Moar theodicy

May 12, 2011 • 12:57 pm

I’ve always thought that the existence of both human-caused and physical evils forms the most powerful argument against religion—at least those many religions that posit a powerful and loving God. With the proper logic-chopping one can rationalize murder and rape as necessary aspects of God-given free will, but there’s simply no credible way to do that for things like cancers and earthquakes.

Religious folks, too, realize that this is the Achilles heel of faith, and spend considerable time engaging in theodicy, i.e., the rationalization of bad stuff.  I find this branch of theology vastly amusing.

A few days ago, Jeffrey Small, who appears to be a new-agey spirutual type, gave his solution at PuffHo: “The question of theodicy: If God is all powerful, why must evil and suffering exist in the world?”  What does he do? He simply reconceives god not as a sky father, but as some nebulous “ground of being”:

The problem of evil and suffering is only a problem when we view God as a supernatural Zeus-like being. If we instead understand God as the power of being itself (as I wrote in an earlier post here), then this problem disappears.

The question then is not how can God permit evil? God does not permit anything other than the creative state of being, which by its very nature includes freedom. Freedom is what leads to sin and consequently evil. Freedom also leads to growth and life itself. We can thus read the story of the forbidden fruit in Genesis as a metaphorical explanation of the inherent freedom within the world and our knowledge and experience of this freedom as the ultimate cause of suffering.

Yeah, and did God have to give the Earth “freedom” to create earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis, and did he give the genome “freedom” to have oncogenes that can mutate to childhood cancers? What is “freedom” for the lithosphere?

God, when understood as Paul Tillich’s “ground of being,” rather than a supernatural being who intervenes occasionally in the universe, allows for a power that supports all existence as its creative ground but does not make a choice as to which unfortunate events to intervene to change. The nature of existence (as grounded in God) is such that humankind is free. To be free, we must have the ability to do evil, to turn away from God, the true ground of who we are. Thus, the possibility (and reality) of sin is built into the very fabric of life.

To argue whether God could not have found a better mechanism for life and existence fails because it falls into the fallacy of seeing God as a supernatural being designing the universe as a watchmaker might (opening God up to the criticism of being an incompetent watchmaker) or playing with the universe in an ongoing chess game according to some divine plan (opening God up to the criticism of being a cruel chess master) rather than understanding God as the creative structure of existence itself. Thus, the problem of evil is ultimately one of perspective: from a micro view we may see the sufferings that happen in the world, but from a macro view we can understand that this suffering is part of the very fabric of the nature of existence itself — an existence that on balance is good.

Yes, but “on balance” a creative God could have made things better.   He could start by leaving out the tectonic plates and oncogene mutations.  And what does it mean to say that God “supports all existence”. Those are fine-sounding words that mean precisely nothing.  Does God do anything or not?  If he does, what exactly does he do?

Small’s solution, increasingly adopted by desperate theologians, is to see God as a “ground of being.”  The deity apparently didn’t “create” anything, but apparently “supports” everything.  And even if Small doesn’t define his terms, I’m amazed at his ability to specify that God is a “ground of being”. Who told him?

And has Small considered the alternative hypothesis that there is no God, and that this hypothesis might better explain the existence is of all that bad stuff? As Delos McKown said, “The invisible and the nonexistent look very much alike.”

Clearly Small won’t persuade many religious people with this bogus philosophy, especially the many who want to believe that God cares for each and every one of them, and will send them to heaven if they’re good. Remember that most Americans aren’t deists, but theists. Small has a big job.

The only good thing about this palaver concerning the impotent “power of being” is that, for many, it’s the first step to abandoning God completely.

126 thoughts on “Moar theodicy

  1. “To argue whether God could not have found a better mechanism for life and existence fails because it falls into the fallacy of seeing God as a supernatural being designing the universe as a watchmaker might (opening God up to the criticism of being an incompetent watchmaker) or playing with the universe in an ongoing chess game according to some divine plan (opening God up to the criticism of being a cruel chess master) rather than understanding God as the creative structure of existence itself.” — Opening God open to the criticism of being terribly uncreative or a poorly-made structure.

  2. Guh. This is my all time least favorite atheist argument. I can’t believe I’ve yet to hear of an atheist see their way around the ‘why do good things happen to bad people’ dillemma.

    Atheism is a perfect argument in that it dissolves all theistic arguments EXCEPT this one. Why haven’t any other atheists stumbled upon that ‘god is tempting us’ is the ONLY sensible argument the theists have ever presented. And i don’t mean that the temptation is in the form of dinosaur bones, but wouldn’t a god who subjects us to heaven or hell have to add in the dynamic factor of suffering, so that we all may pass a ‘test’? This seems to me to be the ONLY sensible thing about theism, that we’re being tested.

    If there was a God, he would CERTAINLY be subjecting us to a balance of emotions to see our reactions. What doesn’t make sense about this is not that its unnecessary, but that it people who go to greater lengths to seek truth are INVARIABLY led astray from theology by finding scientific answers. THAT is the greatest atheistic argument – that the intellectual community is dissuaded from theism by the answers that theism IGNORES.

    It’s not that the existence should more resemble a theistic existence – because that’s their point! the CHALLENGE of faith! the ONLY sensible argument in the history of theism! But its that existence could not possibly look any MORE like an atheistic existence that is their ultimate downfall

    1. Dan –

      Because in order to postulate a God like that you have to throw out the “all loving” part of the definition of God.

