I’ve scheduled posts on several topics, but theodicy keeps getting in the way. Today’s will be the last of three successive posts on the topic.
I’ve been reading two of Primo Levi’s books on Auschwitz (Survival in Auschwitz and The Drowned and the Saved), as well as Francis Collins’s The Language of God. You know who Francis Collins is, and if you don’t know Primo Levi, you should. He was an Italian Jew, a chemist, and a writer on the side. His on-the-side writings, however, are fantastic, especially those describing and analyzing his incarceration at Auschwitz during WWII. Survival in Auschwitz is simply the best existing book on what it was like to be in the camps. One scene — in which Levi describes a “selection” for the gas chambers, during which each inmate must run through two doors in front of an SS man, with each man trying to make himself look as healthy as possible — is as moving and tragic as anything I’ve ever read. And Levi was also a novelist (If Not Now, When?) and a writer about science and life (The Periodic Table is a must-read). Had Levi lived, he would surely have won a Nobel Prize for Literature. But he died in questionable circumstances, falling from an upper floor of his apartment in 1987. At the time everyone thought it was suicide; now biographers are not so sure.
That is a digression (but do read Levi!). But reading Levi and Collins simultaneously is guaranteed to inspire thoughts about theodicy. The Holocaust, along with the Nazis’ murder of millions of others, including Russian prisoners of war, Poles, and the handicapped, represents the most severe test of faith. Why would a just and merciful God allow so many people to be wantonly slaughtered? When I was in Amsterdam, I visited the Anne Frank house, and I defy anyone to come away from that place without a crushing feeling of sadness and loss. Anne Frank was one Jewish girl. Now multiply her story by six million, and add in another four or five million for the non-Jews also exterminated by the Reich. That would seem to defy explanation via faith, unless one conceives of God as an anti-Semitic sadist. The alternative explanation, of course, is that the Holocaust needs no divine rationalization, for there isn’t any god, beneficent or otherwise.
Levi was an atheist, and Auschwitz strengthened his unbelief. In one gripping passage from Survival in Auschwitz (a passage, incidentally, chosen by Christopher Hitchens to open The Portable Atheist), the selection has just taken place in the barracks: those who didn’t seem fit enough during the SS inspection have learned that they’ve failed, and will shortly be going to the gas chambers. But one Jew, Kuhn, has passed — he’ll not be killed, at least for a while. Kuhn thanks God for sparing him:
Silence slowly prevails and then, from my bunk on the top row, I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud, with his beret on his head, swaying backwards and forwards violently. Kuhn is thanking God because he has not been chosen.
Kuhn is out of his senses. Does he not see Beppo the Greek in the bunk next to him, Beppo who is twenty years old and is going to the gas-chamber the day after tomorrow and knows it and lies there looking fixedly at the light without saying anything and without even thinking anymore? Can Kuhn fail to realize that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again?
If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.
This gives you a sense of the power of Levi’s prose — and his outrage at the monstrosity of those who rationalize the Holocaust as God’s will.
Immediately after I read this (and I couldn’t keep on reading after that passage), I picked up The Language of God. And, coincidentally, I came upon the chapter where Collins explains why God allows evil. After Levi’s mighty prose, Collin’s theodicy seems thin and ludicrous, the lame rationalizations of a man for whom no evidence, no observation, could ever weaken his faith. In a section called “Why would a loving God allow suffering in the world?”, Collins explains away all evil and suffering.
His first argument is familiar. Regarding those evils done by humans to others (like the Holocaust, although Collins wisely ignores that event), he explains them as the necessary byproducts of God’s having given humans free will:
The tragedy of the young child killed by a drunk driver, of the innocent man dying on the battlefield, or of the young girl cut down by a stray bullet in a crime-ridden section of a modern city can hardly be blamed on God. After all, we have somehow been given free will, the ability to do as well please. We use this ability frequently to disobey the Moral Law [note: Collins believes that the “Moral Law,” the group of moral views that we all share, was instilled in us by God.] And when we do so, we shouldn’t then blame God for the consequences.
Think about that. What Collins is implying is that the Holocaust was necessary so that Nazis could use their free will. Can there be anything more monstrous than this — or any explanation more ludicrous? This would be simply silly if it weren’t so pathetic. Millions of innocent people died so that a small group of anti-Semites could work out their hatred on helpless victims? What kind of God has a plan like that? And couldn’t God have staved off the Holocaust without interfering with people’s “free will”? Couldn’t He just have prevented the conjunction of the particular sperm and egg that yielded the zygotic Hitler? Or must sperm have free will, too?
Collins recounts one incomprehensible tragedy in his own life: the rape of his daughter. Here’s his take on it:
Never was pure evil more apparent to me than that night, and never did I more passionately wish that God would have intervened somehow to stop this terrible crime. Why didn’t He cause the perpetrator to be struck with a bolt of lightning, or at least a pang of conscience? Why didn’t He put an invisible shield around my daughter to protect her?
