If you’ve been paying attention to my posts lately, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve been musing quite a bit lately about the nature of God and His relationship to good and evil. This is not a new thing for me. I’ve been more or less stuck inside this existential mode ever since Donald Trump somehow bumbled his way into the White House four years ago. I’ve even started writing a whole fantasy novel series exploring these sorts of questions.
Maybe that’s what drew me to this song, written by a music star who knew that his time had come to finally realize whether or not there really was an all-powerful deity behind the scenes standing idly by as evil seems to consume us all. So let’s talk about it.
Leonard Cohen probably needs no introduction at this point, but for those who aren’t aware, here’s a quick rundown:
Leonard Norman Cohen was born in Montreal on September 21, 1934. He started as a poet and novelist during the 50s and early 60s before he went into music in 1967 with his debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen, partly because there was money to be had in that field. Over the next 49 years, his folk music would become renowned for its minimalism, often dark tone, experimentation with smooth jazz and synthpop, angelic female back-up singers, beautifully melancholic lyrics that explored topics ranging from religion and politics to relationships and sexuality, and his very distinctive bass-baritone voice. He is probably best remembered today for the song “Hallelujah” from his 1984 album Various Positions, especially its various cover versions performed by the likes of John Cale, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, and Pentatonix.
However, the Cohen song I want to focus on today is the opening and title track of the final studio album released during his lifetime. In fact, You Want It Darker came out on October 21, 2016. Cohen died seventeen days later at the age of 82. Perhaps not surprisingly, it focuses heavily on themes of mortality. So let’s see how the opening track introduces those themes.
The first verse starts with the lyrics, “If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game.” Here Cohen refers to God’s omniscience and how it gives him a rather unfair advantage since He knows every possible outcome of our choices. Indeed, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman made a similar observation in their classic novel Good Omens:
God moves in extremely mysterious, not to say, circuitous ways. God does not play dice with the universe; He plays an ineffable game of his own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players [i.e., everybody], to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.
Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Good Omens
Cohen then goes on to comment on how pain and suffering seem baked into the human condition (“If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame”) and how humanity can never measure up to God as long as they can fall for sin and temptation (“If thine is the glory, then mine must be the shame”). He ends the verse with the title and then the line “We kill the flame,” which may be Cohen indicating that humanity may be just as much to blame for the world’s evils as God is.
The pre-chorus begins with the line, “Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name,” which is a translation of the first line of the Kaddish, a Jewish prayer often recited by close family members at a funeral. While appropriate considering Cohen’s Jewish background, that doesn’t stop him from indulging in some Christian imagery for the next line, “Vilified, crucified, in the human frame.” He then comments on divine hiddenness (“A million candles burning, for the help that never came”) before ending on a repetition of the title.
The second verse begins with, “There’s a lover in the story, but the story’s still the same.” This may be either Cohen looking back on his career and all of the love affairs he documented in his body of work or, if the British rabbi Jonathan Sacks is correct, him referencing the story of Abraham and Isaac. Cohen then sings about “a lullaby for suffering, and a paradox to blame,” possibly a reference to the act of prayer and how it has thus far not eased our suffering in an obvious way. He references divine hiddenness by saying that “it’s written in the Scriptures, and it’s not some idle claim” that “you want it darker; we kill the flame.” Indeed, there are several verses in the Bible where God proclaims that He “will come to thee in the darkness of a cloud” (Exodus 19) or “would dwell in thick darkness” (1 Kings 8).
But the most affective verse, at least for me, goes a little something like this:
They're lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn't know I had permission
To murder and to maim
You want it darker
We’ll talk more about this verse in the Personal Thoughts section, but first, let’s talk about the chorus: “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready, my Lord.” Hineni is a Hebrew word meaning “here I am,” usually a proclamation of taking responsibility and readiness. Indeed, this is where the connection with Abraham and Isaac’s story that Rabbi Sacks was talking about comes from. Abraham responded with a cry of “Hineni” when God asked him to sacrifice his son. So did Moses when God spoke to him through the burning bush, and Isaiah when God asked to send him out with His message. And now, Leonard Cohen calls out to Azrael, the angel of death, that he is ready to join the Lord God at his side forevermore.
Even with its dark and foreboding tone, this is still a wonderful song. The minimalistic instrumentation, featuring a simple drum beat, slight touches of electric organ, the haunting backup vocals of the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir, and one of the greatest basslines I’ve ever heard come together to complement Leonard’s unique voice.
Speaking of his voice, I feel that it adds an odd sense of irony to the track. Cohen’s voice here is particularly booming and authoritative, lending it the feel of an all-powerful deity proclaiming his gospel to the world. Yet, in reality, it is the swansong for a dying elder man trying to come to terms with the evils of the world in his final days on Earth.
As for the third verse (the one that begins with “They’re lining up the prisoners”), while others have made comparisons to the Holocaust, which is certainly understandable, I can’t help but draw parallels between it and the current situation in the United States. Despite what partisan news networks like Fox, One America, and Newsmax would have us believe, right-wing fascism of a similar kind that Hitler introduced to Germany is growing in the United States. Donald Trump didn’t start it; he just helped crystallize the white supremacist elements that have been present in the framework of America since its very founding, elements that many Americans (myself included) thought had been all but extinguished in the wake of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.
