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The New Atheism as Inadequate Theodicy

Another shameless self-promotion alert!

The Other Journal is an online journal that explores a whole range of issues related to the intersection of theology and culture. This month their focus is atheism, and they’ve been gracious enough to publish an article I wrote which attempts to summarize the main gist of my thesis. From now on whenever the inevitable “so what are you writing about?” question comes up, I can just refer them here…

If you’re interested, here’s the link.

40 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jeff #

    Ryan, I will firstly admit that my vocabulary and understanding of the subject are inadequate to make really good use of this article. But, I find it absolutely fascinating how comforted I am by including atheists along with Christians in the struggle to make sense of our world, and primarily evil. That is, I am glad that an atheist perspective does not morally satisfy our questions about evil anymore than Christianity.

    My curiosity is largely around the God of the OT. If we listen carefully, the critique has merit and should cause us to reconsider our reading and understanding of this literature. What exactly makes this Scripture?

    Anyway, I really enjoy reading your material Ryan.

    March 7, 2008
  2. Thanks for the kind words Jeff. Not surprisingly, I share your sentiments re: all of us being in the same morally ambiguous boat. One of the things that is continually reinforced as I write this thing is how regardless of the rhetoric and posturing on either side of the atheist/theist divide, there are some fairly consistent and forceful existential concerns lurking beneath the surface.

    Re: the OT. I think that the moral issues raised by Dawkins & co. have occurred to pretty much anyone who has read the Bible honestly. It’s not as though we read about, say, the Canaanite conquest and think “yeah, that sounds about right” or never bother to wonder if/how it squares with the teachings of Jesus. At the same time, I find it immensely encouraging that the very passages that I find morally troubling are located within an overall scriptural context which validates and dignifies such things as protest and lament as genuine expressions of faith.

    At the end of the day, I think the idea (recommended by Anabaptists, among others) that the Bible ought to be interpreted through the lens of Christ is the place I return to often. The idea that Jesus is the fullest expression of God’s character doesn’t eliminate whatever problems I might see (or think I see) in the OT, but it does serve as an important and necessary orienting tool, at least for me.

    March 7, 2008
  3. Ryan, if my fundamental motives for intellectual doubt are understood (by you and any other believers) as being based on a biblical moral outrage, my desire to get to know who it is that is presumed to make me a moral being is supported that much more. So, to continue my search, I’m trying to make sense of Volf’s words – “I protest with God against God,” in your 26th footnote. All sorts of theological questions popped into my head after reading it:

    Is God disappointed with himself? Does he wish to change a previous action of his to suit his present standards? Has God changed?

    Should we understand God’s morally imperfect action in the past, as ultimately, fitting for the time he committed it? Does God’s actions make his nature time-oriented as well as timeless? If the past action seems morally imperfect in the present, how does it become closer to being realized as a morally “perfect” action the more God travels back in time?

    Now, looking at the existence of evil in the past, should God have known better?

    Do you have any thoughts on these questions, Ryan?

    March 8, 2008
  4. Gil #

    Great article Ryan. I like the way you describe the trade off between the moral intelligibility of the universe and the moral intelligibility of the human being that lies at the heart of these rival theodicies (I also enjoyed your memorable characterization of Dawkins’ ‘adjectivally promiscuous salvo’, but that is probably less central to your argument).

    One question: how would you evaluate the ‘pragmatic’ opposition to religion that bases itself on the divisive role that religion plays in contemporary life. If the argument against religion is based on (as seems to be the case in Harris) fears of apocalyptic confrontation between the ‘Christian’ West and radical Islam, could that be attributed to a survival instinct and nothing more? Or could this fall under your evaluation of protest atheism as theodicy as well?

    March 8, 2008
  5. Jerry,

    “Is God disappointed with himself?”

    I don’t know how I or anyone else could presume to pronounce upon that. Scripture seems to indicate that God can be grieved and wounded deeply by the actions of human beings but I don’t know how this manifests itself in God’s “psychology.”

    “Does he wish to change a previous action of his to suit his present standards? Has God changed?”

    I think that while God’s character and intentions are constant, his means of interacting with the world certainly do change and have changed. The incarnation alone would seem to indicate that this is the case.

    “Should we understand God’s morally imperfect action in the past, as ultimately, fitting for the time he committed it?”

    To say that I find God’s actions (or the way they are portrayed) to be morally problematic in some way is not the same thing as saying that God’s actions actually are or were morally problematic or that the way they are described represents an exact one-to-one correspondence with God’s view of things. I would certainly subscribe to some form of progressive revelation, where God reveals himself more fully over time (culminating in Christ, as I said in comment #2 above) and I would also want to allow for the possibility that the people of God can express the character of God more adequately over time as well.

    “Does God’s actions make his nature time-oriented as well as timeless?”

    Yes, I think so.

    “If the past action seems morally imperfect in the present, how does it become closer to being realized as a morally “perfect” action the more God travels back in time?”

    I don’t know what you mean by God traveling back in time here. I do think that we have a tendency to read back our own culturally-influenced ethical norms (which are profoundly the result of Christianity’s historical influence) on to whatever period of history we are pronouncing our judgments upon.

    “Now, looking at the existence of evil in the past, should God have known better?”

    Ultimately, I think, the existence of evil can only be justified in the eschaton. The belief that this is not only possible but obligatory is grounded in the character and promise of God.

    A final question for you: What do you think hangs on our ability/inability to arrive at satisfactory answers to the moral problems you’ve highlighted? If God were to somehow say “yes, I should have known better than to create a world with so much evil,” or “I’m disappointed with myself” would that make faith easier or more difficult?

    March 8, 2008
  6. Gil,

    I think you’re right about the “survival instinct” inherent in the pragmatic dimension of the current opposition to religion. There’s a genuine fear that what is understood to be religiously-fueled violence could lead to catastrophic global consequences.

    Of course this in no way justifies the simplistic claim that religion = violence (John Esposito recently wrote about a comprehensive survey of worldwide Muslims that he was a part of which discovered, among other things, that the politically radicalized are no more religious than “moderates”). I think in many ways equating religion with violence is a way of avoiding the hard work of actually thinking about the myriad socio-cultural, economic, and philosophical issues involved in global conflict. It also obscures the role that religion has played and continues to play in challenging and reining in human brutality and inhumanity.

    Ultimately, I think, all atheism is protest atheism and there is often (always?) a strong moral component to it. It’s hard to imagine Dawkins, for example, getting as exercised about the fact that people have delusional beliefs about an invisible entity if it weren’t for some element of the world (God, religious people, nature) that is determined by him to be morally suspect. I go back to the Schopenhauer quote I cited in the article – if the world was how we wanted it to be, it would never occur to us to philosophize.

