A program of the Center for Inquiry
The preceding articles in the special section, “Atheodicy and the Impossibility of God,” share a hidden subtext. In addition, at least by implication, they evoke a question of great importance for secular humanists.
The hidden subtext is the emotional salience of the problem of evil. Whether we confront natural disaster, disease (as Susan Jacoby did with the death of the man she loved and as James A. Metzger did with his incurable rheumatic illness), or human depravity (which Edward Tabash’s mother faced so terrifyingly at Auschwitz), human encounters with life’s evils have a visceral impact. They resonate in the passional register more intensely than in any abstract cognitive domain. The same is true when religious believers deal seriously with their experiences with evil and what those might mean in light of the deity they believe in. It is fearsome to imagine oneself the pawn of Stephen Law’s evil god or as casual roadkill for H. P. Lovecraft’s aloof demiurge Cthulhu as described by David Koepsell. But it is no less fearsome to view oneself as a powerless subject of the capricious god proposed by John Calvin, who chose before the dawn of time the specific few humans who would know salvation while the rest would burn. It is only slightly less fearsome to consider oneself, say, the work of a creator who judged the world’s manifold evils a fair price to pay so that humans could enjoy free will—or improve their character, as Shadia B. Drury explores in her discussion of the theodicy of the philosopher of religion John Hick.
People don’t just think about ideas such as these—they feel them, with relentless intensity. Some humanists and atheists find that troubling; too often, we focus solely on reason and logic at the expense of passion. Or we try to. The problem is that people don’t actually work that way, and so we really shouldn’t try to either. We can accomplish more if we embrace rather than struggle to dismiss the effectiveness of emotion in service to reason.
In different ways, each essay in this section has demonstrated a command not just of reasoned argument but of a sense of “experiential feel” that taps into the strength of human emotion in the face of evil. By harnessing passion, we can bolster our resolve to face and seek to ameliorate the evils that we encounter. Not the least of those evils is the dilemma of believing in a deity so hideous as to allow all the other evils that torment humankind.
That brings us to the question of great importance that all of the essays implied and that Anthony Pinn’s posed more explicitly: Why should nontheists bother talking about atheodicy, anyway? Secular humanists and atheists have either set aside the belief in a traditional god or never believed at all. If the orthodox insist on torturing themselves by imagining that every evil around them has a divine architect—and then conclude that the most reasonable response to such horrors is to worship their perpetrator—that is so much the worse for believers, but some would say it is not our problem. After all, most believers reject out of hand our gut-simple, slash-through-the-Gordian-knot solution to the problem of evil: the idea that no God exists and the universe has no idea what it’s doing to us, hence no one need pose the anguished question “Why?” Since most believers won’t follow us there, why should we humanists, atheists, and other philosophical naturalists continue engaging with atheodicy? Why not just say “I’m sorry believers have this problem” and walk away? As noted, Pinn’s essay in this section suggests explicitly that it might be time for nonbelievers to go yet further, to close the book on the old problem of evil and redirect that energy toward seeking a greater understanding of the evils within our natures to promote the good of our common humanity.
Pinn challenges us to reject both theodicy and atheodicy for anthropodicy. This approach will hold appeal for many humanists and atheists, though we suspect that it is individuals who do not harbor a personal sense of having been harmed by religion who will see the clearest path toward anthropodicy open before them. Individuals who have been harmed by religion—the present authors included—may be more likely to find continued value in exploring issues of theodicy and atheodicy. Speaking for ourselves, we feel that for better or worse, we have unfinished business to complete before we’ll be ready to stride into Pinn’s anthropodical future.
Though we (Walker and Flynn) hail from different backgrounds, we both grew up in traditional Christian settings and arrived at our current atheistic viewpoints by struggling free of the dogmas in which we’d been inculcated. That process combined reason and passion; neither our intellects nor our senses of moral justice could accept the contradictions, the casual awfulness of the doctrines we’d been spoon-fed. Each in our own way, we looked behind every curtain, questioned every false certainty, until we arrived at the naturalistic, humanistic worldview we embrace today.
