To begin, a brief summary of Dr Fosl’s argument and conclusions.
Peter Fosl examined an argument given by Ivan in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which he formalised as follows:
1. If any being is aware of some evil, is able to stop or prevent that evil, and does not stop or prevent that evil, then that being is morally reprobate. [Moral Principle.]
2. The suffering and death of children are evil. [Moral Fact.]
3. God is aware of the suffering and death of children. [Theological Fact.]
4. God is able to stop and/or prevent the suffering and death of children. [Theological Fact.]
5. God does not stop and/or prevent the suffering and death of children. [Empirical Fact.]
Conclusion: God is morally reprobate.
After a detailed examination of all stages of the argument, the following was Dr Fosl’s conclusion:
“My view is that from a logical point of view the soundness of the argument, as it stands, remains and must remain indeterminate. By this I mean that while the argument is surely valid, it is impossible to determine the truth of its premises. I suspect that if God exists – despite the testimony of those who claim to have or to have had a direct link-up – God and God’s workings must always remain profoundly inscrutable to humanity. To the extent that the irrevocably mysterious character of things divine prohibits us from making a judgment about God’s moral standing, one may be tempted to take what I should like to call the “Job option” and grant God the benefit of the doubt.
As the story goes, evil things befell the good man, Job, and the reasons for those things happening remained elusive to him; but because Job had faith, he held fast to his allegiance to God and to the conviction that although we don’t know them, God must have good reasons for permitting such things to happen. It seems to me that the Job option is a real option for human life, but strictly speaking the mysterious character of the divine does not lead to the conclusion that we ought to grant God the benefit of the doubt. It simply implies that we’re in no position to make a judgment.
Philosophically I tend toward this view. My willingness to affirm this position, however, is qualified by my acknowledgement of the existential and phenomenological dimensions of Ivan’s examples (as well as the examples of Susan Smith and Thomas Hamilton). Ivan’s argument in conjunction with the actual experience (direct or imaginary) of confronting the suffering and wrongful death of children renders his position much more compelling to me than my strictly logical analysis of it would indicate.
It is my own sense that fully embracing the Job option entails a partial abdication of our humanity, of our moral integrity, if you will. While an acknowledgement of the ignorance we must endure with regard to the divine makes it difficult for us to render any fully determinate judgment concerning whether God is good or evil (and whether or not we should rebel against God), an acknowledgement of the profound and gratuitous horror of the suffering of children renders it in my view very, very difficult morally and existentially to accept the JCI characterisation of God. In short, while the Judaic-Christian-Islamic view of God cannot be determinately (that is logically or empirically) condemned, Ivan’s argument powerfully supports the conclusion that such a God is nevertheless morally repugnant. It is, in short, logically possible that the Judaic-Christian-Islamic God is indeed a good God – but by nearly everything else we know and believe, and by all the moral standards to which we hold one another, it sure as hell seems that such a God is as horrible and evil as Susan Smith.”
I have just finished reading your article on the web. Interesting proposition given the given that God exists.
As a ten year old, I survived the Holocaust and then I did not believe in God because in my ten year old mind God could not possibly exist and cause my parents’ death and that of a third of my people.
I ended up in a very religious orphanage and of course Pascal’s dictum “Get on your knees and pray and soon you too will believe” (from memory) worked its magic on me. I too believed in God for a while.
We come now to the why I think your argument is failing. God is well defined by his attributes. Who are we to change them? The illogical situation caused by the contradiction inherent in those attributes is itself a question about the existence of God. An all Good God that knows everything and is all powerful allowing a two year-old cute little girl to die with excruciating pain is a contradiction. I will not bore you with the “if then’s” of the situation. You have outlined them well. But you are still afraid or unwilling to go all the way. Since God’s attributes are illogical, impossible either God doesn’t exist or the attributes are false. In either case the result is that man doesn’t have to fear God any longer or pray for anything because this God is either powerless or doesn’t exist. If God exists, it is such a mini-God as to be of no importance whatsoever. Suit yourself as to which one you prefer. In either case, The Christian Coalition has no standing to tell my daughters that they should control my daughter’s body, not teach evolution or sex education in schools
Mr. Eigenwirtz, thank you so much for your interesting thoughts on my essay and on this issue. Your suggestion that I have not pushed my arguments far enough is terribly compelling.
