October 21, 2003


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at October 21, 2003 8:27 PM During my run this morning I got to thinking about religion. (This was possibly inspired by reading Slacktivist's ongoing review of Left Behind, which is up to page 7 now.) One issue I was considering was how to answer someone who asks why I'm an atheist. (Just hypothetical - no one's asked me this.) I'd like to formulate a succinct elucidation of my primary reasons for being irreligious. This I will leave for a future post; right now I'm going to write about the other topic I was pondering: the theological problem of evil.

Briefly stated, the problem is this: How can evil exist in a universe created by a benevolent god? I think this is a serious problem for Christianity, but I wouldn't cite it in an explanation of why I'm an atheist; some religions don't suffer from it and I don't adhere to them either. (I think arguments for atheism are weakened by focusing too much on the flaws of a particular religion. I would use the problem of evil in an explanation of why I'm not a Christian, though.)

I'll get to actual arguments on the problem shortly, but first, purely for my own amusement, I want to look at some "minor adjustments" to Christian beliefs that would eliminate it. For some reason none of these have caught on:

The Tyler Durden Defense: God is not actually benevolent. ("You have to consider the possibility that God does not like you. He never wanted you. In all probability, he hates you.")

The realization that God is actually an arbitrary, bloodthirsty bastard neatly solves the problem of evil as well as lots of other problems I have with the Bible. I suppose it's rather fatal for the religion, though; not much motivation to worship the guy.

The George W. Bush Defense: God is benevolent, but incompetent.

God wanted to make the universe a nice place, but botched the job. He promises the next version will be great, though. (Don't know if he's waiting on $87 billion from Congress.) This one also explains a fair number of biblical inconsistencies as a bonus, though not as many as the evil bastard god. Presumably the Intelligent Design guys need to invoke this one as well, to explain things like the dumbass routing of optic nerves. God may be a biotech engineer, but that doesn't mean he's a very good one. Less toxic for the religion than the prior explanation, but I can still see why it hasn't caught on.

The Homer Simpson Defense: God is benevolent, but didn't create the universe. ("It was like that when I got here.")

Similar to the Bush Defense in that some aspect of omnipotence is dropped. It's worse in some ways, because the religion loses the ability to "answer" the question of where the universe came from. (As I addressed in my parallel universes post, "God created it" isn't an actual answer.) If God is demoted to the universe's caretaker rather than the creator, one loses interest in him and would rather know why the guy responsible skipped town. And if God is identified with a powerful and benevolent alien intelligence, your religion's been reduced to the wacky cult level next to the Raelians and Heaven's Gate. So I can see why this one is unpopular.

Ok, enough of the silly stuff. I've heard a few serious attempts to reconcile the problem of evil with Christianity, so let me address those.

The Dr. Pangloss Defense: This world, even with the presence of evil, is in fact the best of all possible worlds.

This one doesn't get much use, because in fact it's pretty laughable. One can easily imagine small perturbations in the present state of affairs that are clear improvements. Stuff that doesn't even require obvious miracles. A drunk driver passes out before starting his car, thereby sparing someone's life. A suicide bomber's detonation circuitry is bad, and he is apprehended. A few votes go the other way in Florida... sorry, got carried away. I think this defense is reached by working backward: God is benevolent, so this must be the best of all possible worlds. A variant on this is:

The Sir Bedevere Defense: The presence of evil is a necessary prerequisite for the realization of all possible worlds. More commonly stated as: "It's all part of God's plan." The plan is of course so complicated as to be incomprehensible to mortals. (Or, in the Hugh Ross variation: "Go read Revelation. It's in there." Right.)

Imagine a civil engineer who submitted plans for a bridge which was obviously structurally unsound. When others point out possible improvements to the design, he protests that there's nothing wrong with it, but it's so brilliant that his critics just don't understand it. That's what this defense makes me think of. It seems highly implausible that the small changes suggested above, saving a life here and there from vicious murders, would really derail the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven. The "incomprehensible to mortals" bit really qualifies this as an example of the Chewbacca Defense (see below).

The Free Will Defense: God allows us to perform evil actions because he wants us to have free will. (Sorry, I couldn't come up with a snarky name for this one. Suggestions are welcome.)

This seems like the standard Christian response to the problem of evil, and I must admit that it took me years to realize what the problems are. The usual atheist rebuttal is terrible: "It's not very free if God punishes us for making the wrong choices." First, free will always involves good and bad consequences to one's choices. God is just adding a few. And secondly, most Christians don't claim that God punishes evil acts. By most accounts, serial murderer Jeffrey Dahmer is in a blissful afterlife since he found Jesus before he died, but I, having lived a good life, will go to eternal torment in hell because I'm an atheist. Doesn't look to me like he's punishing evil. So let's drop this argument. Besides, I've got some better ones.

If God were to create a universe in which evil acts were prohibited, either by divine intervention or somehow by the very laws of physics, this would not make us all automatons with no real choices. I impose a personal rule on my behavior that prevents me from murdering people. Despite this, I somehow find myself facing countless complex choices every day. The inability to murder people, amazingly, has not become an intolerable constraint on my free will. It's just a partial constraint, one that doesn't limit me at all in everyday life. What's much more irritating is a limit that God really has imposed himself. I would like to have the free will to travel instantaneously, say to Los Angeles or Connecticut from time to time. But, God created a universe in which traveling such distances requires a prohibitive expense and/or time commitment. I'd also like to have the free will not to waste so much of my time sleeping, but God made me a body which requires this. The point is, if there's a God who made the universe, he already put lots of constraints on our free will, so a few more relatively minor ones that keep major evils out of the world don't seem like such a big deal.