    March 8, 2008
  7. Really a great article, Ryan. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. You seem really fair-minded and it was really a well written piece.

    I have one objection, though, and blogged about it in full (linked to my name above).

    Just to summarize it here, though:

    In the last two sections you repeatedly claim in one form or another that atheists should be expected, but fail, to justify their moral judgments based on purely evolutionary or mechanistic accounts. But, of course, there’s more to being human than just our evolutionary heritage (i.e. our genes). Nobody is claiming otherwise, so your expectation is unfair in the context of expecting a fully evolutionary account.

    Regarding your expectation of a purely mechanistic account, I wonder if you’re familiar with the concepts of emergent phenomena and abstraction levels. While on one level we can talk about mechanistic explanations of phenomena, these explanations fail when it comes to emergent phenomena – not necessarily because there is something magical missing, but because we are ill-equipped to understand complexity beyond a certain point. After that point, we must think in terms of the emergent properties instead of the underlying mechanistic relationships. This is particularly true when it comes to psychological phenomena (emotions, thoughts, instincts).

    March 8, 2008
  8. godma,

    Thanks for your kind words and for taking the time to respond, both here and in the full length entry you linked to. I appreciate the humility and the civility exhibited in both, not to mention the thoughtful nature of your response (If nothing else, this day will stick out in my memory as the first time I’ve been referred to as an “atheist in disguise!”).

    Nonetheless, I’m not sure that I really am expecting too much by expecting something approaching a comprehensive account of the grounding of moral judgments in the new atheists’ moral protest against religion. When I read Dawkins, for example, saying that Darwinian evolution has decisively answered every question that could conceivably be of importance to human beings (The Selfish Gene, p. 1), I think I’m entitled to expect more. To call something like altruism a “blessed Darwinian mistake” or a “misfiring” doesn’t seem quite adequate to me. I absolutely agree with you when you say that “there’s more to being human than just our evolutionary heritage.” The questions, for me, are what is this “more,” where does it come from, and how do we justify its continued existence?

    I am familiar with emergence, but in many ways it seems to be a bit of a reach from my perspective and it raises at least as many issues as it claims to solve. It’s all well and good to say that those features of human social interaction that seem incommensurate with a worldview that sees life as a brutal survival game are the result of emergence. But the questions, for me, are why and what now? Is emergence just the default response for any feature of life that doesn’t seem to square with the idea of human beings as robots being manipulated by genes and memes? Of what use is emergence theory in deciding which of its deliverances we ought to accept and which we ought to reject? Are all emergent properties/behaviours worth keeping simply by virtue of their having emerged?

    I suppose at the end of the day, the main question I’m left with is this: Is it more satisfying to see something as fundamental to human life as morality (including the irreducibly human tendency to expect/demand better from the world) as the product of the purposive will of God, or to say that it is an emergent property that arose we know not why? I find the former more plausible. The very psychological phenomena you cite – emotions, thoughts, instincts, and, I would add, the hunger for some kind of spiritual transcendence – strike me as being fundamental to what it means to be human. I don’t find the idea that these are simply emergent properties of a biological survival game to be compelling enough to embrace it.

    March 8, 2008
  9. Thanks for continuing the great conversation. I’m really enjoying learning your point of view and trying to respond relative to it.

    I’m curious what would qualify for you as “a comprehensive account of the grounding of moral judgments in the new atheists’ moral protest against religion”. What would it take for a judgment to be “grounded”, as you say? I feel that my chalking it up to my upbringing and my biological predispositions is sufficient grounding. And how comprehensive do you need it to be? For example, would you agree that to insist on an atomic-level explanation would be going too far? If we agree on that, then how far, short of that, would be sufficient?

    I have a copy of The Selfish Gene right here and I’m afraid I can’t find the passage you referenced. Perhaps you’re paraphrasing, but it doesn’t sound like Dawkins to me. That said, I do think Dawkins has a certain flair for poetic description (let’s say) that can perhaps go too far at times (not that I’ve been particularly bothered by it, but I can understand it rubbing people the wrong way). Nonetheless, I’m curious to know what exact text you are referring to when you say he said “that Darwinian evolution has decisively answered every question that could conceivably be of importance to human beings”. I, for one, certainly wouldn’t agree with that statement, although I would say that evolutionary theory has explained an astounding amount while requiring extremely few assumptions.

    You wrote:
    “But the questions, for me, are why and what now? Is emergence just the default response for any feature of life that doesn’t seem to square with the idea of human beings as robots being manipulated by genes and memes? Of what use is emergence theory in deciding which of its deliverances we ought to accept and which we ought to reject? Are all emergent properties/behaviours worth keeping simply by virtue of their having emerged?”

    These are good questions to ask…and I think the answer is that emergence is not useful for answering these questions. It is just an example of how surprisingly (and unintuitively) complex patterns can appear from blind and simple deterministic processes. I only brought it up to demonstrate how our intuitions can fail us in our attempts to see through abstraction levels (or paradigm shifts). We almost can’t help thinking of morality as a concrete, irreducible quality, but the fact that it feels concrete is not necessarily a reliable indicator that it is in fact concrete. It might just be an emergent property that naturally occurs in certain kinds of brains that have been exposed to certain kinds of environments during certain periods of their life.

    As to the questions why and what now? I don’t claim to know. My habit is to try to minimize my own suffering and that of the people around me. Both seem to boil down to the fact that they make me feel good. So, in a sense I suppose my moral instincts are driven by self interest.

    You wrote:
    “I suppose at the end of the day, the main question I’m left with is this: Is it more satisfying to see something as fundamental to human life as morality (including the irreducibly human tendency to expect/demand better from the world) as the product of the purposive will of God, or to say that it is an emergent property that arose we know not why? I find the former more plausible.”

    Satisfying, plausibility, and truth are three different things.

    I entirely agree that it is more satisying to think of morality in terms of absolutes than in terms of relatives. But regarding the causal chain that produced these various psychological phenemena and the universe itself, I (unsurprisingly, I’m sure) find it much more satisfying to believe that they arose naturally than supernaturally. Like Dawkins, I find the idea that all of this is a natural result of natural causes to be immensely beautiful and satifsying.

    But what we find satisfying is not a good indicator of what is actually true. It only indicates something about our psychological predispositions toward wanting it to be the one way or the other.

    Plausibility, being the _feeling_ that something is true, is similar in that it is still primarily about psychology than about objective truth. We know from hard-earned experience that our intuitions are extremely fallible, both in terms of what we intuit to be true (i.e. what we find plausible) and what methods we intuitively use to judge truth itself.(see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illusion)

    But if it is actual truth that you’re after rather than a feeling of satisfaction or plausibility, I think the best we can do is to try to find consistency not with our own intuitions but with the external data. And such data unfortunately is not available to us that would support the beliefs in either the supernatural or absolutes of any kind. The best we can do with the external data is to identify patterns of relationships between things.

