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Tag Archive | "theodicies"

Why God Allows Pain: The Barbershop Theodicy

Whenever believers try to defend their faith in an intervening God using reason (or more precisely, pseudo-reason), the critical thinker cannot help but point out the fallacies. There is this email being circulated that tries to explain the problem of evil and why God allows pain and suffering:

A man went to a barbershop to have his hair cut and his beard trimmed. As the barber began to work, they began to have a good conversation. They talked about so many things and various subjects. When they eventually touched on the subject of God, the barber said: “I don’t believe that God exists.”

“Why do you say that?” asked the customer. “Well, you just have to go out in the street to realize that God doesn’t exist. Tell me, if God exists, would there be so many sick people? Would there be abandoned children? If God existed, there would be neither suffering nor pain. I can’t imagine a loving God who would allow all of these things.”

The customer thought for a moment, but didn’t respond because he didn’t want to start an argument. The barber finished his job and the customer left the shop.

Just after he left the barbershop, he saw a man in the street with long, stringy, dirty hair and an untrimmed beard. He looked dirty and unkempt. The customer turned back and entered the barber shop again and he said to the barber: “You know what? Barbers do not exist.” “How can you say that?” asked the surprised barber. “I am here, and I am a barber. And I just worked on you!” “No!” the customer exclaimed. “Barbers don’t exist because if they did, there would be no people with dirty long hair and untrimmed beards, like that man outside.”

“Ah, but barbers DO exist! That’s what happens when people do not come to me.” “Exactly!” affirmed the customer. “That’s the point! God, too, DOES exist! That’s what happens when people do not go to Him and don’t look to Him for help. That’s why there’s so much pain and suffering in the world.” * * *

Let us try to dissect the logic here:

Barber does not believe a loving and all-powerful God exists because of the presence of suffering and pain as manifested by sick people and abandoned children

Customer – does not believe barbers exist because of the presence of people with dirty long hair and untrimmed beards

Barber – explains that these people are unkempt because they do not come to him for a haircut and shave

Customer explains that people experience so much pain and suffering because they do not come to God for help

I cannot even begin to pinpoint the logical fallacies in there because they seem to jump out all at once.  It is faulty to compare barbers to God because whenever you go to the former,  you’ll surely get your hair cut (if that’s what you want); when you seek help from the latter, your prayers are not always answered. Now if the faithful even dare to say that the barber is not there all the time to give you a haircut anytime you want – maybe he’s sick or attending some important event – it must be noted that unlike God, barbers are not omnipotent or omnipresent. And what exactly does it mean to “come to God for help”? If God is omniscient, he knows what we need (and deserve) long before we pray for it – even before we can think of praying for it. And if he is a loving God, he will grant these needs without waiting for our prayers, not to mention there are children dying a slow and painful death due to starvation and disease who are too young to understand the concept of God, much less to pray. But I guess the most significant difference between a haircut and an “answered prayer” is that you can be sure that your hair had not just gotten shorter because of pure coincidence and no external deliberate force.

I must say that while I often criticize religion, I deeply respect the faithful, as many of the people in my innermost circle are themselves believers.  As I often tell them, I respect your right to your beliefs. If you say that you believe in God because of personal faith, I respect that. Even if you say that you believe in God because the Bible (or any other holy book) tells you so, I would still respect that. But once you try to assert the validity of the Bible’s claims by spewing fallacy passed as reason, your beliefs become fair game.

The problem of evil had been an eternal bug up the theistic ass, and countless theodicies (attempts at reconciling belief in God with the perceived existence of evil) have been written, their answers ranging from almost-but-not-quite satisfactory to totally absurd. Among those I’ve read, I think the only one that gives the slightest hope to the faithful and prevents those in No. 6 in Dawkins’ spectrum from ‘falling’ into No. 7 is that God has a purpose too grand to be comprehended by our finite minds. Perhaps I can respect that, but only because I cannot scientifically disprove it. Just make sure you don’t get too cocky as to proclaim that you can actually prove it.

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haitiHaiti was hit by a 7 magnitude earthquake a couple of weeks ago. 150,000 (and counting) people were already declared dead. Aside from that it also destroyed countless properties, livelihood, and shelter. It also displaced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.

Instances like this are a great challenge to the people who are affected. How will they move on with their lives when they have almost nothing left? How will they move on if their loved ones were killed? Where will they get the money to start again? Where will they get help? I think all of these questions and problems can be answered and solved as time will pass or if  someone will eventually help these people. Time will heal all wounds, a quote says. But a more important question still remains unanswered for a long time. Well many have tried but I guess their answers still face a lot of criticisms and contradictions, making the problem still a problem.

