A Pantheist Addresses the Problem of Evil

A Note to prospective plagiarists: If you're reading this paper in hopes of trying to pass it off as your own, then you should understand a couple of things in advance. First, your instructor knows how well or how poorly you write, because it's your instructor's job to know. So if you try to pass this paper off as your own, your instructor will become suspicious and will probably search the Internet for key phrases in the paper, since that's where most plagiarists steal their information from these days. You can't change this paper enough to thwart that kind of search without writing it from scratch, so you might as well do your homework to begin with and save yourself the failing grade, the course dismissal or the expulsion you would receive for academic dishonesty. Second, I taught college English for five years, and I actively support the efforts of other instructors to uncover and punish instances of academic dishonesty, so if your instructor contacts me with regard to your efforts to pass my work off as yours, I will help that instructor in every way I can.
Plagiarism is never worth it, and besides, the study of philosophy is good for your brain. So go do your homework, and if you want to cite this paper as one of the sources you used in a legitimate academic inquiry, then by all means, please do so. Good luck to you.

Written in partial fulfillment of a college 'Philosophy of Religion' class in 1997.

Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines pantheism as "a doctrine that equates God with the forces and laws of the universe." I define pantheism as a deep and resonant sense of connection to all things that exist and an acknowledgment that I am a daughter to and a co-creator with the vast and sentient Universe. God is everywhere. God is everything. God is spirit. God is incarnate. God is energy. God is matter. Rejoice! The pages you are reading and the ink upon them is manifest Divinity.

This personal understanding of theism places me at odds with classical philosophers who deny the existence of God and base this denial on the problem of evil. Scholars such as David Hume and J.L. Mackie claim that the overwhelming amount of evil in the world refutes the existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God, because such a God would eliminate evil and create and environment where humans could be morally responsible without the challenge evil presents. Moreover, these scholars argue that because evil exists, God must lack either omnipotence or omnibenevolence, or God must not exist at all.

Whereas I concur that the existence of evil presents a strong case against the existence of God as defined by classical monotheism, I do not believe the dilemma of evil is sufficient to discount the existence of God altogether. The anthropocentric perspective that classical theistic and atheistic philosophers have toward the nature of God limits them to the creation of Gods who think and feel and act as humans might if humans possessed the attributes ascribed to a theistic God. This limitation creates two flaws in the atheistic argument based on evil. First, it assumes that all things that harm human beings directly or indirectly are evil. Second, it assumes that it is the responsibility of a distant, anthropomorphic God to prevent or eradicate this evil. In order to correct these flaws it is necessary to first draw a distinction between natural misfortune and moral evil, then to place the responsibility for the prevention or eradication of moral evil in the hands of the beings who create that evil to begin with. This self-responsibility for the problem of evil speaks to the co-creatorship the pantheist shares with the manifest and unmanifest Universe, and refutes the arrogant assumption that God thinks and responds like a human being.

The arguments of Hume and Mackie are summarized as follows:

  1. Both wickedness and natural misfortune are examples of evil.
  2. An omnipotent, omnibenevolent God would prevent evil if She could.
  3. Evil exists in the world.
  4. Therefore, God is either:
    1. not omnipotent and omnibenevolent, or
    2. God does not exist at all.

"Were a stranger to drop on a sudden into this world, I would show him, as a specimen of it’s ills, an hospital full of diseases, a prison crowded with malefactors and debtors, a field of battle strewed with carcases, a fleet foundering in the ocean, a nation languishing under tyranny, famine, or pestilence (Hume)."

Despite David Hume’s dubious skills as tour guide to the planet Earth on the part of his persona Philo, his argument against the existence of God is strong in the sense that it is classically valid. In the above statement, Philo cites the natural misfortune of disease and natural disaster right along with the moral evils of war and tyranny. Later Philo uses these examples together to refute the existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God. Clearly Hume perceives a close relationship between natural misfortune and moral evil, and expects a theistic God to address them equally.

He quotes Epicurus; "Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?" Hume agrees with the implied anthropomorphism of God found in Epicurus’ statement. If God is just, benevolent, and merciful, and if She can prevent evil, why does evil exist? Either God does not possess the virtues we ascribe to Her, or there is no God.

These two statements represent the foundation of Hume’s argument. After citing the magnitude of evil in the world and questioning the omnipotence and omnibenevolence of God based on this evil, he concludes that whereas pain and misery are compatible with infinite power and goodness, mere compatibility is not enough evidence to support the existence of God.

"These additional principles are that good is opposed to evil, in such a way that a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can, and that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do. From these it follows that a good omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely, and then the propositions that a good omnipotent thing exists, and that evil exists, are incompatible (Mackie)."

