Theodicy Is Useful in Everyday Life

So, I’ve been debating Catholic commenters on Unequally Yoked again, and I came across a comment that was so astute, so unusually perceptive, that I just had to share it.

The war with the Canaanites is really just a specialization of the problem of suffering, right? Why does a good God allow suffering, which is presumably evil.

The short answer (from a Catholic perspective) is that we don’t know… Nonetheless, it is not the knock-down blow that atheists tend to present it as. It is at least conceivable that finite suffering is in the service of a greater, unseen, good, and therefore reconcilable with a benevolent deity. So there is no contradiction, just a question mark.

Now, being as this statement came from a Roman Catholic, you’d expect me to disagree with it, right? But I don’t, not at all. In fact, I myself believe this logic wholeheartedly. How could I not, when it just recently proved so useful to me in my own life?

Allow me to explain. I haven’t shared this with you until now, but the last few months, I’ve been busy with a minor legal matter. It was such a trivial thing, not even worth bothering with really, but sometimes these things just have to be dealt with before they become an annoyance. So there I was, sitting at the defendant’s bench while the prosecutor wrapped up his closing arguments. That bastard had such a smug look on his face – he must have thought he had me right where he wanted me. Well, I’d soon show him.

I rose to address the jury (I was acting as my own lawyer, naturally), and delivered my closing statement. Normally I’m a modest and humble individual, but I happen to think that this speech was such a fine example of the art of rhetoric, it was crying out to be shared. I’m proud to reprint it below in full.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury. We’ve heard a lot of back-and-forth in this trial, a lot of tedious legal jargon, and a lot of so-called evidence. You’ve all been stuck in this courtroom just as long as I have, so I won’t tax your patience by recounting all the details. But if I may beg your indulgence one more time, let me just hit the high points.

“Yes, we’ve all seen the surveillance camera video that shows me entering a convenience store, holding up the clerk at gunpoint, emptying the cash register and then pistol-whipping him while he cowered on the floor. You’ve heard the eyewitnesses recount how, after I left the store, I punched out an old lady with a walker and took her purse while she bled all over the sidewalk. You know the story of how I then carjacked a minivan stopped at a traffic light, dragged the driver out onto the pavement, took his keys and sped off. And after hearing from those dozens of police officers who testified about it, I’m sure you don’t need me to repeat the details of the ensuing six-hour, three-state joyride, the car owner’s screaming infant son strapped into a child seat next to me all the while, which finally ended only when I sideswiped an ambulance and crashed that car through the front wall of a daycare center.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m not going to stand here and lie to you. I have to admit, these acts I committed – sorry, alleged acts – all seem to paint my character in a pretty bad light. I can tell from the way you’re glaring at me that some of you might even think of me as evil. And to be frank, I can’t say I blame you. If I were in your position right now, I’d probably be drawing many of the same conclusions.

“But, my friends, there’s something you may not have considered. I know you’re all good and decent people (not to mention handsome and snappily dressed), and I can tell from your clean and honest faces that you all attend church regularly, where they taught you the difference between good and evil. And so, ladies and gentlemen, I ask you: Isn’t it at least conceivable that the finite suffering caused by my acts was in the service of a greater, unseen good, the nature of which I’m not going to tell you? And if that’s possible, which you must admit it is, then isn’t it also possible that I’m really innocent? In fact, isn’t it possible that I’m a good person who deserves a medal and an illuminated scroll of thanks from the city?

“Given this argument, the prosecution’s case isn’t the knock-down blow they’ve presented it as. We just don’t have all the facts we’d need to reach a decision. And so, your verdict on my character can’t be guilty. At most, it could be a question mark! Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, if the prosecutors haven’t proven their case to the satisfaction of even the most hardcore school of philosophical skepticism, you must acquit!”

Well, I don’t like to brag, but I walked out of that courtroom a free man. I guess I’m lucky there were no atheists on my jury – you know how that kind tends to jump to conclusions on the basis of insufficient evidence.

