Andrew Sullivan takes another crack at the problem of evil

September 22, 2009 • 7:18 am

Over at The Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan responded to a reader by explaining what he really sees as the solution to “the problem of evil”:  (Note: see update at bottom).

Smart reader: Yet your dismissal of the argument [Russell Blackford’s argument that suffering long antedated the existence of humans] rested on your belief that “suffering is part of a fallen creation.”  My understanding of the Judeo-Christian “fallen creation” is that it did not occur until – and it occurred only with – the presence of human beings.  Therefore, your rejoinder had nothing to do with Blackford’s argument that you presented your readers.

It seems to me that the theodicy argument is an argument from reason.  Your argument is an argument from faith.  Therein lies the paradox: you cannot counter reason with faith.  As I learned this summer from reading Unamuno, the irresolvable conclusions arrived at through reason and through faith lead us to what he calls the tragic sense of life.

Sullivan: My notion of a fallen world is related to the fact of mortality, which embraces almost everything on our planet, and causes terrible suffering to animals as well as humans. The difference is that, so far as we know, only humans experience this suffering as a form of alienation; we feel somehow as if we belong elsewhere, as if this mortal coil is not something we simply accept, as if our home was from somewhere else.

This, in my view, is our intimation of God, nascent in the long march of human existence only in the last couple thousand years, and unleashed most amazingly in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Ni ange, ni bete. And from that disjuncture between what we sense of as our actual home and this vale of tears we perforce inhabit, comes our search for God. No reason can end that sense of dislocation because it is some kind of deep sense that is prior to reason.

That’s why I do not experience faith as some kind of rational choice or as some kind of irrational leap. I experience it merely as a condition of being human.

I’m starting to realize that theodicy is the soft underbelly of faith. And it’s the downfall of many smart people whose brains turn to oatmeal when they’re forced to take seriously the claims of their faith, and to defend some of the dumber ones.

Here Sullivan conveniently re-interpets “the Fall” as the moment when humans experienced alienation from our world.  Now, did that really happen?  Is it true that the mass of humanity suddenly felt all alienated when their brains got to a certain size? What’s the evidence for that? (It’s not something that I immediately say, “Yeah, that happened!”) Do a lot of people feel alienated from the world now, and feel like they belong elsewhere? If so, why are they so loath to die? (And where do we feel we belong, anyway? Heaven?)  What makes Sullivan think that our search for God came from that supposed sense of alienation from the world, rather than the other way around?  Why was Jesus, rather than Muhammad, the “most amazing” intimation of God?

There are many questions here, but Sullivan answers none of them; he just drapes his argument in a soothing veil of meaningless words. (He’s also fond of shopworn phrases like “mortal coil” and “vale of tears”.)  Look how he avoids the question of whether faith is rational or not: it’s “a condition of being human,” like hemorrhoids.  Does that mean that we can’t argue about whether the tenets of faith are correct? What is it about “being human” that forced Sullivan to accept the divinity of Jesus?

Sometimes I feel sorry for Sullivan.  He’s a smart guy, and a gay one, forced to embrace a faith that is at bottom inimical to his sexuality.   But my sympathy is hard to sustain when he broadcasts this kind of stuff all over his website.

To paraphrase Sir Walter Scott: “Oh what a tangled web we weave/When we must defend what we believe.”


Update:  Andrew Sullivan has responded here, making the claim (I am getting so used to this) that I don’t understand his position. I’m not going to prolong the debate with new posts, but will respond briefly to Sullivan’s latest riposte, which includes this:

For me, the unique human capacity to somehow rise above such suffering, while experiencing it as vividly as any animal, is evidence of God’s love for us (and the divine spark within us), while it cannot, of course, resolve the ultimate mystery of why we are here at all in a fallen, mortal world. This Christian response to suffering merely offers a way in which to transcend this veil [sic] of tears a little.

What??? Humans do not have a unique capacity to “rise above suffering.” Every animal rises above suffering.  It has to, if it is to live and leave offspring.  It’s ADAPTIVE to be resilient!  Any dog who hobbles along on three legs after an accident is rising above suffering.  How are we humans different? We have big brains that can mentally come to terms with suffering, but that’s adaptive too. It’s certainly not evidence of “God’s love for us,” much less for a god itself.  It’s better evidence for evolution, for those individuals who couldn’t rise above suffering left no offspring.  Ergo we cope, both mentally and physically.

Sullivan goes on to talk about the terrible diseases that afflicted his loved ones, and for that he has my deepest sympathy. But even atheists recover from such traumas.

93 thoughts on “Andrew Sullivan takes another crack at the problem of evil

  1. I read a great article about how the smartest people get themselves in the most trouble when it comes to this faith stuff, because they weave tangled logical webs to justify the things they perceive. More simplistic faith-folks don’t have that problem. Think of it like a conspiracy theorist vs. a citizen of an oppressive government. The conspiracy theorist tangles himself up to arrive at the conclusion, walling off things that challenge the theory. The citizen merely knows nothing else and could, someday, be helped.

