Barney Zwartz, religion editor of The Age newspaper, has published the written version of his speech to the Problem of Evil forum at the University of Melbourne the other day. Note that I will not be following suit: I judged it more effective to speak without notes. (I had a couple of cards with a few reminder points and quotations scribbled on them, in case I needed them, but made little use of them and certainly did not have any written speech.)
Anyway, Barney's main points don't seem very responsive to the question of why an all-good (in the sense of loving, benevolent, etc., God) would want to permit evil in the form of suffering, or why an all-powerful God would be unable to prevent the evil. In his speech, he claims that no one really believes in a God with these qualities of omnipotence and omnibenevolence, but that is plainly nonsense. The Bible, of course, is not written in such abstract language; however, most Christians (and probably most Muslims and Jews) do, in fact, believe in a God with these superlative qualities. Ask a traditional Christian whether, for example, she believes the power of God is limited, and she will certainly be unwilling to say "Yes." The many people who have suffered enormous anxiety, or even lost their religious faith, over the years and centuries have, in fact, been wracked by doubt as to why a God who is capable of preventing suffering is seemingly not motivated to do so. The nub of it is this: How can a God not motivated to prevent suffering that it could avert with no effort at all be thought of as all-good in the sense of good that has so often been taught? Is this really the goodness of an infinitely benevolent being?
Of course, that's a philosophical question. It's the kind of thing that philosophers think about. But it's a question that relates to the God believed in by many, many people who are not professional philosophers.
Barney Zwartz admits quite freely that he can't answer this question, and that the answers attempted in the past can seem merely glib. It's no use throwing up your hands and saying we don't understand because we are finite. No doubt we are ... but how can there be such a complicated story to understand? It's not as if God has to work with a lot of complex limitations and difficulties, like a movie director with a conceited cast of actors and a tight budget; God is supposed to be omnipotent. If we had some overwhelming reason to believe that this God exists, but could not answer the question, then perhaps we'd be justified in throwing up our hands and saying, "We don't know the answer, but there must be one." But once doubts arise as to whether this kind of God exists at all, that is unsatisfactory. If we think about it honestly, distancing ourselves from our religious starting point (if we do have such a starting point), the honest approach is to admit that there's (1) no plausible answer, (2) no plausible prospect of one, and (3) no reason to be confident that there "just must" be one.
As for the idea that Christians and others have an "infantile" religion if they think it's all about them as individuals, this seems like a very odd thing to say of a religion that offers each individual personal salvation, but in any event it misses the point. The point isn't whether I, Russell (for example), am the centre of the universe, the single focus of God's concern, and should have a carefree life with nothing but happiness. Rather, God is supposed to care in an infinitely loving way about each individual. It's not, "Why does this horrible thing happen to me?" but, "Why is an infinitely loving God prepared to let horrible suffering happen at all, to any human being or any other sentient creature?"
We live in a world in which many creatures, vast numbers of them - human and otherwise - suffer terribly. This has been going on for untold millions of years. It wasn't caused by acts of human free will 6000 years ago - or 100,000 or 200,000 years ago - and there is no plausibility in the claim that all the instances are contributing to some higher good (how could that possibly work?). That's the situation we face. It has nothing to do with individual people having an "infantile" religion.
Note in passing that the free will explanation makes no sense, and Barney Zwartz didn't even try to explain how it might. We could have been created in such a way that we never act cruelly, for example, because free will is not about acting in some random way that doesn't reflect our character. It is about acting in a way that does reflect our character. When we act freely, we get to act on our actual values, after thinking about what we want to do. We want to deliberate without someone threatening us with a gun (for example). But we don't want to act in some way that is not a reflection of our actual values, as if our decisions were made by quantum-level randomisers in our brains.
(Imagine a world where everything in the situation, including everything about me - my principles of choice, values, etc. - is exactly the same as in this world, and yet I make a different decision. I might be a kind person, who makes a kind decision in this world, but in the other world I make a cruel decision. Or vice versa. That's not free will. That's having my decisions determined by a randomness beyond my control, so that my decisions don't reflect how I actually am, whether cruel or kind. In this scenario, there is no guarantee that my decisions reflect the real me, so how can I ever be blamed or praised for them? I may act cruelly, not because I am a cruel person but because of my quantum randomiser. This is nonsense. Why would this have anything to do with free will, and why would an infinitely loving God set things up so that cruel decisions might or might not emerge in this way from kind people? Where's the value in that?)
In any event, most of the supposed explanations of evil make sense only in a pre-scientific setting. They are now absurdly implausible even at face value. In particular, most of the suffering that there has been on this planet took place long before human beings even existed. An all-powerful God did not need any of this. It could have created the world in a desirable form without any of it just by thinking, "Let it be so!" That's what being all-powerful is about, if we take it seriously.
Barney Zwartz tried to de-fuse the issue, or dance around it, in various ways, but he freely admitted to having no explanation that was satisfactory. At least that's honest. Someone else might have tried to push harder on the free will defence, the higher goods defence, or some other lame explanation. These explanations do sound glib, as Barney says. In fact, they sound desperate or even intellectually dishonest. Some of them are morally monstrous. They are the refuge of someone who wants to hold onto religious faith at all costs.
The fact remains that the problem of evil is a real one for people with a traditional idea of God. The problem rightly causes many honest people deep anxiety. It assuredly does not involve a God that no one believes in, but the God that most monotheists actually worship, and it has never been satisfactorily solved. Of course, if you don't start by believing in gods at all, or you believe only in limited gods or metaphorical gods, the problem does not arise for you except as a hypothetical scenario. But for people who posit the traditional Abrahamic God, the problem assuredly does arise, and there is no adequate answer.
The intellectually honest response, painful though it may be, is to stop believing in that God. Nothing less will do.