Read AN EXAMINATION OF THEISM: CHAPTER IX of Theism / Atheism‚ The Great Alternative, free online book, by Chapman Cohen, on


The problem of how to harmonise the existence of a God as believers picture him to be with a world such as experience discloses, is as old as theology. And the problem will disappear only when theology is given up as an aggregate of question begging words and gratuitous hypotheses based upon a foundation of primitive ignorance and inherited delusion. For the majority of those questions that are properly called theological are not of the necessary order. Questions such as those connected with the mutations of matter, the development of life, the growth of society, or the nature and clash of human passions cannot be evaded. They are present in the facts themselves. But the problems of theology are self-created; they arise out of certain beliefs, and have no existence apart from those beliefs. They are the joint product of beliefs which are wholly useless, in conflict with facts with which they cannot be squared.

What is known as “The Problem of Evil” is an apt illustration of the truth of what has been said. Here there is created a problem which is not alone quite gratuitous, but it succeeds in inverting the real question at issue. For unless we accept the world as the product of a good and wise God, there is no problem of evil for us to explain. The problem of evil is, given such a deity, how to account for the existence of evil, or, if it exists, how account for its continuance. The problem is created by the theory. Dismiss the theory and no problem is left. And it is in line with what is done in other directions, that, having created the difficulty, the theist should present it to the non-theist as one of the questions that he must answer.

In reality there is no problem of evil in connection with ethics. The ethical problem is not the existence of evil, but the emergence of good; not, that is, why do men do wrong, but why do they do right. That life should cease to be is not at all wonderful, but that with so many potential dangers around the organism, the actions of living beings should become so automatically adapted to their surroundings as to shun the actions which destroy life, and perform such actions as maintain it at least, to such an extent as secures the preservation of the species may well arouse surprise and give birth to enquiry. So with the question of evil and suffering in the world. That these exist is undeniable, but the enquiry they suggest is only on all fours with the enquiry suggested by any other natural fact, while the ethical problem centres, not around the existence of wrong action, but around the emergence of right conduct. It is the evolution of happiness that forms the kernel of the ethical problem, not the evolution of pain.

The earlier form of the Christian apologetic took the form of a dualistic theory of the world. There were two powers, God and the devil, and between them they shared the responsibility for all good and evil. So far, good. But this was clearly saving the goodness of God at the expense of his omnipotence. Moreover, if God was to be thought of as the creator of the universe, the theory, as Mill said, paid him the doubtful compliment of making him the creator of Satan, and, therefore, the creator of evil once removed. Or, if not, God and the devil were left as rival monarchs quarrelling over a territory that appeared to exist apart from and independent of either.

But nowadays the devil has gone out of fashion. Very few of the clergy ever mention him, and although an attempt was made to reinstate him some years ago by the author of “Evil and Evolution,” the endeavour was a failure. And bereft of the convenient scapegoat, the devil, the present day theist is compelled to attempt an apology for evil that will appeal to natural and verifiable facts for confirmation, or which must, at least, not be in conflict with them. If theism is to stand, a place and a meaning must be found for the evil in the world, and found in such a way that it either relieves God of the responsibility for its existence or its being can be shown to harmonise with his assumed character. It is no longer possible to fall back on Paul’s position that the potter is at liberty to doom one pot to honour and the other to dishonour. The moral responsibility for the kind of pots he turns out cannot be so easily evaded. As Professor Sorley says, “If ethical theism is to stand, the evil in the world cannot be referred to God in the same way as the good is referred to him.” Somehow, he must be relieved of the responsibility for its existence, or a purpose for it must be found.

Now, curiously enough, modern theists hover between the two positions. Professor Sorley, representing one position, says that the only way to avoid referring evil to God is by “the postulate of human freedom.” ("Moral Values and the Idea of God,” .) This is also the way out adopted by Canon Green in “The Problem of Evil,” and it turns upon a mere play on words. Thus, Canon Green says that there is one thing God could not do. “He could not force him to be good, i.e., to choose virtue freely, for the idea of forcing a free being to choose involves a contradiction.” And Professor Sorley says more elaborately that “things occur in the universe which are not due to God’s will, although they must have happened with his permission ... a higher range of power and perfection is shown in the creation of free beings than in the creation of beings whose every thought and action are pre-determined by their Creator,” and while he admits there is limitations to man’s power of choice, he holds that there is one form of choice that is always there, and that is the choice of good and evil. ("Moral Values and the Idea of God,” p. 469-70.)