Photo Sunday: Stone Wall, Winter
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Weekend Bonus Music: Hard Believer
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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Andrew Hall

    Brilliant. Nice touch with punching the old lady in the face, it shows you can improvise under pressure.

  • Jeff

    You know their answer to this one – we can’t, with our puny minds, even begin to begin to comprehend God’s amazingly humongous awesomeness. Why, we atheists are the arrogant ones, for assuming that we know better than God how to run the universe!

    I just took a look at that thread. Same tired old garbage – atheists have no basis for morality and what in the world is wrong with saying so, blah, blah. Unequally yoked, indeed.

    Meh – it’s your time to waste, Ebon.

  • J. Quinton

    So, if I’m watching TV in the living room while my gf is asleep in the bedroom, and a theif breaks into the bedroom window attempting to steal all of her jewelry and rape her, how do I know if allowing her to be raped is part of god’s plan? What if thwarting the rape prevents god’s plan from being enacted? At most, I should be presented with a question mark and paralyzed with inaction when faced with a rapist attempting to rape my gf.

    Or, what if I’m out camping and I come across a woman and her two less than 5 year old kids being attacked by a pack of wolves? What if this woman and her kids getting mauled to death is part of god’s plan? Part of god’s greater good?

    In both of these cases, it is at least conceivable that these examples of finite suffering are in the service of a greater, unseen, good! Maybe I should let my gf get raped, or let the young mother and her kids get mauled to death by wolves. One could say that stopping the rapist from raping my gf is actually IMMORAL since it might prevent a greater, unseen good! One could say that attempting to fight off the wolves to save the young mother and her kids is showing blatant disregard for god’s plan!

    Surely, allowing these things to happen isn’t an indictment of god’s (or my) moral character. How do I know what god’s plan is for rape victims? How do I know what god’s plan is for a father to lose his young wife and two kids to a wolf attack? I’m faced with just a question mark.

  • kennypo65

    I really hate the question of why god allows evil. I think a better question is, “Why do we?”

  • Rick

    “we don’t know”

    Then how do they know that god is worthy of worship? Set aside for a moment the question of whether the problem of evil disproves a loving god’s existence. If they can acknowledge that they don’t know why god allows suffering/evil then they must acknowledge that they don’t know whether god deserves our praise/love/adoration. This is, of course the “problem of evil” put another way.

  • John D

    Clever. Reminds me of Dawkins bit about the butler and the fossil record in the Greatest Show on Earth.

    Can I be permitted a small bit of self-promotion? I have a long series of posts on my blog dealing with this whole skeptical theist response:

    The End of Skeptical Theism

    Also, in response to Rick above, I’ve been looking at the worship issue more recently (just scroll down):

    Philosophical Disquisitions

  • jtradke

    Aw, what? You didn’t even eat any of the babies at the daycare?


  • exrelayman

    You have outdone yourself Ebon. Wonderful! Jonathan Swift would have enjoyed this.

  • L.Long

    I must bow before a master!

  • Fargus

    Dammit, you just lost me a whole hour reading through that comment thread and the thread on the follow-up post. Sometimes I feel like the religious people in Unequally Yoked threads aren’t really religious, but just a parody. Poe’s Law in effect, I suppose.

  • Nelson

    philosopher Steven Maitzen has pretty much put this to rest i think. he points out that this response- “god allows some unnecessary evil because to do otherwise would prevent some greater good from being obtained”- seems to suggest that the theist is forced to believe both that it is incumbent upon us under ordinary morality to prevent suffering where possible but also that when we prevent suffering we prevent some greater good from obtaining that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. surely if the good is great enough from god’s perspective to allow suffering in order that it be obtained then we should allow that suffering to exist without trying to intervene. and yet that’s absurd according to anyone’s morality.

  • AnonaMiss

    Happy April Fools’ to you too.

  • Fargus

    The notion of free will coexisting with an omnipotent God with a “plan” is what’s absurd. I’m obviously not the first one to say it, but some argue with a straight face that God knows all about the past, present and future, which would seem to hem Him/It in just as much as it would us. Yet believers feel they must tack on “free will” to make it seem like what they do has purpose (and also to make it so that they can judge people for their actions).

  • Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    Why is an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God unable to realize that alleged greater good without the partial evil?

    And while we imperfect humans may be willing to accept what are for us unavoidable but lesser evils to achieve our sufficiently good ends, how could such a God be excused for such a choice, even assuming (contrary to his omnipotence) that he could be so constrained?

    Ivan Karamazov insisted that the suffering of even one small innocent is too high a price to pay.

    And perhaps it would be, for such a God.

  • Ritchie

    “I really hate the question of why god allows evil. I think a better question is, “Why do we?” – Comment #4 by: kennypo65 | April 1, 2011, 7:59 am”
    Bravo, sir! Well said. I take my hat off for that one!

  • Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    Really? Could you have stopped the Japanese 9.0 earthquake?

  • Cheryl

    I cannot stand attitudes of otherwise decent people who believe that everything happens for a “reason” — like rapes and murders. How about using the old “maybe you were the rapist in another life and you’re just trying to work on your karma” as another way to blame the victim?!?! Grrrrr. Fine. Then let’s make sure offenders’ karmas play out and let them rot in a dark hole for the rest of their miserable lives.

  • Penguin_Factory

    When I got to the bit about the defendant’s booth I started getting worried D:

    But then I came to my senses and realized it was satire. And quite good satire too!

    This argument always cracks me up, since it essentially states “It is possible to conceive that God may have had a reason that justifies what he did, therefore God had a reason that justifies what he did”.

    There is no “question mark” here. Christians aren’t actually treating this as an unknown, or else they would have to conclude that God’s goodness is itself a question mark as well.

  • Patrick

    In the following thread I have dealt with in detail with the questions raised here. Maybe my comments are of use to anybody.

  • Mrnaglfar

    This argument cuts both ways: Who’s to say that the good* we see in the world is not all just part of an end towards some immeasurable, unseen suffering?

  • Leah @ Unequally Yoked

    Glad to have you backstopping me over there. This is possibly my least favorite Christian apologetic tactic.

  • anna

    Some people like to say God must cause or allow suffering for the greater good, like the pain and fear children go through when they get vaccinated. But this is foolish because an omnipotent God could cause the good without the suffering, and if it did not it would not be a benevolent God.

  • SuperHappyJen

    Brilliant! So happy to see you solved your “minor legal problem”.

  • Hendy


    Precisely! I thought the same thing, more or less, recently when my wife (a believer) returned from a talk, entitled, “Why God sometimes says, ‘No.’” She was summarizing it to me, and the main gist was the same as the central idea here — sometimes God says, “No,” because he has something better in mind. She was using ornate theological phrases, like, “God sometimes wants us to endure physical suffering in order to unite us more closely to his son, Jesus, because this will bring about our eventual salvation.”

    This was coupled with the idea that we should pray only for God’s will and not what we want.

    But if we never know… why pray for the intuitively desirable physical healing outcome when, if such a prayer was answered, it might actually decrease a person’s chances at salvation by preventing them from being “united to the suffering of Jesus”?

    It strikes me as just a hand waving explanation that really says about nothing other than comforting the believer about apparent deistic unresponsiveness. To be logical and consistent, the believer should really not pray for anything other than, “God, do what you were going to do anyway in this situation — you know best.”

    Yet I receive tons of emails from friends (I am a recent deconvert) asking to pray for speedy recoveries, low pain, no complications in surgical procedures, etc. But why? How can we know that this is what God wants for someone? Perhaps he wants the surgeon to a junior mint into someone and thus increase their suffering to promote a greater good.

    ‘Nuff rambling about this. Your comment from Maitzen resonated with me and thus I thought I’d share a similar sentiment.

  • Yahzi

    On a related issue, I just asked my fundie dad how he calls that “good.”

    He said: “I don’t – I call it God’s will and God’s way.”

    Well, you know, there you go.

