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The Problem of Evil and ‘Good Theology’

Andrew Sullivan recently quoted Susan Jacoby on the subject of leaving religion for atheism. Susan said, in essence, that people do not deconvert on the basis of a single powerful argument expressed to them but by the accretion of doubts in their own mind. It included this statement:

[U]nless you’re raised atheist, people become atheists just as I did, by thinking about the same things Augustine thought about. Certainly one of the first things I thought about as a maturing child was “Why is there polio? Why are there diseases?” If there is a good God why are there these things? The answer of the religious person is “God has a plan we don’t understand.” That wasn’t enough for me.

Sullivan later put up a response he received from a minister:

That is not the religious answer. That is a religious answer. It happens to be a bad answer. It is bad theology. Atheism is a rational rejection of bad theology – and more power to them. But there is also good theology out there – good religious answers which do justice both to our reason and to our spirits.

Why does God allow polio and disease and other bad things to happen to good people? Because God is not an omnipotent manipulator of the world. Because God works through the system, not over-powering it. Because we have free will that allows us to create justice and love, and also evil. God’s power is not coercive (“you must not do that horrible thing and I will stay your hand”) but patiently persuasive (“there’s a better way, make a better choice”). God’s “plan” was not to create polio, or human beings, but to set the conditions and watch what we do, and to use that “still, small voice” to gently urge all creation toward divine ideals of deep rich experience, consciousness, love, marvelous beauty, and thoughtful theology.

As any teenage theologian can see, the idea of a simultaneously all-powerful and all-loving God is impossible based on the evidence of the tragedies that befall us everyday. But there is better theology available. The churches should be better teachers. And atheists shouldn’t give up so soon.

No, I don’t think his answer is “good theology,” nor do I think it’s a good answer. I also don’t think it is even minimally consistent with other points of their theology. It certainly isn’t consistent with the Bible, which portrays an omnipotent God who intervenes in his creation on an almost daily basis. And the God of the Bible is nothing if not “coercive.” I don’t think Noah’s flood or the many orders to commit genocide are examples of God being “patiently persuasive.”

It isn’t consistent with the idea of praying to God for him to intervene in such a manner, something encouraged by Jesus himself in the gospels. It is consistent only with deism, not with Christianity or any other specific type of theism of which I am aware. This example of “good theology” is an entirely different set of beliefs than the one found in historical Christianity, Islam or Judaism.

I would also ask the minister how he knows this is “good theology” and the position he rejects is “bad theology.” Is there evidence that can be appealed to in support of one and not the other? None that I know of. If his answer is that he merely accepts it by faith, that is also true of those who assert the truth of the “bad theology” he rejects, and since faith defends all positions equally well, it is of no use here. How does he discern between the two other than by which he prefers to be true?

This isn’t a better answer to the problem, it’s just one that is more vague. Both answers suffer from the same problem, which is that there is no basis for making a logical argument that can give us good reason to accept or reject either of them.

Comments

  1. says

    This minister’s theology really is better, but it doesn’t refute atheism at all. It just offers a more sensible imagining of an unprovable being.

  2. Larry says

    Because God works through the system, not over-powering it.

    It’s his fucking system, right? What’s to stop him from playing with humans like a 10-year boy plays with plastic army men? For that matter, how do we know god isn’t the equivalent of a 10-year boy in the world where gods come from and he’s currently out in the backyard, tying firecrackers to his playthings? Come to think of it, that might explain why fundy’s are always predicting hurricanes to devastate sinful cities but they keeping blowing into the bible belt.

  3. rory says

    What an incredibly idiotic response. So, the god who created the universe from nothing is powerless to prevent (say), an earthquake which devastates a city? Or is that the unavoidable consequence of human free will exercised by the choice to live in a fault zone. How about cancer? Is a baby born with cancer supposed to heed the still, small voice and choose a better way?

    If that’s supposed to be good theology, then I’d suggest the minister go back to school, because I’m not buying it. Why do these idiots think this idiocy is even remotely persuasive to those who aren’t drinking the Kool-Aid?

  4. tsig says

    “God’s “plan” was not to create polio, or human beings, but to set the conditions and watch what we do, ”

    Sounds like we’re god’s lab rats.

  5. noastronomer says

    God’s “plan” was…

    … and we know what god’s plan was because we ….. ???

    Mike

    PS Also ‘was’? Past tense? What’s god’s plan now?

