This week a few comments appeared on my Twitter feed concerning the apparent offensive nature of theodicy; theodicy being that branch of theistic thought that attempts to explain why God allows evils and suffering in the world.
A frequent retort to this project of theodicy – and one that occurred this week – goes something like this: “Yeah, go and tell that to a rape victim!” [The precise tweet I saw read: “theodicy is often offensive. Who's gonna look at a rape victim & tell them it was a reminder from God?”] The idea here is that some explanation or other would be offensive to those who have suffered gross wrongs. But what is supposed to follow from this? That some explanation or other is false? That’s hardly the case, unless we seek to equate offensiveness with falsity. To my mind all that follows is that even if some explanation is true it isn’t necessarily helpful in some given context – such as counselling a rape victim. However, any responsible person wouldn’t approach a counselling situation in this way; not because the explanation is false, but because in this context it is both inappropriate and unhelpful to the recovery of the victim.
I remember several years ago having to attend counselling sessions for extreme anxiety. At the beginning of these sessions the counsellor delved into lots of things in my past, explaining how they had a bearing on my current psychological state and how that state comes about within the human body. It was certainly an education and much of what she told me was undoubtedly true. However, I found this approach extremely unhelpful and frustrating; even counter-productive. I felt like I was being treated as a psychological research project rather than being helped. The truth in my case was unhelpful, inappropriate and at times even offensive. It was still true.
There’s a time and place for everything. Giving a long-winded explanation of why God permits suffering may well be of no use to the victim of some act of evil. A philosophical explanation is not what they need at that moment in time. To judge a philosophical explanation by how it would perform in a counselling context is to set a false standard. Of course, we should note in passing that there are people who have been helped by seeing their suffering in a larger context. It is not uncommon to hear stories from Jewish people who suffered the hell on earth of the Nazi concentration camps about how their belief in God’s providence sustained them, that believing there was at least some reason or explanation for what was happening. Suffering, it seems, can be easier to bear when it’s set into a wider context of having some meaning.
Anyhow, we could make the point by flipping the situation around. Take an atheist who is utterly convinced that there is no God, that this life is all there is, and that each of us faces nothing but personal annihilation in a relatively short time. Say this atheist visits Africa to do charity work in a remote hospital. A mother has just arrived with a sick 10 year old boy on the verge of death. In fact, there’s nothing doctors can do except to bring some modest pain-relief and to help ease the suffering of both the son as he dies and the mother as she grieves. This mother and son are devout Christians. Despite living an impoverished and malnourished existence they look forward to a better future, the heavenly blessing of being reunited after death, when all fear is banished from their hearts, all pain from their bodies, every tear wiped away, and wrongs and injustices righted. Now, suppose our charitable atheists stands by the bedside to ease this boy into his death and help to comfort the mother. Is now a good time to offer the problem of evil? Is now a good time to point out the contradictions in the Bible and that it cannot be trusted when it speaks of the life to come? Wouldn’t to do so be crass and offensive? And yet the atheist believes all this is true.
The point should be obvious: that it is hardly a sensible critique of atheism to say “yeah, well you wouldn’t preach atheism to a dying child,” and likewise it’s rather unreasonable to critique a theodicy on the basis that “yeah, you wouldn’t tell that to a rape victim!”(Of course some given theodicy could be false for many other reasons).
So, how should we judge a belief system or argument? Not on its emotional appeal; not on whether someone considers it offensive; not on how many people agree with it; not even with regard to how effectively it makes the hairs on the back of our neck tingle when we consider it. We judge them in so far as we consider them true or false; correct or incorrect. Any given proposition could be considered offensive; many are true nonetheless.
Stephen J Graham