The evil of theodicy

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2012.  I don’t always agree with stuff I wrote so long ago, but I mostly still agree with this one.

Earlier a commenter told me I should stop bashing religion. This left me wondering, where did they see me bashing religion? I feel like I’ve mostly said neutral things about it lately. I should do more religion bashing!

The problem of evil asks: How can there be a all-powerful and all-good god if there is evil in the world? Obviously this only applies to religions with an all-powerful and all-good god, and I might as well say that I’m thinking of Christianity in particular.

I’m not sure I’ve ever talked about the problem of evil before. I don’t really like it, because there’s no math involved. And the argument is too sprawling, with a multitude of rebuttals. In fact, we even have the word “theodicy”, which means a defense against the problem of evil.

Most theodicies are not very compelling, but that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about how theodicies, above and beyond being bad arguments, are also evil arguments. That is, many theodicies involve defending evil, or denying the existence of certain kinds of evils.

The free will defense

The free will defense says that evil exists in the world because of human free will. The obvious problem with the free will defense is that it ignores natural evils, like hurricanes and disease. But let me tell you about some of the other kinds of evils it ignores.

There is the kind of evil which is caused by ignorance of the consequences of a free action. To use a silly example, someone could open a door, not knowing someone was there to be smacked in the face. Or, someone could buy a diamond, not knowing that the money is used to fund a terrible war. Or if someone votes for X political party, not knowing that God truly endorses the opposing party (har har). This is evil not caused by free will, but by ignorance, which is arguably a hindrance to true freedom.

There are various kinds of responses to the problem of natural evil. One of them is that natural evil was released into the world by Adam and Eve’s original sin. Or, if you’re Pat Robertson, natural evil was released into the world by modern actions such as homosexuality. Or if you’re Alvin Plantinga, natural evil was caused by the free will of nonhuman beings, like angels or spirits. Presumably, the means of causation are magical (divine), but it’s kind of funny that earthquakes and hurricanes mostly occur where you would expect them if they were caused by chaotic physical processes.

Now here’s another problem being ignored: the sheer injustice and cruelty of this situation. We deserve to be punished for the sin of a couple ancestors? Or for the sins of other people within our society? Or for the sins of some otherworldly beings we don’t even know about? The causal chain leading from sin to natural evil isn’t very clear, but it’s hard to imagine that God really doesn’t have any control over it. Is it interfering with the free will of gay people to change ocean temperatures and prevent a hurricane? As far as I’m concerned, this theodicy only succeeds by conceding that God is not actually all-good.

The greater good

There are a variety of other theodicies which claim that natural evils are necessarily to achieve the greater good. Suffering builds character! (Except when it kills you, then it builds character among your relatives.)

Transcript: Dad: Ta da! We're here! Calvin: Good ol' 'Itchy Island.' Home of the nuclear mosquitos. Dad: Bug bites build character. Calvin: Yeah. And last year you said diarrhea builds character. Dad: So think what a fine young man you're growing up to be. Calvin: ...if all this character doesn't kill me first. Dad: That reminds me, open the duffel bag and get out the spam. Calvin: If the canoe isn't here in the morning it means Hobbes and I struck out for home.

For some reason, theodicy makes me think of classic Calvin and Hobbes

Or, if it’s not character building, perhaps the lesser evil prevents some other greater evil. Like the story about the guy who breaks his leg, and thus avoids a car accident. God couldn’t think of another way, that’s not in his omnibenevolent nature.

I see this explanation as rather awful, and not just in the lacking-evidence sense. It’s also awful because now we’re all supposed to see the silver lining in our suffering. Our suffering is for a greater good! Screw that. It seems to me that evil comes about by completely natural means, irrespective of what ultimate good will come it. People with terminal illnesses aren’t all dying for the greater good, and it’s awful to suggest that they are, or that this is how it should be.

Other theodicies off the top of my head include: “Good cannot exist without evil, just as black and white cannot exist without each other,” and, “All wrongs are righted in the afterlife.” I’ve decided to cut this post short, so I leave it to the reader to decide if there is anything evil about these theodicies. Are they denying some particular kind of evil? Are they being callous to people in suffering? Or perhaps they are not evil arguments at all, just uncompelling?

Being vs Identifying as

This article is being cross-posted to The Asexual Agenda.

In modern philosophy, there is a thing called a performative speech act. That’s when you do things by saying things. For example if I say, “I apologize,” it is not merely a statement of fact, but is itself an act of apology. Likewise, if I say “I identify as queer,” it is not merely a statement of fact, but is itself an act of identification. It makes no difference whether I say “I identify as queer” or “I am queer” because both of them are acts of identification.

Nonetheless, if we put on our descriptivist hats, it sure seems like people are making a distinction between identifying as a thing, and being the thing. Instead of dismissing the distinction out of hand, we should try to understand it. I will propose two basic interpretations.