    You wrote:
    “The very psychological phenomena you cite – emotions, thoughts, instincts, and, I would add, the hunger for some kind of spiritual transcendence – strike me as being fundamental to what it means to be human.”

    I feel this way as well. It’s nice to end on a point of agreement. 🙂

    March 8, 2008
  10. Gil #

    I’ve enjoyed eavesdropping on a conversation that is both extremely interesting and (I fear) slightly beyond me.

    One brief observation, godma, on your use of the word ‘plausibility’ with respect to the ‘truth’. I don’t think pointing toward the plausibility of a worldview is somehow ‘settling’ for less than some kind of objective truth that is allegedly available for people who need more than plausibility.

    It seems fairly obvious that plausibility is all that any of us can arrive at on ultimate questions such as these. To suggest that ‘plausibility’ and ‘satisfaction’ are synonymous terms that point toward the therapeutic value of certain ideas is to miss the point that we are all in the same boat, evaluating ambiguous evidence and deciding which conclusions seem best.

    March 8, 2008
  11. You make a good point, Gil. We are all in the same boat in the sense that we all need our beliefs to be plausible.

    My distinction between plausibility and truth was that plausibility is about what _feels_ true, but truth is about what _is_ true independent of what our feelings tell us. Of course, we’d all love for these to converge, but we know for a fact that this is often not the case. We are indeed quite easily fooled, so if it’s actual truth that we want, we can’t rely on what merely seems true but must rely on external measurements instead.

    In at least some cases, as with some well-known optical illusions, we can actually get caught in between the two and simultaneoudly _feel_ the truth of something and at also know it to be objectively false. A great example is the famous “tabletop illusion” (http://media.putfile.com/Beyond-Belief–The-Tabletop-Illusion)

    And I did not at all mean to imply that plausibility and satisfaction are synonymns. I only meant that they are similar in that they are definitionally about how things _seem_ rather than how things _are_.

    March 9, 2008
  12. godma,

    You’re right, it was a paraphrase. Here’s the passage from The Selfish Gene I was referring to:

    “Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason for its own existence. If superior creatures from space ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to assess the level of our civilization, is: ‘Have they discovered evolution yet?’ Living organisms had existed on earth for, without ever knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin. To be fair, others had had inklings of the truth, but it was Darwin who first put together a coherent and tenable account of why we exist… Darwin made it possible for us to give a sensible answer to the curious child whose question heads this chapter [“Why are People?”]. We no longer have to resort to superstition when faced with the deep problems: Is there a meaning to life? What are we for? What is man? After posing the last of these questions, the eminent zoologist G.G. Simpson put it thus: ‘The point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer that question before 1859 are worthless and we will be better off if we ignore them completely.” (emphasis mine)

    If I’m reading this right, he seems to be affirming a pretty comprehensive explanatory scope for Darwinian evolution here.

    I don’t have really have much else to add that I haven’t already said or that Gil didn’t mention above. I agree that wanting something to be true or finding it satisfying does not make it true, but neither does it mean that human desire and intuition, while fallible, cannot point us in the direction of what is true and good about the world.

    I, too, have enjoyed the discussion. Thanks for taking the time to respond and for the insight you’ve provided.

    March 9, 2008
  13. Thanks to you too. I’ve read over some of your previous entries and am excited to check back in from time to time. I’m adding you to the favorites on my own blog as well. Cheers.

    March 9, 2008
  14. Ryan,

    Thanks for putting the time and effort to respond to every question of mine. It helps me alot. I intended my first question to be rhetorical, though, because I thought it was clear to anyone that if God protests against God, he would have to be disappointed in himself.

    I really appreciate this comment of yours:

    “To say that I find God’s actions (or the way they are portrayed) to be morally problematic in some way is not the same thing as saying that God’s actions actually are or were morally problematic or that the way they are described represents an exact one-to-one correspondence with God’s view of things. I would certainly subscribe to some form of progressive revelation, where God reveals himself more fully over time (culminating in Christ, as I said in comment #2 above) and I would also want to allow for the possibility that the people of God can express the character of God more adequately over time as well.” (emphasis mine)

    The understanding of the bible I get from you is that the farther you turn back the pages, the more you’ll find a human element (which includes fallibility) in the writings than a divine one. To allow for the possibility of a misrepresentation of God in scripture is, well, surprising. Because, like Jeff said, “What exactly makes this scripture?”

    Since Jesus’ teachings don’t provide an exhaustive commentary on every ethical dilemma we face in this changing world of ours, couldn’t a believer’s recording of their dialogue or mutual exchange with God (in a diary or journal) be considered scripture? It could be “interpreted through the lens of Christ”.

    Again, it doesn’t “eliminate whatever problems [you] might see (or think [you] see) in the text” – just like the OT. And it too, wouldn’t describe “an exact one-to-one correspondence with God’s view of things.” Neither would the writer be as articulate as some other believers, in the present or the future. But it would still provide a portrayal of God’s actions.

    You said, “Ultimately, I think, the existence of evil can only be justified in the eschaton. The belief that this is not only possible but obligatory is grounded in the character and promise of God.”

    So, no matter what kinds of evil happen to be, time and time again, it’s enough to say, ‘God will explain things later,’?

    And finally, to answer your question, if God revealed himself by actually communicating to me, or better yet, to me and a whole bunch of respected scientists, and the study of the event was sound and incapable of disproving the event, I wouldn’t see any reason to deny God’s existence. But to make a faith-commitment to do (try to do) everything God says, no matter what? I don’t think God has given me a good enough reason for this.

    March 10, 2008
  15. “The understanding of the bible I get from you is that the farther you turn back the pages, the more you’ll find a human element (which includes fallibility) in the writings than a divine one.”

    I think that all of scripture contains both a human and a divine element to it. I don’t think that the Bible becomes less “inspired” the farther back you go. To say that Christ is the culmination of God’s self-revelation is not the same thing as saying that everything that preceded him in Scripture is less inspired or uninspired.

    “So, no matter what kinds of evil happen to be, time and time again, it’s enough to say, ‘God will explain things later,’?”

    I’m aware that you consider this to be a cop-out of some kind, but, as always, I’m left wondering about the positive alternative you would put in its place. However imaginative you consider this response to be, it’s the only one that I consider up to the task of providing some kind of redemption for all the evil of history. Even if (and this is a mighty big “if”) human beings were able to engineer some kind of “solution” to the problem of evil in the future, it would not address the evil of what has been suffered and inflicted in the time that preceded it. Only God is or could be up to that kind of a task.