      The standard Christian definition of God is that he is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibeneficent – throw out one of those and you’re no longer talking about the typical Christian God that most folks in American worship.

      Those with a strong Calvinist streak are perfectly happy to throw out the omnibeneficent piece of the defintion – then you get into the problem of “okay, so you have someone who is all powerful and all knowing but who isn’t guaranteed to be ‘perfectly good’ and, frankly, can being a tortuous son of a bitch” which leads to the question of why such an asshole would deserve to be worshiped rather than hunted down and stopped.

      I’m an atheist in the Christian God – I can’t believe that an omniscient, omnibeneficent, omnipotent God exists given the world we live in. I’m willing to entertain the idea that there might be other kinds of gods out there – asshole gods, less-than-all-powerful gods, gods like Zeus who make no claims to omniscience – but you have to then give me a reason to want to worship something like that rather than ignore it or work against it.

    2. “If there was a God, he would CERTAINLY be subjecting us to a balance of emotions to see our reactions”


      1. Why? Curiosity? It makes little sense.

        Is the ‘balance of emotions’ to be found in a single life — or is this ‘balance’ spread out among all lives? Some people get lots and lots of pain and suffering, and other people get hardly any at all … so that God can see their reactions? So the “ground of being” can observe people breaking?

        Human beings used as tools for some purpose other than their own. A definition of evil.

        “The ground of being” sounds too much like another word for “reality” for anyone to then go on and talk about purposes and goals of this ground. I think it’s another one of Dennett’s “deepities:” one meaning true but trivial, the other meaning extraordinary but false — blended together in hopes of making an extraordinary truth.

        1. Why? Curiosity?

          Can an omniscient being even have curiosity? Doesn’t curiosity require the inability to know something?

          1. God is not omniscient: God is beyond omniscience.

            Being beyond omniscience is even more impressive, sort of like infinity to the infinity power, times infinity. Our concepts cannot stretch to fit it.

            Thus, the all-knowing can be curious about what it already knows.

            1. What?

              Whereas: x=knowledge and y=curiosity
              lim(x->infinity), y=0
              a foriori
              lim(x-> initity^infinity*infinity),y=0

              Also, if curiosity is a function of knowledge, then if G-d is beyond knowing, then he would also be beyond curiosity.

        2. The “ground of being”? Just walk over the mountains of existence & it is straight ahead, between the slough of despond & the wood of day dreams.

    3. Epicurus addressed your complaints a few centuries before Christianity was spawned from an unholy union of Judaism and Hellenism.

      Specifically, a god that performs Job-style tests on humans not only isn’t deserving of worship, but actually is deserving of active opposition.

      Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
      Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
      Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
      Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

      …only, the original would have been a generic “the gods” rather than the eponymous chieftain of the currently-most-popular pantheon.



      1. Specifically, a god that performs Job-style tests on humans not only isn’t deserving of worship, but actually is deserving of active opposition.

        Apparently there is, surprisingly or not, a Jewish aphorism that pretty well nails that point:

        If Jehovah [Allah more so] lived on earth, people would break his windows.

        1. This is very interesting: so the point of the ancient Jewish doctrine is that, indeed, Jehovah WANTS to do harm to humans, because they are in some way indebted to him.

          This is not reasonable, of course, but it is a powerful ideological tool, later adopted by Catholicism: we’re all natural-born sinners, and if God make us suffer, it’s only to purge us of our sins.

          1. … we’re all natural-born sinners, and if God makes us suffer …

            Something along that line. The psychology of religion is shockingly – and awesomely – byzantine, seriously twisted, profoundly convoluted and really needs the genius of a Kafka and the Grand Guignol theatre to do it any “justice”. But that punishment facet seems – as some have argued – tagged and marked by parental motivations and perceptions and sublimations: “If I’ve been punished then I must have done something wrong”:

            “You got your mind right Luke?”
            “I got my mind right boss.”
            “Don’t beat me no more boss, please don’t beat me no more.”
            Cool Hand Luke-1969

            But I expect that the “break his windows” aphorism came from a Jewish skeptic or atheist who, being closest to the epicenter of such insanity, was most able to accurately characterize it – or at least one aspect of it …

      2. Maybe THAT’S the test! Maybe we’re SUPPOSED to oppose him – and until we can convince all these idiot Christians of that, we’re all damned! It makes a lot more sense to me than the other way around…

        1. The recruits are becoming salty; our instructors can see that we are growing beyond their control…

          (Full Metal Jacket, I think?)

    4. “If there was a God, he would CERTAINLY be subjecting us to a balance of emotions to see our reactions.”

      Yeah. Sure, he’s all-knowing and everything, and therefore would never actually have to inflict harm on anyone in order to gauge their reactions. But perhaps God is a good scientist, and just wants to double-check that the things he predicts actually pan out.

      When God burns down your house and lets your family die of illness, he’s not being a cosmic jackass, he’s just testing his omniscience by experiment!

      1. But, of course, that also burns down the whole claim of omniscience as well as omnibenevolence.

        An omniscient god would know what your reaction would be.

        But why your reaction would be important to something that can create universes is beyond me … smacks of picking wings off flies or burning ants with a magnifying glass.

    5. Even if we were to accept the need for testing, we might still ask whether the tests are the best.

      Presumably a creator god(I’m having some difficulty distinguishing between creator and ground-of-our-being gods) could have made a world with tectonic plate movements which killed three million or 30 000 people in the last decade instead of the c300 000 who died.