  2. “Oh what a tangled web we weave/When we must defend what we believe.”

    Attrib.-Mr. Coyne-via Sir Walter Scott
    Sig. line-mine!

    Helping untangle webs is above(below?) my pay grade.

  3. “I’m starting to realize that theodicy is the soft underbelly of faith.”


    I have no doubt that it is by far the easiest way for Christians to realise that their faith is unreasonable.

    Unfortunately most will then want to continue in their unreasonableness (in my experience rationality is a very low priority in most people’s lives – and this is a major cultural disconnect between believers and atheists).

    Of course, the same problem doesn’t occur in most other religion who don’t see omnibenificence as an absolute (although I’ve read various things written by and for Jews who consider the holocaust as ultimate evidence that ‘God is dead’).

  4. “My notion of a fallen world…”

    The implication that after two millennium the fundamental tenets of Catholicism haven’t been settled and are still decidedly subjective should give Sullivan pause.

    Some “way of knowing” he’s got there.

  5. I wonder which way round it really happened. Did we begin feeling alienated, and then thinking of the world as peopled by spirits? Or did we think of the world to be peopled by spirits and then feel ourselves aleinated from the world? Theory of religion doesn’t really gives us an answer to the question.

    But, even so, it’s a strange way to deal with the problem of alienation, to make yourself a stranger in this world – as almost all religions do – so that you can feel that you really belong somewhere, only not here! As I say, this is strange. If the world strikes us as strange, perhaps what we should have done instead is to try to find a way of being at home in the world, and letting the gods go.

    After all, we have Pascal’s wager, which is a pretty lame reason to believe in a god. But the wager works the other way too. What if this is the only world there is – well, it’s probably true – we have no good reason to believe otherwise. If we live our lives as though we don’t belong here, then, in a sense, we throw away the only life we’ll ever have, preparing for a life that will never come. Surely the odds on favourite is the life we have now. Wouldn’t it make more sense to bet on it, and try to do the best we can with it?

    If we did, perhaps we’d take more care to see that as many people as possible have the best life they can have, and stop pretending that suffering is one way of achieving fullness of life. We certainly wouldn’t be so cavalier as to dismiss suffering as just being an aspect of fallen creation, of the condition of being human, of some primordial sense of alienation, which, in the end, says no more than that we suffer.

    Well, I’ve got news for Sullivan, we already know that. And that’s a big problem for any belief in a god that has the properties that most gods are thought to have. After all, if you’re going to believe in a god, there’s not much point in believing in one that could make another life just as bad or worse as this one. (See CS Lewis on this in A Grief Observed. He actually admits that there is no reason not to believe that God deals with us even more horribly in another life. “I’ve seen what God did to her while she was here,” he says (or words to that effect).) But the amount of suffering in this life gives us no confidence that there is a caring compassionate creator. So, we’d better make ourselves at home here, for it is here, as Wordsworth said, that we find our happiness, or not at all.

    This may not make suffering any easier to bear – some suffering is simply intolerable – but it is, after all, a realistic way of facing the world, and it doesn’t try to explain it away, as though there is some reason for it, after all.

  6. that is profound … humans have been imitating god for a “few thousand years”.

    This is literally nuts. In the most eurocentric bit of blather Andrew guides us on the path that God has taken, out of Palestine, though Rome, cross the Channel, then on to the New World for a big role there, starring Smallpox and the whole global slave trade, then westward ho … for some rollicking good times in Utah … toss in some side trips to continents like Australia, where the Amazing Person of Jesus got off the boat in 1788.

    Jarrod Diamond almost didn’t need to write Guns Germs and Steel.

    I weep for my species … really I do.

  7. Have you noticed that it’s the religious who seem most likely to feel alienated from this world?

    It’s a self-fulfilling doctrine, bring up the kids to feel alienated, then to use that distorted view to confirm the “reality” of god and heaven.

    Religion has no stake in people becoming mentally well, only in prolonging their mental troubles.

    Glen Davidson

    1. That’s true. I once had an ultra-religious pagan gf who was always a little irritated that I didn’t suffer from the existential angst that constantly plagued her. She was forever trying to figure out the messages that the spirits and universe were supposedly sending her.

  8. Sullivan says that only humans experience mortality and suffering as alienation. Other animals don’t. But if God is all-good and all-powerful, why is there mortality and suffering to begin with?! These are bad things in themselves, whether they cause additional alienation or not. Why was there so much death and suffering in the animal kingdom before the rise of humans? This is incompatible with a perfect God.

  9. If you live outside the “amazing person of jesus zone” tm. You were likely notified of the “amazing person of jesus”

    We feel for your dislocation as we feel it ourselves. Say will you be needing all these beaver pelts, we have a great need for hats in Paris.