  6. anteprepro says

    Inane. He is all knowing and he created the fucking system. It doesn’t matter if there is free will, it doesn’t matter if he isn’t “coercive” or if he just packed up his shit and went home after the Big Bang. He set everything into place and knew the potential outcomes. He knew that the world would become as it is now. He doesn’t need to use divine intervention because he could have made “the system” in such a way that intervention wouldn’t be necessary in the first place. Bad things happen to good people, period. No amount of hand-waving can change that. No amount of original sin justifies that. No amount of “but free will” changes that people are “punished” for things that they have no control over. No amount of pretending that your God just likes to watch, completely tossing out the Bible and pretending that the whole Jesus thing was just a fluke, overcomes the fact that this God also created this shit. He set everything into motion. Hell, the most Sophisticated of Sophisticated Theologies use “well, something had to set everything into motion” as their entire proof that there is a God who burns people for their thoughtcrimes. But apparently when the problem of evil is on the table, the universe did just create itself after all. The universe could have been virtually anything but needed to be specifically crafted this way whenever someone wants to prove The Designer designed it all, but when you say “hey, this place is a death trap”, suddenly the state of the universe is something inevitable, something that couldn’t have possibly have been avoided, something that came about spontaneously due to events and actions of things within the universe. Is it only Good Theology if it involves a sufficient level of special pleading? Is that it?

  7. Owlmirror says

    The difference between the bad theology and the “good” theology appears to be that the “good” theology uses more words to say more or less the same thing, in a way that makes less sense.

  8. says

    The preacher’s long-winded explanation of good theology can simply be boiled down to Jacoby’s “God has a plan we don’t understand”. There is no substantive difference.

  9. sunny says

    Is this a “Reality Show” argument? God kicks back and watches what we are up to. Doesn’t he have anything better to do? The vanity of the religious is remarkable.

  10. dugglebogey says

    Most Atheist converts go through the “better theology” phase. You start breaking down the “rules” of god and how a god could exist, losing omniscience and omnipresence and omnipotence along the way.

    Eventually you realize that you’ve gotten so far away from Christianity and you just face the fact that you’re really an atheist.

  11. says

    Like some of the other commenters, I too am wondering what human free will has to do with the existence of polio…

    This isn’t a better answer to the problem, it’s just one that is more vague.

    Actually, it’s not. God’s “secret plan” is the more vague answer. This minister is making the explicit claim that God created the world specifically just so he could watch it get out of control. That’s quite a bit more specific – and no less callous of a god than the god he’s decrying as “bad theology” here, I might add.

  12. tomp says

    “God’s “plan” was not to create polio, or human beings, but to set the conditions and watch what we do, ”

    Here’s the problem with that kind of belief. God created a system where diseases and natural disasters flourish. God may not have planned to create polio but the system he created sure managed to create it. The end result of the mess that God created was a system where being nice and kind hurts you. Imagine you have a nice happy loving society with enough food to hang on. Now another tribe shows up because their crops were destroyed by disease or insects. You can’t feed them plus they might be bringing some horrible disease with them so what do you do? Kill them? Makes the most sense. And they need to kill you to get your food. So the world that God created rewards the most violent and least caring people. The evil in this world isn’t because we are evil. The evil in this world is because God made us evil by rewarding those of us who are evil and killing those of us who aren’t. Now, explain your way out of that one Mr. Preacher.

  13. kemist, Dark Lord of the Sith says

    God’s power is not coercive (“you must not do that horrible thing and I will stay your hand”) but patiently persuasive (“there’s a better way, make a better choice”).

    I wonder if he believes in hell.

    Because “you must not do that horrible thing or you’ll be tortured for eternity” sound pretty freaking “coercive” to me. Unless threats of eternal torture don’t count as coercion in his definition.

    Looks like “goog theology” is very similar to sosphistimacated theology – defending religion by redefining it in a way that the vast majority of its members wouldn’t recognize as such.

  14. says

    It’s his fucking system, right?

    Not only that, but his system apparently didn’t require our existence for billions of years of the Earth’s existence. Bombardments from space, movement of the continental plates, periods of extreme glaciation and extreme volcanism, massive die offs of species, etc. and then we come along. And if our race vanished today, the Earth would just go humming along, not missing us in the slightest.

