Could there be a god?

I really, really, really hate reading news reports about sexual predators attacking and killing little kids. It makes me feel just awful for the child and the parents, and fearful about my own children.  Why do these things have to happen?

If there were an all powerful, all good being watching over the universe, they wouldn't have to happen.  This is a huge puzzle: if there is such a being, what excuse would he have for allowing  little kids to be raped and killed?  The Argument from Evil says: no excuse, so no god. There just can't be such a being "up there."

A particular excuse has been jangling around in my head since I read about the Florida girl found dead yesterday.  A popular idea is that God couldn't have stopped the miscreant who did this, without somehow depriving humankind of free will.  Why do people even begin to think that makes sense?

Think what it would have taken to prevent the crime.  The seven year old girl was walking home from school with her friends and ran ahead of them because they'd been arguing.  At that point, she crossed paths with the monster.  To prevent the crime, all God would have had to do is alter the trajectory of one or the other.  He could have held the monster back at an intersection by making a red light last a minute longer.  No direct interference with decision-making would have been needed.

In fact, child abductions are rare because we do a lot to prevent them. We hover over our children. We watch out for other people's children.  Nobody thinks these prevention efforts impair anybody's free will.  So why not, God? Why not a few more prevention efforts from on high?

Sadly, it's at times like these that people most need to believe there is a god. I noticed in a picture of the girl's mother that she wore a cross around her neck. Yet it's also at times like these that it's most difficult to believe there is.  I would like to say a prayer for this little girl and her mother--I really would--but sadly I just don't think there's anyone to pray to.


Wayne said...

The problem of evil is hands down the best reason not to believe.

amos said...

You make the assumption that God is benevolent and caring. Yahweh of the Old Testament isn't always benevolent: he even makes a sadistic bet about Job. Zeus isn't a full-time Kantian either.
The Christians brought in all that nonsense about God being such a wonderful fellow. What's the line from King Lear? Something like: "as flies to small boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport". (not an exact quote)

amos said...

"As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport." (exact quote) That always seemed more real to me than
all that Christian stuff about Jesus loving you.

Faust said...

I have to admit that I never liked the argument from evil. Not because it doesn't work (it's perfectly fine) but by the time you get done laying out the assumptions for it, you've pretty much begged the question. More than demonstrating the non-existence of God, it demonstrates that descriptions of God always involve human projections (which ammounts to the same thing).

God as rorschach blot.

Jean Kazez said...

I don't think there's any begging of the question here. What most western theists believe in is an omnipotent, omnibenevolent being who created the universe. They actually do think they can square believing in this god with the existence of evil. So I'm not assuming too much by starting off with a concept of God as omnipotent and omnibenevolent. I'm just going along with the prevailing understanding of believers themselves!

Ophelia Benson said...

I would say it's not entirely sad that you don't believe there's anyone to pray to. It's mixed. The mother, if she does believe there's anyone to pray to, is (at the very least) vulnerable to terrible thoughts about why God didn't stop the monster at a red light. Belief in a benevolent father-figure can't escape entanglement with questions about why her, why that way, why now, why us, why why why. It's the belief itself that makes such questions so scalding, surely. Imagine if a beloved parent suddenly tossed your child into a fire - the sense of betrayal!

Non-belief in the benevolent parent at least spares us that. I think that matters more than most people realize.

Faust said...

The argument as I see it goes like this:

God is ALL good (whatever "good" means).
God is ALL powerful.

God created the world.

There is evil in the world (whatever "evil" means).

Therefore God created evil.

Therefore God is not ALL good.

Thefore God, if "he" exists is not ALL good and at least some (if not all) of the things we believe about God are false.

That's the heart of it with variations on the theme possible like "if God HAD to include some evil then he's not ALL powerful" etc.

But one can easily return to the above argument: there is a total Good that we can't see, some kind of utilitarian calculus that only the omnipotent could understand, and so on and so on. In brief: that "good" is not what WE think it is. What if "good" has nothing to do with whether or not people and animals suffer?

I find the idea that there is a "greater order" to things that we don't understand and that suffering is an inherent part of totally plausible. Especially given how little we really know about the universe at the cosmological level.

I find the concept of eternal punishment in hell a considerably more difficult theodicy problem than the existence of suffering.