  10. Educated, intelligent faith heads like Sullivan and Collins irritate because despite their education, intelligence and the accompanying perks, they remain stuck and mired in delusion anyway. To me, they are the true, die-hard faith heads, while the Fundie faith heads, often brow beaten into guilt and submission, kept ignorant because of home schooling, and driven to panic and great anxiety because of the fear of hell, have plenty of excuses for their delusion.

    Collins and Sullivan are spoiled, pampered, petulant folks who insist on self-medicating themselves with the OTC medicine of religious faith because they like to. They compartmentalize, cherry pick, apply a fine theological film over reality, court disgracefully with cognitive dissonance, and blabber and foam when the spirit moves them.

    They minimize our species’ hard earned knowledge and reject any useful assistance they could receive in order to help them learn real coping skills necessary for being fulfilled without sacrificing their grasp on reality. They also seem HUMORLESS.

    I feel no sorrow or pity for them, just embarrassment, disgust, and great disappointment when being made aware of their pathetic contorting of reality via their fanciful faith (specifically the mental garbage that Sullivan has recently spewed forth).

    Sullivan, in particular, strikes me as a big baby, since it seems the Catholic Church is just a MacDonald’s for him, as he gets great joy that he can go to a Catholic Church anywhere in the world and still be able to recognize something familiar (gleaned from his net debate with Harris).

    As far as Sullivan getting some things right, the bar was set low during the Bush years so I am not surprised that even Sullivan was able to get his two legs over it.

  11. I don’t view the problem of evil as being a particularly big problem to theists. The ready made (non-) solution they apply (God works in mysterious ways) seems to suffice for them. The alternative arguments about there being a multitude of religions, all believing contradictory things and none of them having solid evidence to back their claims, is a much more compelling one (it was certainly the one that caused me to start asking questions about Catholicism when I was a teenager).

    1. It’s still a problem for them, I think. The question always arises:
      Why me? Why now? And a lot of time is spent, in homilies and Bible studies, trying to understand, always falling short, and then, like Sullivan, taking the shortest way out. Talk about Christ on the cross – or some simulacrum – always defuses the question, because, remember, in Christ God suffers with us. That’s why, for Christians anyway, the problem is perennial, and each priest/minister/worship leader will have to go over it again and again, especially when someone young dies, or someone dies in excruciating pain and distress. The problem does not lie very far beneath the surface.

      Pope John Paul II said that when someone asks for help in dying what they are really asking for is someone to hope with them when all hope is gone. That’s not true, of course, but it shows that the problem simply won’t go away. The Archibshop of Canterbury, more sanguine, says that there is no stage of human life and no level of human experience that cannot be lived out with a sense of trust and hope. That’s a lie too, of course. But again, see how close the problem is to the surface of things.

      1. The fabricated resurrection is designed as the penultimate escape from suffering (denial of creatureliness)–allowing for the pepetuation of avoiding biological realities. Object relations compartmentalization.

        What I find most disturbing is the disconnect when employing this type of rationalization. It short circuits one’s capacity for empathy. It’s some weird, masochistic shit.

      2. “…when someone young dies, or someone dies in excruciating pain and distress. The problem does not lie very far beneath the surface.”

        I agree, and I think it really is an enormous and insurmountable problem for the majority of Christians, who believe that they worship or at least take inspiration from a God who radiates love, whose main message is “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

        I’ll bet that most Pastors or Priests detest questions along these lines from their flock more than any other, as I daresay that they are only too aware of the paucity of their practiced replies.

        And I think that, if given the opportunity to have a discussion with a believer on the subject, we may want to press the issue a tad.

        I myself am not too good at this sort of thing, however. I remember I really ticked off a somewhat unstable proselytizer by asking him “Why do you continue to worship such a two-bit God, when a real God wouldn’t allow children to die from hunger?” 😀

  12. I feel mortality and suffering as mortality and suffering. No alienation. Does this mean that I am not affected by the Fall? What does that make me?

  13. A big part of what is so irritating about what Sullivan says is the orotundity of it. You can just tell he thinks he’s saying something deep and profound because of the special vocabulary.

    “a fallen world…mortality…embraces…our planet…a form of alienation…somehow as if we belong elsewhere, as if this mortal coil…
    our intimation of God, nascent in the long march of human existence…Ni ange, ni bete…disjuncture between what we sense of as our actual home and this vale of tears we perforce inhabit, comes our search for God…sense of dislocation…deep sense that is prior to reason…a condition of being human.”

    It’s carefully done to sound meaningful, borrowing heavily from Wordsworth, but in fact it means a great deal less than it seems to.

    I get immensely tired of this kind of trickery.

    1. If there anything more to it, I’d probably still be a liberal Christian of some sort. This is about as good as it gets even from educated Christians, and it’s disappointing until one realises that there just isn’t anything better to be had from that approach.

  14. Sullivan’s illogic is nothing but stupidity. Let him wallow in his own guilt. I, for one, will either ignore his nonsense or be amused by it.