First, however, in reply I wish to make a logical point. You conclude that “either God doesn’t exist or the attributes are false.” Logicians call this claim a disjunction or an either/or claim. Its logical form may be described as: “either not X or Y” where X means “God exists” and Y means “God does not possess the attributes we attribute to him.” The statement as a whole is true either when it’s true that “not X” or when it’s true that “Y” – or when both “not X” and “Y” are true.
As it turns out, the same truth conditions apply to statements that logicians call material conditionals – i.e. statements of the form of “If X, then Y.” Disjunctive claims like yours, then, are equivalent to and may be translated as conditional statements. Accordingly, your claim (“either God doesn’t exist or the attributes are false”) can be restated in this way: “If God does exist, then the attributes are false” (If X, then Y).
My essays aims to show that (A) we cannot demonstrate the truth of this claim with certainty but (B) what most of us have actually come to regard as moral goodness presents us with a strong case for maintaining that it is true. So, you see, our positions are not very different on this score. You, I, and Ivan maintain that this claim is true.
Ivan differs from us, however, in accepting the truth of the antecedent of this conditional – that is, he accepts the notion that God exists. Ivan’s argument, then, may be recast as what’s called a disjunctive syllogism: (1) Either God does not exist or the attributes are false; (2) God does exists; therefore (3) the attributes are false (i.e. God is not “good”).
You differ from Ivan and from me, however, in maintaining that “God is well defined by his attributes.” Your argument, then, may be recast as a disjunctive syllogism with the same first premise but a different second premise and conclusion: (1) Either God does not exist or the attributes are false; (2) the attributes are not false; therefore (3) God does not exist.
For my own part, I will go with you and Ivan as far as Premise 1 (“Either God does not exist or the attributes are false”) – though in a somewhat weaker fashion than the two of you. What I mean is, I’m not really sure whether or not God exists. (I frequently hope God does.) And I’m not quite sure that the attributes are false – or, more precisely, not all true of God.
You claim (a) that God’s permitting evil things to take place is inconsistent with the “goodness” attributed God. That is to say, you claim that the attributes are logically in conflict with the existing facts of the world. You also claim (b) that “God is well defined by his attributes.” I take it that, by this, you reject the notion that God could exist but simply possess different attributes.
For my own part, I believe you are right about (a). But as I tried to show in the article, no adequate proof can be offered to demonstrate this claim with certainty. As far as I understand what counts as good and evil, the existence of a “good” God is inconsistent with the suffering of children. I must, however, acknowledge the finitude of my own understanding. I acknowledge that I may be wrong in ways I describe in the article. Still, since my own experience and reflection lead me to think that I (and you, Mr. Eigenwirtz) are right about this, I put the burden of proof upon those who would wish to convince me otherwise.
As far as (b) goes: I see no reason to remain open to the possibility that while God exists people have simply been wrong about God’s attributes.
There is also, Mr. Eigenwirtz, another problem with the attributes of God, a problem I did not take up in my article. It’s a problem with which many philosophers – especially medieval philosophers – have wrangled. The problem is this: human language may be a limited instrument for making attributions about divine things. Accordingly, when we call God “good” or “powerful” or “just” or “loving” perhaps we ought to understand that those terms don’t (can’t) have the same meaning that the do when we apply them to human beings or other worldly things. The philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) held that the predicates we apply to God offer us no positive understanding of God; all we can have is an understanding of what God is not. Thomas Aquinas (c1225-74), by contrast, held that the predicates we apply to God give us an analogical understanding of God. God is not “good” in the same way that humans can be “good.” There is something analogous in those types of goodness, but the content of God’s goodness cannot be fully captured by human language. More recently Paul Tillich (1886-1965) held a similar view, holding that talk about God cannot be taken literally; it is only symbolic and serves to point us toward God rather than properly describe God. Matthew Arnold (1822-88) held that metaphysicians make the mistake of taking religious discourse literally. Language addressing God is better understood as poetry, not open to rational assessment.