The line “I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim” in particular makes me squirm because it seems that there are still way too many people in this country that don’t believe that black lives matter. BLM and antifascist protesters are met with the worst police brutality. In contrast, white supremacists and literal Neo-Nazis are met with handshakes and solidarity, even as they commit terrorist attacks against our most sacrosanct government institutions. The black, Latino, and Native American populations continue to be left in poverty and starvation, as are billions of people all across the global south. In contrast, the 1% continue to amass vast sums of wealth that they do not need. And yet, when those people steal just to get by and rise up in protest to demand their rightfully deserved necessities, they are met by police apologists demanding an increase in funding and right-wing politicians accusing them of being part of a Communist plot.
Speaking of which, upon listening to the song again, I noticed that Cohen never explicitly identifies the subject he is speaking to. True, there is the “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready my Lord” chorus, but that could easily be him turning away from the subject of the verses to beg God to deliver him from the madness of Earthly life. But who is it that really “wants it darker”? God? Satan? Republicans? Billionaires? Whoever started that dumbass QAnon conspiracy? Okay, maybe not that last one, since that only really started up a year after Cohen died, but the pieces that came together to form it were still there when the song was being recorded.
But, to conclude, this is a truly profound song. It has applicability to many things, from existentialism to the religious mind to the rise of fascism, past, and future. I’m happy Cohen was able to gift this masterpiece to us before his death. Hopefully, he has found the peace that so often eluded him on Earth.
This post can be thought of as something of a continuation of my previous post. It is one I’ve wanted to do for a long time ever since I read the book Evil: A Guide for the Perplexed, written by Chad V. Meister, a philosophy and religion professor at Bethel University in Indiana. The book examines several possible explanations for the existence of evil in the world, secular or otherwise. Today, I want to examine them one by one and rank them from least to most favorite. Be forewarned, though. I will be approaching this from a believer’s perspective. Not necessarily Christian, but certainly a spiritual perspective (also, I’m a libertarian socialist, so that may color my viewpoint as well). Meister’s book is also somewhat biased toward the believer’s side (he does work at a Christian university, after all). However, I feel that he does a good enough job spotlighting the secular side of the debate that it’s not too distracting.
The book is divided into seven chapters. The first deals with defining evil, both moral and natural, as well as four approaches to viewing God in relation to evil (If He exists, is He truly omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent?). Chapter Two outlines two atheist approaches to explaining the problem of evil as well as theistic objections to them. The third covers the theodicy, i.e., attempts by theists to “justify the ways of God to man” in a world where so much evil afflicts us. Chapter four explores divine hiddenness, as well as several reasons why God doesn’t reveal himself. Chapter five looks at several atheist arguments for the existence of evil, all framed around how they stack up against this quote from one Theodore Robert Bundy:
Then I learned that all moral judgments are value judgments, that all value judgments are subjective, and that none can be proved either right or wrong… I discovered that to become truly free, truly unfettered, I had to become truly uninhibited. And I quickly discovered that the greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block and limitation to it, consists in the insupportable value judgment that I was bound to respect the rights of others. Other human beings, with human rights? Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer? Is your life more to you than a hog’s life to a hog? Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for the one life than the other? Surely, you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as moral or good and others as immoral or bad?
Ted Bundy, quoted in Jaffa, Henry V. 1990. Homosexuality and the National Law (pages 3-4). Claremont Institute.
Chapter six examines Hindu and Buddhist conceptions of evil and suffering. The final chapter examines eternal goods, how evil relates to the afterlife, and how one may combat evil on this earthly plane.
Apparently, there is a newer edition of this book that contains two new chapters. One expands on a new theodicy of Meister’s own making, and another deals with “anti-theodicy, misotheism, and the theodicy of protest.” I haven’t read that version, though. I might read it sometime in the future if I ever decide to update this post. In the meantime, though, let’s examine our options for explaining evil and how to fight it.
14. Friedrich Nietzsche’s Will to Power
Why evil exists: There are no overmen, or “Ubermenschen,” to lead the people away from the evil that Platonic/Christian morality brought into the world.
How evil can be defeated: By allowing the Ubermensch to exercise his will to power to construct a more naturalistic moral philosophy.
I think one of Meister’s biggest missteps in the book was his rather butchered understanding of Nietzsche’s philosophy. He uses this quote to illustrate his understanding of how much Ted Bundy would have loved Nietzsche’s philosophy:
What is strong wins. That is the universal law. To speak of right and wrong per se makes no sense at all. No act of violence, rape, exploitation, destruction, is intrinsically unjust, since life itself is violent, rapacious, exploitative, and destructive and cannot be conceived otherwise.
Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, 1887, as translated by Walter Kaufman
Admittedly, I’m probably not in the best position to critique Meister’s conclusions here since deciphering Nietzsche is something that even seasoned scholars have difficulty with. However, people who tend to come away from Nietzsche’s writings dismissing it as sociopath apologia miss the greater point Nietzsche was trying to make. His “Ubermensch” archetype, that is, the overman who develops a personal moral code that ends up breaking the old one, was not supposed to be a mere unfettered individual in the same blood-boiling way that Bundy’s quote defines it. Indeed, while Nietzsche neglected to define what an Ubermensch actually was during his lifetime, he named Jesus, Buddha, Socrates, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as the closest any human came to represent one. None of them were sociopathic in any way.
That being said, though, I still have to place the “Will to Power” in last place because, at its heart, it’s still a very elitist ideology, as this aphorism will demonstrate:
What is good? All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is bad? All that proceeds from weakness… The weak and ill-constituted shall perish: first principle of our philanthropy. And one shall help them to do so. What is more harmful than any vice? Active sympathy for the ill-constituted and weak.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, 1888, Aphorism 2
In fairness to Nietzsche, he did write this a year before the mental breakdown that left him in a practically vegetative state for the last decade of his life. However, that still doesn’t make this any less shocking. It’s certainly not hard to see why the Nazi Party liked his work so much. Despite Nietzsche’s well-known hatred of anti-Semites and nationalists, he was even more critical of socialism in his lifetime, calling it a “tyranny of the meanest and dumbest,” that is, inferior people who “falsely” blamed the ruling class for their own failures.
Yeah, sorry, Fred, but I’ve heard it all before, and I’m not convinced. Time and time again in the modern age, people who seek power have proven themselves to be the last people who deserve it. Why would your Ubermensch be any different?
13. St. Augustine’s Free Will Theodicy
Why evil exists: Some angels abused God’s gift of free will by introducing evil to the world of humanity.
How evil can be defeated: By following Jesus Christ so that one will be spared God’s judgment in the end times when the unrepentant are cast into the fires of Hell.
St. Augustine’s theodicy basically has six points:
God created the universe, and everything in it was good; the first humans were placed in a perfect paradise.
Some of God’s creation (namely people) were given the gift of free will. Having this gift is better than not having it since a moral universe requires it, and a moral universe is better than a non-moral one.
Some of these created persons (first angels, then humans) freely chose to turn from God and the good; that is, they sinned and fell from their state of moral and spiritual perfection (the Fall).
This turning of the will, or sin, ushered into the world all manner of moral and natural evil.
There are two dimensions to evil; a) its origin, which is misdirected will, and b) its nature, which is metaphysical deprivation, or privation of the good.
God will eventually rectify matters by bringing evil to an end when He judges the world in righteousness, marshaling into His kingdom those persons who have been saved through Christ and sending to eternal Hell those persons who have been wicked and disobedient.
Right away, one with a scientific mind can see the biggest problem with this theodicy; it relies on the Young Earth creationist model being the correct model of how the universe came to be. Indeed, Augustine explicitly connects the introduction of evil into the world (both moral and natural) with his very literal interpretation of Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden. Given all that we’ve found out about the very long evolutionary history of the Earth in the 1600 years since his death, though, a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis is becoming increasingly hard to swallow.
Also, maybe it’s just me, but I find the idea of natural evils being on the same level as moral evils to be a little suspect. Augustine argues that things like volcanic eruptions, floods, earthquakes, famines, forest fires, etc., are the direct result of Adam and Eve’s Fall. As we now know, however, humans have only been around for a tiny sliver of all of Earth’s history (3 million out of four and a half billion). It’s tough to believe that no natural disasters happened at all in those billions of years.
I do like Augustine’s idea of free will, which is that humans are free to choose what path they take in life even if seemingly incomprehensively powerful forces stand in their way (although I tend to lean more towards compatibilism than libertarian free will). However, I can’t entirely agree with his way of trying to prove it.
12. Moral Relativism
Why evil exists: It doesn’t, actually; every person decides for themselves what is moral and immoral.
How evil can be defeated: By not attempting to police people based on a single arbitrary standard.
Moral relativism works on two levels: personal and cultural. Personal relativism holds that morality is in the eye of the beholder, that there are no objective moral truths that everyone can agree on. Except… doesn’t everyone tend to agree that selfishness is bad? Or that cruelty is wrong? Or that parents should be kind to their children? For me, arguing that there are no universal moral values because some disagree on certain issues is like arguing that God doesn’t exist because different religions disagree on how He behaves. It’s jumping to conclusions that don’t necessarily follow from the premise.
Cultural relativism is a bit more understandable, seeing as how the argument’s premise is that no one culture is morally superior to the other. As a multiculturalist myself, I agree with this idea… to a point. Just because no culture is morally superior to one another doesn’t mean that calling out certain cultures for their mistreatment of others is never justified. Indeed, that would mean that the Aztecs would have been absolved of criticism by their neighboring tribes for their widespread human sacrifice. The same would be true of white Europeans who slaughtered and enslaved indigenous peoples the world over during the age of imperialism. The Nazis would have been able to perpetrate the Holocaust with impunity. The current American “war on terrorism” that destroys more democracies than it builds up would have no grounds on which to oppose it.
Moral relativism sounds like a good idea on paper, but it butts heads with a few too many fundamental truths about human nature in practice.
