Way, way back in blog years (aka, about two weeks ago), I posted the first of a three parter on Andrew Sullivan’s follies as he attempted to waffle his way around the theodicy problem. That’s how to harmonize belief in an omnipotent and omniscient loving God with the existence of evil in the world, preferably with a sophistication (if not the blunt practicality) exceeding that of the old aphorism, “Malt does more than Milton can/To reconcile God’s ways to man.”
In that first post, I did not engage the argument head on, though, just to be open about my own dog in this hunt, I think that at this point in human history it is abundantly clear that if you wish to retain a God with personality and direct agency in the world, that deity would have to take the responsibility for deeds so grotesque that Einstein’s line — “only his nonexistence excuses him” — seems to me the only plausible response.*
For me, better to reign in hell — or rather, better, to act with firmness in the right as we may see the right** on this perhaps-not-fallen earth — than bow to any doctrine that pays homage to the author of so much misery.
But dogma, or leaps of faith, may lead others to a different conclusion. I spent much of the prior post describing what I understood to be Sullivan’s position to argue that his error wasn’t that he thinks suffering is a tool for harrowing faith to the point of redemption– for him. Rather, he ran into trouble when he asserted that his personal experience of his God’s love in response to his pain offered anything more than an individual, subjective kind of knowing.
Such solopsism is a venial sin.*** It’s hardly unprecedented in human affairs that one Andrew Sullivan might mistake deeply felt personal experience for a truth universally to be acknowledged.
But where he truly stumbled was when he tried to demonstrate that his theodicy possesses a naturalistic justification: that the difference between human beings and animals lies in our awareness of suffering. He claimed that our conscious emotions in the anticipation of our own deaths and other losses enables God to turn our suffering for a spiritual purpose.
This is, I argued, just another God-of-the-gaps wheeze, and betrays deep ignorance of what people who actually study animal behavior and culture have been talking about for a quarter of a century or more.
That’s no surprise. I’ve noted elsewhere that Sullivan is an innumerate thinker with a purely instrumental — and quite disdainful — view of what science actually does.
Here, as a warm up to my final, science-free rant on Sullivan’s biggest failure in this round of theodicy cage matches, I just want to add one thought. Sullivan’s fear of science — not of any particular fact to be uncovered, but the terror that the enterprise as a whole really does have something to say at odds with his most deeply held beliefs — can be seen in the tricks he plays with language, as much as in any explicit argument.
To put it another way: you can see how much this stuff matters to him by the way he commits the very sin he condemns so swiftly when performed by those attempting to justify more obvious wrongs. When someone calls torture “enhanced interrogation” — Sullivan knows what is being done, and contemns it.
But when he says “Darwinist” in the title of this post, “What is Evil to a Darwinist?” he attempts the same sleight of hand. By mislabeling the object of scrutiny he attempts to weight the scales towards a false conclusion. (And yes, I know that the title is taken from the text of the email he quotes below; I’ll get to that in a moment.)
Sullivan’s readers know precisely what the construction “Darwinist” implies; it parallels his term “Christianist” — which denotes an ostensibly religious person committed to a particularist and overly literal interpretation of Christianity that blinds him or her to the variety of messages and meanings one might find in more modest faith.
A Darwinist in this context is an evolutionary literalalist and a fanatical materialist, blind to the reality of spiritual experience. Worse, he or she is a member of a cult, slavisly serving the author of a revealed text, presented to humanity by none other than the devil’s chaplain himself.
Of course, the proper term, in reference to Jerry Coyne, Sullivan’s principal antagonist in this latest round of the theodicy chronicles, and to the relevant group as a whole, is “evolutionary biologist.”
But if you then used that term, then the offending headline asks this question: “What is evil to an evolutionary biologist?” — and the fraud becomes obvious.
What is evil to a physicist? To a diesel mechanic? To a cook? To me, to you, to Andrew Sullivan, to my nine year old?****
There are evils specific to, say, an evolutionary researcher. Lying is evil — and not lying in general, but specifically committing fraud or deliberately obscuring what is known or not in a given field. The Creation Museum is thus evil — but it is so within the specific confines of its claim of scientific authority. If it were simply a religious exhibit, conceived and presented as such, it might be silly, but it would not be sinful, at least not within the context of the professional concerns of an evolutionary biologist.
Evil to a cook? According to Ruth Reichl, contempt for the cuisine you present.
Evil to a kid: breaking small “f” faith, arriving earlier than discussed to end a play-date or failing to launch into as promised the next goddamn iteration of the Lego game you’ve only repeated 73 times that day (not that I mind, mind you)…
That is: If you are a scientist, or a banker, or any person working in the world, then (while I agree with Hilary Putnam and many others who dispute the fact-value dichotomy) the evil to be understood in the theodicy issue is not one of a bounded professional ethics, but moral reasoning. And pace apologists, one does not need a single divinity, a single text…and/or one does not need all of a text as an indispensible aid to such judgment. (To see what I mean, look no further than the contrast between the moral worlds of Samuel, chapter 15, and that of Micah, chapter 6.)
But if you are a Darwinist, then, like the Christian, or the Christianist, you are on the spot. You aren’t a human being with expertise in a certain area and intellectual method. You are a believer, a member of a cult, a person of the (a) book. Your failure to advance a theory of evil to contest with that of the revealed-religious believer is dispostive; the laurels must go to those who enter the lists.
Hence the usefulness of the such rhetorical posturing, and the deceit.
And what is most galling about this is that Sullivan truly does know better. He has no time, none at all, for the enablers of torture. He has justified contempt for every attempt to weasel some language of essential difference to justify distinctions in law between gay and straight. He has no patience for coded racism. He knows langauge, and he knows how it can be used for harm…or dare I say it, for evil ends.
No excuses then, for this.
One last note: he may defend his headline as merely a quote from a post that is in its entirety a reader’s email. That doesn’t wash, at least not for me. First — he chose to run the email himself, and he bears responsibility for its rhetorical sins as well as whatever else it may contain. Second, he wrote the headline. He had alternatives. He chose this one; he owns the word, and its sins.
*from a letter written in response to learning that his friend Nernst’s two sons had been killed in action in World War I.
**and yes, I am aware of the crucial edit there.
***though it certainly can lead pretty directly to literally mortal ones.
****I’m deliberately not delving into the folly of the post itself here — but as this headline was in fact taken from the linchpin passage in this reader’s email, you may get a sense of the poverty of the argument there.
Images: “The Ruins of Lisbon,” after the Nov. 1, 1755 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed that city. German copperplate engraving.
Darwin cartoon from the London Sketchbook, 1874