Theodicy, the problem of how a benevolent and all-powerful god can allow suffering, is the fatal weakness of religion. There is simply no good answer that religious people can give even though theologians have grappled with this problem for millenia. That does not stop people from trying though, and I recently received the following email that offers one variant. I am posting it and my response because I think it may be of general interest. Here is the body of the email.
Not so long ago I was a Pentecostal Christian but thanks to blogs like yours I have abandoned faith altogether.
My brother is still a believer and in discussions we have about faith he comes up with the following comparison to illustrate that in his mind we cannot understand what god’s will is. He compares it to us being a dog and god being the dog owner. The dog is unable to understand that sometimes he has to go to the vet and experience pain and suffering for a greater good. Would you be able to find the fallacy in this?
First off, I would recommend that anyone who routinely gets into discussions with religious people take a look at an excellent book by philosopher Stephen Law titled Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked Into an Intellectual Black Hole (2011) where he systematically addresses all the arguments that people come up with for all kinds of nonsense. As could be expected, he spends a lot of time on religious arguments, such as the above one, because they are the most common source of nonsense. It is a fun and educational read.
Law categorizes arguments of the above type as ‘playing the mystery card’ and says that it takes many forms. He says that at best this makes the case for an arbitrary and capricious god and rules out an all-powerful and benevolent god. While he does not deal specifically with the dog owner argument, he deals with a very similar one involving a toddler (p. 58-62) and I will adapt his answer.
It so happens that I have a pet dog whom regular readers know as Baxter, the Wonder Dog, so I can relate to the dog owner metaphor. When we have to take him to the vet for some treatment that might cause him some pain, we try as much as possible to cushion the blow. We pet him a lot, give him extra treats, talk in soothing terms, etc. We are there with him the whole time (unless it is surgery when he is under anesthesia anyway) and hold him during the procedure, so that he knows we care for him and are not abandoning him. In other words, we go to great lengths to indicate as clearly as we can that the pain he experiences is not something we desire.
But the dog-owner god does none of these things. The calamities that befall us may very occasionally be accompanied by good things but they seem purely coincidental. At most other times there is no compensating good. We are given absolutely no sign of why we are suffering this way. It all seems purely arbitrary.
Furthermore, in our dealings with our pets, we are limited in our ability to explain because we do not share a common language and so can only indicate our benevolence by gestures like the ones above. If we could talk to them and explain we would certainly do so. For example, when we had to take our young children for vaccinations, we explained to them why, in addition to comforting them the way we do with pets.
But god has no such limitations in communicating with us and thus has no excuse for not providing explanations. Religious people say they talk to their god all the time so he should be able to easily explain why the suffering is for their own good. Why doesn’t he? And it is no good saying that his explanations can be found in the holy books. Those are obscure, contradictory, have little relevance, and besides which those things happened to other people a long time ago. Why does god not tell us directly? Furthermore, what about the people who suffered before the holy books were written? Why didn’t they get the benefit of even these obscure explanations?
Of course, there are callous people who can’t be bothered to explain why they are inflicting pain and suffering on those they have power over even if they have a good reason. You can tell your brother that he is free to worship such a cruel god if he likes. But why would he want to?