What’s God’s Sufficient Reason for the Evil in the World? And If You Can’t Think of Any, Should You Still Believe in God?

The principle of sufficient reason (PSR). God must have a sufficient reason for withdrawing and withholding his protection from the descendants of Adam for so tortuously long; for allowing them to encounter the full force of a psychopath’s or nature’s violence when it comes their way; for letting their bodies age, falter, and lapse from mere potency into the actuality of death; for casting the majority of unbelieving humanity into hell to be tortured for eternity after the anguish of this life.

All these have a sufficient reason, and it can’t just be that God has anger issues. If God is good and omnipotent, there must be some sane explanation (you would think) for God withdrawing and withholding his protection from us so utterly. And if, 2000 years ago, Jesus paid the debt in God’s ledger incurred by Adam and Eve’s sin, what on Earth is God waiting for to set things right?

For individual belief? It wasn’t enough for Jesus to die. The claim is that each individual has to believe that Jesus died and rose from the dead as well (and that, absent evidence).

The whole Christian narrative just seems contrived and wildly implausible when you closely look at it. But Jesus did say to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen, but believed.”

Confirmation bias (counting the hits, but not the misses). If God’s ways are simply off the table in terms of human explanation, then obviously the religious believer is not really defending his or her beliefs with reason, but with selective rationalizations. In other words, when you say that you have other good reasons for believing in God that override an otherwise significant objection (the problem of evil), you’re telling me that you’re not really weighing contrary lines of evidence and argument, and reaching a plausible conclusion, but indulging in confirmation bias to arrive at a confident conclusion. You’re counting your theory’s hits, but bracketing the misses.

But were I a religious believer, the pervasiveness of natural and human-caused evils in the world is like what rabbits in the Cambrian would be for an evolutionist: a big red flag that something’s wrong with my thesis.

One rethinks a theory if one is left dumbfounded for an explanation to a significant objection. At least that seems like a good rule of thumb to me. At minimum, one doesn’t double down on certainty.

Jack Miles uses the argument from scientific ignorance to defend the leap of faith. In an essay titled “Why God Will Not Die” at The Atlantic, Jack Miles recently put it this way: “However we cope with our ignorance, we cannot, by definition, call the coping knowledge.” This means, on Miles rendering, that both atheists and theists leap to faith-based conclusions. Miles also quotes Isaiah 55:8-9: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord, for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” This is the standard appeal to ignorance and incomprehension that keeps the God thesis afloat.

But faith has a way of turning from ignorance into 100% certainty, as in “I know that my redeemer lives.”

Of the Isaiah passage, Miles writes this: “So much, it would seem, for empirical confirmation. But rather than construe such language as vicarious boasting, one may take it, counterintuitively, as Isaiah’s way of reckoning with the limitations of his own mind.” Miles also writes this: “Science keeps revealing how much we don’t, perhaps can’t, know. Yet humans seek closure, which should make religious pluralists of us all.”

In other words, Miles is recommending here any availability heuristic of your choosing–theist or atheist. Whatever works to quell your anxiety surrounding not knowing.

But here’s where I think Miles’ analysis is problematic. Noticing that science reveals just how much we don’t know–our vast ignorance–shouldn’t give succor (for instance) to a thesis saddled with the problem of evil. If you can’t provide God’s sufficient reason for allowing the Holocaust (for a mind-focusing example), you shouldn’t equate this difficulty with what science hasn’t yet figured out. It’s just not the right analogy.

100% certainty vs. probability. God died at Auschwitz–at least to reason, to speech. Quoting the Isaiah passage doesn’t change that. Whatever Isaiah’s original intention 2500 years ago in saying what he did, after Auschwitz, the quoting of Isaiah 55:8-9 doesn’t function as an appeal to humility, but to business as usual. It’s a power play most naturally deployed by theologians, fundamentalists, and other religious confidence men to shut up people who notice the foolishness of this or that religious claim. It’s indecent to cite it after Auschwitz; a determination to go on doing dogmatic theology after dogmatic theology ought to have been struck dumb by history.

Auschwitz taught us (among other things) the danger of closure transformed to certainty. Science teaches us to think probabilistically, rather than with certainty, and to keep (metaphorically) Galileo’s telescope always pointing to the sky for fresh data. We should never rush to epistemic closure.

So rather than secular liberals nodding approvingly at the revived dance of competing religious tribalists and confidence men (religious and irreligious) in the 21st century, we ought to be saying that Auschwitz and science should make cautious probabilists of us all.

We need probability teach-ins; probability happenings. Our convictions should be tempered by grayscale reasoning. Against the confidence men “full of passionate intensity,” the grayscale ought to hold. Quoting Yeats’ “The Second Coming” (1919) in full seems apt here:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to What’s God’s Sufficient Reason for the Evil in the World? And If You Can’t Think of Any, Should You Still Believe in God?

  1. But you seem to expect them to use logic… or reason…. shame on you

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