One of the things that strikes me about considering the Problem of Evil is that it feels very different when we start talking about it as “The Problem of Evil”, as a philosophical problem regarding the consistency of theistic belief: it initially loses much of its intuitive power. Yet, this sort of reflection can also raise certain issues that I at least find problematic in a personal, religious sense.
The problem of evil and suffering is an obvious one for the theist, and as Sophie reflected in her last post it is not by any means a preoccupation only of the New Atheists. People noticed this issue some time ago. As soon as you affirm that the world is created, you face the question of what the creation then indicates about its creator. And Stephen Fry is not alone in suggesting that this might not lead us straight to an all-loving and perfect God (Hume definitely had something to say about the issue). And in the life of the believer, the skeptic and the struggling agnostic it is a powerful and moving concern, and one that constantly tests the idea that faith could or should be sustainable. I think believers can often feel under a strong moral, as well as epistemic, pressure to justify themselves: how can you believe that? The implication is often that to believe in God in the midst of suffering is a sort of act of moral cowardice, of failure to acknowledge what it is that other people suffer.
Yet actually when you assess the Problem of Evil as an argument, it is easy to sympathize initially with those who reject it. It’s fairly difficult to rule out that God should have some purpose for which He permits evil, even if we don’t know what this purpose is. Most now admit that it is at least possible that such a situation obtains, and so we then often embark on the more manageable yet less decisive course of attempting to evaluate the effect that evil has on the probability of God’s existence. Here though, the theist can admit that evil lowers the probability of God’s existence to some degree, yet hold that it does not hold sufficient weight to convert them. Maybe they will hold this only to be a fairly small degree, depending for instance on the extent to which they buy the skeptical theist’s story about unknown goods and human cognitive limitations. I have to be brief here; I actually don’t think things are that simple for the theist in this context, but lets allow that the theist has a decent chance of showing that their belief in God is still a relatively sensible one to hold.
Does this help us when we hear the sort of case that Fry makes? I think we can probably advance some arguments to show that religious belief is not so ridiculous, and that we can hardly be so sure a wholly good God is incompatible with theistic belief. I think we can still feel morally and spiritually inadequate though, although perhaps we shouldn’t (and this is one way in which more philosophical treatments can help- we can treat it as an argument not a moral accusation). It makes life difficult when people try to throw in the epistemic question with the moral one in this way. In a sense, the rant presupposes what is at issue: the claim that we can rule out a perfectly good creator God. Yet there is an underlying feeling that I think we should pay attention to: the fact that even if we think we can reasonably accept God’s existence (or see that someone else could), we can be faced with extreme examples of evil that make us feel very uncomfortable in what we assert. Fry tries to provide some. I think Dostoevsky really captures the sentiment in The Brothers Karamazov:
“It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony… I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it….And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible.”
Could it be that there are evils that, if experienced are simply such that we just cannot justify that there could be a God, because we know that no God could allow them? Marilyn McCord Adams takes an interesting line in “Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God”, in claiming that when considering the Problem of Evil we should specifically consider a class of “Horrendous Evils”, those such that they make the lives of individuals involved such that it seems they could not be meaningful or worth living. It is not enough on the conception that she has of God (which is the one that many would like to hold) that there be a general outweighing of suffering in the world as a whole: it needs to be that every creature of God has this meaning and motivation for their existence, and is not an individual sacrifice for the “harmony”.
In these cases it is hard to see how such meaning could possibly be found, yet if it is to be found it seems likely that it will draw on the specific resources of the religious tradition involved. It will probably need to appeal to transcendent, as yet not known goods that somehow outweigh or make sense of the meaningless abyss that can be left by some instances of existence in this life. The Christian faith provides some suggestion towards what sort of goods these might be, appealing to notions of union with God, of a restoration of justice and of the love demonstrated in God Himself becoming Incarnate and suffering alongside us.
McCord Adams draws a distinction between considering how such evils might be outweighed, and answering why things have to be this way. She is focussing on the former. One thing that considering the Problem of Evil as stated by say Rowe draws attention to is the issue of why evil should be required at all. The proponent of the argument against God’s existence is challenging the theist to say how it could be that God has no other way of bringing about these great goods except through these horrendous evils. We do need to think about God’s power and what we are saying when we suggest that God might need to allow suffering. Whether or not we use the terminology “omnipotent”, the crucial issue for the Christian is the claim that God is sole creator ex nihilo. If we’re at this point it makes sense to affirm a very high view of God’s power and control over the universe, so we are at least left wondering what could possibly necessitate this suffering. What I don’t think we need to seek is an individual justification for each case of horrendous evil, but we need to at least be able to believe that God as conceived by the Christian tradition could create a universe like this one. What I would suggest is that approaches to Evil from a religious perspective both need to consider the overall compatibility of God as creator with the reality of terrible indiscriminate evil and the need at an individual level to be able to believe that lives affected by horrendous evil are not meaningless.
Ultimately though, it’s hard not to be disturbed asking why God could not have done things differently. And sometimes it just doesn’t help to appeal to a sense of religious mystery or even to make appeals to a sympathetic or suffering God. If God suffers, then I’m sometimes inclined to worry about evil all the more (I tentatively defend divine impassibility). The God I take to be most plausible is the creator of the universe, and not restrained by physical possibilities which He creates- and this is the God of religious tradition, not just that of the Philosophers. Fry’s statement of the problem seems too simple, and expects theists to agree to read God’s character off the world directly (the issue of the world being fallen is one to explore here, I think). God is creator though, and so has at least freely chosen to bring this world in to being. This means that, though Fry’s conception of God may be a caricature, I’m still disturbed by the basic problem of reconciling an “omni” God with evil in the world, as something more than an academic problem. We may not need the answers to our constant questioning of why evils occur, but we need to be able to believe that there are answers.