Let’s see if we can’t get a little deeper into the question of theodicy, the question of why “god” allows evil to exist in the world. I am qualified to be your guide today, as I do consider myself to be both a man of science, and a man of the spirit. I see no contradiction in this, as I do believe my spiritual journeys have been empirical and evidence-based – at least in my own opinion. And all spiritual discussions and pronouncements, by anyone, need to be prefaced, of course, with the statement ”in my opinion.” I do believe, for myself, the evidence I’ve discovered for my spiritual understandings; however I do NOT expect YOU to also believe, necessarily for yourself, my evidence that I’ve discovered for my spiritual understandings.
And in the last few days since the tragic, and most likely terroristic, bombings in Boston Massachusetts, we have heard, on all types of media, a lot of poorly informed, artlessly expressed and just plain old silly and shallow discussion of what the world is like and how terrible it is that terrible things like this mass murder can occur. Let’s see what we can do to raise the level of discussion of these problems on the internet.
So why does “god” allow evil to occur in this world, why does “god” allow a hateful person or persons to fill backpacks with pressure cooker bombs filled with projectiles meant to cause severe and widespread injury and detonate them at a time of public celebration?
First off, as a spiritual person, this is why I put the word “god” in quotation marks, and why in my own writings I refer to the “Unknowable Universal Essence” as my synonym for words like God, Jehovah, Allah, The Lord, and so on. The image of an all-knowing patriarch who “knows” every detail of every life, who knows the course of every set of future events, is not an image that has ever attracted me spiritually, or one that comports with the reality of the spiritual Universe as I understand it. I do maintain that what I call the Unknowable Universal Essence “is present in” or “participates in” all the matter and all the energy in the Universe – yet please notice how this formulation is deliberately much more vague, uncertain and open-ended than the idea that a Fundamentalist Protestant Lord knows and controls your every future action. (And for the skeptical, I will point out that I specifically acknowledge that the “spiritual essence” I find to be present in the Universe as a whole, may well turn out to be some aspect of cosmic astrophysics which we humans just can’t yet understand or define scientifically.)
So, in my understanding of the “Unknowable Universal Essence,” it embraces ALL LIFE – viruses, mosquitoes, strange life-forms using non-carbon/oxygen chemistries in extreme environments – and it also embraces all apparently “non-living” matter as well. As long as matter and energy don’t violate the “laws” of physics and chemistry, they’re good to go in this Universe and be a portion of the universal love song. We do live with viruses and bacteria and cancer cells in our bodies nearly all the time. If the viruses or cancer cells grow stronger than the human body, I can be sad for you and your family, however the Unknowable Universal Essence is not offended. Or another example, we do live on earth with an atmosphere that helps keep our environment within a limited temperature range, while providing us oxygen to breathe and shielding us from the harsh environment of outer space. If the waste products of our economic activities upset that atmosphere so it can no longer be counted on to provide those elements of our convenience, the Unknowable Universal Essence will embrace the new life forms that evolve to thrive in the new, changed atmosphere which no longer supports our survival.
If you have an ideology that there is a one unified intelligence with Lordly Powers over all life, and which is specifically interested in earth-bound human lives over all other lives, then you do still have a problem with the question of “theodicy,” or why your Lord allows evil things to happen to human beings. And as I don’t really share your assumptions, I can’t help you much with a solution. The suggestion that your Lord who is especially interested in human beings, allows evil human behaviors to occur (over and over again!) as a test of individual human choices in a context of free will – making it all the more important to make non-evil choices – is as good an explanation as any other, given the assumptions.
As for the question of humans creating “evil” behavior which tortures, torments and murders other human lives, that, unfortunately, is a practical and scientific question which requires scientific answers (which we should be smart enough to provide). The problem is complicated further because the term “evil,” while it is a widely used term which everyone thinks they can recognize when they see it, is (like all the other words we commonly use when talking about “morality”) a subjective term of personal definition, rather than an objective scientific term with a definition that scientists can agree on. Everyone will have somewhat different definition of what “evil” or “morality” is (or should be), and there is no authority we can rest on to be sure of our definitions (besides the authority of having more human beings agree with our definitions of “good” and “evil” than disagree).
For today, we can say that the vast majority of humanity does agree that mass murder, for any motive, is indeed “evil” and is indeed to be condemned and repudiated. Nevertheless, we do find, and we will continue to find, that individual human beings do create for themselves sick, strange and angry psychological structures, and these same people will embrace divisive, arrogant and hate-filled versions of science and/or religion. From here it is but a short step for such angry people to gravitate towards choices of what human behaviors to give honor and status to, which enable political ideologies that allow them to think it is somehow “good” to commit specific mass murders in specific circumstances. And while many of the small minority that take these first three steps towards mass murder may never, fortunately, find the circumstances that allow them to express these murderous thoughts in action, a few will find themselves in economic circumstances that do allow them to gather the tools of murder, and the time and personal “security” to believe that they can and should take action on their murderous belief (whether or not they believe they can “get away with it”).
Humans create their own evils, just as they create their own positive accomplishments. As I’ve done my best to explain scientifically, we human beings create both good and evil through our creation and borrowing of our personalities/psychologies, through our creation and borrowing of specific philosophical, scientific and religious ideas, through our creation and borrowing of specific ideas of what human persons and behaviors should be given honor, status, and official rank/authority (a set of behaviors we understand under the heading of “politics”), and through our creation and borrowing of ideas of economic values, and our creation and distribution of specific goods and services to fulfill those economic values.
Our human lives, our thoughts and actions, our human history, are in the end our own human responsibility. I firmly believe our thoughts and actions are subject to scientific explanation. I do believe there is a universal spirit, which mostly feels like “love” to our subjective minds, which is present in all matter and all energy in this universe. This spirit may nourish us psychically to the extent that we seek it out. Yet if we wander twisted paths that lead to hateful and murderous behavior, the universal spirit will not directly interfere or intervene (to the extent that we remain within the realms of ordinary physics and chemistry.)
We like to think of ourselves as “good,” we like to think of ourselves as supporting the best values of humanity. We don’t like to confront ambiguous situations of mixed morality over which we feel we have little direct control, for example, being American citizens who believe in republican virtues and democratic values, who have somehow in the last 70 years created an over-arching military empire claiming supremacy over all human beings on earth, or the situation of being residents of the economically-advanced areas of North America and Europe in the last two hundred years, whose pursuit of economic values for our families and our communities (while neglecting the effects of the waste products of those pursuits) puts us in the position where our “goods” today seem to directly threaten the health and prosperity of our own children and all the future children of the world.
Fewer and fewer of us seem to believe in a patriarchal God who can or will rescue us from our own moral ambiguities. My understanding of the Unknowable Universal Essence tells me it will certainly not rescue us from our problems without a lot more specific, positive political and economic action, immediately taken, on our part. There is no “god” who is going to prevent human beings from being evil, there is no positive force in the Universe that is going to clean up our human messes for us. It’s entirely up to us, human beings. We can’t change the past that our human predecessors have given us, we can change our own thoughts and behavior going forward into the future – and my understanding of “morality” insists we get started on that process, right away.