THE END OF UNBELIEF
A New Approach
to the Question of God
Defending God from Evil
Part 3 (of Book Part Three), continued
[A few excerpts appear below. An elipsis (******) indicates that material -- often a number of pages -- has been deleted from this sampling.]
There is no compelling reason to withhold belief in God. I was a long time reaching that conclusion, and I will support it briefly here. A compelling reason would be logical proof that a being with the traits ascribed to God cannot plausibly exist in this universe as we know it. Such an argument would be strongest if it were based on observable facts that cannot be reconciled with an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good and loving deity.
This brings me directly to the problem of evil, since it is this class of phenomena that seems most able to support, and most likely to produce, the atheistic position (as it did with me). Let’s take an example from Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan is speaking to Alyosha:
“There was a little girl of five who was hated by her father and mother, ‘most worthy and respectable people, of good education and breeding.’… This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty – shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy, because she didn’t ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement. It was her mother, her mother who did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child’s groans!
“Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to her dear, kind god to protect her? Do you understand that, Alyosha, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on this earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to ‘dear, kind God’!”
[Next Ivan tells of a child who, for some minor offense, was stripped naked and fed to a pack of vicious hounds that ripped him apart before his mother’s eyes. Ivan says to Alyosha:]
“Tell me yourself, I challenge you, answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last. Imagine that you are doing this but that it is essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature – that child beating its breast with its fist, for instance – in order to found that edifice on its unavenged tears. Would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me. Tell the truth.”
“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.
That passage was once my major “text” for atheism. Rarely has the problem of evil been more dramatically stated. Even reading it now I am stirred to indignation and wrath. Better no God at all, we feel, than one who tortures children, or lets them be tortured. “He’s guilty!” our emotions shout, “Guilty and indefensible. No need for a trial. Let’s drag God from the courtroom and lynch him!” I am impelled to follow, but as I seize my length of rope, the Defense Counsel lays a gentle hand on my arm and whispers, “He saved your life. Have you forgotten? He stood beside you when no one else did. You depend on his goodness and his love. Can you live without him?”
I pause, realizing how much of me would die if he did. “Selfishness be damned,” I say, clenching the rope. “It’s not what he means to me, but what he did to the child that’s at issue. I can’t spare him for my convenience. Justice matters more!”
“Then in justice hear his case,” says Reason, quietly tapping his gavel. “Calm down and weigh all the facts before you give your verdict. If the evidence convicts him, he will die. I promise you that. But if there is a reasonable doubt, he’ll be acquitted. Let the case be heard.”
A Trial for the Ages
The scope of this paper does not permit a full account of the trial, which dragged on for months. The Defendant remained silent throughout and never spoke a word in his own behalf. Reason was the judge and the sole finder of fact. (When God is the Defendant there cannot be a jury of his peers.)
Reason looked appropriately venerable. If not eighty he was close to it. He had a fluffy head of thin but luminous white hair, which he parted on the left and combed back in a neat becoming way. The disheveled Einstein look of some elderly intellectuals was not for him. His eyebrows were a deep gray, his eyes dark, fierce, appraising, skeptical.
His thin lips formed a straight hard line that warned he would brook no nonsense. The broad faintly aquiline nose presided over a long upper lip and a narrow homely face. Of middle height, his body was frail and angular. He looked suspiciously like the philosopher and atheist Bertrand Russell, who had a known affinity for tribunals, though he was not a jurist or even a lawyer. So of course it could not have been he.
Prosecutor Ronald Pavone was a slender man in his mid-thirties, with a full head of black hair, parted on the side and combed back severely. He was strikingly handsome and vaguely familiar. The oval face, the tight strong jaw line, the full sensuous lower lip, the nose that might have been lifted from a Greek statue, the large dark eyes with long lashes under straight thin brows… he reminded you tantalizingly of someone. A celebrity. Probably a film star.
You instinctively doubted that a man so physically endowed could also have a trenchant legal mind and rhetorical skills. But he had both, and with them had made a powerful case. The evidence and exhibits were horrifying – from the carnage and atrocities of war, to the crucifying ravages of disease, to the monstrous cruelties of the Holocaust. His summation was eloquent and damning.
Defense Counsel Oliver T. Bower, a man with thinning blond hair, also mid-thirtyish, was a grim sight. His nose was hugely prominent, twice the normal size, thin as an axe head, and so sharply bent at the bridge that in profile it seemed to break at a right angle. He had hardly any chin: A side view suggested a straight line from the base of his nose to his neck. Hugely beaked and almost chinless he had the look of a vulture – or more charitably an eagle. His ears were large and stood out like cups.
Worse than his terrible features was the absence of features in the middle of his face, the blank spot where his eyes and nose should have converged but didn’t. His eyes and eyebrows were so near the edge of his face they seemed almost on the side of his head. At first you had to stare at him, but then – apart from regretting rudeness – you turned away because the sight was appalling, like the scene of an awful accident. Here indeed was a man whom nature had treated cruelly.