      How does the theist decide that the 300k fatality model
      is the best test for humans, or evidence of the best god, rather than the possible alternatives?

    6. If there’s a god he’d be testing us? How would you know that?

      All you mean is that if you were a god you’d be testing your creations. With leukaemia, apparently. You’re a bad person.

    7. Actually, I think there is an easy answer that a theist could give to your implied challenge – “How could the universe look more like an Atheistic experience?”.

      No love, beauty, kindness & altruism. Plus – no tendency in humans to believe in the supernatural

      Sorry – that one fails. Even though I know there are great naturalistic answers to why they exist – and I think you could probably formulate an argument that existence would be impossible without them it is still not strong.

    8. Dan wrote, in his strange post:

      — Why haven’t any other atheists stumbled upon that ‘god is tempting us’ is the ONLY sensible argument the theists have ever presented. –

      Answer: because it’s not a remotely sensible reply to the problem of evil/suffering.

      God is supposed to be “Good” remember?

      God is either “good” as we understand “good” when applied to any other moral agent, or He ain’t “good.”

      Imagine we come upon a man who alternates between giving a child ice cream and toys, and then tortures the child mercilessly, crushing her legs with bricks, burning her with fire etc. What if he says “I’m just doing these things to test the child…to observe how she reacts to a “balance of emotions.” ?

      Would that word salad act as absolving the guy from being an Immoral Monster? Hell no. Obviously not.

      Why then would we think a God who does such a thing is “Good?”

      We wouldn’t. Or, at least, sensible people would not.

      — This seems to me to be the ONLY sensible thing about theism, that we’re being tested. –

      Except the “test” makes God out to be a moral monster. Why you think for a moment that argument works for the problem of evil/suffering is baffling.

      May I suggest you update your notion of “sensible?”


  3. It’s all horse shit, of course. But this part caught my eye.

    “To be free, we must have the ability to do evil, to turn away from God, the true ground of who we are. Thus, the possibility (and reality) of sin is built into the very fabric of life.”

    True freedom, in other words, is freedom to betray oneself.

    Why would anyone want that?

    Oh yeah, to take credit for not betraying oneself.

  4. I trained as a linguist, and in the early stages of my studies, one of the things I was told was that a rule or theorem that is too strong is useless – that without exceptions, it is meaningless for purposes of understanding the underlying mechanism. That was a difficult thing to wrap my young, barely-trained mind around, but eventually I came to see the point. Similarly, the notion of an all-powerful deity is meaningless for all the reasons that get discussed in these posts and is summed up in the famous Epicurus quote.

  5. The problem with concepts of God like Tillich’s (and apparently Small) is that suppose I grant you that there’s this invisible force that “supports” the universe but isn’t actually a divine watchmaker. First of all – why should I worship it? Why would it want me to worship it? Hell why postulate that it wants anything at all?

    I mean you could take the four fundamental forces and call them “gods” under Tillich’s framework – after all they “support the universe” and “don’t make choices to intervene”. They also form the “structure of existence itself” and if you want to grant that on the whole the universe is “mostly good at the macro level” then can’t the fundamental forces take credit for that, since all of the universe is built on top of them?

    And yet we’d never think to worship these forces despite the fact that without them we’ve got nothing – no universe at all. And there’s no reason to believe that, say, weak nuclear force wants us to worship it. Even if I grant that there’s some underlying “God” to the universe supporting us – if it’s not the personal actor of the Bible or other mythology then what’s the point of worshiping it rather than searching for it and trying to identify it?

    1. There a few characteristics without which any concept of god is unrecognizable. Some of these are sentience and agency, both of which are lacking in Small’s god.

      It seems to me that responses such as Small’s explicitly turn “God” into a philosophical concept, an abstract, a placeholder for the theists’ ultimate questions, which is basically all atheists say all theist do implicitly anyhow.

      1. I think Small sneaks sentience and agency into his “ground of being” here and there. If you go with Jer’s idea and substitute one or more of the four forces into the essay, there are passages which make no sense without sentience or agency being present.

        He isn’t really presenting a radical, new way of thinking about God by avoiding anthropomorphisms. They’re still there, under the rapidly waving hands.

        1. How does a grandly abstract “ground of being” provide any sort of foundation for absolutely morality, much less tell you that teh ghey is icky?

          And you can be damned sure that when churchgoers file in on Sundays, they aren’t there to worship a ground of being.

          Once again, we see the attempt to salvage some sort of philosophical consistency for the concept of god by tossing out everything that makes people actually practice religion. I suggest we dub this the Bến Tre Maneuver, after the famous Vietnam War claim, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it”.

      1. It totally does! But…Miranda–the link to your brilliant Holy Rabbit piece is broken! Is there another link to it? Anybody who hasn’t read it yet need to Right Now 🙂

    1. The Holy Rabbit (peace be upon his unknowable ineffable name) thanks you for mentioning him (even though he does not exist, a fact which makes him all the more real!)

  6. It reminds me of the first section of In The Beauty of Lilies by John Updike. The Presbyterian minister finally loses faith in God, and finds himself no longer able to counsel his parishioner’s fears of death, hell, and the afterlife, and goes to resign his commission (apparently you cannot just quit). He is confronted by an administrative minister, who offers him all manner of ways of thinking about God as an alternative, including this ‘ground of all being’ nonsense, as if, once your smart enough, God becomes something completely different.

