Theism is a Moral Failure

by Michael Lopresto

Can you understand why a little creature, who can't even understand what's done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child's prayer to “dear, kind God”!

–Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov

160px-The_sacrifice_of_AbrahamHow is belief in God possible? Is it coherent to acknowledge the immense suffering of a child, on the one hand, and to believe in God on the other? The Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga compares God creating a world in which some people suffer to a mother insisting her child “take piano lessons or go to church or school,” to help make sense of a moral justification for God creating a world in which evil exists. A mother can justifiably insist that her child does something that he doesn't enjoy, like go to school, because the mother is in a better position to know what is in the best interests of her child. But the speed with which theists like Plantinga extend the routine acceptability of making a child go to school, to the horrendous evil we find in the actual world simply defies belief.

Theodicy is the project of giving a moral justification for the evil that God has created or has allowed to occur. Will God be acquitted in the tribunal of morality? This project was founded in its modern from by the great German philosopher G. W. Leibniz, and continues today with philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga and Peter van Inwagen. The typical justifications given are that free will is valuable and therefore justifies the suffering we inflict upon one another, and that various evils are logically necessary means to get to greater goods. It is often thought that to save belief in God from being positively irrational, an intellectually satisfying answer must be given to the problem of evil. When posed with the question of why it is that God would allow someone to murder an innocent person, the theist might say that free will is an intrinsic good, and that giving humans free will means that they may freely choose to do the wrong thing; or that transgressions such as murder make possible higher goods, such as forgiveness and compassion.

Of course, there are intellectually motivated objections to the free will defence. Natural evil such as typhoons and disease is not caused by the free action of any human. To which some theodicists such as Plantinga will respond that natural evil may be caused by the free action of supernatural beings, such as Satan. The free will defence also faces the problem of heaven: in heaven, humans will presumably have free will, and will therefore have the potential to harm one another. Therefore, heaven won't be a perfect place after all, or there is no logical reason why God couldn't have given us free will here on earth whilst also creating the laws of nature such that we couldn't harm one another. Also, there may be a problem with the free will defence's conception of value: as I read Kant in his Critique of Practical Reason, Kant argues that the only moral actions are free actions, guided by reason; all else is irrational and hence antecedently determined. So if Kant is right, then the free will defence cannot account for evil, as evil actions can never be performed freely, but perhaps only by our animal nature. As for the greater good defence, this suffers from logical problems of its own. If great evil is done to someone just to derive a greater good, and even if that person shares in that greater good, that may not justify the evil. At most, this may only compensate the victim, and compensation is not justification. (It should be acknowledged that theists and non-theists will often have differing conceptions of what moral justification consists in – as flowing from God or being independent of God. It seems to me that both conceptions will raise troubles for the theist.)

Intellectual objections aside, why would anyone adopt this project in the first place? Is the existence of God more real to some people than the suffering of children? Let's consider one of Ivan Karamazov's examples in the The Brothers Karamazov:

This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then they went to greater refinements of cruelty – shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy, and because she didn't ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its angelic, sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask) they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother, did this! And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child's groans!

Under what conditions can something think it appropriate to justify the horrendous suffering that Ivan describes in this example? What moral presuppositions must a theodicist adopt in order to construct a theodicy that will justify such horrific evil? As the philosopher Andrew Gleeson has said, “the lives of our children are not for sale.” Once we leave aside the purely intellectual perspective that theodicists adopt by giving logical reasons for why it's not plainly contradictory to believe in God and evil simulataneously, we see how morally abhorrent theodicy actually is. From a morally serious perspective, it isunthinkable that we would consent to our children being subjected to horrendous evil, such as rape and torture, even if our children will later share in some greater good, and even if our children will experience an eternal post-mortem beatitude. And yet this is what theodicy is about: consenting to God knowingly creating a world where our children are raped and tortured.

Some evil is due to no one's fault at all (except God, for the theist); some people's lives are an absolute living hell because of mental illness. For example, those who hear voices are often tormented for years before they're driven to commit suicide. Animals will often suffer agonising deaths in bushfires. Will God be acquitted in the tribunal of morality for these cases?

Do theists actually believe that God exists and evil exists? I suspect that a great many don't (or can't) at the same time. Many theists never entertain both thoughts at the same time because they will acknowledge the contradiction. It's not logically possible for an all-powerful, all-knowing and perfectly good being to exist, and it being the case that a child has been tortured (absent dubious moral assumptions). However, many theists believe that God exists, but notthat evil exists. These are the theists – and there are many – who claim that the problem of evil is nothing more than an emotional hindrance to believing in God, that the actual torture of children is simply good in disguise, that “evil” is misunderstood good, that “evil” is purely “subjective” (whatever that means) and so forth. Theists have a deep problem in acknowledging the actual evil that exists in the world, a necessary clouding of their moral senses. Belief in God severely limits one's ability to acknowledge the deep suffering another may go through, especially that of children – it involves departure from the moral perspective. Therefore, belief in God is a moral failure.

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