11. J. L. Mackie’s Logical Problem
Why evil exists: We are putting our faith in a God who is very clearly unwilling or unable to relieve us of our suffering (and that’s assuming He even exists in the first place).
How we can defeat evil: By recognizing that an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God does not exist, rejecting Abrahamic moral values, and going from there.
This is the classic atheist argument against the existence of God, especially a morally righteous one. The Australian philosopher J. L. Mackie put it this way:
A wholly good being always eliminates evil as far as it can.
There are no limits to what an omnipotent and omniscient being can do.
So, if a wholly good, omnipotent, and omniscient being exists, it eliminates evil completely.
Evil has not been eliminated completely.
Thus a wholly good, omnipotent, and omniscient being does not exist.
While certainly concise and easy to follow, it’s not without its problems. For example, believers in free will, like Alvin Plantinga, have argued that evil is caused by certain bad actors exercising it in unhelpful ways. God cannot stop these bad actors from abusing their free will and committing moral evil because that would be removing the possibility of performing moral good. I’m not going to go as far as to say I agree with this (no one really knows God’s motivations for what He does), but it certainly makes sense from my more theistic point of view.
As for why natural evil exists, I stated earlier that I don’t believe there is such a thing as natural evil. Things like earthquakes, forest fires, hurricanes, etc., were happening millions of years before humanity first appeared and will continue to happen millions of years after we’re gone. Yes, these events do cause harm, and we definitely should take whatever measures we need to minimize the casualties for the next time these events occur. However, calling these events evil, at least to me, seems like attributing a conscious agency to a phenomenon that doesn’t even seem to have a conscious will behind it in the first place.
Another objection to Mackie’s argument comes with his interpretation of the word “omnipotent.” Mackie seems to be going off the interpretation of God’s omnipotence that Rene Descartes proposed, that God is not limited by anything, including the laws of math and logic. Most theists tend to believe that is not the case. They believe it is more likely that God can possess any power that it is logical for Him to possess. He cannot make it so that 2+2=5, for instance, or create a square circle. Some, like Harold Kushner in his book Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, have even gone as far as to argue that God cannot interfere with the laws of nature or prevent things that happen by mere chance from occurring. Basically, the long and short of it is that omnipotence means to them that God possesses perfect power, not absolute power.
At this point, it seems that enough logical holes have been poked in Mackie’s argument to convince even a lot of fellow atheists that the logical problem no longer stands up to scrutiny. Let’s examine some others.
10. John Schellenberg’s Divine Hiddenness Argument
Why evil exists: The supposedly omnibenevolent God that is promised to deliver us from evil has left us no concrete evidence within the universe that He even exists.
How evil can be defeated: By acknowledging that divine hiddenness ultimately disproves God’s benevolent nature and rejecting His alleged teachings.
Schellenberg here argues that God’s absence is comparable to a mother taking her child into the woods for a game of hide and seek and then leaving him alone to fend for himself. Since God has chosen to hide Himself, Schellenberg argues that God is not worth putting on a pedestal, even if he does exist.
If there is a God, He is perfectly loving.
If a perfectly loving God exists, then reasonable non-belief does not occur.
Reasonable non-belief does occur.
No perfectly loving God exists.
Therefore, there is no God.
Theists have come up with many responses to this argument. Some are less compelling, at least to me, like that God is not perfectly loving (how do we know what God truly thinks?) or that any disbelief is unreasonable, which is ridiculous on the face of it.
However, there are some ways, theists argue, that reasonable non-belief and an omnibenevolent God can be reconciled:
A person has suffered a tragedy that caused them to lose faith, and God was unable to stop this tragedy because of His dedication to preserving free will (or, if Kushner is correct, because it was a chance occurrence that He had no power to stop).
A person has a strongly materialist and/or scientific mind that precludes them from believing in such fantastic ideas as a transcendent creator deity.
God revealing Himself directly would cause far too many people to, in the words of H.P. Lovecraft, “either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” The Abrahamic God is the eldritch abomination to end all eldritch abominations after all.
Closely related to the above is the fear that God revealing Himself would be interfering with free will because a person would have no choice but to choose to follow God now that He has revealed Himself.
There is also the possibility that there might be people out there who use the certainty of God’s existence to their own selfish advantage.
I think the theists make a pretty good case here. We aren’t really in a proper epistemological position to know what God really is thinking. That is if one can understand God’s mind without his or her own mind imploding in on itself.
Why evil exists: We are not focusing hard enough on producing the most happiness and pleasure for most people.
How evil can be defeated: By figuring out how to give people as much happiness and pleasure as possible and carrying it out.
Utilitarianism is a lot like moral relativism in that it seems like an excellent and objective way of measuring virtue. It’s practically the opposite of moral relativism in that it’s objective rather than relativistic. Some, like Sam Harris in his book The Moral Landscape, have even attempted to create a scientific model in which to quantify the amount of happiness and pleasure one can produce.