  15. says

    @4:

    Strewth, it’s pretty obvious that JHWHser was thinkin’ a pre-historic (or, aehistoric, if you prefer) version of that sayin’ that they had back in the 1960-70′s in the warhawk’s circles:

    “I say get ‘em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow.”

  16. Larry says

    ideals of deep rich experience, consciousness, love, marvelous beauty, and thoughtful theology.

    I think he threw that last one on there in order to maintain his phoney, baloney job. Otherwise, its pretty much what the hippies were advocating in the 60s.

  17. culuriel says

    It’s almost as if the definition of a given deity will change once a new argument against that deity’s existence appears. If your god’s defining characteristics change depending on what argument you want to make, then what you’ve really got is an imaginary friend.

  18. dshetty says

    Because God is not an omnipotent manipulator of the world. Because God works through the system, not over-powering it.
    If Sullivan really believed this , he would have to chuck out the bible as bad fantasy – and since his religion is based on scripture , he’d have to become a non-believer.

  19. Nemo says

    I actually don’t think that the Bible does depict an omnipotent god — I mean, apparently, he can take your side in a battle, and you can still be overcome just by the use of iron chariots. Or maybe you just have to wrestle him. And he’s afraid of humans eating magic fruit, or building a tall tower, because they might be able to challenge his power. Imagine that tiny, petty being confronted with modern technology.

  20. says

    @23 – I’m not even talking the plagues. The bible says that god hardened Pharaoh’s heart. That is, even if Pharaoh might have changed his mind and let the Jews go, god went in and hacked his brains so Pharaoh was unable to do so.

  21. says

    Nemo, look, everyone has their weaknesses. If you’re going to strike off an “omnipotent”, “omniscient” or “omnipresent” every time it appears He isn’t one of those things, it’s obviously going to make Him look a little small, weak, petty, or made up.
    Good theology is ignoring that.

  22. says

    Bart Ehrman wrote a whoel book abotu this. His response was abotut he same as everyone here: Free will only explain a small portion of suffering and the Bible never uses thsi argument. It was invented out of whole cloth hundreds of years after it was written.

  23. tomp says

    With God, it’s do as I say, not as I do. And if you don’t do as I say I will inflict unending torture upon you.

  24. Sastra says

    God’s power is not coercive (“you must not do that horrible thing and I will stay your hand”) but patiently persuasive (“there’s a better way, make a better choice”). God’s “plan” was not to create polio, or human beings, but to set the conditions and watch what we do, and to use that “still, small voice” to gently urge all creation toward divine ideals of deep rich experience, consciousness, love, marvelous beauty, and thoughtful theology.

    This explanation will only sound persuasive to the self-absorbed. Since you, the believer, can look at suffering and hear God’s still small voice gently urging YOU towards divine ideals of deep rich experience, consciousness, love, marvelous beauty, and thoughtful theology despite all that … why then that must be what the suffering was FOR. You know what the ends are because you experienced them for yourself! What could be more impressive and convincing?

    Now to just let other people in on the secret. It’s all about increasing your faith in God. Your faith. Too bad about all the losers who failed to do that. God never gives you more than you can handle. Look at how easily Christians capitalize on pain and suffering to reinforce God’s existence. It’s a miracle.

    Sullivan is judging the adequacy of his theodicy by using an easy example: himself. Even if he sometimes “struggles” I’m sure he still thinks the effort just makes him stronger. But any theodicy worth its salt has to take on the hardest case. Consider a situation where you can’t imagine “there’s a better way, make a better choice” having any application at all for the person who is suffering. Is the pain and agony of that human being to be regarded as a tool? Is that person a device? Are they a minor character? Are they not in the script — except as scenery? Props?

    Sorry, Sullivan. I used all my best ideals of deep rich experience, consciousness, love, and marvelous beauty and discovered that your “thoughtful theology” is full of shit.

  25. says

    What the fuck does free will have to do with polio?

    If polio, or cancer, or heart disease, or the roughly five million deaths of children every year from disease and malnutrition somehow contribute to “divine ideals of deep rich experience, consciousness, love, marvelous beauty, and thoughtful theology,” I’m happy to say: Fuck those “divine ideals.”