    There is nothing serious there worth spending any time.

  15. …we feel somehow as if we belong elsewhere, as if this mortal coil is not something we simply accept, as if our home was from somewhere else.

    Shorter Andrew Sullivan: “I don’t like the fact that I am mortal and am going to die. But the very fact that I have this feeling is an indication that I’m not supposed to die, that I’m actually immortal.”

    *sigh* That’s not “sophisticated” Theodicy, Andrew. That’s Wishful Thinking 101. And what’s the evidence that aversion to death is a nascent human condition?

  16. Are people supposed to understand what he writes? I’m not seeing it. I Guess I’m not too bright. Or he’s not too bright. Hard to tell.

    Religious apologetics: the great equalizer. Even I can be as smart as Andrew Sullivan sometimes. Or he can be as smart as me. Or as dumb as me. I’m not sure which. Take your pick. Hard to tell. Lol.

  17. Is this guy one of those sophisticated xian thinkers? What I mean is, is it okay to criticize this guys flowery bullshit, or will I be mocked by other xians for engaging with doltish arguments that no true xians believe in?

    It seems that the more educated an apologist is the more words they can cram into a smaller space to little affect. A semantic analysis of that crap results in zero information content. Well, okay, a little bit of information, “a sophisticated, and yet somehow puerile, proclamation of existential angst.”

  18. One of the causes of suffering is parasites.

    Can Sullivan, or any other theist, tell us why there are so many parasites? There are more species of parasitic than of non-parasitic animals (and many more, if you also include parasitic bacteria and viruses).

    Are they all the result of the Fall? Or should we believe that, rather than an “inordinate fondness for beetles”, the God of Abraham has an inordinate fondness for parasites?

    The malaria parasite alone kills one child every 30 seconds (mostly in sub-Saharan Africa). Then we have all the bizarre zoo of worms and flukes responsible for the misery of river blindness, bilharzia, elephantiasis and many other ghastly, disfiguring and sometimes fatal diseases.

    Is all this pain, much of it borne by children, part of the price we are paying for the Fall? How can Sullivan square such an idea with that of a benevolent and merciful deity.

    Of course, from a materialist, evolutionist point of view, there is no difficulty in explaining parasites. But they should pose an enormous problem for theists.

    Darwin’s words on the subject have never been answered: “I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars”.

  19. Re: the update/response from Sullivan.

    Our big brains sometimes curse us with the self-awareness that causes us to succumb to suffering. How does he explain humans who don’t overcome their suffering? Like people who commit suicide as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder. Not making that up, it’s a common situation among returning war vets, some of whom, to boot, are probably Christian.

    When a parasite’s closest genetic relatives die with their host, I don’t think the surviving individual is traumatized for too long…

  20. The so-called ‘problem of evil’ stems directly from the assumption that god is good, but it’s at least equally plausible that god is bad, and there is a “problem of good”. Yet theists don’t create a whole field of philosophy to explain why good things happen. They just assume anything bad requires an explanation, and anything good … well, they just deserve good things all the time. For some reason I can never see.

    What is “Ni ange, ni bete”? Latin for “I’m all smart and stuff”?

    1. If God is not good, then Jesus doesn’t really love us. Only the most dedicated (and delusional) Christians can accept that. After all, a seductive part of that religion is the ‘personal relationship’. If God were said to be evil I think they’d be more willing to listen to arguments against his existence, rather than sing ‘Please don’t smite us Oh Lord’ every Sunday.

    2. “Ni ange ni bête” is French for “neither angel, nor beast.” I would guess that he’s referencing Pascal, “Man is neither angel nor beast, and the misfortune is that he who would act the angel acts the beast.”

      Also, Stephen Law explores the evil god idea and what kind of responses can be given to the “problem of good” in “The God of Eth.”

  21. I’m an ex-Christian (conservative). One of the reasons I decoverted was because of inadequate explanations for God’s problem re: suffering and pain.

    All the explanations really amount to a conartist shuck-n-jive gussied up to sound deep. They remind me the carpetbagger trying to pawn off the “magic elixer” in this memorable scene:

    Josey Wales: Works wonders on just about everything, eh?
    Carpetbagger: It can do most anything.
    Josey Wales: [spits tobacco juice on the carpetbagger’s coat] How is it with stains?

  22. What is “Ni ange, ni bete”? Latin for “I’m all smart and stuff”?

    Pretty much — it is “Not angel, not beast”, from Pascal: “Man is neither angel nor beast; and the misfortune is that he who would act the angel acts the beast.”

  23. snip – we feel somehow as if we belong elsewhere, as if this mortal coil is not something we simply accept, as if our home was from somewhere else. – endsnip

    Ummm… in Hinduism the denial of death results in a doctrine of reincarnation, not a parallel universe called heaven where there is nothing to want and nothing to do. More ethnocentrism… and body/spirit dualist essentialism

    1. Sullivan is a Christian chauvinist who doesn’t want to own up to that viewpoint. He gives a modicum of lip-service to the value of other faiths (sometimes) but it’s pretty obvious from his words that he truly believes that all the other religions of the world have it wrong – he just doesn’t want to be seen as dismissive and crass as Rick Warren when it comes to other faiths.