In all this one can see little more than verbal confusion. To commence with Canon Green, which will also cover much that Prof. Sorley says on the same point. When we are told man must choose virtue freely in order that what he does shall partake of the character of morality, it is plain that he is using the word “forced” in two senses. In the one sense force may mean no more than a determinant. Thus we may say that our sympathies force us to act in such and such a way. Or the religious man may say that the love of God forces him to act in such and such a manner. Force here means any consideration that will lead to action, and no one can object to its use in this sense.

A second meaning of force is that of compulsion from without, as when a strong man gets hold of a weak one and by exertion of physical strength compels him to do something that he is disinclined to do, or when one forces another by threat of punishment. In this latter sense no one dreams of harmonising force with moral action. Neither law nor common sense does so. But compulsion in the sense of one’s actions being forced by a mental or moral disposition no one outside an asylum would dispute. And what Canon Green does is to ask us to reject the idea of a moral action being forced, in the sense of external compulsion, and then uses it in the sense of an absence of dispositions that will lead to certain courses of conduct.

It is probable that the Canon would reject this interpretation of his statement, but if it does not mean this, then his argument is unintelligible. For if it is admitted that what man does is the product of his mental or moral dispositions, in other words, of his nature, and if, as is undeniable, the nature with which he fronts the world is the product of heredity and environment, he would no more be “forced” to do good had God given him impulses strong enough to overcome all tendency to evil than he is now when his impulses come to him from his ancestors and his general social heredity.

All that is implied in a moral act is free choice. But choice is free, not when it is independent of organic promptings; that is absurd; but when those organic promptings are allowed to find expression. There is no other rational meaning to “choice” than this. Choice does not tell us how it is determined, on that point it can say nothing, any more than a child can say why it chooses sugar in preference to cayenne pepper. Its choice, we say, is determined by its taste. And its taste is determined by ? To answer that question we must call in the chemist and the physiologist, and they probably will tell us why our choice moves in one direction rather than in another.

When men like Canon Green talk of the morality of an action being dependent upon our choice between right and wrong, what they probably have in their minds is the perception of right and wrong. For we may perceive the possibility of one course while we are performing another. But the power of choice is clearly limited. A man cannot choose to be a mathematician, however much he may see the desirability of becoming one. And many a man may in the moral sphere see the advisability of his being different in character from what he is, but may altogether lack the capacity of becoming such. And the power of choice differs not only with each individual, but with the same individual at different times. Finally, the more fixed the character of the individual the less conscious he is of choice, or of a sense of freedom to do differently from what he actually does, and as this applies with equal force to character, whether it be good or bad, we reach, finally, the suicidal position that the more fundamentally moral a man becomes, the less moral he is.

Now seeing that all our educational processes aim at making the good character, so to speak, automatic, that is, to quite fill the mind with worthy motives and wise power of choice, and seeing also that a character is good so far as this is done, will some one explain in what way moral character would have suffered had God so made man that he would have had intelligence enough to always choose the good and reject the bad? For, be it noted, the apology put forward for the present state of affairs is that man is in a state of probation, he is passing through a course of moral discipline, and it is essential that he should experience the possibility to do wrong, and even to occasionally do the wrong. And the end of the process of tuition is, what? The production of a perfect being in whom there shall not be a proneness to do wrong, to whose purified moral nature wrong doing shall be quite foreign. That is to say that we are to reach as a result of this long roundabout process, with all its waste and bungling, just what might have been established at the beginning. For either the perfect moral being is without the quality which we have just been assured is essential to morality, or the whole argument is reduced to nonsense.

For it is impossible to assume that the bad man chooses to be bad with a full perception of the consequences of his actions, and at the same time with the power to do otherwise. We all agree that the right choice is ultimately a wise choice, and that if we could all trace out the consequences of all we do, we should realise that it was to our real interest to act rightly. And if that is admitted, it follows that the “choice” to do evil is the product of short-sightedness, or of some defect of temperament which prevents our standing up against the temptations of the moment. And our ethical education is mainly directed to making good this defect in our make up. But suppose that amount of wisdom or strength had been an endowment of our nature from the outset, is there any conceivable way in which we should have been the worse for it? For even as it is there are some people who do make a fairly wise and right choice, and whose high-water mark of excellence is not reached through the crime and folly of the revival meeting convert. Are they the worse because they have never yielded to evil? Is the naturally good man really a less worthy character than the one whose comparative goodness is only reached through and after a lengthy course of evil living? And if not, in what way would the race have been worsened had we all been as fortunately circumstanced? If it was really God’s purpose to have a race of men and women who should be both good and wise, it remains for the theist to show in what way the plan would not have been as well served by making them at once with a sufficiency of intelligence to act in the real interests of themselves and of all around them.

