We have all been through some difficult situations which lead us to an almost unavoidable question: why does evil exist? How can a supposedly omnibenevolent, omniscient and omnipotent God exist when we are clearly surrounded by evil? I must admit, that this was one of the first questions which sparked my interest in philosophy, and ultimately, trying to find an answer to this question has led to my loss of faith. I was brought up in a Christian background and was a firm believer in a good, Christian God throughout most of my life. Religious faith was a big part of my identity, but this question of evil has distressed me ever since I was a young girl. This is what I find so fascinating about the subject at hand. The topic is relevant to all of us – those who believe in any religion, as well as those who do not. The idea of a powerful being is present in most systems of beliefs, which thus makes us all part of this discussion. As soon as we come into this world, we realise the distinction between good and evil – what makes a bad girl, bad or a good girl, good and so on. Pain, suffering and death are all very human things which we will inevitably encounter throughout our journey of life. Somehow, we all attempt to make sense of the presence of evil in our lives. My dissertation is a representation of this attempt.
Something I have tried to implement in this dissertation is a claim that David Hume (1711-1776) suggests in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779). He writes that philosophical subjects which reach no universal conclusions should be discussed in a dialogical matter; that is, in a way which mimics a constant debate amongst various thoughts of many kinds. I think that all philosophy should be done in this way, and so I attempted to structure my dissertation as some form of dialogue. I figured that the best way to start such a dissertation would be by summarising a few typical responses to the problem of evil in order to juxtapose the various lines of thought against each other and in such a way as to create a dialogue between the relevant philosophers themselves. This provided me with a much-needed space for extracting the strong points and the weak points of the arguments at hand in an attempt to start forming my very own thoughts about the problem of evil. Here is an easy way of summarising all responses to the problem of evil. We must begin by asserting that the problem of evil can be defined by four propositions, which one has to state all together:
- Evil exists;
- God is omnipotent;
- God is omnibenevolent;
- God is omniscient.
Some take a different turn by denying the truth of the second proposition above. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) has taken a similar route in his philosophy by claiming that even the most powerful being (in this case, God) cannot overcome the rules of logic. Thus, God becomes limited by what is logically possible. In a very basic way, Leibniz is saying that since only God can be perfect by definition, it was impossible for him to create a perfect world because a perfect world would become another God. Thus, some type of ‘imperfectness’ has to exist, and this is where evil finds its roots. Because of this, Leibniz famously stated that God has created the best of possible worlds, but an imperfect world, nonetheless. The problem with this is that when looking at all the evil around us, we often find ourselves speechless and very distant from the optimistic perspective which Leibniz suggests. I could go on and on about these typical responses, but, having situated the problem of evil within its broad historical context, we can move on to exploring the two texts selected for study.
The Problem of Pain (1940) by C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) is an intriguing work. He shows how life can present us with infinite struggles but, it can nevertheless lead us to a life of faith. In this book, Lewis presents his theodicy which aims at reconciling the existence of evil with the existence of a theological God. I must admit that this work was an enjoyable read and I am really glad that I happened to stumble upon it. Lewis’ arguments are very smooth-sailing and they do not make out faith to be a scary thing, like most other theologians usually do. His work becomes an approachable piece for a beginner like me to explore a believer’s point of view about the subject. Lewis’ book fills its readers with a strong sense of hope that pain is a necessary part of our lives which helps us understand that true happiness can only be achieved through our love of God. The main idea here is that while we do not necessarily understand why we are going through certain evils right now, there is hope that someday, it will all make sense.
All his ideas made perfect sense to me, particularly because of my Christian background. But then, I realised that this was the problem with his work and his philosophy in general. Therefore, my critique about Lewis’ philosophy is that while his arguments seem sufficient to those who already uphold Christian beliefs, his arguments lose their strength when viewed from an atheist’s or even a non-Christian’s perspective. This is because he refers to the soul, the fall of man, hell, heaven and demons which some religions, and of course, atheists, do not believe in. This is what I have called Lewis’ leap of faith. The fact that central parts of his theory are founded on theological and Christian notions, makes his arguments inaccessible to those who stand outside the Christian religion.