In the first interpretation, “I am” is an act of identification, right now in the present moment. “I identify as” is a statement about how you identify in a more general set of contexts, not necessarily limited to the present moment. For example, the following is a true statement that I could make:

Sometimes I identify as asexual, but I’m not asexual.

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On blogging networks

As many readers know, I run a group blog, The Asexual Agenda (TAA). Other readers might be aware that I’m on this blogging network called Freethought Blogs (FTB). Still other readers may be aware of other blogging networks like The Orbit, or Skepchick. Have you ever wondered how these blog networks are organized?

This is something that interests me, as a group blog admin. But perhaps nobody else is interested, because I hardly ever see anyone else talk about it. Or perhaps people don’t talk about it because the information is too sensitive. You don’t want to give away information that is potentially embarrassing to other people on the network. Many blogging networks may even have formal rules against disclosing certain information. I myself am limited in what I can say. But there’s some stuff that is public knowledge, at least in principle, so I’ll talk about that.

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Link roundup: November 2017

It’s my monthly feature where I share links I’ve collected over the past month, and offer brief commentary.

The Trans Reveal – I recently found this blog that reviews queer webcomics and of course I’m all over that.  This article discusses various ways that webcomics can reveal that a character is trans, and what the pitfalls of each approach are.

Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion—and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back – This is an old article summarizing results from a survey of religiously unaffiliated USians.  What I found most interesting: 1) the main reason for their growth appears to be increased retention rates, 2) 58% of them say religion is bad for the world, and 18% say religion is personally important to them, 3) The people who say religion is bad for the world are more likely to be white, male, and have more education.

I found this article via Aged Reasoner–although the speculation in that post is mistaken, as I point out in the comments.

Why we really really really like repetition in music (video) – Vox talks about how we seem to find repetition inherently enjoyable in music, but not, say, stage plays.  Something that I have great difficulty understanding is how music worked before recordings existed.  It seems like music should have been more repetitive in those days, to make up for the fact that you couldn’t just repeat the recording as desired.

Vox incidentally mentions the speech to song illusion, which is the most compelling auditory illusion I have ever heard. Listen to this video, and then listen to it again. What has been heard cannot be unheard.

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The impossible symmetry

This is the third part of a series about symmetry in origamiPreviously, I established the idea of a symmetry group, a set of transformations that leaves a model’s shape unchanged.  Next, I talked about how the colors of a model define a subgroup.  In this post, I will explain the concept of a normal subgroup.

First illustration: The Umulius

We begin with a case study of one of my favorite models, Thoki Yenn’s Umulius.  “Umulius” is a Danish insult meaning “impossible person”.


Ignoring the colors, the Umulius nearly has cubic symmetry.  Here I have a series of diagrams “cleaning up” the details to make the underlying cubic symmetry clear.

A series of diagrams showing how the Umulius can be fit into a cube

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Image over substance

[cn: CSA, sexual assault]

Actor Kevin Spacey was recently accused of sexually assaulting a 14 year old boy. The incident was 30 years ago. Kevin Spacey, didn’t he play the protagonist in American Beauty, a movie that all but celebrated pedophilia, and featured a repressed homosexual murderer? Oh, I guess people today mostly know him for his role in House of Cards.

Anyway… this story caught my eye because several friends were saying that Spacey had found the one time that it was inappropriate to come out as gay. See, in Spacey’s statement of apology, he added a paragraph saying that he was gay.

Yeah, so about that. It makes sense that he would say that, because after all, he was accused of sexually assaulting a boy, and had long been rumored to be gay. People were going to connect the dots. They already connected the dots in the article which first published the accusations! But I agree that it seems like a deeply inappropriate time to come out, because it comes across as an attempt to distract. Indeed, some news outlets ran stories that mentioned the coming out first, and the accusations second. Although, looking at Google news results, I suspect this was the exception to the rule. If the intention was to distract, it probably just drew more media attention.

I want to talk about how some people criticized Spacey for the wrong reasons. Yes I know that sounds pedantic. Really who cares if some people come to the correct conclusion for wrong reasons? The reason I care, is because I care about the issue of sexual assault in the context of queer men. And some commentators? They seem to care more about image over substance.
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Origami: Octahedron Skeleton

Octahedron skeleton

Octahedron Skeleton by Robert Neale. I hope nobody was expecting an actual skeleton. Halloween was yesterday.

I know somebody who runs an art gallery, so every year I run a workshop for kids where we do modular origami.  The hardest part of designing the workshop is picking the right models.  I’ve been quite surprised by which aspects the kids find difficult, and which aspects they perform with ease.

Anyway, this is one of the models I picked this year.  It’s on the easy side, and the kids thought so too.  And that’s great!  Art doesn’t need to be technically challenging to be good.

If you’d like to try this one out, I made some fancy diagrams to print out and pass to the kids.  Check them out below the fold.

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