People who hold such a position are, I think, liable to regard, Mr. Eigenwirtz, your assertion of logical contradiction to be rather misplaced. For my part, I think that it is possible that these figures are onto something important. It seems to me, however, that if they are right, one can ignore only my rational assessment of Ivan’s claims. The phenomenological challenge I (and Ivan) present, I think, still stands. (The Brothers Karamazov is, after all, poetry too.) The discourse the Judaic-Christian-Islamic community has developed to express its devotion to God may be poetry, but it seems, at least to me, to be rather bad poetry. It seems distant and incongruous with the actual moral content of our lives. Perhaps, though, the fact that millions find it to be meaningful poetry suggests otherwise?
The flaw in this argument is Premise 4: “God is able to stop or prevent the suffering and death of children.”
In fact, God is not able to intervene in the world to prevent evil. For were he to do so, the world would lose its teleological character and be transformed into a kind of inane farce, without moral dimension. A place of no meaning and no potential. The teleology of the world demands a progression towards higher levels of spirituality-as the Judeo-Christian tradition reminds us through its myths and moral injunctions. What Fosl overlooks is that, for this progression to occur, the possibility of evil is necessary. In a word, without evil there can be no good. Consider some of “good’s” components: kindness requires the possibility of meanness, courage the possibility of cowardice. And – to take Fosl’s case – without the possibility of savagery (the murder of children), there can be no possibility of extreme moral outrage (such as Fosl’s). In fact all forms of goodness demand the potential existence of their contraries.
If God is the summit of goodness, then, his own nature demands the possibility of the complete absence of goodness, namely complete evil. And if the world is a progression toward spirituality (as Judeo-Christianity teaches), then that world – in order to have any moral meaning – similarly demands the possibility of evil. Thus God can not intervene to prevent evil, for to do so would negate the basis of his own nature and that of the world.
There are, Mr. Ryan, a number of ways to reply to your criticisms. In order to see them more clearly, allow me to refer back to the schematic of Ivan’s argument again.
First, when you state that “God is not able to intervene in the world to prevent evil” you are maintaining that Premise 4 is false. If you’ll consult my essay again, you’ll see that I address this possibility. As I write there, I am willing to accept the possibility that Premise 4 is false. The possible falsity of Premise 4 is one of the reasons I regard the soundness of the argument to be indeterminate. I simply make clear that regarding Premise 4 as false would require revising the tenets of the orthodox Judaic-Christian-Islamic view of God.
Secondly, I think we should take a look at the reasons you present for maintaining that Premise 4 is false. You argue that God cannot intervene in the world in order to prevent evil, because if God did so the world would “lose its teleological character and be transformed into a kind of inane farce, without moral dimension.” I have a number of objections to this justification.
A. On the face of it, your claim does not seem to show that Premise 4 is actually false. Your claim seems only to offer a reason why God does not intervene, not why God cannot intervene. I see no reason to maintain that it would have been impossible for God to have made a world without a teleological character, an inane farce without moral dimension. As long as it was possible for God to have done so and as long as God exists, then God was and is able to prevent evil simply by creating a farcical, inane world.
It seems to me that the mainstream of JCI theology holds that the existence of our present world is contingent – that God might not have created it at all. It also seems to me that most among the JCI hold that God is able to intervene in the world. A recent Time Magazine poll found that 69% of those polled believe in miracles. There are, of course, some (like Leibniz and Spinoza) who maintain that God’s having created this particular world was necessary – i.e. that it would have been impossible for God not to have done so. They may be right. In order to convince me of that claim, though, you must present me with a solid argument. You and they, so far as I can tell, have failed to do so. In the absence of such an argument, I see no reason to agree with you.
B. Your claim that God is unable to intervene is contradicted by Scripture. From Old Testament accounts of God intervening to liberate the Jews in Exodus, to New Testament accounts of Jesus healing the blind and the lame, casting out demons, feeding the hungry, preventing a stoning, to accounts in the Qu’ran about miraculous interventions, JCI Scripture testifies to God’s ability to intervene in the world to prevent or alleviate suffering. The question then becomes why does God intervene sometimes but not others? Why does God do so infrequently and in an arbitrary manner?