    I’m also left wondering what your answer would be to the question I posed at the end of my comment above (#5). You answered a different question in your response – something like, “would you find it easier to believe if God performed a supernatural event for you and a group of scientists?” The point of my question wasn’t the mode of communication, or whether or not it could be “verified” by scientists (the sole arbiters of what is or could be true, I presume?) but the nature of what was communicated. If you knew that God regretted the amount of evil in the world, or was penitent or disappointed, how would that change your approach to faith?

    March 10, 2008
  16. Regarding these:
    “Ultimately, I think, the existence of evil can only be justified in the eschaton”

    and

    “I’m aware that you consider this to be a cop-out of some kind, but, as always, I’m left wondering about the positive alternative you would put in its place.”

    Here’s my best guess at an alternative:

    We perceive certain things as evil because our ancestors lived in a context in which it was a survival advantage (and, ultimately, a reproductive advantage) to have a sense of justice and to feel compassion for each other. We inherited the genes of only those from that period who reproduced. In the mean time, our more recent ancestors, together with their neighbors, also developed certain cultural reinforcements (commandments, teachings, morality tales, laws, etc.). A newborn human enters a culture with a biological predisposition toward expecting fairness, and this is bolstered by the various moral teachings of their culture.

    Then we grow up and see how terribly unjust life and the universe is in general, and this causes us great emotional distress because it is counter to our deep expectations and desires. We call this injustice “evil” and devise theodicies (and more) as palliatives against it.

    An article on chimpanzees’ sense of justice: http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=000C1A68-BA52-11F6-BA5283414B7F0000

    March 11, 2008
  17. godma,

    That’s certainly a conceivable account of how morality might have evolved. But as I’m sure you know, providing a plausible evolutionary story about the genesis of our moral intuitions is not the same thing as justifying them. And the issue I raised after the passage you cited remains an extremely difficult (impossible?) one for any purely naturalistic account of morality: can the evil of history in any way be redeemed or justified?

    March 11, 2008
  18. Ryan,

    I don’t doubt people when they say they were “inspired”. I just wonder where the thoughts and feelings they expressed onto paper came from.

    If the Christian God progressively revealed his will through human agents, from Job to Jesus, it makes sense to me to say that the inspired work would contain less from God and more from man in the beginning, and all from God – in Jesus – if Jesus’ words and actions were rightly portrayed by the writers.

    “Even if (and this is a mighty big “if”) human beings were able to engineer some kind of “solution” to the problem of evil in the future, it would not address the evil of what has been suffered and inflicted in the time that preceded it. Only God is or could be up to that kind of a task.”

    So, you’re saying, ‘there’s a good reason for everything,’? Isn’t it possible that, from a sentient perspective, there are good reasons for some things, and bad reasons for others? Do you think it to be unrealistic and pessimistic for others to consider past evils to have no good reason for their existence and no future way of explaining them as ‘good’ instead of evil?

    We all have idealistic hopes and desires, and many of them quite admirable – like ultimate justice and peace, but I find it inconceivable that anyone could hope for evils like Auschwitz and others to be explained as ‘just’ or a ‘good’ in the end.

    Maybe this is the response you wanted to your question – “What do you think hangs on our ability/inability to arrive at satisfactory answers to the moral problems you’ve highlighted?” I don’t know exactly what you meant about changing my “approach to faith” (faith as in belief? trust? commitment? religious lifestyle? relationship to God?), but I think denying the unchanging existence of past evils or starting the burgeoning of our worldviews with the axiom “there’s a good reason for everything” is misleading.

    Tell me if I came close to answering what your question was really about.

    March 12, 2008
  19. “can the evil of history in any way be redeemed or justified?”

    Thanks for clarifying Ryan. I was unclear on whether you meant “justify” in the sense of “explain the existence of” versus “explain how the existence is just”.
    http://wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=justify

    I had aimed to cover both interpretations, but I’m happy to try again now that it’s narrowed down.

    My viewpoint is that the universe is, in fact, unjust by human standards. There is no objective reason to expect the universe to enforce our human standars of justice. The world is just not fair, except to the degree that we take it upon ourselves to try to make it so.

    So, speaking on behalf of atheists in general :), I say you are correct that we have no positive alternative for the religious view that all evil will be brought to justice (justified) in the end. But I question why you expect such an alternative to come from outside religion in the first place. What, outside of the framework of religious thinking in general, would lead you to expect such a thing?

    Since I think our sense of justice is a result of our biological and cultural conditioning, I don’t think we are justified in expecting the rest of the universe to be just as well. In my opinion, this expectation is an act of anthropomorphization.

    March 12, 2008
  20. godma,

    “My viewpoint is that the universe is, in fact, unjust by human standards. There is no objective reason to expect the universe to enforce our human standards of justice. The world is just not fair, except to the degree that we take it upon ourselves to try to make it so.”

    I guess this is, at rock bottom, where theists and atheists will always disagree. I think that things like justice and morality are, to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis, “stitched into the fabric of the cosmos.” I am of the view that the reason that we are biologically and culturally conditioned to demand justice or to even think in terms of “fair” and “unfair” is because the world was made to be a just and morally ordered place.

    “So, speaking on behalf of atheists in general :), I say you are correct that we have no positive alternative for the religious view that all evil will be brought to justice (justified) in the end. But I question why you expect such an alternative to come from outside religion in the first place. What, outside of the framework of religious thinking in general, would lead you to expect such a thing?”

    I don’t expect such an alternative to come from outside religion – that’s why I inserted the word “impossible” and said previously that only God could be up to that kind of a task. I think laying out the various expectations that we have of the world can highlight the differences between the two worldviews. In a sense, religious views make pretty heavy moral demands upon the world and the God we believe to ultimately be responsible for it. Perhaps the whole matter just reduces to the question of the level of our expectations of the world and/or God.

    March 12, 2008
  21. Jerry,

    The Christian hope that evil will one day be fully redeemed, and that God will, in a sense, “justify” the world and himself to us does not oblige one to believe that Auschwitz was “good” or “just.” And it does not oblige one to believe that “there is a good reason for everything” – from a “sentient” perspective or any other one. I obviously think that there is such a thing as absolutely senseless evil which horrifies God as much as it horrifies us.

    Re: my initial question, I was just trying to see if you would find it easier to have faith if you received definite answers to some of the questions you were asking me (i.e., “Is God disappointed with himself,” “Should he have known better,” etc.)

    March 12, 2008
  22. “I guess this is, at rock bottom, where theists and atheists will always disagree.”

    Indeed. This might very well be one of those irreconcilable differences. Essentially, it seems to be a matter of how much we each are willing to trust our intuitions. Would you agree?

