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?


  1. As the entertaining unbeliever in question, I would rephrase the summary of my theodicy (or whatever you want to call it) this way: "The God you claim to believe in seems like a total bastard to me. I sure am glad there doesn't seem to be any evidence that he exists."

    And I would also imagine that this is the same thing you would say to a Chthulu-worshipper. So we are not so different, you and I.

  2. As you wish. That sounds like creodicy to me.

    I try to minimize my contact with Cthuhlu worshippers. Helps keep my still-living internal organs off of the altars in the sub-basement of NRA headquarters.

  3. I'm curious to know the etymology of "creodicy." Judgment of the flesh?

  4. Technically, it should have been "credodicy," for "judgment of belief," but that sounded a bit goofy to my ears. I figure if you're just totally making up a word, at least make it sound good. It also sounded more like "theodicy" that way, so it worked better in context.

  5. Another question that occurs to me:

    Please correct me if I am wrong but my understanding of your take on the Book of Job is that the interior poem, though not likely to be literally true, is at least a suitable allegory for the Creator you believe in. It's true in spirit. However, you think that the framing narrative is not -- that it implies a fundamental misunderstanding or misrepresentation on the part of its author of what God is really like. And your decision to "set aside that part of the tradition," as I think you put it, is based at least in part on the fact that God's behavior in the framing story does not live up to your moral expectations of him.

    So when you make that decision to set aside that portion of the scripture, are you engaging in theodicy or creodicy? Or is it some third category?

  6. That interpretive decision is certainly not theodicy. It's a critical assessment of the legitimacy of the presumption of the framing text, and has two foundations. First, reason does not teach that virtue is inherently rewarded with material well being. Suffering afflicts us all. We are all mortal. Second, neither Jesus of Nazareth nor the authentic teachings of Paul of Tarsus affirm the presumption of the framing text. I have no cause, from either reason or the heart of my faith, to accept that framing text as a legitimate expression of How Things Work.

  7. I get that it is unrealistic that God restores Job's riches. Life isn't like that.

    But that's not all, right? Isn't it also morally objectionable that God permits Satan to torment Job just to win a bet with him?

    Or are you saying that you will only "set aside" scripture if it contradicts the brute facts of the world (e.g., virtue is not always rewarded materially) or statements made elsewhere in passages that you deem more authentic, or central, to your faith (Jesus, Paul)?

    Isn't it also a moral criticism, based on your own moral intuitions -- not just what you observe about the world or read elsewhere in the scripture? There's a part of you that says "That just ain't right!" right?

  8. @ Browning: Absolutely. You and I share that same moral intuition.

    But that part of me that says "that jes ain't right" isn't speaking alone. I find it powerfully affirmed elsewhere, in places that helped form and give shape to my ethics.

    Hence point number 2, above.