C. You seem to be offering a logical point in claiming that: “If God is the summit of goodness, then, his own nature demands the possibility of the complete absence of goodness, namely complete evil.” First, you must provide an argument for this claim. Secondly, your claims about courage/cowardice apply to humans, not to divine beings. If your argument is sound then God’s goodness requires that God himself also be at least possibly evil. It at least requires the existence of an evil God, an evil being equal to God. Third, your claims involve the possibility of evil, not the actuality of evil. Evil might be possible (as perhaps it is among the heavenly host) but never actualised. Fifth, your claim seems to address what is required to recognise kindness, not what is required for its existence.
D. Your objection is really just an instance of the objection I consider under the rubric of the Alternatives to Premise 1 – namely that the existence of evil in the world serves a greater good or prevents a greater evil. Here I take it that you regard the achievement of the “teleological character of the world” (specifically, us achieving knowledge of moral good and evil) as justifying the existence of the suffering and death of children. My own view, like Ivan’s, is that this is an immoral position. Using children in this manner for the moral edification of the rest of us is a cruel, obscene, and immoral thing to do. Moreover, if evil is necessary to provide moral instruction, it seems excessive to deploy evil on this scale. Wouldn’t adultery, or promise-breaking, or simple assault be enough? The instruction also seems to be distributed in a rather arbitrary manner. And the pedagogical technique seems demonstrably ineffective.
Your own defending such a use of children, Mr. Ryan, is likewise immoral and probably not consistent with your own practices. Would you accept my offering you moral instruction by torturing and murdering your child? If killers offer us such a valuable service, would you advocate that we praise and award them rather than punish and damn them? From Ivan’s position, a teleological achievement like moral knowledge simply isn’t worth the price and the means for achieving it are morally reprobate. It would be morally better not to have the spiritual progression you describe than to have it. My King-Magician analogy is meant to address this matter.
Tagore once said, ” I love my God because he gives me the freedom to deny him.” This is the basis for the flaw in this insidious rambling. Infinite love (God) cannot be measured by theoretical philosophy, in that, morality and acts are choices provided by this consciousness of infinite possibilities. It is like saying that the playwright is responsible for what the director and actors have done to his play. The script of truth and goodness have been written but altered. Death is not immoral…..the process of dying, too often, is…hence, the old supposition that “death is heaven, but dying is hell.” Supposing that God is love, and nothing less or more, then we can assume that God can only offer compassion, love and kindness for our pathetic manufactured ideas of failing at our choices and our concept of morality. God is a reality beyond conceptual thinking, and thank God for that! I have no doubt that the children of Susan Smith entered into an incredible pure state of consciousness after their demise. The problem with most philosophers is that they can rarely enter this state by elimination of thought, to know what is on the other side. Instead, they project through reason, a belief system built on logic. A leaf is not the tree! The fact is there is no reason to love. Hence the holy madness of “less is more” many mystics have reported.
“When logics die, the secret of the soil jumps in the sun.” – Dylan Thomas
If you can’t still your thought, and in effect, eliminate yourself to know yourself, how can you try to be intelligent and converse about what God is or is not? It’s just guesswork, and perhaps, uncanny like a corpse.
I find the general thrust of your comments among the most compelling I have received, for it raises the question as to whether the very methods I have been using are inadequate to the subject matter they address. Might there be some sort of special, mystical experience or intuition or cognition available to a privileged few (or, indeed, to all of us) that in some meaningful sense goes beyond or transcends the capacities of standard human experience and philosophy? Might such a special capacity render certain truths accessible that are otherwise not available to us? I doubt it, though I honestly don’t know.
I was once caught in a rather bad storm after having just climbed to the top of the Pinnacles in Scotland’s Glen Coe. Although I was convinced that I was likely soon to die, a profound calmness and serenity overtook me as I watched the strange steaming vapours and winds play about in the chasms and crevasses. I was at the time inclined to believe I had touched upon something divine.