    “I think that things like justice and morality are, to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis, “stitched into the fabric of the cosmos.” I am of the view that the reason that we are biologically and culturally conditioned to demand justice or to even think in terms of “fair” and “unfair” is because the world was made to be a just and morally ordered place.”

    I’m curious what leads you to have this view and what supports it? How do you get all the way from a)our moral intuitions to b)universal justice? It’s a chasm to begin with, made all the more impressive by the existence of all the horrific counter-examples of injustice that lie in the gap between the two.

    “I don’t expect such an alternative to come from outside religion – that’s why I inserted the word “impossible” and said previously that only God could be up to that kind of a task.”

    Okay. I guess I misunderstood your intention when you wrote this:
    “I’m aware that you consider this to be a cop-out of some kind, but, as always, I’m left wondering about the positive alternative you would put in its place.”

    It seemed to me that you expected an alternative to be supplied in general…as if any rival argument would be invalidated (or at least weaker) for not having provided such an alternative.

    Of course, there is no logical necessity for such an alternative.

    But, on the other hand, within the framework of emotional needs (and I include religion here), I fully appreciate (and share) this longing for universal justice.

    March 12, 2008
  23. godma,

    “Essentially, it seems to be a matter of how much we each are willing to trust our intuitions. Would you agree?”

    Yes, I would probably agree. I don’t think intuitions are the whole story, but I certainly think they are an important part.

    “I’m curious what leads you to have this view and what supports it? How do you get all the way from a)our moral intuitions to b)universal justice? It’s a chasm to begin with, made all the more impressive by the existence of all the horrific counter-examples of injustice that lie in the gap between the two.”

    Well, I don’t know that I (or anyone else) would make the move directly from a) to b). Factored in to the mix would be a willingness to accept what is taken to be the revealed wisdom of religious texts, and the historical traditions that have embodied and passed these down. Part of the ground for Christian hope in “universal justice” or redemption is certainly grounded in what is believed to be the promise of God as revealed to a historical people – a promise which can, obviously, be accepted or rejected.

    Having said that, I think that the chasm between reality and expectation, between “is” and “ought” itself bears witness to the morality being in the “fabric of the universe.” Our ability to make the judgments in the first place comes from somewhere and is a response, I think, to something real. I don’t think locating it exclusively in the realm of emotional needs does our deeply held convictions of right and wrong justice, nor do I think that the view that these deeply held convictions are the exclusive result of an amoral, purposeless process is a compelling one.

    “Okay. I guess I misunderstood your intention when you wrote this:
    “I’m aware that you consider this to be a cop-out of some kind, but, as always, I’m left wondering about the positive alternative you would put in its place.””

    As in any case where you are trying to convince someone that your view is worth considering, one of the strategies is to point out that this or that position is incapable of providing an answer to what you feel is an important question or issue. That’s all I was doing here. You’re absolutely right, there is no logical necessity in providing an alternative. It’s entirely possible to say “well who’s to say we ought to expect that?” as you have done. Then we’re back to square one and the question of expectations and willingness to trust our moral intuitions.

    March 12, 2008
  24. “evil will one day be fully redeemed… God will, in a sense, “justify” the world and himself to us”

    I have no idea what this means.

    As far as what makes faith (still don’t know your emphasis in this word) easier for me – in general, if something seems to me to be sensible, it can be believable.

    Christianity didn’t seem to me as insensible for most of my life because I kept finding more information crucial for the questions I was struggling through. Eventually, it became a rare experience if I heard or read anything new to throw into the mix. So I started reading criticisms from outside of the Church. I included agnostic or atheist characters in the novel I was writing. And after a while of trying to look at Christianity from the perspective of non-believers, my beliefs seemed to me to be contradictory and dishonest about morality.

    I may have lost faith in the bible as revelation, and supernatural entities, but I’m obsessed about challenging the reasoning in Christianity because I want to understand more about my past via the religion I was brought up to believe.

    I also don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water. If there are jewels in my Christian upbringing worth keeping, I’d like to know about them. And I want to know why I ended up losing faith while others, like yourself, haven’t. Because, who knows, maybe I was hasty!

    So, this is why I am so appreciative of the conversations I have with you and your brother Gil. I’ve been looking for others who are willing to have conversations or debates on similar topics. But I still haven’t found any other Christians who share my Mennonite heritage. Maybe if I looked harder I’d find some.

    I have to say, just when I think our dialogues are over you guys write about a topic I’m drawn to, or draw me in to explore the intentions in your voices (tone and choice of words).

    Sorry this ended up being a long confession-like comment.

    Jerry

    March 13, 2008
  25. jc #

    Jerry,
    Did you ever finish the novel?

    March 13, 2008
  26. No, I haven’t finished. I’m not sure if it will be. I don’t know if it will be a life-long hobby I’ll always have to tinker with or one of many novels I’ll write exclusively for my own personal growth. My wife says I’ll be published one day (whether it’s purchased or not), but we’ll see.

    March 13, 2008
  27. Jerry,

    “I have no idea what this [“evil will one day be fully redeemed… God will, in a sense, ‘justify’ the world and himself to us”] means.”

    Nothing too mysterious here – I think that somehow the ends have to justify the means (which, again, is not the same thing as claiming that specific instances of evil are “good” or “just”). God chose to create a world where free agents were given the power to do an extraordinary amount of damage. Whatever “heaven” or “resurrection” might mean, I feel it must address the pain of what has preceded it. Miroslav Volf is a thinker who I have found extremely helpful here; I’ve reflected on his ideas about the subject a bit in a previous post .

    “As far as what makes faith (still don’t know your emphasis in this word) easier for me – in general, if something seems to me to be sensible, it can be believable.”

    Again, I don’t really understand your confusion. You have a lot of questions about God and about those who choose a response of faith. At times, I wonder if some of these questions are genuine obstacles to faith or just intellectual puzzles that happen to interest you (i.e., your inability to know if God regrets his actions or is disappointed with himself) or just attempts at deconstruction for its own sake. That was the only reason I asked you the question I did – I thought cutting to the heart of the matter might save us some time (guess not).

    No apology necessary for the “confession-like comment” – I appreciate hearing a bit about your journey. You say that looking at faith from the perspective of non-believers led you to the conclusion that it was “contradictory and dishonest about morality.” I’ve spent a good deal of my life examining my beliefs from a similar perspective and I come to the exact opposite conclusion. So where does that leave the discussion? Apparently, unless either one of us is prepared to say that the other is guilty of unqualified dishonesty or irrationality (which I am not prepared to do), both options seem to be plausible readings of the human situation. A decision is required to go in either direction and we all have to decide based upon less evidence than we might like. Neither option is a matter of proof; both are decisions that are pursued in the faith and the hope that one is correct.

