Thursday 14 March 2024

Why does the problem of evil lead to loss of Christian faith - but only in the "modern" era?

It has become a commonplace observation that Modern people tend to lose faith when they experience pain, suffering - in a word evil. 

It is therefore assumed - and this appears to be true quite often - that such experiences as bereavement, illness, famine, war... will tend to induce Christians to lose their faith on the basis that these are incompatible with a God supposed to have created everything, and be both Good and Omnipotent. 

The reasoning goes that if mortal life is suffering from evil, then that idea of God cannot be true - therefore Christianity must be false. 

My point here is that this reason for loss of Christian faith is a Modern and "Western" phenomenon -- something that seems to have been a feature only of the "modern" era, which might be asserted to have begun (in Western Europe) around 1500, become common (in some groups) in the middle 1700s - and socially-dominant from the later 1800s; until nowadays it is all-but universal. 

Nowadays in the West it is quite normal for previously devout churchgoing Christians to experience that their faith is At Least strongly challenged by extreme adversity; by personal experience of the evils of this mortal life.    

Yet, there really is very little evidence of this happening in the first 3/4 of Christianity - it is recorded, but exceptional - despite at-least equally great (perhaps greater) human suffering. 

Indeed the opposite was more usual: the assumption that the more humans suffered, the more devoutly Christian they became. 

For instance; in a medieval work like Piers Plowman (c 1380-1400) the starving and diseased poor were generally regarded as better Christians (on average) than the idle and luxurious rich. 

It was indeed a commonplace that peace, prosperity, and comfort were the main enemies of Christianity.  

In other words; with the advent and spread of Modernity, there has been a reversal of the effect of evil experiences on people. 

I believe that the reason has been that modern consciousness has changed from the pre-modern - "consciousness" meaning (roughly) our degree of self-awareness, and the way our minds spontaneously interpret the world.  

Modern consciousness apparently began in the upper and educated classes, giving the earliest inklings and examples among the likes of poets and writers; and spread progressively downwards through almost-whole Western populations - albeit probably less-so in other places and cultures. 

But it is modern consciousness that has led to our explicit and personal awareness of the "problem of evil". 

This seems to me one of the major ways in which our basic situation in the world has changed. The experience of evil has always been part of life; but the response of people has almost inverted; exactly because modern Man experiences himself qualitatively differently from pre-modern times. 

Adult modern man is spontaneously (almost universally) cut-off and "alienated" from God, spirits, indeed the world of the spirit which used to be either spontaneously apparent in ancient times - or (later) was easily evoked by religious symbolism, language, ritual and (in general) Christian societal organization. 

What is obvious - indeed apparently unavoidable - to modern consciousness; was invisible or insignificant to most people in the past. 

Insofar as modern man is passive he does not experience God, and is atheist - hence unChristian. 

The particular power of the experience of the problem of evil in losing Christian faith is that modern Man surveys the claims of Christianity from outside

Pre-modern Man was spontaneously "inside" Christianity; hence he mostly did not even notice the contradiction between the existence of evil and assertion of a God who is both Omnipotent and Good.

Nowadays - surveying Christian claims "objectively", modern man can hardly fail to notice the contradictions. It seems merely rational to abandon belief in a contradiction. 

Of course, there are innumerable long and complex rationalizations as to how it is possible for God to have created everything, and also be omnipotent - and yet there be evil in the world. 

Yet these arguments have, for many and various reasons (including that they are, in my opinion, all of them fundamentally incoherent!), failed to convince

In practice; the stark and observable experiences of evil powerfully refute the idea of a personal, all-creating, omnipotent and wholly-good God in the context of modern consciousness

In this context; so long as Christians Insist that God Must Be creator-of-all, and omnipotent, and wholly-Good - for so long will the experience of evil lead quite naturally to the abandonment of Christianity. 


Note: The answer, as I see it, is to abandon the idea of an Omni-God. In other words, now that we recognize the incoherence of a wholly-Good God as all-creating and omnipotent - it is the attributes of all-creating and omnipotence that should be discarded. The alternative path of insisting-upon God's omnipotence and all-creating nature is - in practice - to move Christianity towards the mind-set of Judaism or Islam - where God is not argued to be "good" by Man's evaluations - but rather the argument goes in the opposite direction: that whatever God does, is what counts as good. It is the difference between "God is Good", and "Good is God" - as Charles Williams put it. In other words, when Christians find themselves asserting - whether explicitly or implicitly - that Good is God, then they have moved out of Christianity and into the theology of strict monotheism.  


Phil said...