    Its so silly though… it just intellectual slight of hand to keep you contributing to the church, even though you’re not worshiping the same thing as everyone else. Its no different than people trying to explain theodicy by having you worship Buddha instead of Yahweh.

  7. If you are interested in god and free will, be sure not to miss Raymond Smullyan hilarious “Is God a Taoist?” (section 22 in “the TAO is silent”

  8. “God does not permit anything other than the creative state of being, which by its very nature includes freedom. Freedom is what leads to sin…”

    If God is merely “the creative state of being”, then who created that “sin” Small goes on about? Hello?

    1. Why does a ground of being care about sin? How does “the creative structure of existence itself” care about anything? Since we’re far too sophisticated to believe in a “supernatural Zeus-like being”, we surely don’t believe that something as abstract as “the power of being itself” has something as concrete and crude as mental states, do we? That “the very fabric of the nature of existence itself” can be disappointed in our behaviour seems ludicrous, right — surely that’s just what those fundy rubes believe, and not us sophisticated theologians! (I say, old chap, pass the port on, will you?)

  9. I took a theodicy class in college. It’s one of the two single events* that led to dropping my religious beliefs

    I hadn’t really considered the problem of evil before, but I could see that the various attempts to explain it were (a) mutually contradictory and (b) furious handwaving. The whole course had such a feeling of unreality that, for my term paper, I wrote an essay explaining how process theodicy could be invoked to explain Jesus’ story in terms of a comic-book style super-powered mutant taking his cues from the Final Mind. Got an “A” on it.

    *The other was finding alt.atheism on Usenet.

  10. This is also why theism is so weak. If God created the world as he wanted it and granted us free will with all of its consequences, then why must he invene occasionally to “make things right”? Why should God ever answer a prayer to heal someone’s cancer when God himself created cancer in the first place? Why DO the religious pray for God to intervene in His design?

    Oh, I know. Because “everything happens for a reason” and “God has a plan and will put me where I’m supposed to be”. Even if that’s in the ground.

    1. If God has a plan, why can he never account for abortions?

      And why does he need a starship?

      1. why does he need a starship?

        Or to sacrifice his “son”? (While the Trek movie writers may not have realized it, it seems to me the questions are pretty darned similar.)

  11. A posteriori rationalizations. This is the same tactic that led theologians to stop taking the Bible literally.

    Another thing, where does this “ground of being” business leaves Jesus? Did he lose his personality when he flew to Heaven?

    1. It sounds an awful lot like the “ground of all being” is a deistic or pantheistic god. The whole Jesus-thing pretty much goes out the window.

      After all, what he’s saying is that the problem of suffering/evil is answered by saying his god is amoral. You can’t really have a loving god which is just the forces of nature.

      1. But why worship the ground of all being? It makes as much sense as worshipping Maxwell’s equations or string theory.

      2. But the stories of Jesus help us understand the concept of the ground of all being – even though the stories of Jesus talk about a God with entirely different characteristics.

  12. No time (or desire) to visit PuffHo. Does Small ever get around to addressing the horrors that aren’t a result of free-will? We keep saying “what about all the wrong place, wrong time death and suffering meted out by nature.” Threoidiots keep flogging free-will, and, apparently, hoping we quickly forget about the question we just asked.

    Come on, theists! I’m challenging you! Why earthquakes? Why childhood cancers? How many people do you suppose have died in agony, but unbeknownst to anyone else? More than a few, I bet. Why?

    (that last one was to forestall a weak-sauce and despicable “so others can benefit from the experience of suffering a loss” argument)

  13. It’s a step closer to deism, which is a hop skip and a jump from Spinozan pantheism, which is itself pretty much isomorphic to atheism. Actually, this sounds pretty pantheistic, except I’m not sure where the discussion of ‘sin’ is coming from.

    Is this guy a Christian? I’m assuming so, given the Bible references. I wonder what contortions he has to use to reconcile this with any sort of Biblical basis for his faith.

    Basically if we can get people to drop the Biblical-literalist omniscient, omnibenevolent Judeochristian God angle, and go “no, that interpretation of religion makes no sense”, it means we’re winning. The fact that there are are relatively mainstream theologians having to resort to the ground-of-being argument is actually a really good sign.

    Which isn’t to say it’s a good argument (although I prefer it to supernaturalist, interventionist theologies for multifarious reasons) – it isn’t actually saying anything about the physical world, sort of like deists who say God set off the big bang and then naffed off to another plane of existence or whatever. If people then try to go “therefore, Jesus” from that sort of background, we all get to raise our eyebrows and go ‘non sequitur!’. If they just go “so, uh, warm fuzzy god feelings? :D” we have a potential future atheist 😉

  14. The only good thing about this palaver about an impotent “power of being” is that, for many, it’s the first step to abandoning God completely.

    Yep, pretty much. First, you realize that the universe is a hell of lot bigger than what’s covered in the Bible — and it’s utterly non-obvious what God’s up to with most of it. And you see people suffer and die — cancer, earthquakes, whatever — and there’s certainly no obvious specific purpose for each individual tragedy, and no good indication how they might fit in to any larger picture.

    So you realize you haven’t the faintest clue what, if anything, God might be up to. About the only thing he/she/it is good for is giving you warm fuzzies when you think you’re somehow part of Something Larger Than Yourself.

    But: it’s still supposed to be our job to clean up the mess created by this capricious universe he/she/it dumped us in, while he/she/it apparently sits around on his/her/its Divine Ass busily being the Ground of all this Being. And the warm fuzzies ain’t so warm and fuzzy any more.