You wondered if Bower could speak at all. If the face was that deformed could the brain behind it be normal? But the moment words began to issue from those uncomely lips, the thought of retardation was dispelled. The voice was firm and deep, the sentences clear and well-formed, the ideas cogent, the gestures persuasive, sometimes dramatic. The inner man was as magnetic as the outer man was repellant. Your ears overcame your eyes. In his active courtroom persona the ugly man was a compelling figure. At times riveting.
Defense Counsel’s Closing Argument
“Let’s clarify one thing,” Bower argued to the Court, standing in front of counsel table and facing Reason squarely. “The central issue is pain and suffering for which God, directly or indirectly, can be held responsible. The abused child – whom God did not intervene to protect -- is only an appalling instance of these. If I can show that pain -- physical, mental, and emotional -- is not necessarily evil, the Defendant cannot be found guilty.
"When we say something is “evil,” what do we mean? The dictionary gives six definitions. They have this in common: What’s evil is extremely undesirable from a human point of view. Everyone agrees that cancer and leprosy are evils. No one wants them. We’re trying to eliminate them. We all wish they didn’t exist.
“But when we say they’re undesirable from a human point of view, we make their character of evil depend on a variable. If our point of view changes, we may no longer see them as evil. Pain would still be pain, and we’d naturally shrink from it. But from a new perspective, we might not wish it out of existence. We might even see it as desirable, though anguishing, in which case the abolition of pain would be evil, and the existence of pain in the world would be good. Is this hard to conceive of? Let me read you a few lines from a biography of Leo Tolstoy.” He picked up a book from counsel table, held it in one hand, and gestured with the other while he read aloud:
Spiritually he prepared himself for the end and calmly anticipated the moment when the spark of life in his pain-racked body would be extinguished. Sickness he regarded as a positive virtue. “One must suffer a severe illness,” he dictated for his diary at this time, “in order to convince oneself of what life consists: the weaker the body, the stronger becomes one’s spiritual development…”
He continued to accept his poor health with cheerful resignation and laughingly told his friends that he had gained so much from sickness that for their own good he wished them all bad health.
Bower closed the book, laid it on the table behind him, and took a step closer to the bench. “Our point of view,” he continued, “is the sum total of what we see to be our interests. If those interests end at the grave, what puts us there against our will must be called evil. And what destroys them while we live is evil too. Yet convince us that we have something more at stake, and we may revise our judgments radically.”
Bower began to stride back and forth before Reason, telling a story and making frequent eye contact.
“A misanthropic farmer is oblivious to his wealthy neighbor’s estate -- totally preoccupied with his own rocky patch of land. His concerns are bounded by the rickety fence at the end of his property. It marks the limit of his forty-acre world, and he never gives a thought to the fertile paradise beyond.
"But hand him the deed to that glorious estate, with its ten-thousand acres of ripening wheat, its fruit-laden groves, its splendid manor house, and he’ll gladly see his once-precious forty acres turned into an irrigation ditch for the sake of his new and larger interests. The identical event – the flooding of his farm – would have seemed an unmitigated evil from his old point of view. Now he opts for it eagerly. An extending of his interests has transformed an evil into a good.”
The Making of Souls
Bower paused for effect, then went on.
“There was a time in Tolstoy’s life when he would not have seen anything desirable in sickness, his own or anyone else’s. He would have wished it out of existence. Then his conception of man and of the universe expanded. He saw the visible world connected to invisible realities and pervaded by them. He perceived a spirit in man, more vital and enduring than body, and more encompassing than what psychologists call ‘mind.’ Spiritual development became his major criterion of good and evil, superseding the old criteria of pleasure, health, affluence, power, fame -- even the creation of great literature.
“In essence he agreed with Keats that ‘life is a vale of soul-making.’ And his profound discovery was that there are soul-making qualities in pain.
“Let me repeat that,” Bower said, facing the bench and making fixed eye-contact with Reason. “I’m not quoting Tolstoy here, but I see this as the truth he was pointing to, and it’s the best way I can phrase it.” He held an open right hand upward toward the white-haired judge, as if tendering his insight. “There are soul-making qualities in pain. Both physical pain and emotional pain.”
He relaxed and began pacing again. “Of course the discovery was not original. There are traces of it in the oldest religions. And asceticism is still important in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Catholicism.” He paused, physically and verbally, as if he had digressed – then picked up the thread.
With great conviction he declared what I took to be, for him, a truth with deep personal implications: “Pain is so woven into the fabric of human life that we can’t conceive of a worthy human being apart from it. The most admirable men and women could not have become so without tolerating, even embracing, the kinds of pain that stood between them and what they sought to achieve....
[End of Part 3 excerpt]