Did I? I don’t know. (Interestingly, Kant maintains that through experiences of sublimity – during, say, powerful storms – we acquire a consciousness of our immortal souls not available to standard experience.) My subsequent reflection on the event, however, leads me to think that Hume is right (in both Section X of the Enquiry concerning Human Understanding and the Dialogues concerning Natural Religion) that no empirical evidence whatsoever can be had for the existence of a deity or for any supernatural being. Human experience appears to me to be always based upon human capacities for sensation and feeling. As Nicolas of Cusa – like many others – points out, such experience must always and everywhere be of finite, worldly objects, and God is not supposed to be a finite otherworldly object.
But isn’t it possible in special cases that God makes available a special sort of cognition (call it revelation)? William James chronicles the typical characteristics reported of such special experiences in his book, Varieties of Religious Experiences. Many mystics – from the Buddha to John Cage to Meister Eckhart – concur with his descriptions and talk like you about putting oneself and standard notions of reason aside in order to accomplish transcendence or enlightenment, etc.
I have my doubts about both the existence and the veracity of such special, private experiences simply because they are by definition special, private, and privileged. Unlike, say, our experiences of trees, such experiences are not objective and open to public scrutiny. Unlike, say, our experiences of pain, such experiences are not common and are certainly not universal among humans. Because (a) we cannot test the veracity of such claims, because (b) human testimony concerning matters supernatural is so very often demonstrably false, and because (c) the nature of the objects of such experiences appears to be beyond the finite capacities of the human mind, I find it reasonable to doubt that they actually take place or are veracious. This is not, however, to say that I am certain about my conclusion. I do not claim supernatural experience to be impossible, just unlikely.
As for the details of your response: (1) Contrary to the inspiring Tagore, as I wrote in the article, Ivan holds that God’s gift of freedom is not worth having if the price of having it is that children should be tortured and killed. As I argue there, I think our standard norms of morality and the phenomenological evidence regarding suffering and death suggest that he is right.
(2) Your claims that “Infinite love (God) cannot be measured by theoretical philosophy” and that “God is a reality beyond conceptual thinking” sound to me suspiciously like statements of theoretical philosophy. Your position seems, therefore, to be self-refuting.
(3) I find your analogy comparing God to a playwright to be both (a) weak and (b) potentially useful in supporting my own case. The analogy is weak because in plays people aren’t actually tortured and killed (though some plays, I’ll agree, are torturous for the audience). The analogy is also weak because, unlike most playwrights, God is supposed to have the power to alter the behaviour of the “players” – or at least the effects of their behaviour. Moreover, actors typically take part in plays voluntarily and are free to quit if they judge themselves to be mistreated. Children who are tortured and murdered in real life do not engage their abuse voluntarily and are not free to remove themselves from it.
The analogy is potentially useful in supporting my own position because if a play were written that called for the actual (not faked) torture and murder of children on stage as part of the performance, we would regard the playwright to be immoral. If such torture and murder were not called for by the script but were modifications introduced by the director and actors contrary to the playwright’s intent, we would still find the playwright culpable if he or she were (i) aware that such modifications had been introduced and (ii) had the power to rectify them or prevent them from being executed.
God, as commonly construed, is more properly similar to the producer of a snuff film (i.e. a film in which an innocent person is by design actually killed for the entertainment of the viewer) than a playwright of your description.
(4) Your claim that “God is love, and nothing less or more” (another theoretical. philosophical claim) might be understood to mean that God does not have the power to prevent evil. If so, the God you describe is different from the one my article addresses. Such a claim would entail that Premise 4 is false.
(5) You claim that “Death is not immoral.” Death is commonly described as an evil, to which, like disease, humans are subject. JCI Scripture at least regards death as a form of punishment for sin. In any case, while there is a sense in which death itself is not immoral, killing innocents and failing to prevent the killing of innocents (without compelling reason), by most standards certainly is immoral.
Contrary to Dylan Thomas (whose work I love dearly), I worry that when logics die, anything goes.