Coming closer to earth the theist attempts to find a justification for the existing order of things by finding a use for pain and suffering in their educational influence on human nature, and in the impossibility of altering for the better the consequences of natural law.

The real question at issue, says one of the most eloquent of modern theists, the late Dr. Martineau, is “whether the laws of which complaint is made work such harm that they ought never to have been enacted; or whether, in spite of occasional disasters in their path, the sentient existence of which they are the conditions has in its history a vast excess of blessing.” (Study of Religion II., .) And Canon Green, who uses some of Dr. Martineau’s ideas without the latter’s eloquence or power of reasoning, asks, “If God were to say, ’You condemn me for this suffering! Well, take my creative power and re-create the world to please yourself and to suit your own sense of justice and mercy’” could we think out a world that should be better than this one? (Problem of Evil, .)

Now both these methods of raising the question and they are representative of a whole group serve but to confuse the issue. For no one denies that some benefit may result from the present cosmical structure. But that does not touch the complaint that the structure is not such as fits in with the existence of a presiding intelligence such as theism asks us to accept. And the question of Canon Green’s whether we could turn out a better universe than the one that actually exists, is wide of the mark also. If I purchase a motor car as the work of a genius in car-building, and find when I get my purchase home that it cannot be made to run, it does not destroy the justice of my complaint to ask whether I could build a better one or not. The important thing is that the car is not what it should be, and judging by the product the builder is not what he is represented to be either. Dr. Martineau was far too keen a controversialist to adopt Canon Green’s foolish retort, but he does seek to parry the force of the atheist criticism by saying that God “if once he commits his will to any determinate method, and for the realisation of his ends selects and institutes a scheme of instrumental rules, he thereby shuts the door on a thousand things that might have been done before.” (Study, . To that one may reply, so much the worse for his judgment; while if the fact of his having once adopted a “determinate method” caused him to resolve to stick to it, in spite of its consequences in practice, and irrespective of the beneficial results that might have followed its modification, we can only regret that the deity was not acquainted with Emerson’s opinion that “a foolish consistency is the bugbear of little minds.” Even what is said to be the greatest mind of all might easily have benefited from the warning.

Canon Green tries another line of reply, which is not in the least more convincing. He pictures to us a father who, by misappropriating trust funds, brings disgrace to the whole of his family. The mother is driven to despair and drink. The sister dies for want of food, the brother finds his career ruined. The disaster is complete, and Canon Green says it is inevitable because we cannot have a world in which the relations of parents and children exist without having them suffer from each other’s faults. So far as the present world goes that is true. But it is certainly a strange reply to the complaint that an arrangement is unjust to say that as the injustice results from the arrangement, therefore, we have no cause for complaint. And that we are unable to make a better world is beside the mark. Between the perception of an injustice, and the ability to remove it there is a world of difference, and although we may be unable to remedy the defect the defect remains.

But, indeed, human nature does try to produce a world in which such happenings as those depicted shall either not occur or their consequences shall be reduced to a minimum. We do not hang a son for his parents’ crime, nor do humane people blame children for the shortcomings of their parents. To some extent we try to correct the consequences that follow, and even though the endeavour be futile, that is in itself an indictment of the existing order. Man does at least try to correct the injustices his God is said to have created.