We turn now to J.L. Mackie, who refutes several arguments concerning the existence of evil which still allow for the existence of God. He divides these arguments into two categories. The solutions he calls "adequate" are perfectly acceptable to him as long as the person who subscribes to these solutions is consistent in her reasoning. The other solutions he calls "fallacious," because they are not consistent with his premise, as stated above. The last two of these fallacious arguments interest me most for the purposes of this discussion, so I will outline them.

The universe is better with some evil in it than it could be if there were no evil (Mackie)."

Mackie answers this argument by calling pain a "first order" evil, and its contrasting pleasure a "first order" good. He calls the pleasure that is derived out of pain a "second order" good, and says that this second order good can be defined with such examples as heroism in the face of danger, sympathy, and the like. God’s goodness he calls a higher or "third order good." He then goes on to refute the argument on three counts:

  1. "It would be absurd for God to keep misery in existence in order to make possible the virtues of benevolence, heroism, etc..."
  2. "God is not in our sense benevolent or sympathetic: he is not concerned to minimize evil, but only to promote good."
  3. "Our analysis shows clearly the possibility of the existence of a second order evil, an evil (2) contrasting with good (2) as evil (1) contrasts with good (1). This would include malevolence, cruelty, callousness, cowardice, and states in which good (1) is decreasing and evil (1) increasing.

He follows that it is the second order evil which a benevolent God would want to eliminate, but that is the very evil which the theist claims God must allow in the world.

"Evil is due to human freewill (Mackie)."

Mackie responds to this argument by simply stating that (a) God has created man so that She cannot control the human will, and (b) can an omnipotent being create a thing She subsequently cannot control? This second response he calls the paradox of Omnipotence.

To summarize; Mackie believes that evil, which he defines as both pain and wickedness, are not logically consistent with a benevolent God, and that if human beings perpetuate evil out of free will, that is not consistent with an all-powerful God.

Therefore, after our analysis of these two viewpoints, we return to our original interpretation of the arguments of Hume and Mackie:

  1. Both wickedness and natural misfortune are examples of evil.
  2. An omnipotent, omnibenevolent God would prevent evil if She could.
  3. Evil exists in the world.
  4. Therefore, God is either:
    1. not omnipotent and omnibenevolent, or
    2. God does not exist at all.

The first point is flawed because natural misfortune is not an example of evil. "To him everything was in process of destruction, everything was in process of construction(Chuang Tsu)." Chuang Tsu, the fourth century Chinese philosopher, made the above comparison between light and darkness. "He said that death is no different from life...’Then why don’t you die?’ someone asked him. ‘Because it makes no difference,’ he replied (Greek Materialists)." Thales, the sixth century Greek philosopher, had the above words to say about life and death. This necessity of the paired opposites of darkness and light, life and death, is also expressed in the Bhagavad Gita. "I am the death that carries off all, And the origin of things that are to be...Of the whole world I am The origin and the dissolution too." Though anthropomorphic in context, this passage from the Bhagavad Gita beautifully illustrates the kinship between creation and destruction.

Earthquakes, floods, disease, accident, and death are all part of the Tao; The Way. Natural disasters are a part of the continuing evolution of the planet we live upon. The Earth is no respecter of persons, therefore the misfortune caused by the natural cycles of the planet are not the fault of an anthropomorphic God. Furthermore, disease, accident, death, and the like pave the way for new growth, new life, and new evolution. The old must make way for the new, or stagnation and decay result. "When the people of the world all know beauty as beauty, There arises the recognition of ugliness. When they know the good as the good, There arises the perception of evil. Therefore Being and non-Being produce each other (Lao Tsu)." This passage from the Tao Te Ching plainly articulates the idea that without darkness, there can be no light. Without death, there can be no life.

However, moral evil is a different matter. Moral evil arises when a person who knows better does something she should not. It is a violation of right action, and a perversion of what is naturally good. It cannot and should not be confused with the natural cycles of growth and decay, which do not rely upon the human conscience to manifest. In short, darkness is not evil and evil is not darkness. Contrary to Mackie’s observation, good and evil are not opposites. The Christian monk Thomas Aquinas believed that God created only good things, and evil was a corruption of God’s work. I agree with him, but I would add that evil is the corruption of all good work.

