Human suffering

Why does evil exist? Why doesn't God just get rid of the devil?!

A fundamental tenet of most religions is that God is perfect in every conceivable way. This belief is contestable in itself, as the word ‘perfect’ is a subjective descriptor and we all know that what appears perfect to one individual may not seem so to another.

Ambiguity aside, the assumption frequently made by believers is that there exists some state of perfection that manages to simultaneously satisfy everyone’s ideal.

Since God presumably has full insight into every aspect of the universe, and we’ve only incomplete understanding, the notion that such a state exists might be valid.

However, it’s impossible to describe the situation precisely with the limited human linguistic terminology available to us, so any claims made by religious institutions, expressed as they are in one human language or another, are essentially meaningless in this broad, hypothetical context.

The statement that ‘God is perfect’ might as well be’ God is imperfect.’ The same goes for the categorisation of things as ‘good’ or ‘evil.’

This section is divided into three main parts:
  1. The existence of evil.

  2. Can religious codes of morality be adjusted over time?

  3. Why, if so?

The existence of evil.
We tend very much to think of pain and suffering as symptoms of imperfection. Most people would not dispute this- and religions do not deny it. Instead, believers offer elaborate explanations for the existence of evil.

Religions explain the existence and persistence of evil in several ways: Let’s examine each in turn:
Evil comes from the devil.
Our trains of thought tend to flow along these lines: Evil came from the devil. God created everything in existence, including the devil. This means that evil originated, at least indirectly, from God.

Religious proponents claim that this chain of reasoning is invalid, and that God is not the source of evil, because evil can emerge spontaneously from good. Why this should be so, and why this should completely absolve God of responsibility, is unclear. Defenders of the faith sometimes use this argument: God is analogous to a scientist who invents a technique that is not evil in itself, but that can be exploited for evil purposes. The scientist should not be held responsible for the actions of others- instead, it is the abusers of technology who are at fault.

However, this analogy does not hold in the context of religion, regarding God, the existence of evil, and the devil, because one has to remember that everything originates from God, including wrong doers. The scientist in our example is not responsible for the existence of bad people, whereas God clearly is.

The remaining points offered by believers do not attempt to explain how evil came about- they mostly try to justify the continued existence of evil and explain why God does not simply purge the world of sin and the devil, once and for all.
God uses suffering as a tool to test the faith of believers.
People cite this claim, weakly, to explain why God allows evil to persist. However, all it does is suggest a possible benefit of having evil around- it does not describe why evil is necessary or explain why God does not use some other, non-evil technique. Surely an all-powerful creator could come up with a better tool than that?

This claim casts God in the role of an improviser who adapts existing tools to new purposes, instead of designing optimal solutions from scratch.

From this point of view, God appears to be a reactive being, responding to glitches with stop-gap measures and compromises, rather than proactively foreseeing potential difficulties and pre-empting them.
God will stage a final struggle against evil and emerge victorious, providing irrevocable proof of God’s dominion over the devil.
Many religions preach that God has a final showdown in the works, and will pull all the punches when the time is ripe. Believers generally accept this, and assume that there are good reasons for the wait- maybe there's an optimal battle time, at which maximum benefits will be reaped.

Factors that determine the ratio of positive to negative effects might hypothetically include:
  • The proportion of believers in the world, as that would affect the number of people sent to heaven rather than hell;

  • The size of punishments mete out to the devil and sinners;

  • The amount of glory garnered by God;

  • God’s ability to determine (using various tests of faith) the loyalty of believers.
For example, one could imagine that God would be eager to maximise the proportion of people sent to heaven, and would therefore wait for the longest possible period of time to give people the chance to convert, before irrevocably writing off the obstinate ones who refuse to heed God’s message. God might want to wait for the level of uncertainty in people’s minds to reach a minimum, because this would be the point at which they are least likely to change their mind. God might want to minimise the punishment suffered by the unfaithful, and therefore choose a time at which their sins are least offensive.

Alternatively, God might want to maximise the amount of punishment, and wait for the opposite situation to occur. These assumptions ignore the fact that the number of people who ever existed is constantly increasing, so one would think that the accumulating sin debt is also increasing, but who knows- maybe God is considering the proportion of people, rather than the absolute numbers.
God has other reasons, which are kept secret from us, and/or which we cannot possibly understand.
There’s little one can say about this point, since it cannot be proven or disproven. It’s certainly annoying to those with curious dispositions, if true. Since the reasons that we have been given, and can understand, are inadequate and unsatisfactory, this amounts to saying that we will never be able to commit fully to the faith. We will always have niggling doubts and unanswered questions.

So, why the existence of stark inconsistencies and numerous gaps in logic, in the explanations offered by religions, and their inability to reconcile the existence of God with that of evil?

As mentioned before, to begin with, ‘evil’ is a human construct that exists within the context of moral codes that are not absolute and immutable but dependent on culture and time. (Refer to the section on the existence and emergence of Moral Codes for more details.)

Many activities that have traditionally been thought of as evil continue to be considered so. However, as standards inevitably change, other activities come to be thought of as acceptable. Some activities are discontinued and generally forgotten altogether. As for activities that only came into existence after religions established their codes of conduct, there are no rules to address them explicitly- instead, existing rules are reinterpreted and extended in attempts to cover these grey areas.

Thus, for many religions, a majority of rules proscribed remain applicable to some degree even after long periods of time have passed since their establishment, while other rules remain only partially applicable and may be widely contested, and in other cases, no rules exist, and the religious code falls short.