    So in the end we have God, the Absentee Landlord of the Universe. Who needs the bastard? You’re better off petting a cat — they really are warm and fuzzy and they *respond*.

  15. Theology, and particularly it’s kissing cousin, theodicy are usually amongst the weakest attempts at Rationalising Belief in God For The Educated Man.

    It has this in its favour: it is usually such mind-numbingly dull and unconvincing stuff that it has very few readers.

    Nevertheless I occasionally run into accommodationists who protest that we must take theology seriously. The conversation goes this way:

    Them: You never address the things that Serious Theologians say.
    Me: Well, the arguments I have read have been poor and not really worth taking seriously.
    Them: Oh but you MUST address them. They are Serious Theologians after all. Very intelligent men.
    Me: Okay, if you insist. Which theologian and / or convincing argument would you like to discuss?

  16. A lot of(most?)fossil fuel traps are structural traps and many precious minerals can only be found in shear zones. I can’t say I have ever really thought of plate tectonics as a bad thing. However I am sure the true believers response to natural disasters is the same as always – god made it that way to test us. Thus why volcanic soils are usually the best to plant in.

  17. God, when understood as Paul Tillich’s “ground of being,” rather than a supernatural being who intervenes occasionally in the universe…

    Translation: God is in fact the Theory Of Everything. All praise Gravity.

  18. This “ground of being” thing sounds a lot like the “isness” that Marcus Borg used as the definition of God in one or another YouTube video I watched. The Quixotic Infidel discussed a speech Marcus Borg gave in Phoenix in 2009 and made this observation:

    Borg makes a distinction between, on the one hand, supernatural theism, which is the belief in a person-like super-powerful authority figure who’s “out there” and separate from the universe, and panentheism on the other, which is a belief in god not so much “out there” but as the Tillichian “ground of being itself” which encompasses the universe and transcends it. His favorite word for this numinous quality was “isness” tonight. He used it repeatedly. This panantheistic variant of god has been around for a long time, but the “new athesists,” Borg said, just dismiss this god as if it was just some new-fangled post-modern mysticism.

    The “ground of being” thing evidently originated with the late Paul Tillich, whose Wikipedia says “God is called the “ground of being” because God is the answer to the ontological threat of non-being…” Ah, now it makes sense. 🙂

    1. We dismiss it for two reasons: there’s no evidence it exists, and hardly any theists believe in it.

  19. Reminds me of a passage in Dawkins’ The God Delusion:

    [Oxford theologian Richard Swinburne] seeks to justify suffering in a world run by God: “My suffering provides me with the opportunity to show courage and patience. … Although a good God regrets our suffering, his greatest concern is surely that each of us shall show patience, sympathy and generosity and, thereby, form a holy character. …”

    Although that does raise the question as to how Swinburne knows that God feels regret – personal communication? Reminds me of an observation by a forensic psychiatrist that people who talk to god are devout, but that people who think god talks to them are psychotic. Maybe a “natural” progression of the disease? …

    But Dawkins continues with:

    This grotesque piece of reasoning, so damningly typical of the theological mind, reminds me of an occasion when I was on a television panel with Swinburne, and also with our Oxford colleague Professor Peter Atkins. Swinburne at one point attempted to justify the Holocaust on the grounds that it gave the Jews a wonderful opportunity to be courageous and noble. Peter Atkins splendidly growled, ‘May you rot in hell’. [pgs 88-89]

    1. As I mentioned upthread, Swinburne’s argument is refuted if no one is aware of some other individual’s suffering. Whose character is “sanctified” when, say, a mountain man w no family or friends dies agonizingly of something or another, and perhaps is never discovered?

      (of course, it’s also refuted simply by thinking about it for, oh, a second)

  20. I’m at home. I’m listening to LedZep VERY LOUD. I’m drinking a barely passable bottle of red & laughing at this bollix.

    Theists do seem to be more-&-more desperately searching for a yarn that ‘knittable’

  21. Small’s god is a useless god, nor is he the first to propose such a silly thing. As for evils of nature, people respond to that with the same nonsense they had since the pre-christian era: god is angry, god is jealous, god called ’em in early because he loves ’em so much, god is testing the survivors – it’s the same old crap repeated through the ages. Gee, in 2000+ years you’d think people would come up with new and interesting ideas. Obviously their gods don’t care to enlighten them, just as they don’t respond to prayer, sacrifices, etc.

    1. Small’s god….

      All through this thread, when people say that, I keep reading it as Small Gods, which I just re-read. Wonderful book, like (most of) Pratchett. There’s more moral insight (and more good theology) in the Discworld oeuvre than in the whole Bible.

  22. To cite Martin Wagner:

    The problem of evil is _a_ major (not necessarily _the_ major) objection to belief in God. _The_ major objection continues to be that whole “complete and utter absence of evidence” thing.

    I do not think that the PoE is all so problematic. All the believers need to do is relax one of the omnis, and the problem goes poof. For example, the god most people actually believe in is very clearly not omnibenevolent, or there would be no hell in their theology.

    Also, I always find it strange to talk of earthquakes as “evil”. Even if there is a god – I mean, if I build a shoddy high-rise building and then a part of the roof collapse onto somebody, was that necessarily evil on my part? Could have been incompetence.

  23. Free will doesn’t explain WHY we do evil things, at best it can possibly explain HOW we do evil things.

    And the WHY can only be explained by looking at the “architecture” or asking the designer.

