Monday, September 20, 2021

The problem of evil--with some references to Calvinism

 If God is good, why is there so much evil? Or any evil at all? This is, without doubt, the most powerful argument for atheism. Those who don't accept this argument for atheism have, it seems to me, three strategies. 

One strategy is to explain evil. A typical explanation for evil is to explain it in terms of free will. The idea is this. An obedience that is caused by God isn't real obedience, it is the obedience of a robot. God wants real love and real obedience, which entails the possibilty of non-love and disobedience. If God opens the possibility of disobedicence, then bad consequences are bound to result when creatures violate his will. And there are other explanations. Things that appear bad to us at first turn out, on further examination, not to be so bad after all, or perhaps, better than the hoped for alternative once the consequences of that alternative are more fully examined. Tough practices lead to good performances on the football field, for example. Suffering is at ;least sometimes good for us and is redemnptive. These are what I call explanatory responses to the problem of evil. The defender of theism explains why God permits the evil. 

However, atheists have responded to these explanatory responses in various ways. They have argued that God didn't have to allow sin, all God has to to to provide us with free will is to make us in such a way that we always desire to do what is right, and then empower them to fulfil those desires. This goes to a debate about what is meant by free will. Incompatibilists think that for us to have free will our actions have to not be determined by God (or the laws of nature), while compatibilists maintain that nature or evein God can determine our actions, and our actions will still be free. And, while some religious believers think that God limits his control over events in order to allow free will, others maintain that God strictly controls everything. For example, many Calvinists believe that God controls all of our actions, and predestines some people to heaven and others to hell. 

And there are certainly evils which don't seem to fit in with the free will response, since they are not the result of choice. Natural evils don't come from free will. Consider two disasters in the Gulf of Mexico: the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, and Hurricane Katrina. Humans are arguably responsible for the oil spill, but we didn't cause the hurricane. So, why did God set up the world in such a way that natural disasters kill thousands of people and ruin the lives of even more people? And thjen there are what I call problems for "special victims"--the suffering of small children and the suffering of animals. These sufferers. surely, have not done wrong in order to suffer, yet they suffer nevetheless. Why does God permit this?

Defenders of theism, it seems to me, have to respond by saying that we can't expect to know the reason God permits at least a significant amount of suffering.

God knows all the alternatives, and their consequences, and chooses the course of action he does based on a greater knowledge and awareness of the results than we could possibly have. Given our finitude and God's infinite knoweldge, our level of  understanding of God's purposes for suffering is about what we should expect. 

But there is, I contend, a third type of response, I have been assuming here that if God is good, God will maximize, as far as possible, happiness for his creatures. But some people believe, as I indicated earlier, that God predestined some to heaven and other to hell. Why not save everyone? If you think God has to give us free will which limits his contol then people could end up in permanent rebellion and therefore permanently separated from God, but if God predestines everything, then his control is not self-limited. What Calvinists contend is that what makes God's actions good is not the happiness of creatures but glory for God himself, and that is achieved best through exercising both his mercy for some sinners and justice for others. But this calls into question not only our knowledge of outcomes, it challenges certain common-sense ideas of what is and is not morally good. 

So, theists can respond to suffering by a) explaining it b) being skeptical or our knowledge of the results of possible divine actions or c) being skeptical of our knowledge of what constitutes goodness when it comes to divine actions. 


unkleE said...

I think there is (sort of) a fourth option, and it happens to be the one I hold.

Admit that evil is evidence against the existence of a good God, to be considered along with all the other evidence. Most of the evidence (IMO) is in favour of God's existence (existence and design of universe; human apparent free will, consciousness, ethics and rationality; religious experience of various forms; and the life of the historical Jesus).

Thus believing in God while recognising the problem of evil leads to cognitive dissonance, but disbelieving in God while recognising all those other evidences causes greater cognitive dissonance. The only logical conclusion is to believe in God while recognising difficulties.

Starhopper said...

"This is, without doubt, the most powerful argument for atheism."

How so? The way I see it, the existence of evil is one of the strongest arguments I know of AGAINST atheism. In a purely materialistic world, one would expect everything to behave as it ought to. There would be no room for evil, no mechanism by which it could appear. The fact that human beings routinely act against their nature is (to me, convincing) evidence that this physical world is not all there is.

One Brow said...

Our nature is to be a slightly more intelligent ape. Non-human apes attack each other to control territory, sex, food, etc. Some non-human apes even attack others randomly, rape, etc.