Theodicy: Dissents

The responses to the theodicy debate this week have been too numerous to reply to individually. Here is a sampling of some of the more penetrating e-mails for those still following the thread:

As an avid follower of current scientific research into consciousness and self-awareness, I am stunned to learn from your blog that the issue of whether self-awareness is uniquely human has been settled without qualification.  I am also chagrined to learn that as a non-religious person I am unable to transcend suffering as fully as you.  I think that your self righteousness may be showing, just the thing that gets us secularists annoyed enough to complain about religious attitudes and presumptions.

Without qualification? What part of “so far as we can tell” don’t you understand?

Another reader:

I’ve gotta take small issue with the attitude expressed here:

These are secular interpretations of an experience of human alienation that my readers at least acknowledge exists. But a religious and spiritual interpretation of this alienation has been the norm in human history and pre-history. You can explain this in any number of ways. It is simply part of the ordeal of consciousness as far as I can see – and no advance in reason will remove its profound endurance in the human soul. And the experience I am describing is not the preference for a fancy limo, but an attempt to live as humans in the face of unspeakable injustice and suffering.

A pronouncement like this is intellectually unhealthy. You’re saying that your opinion on the subject is absolutely final, that you won’t accept any new information that could lead you to an alternate conclusion. That attitude is prevalent among people with whom you normally share very little with: tea party types and the like, those who know what they know and that’s all there is to it. That’s the problem with metaphysics: it doesn’t have to make sense. It’s “beyond understanding.” When someone tells me that there’s nothing I could say to alter their viewpoint, I believe them. But that’s not the way it should be.

Again, the qualification is missed: “as far as I can see”. That doesn’t shut down the conversation. It leaves the door to the alternative ajar. A reader writes:

I think you keep missing the real assertion that Russell was making. Or maybe it’s just what I’m seeing as the big problem. He’s saying (or maybe I’m saying) that Christian faith claims that God originally created the world as a perfect place, an Eden absent of evil, hence absent of suffering. Man tarnished that after being created by eating from the tree of knowledge and introducing evil into the world. However, given scientific fact that Man was not created until much later than many other creatures in evolutionary terms, it becomes patently obvious that God created no such Eden, and in fact great suffering (hence evil) was going on well before Man burst onto the scene. Thus, it is obvious that God has no problem with meaningless suffering (evil) since he allowed it for eons before Man ruined ‘Eden’ for all creatures, including himself.

Obviously, this interpretation is pretty literal Biblically speaking, and I’m sure you’ll go with the allegorical meaning (how convenient) of Man’s knowledge of suffering. But it still begs the question of why God (or what kind of God) would allow needless suffering (evil) to go on even before Man’s creation. And worst of all, why he would try to pin ‘ruining Eden’ on Man when it is quite clear that any being or creature inserted into this world that late in the game would already be inheriting and entering into a flawed world full of suffering (evil) that God had already created. Sounds to me like a little buck-passing on God’s part.

It’s bizarre to say that it’s “convenient” to interpret Genesis allegorically. Genesis is obviously a mythical story. It makes no literal sense at all. The people who have to make their case are those fundamentalists who cannot tolerate parable and those atheists who like their religious targets to be caricatures. Another reader:

I have never encountered any theodicy which does not boil down to: “You are expected to be right-acting, but God has limited you to an incredibly incomplete view of his ‘higher’ morality. Good luck.”

When I read about about the plight of children like Gabby Gingras, I feel relieved that I don’t believe in any God. The world is painful enough without also believing that there is a being inflicting suffering like this on a family. Beyond the physical harm, there is a powerful instinct in a parent to keep their children from danger. I cannot imagine the horror of watching your child slowly mutilate herself. It places a loving parent in an unbearable paradox.

I can’t believe in a monstrous creator whose morality is so alien to our own. The very idea is terrifying. I cannot understand where in your faith you find comfort that outweighs such cruelty. This is not finger pointing, or scorn; it is the basic question that makes all faith so utterly baffling to me. We are wired very differently.

Another reader:

The type of naturally occurring pain that cannot be sensed by the girl in your post is indeed an evolutionary imperative.  But I don’t see the correlation to the type of pain that Coyne was talking about: widespread, debilitating pain, suffering, and/or death – often inflicted by other humans.  A child feeling the sharp pain resulting from a bitten finger is different from an entire race being systematically eliminated.  Is this supposed to be a social analog to the personal pain, wherein entire civilizations must experience pain in order to grow and learn?

If we consider the normal, everyday pain to be a driver of evolution and learning — which could in turn theoretically be connected back to some sort of supreme being — then OK.  God has a plan for pain too.  But what if we’re talking about Auschwitz, or Hiroshima, or September 11?  How is that sort of suffering and death connected in any way to a purpose-driven existence?

I’m not going to attempt an answer to that in a few sentences. Auschwitz is a conversation stopper. But its existence has sharpened global understanding of the dangers of racism and fascism, certainly since, say, a century ago, just as Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the last use of nuclear bombs in human history (so far). Trauma facilitates communal learning as well. A final reader:

I certainly respect your beliefs and point of view on spirituality, but insisting that others who either do not see or do not agree with your point of view are “sophomoric” is far beneath you. Personal anecdotes may not mean much — as I’m sure you see plenty of them everyday — but I’m in a horrible financial situation right now, and my wife recently informed me that she wants a divorce (since she’s been cheating with someone else). The emotional pain has been worse than anything I’ve ever experienced, dwarfing the hurt I felt when my father died. My “human experience” has led me in the opposite direction from you. I’ve considered myself about 60 percent agnostic and 40 percent atheist, but not now. Save for a small bit of doubt I allow myself, I have no belief in any deity or intelligent outside force left in me. I felt absolutely no religious or spiritual comfort, even though I honestly did try to open myself to it, often visiting the church where I was married to speak with the pastor (it’s not like there was anything or anyone else left to turn to). Am I “sophomoric” because my experience has not endowed me with any sort of spiritual epiphany? I really did try.

Everyone experiences and processes their emotional pain differently. I truly envy people like you. But I’m not like you (in this respect, at least). Loneliness and alienation haven’t attuned me to any nebulous “signal,” as one of your readers put it. I wish it had, but I didn’t experience any revelation through suffering, nor any evidence of this existential “signal.”

Perhaps I’ve looked in all of the wrong places, but there was nothing sophomoric about it.