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The problem of Evil

One answer to the question of why religious thinkers might be pushed towards the view that God is not like us, is the problem of evil. The problem of evil, simply stated goes like this. If God is omniscient (all knowing) then He knows if any evil is about to occur; if He is omnipotent (all powerful) then He has the power to prevent the occurrence of that evil; if He is completely benevolent (all good), then he will not be willing to allow the occurrence of evil. So, under these conditions, no evil should exist in the world. But evil does exist. So, either God is not omniscient, omnipotent or completely benevolent, or what is perhaps equivalent, does not exist at all.

How is this problem related to issues about whether God is like us? The answer is that if God is like us, then our standards of morality apply to God. But a little reflection shows that there are extreme difficulties to this view. It is sometimes sa id that God is a great teacher. Someone loses an arm, and that teaches them a lesson. A family loses a child to an accident in a river, that teaches them a lesson. But, if I were to cut off your arm in order to get you to try to learn philosophy more e ffectively, or kill your sister (or even just allow her to die) in order to teach you a lesson, you would quite rightly regard me as a monster. But these are just the sorts of things which God is supposed to do in order to teach people lessons! So, God must not be like us. The morality by which God operates must be quite different from that which you would use to condemn me for killing your sister in order to teach you a lesson. So, the problem of evil tends to force religious thinkers to say that God (and the ways of God) is mysterious and incomprehensible, and God is not even remotely like us. At this pole, words like 'benevolence,' 'intelligence,' 'love,' and so forth cannot be used of God in the sense in which we use them of each other. It is not at all clear what they mean when applied to God. These terms have, in effect, lost their meaning.

Spinoza and Two Views of Religion

Corresponding to these two views of God, there are two different kinds of religious views. Spinoza firmly rejects one view in favor of the other. He despises the religion based on the near or 'like us' view of God. This idea of God derives from motives of unenlightened self-interest, false values and superstition. This kind of view is exploited by priests and kings to control the credulous populace. It demeans the notion of God. Spinoza's philosophy is an expression of a different kind of religious view, a remote view. In Spinoza's philosophy there is a contrast between human freedom and human bondage. Those in bondage hold the kind of religious view which depends on the near view of God. The philosophy of Spinoza frees one from such a view -- leads one to a kind of freedom from bondage to the passions which goes along with that view, and provides a new and enlightened view of self-interest and a set of values whose pursuit leads one to the highest good. This is salvation through philosophy. This is a contrast between these two kinds of religious views runs through Spinoza's thinking from earliest period to latest.

In the Ethics Spinoza gives his most detailed and sophisticated treatment of this contrast. The Ethics are written in a geometrical form, definitions and axioms and postulates are stated, and then propositions are derived from these assumptions and then from the assumptions plus other propositions. This form of writing is not particularly easy to follow, at least without some preparation. I have tried to find a small portion of the Ethics from which you can get quite a bit of philosophical treasure, although it will require some effort on your part along with some help from me. The part I have chosen is the Appendix to Book I of the Ethics in which, Spinoza have spent Book I giving the arguments for his own position about the nature of God, now spends a few pages refuting the opposing position.


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