If that objection doesn't do this argument in, I think there's an even worse one. Namely, why does God value the free will of the strong over the weak? If someone's trying to kill me, I'd like to exercise my free will not to die. God has created a universe in which, when one will opposes another like this, the victor is decided by qualities like strength, speed, and cleverness. He could (assuming an omnipotent god) have made a universe in which a will to commit an evil act automatically loses such contests, but instead we got this one. For every evil that is committed, at least two wills are involved - that of the perpetrator and of the victim. And in every evil that is successfully accomplished, God favored the evildoer's free will. Thus, the Free Will Defense is utterly incompatible with the idea of a benevolent God, or one who cares about moral behavior. And yet this is the defense I hear most often.

I would be remiss if in all this discussion, I failed to include another popular defense, depicted elegantly on South Park. Dear readers, I present:

The Chewbacca Defense:
Johnny Cochrane: Ladies and Gentlemen, (Pulls down picture of Chewbacca) this is Chewbacca. Chewbacca is a Wookie from the planet Kishic, but Chewbacca lives on the planet Endor. Now think about it. That does not make sense.
Gerald (Whispering): Dammit.
Chef (Whispering): What?
Gerald (Whispering): He's using the Chewbacca defense.
Johnny Cochrane: Why would a Wookie, an eight-foot-tall Wookie, want to live on Endor with a bunch of two-foot-tall Ewoks. That does not make sense. But more important, you have to ask yourself what does this have to do with this case.
[Jury stares in silence]
Johnny Cochrane: Nothing. Ladies and Gentlemen, it has nothing to do with this case.
[Gerald sinks back and covers his eyes]
Johnny Cochrane: It does not make sense. Look at me. I'm a lawyer defending a major record company and I'm talkin' about Chewbacca. Does that make sense? Ladies and Gentlemen I'm am not making any sense. None of this makes sense. And so you have to remember when you're in that jury room deliberating and conjugating the Emancipation Proclamation, does it make sense? No. Ladies and Gentlemen of this deposed jury it does not make sense. If Chewbacca lives on Endor you must acquit. The defense rests.

I find it hard to believe that the free will line is the best that Christian theologians have done in 2000 years. If I have any knowledgeable readers who have actually read this far, and know of some more convincing solution to the problem of evil, tell me about it - I'd love to sink my teeth into it. Tags:

Umm, how about: "a thing can only be what it is"?

I use my runs to sort through plot inconsistencies and weeding out stuff that slows down the reader's momentum. So I'm afraid I can't be much more helpful than that.

Posted by: Jeremiah Spur | October 22, 2003 8:09 AM

okay I know I'm not a physics genius, or a legal genius, or any kind of genius for that matter, but I am not a stupid person. I have moved through life thinking about it this way: God exists, he set it all in motion and let it go. There's just this part of me that believes in a higher power. Sorry if that makes me an ignoramus, but that's how I feel. Now, I think that stuff like the Bible is a load of CRAP. I could never place faith in a book that has been written and re-written countless times by countless men with countless personal agendas. I just feel a sense of a higher power. It's simplistic, yes, but it gets me through the day.

Posted by: Tracy Manford | October 22, 2003 12:23 PM


I do enjoy the Chewbacca defense, however. It is indeed a work of pure genius.

Posted by: Tracy Manford | October 22, 2003 12:24 PM

The Gazebo Defense

I apologize if I came across as condescending. It's unintentional, but it happens when I write about religion because I tend to separate mentally the ideas from the people who believe them. I don't pull any punches because, hey, I'm just attacking ideas. Then I read it over later and realize what I've unwittingly implied about religious people.

I don't think religious people are stupid; it would be impossible for me to believe this, having met so many intelligent believers. I also don't think everyone should conform to my particular standards of accepting beliefs. The problem of evil is a deal-breaker for me, but that's really a personal preference rather than some superior intellectual evaluation. I have no objection to people who believe and are willing to accept that it's an unsolved problem - with the idea that there is a solution out there somewhere.

It would be intellectually dishonest for me to take any other position, because I'm willing to live with an even worse problem that severely undermines my own deeply held beliefs. At some point I'll post an entry about it: the problem of induction, which asks, "How can we trust the results of science?" The answer is, apparently, that we can't. If I'm doing science in the face of the problem of induction, it would be hypocritical for me to criticize people for believing in a benevolent god in the face of the problem of evil.

In short: this entry was about why I'm not a Christian, not why no one should be a Christian.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | October 22, 2003 2:14 PM

Re: The Gazebo Defense

Oh no! I re-read my response to your entry, and I realized that it sounded very defensive. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable, I just wanted to throw my two cents in. I'm always questioning my spirituality, it's exhausting. You weren't condescending at all, you were just saying how you felt. Forgive my earlier outburst :)

Posted by: Tracy Manford | October 22, 2003 2:56 PM

Sigh...I wish I weren't living in The South right now. I'm such an outsider here with my beliefs (except when I talk to my fellow profs, as that's completely different from how things are two blocks away).

Posted by: Anonymous | October 31, 2003 8:24 PM
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