While religion and religious institutions can be forces for great good, there is a lot of nonsense written and spoken in the name of religion. And I am not even talking here about the clear cut cases of murder in the name of extreme religious fanaticism that are anathema to civilized people everywhere. I am talking about attributing all good to God and all evil to man or mother nature. The Jeremiads of the religious right even go so far as to blame the victims of disasters, since they believe that God always protects the righteous, in spite of the abundant evidence that the righteous often fall while the wicked often flourish.
In the recent miracle of the nine coal miners, everyone on television seemed quick to praise God that the miners were found alive and reasonably well, but no one seemed to be willing to point out that God could have saved Himself and everyone associated with the rescue a lot of trouble if He had protected the nine miners from hitting the old cave in the first place, or if He hadn't filled it with quite so much water. Even on God's part, an ounce of prevention should be worth a pound of rescue. Surely the thought must have crossed someone's mind, but, if so, no one seemed willing to express it. At best, a number of people tried to attribute the rescue to a combination of luck and skill in deciding where to drill to begin with, and in the, often selfless, perseverance of everyone to supply the drilling materials, the medical assistance, and all the necessary hours of labor, energy, and service to find and free the miners.
The closest anyone came to questioning the involvement of God in the matter was one news anchor a few days later who asked "The God Squad," Rabbi Marc Gellman and Msgr. Thomas Hartman, whether that meant God forsook the little girls recently who were raped and murdered or who have been abducted and not yet found. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky passionately puts forward the many cases of the terrible suffering of innocent children as showing there is something wrong with the view that God is all-benevolent and all-powerful or that the salvation of some in some way makes up for such suffering. The rabbi and the priest gave a dumb answer, one of many often given that I want to try to lay to rest here.
The "problem of evil" is a difficult one for anyone who believes in spirituality but who also thinks spirituality should not ignore common sense and reason. Good people do suffer; they suffer harm and they suffer from the harm that befalls loved ones. There could be a reason for this, not just a cause, but if there is any reason for this, the reason should make sense, not merely give false psychological comfort to the afflicted or serve as a superstitious talisman to ward off any personal evil from a powerful but capricious God somehow bent on sycophancy and yet not always even placated by that.
The rabbi and the priest said that evil occurs so that we can develop compassion. Compassion seems hardly worth the devastation -- particularly to the innocent victims, however, and it seems that we could develop the same amount of compassion, and perhaps even far more, over a great deal less amount of evil and certainly a great deal less severity of evil. How much war and famine and disease and misery, and death, do we need in order to develop compassion simply for those in need of our help, when our help could actually do some good to alleviate their need or suffering? We would clearly never say a parent who beats his children periodically in order to make them have compassion or be sensitive would be a good parent. We shouldn't say that of God either. Compassion in the face of suffering is better than callousness or indifference, but would we not gladly give up compassion if we could also eliminate the need for it?
The rabbi and priest also said that we always have more good than evil in our lives, no matter how much we suffer. That is difficult to believe. But even if it were true in regard to the amount of suffering, one's blessings do not alleviate severe suffering or in any way justify it, particularly when it is so acute that it overwhelmingly blots out any joy possible from the blessings at the time. While even the least bit of good may make a life of relatively minor travail worthwhile, even a great amount of good may not make up for the most abject kind of misery and harm that befall many innocent people. I would not be a good person if I beat you everyday and then offered you candy or money or new clothes or a new car to "make up for it." Generous husbands who are also abusive are not good husbands. A generous but abusive god would not be a good god.
Another view is that life on earth is a test to see whether we deserve heaven. If so, first it is a cruel test. Second, even if some people pass the test, particularly because they and their loved ones do not experience the worst kind of misery and suffering, that does not make the test fair for those who do suffer in that way, whether they pass or not. Little crack babies and others with severe birth defects possibly don't even have a chance to pass the test before they die. And their suffering is hardly fair in order to test other people.
There is also the view that God has created the "best of all possible worlds" and that therefore any other way He or anyone would have made this universe would have been worse. First, that is difficult to imagine. Most people, if they put their mind to it, have ideas about how the world could be better. In fact, we are often trying to improve life for ourselves, for our children, and for our fellow human beings, often successfully, instead of saying there is no need for improvement and no possibility of it. More importantly, those who believe this is the best of all possible worlds also often believe that passing the test here will lead to heaven, which is an even better world. But if this is the best of all possible worlds, there cannot be a better one. This would have to be the closest possible to paradise or heaven.
Two other alleged rationales for evil are popular: (1) that suffering results in some cases from natural disasters, which are simply the result of natural laws. And that natural laws are necessary or we would not be able to have any control over our lives at all, never knowing what the effects of any given cause would be. And (2) man-made evil occurs because God has given man free will, and it is more important that we be free, even if some people choose the wrong thing, than that we all be robots who are programmed with no choice about how we actually behave.
David Hume pointed out over 200 years ago how there could be natural laws without natural disasters if the natural laws were made slightly different. They would still allow us to govern our lives, though with less damaging consequences when we make a mistake.