Of course, this leads us to the obvious problem: how exactly do we quantify the amount of happiness and pleasure in the world? How do we divorce said quantification from the quantifier’s personal preferences? How can we argue against, say, a doctor murdering a perfectly healthy homeless man so he can harvest the man’s organs to save multiple patients?
Indeed, fiction is chock full of examples of societies or heroes acting on utilitarian principles going horribly wrong, from Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” to Ozymandias’ plan from Alan Moore’s Watchmen; from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to Light Yagami’s crusade against crime in Death Note and the town of Stanford in Hot Fuzz.
Granted, I don’t think utilitarianism is a completely worthless moral philosophy. Indeed, the ethical theory that underlies it, consequentialism, is something I agree with more than deontology. I think consequences should be more important to moral judgments than the actions that caused them. Still, utilitarianism, at least in its classically understood form, definitely has way too many bugs to be a workable system.
8. John Hick’s Soul Making Theodicy
Why evil exists: God created a world based on the evolutionary model and gave the intelligent beings that resulted from it free will. Some chose to abuse their free will, completely divorced from demonic influence, and commit evil acts.
How evil can be defeated: By working with God, even in the afterlife, to improve oneself and others so that everyone can be saved in the end.
Hick’s theodicy is his attempt at updating St. Augustine’s for the modern scientific age, although the writings of second-century philosopher Irenaeus heavily influenced it. It can be summarized in five points:
God created the world as a good place, but no paradise, for developing human persons both spiritually and morally.
Through evolutionary means, God brought about such persons who have the freedom of will and the capacity to mature in love and goodness.
By placing humans in this challenging environment, through their own free responses, they have the opportunity to choose what is right and good and thus grow to be the mature persons that God desires them to be (exhibiting the virtues of patience, courage, generosity, and so on).
Evil is the result of both the creation of a soul-making world and the human choice to sin.
God will continue to work with human (and perhaps other) persons, even in the afterlife as necessary, by allowing them opportunities to love and choose the good so that in the eschaton, everyone may be brought into a place of moral and spiritual maturity.
This theodicy is certainly an improvement on St. Augustine’s, as it accurately takes scientific discoveries like evolution into account and rejects the Young-Earth creationist model. However, it is still not without its flaws.
For one thing, it is still pretty anthropocentric, although Hick does allow for the possibility of intelligent non-human beings existing somewhere in this universe. Another objection is that the sheer overwhelming nature of evil in this world invalidates the soul-making theodicy. What about evils that destroy one’s character rather than build it up, like a parent who accidentally runs their own child over or a woman who gets locked up, tortured, and raped for days or even weeks on end before finally dying? What about children who die at a young age from a terminal illness? What purpose does that serve?
Meister himself created a theodicy to reconcile Augustine and Hick’s theodicies while addressing their weak points. Before we discuss that, however, we still have a few more atheist arguments to look at.
7. Richard Dawkins’ Evolution-Based Argument
Why evil exists: It doesn’t, actually: we are following a genetically encoded drive to selfishly replicate that just so happens to select for unselfish behavior for the sake of better gene propagation.
How evil can be defeated: By realizing that there is nothing more to morality than what human evolution selected for and trying to cultivate our more constructive instincts.
In his book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins states that “we are survival machines- robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.” Elsewhere he states:
In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is.
Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden, 1995. New York: Basic Books, pg. 133
Dawkins later described the four components of his evolutionary morality in his (in)famous 2006 book The God Delusion, specifying how he believed that certain “altruistic genes” counteract the selfish ones in four ways:
Genetic kinship: helping one’s family members even at one’s own expense.
Reciprocation: beyond one’s kin, the repayment of favors given where both sides benefit from the transaction.
Acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness, thus convincing others that one is moral.
Buying authentic advertising: Strutting one’s good deeds before others to impress them, demonstrating one’s superiority, and thus securing a mate.
Meister points out how this seems to critics of the “selfish gene” hypothesis to be arguing that no one really performs altruistic actions for their own sake; they perform them for their own selfish benefit intending to get something in return. It kind of gives me Ayn Rand vibes… and that’s not a good thing.
Aside from the whole morality angle, the entire gene-centered view of evolution has also come under fire from other scientists. Steven Jay Gould was particularly harsh with his criticism of The Selfish Gene, describing Dawkins’ theories as reductionist Darwinian fundamentalism. He and several others favored a model based on the organism and the group it participates in, viewing genes as more recorders of the changes that stuck than driving forces in and of themselves.
Indeed, it almost seems like Dawkins is describing DNA as having a will of its own, endlessly driving its host forward for its own selfish ends. I think Gould and company have a more rational view, personally.
6. Michael L. Ruse and Edward O. Wilson’s Genetic Illusion Argument
Why evil exists: It doesn’t; it’s nothing more than an illusion foisted upon us by natural selection to get us to cooperate.
How evil can be defeated: There is no evil to defeat.
While Ruse and Wilson agree with Dawkins that morality is rooted in evolution, they diverge from him in making the rather bold claim that our idea of morality is completely illusory, simply manufactured by the process of evolution to facilitate cooperation better:
Morality, or more strictly, our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends. Hence the basis of ethics does not lie in God’s will- or in the metaphorical roots of evolution or any other part of the framework of the Universe. In an important sense, ethics, as we understand it, is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate. It is without external grounding.