It is overlooked also that the evils which follow from wrong actions are not confined to those immediately connected, and who may conceivably have their resentment to some extent dulled, if not lessened, by that fact. People in no way connected, and who can have no perception of the cause of their suffering, who are unconscious of everything, save the one fact that they are suffering, feel its consequences. When a great war spreads devastation all over the world, can it be said that any useful purpose is served by the sufferings of millions who are not in the slightest degree aware of the cause of their agony? When a shady financial operation brings an innocent man to ruin, and effects all the consequences which Canon Green imagines resulting from the defaulting parent, how can it be said that the catastrophe admits of ethical justification? In many cases the thought of the injury experienced acts itself as a fresh cause of degradation. It creates a rankling and a bitterness which depresses and inhibits the power to struggle, unless it be the desire to struggle for revenge against a condition of things of which the evil results are only too apparent. People are not merely punished for the evil they do; they are punished for the evil that others do, and the punishment, so far as we can see, bears no observable relation to the wrong done. There is no ethical relation between actions and consequences. Not alone is the incidence of an action dependent upon personal qualities some will suffer more from having accidentally told an untruth than others will suffer from having committed gross and deliberate fraud but nature is absolutely careless of whether what I do is motived by good or bad intentions. If I get a wetting through going out to help some one in distress, the consequences will be exactly the same as though I had got wet going out to commit a burglary or a murder. And when Dr. Martineau talks of the “natural penalties for guilt,” and adds that “sin being there, it would be simply monstrous that there should be no suffering and would fully justify the despair which now raises its sickly cry of complaint against the retributory wretchedness of human transgression” (Study II., , the reply is that there are no such things as “natural penalties for guilt.” There are only consequences of actions, and they are the same whatever be the moral quality of the actions performed. In the same way that nature may in the course of an earthquake destroy the homes of a dozen worthy families and leave a gambling hell untouched, so it will in other directions punish where a man, from good intentions, places himself in the path of punishment, and refrain from afflicting one whose selfishness or greed has guarded him against attack. There are natural consequences of actions, there are no natural penalties for guilt, and there are no natural rewards for innocence. Rewards and penalties are the creation of man, and it is only in the form of a figure of speech that we can apply them to nature.

It is equally idle to speak of pain as a form of discipline. Professor Sorley says that if the pain in the world can be turned to the increase of goodness, then its existence offers no insuperable objection to “the ethical view of reality.” So Dr. Martineau says that suffering is “the moral discipline” through which our nature arrives at its “true elevation.” It is needless to multiply quotations; such statements are the commonplaces of theistic controversy, and almost any book that one cares to pick up will supply further illustrations, if they be required. None can reject them, because no theist can afford to candidly admit that the world we know offers no justification for his belief. The belief in the goodness of God, as Canon Green says, is a belief that is “absolutely fundamental to all religion,” and if the facts as we see them do not support the belief, some apology must be found that will marry the theory to the fact.

Nevertheless, the belief in the disciplinary power of pain or suffering is, if not quite illusory, so nearly so that it is useless for the purpose for which it is brought forward. In the first place, it does not require very profound study to see that whatever are the lessons taught by suffering they are seldom proportionate to the conduct which cause them, nor do those who suffer reap the alleged disciplinary benefit of their suffering. Let us take a common case. A mother goes out and leaves a child near an unguarded fire. The mother returns to find the child burned to death. Where is the discipline here? Certainly the child cannot have gained any. But there is, of course, the mother. The mother has learned such a lesson that she will never forget it, and will never again commit the same blunder. There we have it. A child is allowed to die by a hideously cruel death in order that a mother may learn a lesson in carefulness. It is good to learn from other sources that God’s ways are not our ways. A man who tried to imitate them, and who burned one of his children in order to teach its mother how to look after the rest, would soon find himself in the criminal court, or in an asylum. But what would be insanity or criminal cruelty in the case of man, becomes, in the alembic of religious apologetic, goodness and wisdom in God.

The theory that it is the function of pain to elevate and to discipline is simply not true. One has only to look to see that in countless cases the effect of pain is disaster. The world’s best work is not born of pain but of pleasure. There is no pain and no suffering, there is hardly even toil, in the work of a genius. In all the higher walks of music, of art, of literature, the work is perfect in proportion as the worker finds himself in agreeable and pleasant surroundings. And what is true of the higher aspect of art is true also of life in general. Life may be lived in spite of pain, as good work may be done in spite of discouraging circumstances, but one might as well talk of a plant flourishing because of poor soil, or sharp frosts, as to speak of life becoming better because of pain.

The normal function of pain is to depress, that of pleasure is to heighten. As Spencer said, every pain lowers the tide of life; every pleasure raises the tide of life. It is one of the commonest of sights to see those suffering from illness becoming more self-centred, less careful of others, and to see the disintegrating consequences of disease on character. Here and there one may find a character that has had its rough edges smoothed down by suffering, but for every case of that kind one may find a score of an opposite order. It is not the underfed, badly clothed, neglected child that is likely to make the best citizen, but the one that has the best chance of developing itself in healthy surroundings. And it is a curious commentary, if it were true, to argue that a good and wise God so arranged things that pain and suffering, even undeserved suffering, should be the main way for the development of character.