      He has written before that he avoided academic study of the history of christianity when he was in college specifically because he didn’t want to risk damaging his faith. But that doesn’t prevent him from posing as one who has been unafraid to look honestly at his own beliefs and to further claim that the nuance and subtley of his faith is continually underestimated by nontheist critics.

      And the most painful part of it all is his unflinching adherence to the profoundly unlikely idea that the one true faith, among all the belief systems in the world today, just happens to be the very religion in which he was raised from birth.

      1. My understanding is that Sullivan *once* avoided religious history to avoid challenging his faith, but that was before he settled on his current understanding of his faith. After all, he was still denying his homosexuality at that time, and obviously doesn’t deny it any longer.

        It’s an odd sort of critique to use a writer’s own admissions of past faults against him, when clearly he was critiquing himself for a fault that he has (seemingly) overcome.

        Sullivan spends more time on his blog defending secularism and tolerance than he does justifying faith. He also seems more than comfortable with other people’s decision to disbelieve. I never get the sense that he is proselytizing so much as defending his own choice of faith to those who would convert him.

        As for competing faiths, Sullivan backs the moderate view that Islam is a religion of peace, and has given far more than lip service to Buddhism and all the resultant philosophical implications that arise from its axioms.

  24. But God lifted me into a new life in a way I still do not understand but that I know as deeply and as irrevocably as I know anything.

    If this testimony is infuriating to anyone with a brain, then I am sorry. It is the truth as I experienced it. It is the truth as I experience it still.

    What’s really infuriating is that theists refuse to recognize how infuriating it is to try to reason with someone who says what amounts to “I make up my own truth, based on my feelings,” but insists that he/she is not being irrational.

  25. And then there’s the passive-aggressive “I’m sorry” – no he’s not sorry. He should be but isn’t.

    He should be because “God lifted me into a new life in a way I still do not understand but that I know as deeply and as irrevocably as I know anything” is just as absurd as “Daffy Duck lifted me into a new life in a way I still do not understand but that I know as deeply and as irrevocably as I know anything.” He can’t know that “God” did anything and he should realize that he can’t know that. I can see saying “something I don’t understand lifted me into a new life” and being moved, exalted, baffled, all kinds of things by that experience. But giving the something the name of a fictional character is a whole different thing.

    1. If he wants to say that he was lifted into a new life, caustion is in order. Its the ready, complicated, and unjustfied claim that he has been consoled that is really a kind of naively accepting religious language has have a legitimate reference. But why should he assume that. Because he waxes somewhat eloqune on the point? I’m sorry, Sullivan is being self-iindulgent here, He obviously doesn’t know in any detail about people – and animals – suffer greviously every day, and, quite frankly, he doesn’t seem to care.

      He’s as ridiculous as the hordes (are there hordes?) going to see the relics of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus. If I recall this is the one who tasted the sputum from a TB sufferer, so that she could share suffering with those who were sick and dying. If memory seves correct, he died of TB. So she got here wish.

      It’s simply not enough, and the miracle fraud is one of the most outgeous things that the Roman Catholic Church has done for awhile, especially if they read scinetific research, which indicates that those who deal in miracle cures often do not use the meidcations that stand an off chance of beigh right.

      And it doubtless has raminfcations of accepting other vaguely supernatural ideas. Sullivan may be a devout Catholic, but he has no idea what his fellow catholics believe. Time for Sullivan to grow up and learn something before he starts pontification.

  26. For being a scientific blog the comments regarding Mr Sullivans’ opinions are rather appalling. On the other hand, I have previously suggested that humans suffer and pain, other sentients only pain.

    1. How can you possibly think this answer is any good? Pain is still bad. Creating a world of pain is therefore incompatible with being a perfect God.

    2. Bull:

      Psychopathology in great apes: Concepts, treatment options and possible homologies to human psychiatric disorders

      Many captive great apes show gross behavioral abnormalities such as stereotypies, self-mutilation, inappropriate aggression, fear or withdrawal, which impede attempts to integrate these animals in existing or new social groups. These abnormal behaviors resemble symptoms associated with psychiatric disorders in humans such as depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Due to the outstanding importance of social interaction and the prolonged period of infantile and juvenile dependence, early separation of infants from their mothers and other adverse rearing conditions, solitary housing, and sensory deprivation are among the major albeit non-specific sources of psychopathology in apes.

      Elephants, btw, also suffer from psychiatric disorders, such as PTSD. As do dogs, cats and many other mammals.

      To pretend that animals don’t “suffer” is, well, foolish.