    March 13, 2008
  28. jc #

    Jerry,

    I guess this a different topic then what you folks are discussing here. But I was interested in your attempt to write a novel. I really enjoy reading novels that juxtapose different worldviews or promote life philosophies[ie Atlas Shrugged and Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance]. I am just finishing up a novel that sounds like its in a similar vein to what you possibly might be writing that was all right. It’s available as a hard copy or an itunes podcast. Anyways you can find the website here.

    Sorry for the diversion here Ryan.

    March 13, 2008
  29. Willy #

    Thank you for the “alert” Ryan. A very relevant piece of work.

    My experience with people who subscribe to neo-atheistic theodicy can be generalized as being reactive to dogmatic religious experiences particularly those that have a high degree of “you should” “you ought” types who believe they have attained the ultimate in purity and therefore experience unity with God. This comes from any religion. I feel very sorry for these folks, all of them, since they have unfortunately bought into one of the most basic forms of evil – self righteousness. In a way, the seeds sown by the religious have sprouted self righteous spirited atheists who as you have identified have created their own sense of justice, and as you have note can be rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

    I find it interesting that as people of any religious orientation find what they understand to be their idea of truth, that the seeds of self righteousness germinate obscuring the sense of humility that usually comes with the understanding of the revelation of what is hoped to be truth. One way or another, there is a faith response to what is seen as evil.

    I like to think, truth of this nature is unearned. This doesn’t mean that this kind of truth comes without effort, however. I don’t have much of an explanation of this. I do know the church is now preparing for Taize – as it comes in the form of prayer:

    We ask you, Lord: what do you expect of me?
    And the Holy Spirit answers:
    I pray in you
    Dare to give your life
    Dare to go that far.

    Brother Rodger of Taize

    The issue at stake for those who care at all, is trust.

    March 14, 2008
  30. Thanks for your comment Willy. I think you’re correct in your assessment of some of the root causes of the atheistic reaction. Lack of humility and self-righteousness coming from the very people who ought to be most aware of its inappropriateness certainly can and does make non-belief seem like a more credible option.

    I also think that you rightly point to the centrality of trust. For me, most, if not all, of the really important questions in life involve going beyond what we think we can prove.

    March 14, 2008
  31. “I think that somehow the ends have to justify the means (which, again, is not the same thing as claiming that specific instances of evil are “good” or “just”).”

    So, for you, whatever the end of the story of humanity happens to be, it was worth having an Auschwitz. And only God, and those in Hell, will carry the secret of a history filled with good and evil (like the fruit from the tree in the garden of Eden). And one of many alternatives worth rejecting is living with the reality of senseless evil existing and fighting to minimize as much as possible any future evils – especially the horrific kinds.

    “Neither option is a matter of proof; both are decisions that are pursued in the faith and the hope that one is correct.”

    Actually, I don’t necessarily hope that I’m correct. My hope lies much heavier in correction. Whether I’m shown to be right or wrong, it furthers my pursuit. So, instead of looking for thee answer, my priority is to look for greater questions that will bring me closer to the truth.

    March 15, 2008
  32. “So, for you, whatever the end of the story of humanity happens to be, it was worth having an Auschwitz. And only God, and those in Hell, will carry the secret of a history filled with good and evil.”

    Not quite sure what to make of the last bit there, but I do believe that the end story of humanity and the history of the world in general will be one where the evils that our world has seen (including Auschwitz) will be healed and somehow redeemed.

    “And one of many alternatives worth rejecting is living with the reality of senseless evil existing and fighting to minimize as much as possible any future evils – especially the horrific kinds.”

    How, exactly, do you see a hope in the future redemption of history as incompatible with this? Are you meaning to suggest that those who hope for such a thing are not or cannot be committed to the minimization of future evils?

    “Actually, I don’t necessarily hope that I’m correct. My hope lies much heavier in correction. Whether I’m shown to be right or wrong, it furthers my pursuit. So, instead of looking for thee answer, my priority is to look for greater questions that will bring me closer to the truth.”

    I’m guessing that you think your choice of this approach to the world is “correct,” or at least that it is a better choice than one which asks the same kinds of questions from the perspective of faith, so I don’t see how this changes what I said. Like everyone else on the planet, you’ve decided upon a worldview in the hopes that this decision is the best one.

    March 15, 2008
  33. Would you say your hope lies heavier in correction than being correct?

    Re: the “last bit”. By saying “the evils that our world has seen (including Auschwitz) will be healed and somehow redeemed,” do you mean everyone in the afterlife, the saved, the damned, and God, will experience a forgetting or “non-remembrance”?

    Or is there room in your worldview for the possibility of God and others living for an eternity remembering, along with the good and the good responses to evil, the reality of senseless evil existing?

    And if God was willing to intervene for “free agents” in the past, be it parting waters, knocking down walls, stopping the sun, shutting the mouths of hungry lions, having a big fish save you from drowning (even though you wanted to die), and the many other saving miracles portrayed in the bible, do you think Auschwitz was worth having no intervention from God to save those who suffered?

    March 16, 2008
  34. “Would you say your hope lies heavier in correction than being correct?”

    My hope lies in a promise which I believe to be grounded in the character of the one who made the promise. I’m not sure what kind of “hope” could be generated by “correction” in and of itself.

    “do you mean everyone in the afterlife, the saved, the damned, and God, will experience a forgetting or “non-remembrance”?”

    I think that all of what has characterized history will be taken up and given its proper place in what is to come. That which is true and good and just and beautiful will be validated and rendered permanent. That which is evil will be judged and healed and, where appropriate, forgotten as the senseless and unnecessary tragedy that it was (I’m still interested to hear how/why you feel something like this view is incompatible with a commitment to actively resisting evil in the present).

    “Or is there room in your worldview for the possibility of God and others living for an eternity remembering, along with the good and the good responses to evil, the reality of senseless evil existing?”

    What do you think is important about the conscious remembering of senseless evil for eternity? I’m trying to understand why you feel this is necessary or how failing to recognize it represents some kind of a deficient moral position to take.

    Re: your final question. I don’t know what kind of person would or could think that Auschwitz was “worth” having no intervention from God. I think that Auschwitz was an absolutely senseless, tragic, and horrific example of unmitigated evil. It was an absolute waste, in the profoundest sense of the term. Believing in a good God does not make one immune from wishing God would prevent any and all suffering; as I said in the article this post linked to, I think it’s the ground of even expecting it in the first place.

    March 16, 2008
  35. “That which is evil will be judged and healed and, where appropriate, forgotten as the senseless and unnecessary tragedy that it was (I’m still interested to hear how/why you feel something like this view is incompatible with a commitment to actively resisting evil in the present).”