I'm leery of ideas that seem to contradict parts of the Creeds. Our churches are mostly in sad shape, but let me suggest two ideas:
1) "Why is there so much evil in the World." There is a straightforward answer to this; God said, "...and let him have dominion over the fishes, etc."
He put someone in charge of the place (us), & we promptly broke it. I call this the smart-ass answer, because while it's true, it doesn't answer the implied question, "If He is so great, why did He do it this way when He knew we would screw things up?"
Does this come from a different consciousness, or from a different conception of God? Modern teachings about God say, "God is love", & basically stop there. God the judge is passed over in favor of God the doting Grandpa & brother Jesus, who is a nice beta. So when we don't get what we wanted for Christmas, something is wrong! When someone has been fooled, it is hard to convince them of the fact. When they've been promised something, it is almost impossible. This is the hedonic utility you spoke of earlier.
So what if His plan, His goal, is something very different? For example, what if the All Father is seeking heroes to feast with Him in His hall? How are heroes made? Lots of Special High Intensity Training (heh).
And Jesus tells the woman at the well that those who worship the Father, "...will worship Him in spirit & in truth, for the Father seeketh such to worship Him." This sounds downright selfish of Him, which contradicts the Categorical Imperative. That is very basic to the modern conception of God, but it's not really Biblical.
So I think a lot of the problem is that the churches have evolved a defective view of God, one which can't work in the real world.

Mia said...

Just observing people I know, I agree with you about the typical reaction to suffering. I wonder, too, if modern Christians project this alienation we have onto heaven with this persistent idea of sexless, marriage less, sterile, 24/7 worship in heaven, etc.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Phil - Well, if you are happy with that answer, then OK. If evil is not a problem for you, then it is not a threat to your faith.

But it seems quite obviously incoherent to me - and a significant step along that path towards Good is God which has all kinds of anti-Christian consequences.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Mia - I feel that the metaphysical assumptions of Christian theology have painted Christians into a corner from which they cannot escape except by re-examining those assumptions, and recognizing that they have *always* been alien to much that is the necessary core of Christianity. But that alien-ness was not something noticed or felt by most people in the past.

As for Heaven - it has never been properly considered because historical Christianity was focused almost entirely on 1. relief from the sufferings of mortal life; and 2. escape from the torments of hell, which was assumed to happen by default.

[Hell including - for much of history and in many places, such as newborn babies and the unbaptized generally (including those who lived before Christ, and in places beyond Christendom, and all stripes of heretic Christian - heretic wrt one's particular denomination or church).]

When Heaven was regarded almost exclusively in terms of relief-of/ escape-from suffering - its positive qualities were understandably neglected.

Inquisitor Benedictus said...

In the olden times people were more accepting of suffering and punishment (and the spiritual links between these two) as existential facts, so they didn't feel the need to ask God to explain himself on that front. They also had a more collective view of humanity, so they could understand why a more innocent individual might suffer as part of wider society's guilt.

Now people are born as free individuals under a halo of innocence, so it's existentially incomprehensible why they should have to suffer when they ostensibly haven't done anything to deserve it.

I don't see anything necessarily wrong about this development. It just requires us to develop a more fully human understanding of God (rather than the divine 'absentee landlord') as one cosmically, personally, and organically involved in our existential struggles. Nicholas Berdyaev calls it "sociomorphism" when we picture God in a reductive manner according to certain human social forms; he points out how many moderns can't believe in God precisely because they conceive of Him sociomorphically as an ancient emperor or medieval lord who looks down on our affairs with a lofty, superior indifference.

Sadly I do believe the clergy are partly to blame for preserving these crude sociomorphisms since this medieval picture elevated the clergy to noble ministers in God's court, the pretext for a privileged sort of clerical life. As well as many reactionaries who want a God of blood & thunder to punish their social and political enemies. It's a spiritual quandary.

Inquisitor Benedictus said...

By the way, I think the problem with the traditional theological conception of "omnipotence" is not the omni part, but the potency. Potency (power) is conceived precisely in that ancient, I'd say barbaric way, as "the ability to get something done, to assert your will or influence". If God is potent, indeed omnipotent, in this sense—then it's hard for the barbarian in us all not to ask our King and Warlord to crush our enemies and settle us all in peace & plenty. But the life of Christ suggests that power should be conceived differently, as capacity for love. The demonical power of the Sanhedrin and the Roman Imperium is only a shadow of true power, which can swallow Christ's body in darkness only to be defeated by the light of resurrection (which is obtained by Christ's self-sacrificing love on the cross). Christ on the cross is the true image of God's omnipotence. The cross itself is the world's and the devil's — the power to impose your arbitrary will and mock & destroy your enemies.

Bruce Charlton said...

@IB - I think the problem of evil (for traditional theology) is actually very fundamental indeed - now it is obvious; and cannot be solved except by profound metaphysical means.