      1. Im not pretending-whats does this mean anyways?- I dont know of any evidence showing that other sentients living systems “suffer’ as we do. The evolutionary commonalities underpinning manifestations of pain-and suffering- will manifest resembling ours. I have a pet cockroach that every time the tiles are hot turns aways, she doesnt suffer. She burns her legs. Pain tells her to avoid hot tiles, she could learn. Any confined living systems will be disturbed

      1. No they ain’t Sir. You suffer the absence of love, you pain an injury. You suffer the acrimonious imprecision of the comments here, but you dont pain them.

    3. I would suggest then Marylyn, that you take it upon yourself to put some time into watching non-human animals react to their environments and their interactions with others particularly within their species. I’ve seen suffering (and pleasure) expressed by non-human mammals and birds for sure.

      1. Marylyn wrote that without pain, “evolution would be deprived of a potent instrument.”
        This response is a poor one: it contradicts the existence of a perfect God:
        (a) A perfect God (all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good) doesn’t need evolution to create animals or humans.
        (b) The ability to perceive pain is only adaptive if there are bad things in the world to be avoided: but a perfect God could and would have created a world without bad things to be avoided.
        (c) A perfect God can evolve things without using pain to do so; for example, by God himself altering lifeforms directly and painlessly.

      2. why observe non-humans? more entertaining watching us-you. Obviously the grammar is not so unintelligible, otherwise you would be making a fool of yourself answering that which you dont understand. Why do you react to the fact that I suggest there is a pschycological distinction in our minds between suffering and pain? I have seen ants partying also.

      3. Marylyn:

        Go look into books by Frans de Waal. They tell you why we should look into non-humans and he explains all about suffering, pain, morality, empathy and other issues.

        “Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved”

        “The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society”

        “Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are”

        “Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals”

      4. I have read most of them. De Waaal work and observations are the equivalent of in vitro work; best you can do is come up with good working models, to be tested in real life-I mean real primate life-. By the way, those chimps and other relatives kept in jail by De Waal and others, MUST be very unhappy: how is that for crappy-grammar-science?? I am considering apply for political asylum, on their behalf.

      5. I’m serious. I wont sue De Waal, probably a sufficiently law enlightend chimp will do in the future. You avoid answering a serious question regarding jailing chimps and other relatives. I consider them my relatives, I’m Indian you see? Why do you avoid serious questioning? You doing a Sullivan on me?

    4. On Sept. 22, Marylin said: “On the other hand, I have previously suggested that humans suffer and pain, other sentients only pain.”

      And on Sept. 23, Marylin said: “I consider [chimps] my relatives”

      So, they can be your relatives but they can’t suffer like human beings? Did you really think it through? I think not.

  27. The thing that is especially infuriating about Sullivan’s latest is he quotes Jerry asking a very clear, very specific question: “I wonder what facts would make Sullivan find the argument convincing?”

    And Sully’s response is not to answer that very clear, very specific, very reasonable request, but instead to spout more poetic word salad.

  28. I think AS needs to learn that he is not the only person in the world to have suffered. Other people, too, including myself, have lost their dearest friends, and other people, too, have reached rock-bottom and wanted to kill themselves. Using one’s own experience, however extreme, as a sort of bludgeon to silence those who disagree with you and to justify whatever you like to believe is not a very honourable way of going about things. (Which is not to suggest for one moment that one cannot or should not draw on one’s own experience in an argument.)

  29. You have to give the animists this round. The problem I have with the Abrahamic faiths is precisely what Sullivan professes: that humans are somehow profoundly different than “animals.” At least the animists(I’m thinking here in particular of a lot of Native American culture) have a rich tradition of animals becoming people and people becoming animals and a wide transfer of knowledge from animals to people by these transformations. In the Penobscot Indian myth of Glooskap and the Frog, Glooskap must confront a giant frog which blocks the entire Penobscot River and keeps water from coming down. And the frog is an evil bastard who wants all the water for himself. The Abrahamic concept of all animals being stupid and totally separate from humans is, in many ways, a step backwards from animist thinking.

    Buncha sheep herders.

  30. A ways off topic, but tomorrow is a purportedly worldwide event called “See You at the Pole” where kids gather at their *high school flag pole* and pray.

    Note that this year’s theme is based around 2 Kings 22:13 which states:

    “Go, inquire of the LORD for me and the people and all Judah concerning the words of this book that has been found, for great is the wrath of the LORD that burns against us, because our fathers have not listened to the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.”

    I would think they could find a less menacing verse with which to BREAK THE LAW and violate the separation of church and state.

    1. KP wrote:
      “I would think they could find a less menacing verse with which to BREAK THE LAW and violate the separation of church and state.”

      What law are they breaking? Kids can legally pray at school.

      1. It’s late, I’m tired and maybe I overstated the case.

        But I do know that some teachers are participating, giving it the illusion of a school sponsored event.

    2. There’s no law against praying at a public school. The only thing that isn’t allowed is school mandated or sponsored prayers. Both teachers and students are free to pray to whatever imaginary beings they want on their own time.