  24. I’d like to see some figures on how many everyday Christians – i.e. the vast majority who’ve never heard of Small or Van Till or any of the others who twist their god into such a convoluted shape in order to assuage their cognitive dissonance – think any more highly of this kind of drivel than atheists do.

    Really, I imagine the response would be ‘What a load of crap. That’s nothing like the God I believe in.’

    And had they pushed such nonsense more than a couple of hundred years ago, they’d probably have been run out of town with an angry mob chasing after them, eager to burn them as heretics.

    1. Not quite sure what you’re asking or getting at there.

      I would agree with you, or think it highly probable, that most Christians – like most Muslims and most religious Jews – don’t give much thought to the theology of their beliefs – possibly because such “cognitive dissonance” hurt their heads so much they gave up trying to resolve the blatant contradictions. So they have bought the whole dogma, hook, line and sinker.

      Which is unfortunate and highly problematic as it seems that it is the dogmatic literalists who are out trying to prevent the teaching of evolution, holding-up progress in various medical technologies and trying to ram bronze-age morality down the throats of their fellow citizens, for starters – all based on the certainty that they have the inside track to the literal Promised Land.

      But, as you were asking for some statistics, you might want to take a look at the reports from the Pew Forum:

      Two-thirds of U.S. adults (68%) believe that angels and demons are active in the world. [pg 34]
      A full one third of the population believes that the Bible and Quran are the “Word of God to be taken literally, word for word” [pg 126]

      Seems that is far more problematic than a few theologians trying to split supernatural hairs or estimate the number of angels dancing on the proverbial head of a pin. Based on historical evidence, they’re the ones more likely to be burning others as heretics or as abominations because of picayune differences in dogma or for moral “transgressions”, or promoting the apocalypse as a short step to the rapture – regardless of whether the rest of us are so inclined or not.

      1. I think what you’ve said and linked to supports what I’ve said, i.e. that the God of most believers is almost a completely different God from that of the ‘sophisticated theologians’.

        As for who’s burning whom? That’s their problem…

        1. the God of most believers is almost a completely different God from that of the ‘sophisticated theologians’.

          I’m trying to see the Christian baby, but I think Small’s tossed it out with the bathwater.

        2. … the God of most believers is almost a completely different God from that of the ‘sophisticated theologians’.

          As for who’s burning whom? That’s their problem…

          Seems we agree on the first part, but on the second part I would argue that the consequences of their – the fundamentalists – actions seriously and dangerously affect us all.

          As the well-known and well-respected Bill Moyers put it in an award acceptance speech to Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment in 2004 relative to the environment:

          For the first time in our history, ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington. …

          Remember James Watt, President Reagan’s first Secretary of the Interior? My favourite online environmental journal, the ever engaging Grist, reminded us recently of how James Watt told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. In public testimony he said, ‘after the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.’ …

          A war with Islam in the Middle East is not something to be feared but welcomed – an essential conflagration on the road to redemption. …

          So what does this mean for public policy and the environment? Go to Grist to read a remarkable work of reporting by the journalist, Glenn Scherer – “The Road to Environmental Apocalypse” (The Godly Must Be Crazy?). Read it and you will see how millions of Christian fundamentalists may believe that environmental destruction is not only to be disregarded but actually welcomed – even hastened – as a sign of the coming apocalypse.

          Maybe Moyers and the Grist are alarmists, Cassandras as he suggests about himself in that speech, but the argument seems plausible and consistent to me. In which case one might argue that the supposed wall between church and state has already been breached, that the fundamentalists have already stolen a march on the forces of reason and pretty much made a mockery of that principle.

          1. You’re absolutely right, but the sophisticated theologians have a tendency to downplay the existence of fundamentalists. To hear the sophisticated theologians tell it, there are far more believers in their kind of god than in the traditional gods the fundamentalists believe in, when it’s obvious that the opposite is the case.

  25. “God as the creative structure of existence itself…”

    Why don’t people stop calling things “God” that have absolutely nothing to do with the god of traditional monotheism, who is a transcendent immaterial person, i.e. an extraspatial/exatraspatiotemporal intelligent spiritual substance?!

    “If someone seemingly tells us that God exists, and then goes on to tell us that ‘God’ denotes the evolutionary-historical process that has brought us into being, and if we ourselves think that this evolutionary-historical process is far from deserving the name he gives it, then we should count him as an atheist. We may report that he says the words ‘God exists’, but we would be wrong to say that he says /that/ God exists. (Or at least we would be wrong to say it without immediate qualification.) He believes in something that he thinks deserves the name ‘God’. But if we are right and he is wrong about what it takes to deserve the name, then he does not believe in anything that would in fact deserve that name, and we would be wrong to say otherwise.”

    (Lewis, David. “Noneism or Allism.” In David Lewis, /Papers in Metaphysics and Epistemology/, 152-163. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. p. 153)

    “Compare the foolish suggestion that all of us at least agree that God exists, although we disagree about His nature: some say He’s a supernatural person, some say He’s the cosmos in all its glory, some say He’s the triumphal march of history, … . Given /that/ much disagreement about ‘His’ nature, there’s nothing we all believe in.”

    (Lewis, David. /On the Plurality of Worlds/. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986. p. 140)

    1. Very well put. Something like that goes through my head a lot when reading sophisticated theology, only my thoughts are much less coherent.

      1. I expect that that “incoherence” is less your fault than the subject’s.

        I seem to recollect seeing here, possibly as a statement of Dr. Coyne’s or a quote by him, to the effect that the subject of theology can’t be said to be *about* much of anything.

