DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Why Bother to Think About Evil?
by Tony Windross

Ockham's Razor is a very handy piece of equipment, particularly for the theological liberal. Its name comes from William of Ockham in Surrey, a 14th century philosopher, who formulated the maxim that "entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity". 

This amounts to saying that the fewer assumptions we make when trying to make sense of the world, the better -  and the Razor can be thought of as something that cuts away all the unnecessary assumptions.

One of the things we should not make too many assumptions about is the idea of evil. There's plenty of it around, of course, with the newspapers being full of stories of people being wickedly cruel to one another. There may be disputes about particular cases, but in general terms we've got a pretty clear picture of what counts as evil [1].

Things become tricky, however, when people start to talk about the existence of evil - because "existence" is itself a pretty tricky concept. Things "exist" in different ways: numbers, tables, courage and God each have a different sort of ontological reality (or way of being). It would be stupid to try and lump them all together.

Institutionalised evil comes in all sorts of guises: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia, Pol Pot's Cambodia, Amin's Uganda, Verwoerd's South Africa. Whatever monsters may have been in charge, each of these systems depended on ordinary, decent people to keep it all working.

This suggests that many (perhaps most? maybe even all?) ordinary, decent people have the potential for evil, if the circumstances are propitious. This is what "Original Sin" means. But the term is unfortunate and unhelpful to the extent that it implies that our capacity to behave in dreadful ways is more central to the human condition than the capacity to behave generously and lovingly. 

Evil is what can happen when normal social and psychological restraints are removed, because it is then that the darkest and cruellest aspects of the human personality can be unleashed. There is no need to think of evil forces being abroad, out there in the world: there are more than enough within ourselves to be going on with.

But because this is a somewhat  uncomfortable idea, many think of evil as something "other", rather than simply part of the normal human condition. And in the same way that lots of people find it comforting to pass the responsibility for their lives to an all-powerful deity, many also find it helpful to project all the dark forces within themselves onto an external "devil". This is particularly the case with those who are deeply disturbed, or fundamentalists or both.

The Holocaust of Nazi Germany during the second World War was a turning-point in the way that many people thought about God. After Auschwitz and other concentration camps it was widely held that belief in an omnipotent, loving God was no longer possible. How could such a God have watched and not acted?

The attempt to show how belief is still an option in such circumstances is called "theodicy in theological parlance. There are many strands to it, one of the key ones focusing on the idea of human free-will. Much of the suffering in the world is due not to (the curiously-named) "acts of God (plagues, famines, earthquakes and so on) but to deliberate human intent (wars, ethnic cleansing and the like).

It is said that because we are free to choose how to behave, given that we are surrounded by temptations of all sorts (and given further that temptation, by definition, is only ever to do what we know to be wrong: it makes little sense to say that I was tempted last Thursday to be kind) there are likely to be many occasions when people choose to behave in ways that are morally very wrong. If the consequences of such actions are sufficiently awful (the result perhaps of a lack of a sense of morality, or a condition of insanity) they might be said to be "evil", and the term may also be used of those who carried them out.

The suggestion that we alone are responsible for our actions, and that God shouln't get any of the blame is met by the observation that people behave as they do, because they are as they are: and it's God who has made them like that. Would it have been possible for such a God to create human beings who had free-will (itself a very tricky notion) but who always employed it to choose courses of action that resulted in pleasure not pain? But perhaps a world without evil would also be a world without good, because unless there were bad alternatives, there couldn�t be good alternatives?

If so, it means that moral choice depends on the existence of unpleasant consequences. Therefore a perfectly good world (or a heaven?) could not be in any sense a moral world.

As with all arguments, where you end up depends where you start from. The people who are desperate to preserve their faith intact may, by judicious selection of premises, manage to do so. Those for whom faith is impossible may well find their view reinforced as a result of the premises that they (unconsciously) adopt.

Once again it shows that assumptions (technically known as "premises") are everything. There is no perspective-less position, no "view-from-nowhere", and we need to be open (with ourselves as much as anyone) about how a great deal of theology is a matter of trying to find reasons to continue thinking in the way that we already do, rather than trying to advance our understanding of things.

A lot of theology is concerned with trying to deal with obstacles to faith. If someone finds lots of things standing in the way, and if they really do want to be able to engage with religion, they may be prepared to put in the time and effort necessary.

People for whom such obstacles don't exist, or who don't have any interest in religion, may well do no theological thinking whatsoever. The problem of evil constitutes just such an obstacle for many people, but only because God is usually thought of as an independent being who is both all good and all powerful. Remove any of those three assumptions and the problem disappears - but so does the God of conventional Christianity.

And although the problem of evil raises all sorts of difficulties, and although the use of Ockham's Razor provides a means of dealing with it, the way that it also cuts away at the theistic concept of God is likely to be seen as so deeply threatening that many people may do the equivalent of pulling the bedclothes up over their heads to make it all go away.
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[1] Ed: But see Baumeister's Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty

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