Michael Ruse and Edward O. Wilson. 1989. “The Evolution of Ethics,” in Philosophy of Biology, ed. Michael Ruse. New York: Macmillan, pg. 316.
Right away, one might be able to see similar problems to the ones we discussed under moral relativism. Just as with that moral framework, we have another that argues that the only things good or evil are those that the mind says. What would that say about sociopaths like Ted Bundy, who disagree with the widely agreed assumption that murder and rape are wrong?
Granted, this isn’t to say that humanity would descend into mere anarchy that minute that it was conclusively proven that Wilson and Ruse’s statement was definitively proven true. Despite what people like Ted Bundy might have us believe, most humans tend to agree that murder and rape are horrible and wrong. But still, Ruse and Wilson’s argument does seem like a slap in the face to anyone who does believe in a moral standard.
5. William Rowe’s Evidential Atheism Argument
Why evil exists: There is no omnipotent, omniscient God who is there to prevent unnecessary suffering.
How evil can be defeated: By looking beyond Abrahamic morality.
William Rowe presents probably the most persuasive antitheist argument in these three steps:
An omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented instances of intense suffering without losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
An omnipotent, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
Therefore, there does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.
Rowe illustrates his point by providing the most pointless and horrible example of suffering he can imagine: a fawn that is severely burned in a forest fire and lies in agony for several days before finally dying.
Indeed, his argument is challenging to argue with, especially for theists. The best rebuttal any of them can come up with is that we are not in an appropriate epistemological position to know whether or not this really is true. Some have even invoked chaos theory and the butterfly effect to try to prove their point.
There may indeed be a good reason why the fawn has to suffer this way hidden somewhere within God’s complex designs. However, I still have to rank this as the best antitheist argument because most theist responses to Rowe’s proposal seem to be stuck firmly within the tired “God works in mysterious ways” cliché.
4. Chad V. Meister’s Theodicy of Fulfillment
Why evil exists: It is a necessary part of God’s creation, essential for the building up of one’s moral character.
How evil can be defeated: By learning how free will affects both yourself and other beings in this life and the next.
The author of Evil: A Guide for the Perplexed proposes his own theodicy, trying to remove the anthropocentric influences evident in Augustine and Hicks’ theodicies and updating them for the modern age. It can be summarized in six points:
Goodness is more fundamental than evil, for it is rooted in the reality of God.
For moral development to occur, moral agents must have the ability to make choices, and these choices must have real consequences.
To make free choices of the type that have real moral merit, a proper environment is necessary.
A life lived making moral choices, deciding between opposing intrinsic or innate dispositions and desires, is an essential part of the transformation of one’s moral character into one that is morally mature.
Even though God has chosen to use evolution as the primary vehicle for the creation and maturation of living organisms, God would not bring about a world with creatures who experience evil for purposes of mere evolutionary expediency.
All creatures are valuable, and all creatures, at least all sentient ones, have the opportunity to experience their own flourishing, either in this life or the next.
One of the most appealing aspects of this theodicy, at least to me, is its apparent disdain for the concept of original sin. For those who aren’t aware, in the Christian religion, original sin is the belief that humanity’s natural inclination is toward selfishness, apathy, and violence, rather than kindness, love, and empathy. Granted, a lot of religious justification for this belief stems from Adam and Eve’s story and how their mistake doomed humanity to have no free will except to sin unless they turned to Jesus to save them. Other philosophers recontextualized this idea in a secular context, like Thomas Hobbes’ social contract and Friedrich Nietzsche’s will-to-power.
However, sociology has repeatedly proven that, in the words of Nelson Mandela, “love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” We are inherently a communal species, and if we aren’t, then kindly explain to me how we came up with concepts like love, compassion, sympathy, empathy, kindness, charity, forgiveness, altruism, selflessness, humility, respect, sacrifice, utopia, and others like it if we are inherently predisposed to violence and greed?
If there is one aspect of Meister’s theodicy I do disagree with, though, it’s his argument that premise two depends on libertarian free will being true, specifically a kind that is completely incompatible with any sort of determinism. Maybe it’s just my leftist political beliefs talking again, but I struggle to believe that humanity’s environment has absolutely no role in the choices he or she makes, especially with capitalism producing artificial scarcities everywhere to drive up profits. People who commit crimes just for fun or for the hell of it are vastly outnumbered by those who committed crimes because of poverty-induced desperation, peer pressure, mental illness, or because they were convinced, justifiably or not, that the party they committed the crime against was going to do something worse to them.
I’m not saying that free will doesn’t exist at all. I’m a compatibilist in that I agree with the determinist premise that past events cause all future events, but not with the premise that the future is thus set in stone and we have no power to change it. I think this quote sums it up best:
Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt with is determinism; the way you play it is free will.
Attributed to Jawaharlal Nehru
All that aside, I give Meister’s theodicy a solid A-.
3. Simone Weil and Marylin Adams’ Theory of Affliction
Why evil exists: We are not focusing enough on sacred, eternal goods when dealing with evils so horrendous that they completely destroy our sense of self.