    I don’t think it’s incompatible. What I meant (but didn’t articulate well) was that the alternative you think is worth rejecting is the minimizing of evil exclusively in this life.

    And I think the denial of our history, our journey, is in part a denial of who we are. I think the denial may be necessary at times, until the reality can be faced with the strength and courage needed, but I would consider it to be a tragedy to forget our struggle to overcome obstacles in the past – what we did, how we did it, the sense of justice we gained to ensure those evils wouldn’t happen again.

    Or even in the religious sense, wouldn’t it be a tragedy to forget (for an eternity) what God did to help us overcome the evil in our lives?

    But then, regaining our history with an ever-present God would uncover the problematic questions: What took you so long, God? Why didn’t you stop it from happening in the first place? Why have you helped others, at times, but not everyone all the time? Is this why you didn’t want us to remember all of who we are?

    And maybe that’s the ultimate motive, forgetting the evils in our past means forgetting the evils in God’s past. So, when you say, “Believing in a good God does not make one immune from wishing God would prevent any and all suffering,” I’d say believing in God provides believers such as yourself (who think God will help you forget), hope that one day you will be immune from wishing God would prevent any and all suffering.

    You said, “My hope lies in a promise which I believe to be grounded in the character of the one who made the promise. I’m not sure what kind of “hope” could be generated by “correction” in and of itself.”

    This may be a crucial difference between theists and atheists. Revelation from a trustworthy, omniscient being implies no need for correction. A pursuit of knowledge in this context should only confirm what is correct.

    Where as, a life or worldview without divine revelation requires a pursuit for more knowledge to correct everything we’ve imagined or thought to exist beyond the snapshots our brain takes (via our senses). If I were to personify nature, I could say that nature seems like an illusionist, not revealing her “magick” in our direction, for our perspective.

    This is why my hope lies heavier in correction than being correct.

    March 17, 2008
  36. “This may be a crucial difference between theists and atheists. Revelation from a trustworthy, omniscient being implies no need for correction. A pursuit of knowledge in this context should only confirm what is correct.”

    Accepting revelation from a God who is believed to be trustworthy certainly does not imply that there is no need for correction. It’s hard to see what could account for the history of theology and biblical studies if this were the case. A pursuit of knowledge in this context should confirm and augment what is true but it should also correct areas in which human beings have been mistaken in the past.

    “Where as, a life or worldview without divine revelation requires a pursuit for more knowledge to correct everything we’ve imagined or thought to exist beyond the snapshots our brain takes (via our senses).”

    Again, I think that pursuing knowledge to correct areas where we’ve been mistaken is in no way something that takes place apart from faith. The only difference is the object of the faith in question.

    This is why my hope lies heavier in correction than being correct.”

    What if what is true is ultimately hopeless? What if the rock-bottom reality with which we have to deal is stark nihilism? To have hope in correction depends upon the belief that ultimately what is true is also a source of hope. That is why I said that I don’t see what kind of hope could be generated by correction in and of itself.

    March 17, 2008
  37. “Accepting revelation from a God who is believed to be trustworthy certainly does not imply that there is no need for correction. It’s hard to see what could account for the history of theology and biblical studies if this were the case.”

    Why is it that God doesn’t ensure proper communication between him and his loved ones?

    “What if what is true is ultimately hopeless?”

    Are you saying you would prefer to avoid finding out the truth if you can imagine something to fear about it?

    If we discovered that the supernatural, in fact, does not exist, then all former believers in the supernatural would be free to explore, among many natural things, the true origins of the morality that has existed throughout the ages.

    So, if truth is ultimately not your pursuit, Ryan, then what is?

    Have you decided that the Christian belief will be the only worldview that will provide you with satisfaction, and that’s that? Whether it’s true or not?

    I still see a crucial difference between theists and atheists here. I think the difference in priorities is quite telling. I also think it is significant that we can find a common thread in all walks of life, whether it’s a higher priority or not – and that is, again, “correction”.

    I think it’s in our genes to want to know the truth via correction. Our instinct for survival has made humanity desperate to discern what’s out there and what’s not, to recognize the camouflaging predator or prey where they really are.

    But if we have mistakenly anthropomorphized and animated the immaterial by seeing eyes, faces, or spontaneous movement where there are none, we want correction because mistaken predators or prey are not worth our time and energy. And neither are disease-causing demons or weather gods if they don’t exist either.

    We also don’t want to waste any of our resources by tithing food onto an altar to distract the hunger of imagined predators away from us. And sure, it’s easy to believe in malevolent or benevolent beings out there, even if they are invisible, because how many times, when we explore our self-awareness are we really thinking about a disembodied self? It’s a common mistake.

    Anyways, I’ve probably stretched out this comment and conversation long enough. I wanted to hear you respond to my comments on remembering past evils and not being afraid of the truth by putting your hope primarily in correction, but we can always pick that up another day.

    Thanks again for indulging my questions and input.

    March 18, 2008
  38. “Why is it that God doesn’t ensure proper communication between him and his loved ones?”

    This seems to just be a variation of the question of evil: Why does/doesn’t God allow/do x,y,z…. And the short answer is “I don’t know.” But I think part of what it means for God to endow human beings with freedom is to give them the ability to reject him. There are many things that may be questioned about the Bible, but one thing that seems clear is that God does not force himself upon his people. I don’t think that being a believer obliges someone to believe that the truth came down fully formed around two thousand years ago, or that God isn’t interested in human beings developing and learning more over time.

    “Are you saying you would prefer to avoid finding out the truth if you can imagine something to fear about it… So, if truth is ultimately not your pursuit, Ryan, then what is?”

    I’m fairly surprised that you would ask these kinds of questions. I would have thought we’d interacted enough for you to have a better idea of how I think than this. The only reason I brought up the nihilism example was to demonstrate that there is a necessary link between arriving at a clearer conception of what is true (what you called “correction”) and hope that requires accounting for. I have no problem accounting for it because I think that truth is God’s and that truth is, ultimately hopeful. I was questioning whether you could say the same thing. Arriving at a truer and truer understanding of how the world is wouldn’t really be a source of hope if the truth was ultimately hopeless. I was questioning your assumption that having correct ideas about the world is an essentially hopeful thing. Hope is only an appropriate response to “correction” if there is something hopeful to be correct about.

    “Have you decided that the Christian belief will be the only worldview that will provide you with satisfaction, and that’s that? Whether it’s true or not?”

    Of course not. I have made this decision because I think it is the truest representation of reality just as you believe that your worldview is the truest representation of reality.

    “I think it’s in our genes to want to know the truth via correction. Our instinct for survival has made humanity desperate to discern what’s out there and what’s not, to recognize the camouflaging predator or prey where they really are.”