I wanted to mainly focus on two opposing thinkers in order to emphasise once again the dialogical nature of the subject and bring to light main points from both sides. I particularly enjoyed writing about Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion because the dialogical nature of his work allowed me to compare what his interlocutors were saying to what different philosophers have said through the years. Hume’s argument in the tenth part of his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion points to the idea that from our experience of the world, we can never deduce a strong foundation for the existence of a wise, powerful and benevolent God. Our experience is so tainted with these evil events that we cannot possibly uphold a strong argument for belief in a good God. This conclusion proves as a response to what I called Lewis’ leap of faith. Here I stand with Cleanthes – one of the interlocutors of Hume’s dialogue – to base one’s solution on theological assumptions is to build castles in the air, because even these assumptions need some type of an effective explanation.
This is where I mostly expand my opinion about the subject at hand and I do this through the branch of philosophy of suspicion. Lewis’ explanation of evil needs a great amount of faith which, from the perspective of philosophers of suspicion, stems out of some sense of hope. We all ask: ‘why did this happen to me?’ Some people have found an answer in God by saying, as Lewis has done, that pain is the ultimate test to see if we are deserving of God’s love and of an eternal life of happiness. The philosophers of suspicion criticise this thought as stemming from an unhealthy amount of hope which often dangerously leads to self-deception.
Other great thinkers such as Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) hold this belief; in fact, they became known as the masters of suspicion. Summarising their philosophies in a very brief manner, we can say that Freud’s theory mainly takes on religious faith from a psychological perspective. For him, belief in God is a result of our constant attempt to project human attributes onto nature, as a way to make nature seem more caring. Unsurprisingly, he thinks that our idea of God stems from our need of a father figure who loves us greatly. Marx’s ideas are of course political, since he holds that belief in a God and an afterlife is simply a tool that the ruling people use as a way to keep stirring a sense of hope in the working people. Religion, in the Marxist sense, becomes a comforting pacifier for the oppressed. For Nietzsche, religious belief is an attempt of the weak to gain power over the strong – the attempt of the slaves to topple over the master morality, by reversing the most important human values into the religious ‘virtues’. The common spirit amongst these philosophers is that religious belief is a masquerade for the true reality of things: it hides us from our deepest and darkest emotions and desires. It ultimately hides us from our very own selves.
I believe that belief in a good God becomes a coping-mechanism for most people. I propose that if one looks at evil and still believes in a good, powerful and all-knowing God, then there is a leap of faith, similar to that in Lewis’ work. I am not here implying that religious faith is bad. Rather, I think that people who still look up to a good God, even after looking at all the evils surrounding us, are brave… not blind. I think that it is reasonable, and even natural, for humans to look into great systems such as religion in order to find comfort within their everyday lives. The existence of evil deeply scares us. Religious faith provides people with an explanation for these evils and thus gives them a meaning. Therefore, I completely understand why one is moved to take this leap of faith, even when faced with these evils.
I strongly hold that believers should look into these philosophies of suspicion and ask themselves a very important question: why do I believe? Freud, Marx and Nietzsche amongst others, should be used as tools to make us more aware of our underlying desires which ultimately drive us to act in certain ways. They remind us of our duty to constantly examine ourselves by challenging the things we place as our gods. Instead of eradicating faith, these philosophies should encourage us to discover our authentic selves. Faith can easily become a disguise for us to have constant control or reassurance over the things which we cannot explain.
My past belief in God used to give my life meaning. But when I started thinking of evil, doubts began to arise, and I never went back to complete faith. This is why I wrote that belief in a good God, even after experiencing evil, stems out of a sense of hope that someday this suffering will make sense. Yet, I do not think that religious belief is to be viewed negatively, which is perhaps what Marx, Freud and Nietzsche attempted. The last paragraph in my dissertation accurately represents this last thought:
“If one still finds in himself enough strength and courage to have faith in the existence of a good God even after discussing the problem of evil, then by all means, he should declare himself as a believer. It takes an incredible amount of faith to believe that there is something perfectly benevolent out there, especially after looking at all the suffering and evils which accompany us through our lives”.
- Sara Azzopardi