I guess in the final analysis the question of what is "good" seems to me a pretty open question. So complaining that God doesn't meet the standard that is set for "him" by some believers always smacks circularity. As it happens that circularity is probably inherent to the believers first and foremost.

Ophelia Benson said...

I can imagine that, but it has no bite for me - it doesn't grip anything - because we are what we are, and for us good is what we think it is. It seems useless, and in a way complicit with cruelty, to argue that it could be that goodness is perfectly consistent with causing horrible suffering to billions upon billions of sentient beings. It could be, but who wants to live in such a world? Who even wants to turn into a being that would want to live in such a world? (Dominionists, one might answer, except actually they don't imagine being different in that way.)

Suffering decidedly is an inherent part of evolution by natural selection. But the modern monotheistic god really is thought of as benevolent - as merciful, compassionate - at least at the verbal level. I think trying to square that circle leads to one or another version of horror.

Faust said...

"and for us good is what we think it is."

And I thought I was the relativist around here!

I'll play theologian.

If good is what we think it is, might that not be the point? That God is asking us to change what and how we think? That we might be WRONG about our initial reaction to "mere" animal pain? That we need to, like Jesus on the cross, learn how to bear our suffering in a way that allows us to transcend it?

Whether tis nobler to bear the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take up our Promethean arms and by opposing end them. That is the question no?

Ophelia Benson said...

Well I am a this-world-sentient-animal relativist. I don't think 'suffering' is 'bad' for minerals or gases or stars or comets. But I do think suffering is bad for sentient animals and that a being that causes lots of it for billions upon billions of them for billions of years is a bad being.

Yes, it might be that 'God' is asking us to change how we think about that, and if so, I'm with Huck: I say all right then I'll go to hell.

Human this-world ideas of what is good and bad are all we have access to, and I think it's terribly dangerous to set out to do the opposite of those ideas on the grounds that 'God' might have a wholly different idea of what's good. 'God' might be a sadistic monster, too; is that any reason we should help or collaborate with such a god?

Jean Kazez said...

Terribly sorry, but all that just sets off my BS detector. Beep, beep, beep. It really pays to keep the focus on something real--like a 7-year-old girl being raped and murdered. I just find it wildly nonsensical to suppose this is all to the good.

Faust is nudging us toward saying it may be all to the good in two different ways. (1) Good is not what WE think it is. (2) Looking at the bigger picture, the bad of the rape/killing will actually maximize the good--we just can't see the details because we're not omniscient.

I think the first idea is just empty words. I mean really--what's the idea here? That in some deep and profound sense it actually doesn't matter when little girls are raped and murdered? It would seem to take a less than robust sense of reality (and maybe a couple of glasses of wine) to find this plausible.

The second idea is very common in the theodicy literature. It has lots of versions. They all suffer from the problem of portraying God as either not good or not omnipotent. Whatever good comes of the girl's rape/murder, an all-powerful being would surely be able to achieve it by other means. And on the other hand, how can you think it's worth the child's misery to generate whatever benefits will come about? Any human being who deliberately allowed a child to be raped and murdered "for the greater good" would be viewed as a monster.

amos said...

Spinoza Ethics V p. 17 cor:
God loves no one and hates no one.

Really, why should one imagine that God is some kind of super boy scout?

Jean Kazez said...

Does it take being a "super boyscout" to be concerned about the rape and murder of a child?

amos said...

People should be concerned about the rape and murder of a child (or an adult), but the cosmos, the order of the universe, call it God if you want, doesn't care. It is even a bit pretentious to imagine that the infinity of infinities out there cares about one's life or the life of anyone else. I don't matter to the universe nor does anyone else.

Jean Kazez said...

Ah, well I'm really just talking about the god that most people believe in-an all powerful, all good being. The cosmos or the universe is something else. Certainly the argument from evil doesn't prove the non-existence of the cosmos. We've got a cosmos--that's for very sure.

amos said...

If we take God to be a metaphor for the way people see the order of the universe, Yahweh of the Old Testament or the Homeric Zeus seem more realistic than does the loving, benevolent do-gooder presented by most Christians.

Ophelia Benson said...

All what sets off your BS detector, Jean? What I said as well as what Faust said? I'd have thought I was saying much the same as what you said!

Ophelia Benson said...