I am compelled to write this because of the reference to the Susan Smith case, rather than to the broader issues covered in your analysis. This is not to say that I don’t believe my remarks on this case can’t be extended nor that I haven’t agonised over the subject in question. It’s just that I feel I can contribute something now. The subject problem will not disappear while I’m contemplating it.
I’m not in accord with Ms Eddy’s denial of evil, and indeed I would argue that there is evil in the world, but would also argue that not all suffering is evil. I would tend to place evil in the intent rather than in the outcome. I agree that the children suffered. On the question of evil intent, I’m not so sure it’s so easily found.
My (perhaps morbid) interpretation of the Susan Smith case is that Susan was totally unaware of the moral issues at stake in this. While this seems counter-intuitive, in that it hardly seems possible for a mother not to have a parental investment in her children (and indeed I would advance this notion to keep the state at bay in carrying out its ‘in loco parentis’ as well as any idea of licensing of parents), I could argue that she was acting in such a way as to give notice to the father that there were consequences to his leaving her. Again, this is not to say this was her thinking, merely that emotions got the best of her. I assume that in her position there was no-one to turn to remedy the loss of her husband, which for her meant annihilation. To carry this out she must remove his gain from their marriage.
I would argue that Susan Smith was God. And God caused the suffering of the children so as to meet some overall objective. There is no higher authority that one can invoke to carry this out. I realise that the state may feel compelled to intervene here and suggest the efficient cause as the evil. However, to the extent to which any punishment of Susan acts as a deterrent, it should be noted that some fathers will take this to mean that they are free to leave, knowing that their children will be taken care of. The idea of a community raising children, or indeed, that the state has jurisdiction only serves to reward fathers who wish to move on to conquer other lands. Susan, in God, serves notice on such fathers.
Once again, I don’t wish to extend this to all suffering, and do not wish to deny evil. But, I believe there is more to the story of the Susan Smith case than meets the eye.
Jim Dix, NASA Ames Research Center.
Mr. Dix, I wish to thank you for your response. I hope to do it justice with my reply, but I’m afraid it appears to me to be such a knotty tangle that I’m afraid I haven’t quite grasped your claims adequately. Please forgive me if I distort your meaning.
At the outset, let me make it clear that my concern is with assessing God’s moral standing (assuming God exists), not that of Susan Smith. More particularly, my concern is with assessing God’s moral standing in the light of God’s apparent failure to intervene in the world to prevent evil.
You claim that Smith was God. My claim is that Smith is like God. Since Smith killed her children, the issue you raise is whether God (as Smith) ought to be considered immoral for killing (rather than preventing the killing of) Smith’s children. It’s true that I draw my analogy between Smith and God pretty tightly, suggesting that Smith’s rolling her children into a lake is analogous to God’s sending His children into the world (or casting them out of Eden). Most of my article, however, does not address God as a murderer so much as it addresses God as a being who fails to prevent murder. Your question pushes me to address the more challenging idea that God be thought of as a killer. So, let’s take a whack at it.
You claim that not all suffering is evil but that what distinguishes evil suffering from non-evil suffering is that evil suffering is inflicted according to an evil intent. Since you claim that God killed Smith’s children so as to meet some overall objective, it appears to me that the question you’re dealing with is whether or not God’s intentionally killing those children for the sake of that objective qualifies as inflicting suffering according to an evil intent. Apparently, you hold that it does not.
In my opinion it does, and in my opinion your apparent approval of Smith/God’s actions in that case (conjoined with your social-political claims about the role of the state) illustrates much of the profoundly immoral and poorly reasoned Christian conservatism that is currently bedevilling the United States.
Here are the bases for my concluding that it is egregiously immoral to terrorise and kill a child (or anyone else) in order to offer a wayward parent oblique instruction in good parenting. (1) Such a technique for instruction is demonstrably ineffectual in teaching its intended pupils the intended lesson. (2) Smith’s children were independently living, soon-to-be autonomous beings who were in no way morally responsible for their parent’s actions and who suffered and died against their wills. (3) Because of their excruciating and permanent character, the suffering and death endured by Smith’s children constitute punishments hideously disproportional to the alleged crime of poor parenting committed by their father. (4) Any society would be a much less happy place for its members were they subject to involuntary torture and death in order to provide such ineffectual instruction to others on matters no more important than good parenting.
