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.

Andrew Sullivan’s mushy theodicy

September 21, 2009 • 8:56 am

Over at Metamagician, Russell Blackford gave a short disquisition on the problem of evil: why does a benevolent and powerful God allow so much apparently useless suffering in the world?

Andrew Sullivan, at The Daily Dish, didn’t like what Blackford said. Here’s how Sullivan responded, justifying the existence of suffering:


“Russell Blackford argues that the paradox of suffering requires one to become an atheist. He writes that the “intellectually honest response, painful though it may be, is to stop believing in that God”:

[Blackford’s words] [M]ost of the supposed explanations of evil make sense only in a pre-scientific setting. They are now absurdly implausible even at face value. In particular, most of the suffering that there has been on this planet took place long before human beings even existed. An all-powerful God did not need any of this. It could have created the world in a desirable form without any of it just by thinking, “Let it be so!” That’s what being all-powerful is about, if we take it seriously.

I have never found the theodicy argument against faith convincing. My own faith teaches me that suffering is part of a fallen creation that lives and dies — how could it not be? 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. That to me is not some kind of crutch. It is simply the paradox of the cross.”


Translation:  “the paradox of the cross” =  “I sure don’t understand, but I’m going to gussy up my ignorance with fancy words.”

When a tsunami sweeps away a bunch of Indonesians, when a baby dies of leukemia, when Jews were driven into the gas chambers of Auschwitz: how, exactly, are those ways of “letting go to God”?  Or of “recognizing one’s own mortality and limits”?  This is intellectual nonsense.  These are words without meaning. And they are insulting and infuriating to anybody with a brain.

I wonder what facts would make Sullivan find the argument convincing?  It can’t be the existence of yet more innocent people suffering needlessly, because, Lord knows, we’ve already seen enough of that.  In fact, I doubt that there is any evidence that would convince Sullivan that there’s a problem, which is why he has no intellectual credibility on the issue of faith. “His faith teaches him” means, of course, that somebody told him that suffering was part of God’s plan, and that’s why he believes it. For someone who’s supposedly an intellectual, Sullivan shows a distressing tendency to accept authority and avoid thinking for himself.

“How could it not be?”  Easy, if there’s no God.