The Divine Shape Shifter

14 January 2016

I just listened to the Philosophy Talk episode with Father Andrew Pinsent, Good, Evil, and the Divine Plan. In that show, John and Ken push Father Andrew on the Problem of Evil. What are the implications of the existence of evil for the question of God’s existence?

Ken’s favorite formulation of the problem comes from Epicurus, but I’m partial to Hume’s, which comes out through the character Philo in Hume’s brilliant Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Importantly, Hume (and Philo) credit Epicurus with the problem. 

Philo reasons as follows. If God is powerful enough to prevent evil—and just doesn’t—then God is not benevolent. If God knows about evil and is benevolent, then God’s failure to prevent it shows a lack of power. On either option, one of God’s defining properties is violated (omnipotence, omnibenevolence). Since those are defining properties, the existence of evil—both natural and caused by humans—provides an argument that God does not exist. (Or at least the God portrayed in traditional Christian theology doesn’t exist.)

I think this argument is entirely compelling—it should convince any person who thinks about it rationally. Philo says, “Nothing can shake the solidity of this reasoning.” I am quite aware that theologians, such as Father Andrew, do a great deal of fancy footwork to dance around the problem. But in my view, the fancy footwork always trips over the toddlers who are dying of dysentery in developing countries. Attempting to preserve the notion that God is all powerful, all knowing, and benevolent in the face of such suffering simply robs the word “benevolent” of its intended meaning.

The question for me is this.

Why aren’t more people moved by the Problem of Evil?

John claims on the show that evil and suffering are “big barriers” to faith. That may be true for rational thinkers like John. But psychologically speaking, most people are more likely to find evil and suffering causing them to “turn to” God. Far from bringing about doubt, which would be rational, “existential crises,” as anthropologists Scott Atran and Ara Norenzayan put it, bring about stronger levels of devotion.   

In other words, more people are like Sister Madeleine from Caitlin Esch’s roving philosophical report than like John. Sister Madeleine found the suffering, rape, and murder during El Salvador’s civil war to be reasons to believe, rather than the contrary.

So we really have two puzzles. First, why are so few people moved by the Problem of Evil in the direction of disbelief in God (note that the majority of the world’s population is theist)? Second, why are people moved by suffering and evil more in the direction of belief?

The second question will have to wait, but I’ll tackle the first.

My answer is that most people’s conception of God shifts its shape from context to context.

The Problem of Evil rests on a conception of God that makes God out to have the “omni” (“all”) properties: omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent. This conception of God appears in traditional Christian theologies (among other theologies), which has roots in medieval Scholasticism, with its metaphysical arguments for the existence of God. Of course, as we would expect, the conception of God that emerged from such an intellectual context was a logically clean one; this God has all perfections and has them entirely. In Anselm’s words, God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” (“id quo nihil maius cogitary potest”).

But is this how most ordinary people think of God all or even most of the time? No. Even if people say they believe God has the “omni” properties, they don’t usually think of God in those terms. Rather, most people, most of the time, think of God as a sort of divine superhero who is not everywhere at once and distributes resources as if they were limited.

Psychologists Frank Keil and Justin Barrett explain how people are theologically correct. They verbally assent to the picture of God from official church doctrines, but they reason about God with an intuitive conception that makes God out to be a powerful but limited agent. Ask people official questions, you’ll get official answers. But probe them in a different context, in which they have to recall a story, and it appears they think of God in a different way. (I’ve discussed this here and here.)

Recall what Sister Madeleine said. Evil is not part of God’s plan, but “evil has the upper hand.” This utterance betrays an image of God who is not all powerful. If God were all powerful and all benevolent, the idea of evil having the “upper hand” would make no sense. But if God is a finite agent, this idea makes sense. Evil must be fought, and fighting is something that agents with limited resources have to do.

So why aren’t more people moved by the Problem of Evil? My answer is that most of them aren’t thinking with a conception of God for which that problem is a problem at all. Even Sister Madeleine, a trained nun, felt compelled to think in terms of a more agential conception of God, rather than an “omni” conception. She didn’t even realize in the moment that she was thinking of a divinity whose nature was at odds with the God portrayed in official church doctrine.

And if she doesn’t notice this, only a small percentage of the population ever will.

Furthermore, even people who do see the problem from a reflective standpoint, may just not feel its pull, because their intuitive conception of God is untouched.

So the notion of God is a divine shape shifter. In point of fact, it is not sophisticated theology—from Augustine to Father Andrew—that allows God to escape the Problem of Evil. It is the average person’s resiliently flexible conception of God. The intuitive conception of God is not of an all powerful agent. But when it comes to intellectual problems, ‘God,’ it appears, is all evading.

Comments (6)

Guest's picture


Wednesday, January 20, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

Philosophy is the study of

Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational argument. Anyway here you are presenting a wonderful question. 

smithanderson's picture


Wednesday, January 20, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

I read this full post and it

I read this full post and it is very informative for me and others also. I have got many information from here and I will must share it with others.

Or's picture


Saturday, January 30, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

The problem is that when we

The problem is that when we put evil and God in the same sphere of thought, we are trying to do the impossible from our limited human perspective. On the other hand, evil by itself is understandable insofar as we experience it, just as we do suffering, and they can certainly be barriers to faith, as John mentioned. In the sphere of faith, everything is perfect. If we live in a human landscape where what we constantly see is evil and suffering, how are we ever going to elevate ourselves to faith? And if elevated, where do I put the miseries of everyday life? And if I approach God due to my miseries, isn't that just ignoring my problems and relegating them to another?

lifeuptimize's picture


Saturday, February 20, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

Sorry i cant totally agree

Sorry i cant totally agree with you.I strongly believe that Allah is more powerful in  the world and evil is nothing for  Allah.Allah can destroy  evil anytime any moment.
Neils@ People With Dementia

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Sunday, February 21, 2016 -- 4:00 PM

The post is wonderful and it

The post is wonderful and it is support for readers to collect the information. The essay writing service reviews is makes the writing documents.

Brian B. Smith's picture

Brian B. Smith

Thursday, July 14, 2022 -- 5:49 PM

Why aren't more people moved

Why aren't more people moved by this argument? Simply because this argument is totally irrational, being that it's entire premise begins with a logical fallacy.

Firstly, the existence of “good” and “evil” are wholly conceptually interdependent—that is, without evil it would be impossible for a sentient mind to even conceive of good, and vice versa. Thus, without evil, there can be no good. So what Philo is actually arguing is that a benevolent God is one who does not allow good to exist.

Secondly, “Evil” in the world finds its root in free will. All these starving and dying babies that the author so casually tosses into the reader's face are the product of the free will of people who—due to greed—horde the Earth's resources, storing up far more than they could ever use, while others go without, and thus suffer and perish. What Philo is also arguing is that God is malevolent for not restricting mankind's free will. Well, Philo might say, God could just restrict man's insidious impulses and give him freedom to act otherwise. But that would defy the very definition of free will: limited free will is not free will at all. Would a God who does not endow humans with free will be the benevolent God that Philo is looking for? I dare say not!

The irony is that rather than holding themselves and their misuse of their own (benevolently) God-given free will responsible for the evil they do, Philo and the author of this article would rather blame the One who endowed them with sovereign free will. Now, if that's not evil, I'm not sure what is.

Philo said that nothing can shake the solidity of his argument. What's that? Oh, nothing, I suppose it's just Philo—and his childish argument —that I hear shaking in his grave. Grow up, and take responsibility for your actions, and be grateful for—and use responsibility—the benevolently bestowed gift of free will.

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