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.