Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Illusion, Polytheism and Star Wars


Hi Kari,

I'm going to give our readership intellectual whiplash today with my two posts. Of course, I know with your sharp mind, you will have no problem cutting back across the football field. Anyway, one post on baseball (below) and this one on religion. That is why I love blogging, I can follow my bliss and write about whatever I want! No editor to tell me I can't write this or that!?

A few weeks back, I had the chance to hear a friend give a talk on theodicy (theological word for the problem of evil and the existence of god) and one of many interesting points that was discussed was of course how those of the Judeo-Christian perspective deal with it. That may well be bloggable in some future occasion. But what I want to blog about in this post is how other religions deal with it.

The formulation of theodicy is three-fold: (1) god is good, (2) god is powerful, and (3) evil exists. It is argued that only two of the three statements can be true. In fact, I suppose the atheist must say only one statement is true.

The Judeo-Christian believer would say all three are true and offer some explanation. Indeed, in the talk, the speaker spent the bulk of the time on this point elaborating the arguments within Christian theology and atheistic challenges.

But what do other religious systems do about theodicy?

As a Christian, I do have a point of view. I respect other religious viewpoints but intellectual honesty requires that their claims be evaluated for reasonableness and consequences.

The speaker said: (1) one can deny evil exists and thus, some religious systems say evil is an illusion;
(2) god isn't very powerful which is what polytheism implies;
(3) to deny that god is completely good.

Since the speaker was limited in time for presentation, the Judeo-Christian response was dwelt on primarily.

What follows is my speculation of the consequences and implications of the three other approaches the speaker mentioned in brief.

Caveat: I'm a molecular biologist not a comparative religion major! Perhaps, Kari, in your broad educational experience and intellectual curiosity you've come across these issues and could add to the discussion.

(1) evil is an illusion

I have to confess that view seems rather strange. Of course strangeness is not proof it is fallacious.

I suppose in this view people can say, am I a man dreaming I'm a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming I'm a man? Thus, life is an illusion. But can they actually LIVE that way?

We live with uncertainties or gradations of certainty. There are a handful of things that we can know beyond any reasonable doubt and I would think the reality of evil would be one of them.

I'd dismiss the evil is an illusion explaination outright for simple impracticality of holding it and for its flying in the face of any reasonableness standard.

(2) the polytheism option

If you are a polytheist, you probably can't blame god for the evil in the world because he/she/it isn't strong enough to do anything about it.

I don't know if you can logically disprove polytheism? Probably not? I wonder if the atheists give the polytheist a free pass because they want to save their intellectual candlepower for the monotheists?

(3) god is not fully good and related concepts

I think this view can take two forms. One form would be some variation on Zoroastrianism where you have at least two deities, one good and one bad and they contend. To my knowledge Zoroastrianism doesn't exist in its original form anywhere? Is there any current religious systems that draws upon that concept? I suppose maybe some variants of polytheism use this foundation?

The other variation would be that god is some impersonal force as described in pantheism or dualism where god is in everything or good and bad (in nearly equal proportions, i.e. yin/yang) are embedded in the fabric of the universe. This sure sounds like Star Wars theology doesn't it?

It sounds vaguely romantic and very grand to say, yeah, god is in everything. I mean it sounds great: god is the sunset, the mountains, the flowers, etc. All well and good but carry that to its logical conclusion and you have to say: god is the child molester, god is the serial murderer, god is Hitler and Stalin. I admit emotional discomfort with a concept is not proof of its fallacy but that is the consequence of pantheism.

But a more direct challenge to pantheism would be to recognize that evil is a property of free will agents and not embedded in the material world. For example, a scalpel in the hands of a good surgeon is a tool for good while that scalpel in the hands of a torturer is an instrument of evil. Is the scalpel good or evil? Neither. Morality is a property of free will agents not material things.

I suppose the dualist could get around this by not embedding good and evil into the material universe. But as a framework of reality, is that what dualists believe? Are they forced to retreat back to some form of polytheism?

Be well,
Rene

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