      “See you at the Pole” is ridiculous and petty, but not illegal in any way, even if teachers join in.

      1. Agreed about the legality. It’s the attitude of the whole thing that rubbed me the wrong way and caused me to look for fault where it didn’t exist.

      2. That’s understandable. There are plenty of reasons to find fault with “See You at the Pole.” It’s petty, ostentatious, and basically a way to pressure young people into affirming the status quo.

        But, as you say, the tendency to associate “objectionable” with “illegal” should be stringently avoided. I object to a lot of what religion does, but under no circumstances would I want to outlaw individual religious practice. Even the most ridiculous religious beliefs and practices are protected by the first amendment, so long as they aren’t endorsed by the government and don’t involve causing involuntary harm to others.

  31. I’m not sure theodicy has such a unique place as a unresolvable challenge to those who believe in God, nor is it unique in the way they respond to it by resorting to “Faith.” There are many fundamental problems with belief in God — lack of evidence being a primary one. Faith is the response in all cases. Theodicy seems a major challenge, but not a unique one, as a believer can simply say that his God is omniscient and omnipotent but not perfectly good, hence able to will needless suffering, and he is out of the logical dilemma. The evidence problem reigns over any claim to the existence of God; it would therefore seem to be the one uniquely unavoidable challenge to believers. And still, they will invoke Faith to deal with that challenge, as with all other, challenges to their belief.

  32. I had initially submitted this response to one of the earlier post on Sullivan/theodicy but was late to the “movable feast” which had moved on here and Jerry suggested I add it to this comment section.

    I actually enjoy Sullivan and say what you will about him on this topic he has been at the forefront of several worthwhile fights, holding the current and former administration accountable for their support of torture one of the more obvious ones. But this transparent “punt” on this question disappointed me. I sent him the following email:

    You write:

    ” But it also teaches me that suffering in itself can be a means of letting go to God, of allowing Him to take over, of recognizing one’s own mortality and limits.”

    I don’t understand this line of thought at all. How many creatures do you know who are not mortal? How many creatures, human or otherwise, do you know who have no limitations? Do you honestly need a religion to recognize that?

    I have no religion though I do have a belief in a God of some sorts. My belief system is kind of complicated for me to even articulate but suffice it to say it is a mixture of Buddhist and Daoist thought combined with some Dietism and Pantheism. I was raised Catholic but even at a young age never bought into the religion, I’ve always believed there’s a creator out there, even a caring one, but not one who can intervene. God as the catalyst but then only able to observe if you will.

    I have four kids, all 9 and under. They are fully aware, within their capacity to formulate the concept, about death and suffering. My nine and seven year old perhaps much better than the four year old twins. They’ve yet to suffer the loss of an immediate family member but friends and neighbors have and they understand that life does not go on forever, at least the older two but kids get less credit than we like and I would bet the younger two do as well. They’ve developed this appreciation without the benefit of religion and since they are average kids I would assume throughout the history of mankind this acknowledgement of mortality is attained quite easily and without the need of a religion. (More so in the past as the life expectancy was much shorter than today).

    Back to suffering. The notion that you have to suffer in order let yourself go to God smacks a tad like something that could be used to justify the Spanish Inquisition. Let me relay a story.

    One of my twins was born with CDH (Congenital Diaphragrammatic Hernia), a hole in his diaphragm. While in the womb his bowels and parts of his spleen and stomach passed through the hole and landed on top of his developing left lung. This is a rare condition with a high mortality rate. To make a short story of it he had corrective surgery three days after birth, spent nine weeks intubated in the NICU, almost died twice, had 5 chest tubes inserted, collapsed his good lung 3 times, had 15 line of medication including experimental use of Viagra and then had to suffer through withdrawals of morphine and other meds as he recovered.

    God did that? In what way did his suffering allow him to let go to go to a God he had no concept of? If, as the popular verse that is used by the pro lifers goes, God knew him in the womb before he was born why didn’t he fix him in the womb before he was born?

    I don’t type that in anger for I had fortunately resolved before his birth that God does not intervene. What happened to him was an act of nature, no evil, no God, in his case just some defunct chromosomes which did not enable his diaphragm to form correctly. And in the sense that God did not choose him (or us) to suffer, God had no part in his saving. Science and medicine and some very dedicated humans saved him. Which is the same reason that the little girl that was in the NICU with him with the same condition didn’t survive. Science and medicine and dedicated humans could not save her. Or our friends in England which we made through the support group for CDH we belong to whose son also died.

    I think the sooner we learn that we are all we got, that God, either through inability or indifference does not intervene, the better off we all will be. Not that suffering will end or world peace will beak out but the less we are relying on the religious crutch the better off we’ll be in general.

  33. “Here Sullivan conveniently re-interpets ‘the Fall’ as the moment when humans experienced alienation from our world.”