Perhaps on rare occasions God does perform miracles [note: there’s no “perhaps” about it, since later Collins accepts Jesus’s divine birth and resurrection as miracles]. But for the most part, the existence of free will and of order in the physical universe are inexorable facts. While we might wish for such miraculous deliverance to occur more frequently, the consequence of interrupting these two sets of forces would be utter chaos.
I deeply sympathize with this tragedy in Collins’s life. And of course he has the right to rationalize it any way he wishes to comport with his faith. But that doesn’t render his explanations free from criticism. There are many ways that God could have allowed people to behave freely and nevertheless ensure that no innocent suffers. And how does Collins know that free will, rather than the mitigation of suffering, is what God really wants? He’s a scientist: isn’t the alternative explanation — that there isn’t any god, and that’s why bad things happen to good people — more parsimonious? Hasn’t it crossed his mind that what he’s doing is simply making a virtue of necessity?
And this brings up the real sticking point for Collins’s brand of theodicy: what he calls “physical evil” as opposed to “moral evil.”
What about the occurrence of natural disasters: earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, great floods and famines? On a smaller but no less poignant scale, what about the occurrence of disease in an innocent victim, such as cancer in a child?
Collins doesn’t even have the decency to say that he doesn’t understand these things. Nor does he entertain the possibility that God might — as he did in the Old Testament — have a malicious streak, which of course is a perfectly plausible hypothesis if you want to retain faith in a divine being. Instead, Collins offers two explanations:
Science reveals that the universe, our own planet, and life itself are engaged in an evolutionary process. The consequences of that can include the unpredictability of the weather, the slippage of a tectonic plate, or the misspelling of a cancer gene in the normal process of cell division. If at the beginning of time God chose to use these forces to create human beings, then the inevitability of these other painful consequences was also assured. Frequent miraculous interventions would be at least as chaotic in the physical realm as they would be in interfering with human acts of free will.
It looks as if Collins’s God has OCD: his main interest is preventing chaos! But God didn’t have to set up the world so that preventing horrible events would yield that chaos. All He had to do was ensure, for example, that cancer genes didn’t mutate — or at least didn’t mutate in good people. It’s entirely feasible for God to have designed an evolutionary process that didn’t produce so much suffering. Would preventing tsumanis, for example, have produced chaos? Hell, no. We wouldn’t even know about it — those big waves just wouldn’t happen!
Does any thinking person accept these reationalizations as reasonable? If so, then it’s incumbent on them, as Eric MacDonald noted yesterday, to tell us what kind of world, what kind of evils, would attest to the absence of a god. If they can’t, then they don’t bear listening to. (I’m betting that if the Holocaust hadn’t happened, that’s the kind of thing they’d adduce as evidence against God.)
Collins’s last explanation is this: horrible tragedies that happen to innocent people are part of God’s plan because they give us the chance to acquire and demonstrate strength of character:
As much as we would like to avoid those experiences, without them would we not be shallow, self-centered creatures who would ultimately lose all sense of nobility or striving for the betterment of others?
. . . In my case, I can see, albeit dimly, that my daughter’s rape was a challenge for me to try to learn the real meaning of forgiveness in a terribly wrenching circumstance. In complete honesty, I am still working on that.
The notion that God can work through adversity is not an easy concept, and can find firm anchor only in a worldview that embrances a spiritual perspective. The principle of growth through suffering is, in fact, nearly universal in the world’s great faiths.
Recognizing the depth of Collins’s pain here, I still find his reasoning shameful. Does he really believe that God allowed his daughter to be raped so that, as part of the cosmic scheme, Collins could learn forgiveness? Is such an outcome at all commensurate with the suffering of his daughter? Did millions of Jews, Poles, gays, and handicapped die so that we could grow spiritually and learn to forgive Hitler and his minions? Ask a parent whose child has died of leukemia whether, given a choice, they prefer their salutary suffering over a healthy child. And what about those innocent people who die after terrible suffering? They certainly don’t learn anything. Well, maybe their relatives did, and that justifies all the agony.
I can’t help but feel that, in their hearts, reasonable people aren’t duped by this kind of theodicy. Are we really such a weak and cowardly race that we must concoct these silly rationalizations to avoid admitting the obvious: there doesn’t seem to be a God, or at least one who is loving and powerful? Can’t we admit that bad things are simply bad things and not some manifestation of a tortured and incomprehensible divine calculus? When will our species grow up?
If I was God, I would spit at Collins’s theodicy. And I’m sure there will be accusations that my understanding of theodicy is not sufficiently sophisticated — that religious explanations of evil are, after all, quite convincing. I spit on that, too.