Friday, January 07, 2005

Tsunami, Richard Dawkins and the theodicy problem

In the wake of Tsunami, much has been written about the parsimonious response of various governments, including our own, to this humanitarian crisis. Corporations too have come in for criticism for their stinginess, as in this piece by Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian. (The Scottish Daily Mail, in response, cheekily pointed out that the Guardian has contributed precisely nothing as yet.)

I don't have anything much to add to this; rather, I found my thoughts at the time and now turning to the subject of religion. Richard Dawkins uses the disaster to question the validity of religious thinking in this context:

"The Bishop of Lincoln (Letters, December 29) asks to be preserved from religious people who try to explain the tsunami disaster. As well he might. Religious explanations for such tragedies range from loopy (it's payback for original sin) through vicious (disasters are sent to try our faith) to violent (after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, heretics were hanged for provoking God's wrath). But I'd rather be preserved from religious people who give up on trying to explain, yet remain religious.

In the same batch of letters, Dan Rickman says "science provides an explanation of the mechanism of the tsunami but it cannot say why this occurred any more than religion can". There, in one sentence, we have the religious mind displayed before us in all its absurdity. In what sense of the word "why", does plate tectonics not provide the answer?

Not only does science know why the tsunami happened, it can give precious hours of warning. If a small fraction of the tax breaks handed out to churches, mosques and synagogues had been diverted into an early warning system, tens of thousands of people, now dead, would have been moved to safety.

Let's get up off our knees, stop cringing before bogeymen and virtual fathers, face reality, and help science to do something constructive about human suffering."

Dawkins isn't exactly subtle (am I alone in thinking that, while I'm sure he's a good scientist, his forays into the subjects of religion and politics haven't been entirely successful?) but he gives voice to what undoubtedly many people have been thinking: how does Tsunami square with a supposedly omnipotent, omnibenevolent deity?

Theologians and philosophers of religion have attempted to overcome this theodicy problem in a number of ways. Mainstream Christianity, having largely wimped out of the divine retribution explanation alluded to in Dawkins' first paragraph, have tended to rely on a free-will theodicy. Whether this is a philosophically satisfactory explanation for the existence of evil is questionable and it is precisely this type of catastrophe that highlights its weakness, given that the movement of tectonic plates doesn't originate in any human's will.

Those who, unlike the Bishop of Lincoln, do attempt to reach some sort of religious understanding would, I presume, reach for some kind of soul-making theodicy. (This is what Dawkins alludes to with his testing of faith remark). Now, I can't say I've ever come to a successful resolution to the theodicy problem - which is why I'm agnostic but Dawkins and others like him, I think, fail to understand the paradox of religion, which can be found right in the heart of this question: what is considered an insurmountable philosophical weakness (the existence of suffering and evil) is precisely where the religious often find their faith gives them the most strength - in giving meaning to suffering.

I can't say I find any explanation - the world as a vale of tears, or a vale of soul-making - any more philosophically satisfying than Dawkins but I'm disinclined to sneer, given that I haven't suffered anything like the hardship of many who retain their faith - and I doubt whether Mr. Dawkins has either. I am, in short, wholeheartedly in favour of what some conservatives dismissively call the "privitisation of religion"...

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