Judy Walker. “I was a twelve-year old, deeply skeptical Presbyterian when my bipolar father killed himself at home while I was at Sunday school, arguing with the teacher that I should not have to fear the wrath of a god of love. God was surely out to get me for not believing in him and his essential goodness. For many years afterward, I lived with a sense of dread that either God or the universe itself was a malevolent personality to the core. I have found peace and comfort and joy in atheism and in my secular humanist worldview. I am free from existential fear.”
Tom Flynn. “I was a very conservative Roman Catholic. I believed in every doctrine, every ritual, only to suffer disillusionment as a teen when the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) upended so much of parish life. That started me asking hard questions about my faith. Getting the answers was a labored, harrowing crawl; it took me fully six years to escape the complex tissue of untruths that had been my faith. I spent far too much of that time in a sort of emotional paralysis, intellectually convinced that God did not exist but terrified to step into the proverbial abyss and accept emotionally what I knew to be true.” We stress, however, that while we were harmed by religion, and while that suffering has affected us profoundly, we do not regard ourselves as victims. Instead we have come to understand our sufferings and built upon them platforms from which to offer help, personally and through our writings, to others following their own paths away from religious pasts.
And we understand why some atheists who never knew religion or who grew up in a faith so liberal that they never learned to “fear God” might not feel the importance of wrestling with atheodicy as we do. For those of us who have known such pain—and thus for the humanist and atheist community as a whole, for we are members of that community—an approach that fails to engage with problem-of-evil issues underestimates religion’s potential to do harm and leaves important matters unaddressed.
Our path attaches great importance to understanding the problem of evil and its implications for traditional believers and society at large—and to expressing a forthright, unrepentant atheism. Properly understood, atheism is the absence of belief in a deity or, by extension, in any sort of agency or intent ascribed to the cosmos. That sort of atheism is a necessary precondition for secular humanism. Rooted in philosophical and scientific naturalism, it finds liberation in knowing that the cosmos did not design us, does not know us, and has no plan for us. We think that attaining—and advocating for—that sort of atheism is an indispensable part of the process that can lead us toward a more humanistic future.
Don’t base your atheism on emotion. We are rational. We are not wounded warriors. We are normal.
—Anonymous (an atheist)
Some old-line rationalists think that showing emotion is a weakness, so they advise not showing it. Why in the world should people such as us recoil from expressing emotion? Isn’t it emotion that validates the passions that launched so many of us on lifelong commitments to seek equal rights and equal time in the public square for nonbelievers? Secularist expression has tended to be bloodless. But why should we settle for that? Do we not bleed?
Just acting on emotion can be destructive, of course. It’s another thing to harness well-understood emotion, to wield passion in service to reason. In that way we tap the energy to press for change rather than mutely accept the evils around us. Why should we quail from, say, telling moving personal stories that enable our publics not just to know but to understand who we are and why we care?
Fortunately, recent years have seen greater openness to emotional expression within the movement. In Free Inquiry’s October/November 2009 issue, Richard Dawkins introduced Lisa Bauer’s harrowing essay “Subjection and Escape: An American Woman’s Muslim Journey.” Bauer’s 19,300-word tale of a conflicted adult’s conversion to Islam, prolonged sexual abuse by her imam, and an eventual escape into atheism was judged so important by the editors that it was serialized over three issues of the magazine. Insightful writing on the emotional subtext of humanism and atheism has come from, among others, Greta Christina (“Do We Concede the Ground of Death Too Easily?” FI, June/July 2012 and “Can We Rationally Accept Our Irrationality?” FI, October/November 2013) and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (“Feminism, Religion, and ‘Mattering,’” FI, December 2013/January 2014). More recently, FI devoted four 2014 issues to “The Faith I Left Behind,” a collection of first-person narratives of disaffection from religion and its replacement by humanism or atheism. Such was the popularity of this feature that “The Faith I Left Behind” has become a recurring department in the magazine. Submissions to the original feature (along with some additional essays not published in the 2014 series) have recently been gathered into The Faith I Left Behind, a new book from Inquiry Press. Just out from the same publisher is a new “best of Free Inquiry” anthology whose title says it all: The Harm Done by Religion. What all these efforts have in common is that they demonstrate not only the possibility but the necessity of expressing our naturalism, atheism, and humanism in ways that yoke together reason and passion.