Where was the God that believers, mostly Christians, claim to be true/existing, loving, and powerful? Why would God allow this to happen? Well these questions are not really original or new but I think it would be good to ask again and again for emphasis. I asked these questions subtly (subtly so that they will not be offended) to my theist friends and they all had their own explanations and theodicies. I wasn’t able to reply and criticize them because of time constraints and I also did not want to offend and humiliate them. So below are the four and most common theodicies that I encountered and my reply and criticisms to these four:

Punishment Reply: The people that suffered in the earthquake were just punished by God because these people disobeyed God’s laws or that these people were very sinful.

My reply: Not all of the people that were killed or suffered were sinful; there were children and good people who suffered and died in the said earthquake. Theists could reply that this is just a result of Original Sin. But I say that this is not just, and it does not show that God is loving. I mean, is it just to punish the great(x 100)-grandchildren of a person who committed a sin long ago? You know the answer.

The Heavenly Reply: These people and children may have suffered and died but they will be compensated many times in heaven/eternal life.

My reply: But what’s the point of them suffering here on earth? Why didn’t God put them straight to heaven even before they suffered? Heaven does not justify their suffering. This act is immoral even if heaven is so good because God could’ve put them in heaven or given them eternal life without making them suffer first.

Soul-Making Theodicy: This contends that God allows evil because it builds a positive character in the victims, and this compensates for evil and suffering.

My reply: Is this how a loving God builds a positive character in its followers? I think there are still many other ways that are less evil and crude. Also, evil and suffering do not necessarily build a positive character; greater losses also occur. Families would break up, morale would go down, people would turn away from God.

The Privation response: Evil is just the absence of good just as darkness is the absence of light.

My reply: Evil is not really a privation of good. If you are hurt, say you were punched or kicked in the ass, you know it hurts. It is a positive sensation and not just the absence of pleasure. People who are numb or asleep do not feel pain, even though they experience the absence of pleasure and any other feeling.

There are also other replies to the problem of evil and suffering out there but these are the most common I encountered. Theists have a choice here. They can accept that either their God is not capable (not powerful) of helping the ones who are in need, or that their God is capable but doesn’t want to (not loving). Of course, they can also simply accept that there is no such thing as a loving and powerful God.

* * * * *

This post was originally published at

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Whenever a tragedy happens, some people say that it happened for a reason, that no matter how dreadful and catastrophic an event is, there is a purpose. Everything is part of a Grand Design. And this is one of the defenses against the problem of evil, or at least William Rowe’s version of it, which goes:

1. There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

2. An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

3. (Therefore) There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.

Without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse. I read this theodicy article that did not actually attempt to answer the problem of evil but simply proposed a stalemate because, the writer claimed, we really cannot know if these evils are indeed gratuitous or unjustified since we are not omniscient. And I agree with him.

Richard Dawkins considers himself a SIX in his spectrum of theistic probability because he is a scientist. He is not claiming that there is no God but simply that God is very improbable and so he lives his life on the assumption that God does not exist. And if this is the case for a certain person, I guess he/she would agree that we really cannot know for sure if all the evils in this world do not serve some greater purpose – no matter how unlikely. (And this is why I can only respect people from TWO to SIX in Dawkins’ spectrum because they acknowledge the limits of their understanding, while those in ONE and SEVEN actually claim to know.)

But I think purpose comes after the fact, because we can make a purpose out of unfortunate events. Take a look at the typhoons and floods that killed hundreds last year, for example, or the gruesome massacre that brutally ended the lives of 57 persons. Some people would claim that they have a purpose, and part of that is to awaken the Filipinos and make them turn from their evil ways. However, I highly doubt that an omnipotent and loving deity would lack the imagination to come up with more effective and less genocidal ways to win the hearts and souls of its beloved creation. But as the most highly evolved of all creatures, we can (and we actually did) make a purpose for these tragedies so that we should not have suffered them in vain. Ondoy exposed the fatal hazards of poor (and corrupt) urban planning, reminding developers to be conscientious and citizens to be vigilant. The Maguindanao killings let the world know that there was an oppressive empire right within our country’s borders whose king and princes reigned in terror, where human rights were violated on a daily basis and everyone was too scared to talk. Now this empire is no more, and if we keep a watchful eye it will probably stay that way.

The purposes we come up with and the good they bring may not be greater than the misfortunes from which they arose, but at least we are doing something to make things a little better. After all, we are not omnipotent.

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