Philosophy of Religion 11: Which problem of evil?

So where have we got up to, reading through Michael Murray and Michael Rea’s Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion? Ah, the problem of evil. But which problem of evil?

To start with, there’s the particular problem for those whose religion is Bible-based. Because there is the evident sheer moral nastiness of the God of the Old Testament, who is sadistically keen on the killing of those who lapse into a bit of adultery, homosexuality, or who blaspheme, or even do a bit of work on the sabbath — and who commands the Israelites to wholesale slaughter and genocide. True, we like to think that the God of the New Testament has mellowed a bit: but even so, he still has some decidedly vicious tendencies. A violent end is still prophesied for those who haven’t got round to seeing the light by the time of the second coming. The Bible is a bit undecided whether it is going to be a mass drowning (as in the time of Noah), or whether the destruction of the ungodly is to be by fire. But it is going to be very nasty either way. And let’s not even visit the entirely repellent doctrine of eternal damnation in the fiery furnace. The Biblical God is an unpleasant piece of work, and Mill’s attitude is the morally decent one: “I will call no being good who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow creatures; and if such a creature can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, to hell I will go.”

Of course, most modern believers — leaving aside the more dingbat types of fundamentalist — do sit fairly loose to the most morally offensive bits of the Bible, cherry pick the attractive episodes, and claim to believe in a deity not given to capricious rage and cruelty. Still, “by their fruits you shall know them” presumably applies to deities too. And the world as we find it is a ramshackle, mismanaged affair, full of suffering and pain for very many of God’s creatures. And many find it very difficult to come to believe that we should worship God for his botched efforts, or think particularly kindly of the arrangements he has so cackhandedly put in place which involve so much pointless misery and worse. Didn’t he care about making a world where things ran at least just a bit better (a bit less agony in some terminal cancers, for example)? It seems not. Moral rejection again seems to many the proper stance for decent grown ups.

However, I’m not going to pursue these two familiar strands of thinking about religion and evil here, for Murray and Rea don’t pursue them either. They don’t discuss the sheer unpleasantness of the Biblical God (you’d have thought this might have mattered more to them, given their focus of historically-rooted Christianity). Nor do they really explore the kind of moral rejection of God because of encounters with evil that often leads people to lose their faith. Though surely this is very often the way: someone — perhaps witnessing the prolonged death agony of a close relative — comes to think “this just makes no sense; if accepting God is accepting this, then I want no more part of it”, and she stops praying, stops religious observance, stops thinking in terms of God’s purposes, and so on. It would be procrustean to construe this as a change in her metaphysical views, a revision in her catalogue of the ontology of the world: it is more that — so to speak — thought and talk about God becomes an irrelevance to her. But as we’ve noted before, Murray and Rea aren’t in general much interested in these sorts of phemomena of religious life.

No, what they do discuss is what we might call “the metaphysical problem of evil”. Is the existence of the God of the Philosophers — the Perfect Being of Murray and Rea’s opening chapters — incompatible with, or is it at least rendered probabilistically improbable by, the existence of so much evil in the world? Well, this is familiar territory. How do they cope? The story continues …

3 thoughts on “Philosophy of Religion 11: Which problem of evil?”

  1. Re what you aren’t going to pursue, that is the important problem of evil, I think, the fact that evil should not be. I’m totally with you and Mill (and Dostoevsky) on that. I was also unimpressed with Christian theodicies, whence I’ve had to make up my own theodicy (basically, I can’t see how the world’s evils could be real, and allowed by a worthwhile God, unless we volunteered, to be vulnerable to them, for what seemed like a good reason to us when we were in some epistemically superior position).

    Why did I have to make one up? Well, we seem to have evil whatever we think – we can try to avoid it, but even when we achieve nice lives there it is, in others’ lives, making a mockery of all our achievements: It is at the best of times that I really want there to be more to life than this, and I need a theodicy for that to be even possible. Sometimes I don’t really care (e.g. when I’m suffering I like the idea of annihilation) but still, also at the worst of times:

    someone — perhaps witnessing the prolonged death agony of a close relative — comes to think “this just makes no sense; if accepting God is accepting this, then I want no more part of it”

    What can never make any sense is that the life of a beloved, with all that suffering, amounts to dust eventually. Accepting God can just be accepting that the close relative might remain a living soul, for which as good a God as possible would be a fine thing. It does not have to mean accepting suffering as a good thing, it requires only that it is somehow justified.

  2. The evils we encounter in our world are indeed horrendous. However, I think it’s necessary to point out that all suffering lasts for a fixed period. It comes to an end. And no amount of evil has yet rendered good and goodness impossible.

    You could use the horrendousness of the evils you see as an index against which to think of the corresponding goodness which God would need to exemplify to be a morally acceptable agent. Jews and Christians believe that God will ultimately overcome all evils: presumably this means that however horrendous the evils we encounter may be, God is equally good (and able to address them in ways unbeknown to us) – and then some.

    Obviously that sounds a difficult to believe. But the Judaeo-Christian conviction that God is perfectly good at least offers a way to go.

    As for your point about the God of the OT and NT and his morally reprehensible character, this is obviously familiar territory. Suffice to say that Jesus himself was prepared to emphasise certain of God’s characteristics as depicted in the Hebrew scriptures. If you’re a Christian, it’s clear that ‘cherrypicking’ is part of your tradition. The same goes too for many in Rabbinic Judaism.

    What I don’t understand is your rather crestfallen dismissal of ‘cherrypicking’ as not a particularly credible way to go. What kind of Bible would be an ideal one, do you think?

  3. I’m not sure I follow the introductory comments. The message seems to be that there are clumsy ways to read the bible. I agree. But you say at the close,
    Is the existence of the God of the Philosophers . . . logically incomptable with (or is it at least rendered probabilistically improbable by) the existence of so much evil in the world? Well, this is familiar territory. How do they cope?
    Well, some of it is familiar, and much of it isn’t. Rowe’s last version of the evidential argument–25 yrs. later–is not much like his early versions. It raises lots of new questions, for instance, about the nature of undercutting defeaters that in my view go beyond much of what Pollock said on the issue. It also raises some interesting issues on quaranteening skepticism, as some theists have wanted to do here. So, it is “familiar territory” I suppose only in the sense that all philosophical topics are familiar territory.

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