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?


  1. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    I have two short arguments which IMAO are knock-down for anyone except the psychopath or those in denial beyond hope.

    > The free will defense

    To a person who uses this argument: Surely you believe that we should have police. This god should be doing at least as much as the police to stop needless suffering.

    > The greater good

    To someone who makes this argument: I tell them about this one real-life example where a young woman was kept, locked in the basement, and raped daily, for 10 years. I then ask them to look me in the eyes and tell me that they was confident that there was no other way to achieve growth for this person except for that experience.

    I lost a friend over this one.

  2. Oded Meir says

    If god is the definition of good (as some theists argue, since their view is that morality comes solely from religion, and without religion we have no moral foundation on which to base our actions and laws), than all the suffering and evil in the world is part of that good. it might be that it is all a semantic problem.

    so under that understanding of the words good and bad –
    if a volcano erupts, destroying a village, killing all its inhabitants – men, women, elders, children pets and all – this is god’s will.
    hence – good!!!
    a bad thing would be turning on the light on Sabbath. (i am a non religious Jew.)

    can anyone disagree???

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