"If we take God to be a metaphor for the way people see the order of the universe"

amos - check out the second para of the post. The issue is "an all powerful, all good being watching over the universe" and what the murder of a child implies about such a god.

Jean Kazez said...

No, I meant what Faust said...but I want him to know I'm saying that in a "isn't debate fun, let's have another beer" sort of way. As in "Agh...that sets off my BS detector! Can I have a lime with my Corona?"

Ophelia Benson said...

My (well-worn) Huck Finn line was meant much the same way. Really the whole idea that 'God' has some reversed morality and that's real morality just makes me bristle. If God has a reversed morality then God's a shit, just as Randolph Churchill kept exclaiming. If that's God then I prefer hell.

Faust said...

Will respond when I have time and a Corona firmly in hand.

Faust said...

OK. Not Corona. Coffee. But it will have to do.

I’ll just start out by quoting Johnston:

In all theistic traditions the Highest One is taken to be perfectly good. Now in naïve atheism and its counterpart naïve theodicy, the attempt to justify the ways of God the Benefactor to his unsatisfied client, man, the analogical nature of this honorific predication is ignored…,

and we get the standard argument namely, that because there is evil in this world (as it is understood by us) God must be either not all good, or not all powerful. Johnston goes on with his chapter (Chapter 8) on analogical theology. I find that stuff interesting, and it could form its own discussion. I point it out here as an alternative tack to the one I will take, a way of indicating there are multiple ways to discuss the problem here, which is as much the problem of “naïve theodicy” as it is anything.

Jean says “I'm just going along with the prevailing understanding of believers themselves!” But are these believers even paying attention to their own literature?

Jean writes: “Any human being who deliberately allowed a child to be raped and murdered "for the greater good" would be viewed as a monster.”

Even so. How about a God who orders one of his most faithful servants to take his only and most beloved child up to the mountain top and sacrifice him for no reason other than his whim? As Kierkegaard demonstrates in Fear and Trembling the story of Abraham is not easy to consume…perhaps impossible. I will not rehearse that argument here other than to point out that this key Old Testament story has at its heart the near murder of a child.

And lest one think that we need to confine such harshness only to the Old Testament, consider this New Testament gem:

Luke 14:26 If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.

Again, I won’t get into an in depth analysis of this quote. There are “soft” and “hard” interpretations. But at its core is radical renunciation of “worldliness” even to the point of rejecting the most basic units of life: one’s loved ones, including one’s self.

Now all of us here know the Bible is a cobbled together text that is internally incoherent in all sorts of ways. But I see no reason to conclude that the Bible, the supposed source of our “revelatory wisdom” tells us that God is pleasant benefactor that has come to save us from rapists or cure cancer regardless of what “the believers” say. There is no support for THAT naïve view in the Bible. The demands are quite different. Even psychotic, absurd and paradoxical. The demands are extreme. And they end in radical renunciation of most things that most people care about.

Faust said...

On the question of suffering:
Ophelia writes:

Really the whole idea that 'God' has some reversed morality and that's real morality just makes me bristle. If God has a reversed morality then God's a shit, just as Randolph Churchill kept exclaiming. If that's God then I prefer hell.

God may well be a shit. Look how he played with Job. Look what he did to his own “son.” But I’m not sure if what we are talking here is “reversed” morality. Perhaps it would be better characterized as a non-human or an inhuman one.

I see religions as cultural systems that have evolved to help people process the suffering inherent to life as we know it. Buddhism is perhaps the most explicit about this with “life is suffering” being one of its central doctrines. I think Christianity is similar but somehow despite the fact that its central image is a dude nailed to a cross where he slowly suffocated to death, many mainstream Christians insist that God is really a cancer cure vendor and a guardian angel to soon-to-be-raped-and-murdered children (or so I’ve heard). Instead of dude-nailed-to-cross we get diamond studded crosses hanging above designer dresses.

I suppose in the end one can see “whatever one wants” in the Bible. But I see no reason to privilege the naïve sillyness that passes for “what most believers think” about the bible, anymore than I see the need to privilege what “most American’s think about science” or any other topic for that matter.

None of which is to say I am offering good grounds here to be excited about the message. I’m simply pointing out that arguing with the laughable fantasies of spiritual materialists is bound to wind up in victory.

Jean Kazez said...