How evil can be defeated: By recognizing now the paradox of affliction can simultaneously destroy our faith in the divine yet also bring us closer to it.
This theory combines aspects of Marilyn Adams’ concept of “horrendous evils” and Simone Weil’s affliction theory, as part of the former’s argument that discussions about good and evil need to shift from the global level to the individual level.
Adams came up with the idea of horrendous evils after she became convinced that moral evil and natural evil failed to encompass the totality of human suffering. Horrendous evils, as she describes them, are evils so destructive within an individual’s life that they are no longer a great good to a person. Examples include the rape and/or mutilation of women, psychological torture (especially that meant to rewrite a person’s personality), child abuse/ pornography, genocide, detonating nuclear weapons over populated areas, etc.
Adams argues that secular, finite goods like those discussed in the previous theodicies are not enough when dealing with horrors of this sort. She goes as far as to argue that most theodicies amount to telling the parents of a raped and murdered little girl that “this was the price God was willing to pay for the world in which we live- one which has the best balance of moral good over evil.”
What we actually need, Adams argues, are sacred and eternal goods. Instead of focusing on the possible reasons why God might allow evils of this sort, she argues that it is enough to show how God can be good and yet still permit their existence.
These arguments were influenced by mystic anarchist philosopher Simone Weil’s affliction theory or malheur in her original French. She defined it as a type of suffering that crushes or degrades a person. Affliction is a type of paradox, she says, because while it can destroy a person’s faith in the divine, it can also have the power to make a person realize their own powerlessness and thus bring them closer to the divine.
She pointed to Jesus’ passion as an example of the latter. At first, He asks, “Lama sabachthani?” (“My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” in Aramaic.) But in the end, he surrenders his ego and is brought back in touch with His Heavenly Father. Here, we find the sacred, eternal good that Adams is looking for: the touch of God in the throes of affliction.
If divine goodness is infinite, if infinite relation to it is thus incommensurably good for created persons, then we have identified a good big enough to defeat horrors in every case.
Marilyn McCord Adams, 1999. Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, pg. 207.
One may balk at the idea that suffering brings us closer to God, especially if one has suffered through one of the horrendous evils mentioned above. That’s definitely understandable. Then again, though, history is full of people who faced the evils of the world with a smile and never lost their faith in justice or mercy, like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Anne Frank, Bob Ross, Fred Rogers, Jesus Christ himself, and many more besides.
Maybe I’m ranking this so high because I really love “earn your happy ending” type stories that put their characters through hell before ultimately giving them a happy ending. Because, at least for a libertarian socialist like myself, there is one advantage to living in a world where our world is being sucked dry by capitalist vampires: you know where the root of our problems lie, and there’s a possibility that you may finally solve those problems.
2. Buddhism’s Sunyata
Why evil exists: Our desires keep up locked in the cycle of reincarnation and thus in a state of never-ending suffering.
How evil can be defeated: By learning the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path so one can achieve Nirvana and leave the pain of earthly existence behind.
Meister discusses Hinduism and Buddhism in the penultimate chapter of the book, noting several of the major differences between Eastern beliefs and Abrahamic beliefs. He also notes how Eastern religions tend to view God as an absolute state of being rather than a human-like entity (Hinduism names this ultimate reality as Brahman). Thus God’s nature is often considered irrelevant when dealing with the problem of evil.
Buddhism is interesting, however, in that it doesn’t really acknowledge or deny the existence of any sort of physical supreme deity. Much like other Eastern religions, they view evil as a vital part of the universe, in contrast to the Abrahamic belief that evil is an aberration that must be eliminated. Good and evil are encoded on a cosmic algorithm known as karma, from the Sanskrit word for “deed” or “action.” In contrast to the Hindu conception of a pantheist reality existing within Brahman (more on that later), Buddhism runs on a concept known as sunyata, meaning “emptiness” or “the void” in Sanskrit.
To the average Buddhist, to be real means to be independent of other things. They argue that nothing in the universe can exist on its own, that is, in a state of svabhara, the only state of true existence. There is no atman (soul or self) or Brahman; there is only anatman, or “non-self.” The person who does not realize this is often kept in the cycle of samsara (wandering) by his or her avidya, or “ignorance.”
Thankfully, there is a way for one to recognize the truth of sunyata and find their way to the final heavenly state of bliss and ego surrender known as Nirvana. That is opened when one realizes the Four Noble Truths:
Dukha, or acknowledging that life is suffering.
Samudaya, or acknowledging that attachment and selfish desires are the cause of suffering.
Nirodha, or acknowledging that the pathway out of suffering is the cessation of attachment or selfish desire.