What else might we do with this energy? One possibility would be to reach out further—in writing and in ordinary conversation—to object when journalists and everyday people nod to standard theodicies in the face of tragedy. More of us need to say more clearly that no, it’s not all right to respond to a school shooting or a tsunami or the sinking of a refugee boat by speculating that it’s all in God’s plan or that exposure to such evils is the price we pay for the possibility of salvation. No, it’s not okay to ask the sole survivors of a jumbo-jet crash whether they have thanked God for the “miracle” of their survival—at least, not unless that reporter is also prepared to ask why God required all those other passengers to die. We also need to be more open with the visceral experiences that have colored our own flights from faith.
This phase of the discussion leads toward two conclusions. First, it is not only acceptable but absolutely necessary that humanists and atheists should evoke both reason and passion in our responses to evil and injustice. If we make our rhetoric bloodless, we cede the power to persuade. Second, we need to let that righteous anger show—to object in powerful ways—when media commentators or fellow Americans offhandedly invoke theodicy to paper over tragedies that demand a more integrative response.
I like to think that there’s something out there.
—Anonymous (a none)
Sincere naturalists find this sort of casual mysticism exasperating. Does engaging with the problem of evil equip us with tools to respond to such bargain-bin spirituality more effectively? It does, especially when we pair discussion of atheodicy with a firm naturalism grounded in science.
As we contemplate a universe brimming with evils, it is terrifying to imagine that some faceless, nebulous something (a “force”) might be in charge of it all. The notion that we are pawns in the hands of “something out there” is far more disturbing than the traditional Christian world-picture. After all, the Christian god in some way resembles us (we are supposedly created in his image) and allegedly loves us. That “numinous force” could be Cthulhu-like in its uncaring deafness to our entreaties. How that concept represents an improvement over traditional monotheism escapes us.
Atheodicy gives us tools to show the “spiritual but not religious” that—as Stephen Law has demonstrated so clearly—any standard-issue god is at least as likely to be evil as to be good. Moving into a more passional register (which, again, we should not fear to do), if we open ourselves to the true enormity of suffering in the world, it seems actively immoral to believe that a god who has authored so much agony could be good. What can be more morally repellent than the worshipper who stands heedlessly overlooking a sea of pain and boasts of how he or she has been singled out for blessings?
But how can we reach the nones, agnostics, and apatheists (humanism’s potential “growth markets,” if you will) with these arguments? After all, the less one is willing to postulate about one’s mystical object (and it’s hard to postulate less than to draw the line at calling it “something out there”), the easier it becomes to just assume that somewhere among the numinous vagueness, some good must dwell. Perhaps now is the time to tighten up the conversation toward the truth that will set us atheists free. If the persistence of evil makes it illegitimate to believe in a traditional god exhibiting personality, caring, and intent, we should be the ones gently but firmly insisting that there exists no better ground for imagining that the cosmos possesses such attributes. If there is no God, there is also no Force, no “something out there.” Precisely because neither anyone nor anything intended us or cares for us, we can confront life’s evils without the burden of fearing that some cosmic prankster scattered them in our path, or (worse still) that we deserve them.
I’m sick and tired of hearing how people were damaged by religion.
—Anonymous (a skeptic)
Humanists, atheists, and skeptics share a commitment to critical thinking. Yet the topic of atheodicy—and especially, the question of whether it’s worthwhile to engage the subject—remains controversial. Chalk up much of that to the gulf between freethinkers who have been personally harmed by religion and those who have not, as we’ve seen. To those undamaged, carrying on about atheodicy may well seem pointless. On the other hand, those of us who suffered damage often fail to understand why those who did not see so little danger in being accommodating toward religion. We, the damaged, are also more likely to worry that atheism, that indispensable precursor to secular humanism, faces marginalization within the movement. We see a problem with pronouncements such as “you can be a humanist in practice even if you choose to believe in some higher power” that those undamaged by religion tend not to.