Nevertheless, this distinction between natural misfortune and moral evil still does not account for the existence of moral evil in the world. Alvin Plantinga, in his essay entitled The Free Will Defense, argues that moral good cannot exist without free will, else moral good would not be moral at all, therefore God had to create beings of free will if She wanted beings who were morally good. I concur, and add that the pantheist who recognizes the divinity within all things also recognizes that beings with a conscience carry the very same responsibility for eradicating evil and fostering good that the classical theist leaves in an anthropomorphic God’s hands. My argument is as follows:

  1. Moral evil exists.
  2. Moral evil can only be perpetuated by beings with conscience.
  3. Human beings are beings with conscience.
  4. Therefore, the problem of human moral evil is the responsibility of human beings.

Premise two of the classical atheist’s argument is flawed because it does not account for all forms of theism. As I previously noted, the idea that God would prevent evil if She could relies heavily on the supposition that God is a glorified human being with glorified human values which serve the interests of humans alone. A number of philosophers throughout history held a very different concept of divinity.

"Between that person and God there is no distinction, and they are one...Their knowing is one with God’s knowing, their activity with God’s activity and their understanding with God’s understanding." (Meister Eckhart)

"I am sown in all things; and whence thou wilt, thou gatherest me, but when thou gatherest me, thou gatherest thyself." ~Hieronymous Bosch

"I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows, I gleam in the waters, and I burn in the sun, moon, and stars." (Hildegard of Bingen)

"It was at Denver that someone wrote a question ‘What is your religion?’ My answer was: ‘I do not belong to any church but I do consider myself a religious man. I believe that I am a part of you and you are a part of me an we are a part of all life...also a part of the creative force and intelligence behind life. Therefore, if we are a part of God then our lives are not brief meaningless things, but rather have a great importance and significance. All of us and each of us." (Gene Roddenberry)

These scholars recognized that we are, at the very least, at one with God. At the very greatest, we are Gods ourselves, co-existing and co-creating with the rest of the manifest and unmanifest Universe. If this is so, then we cannot blame a distant, anthropomorphic God for the problem of moral evil. We are responsible for the problem of human moral evil, and it is our duty to prevent and eradicate it. To shift that responsibility to an anthropomorphic God is lazy, irresponsible, and wrong.

To summarize my argument, I offer the following:

  1. Natural misfortune and moral evil are not equivalent to one another.
  2. Natural misfortune is a tragic, but necessary part of existence.
  3. Human moral evil is the responsibility of human beings.

In the final analysis, it can be seen that the problem of evil poses no threat to the pantheist. I recognize that natural disasters will and should occur; after all, the Earth is evolving too, and cannot be subject to our convenience. I accept the necessity of disease and death, they clear away the old and stagnant while making room for the new and vibrant. Most importantly though, I take full responsibility for my own behavior and the care of my fellow human being, which places accountability for the existence of evil in my hands, right where it belongs.

"As nearly as I can concentrate on the question today, I believe I am God; certainly you are, I think we intelligent beings on this planet are all a piece of God, are becoming God." (Gene Roddenberry)

Bibliography (web sites accurate to 1997)

Please note that many of the web sites below may now be linked to:

  1. Aquinas. http://members.aol.com/heraklit1/aquinas.htm
  2. “Bhagavad Gita.” http://members.aol.com/heraklit1/gita.htm
  3. Chuang. http://members.aol.com/heraklit1/chuang.htm
  4. Eckhart. http://members.aol.com/heraklit1/eckhart.htm
  5. Einstein. http://members.aol.com/heraklit1/einstein.htm
  6. Emerson. http://members.aol.com/heraklit1/emerson.htm
  7. Gnostics.” http://members.aol.com/heraklit1/gnostic.htm
  8. “Gospel Roots of Christian Pantheism.”http://members.aol.com/heraklit1/gospel.htm
  9. “Greek Materialists: Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes.”
  10. Harrison, Paul. “Pantheism: a history. Index page.”
  11. Hegel. http://members.aol.com/heraklit1/hegel.htm
  12. Heraclitus. http://members.aol.com/heraklit1/heraklit.htm
  13. Hildegard Von Bingen. http://members.aol.com/heraklit1/hildgard.htm
  14. Hume, David. “The Argument From Evil.” Philosophy of Religion. Ed. Louis P. Pojman. California: Wadsworth, 1994. 167-172.
  15. Ibn al-’Arabi. http://members.aol.com/keraklit1/ibnarabi.htm
  16. Lao Tsu. http://members.aol.com/heraklit1/laotsu.htm
  17. Mackie, J.L. “Evil and Omnipotence.” Philosophy of Religion. Ed. Louis P. Pojman. California: Wadsworth, 1994. 185-193.
  18. Roddenberry. http://members.aol.com/heraklit1/startrek.htm