    This is a mistaken understanding of how natural selection works. Natural selection does not necessarily promote or reward truth-seeking. It rewards adaptive utility, nothing more. Sometimes there will be a correspondence between utility and truth, and sometimes there will not. This is one of the main pillars in many atheist arguments – deceiving ourselves about the existence of God was useful because it provided comfort, group solidarity, or some other thing necessary for our survival. The whole history of religion is, on this view, a kind of “useful fiction,” something which is adaptive but makes no connection with what is actually true. (Incidentally, I agree that “it’s in our genes to know the truth via correction,” but I believe that this is because we are created to be truth-seekers).

    “I wanted to hear you respond to my comments on remembering past evils and not being afraid of the truth by putting your hope primarily in correction, but we can always pick that up another day.”

    I hope I’ve addressed this above, but if you still think that I’m “afraid of the truth” I’d be happy for you to show me why you think this is the case.

    March 18, 2008
  39. Bad #

    I would say that it’s a real mistake to try to make an apology for a very strained redefinition of a concept (theodicy) by claiming that you won’t abuse the equivocative ambiguity… and then go on to predictably abuse that ambiguity all the same.

    Ideally, using a formerly well defined concept in a strained manner is justifiable only if it leads to to an important insight: some new parallel. But here I see only confusion and a sort of “bring you down to our level” attempt at equivalence.

    The writers in question make the argument from evil for a far more explicit and focused purpose than you are allowing: to respond to the specific claims being made about theism. None of them treat their own moral convictions in the way Neiman claims.

    The “problem of evil” is a problem for traditional theism and traditional theism alone. Other forms of theism are not subject to it. And non-belief is not subject to it. That’s because the problem of evil is at heart about an apparent logical contradiction. but remove the axioms that lead to that contradiction, and it no longer makes any sense to speak of “the problem of evil.”

    Thus what Neiman and yourself are both doing is simply committing the fallacy of equivocation. The authors you cite are referring to the “problem of evil” as a specific logical contradiction. But in trying to pretend that they are in the same boat (presumably to dismiss their arguments without really addressing them), you are using a very different meaning of the “problem of evil”: the idea that evil is a problem for them (i.e. that they object to various evils). These two concepts aren’t even remotely the same, and yet you treat them as if, simply because the phrase “problem of evil” can be interpreted to refer to either one, as if they were synonymous, and thus that both parties have a form of “theodicy.”

    Couple this with the entirely lazy genetic fallacy of claiming that moral outrage at bad things is somehow the special and exclusive purview of Christianity, and you have a recipe for a thesis in need of revision.

    Even if one were to concede the claim that moral judgement was historically a Christian innovation, whether or not historically Christian ideas have influenced people’s character does not in any way show that character to be inadequate just because it no longer relies on other aspects Christian metaphysics. Either the moral judgments are correct or they aren’t: how historically they came to be held is irrelevant. Whether or not it was alchemical ideas that led to Newton’s theories on physics, the correctness of his theories does not validate alchemy, nor rely on alchemy being true for their own validity.

    It’s very true, however, that we all live in a shared moral universe. We all have moral judgments, and none of us have any means with which to “ultimately” justify them to others who may not share the same underlying values. No intelligent argument can be made to, say, a robot, that killing humans is wrong unless the robot first cares about human life in the first place. The existence of God, and indeed any particular theological metaphysics does not alter this situation in any way. All appeals to God as having some importance to moral reasoning rely on the same sorts of otherwise morally unjustified assumptive leaps that any other moral system does. It’s just that theists tend to quietly ignore that necessary groundwork.

    Luckily, the boat we’re all in seems to include almost exclusively only sentient beings who have values close enough to each other have sensible moral debate with: i.e. to appeal to values already shared in making a case why this or that is actually morally wrong. And again, theism or the lack of it doesn’t really aid matters any.

    June 13, 2008
  40. The “problem of evil” is a problem for traditional theism and traditional theism alone. Other forms of theism are not subject to it. And non-belief is not subject to it. That’s because the problem of evil is at heart about an apparent logical contradiction.

    I’m not interested in the logical problem so much as the existential one in the thesis. The logical problem is insoluble and mostly irrelevant – would anyone facing evil be comforted by an airtight theodicy, in the traditional sense of the word? You may prefer to restrict the definition of the word to the logical problem, but there are many writers (of the theist and atheist variety) who do not operate with such a limited definition. And despite what you say, the new atheists (especially Harris) do seem to be animated by existential concerns as well as the logical problem, as I mention in the article.

    But in trying to pretend that they are in the same boat (presumably to dismiss their arguments without really addressing them), you are using a very different meaning of the “problem of evil”: the idea that evil is a problem for them (i.e. that they object to various evils). These two concepts aren’t even remotely the same, and yet you treat them as if, simply because the phrase “problem of evil” can be interpreted to refer to either one, as if they were synonymous, and thus that both parties have a form of “theodicy.”

    Is your unwillingness to be open to a different way of considering the term “theodicy” due to your desire to dismiss an argument which challenges your understanding of atheism and evil without really addressing it?

    Couple this with the entirely lazy genetic fallacy of claiming that moral outrage at bad things is somehow the special and exclusive purview of Christianity, and you have a recipe for a thesis in need of revision.

    This statement makes me think that you’ve not really bothered to attempt to understand the article I linked to. One of the main points of the thesis is that the need for moral meaning (which presumes, I think, the ability to make moral judgments) is not exclusive to Christianity. What is at issue is where the justification for this ability comes from.

    Even if one were to concede the claim that moral judgement was historically a Christian innovation, whether or not historically Christian ideas have influenced people’s character does not in any way show that character to be inadequate just because it no longer relies on other aspects Christian metaphysics.

    If moral judgments are a significant component of one’s objection to God and religion, I think it’s reasonable to expect a plausible metaphysical justification for the ability to make them. This is precisely what the new atheists do not do. Telling a story about how morality may have evolved is not the same as justifying it. Admitting that morality cannot (and ought not to) be derived from nature (as Dawkins does) and offering only “well, we can’t let religion do it” or “trust the moral zeitgeist” is not satisfactory, from my perspective.

    It’s very true, however, that we all live in a shared moral universe. We all have moral judgments, and none of us have any means with which to “ultimately” justify them to others who may not share the same underlying values.

    Agreed. There is no non-circular way of justifying moral values.

    All appeals to God as having some importance to moral reasoning rely on the same sorts of otherwise morally unjustified assumptive leaps that any other moral system does. It’s just that theists tend to quietly ignore that necessary groundwork.

    Where do you see me as having ignored this?

    June 13, 2008

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