    2. Those quotes from David Lewis are wonderful! Such clear thinking and such a devastating criticism of Sophisticated Theology.
      The only problem I have with them is that I don’t know how we can speak of ‘facts’ about what deserves which names. What a particular word can be used to signify doesn’t seem fact-like to me. It seems like a cultural convention and those change all the time and vary from one subculture to another. At most, I think, we can claim that using the word ‘god’ in the way Jeffrey Small, Tillich et al. do will, at the current time in history, be grossly misleading to most people. And communicating that way should be criticised in strong term because it creates so much confusion that rational discourse becomes impossible.
      But thanks for the quotes, Myron. I must read more of David Lewis.

    1. And there’s plenty of choices that are neither good nor evil.

      Besides that, there are problems with the existence of free will itself.

    2. Isn’t the Christian god free? Isn’t that god presumed to be unable to do evil? Why can’t humans be like that god?

    3. yet, we cannot fly by sheer will.

      obviously god has no problems putting restrictions on our will, so that argument doesnt hold.

  26. Admittedly, this is conjecture, but it’s based on my experience w human nature, others’ and my own:
    I wonder if practitioners of theodicy (or any “sophisticated theology,” really) are motivated at least as much by ego as they are religiously motivated. I wonder if they’re not thinking smugly to themselves: “look at the complicated, convoluted, cerebral architecture I’m capable of!”

    Nevermind that the edifice they’ve created is a house of cards that couldn’t be so much as looked at w/o toppling. The impressive thing, they suppose, is that they built it at all.

    Does that angle make sense, or am I way off base?

    1. In my opinion, your reasoning about the motivation of “practitioners of theodicy” is close to my own. These people enjoy their intellectual constructs, no question (look at the attempt to “shame” atheists in dan smith post.) The biggest motivation, in my opinion, is the fear…the fear of the unthinkable: that once you’re dead, there will be nothing for your sacrifices and fuck-ups, no justice. Shuddering unthinkable for cowards who fear an infinite nothing….surely, there must be =something=….HELLLLLPPPP!!

      It’s simply cowardice in the face of the onslaught of real facts, such as there is no afterlife, so gods are moot. Discussions of gods and their characteristics are moot, because there is no afterlife. These theists have heard that there is nothing after death, but it is too “un-fair” for them to even entertain that notion for a moment…”run away! run away! run away!!”

    2. Faith in faith is an intellectual challenge: here is something that makes no sense. Now — find a way to make it work anyway. And do it with the same sense of commitment and selflessness you would use in trying to save the life of a child.

      They are motivated by ego to be humble indeed.

  27. God
    1. “the power of being itself”
    2. “the ground of being”
    3. “the creative structure of existence itself”

    – Powers, i.e. active and passive causal powers, are dispositional properties, so according to 1 God is a dispositional property or the entirety of dispositional properties inherent in being. But how many people out there regard God abstractly as a property or a group or set of properties?!

    — The ground of being is part of being, and it could be anything, e.g. an eternal physical ur-field suffused with inexhaustible ur-energy, from which all phenomena emerge.

    – A creative structure is a set or group of dynamic, spatiotemporal-causal relations. But how many people out there regard God abstractly as a set or group or relations?!

  28. Earlier, I was going through my “fun file”, wheein I keep clippings of comic strips, cartoons and other items that occasionally strike my fancy. Many of them predate the internet, and some of them even predate personal computers. I’ve been organizing them with thoughts of scanning the whole lot for preservation before the newsprint falls apart.

    Anyway, one of the items I resurrected is a “Calvin & Hobbes” strip that says a lot on the nature of good and evil and maybe a bit about free will.

    Calvin: “Do you think babies are born sinful? That they come into the world as sinners?”

    Hobbes: “No. I think they’re just quick studies.”

    Calvin: “Whenever you discuss certain things with animals, you get insulted.”

  29. When will theologians stop this intellectual masturbation??

    “The only good thing about this palaver concerning the impotent “power of being” is that, for many, it’s the first step to abandoning God completely.”

    Indeed. Well, for me it was the first step in starting to call bullshit on the whole discipline of theology. I might have been called an accomodationist atheist 4-5 years ago, but not with garbage like this regularly hitting the interwebz.

    1. When will theologians stop this intellectual masturbation??

      I think you’re giving them too much credit: make that “pseudo-intellectual masturbation”. Although one – as a true neo-Darwinist / Modern-Synthesist – might argue that that fortunately takes them out of the gene pool …

  30. The strangest take on theodicy in all Christendom has to be William Dembski’s. He lays off evil on Adam and Eve’s Fall, but explains that natural evil existed for billions of years before the star-crossed couple ate of the forbidden fruit because God acted “transhistorically” by preemptively creating evil beforehand in another time dimension. Or something like that. Then again, he put forth this view before he was forced to recant his assertion that The Flood was not a worldwide event by the administration at the bible seminary where he teaches (after which they pantsed him in front of the student body and made him run through the girls’ locker room).

    1. … because God acted “transhistorically” by pre-emptively creating evil beforehand in another time dimension. Or something like that.

