01 August 2010

The affordance of evil

The problem of evil has never been that much of a problem for me. My deconversion, I realised as I was preparing to explain it to someone who knew me when I was quite religious, began with not being able to accept the logic of hell and punishment, which I realised serves an essential role in the Christian faith. Without it, you are left discussing benefits and disadvantages of living a religious life, but this pales in comparison to a discussion of eternal damnation. When you question the hell myth, you get very quickly to the need one has as a Christian to have faith based on no evidence or faith in spite of evidence against what you believe. Once I was unable to maintain this narrative about hell, I was unable to maintain the god narrative: there was no need to make all the concessions it required if the fundamental thing it was promising to save me from wasn’t real.

I digress. The point is, starving people never bothered my conception of god. It always seemed to me that people who left religion because of the problem of evil (‘God wouldn’t have allowed X to happen’) were mainly angry and bitter. God had, in their minds, let them down, but that was a much different thing than god not existing.

Yesterday, Yoko was telling me a story about two children in Japan who died of neglect. They were 1 and 3 (Mei and Naomi’s age) so the story was especially difficult. We could imagine Mei and Naomi crying out and slowly starving as these two children in Japan did. The neighbours had heard screaming for weeks and called the police, but nothing was done. Then the screaming stopped and several months later, the smell of the bodies finally got the police in the apartment. They found the kids lying on top of each other: they had died holding each other.

I teared up when Yoko told me this and I can feel it again when I write it out. It makes me feel angry and then terrified and then terribly helpless. I want to get on a plane, go back in time and stop it. At any cost. Why hadn’t the neighbours done more? Why, why, why.

Here, the problem of evil is suddenly very real to me and I understand how the logic of the Christian god breaks down. God is omniscient, omnipresent, all-loving, transcendent, and imminent. God speaks to Christians. God guides them and brings them joy. God blesses them and cares for them. And god does nothing when two children starve to death. The response to this shouldn’t be, I’m angry with god. It should be, this conception of a god is illogical and silly. The patch, the apologetic answer here, tells a story about free choice, fallen people, and the promise of heaven. It talks about paradoxes and says that trying to understand god with logic is fundamentally flawed because god's ways are higher than ours. God remains loving and present in the believer's life, blessing them with good parking spots when they are late, but god cannot intervene as two children starve for months and months on end, crying out for help. This answer was sufficient to me as a believer, but outside of the belief that it is true, I can recognise the terrible weakness of the argument. The simpler, clearer answer to the question is: there is no transcendent, all-loving, all-powerful, imminent god.

As an empiricist, I have to accept the reality of the two children dying, too. I have to say that it is, in the religious sense, meaningless. It just happened. It will happen again. It is happening now. I may, if I am lucky, play some role in my life in helping alleviate a small amount of pain, but I am one small, tiny person in a system that I have no control over. I don’t have a story I can tell myself when something good or bad happens to me. I have to say, I don’t know — indeed, I can probably never know.

Obviously, I prefer the latter explanation for the same reason that I ultimately rejected hell. The mental gymnastics needed to animate an all-loving transcendent/imminent god are simply not acceptable for me: I didn't accept those gymnastics in other religions when I was a believer, why should I accept them for my conception of god? I am not angry with god for not intervening because there is no god to intervene. To be angry is simply a waste of time. I accept that this conception of god, from my point of view and my empirical paradigm, simply doesn’t exist.

So, what is there to do? I choose not to fall into despair, but I recognise that hopelessness is a potential problem with my worldview. The fact of the matter is, like I said, I don’t know, but I can still hold my daughters and appreciate their love. I can love them and my wife because it has meaning for me and be content not having an answer to the why question that would please a person of faith because the only answer that will please them requires a god. I am pleased with no answer for now.