Magga, or acknowledging that the path for achieving this cessation is the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Eightfold Path consists of these commandments:
Right views (understanding doctrines such as anatman, interdependent arising, and the Four Noble Truths)
Right resolve (resolving to renounce the world and to act with charity toward all)
Right speech (speaking the truth with kindness and respect)
Right conduct (acting according to moral principles)
Right livelihood (living in a way that does not harm anyone or anything)
Right effort (attempting to live a noble life and avoid an ignoble life)
Right mindfulness (attending to wholesome thoughts and striving for compassion)
Right meditation (focused concentration on the Eightfold Path and the unity of all life)
Of course, some may question how the cycle of samsara would work in this context if the Buddhists don’t even believe in a soul. The most common answer is that a new consciousness is born in the place of the old one. The new consciousness is similar to the old one but also different, forming a causal connection with the previous ones.
As for criticisms outlined by Meister, those have more to do with the cycle of karma and rebirth, which is common to both Buddhism and Hinduism, so let us first take a look at the religion that spawned Buddhism in the first place.
1. Hinduism’s Cycle of Samsara
Why evil exists: The misdeeds a person committed in a previous life have caused them to be judged unworthy in the cycle of karma and rebirth, and thus they are condemned to live another life of suffering.
How evil can be defeated: By meditating on Brahman’s ultimate reality and doing good deeds so one can pierce the Veil of Maya and let one’s soul transcend the mortal realm.
Hinduism, for me at least, is as close to perfect as a religion as I can think of. This is mainly because, unlike the strict orthodoxies of the Abrahamic faiths, Hinduism has no real beginning, founder, central authority, hierarchy, or organization. It is a conglomerate of different Indian faiths encompassing all forms of belief and worship, polytheistic or monotheistic.
Still, several ideas unite them all together. The biggest ones are the four purusartha, or “objects of human pursuit”: dharma (righteousness), artha (prosperity), kama (pleasure/love), and moksha (liberation). Moksha is the one most relevant to this discussion since liberation in this context means liberation from the cycles of karma and samsara.
As mentioned above, Karma is the cosmic algorithm that determines a person’s station in life based on their actions in their previous life. Reincarnation occurs when a person is judged unworthy to ascend into the heavenly realms because of their previous actions and is reborn on Earth. For you see, in the Eastern religions, living multiple lives on Earth is (usually) not some wonderful experience. Hinduism and other Eastern religions tend to view being reincarnated the same way a Christian may view being damned to hell. Life in the material world is already hard enough. Why would we need a firey underworld to make life harder, both in this world and the next?
Of course, the question remains: How does one escape the cycle of samsara? While definitely not the only answer to this question, Meister focuses on the Advaita Vedanta school of Hindu thought. This school is a pantheistic and monist school that views all reality as Brahman and Brahman alone, making no distinction between oneself, one’s atman, and Brahman.
The Advaita school views evil as something we create through our own choice and actions. We make these choices because we are kept unaware that there is really no difference between good and evil by the Veil of Maya, meaning “illusion.” To pierce the veil of Maya and overcome spiritual ignorance, one must meditate on these cosmic truths and move beyond the rational mind. One must realize that their soul, their atman, transcends their mortal flesh. We always have been, and always will be, one with Brahman.
Many of the criticisms of the cycle of karma boil down to objections over a person being punished in this life for transgressions committed in a previous life. One of the biggest is that a reincarnated person is reborn with no memories of their previous life, and thus has no way of rectifying their mistakes.
Another, perhaps more significant problem is the perceived lack of free will inherent in the system. Is a woman being raped and murdered being punished for actions in a previous life? Were the millions of Jews who died in the Holocaust being punished for actions in a previous life? Or were these actions the result of someone actively working against the cycle of karma, inflicting punishment where it was never meant to be inflicted?
Even with all these criticisms, though, I still have to rank the cycle of samsara in first place because, at a basic level, I still find it infinitely fairer than the one-and-one eternal damnation deal inherent in all Abrahamic ideologies. Why shouldn’t a person be allowed to do it over again on Earth if he or she didn’t quite meet God’s standards the first time? And why should there be any worse Hell than the one we live in now?
And so we finally come to the end of this ungodly long religious tract of mine. I spent well over a month working on this piece, and I sincerely hope the effort was worth it.
Before I close this piece off for good, though, there is still one last question left to ask. All of these theories attempting to make sense of evil in this world are fine and all, but how do we actually confront evil in this lifetime? Meister proposes this answer given by the French philosopher and pioneer of absurdism Albert Camus:
Since the order of this world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes to Heaven where He sits in silence?
Albert Camus, The Plague, 1947, pg. 117
Even if one disagrees with his atheism and absurdist philosophy, one cannot argue with his point that even the providence of God does not negate human responsibility. With that truth in mind, Meister ends the book by listing several ways one can combat evil in our earthly lives:
Help needy children by sponsoring a child or volunteering your time to an organization devoted to children.
Battle the effects of illness and disease.
Donate time and/or money to an organization which assists the homeless.
Support organizations that strive to provide relief, including food and shelter, for the victims of natural disasters.
Promote equality in the home, workplace, and culture at large.
Work toward unity and respect among religious traditions.
Care for neglected or abused animals.
Strive to help the environment.
Of course, as an anarcho-communist, I would argue the necessity of taxing the hell out of the billionaire class and eventually eliminating them entirely because their greed and artificially produced scarcities are the real sources of all the world’s moral problems. But, you know, baby steps and all that.