And what, Mr. Dix, about other cases in which children have been tortured and killed, children from intact and loving homes? What overridingly important lesson was God trying to teach the parents of Scotland when, as Thomas Hamilton, God blasted bullets into the bodies of 16 of their five year-old children at the Dunblane Primary School? That home schooling is better? What was so very important that it justified God, as Andrei Chikatilo (a.k.a. Citizen X), in raping, mutilating the genitalia of, and gouging out the living eyes of 52 Russians, most of whom were children? That parents ought to teach their kids to be wary of strangers? What lesson justified God, as a Nazi physician, in torturing, starving, experimenting upon, and killing Jewish children during the Holocaust? That their parents should have converted?
It seems to me that if God is to be construed as a father or parent, it is God who stands in need of a lesson in good parenting. The father of Smith’s children may have failed in being a good parent, but he did not kill his children in order to instruct his wife in her shortcomings. I have never quite understood why many of the faithful find eternal damnation an acceptable punishment for offences such as adultery, theft, blasphemy, or even murder. I might divorce my spouse if I were to discover that she had been unfaithful. I would not, and I believe most would not, think eternal suffering a just and proportional punishment for her infidelity. Most nations and many people don’t find murder to provide sufficient grounds for death let alone eternal suffering. Why do people hold God to a lower standard? It strikes me that philosopher John Hick is right to maintain that the existence of hell is inconsistent with the existence of a loving God.
As for using children’s lives and bodies to provide others with moral instruction, I wonder, Mr. Dix, if you would countenance some poor woman’s (or God’s) torturing, raping, beating, starving to death, and then cannibalising your child (feeding the corpse to her own starving children) in order to teach Christian conservatives about the cruelty and meanspiritedness of depriving mothers and children in need of public assistance. Somehow, I doubt you would.
If there is an intelligent and loving God, Mr. Dix, may Her love and intelligence some day reach you.
I am a freshman at Southwestern Oregon Community College in CoosBay, Oregon, and recently read your article The Moral Imperative to Rebel Against God on the Philosopher’s Web Magazine web site. In the interest of brevity, I will not describe all of the reasons I enjoyed your article (which I did enjoy, immensely), why I was pleased to read a commentary on Dostoevsky; nor will I give you any similar comments.
Rather, I will make two comments regarding your article. The first thing that I wish to do is to inform you of a short story on the same theme as Ivan’s argument. The story, by Ursula LeGuin, is entitled “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, and was originally published in New Dimensions 3 in 1973. It is available in her anthology The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. In this story, LeGuin invites her readers to imagine a perfect advanced civilisation and to tailor it to their own ideas of perfection, within limits. I fear, she says, that Omelas so far strikes some of you as goody-goody… If so, please add an orgy. The complete happiness of all of the citizens and the perfection of their existence, however, is dependent on the complete suffering of one retarded child. The citizens of Omelas are all aware of the existence and the suffering of the child; in fact, all citizens must see the child themselves, usually between the ages of eight and twelve. It is explained to the viewers that if any kindness is done for the child, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, then in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. The story concludes by stating that most of the children and adults accept and rationalise the necessity of the child’s suffering, but there are some who, refusing to do this, walk away from Omelas, or, in the words of Ivan Karamazov, return their tickets.
The second point I wish to make in this letter regards what you refer to as the Job option. You point out that evil things befell the good man, Job… but because Job had faith, he held fast to his allegiance to God and to the conviction that although we don’t know them, God must have good reasons for permitting such things to happen. What you fail to point out,however, is that God did not have a good reason for allowing these bad things to happen. Rather, God tortured Job, killed his family, and destroyed his property for the mere purpose of winning a bet with the devil. Not only this, but God got himself into the position of needing to demonstrate Job’s sincerity because God had been bragging to the devil about his good and faithful servant, Job. (Job 1:8 KJV) When the devil challenges Job’s goodness, God is put in the rather uncomfortable position of either torturing Job or losing face. Thus, God tortured one of his servants (his most faithful, in fact) for the sole purpose of avoiding embarrassment.