Can religious codes be changed as time passes?
Believers perceive God as omniscient and eternal. God has complete knowledge of everything, including the future, and possessed this knowledge back when religious rules were first established. One intuitively expects that God to have made use of this knowledge and implemented rules that were able to cover all aspects of life, and remain relevant forever.

Thus, from a believer’s point of view, religious codes should remain valid throughout all eternity. If humans are allowed to pick and choose which rules remain applicable and which are to be ignored, then it seems as if humans are overriding God’s pre-planned system.

Thus it is hard for religious institutions to make alterations to their moral codes, unless the changes are small and/or occur over long periods of time, and are barely perceptible. It becomes virtually impossible for a religion to remain relevant for very long, unless it makes updates and adjustments here and there.

Similarly, it’s impossible for religions to have sets of rules that address every aspect of life in unambiguously fair and logical ways. National legal systems strive to do that, and are much more successful on average than religious institutions, which is why we dedicate national resources towards enforcement of legal codes, rather than religious ones.
If religious codes can indeed be changed over time, why should that be?
Back to the issue: why do many religious doctrines fall out of favour, become irrelevant, and end up renounced and ridiculed, when God should have had the ability to avoid such outcomes?

Believers have several answers for this:
  • They claim that God has changed somewhat over time- although God has always and will always be omniscient, God’s personality and attitude towards people can change. In Christianity, for example, believers refer to ‘the God of the Old Testament’ as being distinctly more foreboding and harsh than that of the New Testament. This does not, of course, explain why religious rules were not properly designed in the first place- it simply gives a partial account for why the rules might change.

  • Believers also claim that if God had chosen, at the outset, to create laws that could address all future situations adequately, then the scribes to whom the laws were dictated when they were established would not have been able to understand them or write them out. They’d have needed to use terminology that would be fully understood by all future generations, and used words that would accommodate all future developments in science and technology.

    This explanation is paltry at best- why should this deter a determined God from taking some time and trouble to dictate laws in sufficient detail? Surely, if necessary, God could have spelt out words to the scribes- their inability to understand concepts should not have prevented them from being able to write down strange new words.

  • Some might argue that the course of human history might be altered negatively, if God had chosen to prematurely ‘disclose’ all this information about the future.

    At this point, such reasoning goes from the semi-plausible to the purely speculative and unsubstantiated. The existence of a religious text that contained laws to address all future situations and moral issues for all time would presumably have had a large impact on how humans make advances and discoveries, but there’s no reason why this process, rather than the one we’re familiar with today, could not have been implemented.

    After all, a similar situation exists in the world today- various nations at are different stages of technological development, and implement laws that are tailored to their own situations. As less-developed countries catch up and adopt forms of technology that are widespread elsewhere, they adapt laws from other countries’ legal systems, and incorporate them into their own.

God is a human construct.
The ultimate answer to all this is, simply, that the omniscient God described by religious institutions does not exist. There was no external God to dictate laws to religious scribes at the time of establishment of the religion. There is no God with predictive powers and a repository of complete knowledge about the future, scientific advances, and the emergence of new moral issues.

Religious scribes and interpreters of texts have relied on their human knowledge all along. These mortal human beings use their ingenuity to apply obsolete religious dictates to novel circumstances. This is why all long-lived religions have outdated proscriptions in their moral codes, and recommend using impractical, unethical methods of punishment for sins.

This is why we rely on secular legal systems to govern our behaviour, and not religious institutions, in sectors ranging from engineering to business to family life. When push comes to shove, it is our secular codes of conduct that we rely on and feel truly compelled to obey, not the antiquated religious ones.

This is why there is such a high degree of ambiguity when it comes to interpreting and upholding religious doctrines. Our understanding of what constitutes sin and evildoing, or right and wrong, has shifted over the years, and each person arrives at a slightly different definition, depending on prior knowledge and experiences.

There are plenty of activities that one can think of, such as killing insects, rearing farm animals for meat, and generating products that pollute the environment, which are not directly addressed by many religions, but about which many people have some sort of moral opinion. In the past, people justified the enforcement of moral proscriptions through religion.

God does not exist, and neither does the devil, except as concepts within our minds. Activities that believers describe as ‘sinful’ are simply those that were deemed detrimental by a large enough number of people to have been formally described within the context of religion.

Religious adherents with human perspectives and repositories of knowledge have created and propagated these societal concepts of absolute good and evil, and God and the devil, to explain the world around them. Maxims offered by religions, to explain the existence and persistence of human suffering, are able to temporarily satisfy requirements that arise during a particular era, as long as secular knowledge has not completely overtaken religious knowledge and revealed indisputable inconsistencies in religious dogma.

The fact that religious institutions use words to describe things as disagreeable (ugly, evil, imperfect, sinful) and agreeable (good, beautiful, perfect, pure) goes to show that religion is a human construct. Religious texts only contain words that existed at the time of writing.

Although our knowledge base grows daily with technological developments and scientific discoveries, most religious texts are static and have become largely inadequate to describe the world we live in. To endure, religious organisations need to constantly adapt and incorporate advances in technology into their systems.

Even with these attempts at keeping up, on the part of religious institutions, the average high school science textbook provides far more enriching and useful instruction than the average religious text- the scientific text is in an entirely superior league.

As centres of scientific discovery, repositories of knowledge, and practitioners of cutting-edge techniques disappear from the religious arena and stay rooted within the secular domain, people do realise that there is less and less to be learnt from out-dated religious texts and more to be gained from the endlessly fascinating and developing fields of science and technology.
comments courtesy of Disqus

background image