Here’s a problem that I’ve been recently puzzling over. The problem of evil is alienating. But is it more alienating for theists, or for atheists?
With “evil” I mean bad states of affairs, e.g., coral reefs dying due to climate change, or a friend dying of metastatic cancer. You could equate evil with suffering, but I think it is a broader category (e.g., it is regrettable if a non-sentient magnificent creature, such as a giant sequoia tree, dies. The regret is not only because of what the tree meant to sentient creatures ). Evil perplexes us and disorients us–its effect can be a sense of alienation, a sense you don’t belong in this grim universe.
The evidential problem of evil for theists asks how we can explain evil in a world created by an all-good God. William Rowe’s classic paper on the evidential problem of evil features the example of a fawn, slowly perishing in a wildfire. We can update his dying fawn with the familiar recent imagery of a dying koala. Sure, humans are at least in part to blame for its death but God could have shortened its suffering. The still in the image below was a koala saved by a brave Australian woman, who ventured into the fire, caught the distressed creature, wrapped it in a wet towel, and brought it to safety. If a human being feels moved to save a suffering creature, why would an omni-benevolent and powerful God not do the same? A staggering one billion animals perished in the recent Australian wildfires. Many suffered needlessly long.
The evidential problem of evil is well known. What I am wondering at is not the problem of evil as a source of evidence, but as a source of profound disquiet, a form of existential alienation. We see the suffering and we recoil in horror.
Who should feel more alienated, a committed theist, or a committed atheist? Thomas Hardy, in his poem Hap (which means coincidence) clearly thinks the theist is better off here. He writes:
If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”
Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.
But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.
Hardy was a firm believer in evolutionary theory. He was particularly struck by the importance of chance events in directing the course of evolution, and used his novels as experiments to see how chance events made a big impact on people’s lives. If only there was some divine plan that would ease my suffering, then I would not mind so much that I suffered. Similarly, Jacques Monod thinks that the full realization that our suffering has no higher purposes has a profoundly alienating effect.
“If he accepts this message in its entire significance, then man must at last wake up from his millenary dream to discover his total solitude, his radical foreignness. He knows now that, like a wanderer, he is in the margin of the universe where he must live. A universe that is deaf to his music, as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his suffering or his crimes” (Monod, 1970, 187–188, my translation).
But evil is also alienating for theists, as shown in this brilliant new translation of the book of Job, by Edward Greenstein (Yale University Press, 2019).
Drawing on decades of expertise with the source materials, Greenstein presents a fresh translation. Job is defiant until the end, and God is just awful, in both the old and new sense of that word.
To recap the story: Job is a wealthy and righteous man. God observes how pious Job is, but Satan bets he’s only pious because things go well for him. So God agrees to take everything away: his children die in a freak accident, his livestock and servants are killed, his own health is scuppered by a skin disease. Job eventually challenges God to provide some answers: why did God allow this to happen? Friends come and “console” Job (explaining away the problem, victim-blaming him). Still, Job insists on his own innocence, and eventually he calls God to stand trial.
God responds. In a bullying and brazen series of speeches God tries to pummel Job into submission. He exhorts Job to prepare for a fight (“Gird up your loins”) and then says that Joh does not know anything: you can’t sue me, because you’re not even a credible witness. You weren’t there when I created the universe. God pains a bizarre menagerie of leviathans, ostriches, predatory animals that God takes provident care of. The picture is an amoral, bleak universe.
Job refuses to be content with the answer. First he puts his hand over his mouth, a sign he is listening and wants to hear more. Eventually, he says, simply (again paraphrasing) “I am fed up and now I feel sorry for everything in creation” (in the translator’s phrasing, “That is why I am fed up, and take pity on ‘dust and ashes'”). Unlike in earlier translations, Job does not surrender. He does not repent. He’s just tired. And God admits that Job suffered for no reason, just for a bet.
The ending of Job remains weird. Job gets everything back in twofold. In Exodus (22) thieves are expected to pay back more than they took, in compensation. Is the payment then an implicit admission of divine guilt? Also, in a surprising twist, God says that Job’s friends, who trot out the usual responses to the problem of evil, are a bunch of sycophants who haven’t been honest with God. God says to the friends that “you did not speak about me in honesty as did my servant Job”. Maybe there is a mode of faith as radical honest questioning and looking for evidence, as Katherine Dormandy has recently argued. So perhaps the Book of Job offers theists a way to be defiant, to be faithfully angry and conflicted, to not be content with glib theodicy.
Yujin Nagasawa thinks that the problem of systemic evil (the widespread occurrence of evil in the universe, particularly, brought on by natural selection) make it hard to be an existential optimist for atheists. The theist has a way out, he thinks. But imagine you are standing at the pearly gates, emotionally exhausted from, for example, torture, abuse, debilitating illness, and you now see the purpose of your suffering. Would you then be “eased that a Powerfuller than I Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.” Would that be better than “crass casualty” (mere chance). Maybe. Maybe the crass casualty is ultimately more comforting. An indifferent universe, deaf to our cries, indifferent to our hopes, at least doesn’t require our suffering. It just is.