Saturday, January 05, 2008

Are Theists Callous?

In a discussion at Debunking Christianity, a commenter wrote, of "theists" (exactly what was meant by the term was left unclear, so I'll assume it simply meant here those who intellectually believe the proposition that there is a God, and that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent):

They are as heartless as their alleged god, and the deaths of children being burned alive, don't trouble their beliefs in the slightest.

As someone who has been very critical of the project of theodicy, I am not entirely unsympathetic to the commenter's position. Theodicies themselves are very poor responses to actual instances of suffering. Those who are suffering are not likely to be comforted by a vigorous philosophical defense of a particular description of God. It is simply not helpful.

But, are theodicies intended to be responses to particular instances of suffering? Are they offered as the best response to this or that tragedy, in the moment of suffering? Despite my past wholesale attack on the ethics of theodicy, I don't think that they are. While - as someone who, though religious, does not believe in the traditional theistic description of God - I don't think theodicies work, in that they fail to reconcile that description of God with the existence of suffering; I also don't think that they are intended as pastoral responses to specific instances of suffering.

It would truly be callous, or, as the commenter put it, "heartless," for a theist to in fact be truly untroubled by "the deaths of children being burned alive." But, though theists maintain their belief in an omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent God, I don't think for a moment that they are, in fact, untroubled by specific instances of suffering. They may be quite troubled by children being burned alive in a church in Kenya, but that incident - tragic as it is - does not actually provide us with new information about the universe.

Any theist is already aware that we live in a universe in which it is possible that children could be burned alive in a church in Kenya. Any theist is already aware that such things in fact happen; they have happened, and will presumably continue to happen. This is not new information. As such, their beliefs must already account for the existence of such instances of extreme suffering. That their beliefs do not change after they become aware of yet another instance of acute suffering does not mean that they are not troubled by such instances of suffering. It simply means that such instances have already, presumably, been accounted for in their belief system. While I do not find their accounts for such instances persuasive, neither do I think that they should jettison their beliefs every time tragedy strikes, if in fact they find that their theodicies have sufficiently accounted for suffering in the world, reconciling it to a particular description of God.

At this point I think it would be instructive to note that there are in fact two very different problems of evil (or suffering, as some theodicies deny that suddering is, in fact, evil, or evidence of evil), though we often conflate them, as I think the commenter at Debunking Christianity may have done:

1. The philosophic problem of evil (or suffering), and

2. The existential problem of evil (or, again, suffering).

The philosophic (or, perhaps, logical) problem of evil is just what you might guess from its title, a philosophic/logical problem. It is to this problem that theodicies respond. This problem may be roughly rendered thusly:

The following propositions are logically inconsistent:

i. There is a God
ii. God is omnipotent
iii. God is omniscient
iv. God is benevolent
v. There is suffering/evil in the world.

That is, suffering is logically incompatible with the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good and loving God.

The existential problem of evil is a very different problem. It is a personal one, and may be rendered thusly:

The actual experience of suffering and evil creates conditions in which a person is less likely to believe in God.

New instances of suffering in the world participate in the existential problem of evil, in that they create conditions within which one's faith is challenged. But they are not necessarily relevant for the philosophic problem of evil, because they are simply not needed for it. Any suffering of any kind, at any point in history, already challenges the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God. If someone has then responded philosophically to past instances of suffering, or even to the abstract possibility of suffering, and reconciled it sufficiently for themselves to the existence of the traditional theistic description of God, new instances of suffering do not pose an additional philosophic problem. But they may create an existential one.

This distinction is instructive because it acknowledges that we are not purely rational beings. Our logical/philosophical responses to suffering are not our only responses. And, even those whose theistic beliefs are philosophically untroubled by particular instances of suffering (such as the church fire in Kenya) are not necessarily either heartless or callous. They may have a profound emotional response to such suffering. Their faith may even strengthen that emotional response, and help them shape a powerful practical response. But that doesn't mean that this new concrete instance of suffering provides them with new information that should make them jettison their previous beliefs on the spot.


Mystical Seeker said...

The one who complained that "theists" are heartless simply assumed that all who believe in God accept omnipotence as a divine attribute. But this is not necessarily the case; process theology, for example, rejects the notion of divine omnipotence.

I came to the conclusion that I could not accept the notion of divine omnipotence, and one of the reasons is that it solves what you refer to as the philosophical problem of theodicy.

Troy said...


brilliant. It is wonderful to see your mind expanding, taking in so many things...

I need to get back in here and read older posts on theodicy, suffering, etc. You describe the issues well here...I do not know how much farther than that one can go.


Sandalstraps said...


Thank you so much for your comment and your compliment. It was heartening to read, especially since I've late I've been thinking that my brain is rotting!

As for theodicy, the best book I've encountered on the subject is Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy, edited by Stephen T. Davis. Davis, an evangelical Christian, is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Claremont McKenna College. His book contains essays by different theologians and philosophers representing a wide range of positions, including Process Theology.

