Stephen Law was gracious to pen the foreword for my latest book, On the Problem of Good. One of the world’s most renown thinkers on religion, Law is an English philosopher and Reader in Philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London, fellow of The Royal Society of Arts and Commerce and Provost of the Centre for Inquiry UK. He also edits the Royal Institute of Philosophy journal Think, and is the author of eleven books, including The War For Children’s Minds, The Great Philosophers, Really, Really Big Questions, and Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole.
BY STEPHEN LAW
Could the universe be the creation of a supremely powerful and wicked deity? Most of us will rightly dismiss that suggestion out of hand. ‘Of course not’, we’ll say ‘Look around you – at all the love, laughter, ice-cream, and rainbows! This world contains far too much good for it to be the creation of such an omnipotent and omnimalevolent deity.’ And there’s no denying that while there is suffering and misery in the world, there is also much good – good of such depth and on such a scale that it really is highly unlikely there’s some evil-God justifying reason for every last ounce of it. And the one thing we can be sure such an evil God won’t allow is gratuitous good – good for which there is no evil-God-justifying reason.
Now of course the objection we have just raised to the suggestion that we are the creation of an omnipotent and omnimalevolent deity is just the mirror image of a much more familiar objection – to belief in an omnipotent and omnibenevolent deity. Just as it strikes most of us obvious that there’s no Evil God given the abundance of good in the world, so it strikes many atheists as just obvious that there’s no Good God either, and on much the same basis – an abundance of evil.
So how do those who believe in a Good God respond to the problem of evil? Some construct theodicies. They appeal to free-will. They say this is a vale of soul making. They say no pain, no gain. They say much pain and suffering is caused by laws of nature required for greater goods. Or they say that just because we cannot think of a reason for all these evils, doesn’t allow us reasonably conclude there is no such reason. Such reasons could easily lie beyond our limited ability to think of them.
Now, interestingly, all these strategies can be employed by someone intent on defending belief in an Evil God. Indeed, it’s fascinating to explore Evil God apologetics and the mirror manoeuvres that can be made. It’s not just intellectually interesting. It gives you an insight into a certain mindset – a certain way of looking at things – on which everything fits, everything makes sense given – everything really can be squared with – the existence of a supremely malevolent deity. It’s a mind-set exhibiting ingenuity, imagination, and lunacy in equal measure.
We who live in the Judeo-Christian West are very familiar with the mirror version of that metaphysical mindset. Indeed, Good God theodicies, appeals to Good God’s mysterious ways, and so on, are such a familiar part of our cultural landscape – are so habitually trotted out – that we don’t even notice their bizarre, convoluted, and ultimately absurd character. Ours is a mindset that has acquired the anaesthetic of familiarity.
Our first encounter with the mirror, Evil-God version of this mindset can, for this reason, be a very powerful and disturbing experience. We’re suddenly presented with our mirror selves, our mirror culture, our mirror beliefs and mirror intellectual strategies – and the absurdity of our own metaphysical edifice becomes gloriously apparent, at least for a moment. We are afforded a brief glimpse of how things really are, and what we’re really like.