Friday, December 11, 2009

Atheist Theodicy is an Oxymoron

Whilst engaged in some highly entertaining back and forth about God and the nature of being yesterday, I found myself suddenly wondering about the place of theodicy in the arsenal of arguments used by atheists.

Theodicy, in the event you're unfamiliar with the term, is the indictment of the divine. Properly understood, it's a challenge issued to a god who is failing to uphold the terms of their relationship with a devotee.

Let's say you're a follower of Cthulhu. You've gotten your hands on the Necronomicon, not just any copy, but one signed at Barnes and Noble by the Mad Arab himself. After years of preparation at Miskatonic University, you've found your way to the submerged city of R'lyeh. You've waited several increasingly depraved lifetimes for the stars to align in the appropriately disturbing eldritch patterns. You utter the incantations through lips steeled with glazed madness, summoning the most vile of the Elder Gods into our plane of existence, where it can begin unleashing the waking nightmare that will consume all of being.

But when the Ancient One finally exudes through the rift, it arrives with a slightly warm sixer and asks you're up for an evening of Super Mario Party with all of the avatars of Yog Sothoth.

Of course you'd be disappointed. The terms of the agreement have been violated! Where's the madness? Where's the gibbering? Isn't there going to be any gibbering? The Ancient One hasn't held up it's end of the bargain! OOOOOH!

That is the essence of theodicy...well, if you're way too much into H.P. Lovecraft, anyway.

Atheistic theodicy generally takes the form of a riff on the problem of suffering. If God is beneficent, omnipotent, and omniscient, then, the argument goes, God is doing a crappy job. Human beings suffer. We are afflicted with wars and plagues and disasters and Glenn Beck. Why would a loving God subject us to Glenn Beck? If you expect clear and mechanistic interventions from the Creator, then you are inevitably going to be as disappointed as an evicted devotee of Creflo A. Dollar.

I understand why the problem of suffering shakes so many folks from faith. There are are range of answers to that given by the world's faiths, some of which are utterly inadequate. Blind obedience or declaring the self-evidently horrific to be somehow a manifestation of God's will are among the more feeble responses to mortal unpleasantness. The more conceptually robust answers revolve around divine inscrutability, a rejection of anthropocentrism, and the assertion of human agency in causing suffering. Both Buddhism and the sentient portions of Christianity handle the question of suffering differently, but in ways that have existential validity...if you're open-minded.

What I found myself wondering yesterday is this: is atheistic theodicy an oxymoron? Can it even exist? I find it akin to saying, "God does not exist, and He's a bastard, so you shouldn't believe in Him anyway." That isn't a coherent statement. You cannot sanely condemn a God that you don't believe exists.

To be fair, I think what atheists are doing when they surface suffering as a reason not to believe isn't theodicy at all. It's a related thing, but not really that gut-wrenching challenge born of existential anguish that comes from the heart of the suffering faithful. I've been there.

For the atheist, the problem of suffering or injustice is just a rhetorical tool, part of the explanation one gives for one's nonbelief and can present in an effort to persuade others of the validity of your position. It's a fair challenge, and one that requires an honest and respectful response, but it isn't theodicy.

It's a challenge to another's faith, not God. Creodicy, perhaps?