Thursday, January 25, 2007


The Problem of ‘Accident’

After writing several articles about ‘process issues’ around religion, you might think I’m not interested in the main arguments, but in fact I’ve been involved in theological debate from an early age: it’s probably where I got my training in how to argue obscure Doctor Who lore, and certainly the foundation of some of my politics. So (at the risk of sounding like John Humphrys) I’d like to invite any religious readers to engage with a theological problem I have. While the most frequently raised trouble with God is ‘The Problem of Evil’, I founder on the problem of ‘Accident’.

You’ll have heard of ‘The Problem of Evil’. Put simply, if God is all-good, all-powerful and all-knowing, and has created everything – all fundamental tenets of the Christian faith, in whatever flavour – then how does he permit all the evil that goes on in the world? Benevolence and omnipotence should demand that he’s able to set everything up so that people simply can’t do terrible things to each other. The two answers I’ve heard most often are that ‘God has a plan’ (and moves, no doubt, in mysterious ways), or that without the capacity to do evil, we would have no free will, so it’s worth the suffering that goes with it as the alternative would be a universe of zombies. Each has had their adherents in different branches of Christianity. Brought up in a very religious family, going to two churches every Sunday and to denominational state schools, I can’t remember when I first came across these arguments, but I must have been familiar with them from quite far back. You’ll probably be unsurprised that I never had much truck with predeterminism, but found the arguments for free will persuasive. So, round one to God.

I’ve listened on and off in recent weeks to Milton’s Paradise Lost on BBC7 (whose idea was it to strip it across 41 quarter-hour episodes?), and other than particularly enjoying Ian McDiarmid’s Satan – superb, but tricky that he gets far more persuasive arguments than the ‘good guys’ – it reminded me of an argument that followed on for me to the Problem of Evil. That’s such an old problem now, around for thousands of years, that while I think the central argument is still a live one, it’s easy to miss that some of the issues caught up in it aren’t live any more, at least outside of some of the more backward states of America.

I can remember the first time I ever met a Creationist. I say that, but it’s almost certainly not true: in eighteen years of mixing with devoutly religious people, both Catholic and Baptist, I’d probably met several. It’s just that, with a deep respect for science as well as religion taught to me at home and school, and evolution presented as fact and Genesis as important but fable in both, it never occurred to me to ask anyone. ‘Do you believe the Earth is only 6000 years old and God buried dinosaur bones whole like a cosmic Jeremy Beadle?’ would have seemed as insulting a question to ask as ‘Do you believe the Earth is flat?’ or ‘You think the Moon is made of green cheese, don’t you?’ Despite my upbringing, then, I was profoundly ill-prepared when – aged 17, and newly out – I was put up overnight with three other guys for university interviews. None of us had ever met before, but it turned out two of them were Creationists. I made a very bad impression, because it took me some time to realise they weren’t having me on. In my defence, I did genuinely jump to what I thought was the only reasonable conclusion, a practical joke, and that’s why I kept laughing. Understandably, they took offence. Then I mentioned I was gay and, obviously, I was ‘the first one they’d ever met’ and, rather than being amused, they were terrified and their arguments became even more defensive than before. The fourth guy just pretty much hid under the covers and tried to avoid the shrapnel.

Anyway, back to the Problem of Evil. While the core of it remains a powerful theological argument – for and against – there are peripheral elements that seem to me to have been knocked out by the unfashionableness of the literal truth of Genesis, and this is down to Original Sin. I always had a problem with the idea that all of us are born intrinsically disordered and wrong, in need of forgiveness and salvation for, er, just being alive. It seemed to me a fundamentally nihilistic view of human nature. I look for the good in people, but this wasn’t even morally neutral: what’s the point of free will if you’re ‘naturally bad’? Isn’t that cheating? But the bigger problem I had, crystallising for me alongside a host of smaller things (from church institutions to Bedazzled) that made me more than sceptical, was not evil but accidental suffering. And I finally realised that it’s Genesis that’s responsible for this issue getting far less discussion than evil does – aside, obviously, from the fact that evil is easier to personify, given poster boys from the Devil to whichever dictator is ‘the new Hitler’ (and before then, presumably the new Napoleon, Charlemagne, and so on) – because, for philosophers of the Church all the way up to the Nineteenth Century, the answer was obvious. It was simply an offshoot of ‘Evil’: everything was perfect, literally Paradise; Adam and Eve sinned; evil came into the world, and with it as punishment, ‘Bad Things’. The world fell with Adam and Eve, and created pain. Evil was the important issue to discuss, because everything else was a side effect of it.

However, for a Twentieth-Century boy (as was) like me, the problem came alive. Evil I could understand; free will, I accepted. But the problem of ‘Accident’? Nobody chose it, it’s nobody’s fault, and for most of human history we’ve made not a fraction of the impact on our environment that we do now, even if you want to claim punishment for eco-sin. Take God as benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, as I was always taught, and I just can’t see the get-out clause: if he set up a system that’s always caused such horrible things to happen to so many people for no reason at all, then is God a) a git, b) incompetent or c) vanishing in a puff of logic? Answers on a postcard, please.

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