The best part about the book, in my opinion, is its format. Rather than just having disconnected essays assorted by topic, each essay - which presents the reader with a particular theodicy - is then followed by critiques by other contributers to the book. The critiques are then followed by a rejoinder.

It is, in other words, as close to a debate as a book can get.

If you're interested in it, you'll want to look for the newest edition, which was published in 2001 by Westminster John Knox Press.

Troy said...


sincere thanks! I've learned by now when you recommend a book...I need to read it.


templewhore said...

Any suffering of any kind, at any point in history, already challenges the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God.

Not at all true. Some suffering may be rationalized as being justified for various reasons: "god is teaching one a lesson", or "god allows suffering because some other purpose is fulfilled", etc. But when one sees extreme examples of suffering that involve children - those being burned alive, for example, or the millions who are born into extreme poverty, live a short miserable life, and die every year, then it's a lot more difficult to reconcile that with your benevolent god hypothesis. You must then postulate that your god has some purpose that can only or best be fulfilled by allowing millions of children to suffer and die each year.

So now you must consider what that purpose could possibly be: teaching humanity a lesson of some kind? Communicating with us? And what exactly is god communicating? Because it seems pretty clear that we're not getting the message very easily. Doesn't it seem that the creator of an unimaginably vast universe (try to get outside the earth-based view of life for a minute, here) with billions of stars in billions of galaxies would be able to communicate just a little more effectively and humanely, if he in fact existed and had some purpose?

At a minimum, this suggests an extreme disdain for human life on this god's part.

Sandalstraps said...


I wonder what it is, in my actual post, that your comment is responding to.

I also wonder what it is, exactly, that you mean by the word "god."

The project of theodicy (a word coined by Leibnitz, meaning the justification of God) is to attempt to logically reconcile the traditional theistic description of God (omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent) with the fact of suffering. This project - though it was articulated as such by Leibnitz in the early 18th century - is as old as the concept of a single, all-powerful deity.

In my own Christian tradition theodicies have been offered since at least the third century. Similar arguments emerge at different times from other monotheistic religions that adopt the traditional theistic description of God (that is, from philosophic schools in Judaism and Islam).

In my view, however, they fail philosophically, as is quite clear in my writing. That we Christians have spent at least the last 1800 years wrestling with the problem means that I am more than aware of some possible justifications of suffering. But they are logically incompatible with a concept of a perfectly good God who would by virtue of that perfect goodness not will suffering, and an all-powerful God who could, by virtue of such unlimited power be able to accomplish any good brought out of any instance of suffering without permitting the suffering itself.

In other words, philosophically (for reasons that are clear in any of my many posts on theodicy) I reject the project of theodicy, and as such the traditional theistic description of God.

So, when we are talking about God-concepts in the midst of suffering, I must ask you what you mean by the word "god." You are tossing the word around in your comment as though there were only one possible concept of the divine, and yet given the multiplicity of religious beliefs, that cannot possibly be the case.

The point of this post was to argue that - despite my view that theodicies fail on philosophic grounds, and despite my arguments elsewhere that there are inherant ethical problems that arise out of the basic project of theodicy - it is simply not the case that when a theist (someone who believes in the traditional theistic description of God) refuses to abandon their belief system in the face of some new instance of suffering, they are not in that moment demonstrating callousness. My reasons for this are clear in the post.

templewhore said...

I wrote a long post in reponse and then my browser crashed and lost it.

In any case, looking over your previous posts on theodicy, it seems that your approach to the problem of evil is simply to state that it doesn't matter.

I'm wasting my time. Sorry to have wasted yours.

Sandalstraps said...


My response to the Problem of Evil is decidedly not to say that it doesn't matter. It matters a great deal, and has had a tremendous impact on my philosophic and theological work.

Ultimately my response to the Problem of Evil, after years of wrestling with the project of theodicy, is to say that it stands as a fatal critique to the traditional theistic description of God.

I simply don't conflate God as God with any particular description of God.

My comment to you is a plea to consider the depth and diversity of theological descriptions of God. Those descriptions are any multi-faceted attempt to describe an ineffable experience in metaphorical language.

If you can't believe in a God of any description, that's fine with me. A great many good and reasonable people find themselves honestly unable to do so. But if you refuse to recognize and respect the great diversity in theological and philosophic language concerning and concepts of God, that is something I have a much harder time respecting.

Your comment showed no depth in reflection on the many possible meanings of the word God, or the diversity of beliefs about God. It also showed no understanding of the post on which you were commenting.

There are many, many posts here on the project of theodicy. This particular post asked a narrower question: is it necessarily the case that theists are callous in their refusal to abandon the theistic description of God in the face of actual instances of suffering. My answer to that question - the concern of this post - is a resounding "no," for reasons clear in the post itself.

If you are willing to engage in open and honest philosophic discourse, using the principles of interpretive charity outlined here, then you are wasting no one's time. If, however, you'd like to revert to the juvenile mean of blog discourse, then your time is best spent elsewhere.