    Here, Coyne conveniently conflates Sullivan’s description of a “fallen world” as the mythological event called “the fall”, then uses it as the basis of another strawman argument. If Sullivan didn’t say that “this fallen world” resulted from a sudden event, it’s hard to imagine why he would be expected to prove that it did. It’s possible that he doesn’t believe any specific event occurred, or that the “fall” discussed in Christian mythology happened over the course of generations or even centuries. Coyne, focused as he is on attacking people who prioritize mythology above science, appears to assume Sullivan to be such a person simply because he is willing to defend religion at all.

    Further, I think Sullivan has made it abundantly clear that his comments do not apply to the problem of why evil exists in the world. Rather, he relates his own experience of how his religious perspective allows him to learn personal lessons from the suffering he experiences, rather than merely enduring it and waiting for it to pass. While this doesn’t answer the question of why evil exists, it does suggest that the existence of evil reflects the existence of what Sullivan interprets as God, and that the two are therefore compatible. I realize that an argument against this premise would be difficult, but the other arguments I’ve been seeing rather miss the point.

    1. Coyne conveniently conflates Sullivan’s description of a “fallen world” as the mythological event called “the fall”

      How the heck else is such a statement from a Catholic to be interpreted? The Catholic catechism states “… a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man” and resulted in “a deprivation of original holiness and justice” that makes each person “subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death: and inclined to sin”. Sullivan is quite famously Catholic, so why would Jerry’s interpretation be unreasonable?

      1. That’s a fair question. The answer relies upon the fact that most (but, of course, not all) Christians understand the event of the “fall” to be mythological in nature; it’s a story meant to describe a change, but is not meant to be interpreted factually. I, for example, don’t believe that there was a literal “Adam”, much less an event where human history changed because of his dietary selections.

        We talk of a world in which people do not live according to their intrinsic natures because of sin. (Yes, that concept would require some unpacking before we discuss it specifically.) Nearly all Christians understand this principle, and that we live in a world that suffers for it. The story of the “fall”, though it does not explain this tendency, has given rise to many other terms–to “fall from grace”, to fall into Hell, a “fallen” person as someone who sins as a way of life, and so on. But since very few Christians also believe that there was a literal “fall”, the inference that “fallen world” could not have been to a literal event.

    2. It’s possible that he doesn’t believe any specific event occurred, or that the “fall” discussed in Christian mythology happened over the course of generations or even centuries.

      Bzzzzzt. Wrong answer. Catholic teaching is abundantly clear on this point. The Fall *is* a specific action done by the first “man” (not “men”), presumably after we got down from the trees but still early in Man’s history. There are no opt-outs, no freedoms to believe otherwise. Baptizees are required to assent to this on pain of being tortured for eternity for non-belief. The only get-out is not having full knowledge of this teaching. Let’s hope he doesn’t read this, eh? describes the Fall. That wilfully disbelieving Traditional and Universal teachings of the Church is a mortal sin can easily be found elsewhere.

      [Yes, exactly the same applies to his beliefs regarding homosexuality. One has to feel sorry for him, as has been expressed elsewhere]

  34. Sullivan responds: “The question is whether it is overcome, rather than endured. For that, something beyond mere physical processes are necessary. Which is where religion has its place.”

    he’s never going to get it, the catholicism is too deeply ingrained. he’s just going to keep pointing to religion as the rest of us scratch our heads and wonder what in the heck he’s babbling about.

  35. See You at the Pole is precisely what religious observance should be: optional and voluntary. The only reason it annoys me is that it often has the pretense that the people participating are somehow flaunting the law by praying on school grounds. The reality is that school prayer is always and everywhere fine and always has been: its simply not the business of school employees to lead it or set out special times for it.

  36. Coyne: “Do a lot of people feel alienated from the world now, and feel like they belong elsewhere? If so, why are they so loath to die?

    Bingo! That’s what it’s all about. Fear of death.

    Everything you needed to know about the origins and continuation of religious belief – worldwide – in three little words.

    We can figure out why Santa isn’t real. We can’t figure out death, so we can’t figure out gods. Get past the fear and all becomes clear – or even accept the fear on its terms without getting over it and, equally, clarity reigns.

    Anyone who claims fear of death does not underlie their religious beliefs/assumptions is a liar – either to you, themselves or both.

  37. I never thought the Problem of Evil was an important argument. A great and powerful being might exist, perhaps one so great as to have created the universe, yet this god may have some evil tendendencies. Thus it is possible that God exists but he is evil.

    What do we do if this is so? We must fight God! We need allies. If The Bible is true, the Serpent told the truth about the fruit: It did not kill “in the day they thou eat thereof”, it was good for food and granted knowledge of good and evil. God lied about the fruit. We should ally with the Serpent if Genesis is correct.

    I am an athiest. I do not believe in either God or the Serpent. But if Genesis were true I’d pledge fealty to the Serpent. He did not lie to our ancestors. Hail the Serpent, Hail Mother Eve.

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