      Riiiight. And different isotopes of di-lithium crystals will dial-up maximum warp speeds above 10. With fantasies like that I’m sure Dembski at least has a future as a sci-fi writer …

      1. Clearly god is The Master, and we need The Doctor and his comely companion(s) to come kick his butt.

  31. It always makes me laugh when theologians turn god into a vapourish outside of space and time immaterial mind when talking to an audience of atheists, agnostics and sceptics. I bet that when the conversation is over they rush back to their temple and fall on their knees and beg god not to burn them:-)

    1. I always wondered if, when confronted with an audience of believers, the apophatic unknowable force of nature suddenly becomes the worldly, human resurrected, miracle-granting god of the bible.

      I think I would pay money to see a Daily Show-like montage of apologists talking about how we can’t know anything about god sceptics, then reading god’s mind when in front of believers.

    2. While flailing about for an answer to the problem of evil, god-botherers inevitably wind up at some version of no one being able to know the mind of god. They then turn a record quarter-mile in saying exactly what’s on god’s mind concerning the abomination of homosexuality — or more generally concerning which meretricious lifestyles god judges to be sin.

  32. Whenever I encounter this Armstrongian-type argument, I always have the same reply…

    What is it made of?

    Seriously, what is the ontology of this “ground of all being”?

    Until and unless you can answer that simple question, you are just talking out of your a**, making s*** up because it sounds good in your head.

    It’s nothing but bafflegab.

  33. Imagine what would happen if scientists were to one day discover that there is in fact no “ground of being.” There is, instead, a “being of ground.” Behold.

    Red-faced theologians would have to re-write all the theology books. It would be the worst mess since an accident in a lab one day showed that God was “pure potentiality,” rather than the “pure actuality” He had been hypothesized to be.

    I mean, do they have the math down yet?

    My own money is on God being the “existence of Is.” It will be exciting, if any results start to come in on that.

    1. “a ‘being of ground.’ Behold.”

      According to the the second of the two biblical creation accounts, wasn’t Adam created from the dust of the earth? THere’s your “being of ground”.

      As for me, it’s breakfast time, and I’m going to cook up some Jimmy Dean ground being.

  34. Prof. Coyne: I’m surprised you didn’t comment on the following statements in Small’s post:

    “To the evolutionary biologist or the cosmologist (that is, the study of the origins of the universe, not the science of makeup aka cosmetology!), pain, suffering and even evil are absolute requirements for life as we know it to exist. Evolution only works because of a freedom implied in the natural world: a freedom of genetic mutation, a freedom of natural selection and a freedom of randomness.”

    It seems absurd to postulate “freedom” as a quality of nature. In fact, the only thing accomplished in these sentences is that Small has subtly inserted his new definition of god into nature, before he even gets around to talking about god, so that when he does bring it up, it will sound as if it’s already perfectly compatible with the definition of nature he has provided only paragraphs before.

    But as far as evolution goes, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what he said about it.

  35. Ben Goren said it first: Epicurus.

    2300 years we’ve been waiting for a decent answer, and still nothing.

  36. To say that the world is god is not to reveal anything profound about the nature of god, but to bestow upon our language yet another superfluous synonym for “world”.

    I can’t remember in what book I read this above paragraph.

  37. I really do not understand this whole use of the terms ‘good’ & ‘evil’ even by atheists. There are just things & people. The universe is indifferent, we are not. Mostly. No room for god/s, no need for god/s, what values we give things like suffering & harm are meaningful only to us, not to anything else.

      1. Yes, I want to ignore it then I say it has existence. Sorry – I am a nihilist/materialist I suppose.

        If they are not religiously defined they are plastic, one man’s good is another’s evil. They are not a continuum so something can be 51% good & 49% evil, are they? People are happy to bandy around the word evil regarding criminals because it is a convenient label but they .
        They are only ideas & have no, essence.

        If I had to choose terms I would perhaps prefer ‘moral & amoral’ – no – better still ‘acceptable & unacceptable behaviour’ – as they are societal ideas for how we live together & are not as value laden & judgemental. “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

        1. “They are not a continuum so something can be 51% good & 49% evil, are they?”

          This notion is a part of popular culture, as in the oft-repeated phrase, “…lesser of two evils”. It’s usually determined by proximity.

        2. Obviously they are subjective terms with non-arbitrary definitions – like most language describing human behavior and perceptions.

  38. Amen. I love it when sophisticated theologians bring up Paul Tillich; he’s the equivalent guru to sophisticated theologians as CS Lewis is to fundamentalists. I tried to read Paul Tillich years ago – I found him to be a very bad reader of Nietzche, Kierkegaard and existentialism in general which left him drained to the point of being left with a vapid form of mental masterbation of a concept of a god which he termed “the ground of being.”

  39. Though I think the accomodationist stance is a bit silly, I’ll admit that Templeton had an influence on my journey. I wrote about it here:

    I was pretty sure god didn’t exist at that point, but I was interested in what “dialog” would look like. The religious arguments fell completely flat. At the time, I appreciated the civil (ahem) tone of the arguments. But around that time I was also influenced by PZ, Dawkins, Hitch, Dennett and JC. So for me it really was a mixture of all the approaches, civil and uncivil that convinced me.

    So, I still think you’re right to criticize accomodationism: all the voices are useful, not just the nice ones.

    1. Perhaps people just need to accept that there are other views that are rational & realistic – then some of them – their home & intimate society permitting – will drift away from religion & then step away from the nonsense.

  40. Good and evil are not parts of the known universe(s) per se, but inventions of humans to try to classify and understand random phenomena.As my hero, Clint Eastwood famously explains in “The Unforgiven”, just before dispatching the evil whining sheriff, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” That which is, apparently, is.

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