The phrase "spiritual materialist" is one of the goodies in Mark Johnston's book (did he make it up?). Interesting concept. I don't understand those diamond crosses, by the way.

I wanted to say just one more thing about whether it helps to be a believer at times of tragedy. Does the anger at God predominate, or the relief that a loved one has "gone to a better place" and "God had his reasons"? Having never been a believer coping with a tragedy, I have no idea. I'm guessing though, that in most cases it's the latter--the comforting thoughts predominate. It just looks that way to me, from the outside. On the other hand, when anger does predominate (like in the case of Elie Wiesel), there's a fairly short road from anger to disbelief.

Faust said...

No I think the term spiritual materialist goes back to the 60s.

I think that people who REALLY believe in the good life hereafter should be perfectly fine with death. I think the fact that people often aren't is an indication of how much doubt they really have.

Unfortunately in some cases, the promise of virgins and all that...

hari said...

The term Spiritual Materialism may have originated with a well known book by the Buddhist Trungpa Rinpoche called ‘Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism’.(early 70’s)

Faust you’re right to point out that God in the O.T. is not a moral actor. Nor is he an immoral actor I would add. Perhaps with unlimited power the concepts of Good and Evil are de trop. Only limited human power can play in that arena. Why would there be good and evil is similar to the question why would there be human beings. There are no human beings beyond good and evil, I suggest that such a concept is inherently self-contradictory The impossible even the almighty cannot accomplish. Angels as created pure spirits also could succumb to pride and follow Lucifer. In short the presence of good and evil in the world does not indicate the non-existence of God.

Nor does it indicate the existence of God either.

Faust said...

Pretty much off topic. But I can't help myself:


Jean Kazez said...


Tom said...

I'm late to this party and I really don't want to get into a full-fledged blog debate on the problem of evil. But I did want to note that the kind of horrific case that got this conversation started is very much in keeping with the focus of the most recent literature on the problem of evil in the contemporary analytic literature.

The atheist points out a particularly awful and inexplicable instance of evil and then claims that there is no reason a good God could have for allowing it. And since a good God wouldn't allow gratuitous evil (i.e., evil for which there isn't a justifying reason), there is no God.

The standard theistic response is to claim that the atheist's argument depends on a principle like this: If you look really, really hard for evidence of X, and you don't find any, then you should conclude that, probably, X doesn't exist.

The theist will then claim that that principle is too broad to be right. Doing a careful visual search of your mostly empty garage and not finding any evidence of your Great Dane is good reason to conclude that your Great Dane isn't there. But doing a similar visual search for the H1N1 virus and finding none doesn't give you good reason to think there is no H1N1 virus there. That is, whereas the aforementioned principle is too broad to be right, this principle seems more plausible:

If (i) you look really, really hard for evidence of X and you don't find any evidence, and (ii) if X did exist and you looked really hard for evidence, you'd find it, then you should conclude that, probably, X doesn't exist.

This principle will warrant your conclusion that there is no Great Dane in your garage but not that there is no H1N1 virus.

The question regarding evil and God, then, is whether God's reasons for allowing evil are more like Great Danes or H1N1. That is, should we expect to be able to conceive of God's reasons should God have them? If the answer is yes, then we should conclude that there probably are no reasons that would justify God in allowing horrific evils. But if we conclude that we have no good reason to think that if God had good reasons we'd be in a position to understand what they are, then the positive conclusion that there are no such reasons is premature.

Let me hasten to point out that none of this is supposed to blunt the horror and outrage felt when one learns of cases like the one Jean discusses in her post. We who believe in God might well be moved to offer a prayer that says little more than "wtf?"

Jean Kazez said...

Tom, In Judaism we don't have the "wtf" prayer...(or do we?)...but I like it!

Yes, one could wrangle about the argument from evil all day, and that wouldn't be good. I really appreciate it when theists don't embrace very facile accounts of God's reasons as if they made sense. Yesterday I listened to a "Philosophy Bites" interview with Marilyn McCord, in which she says the free will story just doesn't make any sense. She says we don't understand why God allows evil (period). I guess the crux of the matter is what this lack of understanding shows--that we should think there is no God or that....well, just that we don't understand. Should we really expect to understand? That's what you're getting at, I take it ... though in such a nice, clear way.