John Loftus on natural evil, theodicy and defense
Our discussion of evil and greater goods theodicy has provided a solid segue for a return (finally) to a discussion of John Loftus’ edited volume The Christian Delusion (Prometheus, 2010), this time with my eagle eye focused on his essay “The Darwinian Problem of Evil.” My last blog post setting up this topic was, you will recall, a little ditty on dinosaur feces (or “faeces” if you prefer). John’s essay is a good discussion (yes, I said a good discussion, which is rather more adulatory a comment than I have granted to many other essays in the book; I’m sure John will be over the moon) of the problem of natural evil, a problem which Christians, anthropocentrists that they tend to be (like most other people by the way, Gary Francione exempted), tend to overlook. [Before continuing I would like to apologize for that last sentence. Like Iron Butterfly performing "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida", it didn't know when to stop.]
Here is the core problem as John sets it up. “Upon the supposition of Darwinian evolutionary biology, this suffering is natural. It’s what we should expect to find. But upon the supposition of Christian theism, this is not what we should expect to find.” (237)
In other words, the long, tortured evolutionary history of the natural world suggests there is no mind or intelligence behind it.
John then notes that Christians could respond to the problem either with a ”defense” or a more robust “theodicy”. A defense (as Alvin Plantinga noted) is concerned merely with providing a possible story that explains how there is not really any contradiction between the presence of evil and a good God. But John is not interested in possible stories as he retorts that a mere defense is ”too low to be accepted as any kind of standard at all.” (240) Rather, he demands from the Christian a theodicy, that is, a genuine account of why God set up the world in this way. And John believes that the eight theodicies he then surveys are all unsuccessful.
I’m going to get to the theodicies in the next go-around. (At least I intend to.) Here let me note that John’s comments on this specific point are completely self-serving, and this brings me back to THE fundamental defect in The Christian Delusion, namely that it is written for those who already accept its conclusions even though it purports to be for the Christian. To make matters worse, it has an indefensible double standard.
To illustrate this double standard, let’s consider any particular perplexing fact that John as an atheist has to explain: perhaps the origin of biological information or of conscious, reasoning organisms arising through a random process, or the nature of statements like “x is evil but y is good”. Would John demand of his own atheist clan that they have the one true account of how biological information or conscious rational agents arose or in what apparently objective moral ascriptions consist (in other words, a “theodicy-equivalent”)? Of course not, not least because there is no theodicy equivalent of these, or countless other, facts that appear to falsify atheism (or at least which test the mettle of its adherents). No, John (and most any other atheist) would be happy with a plausible, nuts and bolts account of how biological information (i.e. DNA) and conscious, rational agents possibly arose through natural processes and how moral ascriptions are possibly constituted by those agents. Never mind the explanation. Just show me how we could possibly have these facts in a godless universe.
So why, when it comes to a Christian problem — explaining the existence and nature of natural evil — is the bar suddenly moved from defense (a possible explanation) to theodicy (THE explanation)? Methinks I know just what to send John for Christmas: a nice gold plaque (okay, gold-colored) that reads “Demand of others what you demand of yourself.”