Is there a way to demonstrate to nones, skeptics, and accommodationists that engaging the subject of atheodicy remains worthwhile? One possible approach comes from the introduction one of us (Flynn) wrote for the Inquiry Press anthology The Harm Done by Religion (mentioned earlier). A few pages after asking “How much further advanced science, medicine, and the humanities might be today if the Roman church had not capitalized on the power vacuum resulting from the fall of Rome to drag the West into the Dark Ages,” Flynn wrote the following:
Imagine a scenario of searing irony. Imagine that ten years from now, we discover a world-killer space rock headed straight for Earth. The planet’s greatest scientists and engineers and thinkers and business leaders feverishly confer. Heads downcast, they emerge from their council chamber and announce that the asteroid cannot be deflected. If only our technology had been fifty years more advanced, they say dejectedly, we would stand a good chance of turning it away.
What harm will we “credit” to the Dark Ages then?
Another approach is Walker’s “Narrative Naturalism” thesis, which provides a science-backed problem-solving method that harnesses the power of narrative to help humanists alleviate suffering and create meaning after tragedy and loss.†
Pinn challenges us to set atheodicy (and related controversies) aside and leap straight into anthropodicy. As noted above, we think this may be an attractive option for humanists and atheists who hold few personal grievances against religion. Even some in this group may feel that important “work in the trenches” remains in order to win for humanists, atheists, naturalists, and other freethinkers their full say and sway in the public square—and that continued engagement with issues of theodicy and atheodicy may have a role to play in achieving that. After all, religion and its stepchild, “spirituality,” remain powerful; freethought in its varied forms still faces marginalization and discrimination. Many secular activists will see a need to wield the power of mind and heart to encourage believers to consider the moral travesties at the core of their faiths, even as they beckon agnostics and nones to recognize the benefits of embracing a fully intentionless cosmos.
This feature will not, of course, be the final word. No doubt, the discussion will continue as all of us in our broader movement work together to foster a secular society.
Below are brief definitions of some of the “terms of art” used in this Epilogue.
Atheism: “from Gr. atheos, without a god: a (priv.) and theos (god).”—Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary
Atheism is sometimes popularly supposed to demand the active denial of God’s existence, or even a faith in God’s nonexistence as unbending—and irrational—as the faith of believers. This is untrue; all atheism requires is the lack of belief in any god.
Humanism: “Any system of thought or action concerned with the interest and ideals of people . . . the intellectual and cultural movement . . . characterized by an emphasis on human interests rather than on the natural world or religion.” —Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary
“Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethics based on human and other natural values in a spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.” —Minimum Statement adopted by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, 1996
Naturalism: “The system of thought holding that all phenomena can be explained in terms of natural causes and laws, without attributing moral, spiritual, or supernatural significance to them.”—American Heritage Dictionary
“. . . Naturalists maintain that there is insufficient scientific evidence for spiritual interpretations of reality and the postulation of occult causes.”—Humanist Manifesto 2000
Secular: “Pertaining to the world or to things not spiritual or sacred; relating to or connected with worldly things; disassociated from religious teachings or principles; not devoted to sacred or religious use. …” —Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary
Secularism: “. . . Indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations.” —Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary
Secular humanism: “A comprehensive nonreligious life stance that incorporates a naturalistic philosophy, a cosmic outlook rooted in science, and a consequentialist ethical system.” —“What Is Secular Humanism?” Council for Secular Humanism website
The necessity of atheism as a precursor to secular humanism is reflected in the latter’s nonreligious nature and in its debts to naturalism and a scientific cosmic outlook, all of which presume the nonexistence of a traditional god.
* Carl Coon, “Humanism v. Atheism,” Progressive Humanism blog, July 16, 2000. Accessed November 5, 2015 at http://www.progressivehumanism.com/progressive-humanism/humanism-vs-atheism/.
† The article was published in Free Inquiry (April/May 2010) and reprinted in Secular Humanism and Its Commitments: The Best of Free Inquiry (Inquiry Press, 2012). It is available online at http://www.centerforinquiry.net/docs/NarrativeNaturalism.pdf.
Judy Walker is a Center for Inquiry (CFI) fellow specializing in philosophical naturalism and a former CFI board member. She has degrees in sociology, anthropology, and law and served as assistant Colorado attorney general in the Higher Education Unit. For several years afterward, she worked in Development at the University of Colorado Foundation.
Tom Flynn is the editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, and editor of the New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).