  26. Poggio says

    The minister’s impotent theology is only “good” because the idea of a beneficial, un-overbearing, kindly, submissive god fits better in our post enlightenment society than the ruthless, fear-inducing tyrant which yahweh has been historically in ancient & medieval monarchial cultures. I always find it pathetic that Christian thinkers rarely appreciate modern western cultural history and the advancement of humanist and enlightenment ideals over the last three centuries. They are forever stuck in what ‘was’, and align themselves as foes of post-enlightenment human progress that pays less and less homage to their medieval tyrant. In a desperate attempt to seem relevant to thinking women and men, they dress up their monster god and insist that he is really meek and ineffectual, knowing, perhaps only half-knowing, that the path of superstition leads to surrendering more and more of your critical and thinking abilities until your whole mental world is one huge conflicting miasma of black and white, and wholly lacking the subtlety and nuance of a thinking mind. If there is any ‘problem of evil’ it is not a theological one, but the real evil of deluded ministers who blandly inform us that we must both fear and love their creation.

  27. raven says

    Isaiah 45:7 – Online Parallel Bible
    bible. cc/isaiah/ 45-7.htm

    I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD …

    According to the xian’s magic book, god created evil. It’s just that simple.

    If you take a work of mostly fiction seriously anyway. And that is one reason why I’m an ex-xian.

  28. dmcclean says

    I think this is a brilliant, important, and useful statement of the situation by Ed. “Faith defends all positions equally well.”

  29. says

    And atheists shouldn’t give up so soon.

    Trust me, Andrew, most of us didn’t.

    We have not only worked through the bad theology, not only what you call good theology, but theology far better (and by “better,” you and I both mean simply “more clever”) than that.

    The problem is not that it’s not “good” enough. The problem is it’s unfounded, unjustified, not worth believing.

    Bullshit, basically. Clever bullshit is still bullshit.

  30. says

    Actually, even before my first flush of anger passed, I got it. This is a variant of the Irenaean theory of evil and suffering, which holds that both depravity and calamity exist to give human beings a kind of moral education.

    In other words, Auschwitz existed so that I can cultivate stoic acceptance in the comfort of my study.

  31. tubi says

    I thought God’s “plan” was to create a garden and put two people and a bunch of vegetarian dinosaurs and other animals in it and then they all just dick around like hippies for eternity.

    But then Adam fucked it all up by exercising his free will and listening to Eve.

    So the question then, of course, is, “Did God know when He created Adam that he (Adam) would eat the apple?”

  32. busterggi says

    “Why does God allow polio and disease and other bad things to happen to good people? Because God is not an omnipotent manipulator of the world. Because God works through the system, not over-powering it.”

    Could someone please read the bible to this poor ignorant man?

  33. raven says

    So the question then, of course, is, “Did God know when He created Adam that he (Adam) would eat the apple?”

    They were set up by god.

    Why was the Tree of Knowledge in the garden anyway. God could have put it on Jupiter or Kpax IV, 50 million light years away.

    What was the smart ass talking snake doing there as well. If god can’t keep his walking, talking snakes out of the garden, why call him god?

  34. khms says

    The biggest problems I have with the concept of god are the value-based consequences.

    Why would we follow his morals? Either we can see for ourselves that they’re better – then we don’t need to assign any moral authority.

    Or we can’t. The usual argument is that we don’t understand them, like a child doesn’t understand their parents’. However, remember that this is not only true for your standard loving parents, but also for, say, the father who regularly rapes his offspring for years. So the fact we don’t understand does not allow us to conclude it’s the good stuff.

    Then, why would someone who created the universe care about us bowing and scraping to them? That’s as if we cared if bacteria bowed and scraped to us – seems rather ridiculous.

    (Of course, not all gods come with claims of moral superiority.)

  35. fastlane says

    God’s power is not coercive (“you must not do that horrible thing and I will stay your hand”) but patiently persuasive (“there’s a better way, make a better choice”).

    So, Sullivan doesn’t buy yet another official position of ‘his’ religion, that of hell? Of course, hell is more like, “you must not do that (not necessarily horrible) thing, but if you do, you’ll be tortured forever”……

  36. wscott says

    Yeah, the “free will as an excuse for polio” bit made me spray coke on my monitor when I saw this on Sullivan’s site.
    .
    However, it does raise a broader point, which is that the majority of Christians (especially in the US and Europe) and NOT fundamentalists and do NOT insist on a literal/infallible interpretation of the Bible. Yet the majority of the arguments we use against religion tend to be geared towards Fundamentalist interpretations. Those arguments generally do little to persuade Fundies, for whom faith is more important than reason or evidence. Yet they also do little to persuade the more-persuadable “liberal” believers, because they already agree with us on those points.
    .
    I’m not saying this minister’s post-modernist version of theology is any more “good” than the Fundies. But it is different, and requires different arguments. And I’m not sure we always do as good a job addressing them.