Nor does God provide an adequate response to explain Job’s suffering; rather, he simply states that Job had not been born when God created the world, that Job did not create the order of nature, etc. In the context of your article, I doubt that this is an acceptable argument to you.
George Steiner, in his book The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., provides a compelling argument against what you refer to as the Job Option:
The Jew emptied the world by setting his God apart, measurable apart from man’s sense. No Image. No concrete embodiment. No imagining even. A blank emptier than the desert. Yet with a terrible nearness. Spying on our every misdeed, searching out the heart of our heart for motive. A God of vengeance unto the thirtieth generation (those are the Jews’ words, not mine). A God of contracts and petty bargains, of indentures and bribes. And the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. A thousand she-asses where the crazed, boiled old man had only five hundred to start with. It makes one vomit, doesn’t it? Twice as much. Gentlemen, do you grasp the sliminess of it, the moral trickery? Cast your guiltless servant into hell, thunder at him out of the whirlwind, draw leviathan by the nose,and then? Double his income, declare a dividend, slip him a Lordly tip .Why did Job not spit at that cattle dealer of a God?
Thank you for your time.
Mr. Mooney, thank you so much for your comments. I will indeed look up Ursula LeGuin’s and George Steiner’s pieces. I am generally in accord with their sentiments. The LeGuin piece about Omelas presents a dimension of the situation I hadn’t really addressed in the article – namely how my argument may be used to shed light upon the terms of our own conduct in the world. Many of my reflections in the article revolve around God possibly intervening to stop the suffering of children without otherwise altering the conditions under which we live. The question LeGuin raises, however, is that of how much the pleasures of our own current lives are predicated upon the suffering of others – and therefore how much we should give up in order to live in a morally acceptable fashion.
Ivan is willing to refuse Heaven itself if the price is the torture of children. He makes no effort, however, to assess the conditions that have made his Earthly comforts possible. How many, for example, of the comforts and pleasures we enjoy today are made possible by the availability of cheap commodities in our stores, commodities whose price is so low because of the exploitation and political oppression of workers (sometimes child workers) and the environment in ours and in other nations? How much of our readily available food and energy is delivered at the price of grotesque suffering among non-human animals and the depletion of resources that might have sustained future generations? My article criticises God for failing to intervene to prevent suffering and death, but aren’t many of us humans guilty of the same offence?
As for Job: you are indeed right that the story as it appears in Scripture illustrates God’s moral turpitude. The account does indeed, then, offer us strong reasons for regarding Job’s faith to be misplaced – though it does appear to have been financially rewarding. Remember, however, that the Job Option is the option Job makes; it is not God’s option or even the reader’s. For the sake of my own argument, God’s turpitude and the reader’s understanding of it are irrelevant. The character of Job’s own deliberation, however, is relevant because – unlike the readers of the story – Job has no knowledge of God’s reasons for what He has done, and in life as we live it we are in Job’s position, not the reader’s or God’s.
Therefore, whatever judgment we make in life about God’s existence or about God’s moral rectitude must be made on the basis of incomplete information, just as it was for Job. As our understanding of the divine will remain incomplete, the Job Option (i.e. the decision to remain faithful) must also remain what William James called in The Will to Believe a live option (i.e. a real option for human beings to take and live). Since in my view taking up such a position is incongruous with what most of us have come to recognise as moral lives, I find that the Job Option places our moral integrity in peril.
You may be interested to know that philosopher Richard Rorty disagrees with me on this score. It is Rorty’s contention that religious belief can be easily isolated from one’s other beliefs; religious belief need not conflict with either scientific or moral beliefs that are useful to us in other sectors of our lives. My own view is that Rorty is wrong simply on empirical grounds. Our lives rarely remain as compartmentalised as he would wish his readers to believe, and our religious beliefs will commonly, if not universally, have an impact upon how we think and live otherwise. I acknowledge, however, that there will be many for which such compartmentalisation will succeed.