Not Even a Good
Neighbor, Let Alone Worthy of Worship
A Letter to The Tablet
on What is
Worse than a Tsunami for Classical Theism,
Problem of Evil
August 6, 2002
Dear Ms. A------,
It is always of great interest to me when philosophy shows up in the
popular press. On your way to making a conservationist plea in your
recent column (The Tablet, Aug. 2), you ventured into
You consider “the beauty and complexity of the natural world and the
order of the universe” to be “a compelling proof of the existence of
God. It’s all too complex and ordered to be accidental or
coincidental. There are just too many beautiful colors, complex life
forms and intricacies to be explained by chance.”
You also say you have “never been able to comprehend atheists.” Of
course, the incomprehension goes both ways. If your inference from
natural beauty, complexity, and order were in fact a compelling
proof, then it would compel (unless “proof” means “the marshalling
of favorable evidence for a conclusion to which one is already
committed”). In fact, it does not compel all rational minds.
Before I am misunderstood, let me make clear that I agree with you:
there is nothing accidental or coincidental about the cosmic order.
It has a personal, creative, divine source. I don’t believe, however,
that theism can be read off the surface of things.
If polled, “billions of people” will no doubt claim that they “believe
in a powerful, loving and merciful God who created and sustains the
universe.” But are they “thinking outside the box,” or just repeating
what feels comfortable and familiar? I am fairly certain, however,
that thinking outside the box is what some young adults do on their
spring break when they question their inherited theism – a “box” if
there ever was one.
For nature exhibits a great deal of disorder as well as order, and
ugliness as well as beauty. It inflicts at least as much pain on
sentient creatures as it induces pleasure in them. There is much more
cold, black emptiness in the cosmos than beautiful colors, complex
life forms, or intricacies.
Even so, if the existence of evil and ugliness count against
the existence of the God of classical theism, then the existence of
goodness (and truth and beauty) should count for that God’s
existence. Not many atheists will accept this goose-and-gander
proposition. Unfortunately, neither will many theists I have known.
The problem lies in a concept of God to which most theists are
uncritically committed. It is the idea of God as omnipotent, as
all-controller. According to this conception, God sheerly caused
them to be and sheerly sustains them in existence. He created them
out of nothing. He is the ultimate reason why anything is the way
it is. God is firmly in control of all things.
To worship such a being, however, is to worship sheer efficient
causality, than which nothing should be less inspiring, at least for
one who takes his cue about the nature of God from Jesus. As
Whitehead put it, God’s power is the worship he inspires.
Popular religion to the contrary notwithstanding, pushing gross matter
around is not what God’s power consists in. Never has been, never
will be. Rather, God’s power is attractive: it influences the growth
of beings that partially determine their own course. That’s why the
cosmos has the order it has, but not yet all the order or the kind of
order God wants it to have. That fundamental entities have
self-determining power is an ultimate metaphysical fact, not a result
of divine gift-giving.
Only such a theistic scheme gets God off the hook for the existence
and occurrence of excessive, nondisciplinary evil with which the world
is teeming. Theists who insist that God can but, for some
mysterious reason doesn’t prevent such evil should not be
surprised when others tune them out and regard talk about natural
beauty to be a change of subject.
free-will defense of the traditional God’s goodness is fatally
flawed. Even if, for example, Alejandro Avila raped and murdered
Samantha Runnion a few weeks ago “of his own free will,”
any decent human being, of his or her own free will, would have
forcibly prevented Avila from doing the same, if they could have.
of their own free will prevented Roy Ratliff from murdering those two
teenaged girls last week of his own free will. God may have respected
his free will, but
they shot him to death. If they
could have done so before he abducted and sexually assaulted those
girls, they would have.
God also has free will, yet he did not prevent those teenagers from
being raped or five-year-old Samantha from being raped and killed. He
would have if he could have. If he wouldn’t have, then he does not
even qualify as a good neighbor, let alone a being worthy of worship.
You say you cannot comprehend atheists, yet many who identify
themselves as such are simply accepting a certain theistic conception
of God and drawing a different conclusion. Both groups hold that the
traditional concept of God is a “package deal”: God is both the source
of order and beauty and the one who could, but doesn’t, save
the two-year-old who is dying horribly from Tay-Sachs in Evanston,
Illinois as I write this.
Traditional theists prefer to live with the inexplicability of evil
given God’s existence; atheists, the inexplicability of goodness,
truth, and beauty given God’s nonexistence. This dichotomy, however,
is fortunately not necessary.
We cannot continue teaching children that God can do
anything (logically possible), but that God also imperially
chooses not to do, without risk to himself, what anyone of us would be
morally bound to at least try to do, even at some risk to
ourselves (e.g., saving a child from a careening car or burning bus).
A religion that acquiesces in that conception of God is held together
only by social and psychological, i.e., nonrational, bonds.
Once reason breaks those bonds, atheism looms as an option. College
kids prove that every year.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. For reasons of length and
content, it is inappropriate for The Tablet. I am open to any
correction you think I deserve and wish to give me.
The Tablet is the
weekly newspaper of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York.
This letter received no reply.