  • Prof.V.N.K.Kumar

    Obviously you are pulling our legs on April Fool’s day ! I cannot imagine you hurting even a fly. You are the personification / epitome of ethical perfection as far as I am concerned. You cannot write cogently like you do unless you walk your talk. Evidently you are dramatizing the whole thing to make a point – how the gullible theists rationalize the paralysis of the omnipotent, omniscient & omnibenevolent being they worship, when they pray to him to redresss an evil.

    It would of course make complete sense if it were to be a dream sequence.

  • TEP

    It’s rather ironic the way that some Christians assert that atheists cannot have morals, yet to defend the benevolence of their god they will adopt a ‘moral’ stance in which right and wrong are effectively defined out of existence. In order to be able to say their god isn’t evil, they need to adopt a stance whereby no act qualifies as evidence of malevolence – a stance, which if applied consistently, would make it impossible to condemn the actions of Ted Bundy, Vlad the Impaler, Hitler, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein and Jeffrey Dahmer, to name but a few – after all, we can never be sure they didn’t have really good reasons for their actions that we don’t know about. Accepting theodicies as valid entails sacrificing the capacity to make any moral judgements whatsoever; which is quite telling about the nature of their god that the only way to avoid concluding that he acts immorally is to abandon the very concept of morality.

  • Duke of Omnium

    I read through the comments on both the post you linked above, and the daughter post. It’s downright frightening how many people rationalize away the monstrous commands of their god-thingy. I’m sure (this is not irony) that these are generally decent people who lead lives of quiet desperation like the rest of us. But they also have no scruples about a command to mass murder by their deity.

  • Eurekus

    ‘It was such a trivial thing, not even worth bothering with really, but sometimes these things just have to be dealt with before they become an annoyance.’

    What God thinks of humanity. If she does exist.

  • Goldarn

    Indeed. What if you came along a group of young people being mauled by bears? Would you attempt to stop the bears from mauling them, assuming you had the means?
    But, before you can rescue them, you find out that those youths had insulted one of God’s Prophets by referring to him as bald! Now what do you do after you’ve found out that being mauled by bears is good?

  • stag

    Hi ebonmuse you may remember me from a while back. Well, I’ve not got much on at the moment, so I thought I’d drop by.

    I bet other apologists had better arguments than the one you printed. Here is Aquinas on the subject (quoting from memory, then translating freely): “Deus non vult quod malum sit, nec vult quod malum non sit, sed vult quod malum possit esse. Et hoc est bonum” (God neither wills there to be evil, nor wills there not to be evil, but wills that there may be evil. And that is good.) The catholic apologist you quoted seemed to suggest that evils are – perhaps – simply reconciled at a higher vantage point. This is emphatically not Christian; it belongs to stoic and neoplatonist philosophy. Any apologetic that makes evil anything other than evil is destined to fail.

    So I hope all the stoics and neoplatonists (and our Catholic friend) are hanging their heads in shame at having exonerated you from you heinous crimes. From a genuinely Christian perspective, however, your pointed satire very much misses the target.

  • Zen Buddhist

    Simply making the decision to place one’s responsibility in to the hands of another, whether it be deity or intellectual construct, does not absolve one of that responsibility, any more than putting your money in the bank absolves you of the responsibility to see that it remains under your ultimate control. Yes, you can sue the bank if they steal your money, fail, or claim the inability to replace it. But ultimately, this is a question of responsibility. You did not have to put your money in the bank. When one ‘owns’ one’s actions, thoughts, feelings, etc. one is truly being responsible. Any time we place responsibility for anything within our ability to control (our actions, our thoughts, our feelings), we abdicate our responsibility, we deny it, we give away our ‘ownership’ to it, believing we are relieving ourselves of it. But we are merely denying that which we still possess, ‘own,’ and are ultimately suffering for. Relief of suffering comes though taking responsibility for all we do, think, say, feel, and this is most easily done through controlling our desires. In this way we may act towards a higher purpose, and fulfill a greater destiny, and take full responsibility for our lives and their effects on the world. To deny this duty is to deny responsibility for our very self.