But the worst rationale is the one invoking the notion of free will, because it is not free will that makes us evil or that makes us choose to harm ourselves or others. Having free will just means we have the option to do right or wrong; it does not mean we have to choose wrong in order to exercise, or even to demonstrate, the option. We exercise choice just as much when we choose to do what is right as when we choose to do what is wrong. Mother Teresa did not have less free will than Adolph Hitler. In fact, it is sometimes the case that those who do what is wrong are acting out of a compulsion or a desire they do not even try to resist, not out of any real choice in the matter. But at any rate, having free will just means you can do evil or do good and that you have an unfettered choice in the matter. If we always chose to be good, we would be exercising every bit as much free will as anyone who chooses to do harm. You don't have to be bad to demonstrate or know that you could be bad. If God had made everyone more sensitive or more intelligent or more compassionate or understanding and sympathetic, there would be far less man-made evil in the world, and yet every bit as much free will.
Moreover, free will is not worth terrible devastation. We shoot violent criminals pointing guns at others and we do not let children play in the street. We would not give atomic bombs to teenagers in order to let them exert their free will, and, if we could, we would take such weapons out of the hands of many adults. There are simply many times that preventing catastrophe is far more important than allowing freedom of choice to be exercised.
None of this is to argue there is no God or that God is not in some
way good. It is only to argue that not every reason given, supposedly on
behalf of God, for the existence of evil ought to be accepted any more
than some of the dumb reasons people give for their own transgressions.
Now it seems to me that if one wants to maintain, in light of
the amount and severity of evil in the world, that there is a
benevolent, knowledgeable, powerful God, one could do that as long as
one doesn't maintain that God is all-powerful. One could, of
course, maintain God is not all-knowing or not totally benevolent, but
is still all-powerful, but I, myself, would think it more esteemable
for God to be wise, caring, and less powerful, than to be all powerful,
but less wise or less benevolent, kind, and decent -- particularly if
God were to have to be so unwise as not to notice the evil and
suffering that occurs or so uncaring as not to be sorrowed by it.
Plus, whether God's inability to prevent evil is the result of logic,
as theologians hold, or the result of mere physical inability to do it,
the result is the same inability. And it seems to me that the
question for God (and for us) is whether if God couldn't have created a
better universe, He should have created one at all. Does the
amount of good created with the universe somehow make up for or justify
the amount of evil that comes with its creation? If it does, then
a benevolent and wise God should have created it; if not, a benevolent
and wise God should not have created it. The question is whether life,
with all its attendant good is worth creating in the first place, given
all its ills and miseries. Is the light that shines on all our
lives collectively worth the candle?
We actually individually are faced with the same question,
when knowing what evils and what goods can occur in life, we have to
decide whether to conceive a(nother) child or not. I imagine any
God to have been plagued with the same question in creating life
collectively in the first place -- by creating a universe with life in
it. But, unlike the priest and rabbi above presumed, the answer on
behalf of creating life, whether individually or universally, does not
require that there be much or even a small balance of goodness over
suffering; it only requires that there be sufficient goodness, or even
sufficiently possible goodness, to make it worthwhile. A small
amount of joy often makes up for a larger amount of misery, though I
don't know how to explain the calculus that seems to determine
that. When we conceive children, we know their lives will not
likely be perfectly happy, but we hope they will be worthwhile to them
in some way. We hope they will have sufficient joy in life to be
glad they were born. If not, at least we have to be satisfied it
was possible and that we did our best to make it happen. For God,
the problem was similar but more difficult, because He has to take into
account fairness too, since it is not the individual's life for which
He is necessarily seeking sufficient joy, but the collective joy, which
any given individual might not get to participate in at all. We
don't have to worry about being unfair to a child by trying to give it
a good enough life under reasonably likely circumstance, even if we
fail through no fault of our own. But if you know that some
percentage of people will suffer most miserably, and you create them
anyway so that the rest will have decent or happy lives, that becomes
an issue of fairness in deciding whether to make life for all or for
none of them possible.
There is no issue about the fairness of the amount of good and
evil in the universe if life was not created by conscious design of a
being with moral sensitivity. One would just have to accept the
bad with the good as part of some cosmic accident (apart from one's own
negligence), and simply seek to bring about the most good possible (at
least for those about whom one cares). But if one believes that the
universe was designed and created by God and that God exerts some
influence or control over it, and that God is benevolent and wise (at
least wise enough to know what is occurring in the universe in terms of
good and evil), then one would have to believe that whatever evil
occurs is somehow made up for by the amount or quality of good, and
that somehow the distribution of good and evil is either fair enough to
be worthwhile or that the value of the good makes up somehow for any
unfairness to those who suffer -- that they are somehow suffering for
the greater good, even if not directly contributing to it by their
suffering other than by being part of a percentage of those who must
suffer if the universe is to be created with sufficient good for
anyone. This is not totally different from any collective
enterprise humans create that will have risk of disaster for some --
such as war or experimentation in things from flight to space travel to
medicine and surgery -- where some will suffer and others
benefit. One still needs to try to prevent and avoid evils and
harm, but one should have the belief that any harm done was lamented by
God and yet that it is somehow worth it for mankind insofar as it was
not able to be avoided in the past.
It is difficult for me to see it in this latter way, and I am
more comfortable with the idea that life is somehow accidental and that
bad things happen, rather than trying to believe that a wise, caring
God would create a universe that had the amount and degree of both
natural suffering and the number of evil and ignorant people in it that
this one has, and has had in the past, so that some may achieve
whatever degree of happiness they have. The misery of so many
hardly seems worth the joy of the rest. But I could be wrong
about that. I would just need to see what the justification would
or might be.