  37. says

    Bah. Having grown up without religious training, I get incredibly impatient with these discussions. I still cannot comprehend how anybody takes this nonsense seriously. I guess it’s a testament to how powerful childhood training can be.

  38. neonsequitur says

    “Okay, look… God isn’t actually omnipotent…”

    “You keep using that word. I’m not sure it means what you think it means.”

  39. glodson says

    Bah. Having grown up without religious training, I get incredibly impatient with these discussions. I still cannot comprehend how anybody takes this nonsense seriously. I guess it’s a testament to how powerful childhood training can be.

    There’s a reason why there are mountains of religious books aimed at children. And there’s a reason why people want their religion in school and want to exclude any troubling data that can get kids to ask the wrong questions of their religion. It is why people want to consider religion protected from criticism, especially their religion.

    People brought up in it, kept in it through social pressure, who have invested decades of time, effort, emotion, and money into the belief, are not likely to give up this belief easily. I know having had that past. It isn’t just the natural cognitive biases that come up, but rather cognitive biases that are turned into points that justify the faith.

    Sadly, many people brought up in a church will retain that belief, even if they stop attending. It is insidious.

  40. jws1 says

    @49: My sister thinks it’s not brainwashing if she’s doing it to her own son. It’s her worst quality.

  41. lancifer says

    Perhaps the good minister should Google “null hypothesis”.

    It seems his “good theology” can’t be discerned from no god at all.

    Then he should look up Occam’s Razor just to drive the point home.

  42. Stacy says

    I actually don’t think that the Bible does depict an omnipotent god — I mean, apparently, he can take your side in a battle, and you can still be overcome just by the use of iron chariots.

    The Bible doesn’t. But (mainstream) Jewish and Christian notions of God have changed since then. As the anthropomorphic and limited YHWH of the Bible began to look less attractive–and simply less believable–theologians’ God became increasingly abstract. Also increasingly powerful–but powerful in a very slippery way. He could do anything, but he mostly chose not to and if he did do things they were indistinguishable from natural processes. Goodbye miracles, hello, patient suffering in the face of tragedy because God’s Ways are Mysterious.

    Reason, science, and universal education make the old god(s) look silly, but the problem of evil makes the existence of a God which is simultaneously all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful absurd as well. All the modern theologians have left is unconvincing equivocation like this minister’s, and platitudes.

    (Meanwhile the fundies cling to YHWH. They really hate it when you point out the iron chariots.)

    What the fuck does free will have to do with polio

    Yeah, what aaronbaker said.

  43. glodson says

    jws1 wrote:

    My sister thinks it’s not brainwashing if she’s doing it to her own son. It’s her worst quality.

    My brother is doing the same thing with his kids. His wife is homeschooling them all, and they’ve gone full on fundie. The thing is that many liberal and moderate Christians do the same thing, just not in as extreme fashion.

  44. raven says

    The Bible doesn’t. But (mainstream) Jewish and Christian notions of God have changed since then.

    You mean, god has evolved. It’s ironic that much as fundies hate the word “evolved”, that is exactly what happened.

    Yahweh was just one god among many. Then he lost his wife Asherah, and became increasingly powerful and abstract. Towards the end he picked up a son and then was combined with jesus and the Holy Ghost to become a Trinity. These days, he is hiding behind the Big Bang and in real danger of having to move again.

  45. John Horstman says

    Andrew Sullivan continues his pattern of self-servingly uncritical analysis, shocking no one. (What’s really shocking is how many Progressives and other Lefties treat him as a serious pundit worthy of the slightest attention; I should be clear that I totally understand Ed’s treatment of him in the spirit of debunking, as with Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, etc.)

  46. abb3w says

    That there may be “better theology available” (dubious, but considered arguendo) does not necessarily mean that there is any theology good enough.

    That said, the trajectory Susan Jacoby refers to isn’t the only one.

  47. says

    I’m actually surprised that there hasn’t been anyone in the comments letting us know not which is the “good” or “bad” theology, but which is the “correct” theology. Professor?

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