transcend” Sullivan’s casuistry. No more pain, no more agony.

  15. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted September 24, 2009 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    Andrew Sullivan’s theodicy

    Ah, I see you are using the contracted form of theo-idiocy.

  16. Smith
    Posted September 24, 2009 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    People who wanna hear more Sullivan “defending his faith” can look for the “blogalogue” he had with Sam Harris a few years ago. You should be able to find it on or

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