A strange but not uncommon argument is used by Canon Green in dealing with the suffering incidental to the various disasters that overtake mankind from time to time. Suffering, he says, has a certain element of martyrdom about it. Even evils due to human greed and carelessness bring some benefit in their train. Thus, apropos of the Titanic disaster:

Every such disaster tends to produce some improvement for future generations. Shipowners are forced to supply more boats, wireless instalment is required on all ships; the idle rich are led to think less of saving useless time and more of saving lives, their own and those of men in the stokeholds. In a sense those who perish may be said to be unwilling martyrs who by their deaths purchase some advantage for others. It will be said that it is a great price to pay for a small advantage, and one which might have been cheaply gained in some other ways. That is so. But so too the ways of nature are cruel. So many seeds must be sown, so many young animals or birds or fishes born, so many must be trampled out of existence, that only the best may survive. (Problem of Evil; p. 163-4).

That certainly puts all the owners of slum property, all the grasping shipowners, all those who batten and fatten on other people’s welfare in a most favourable light. We have been thinking them almost criminals when they were in reality public benefactors. They lead to many improvements, and even though the improvements come too late to benefit those who suffer from the evils, yet they do come sometimes. Certainly it might give some comfort if the sufferers knew what it was they were being sacrificed for, and that others would be benefited by their death. But they do not, and we are therefore bound to conclude that whatever satisfaction is felt is by those who survive. When a Titanic sinks it must be the people on shore who see the element of goodness in it since it makes travelling easier for them. And the kindness developed in one who can excuse the brutalities of nature because it brings some benefit to himself is of a rather startling nature.

The fundamental fault in all reasoning of this order lies in the assumption that pain ceases to be pain if it can be shown to bring good to some one. But that it not so. Pleasure and pain are not quantitative things, increments of which can be carried on from generation to generation and a balance struck at the end, much as one strikes a balance between the profits and losses of a year’s trading. All suffering and all enjoyment are of necessity personal. Suffering is not increased by extending it over a million instances. There was not more pain because a larger number happened to be be killed in the European war than are killed in a borderland skirmish. There were a larger number of people involved in the one case than in the other, but that is all. Multiplying the number of cases makes a greater appeal to a sluggish imagination, but it adds nothing substantial to the fact. Feeling, whether it be pleasant or painful, is a matter of individual experience, and that being so it is not the number of people who suffer through no fault of their own, and, so far as one can see, without any benefit proportionate to the suffering experienced, but the fact of there being this suffering at all. That is the point the theist must face; it is the one point he systematically avoids.

Another form of the same argument meets us in the familiar plea that bodily pain “sounds the alarm bell of disease in time for its removal.” In some sense it may be admitted that a painful feeling, in certain circumstances, does act as a warning that persistence will lead to disaster. But it is not universally true in the sense and in the degree that is needed to justify the argument, and it is a “warning” out of all proportion to the danger faced. In the first place, pain cannot be a warning against disease, it can only be an indication of its presence. It does not warn us against the dangers of a contemplated course of conduct, nor can it tell us what conduct has led to the pain experienced. And in the case of contagious diseases, what amount of warning is there given? In some case the victim is stricken and is dead in so short a time as not to know with what it is he has been afflicted, and certainly without any chance of being warned. What warning is there in the case of a violent poison? Or what relation is there between pains felt and dangers run? The most dangerous diseases may have painless beginnings, and be well rooted in the system before the victim is driven by discomfort to seek medical advice. On the other hand, a corn or a toothache, neither of them very deadly ailments, create pain out of all proportion to their gravity. And if we take the case of excessive cold we have here an instance where instead of pain acting as a warning, the danger just acts as an anæsthetic. The victim is oppressed by drowsiness, sinks into insensibility, finally death. Here it is not the approach of death that is painful, but the return to life, the pain of restoring circulation being very severe indeed.

Fear, which may be classed as a species of pain, appears to act, in the majority of instances, as an enemy, rather than as a friend to the animal experiencing it. Thus Professor Mosso points out that in the animal organism there exists a number of harmful reactions that increase in number the graver the peril becomes. We have all read of the “fascination” of the bird by the serpent, and there are other animals that in the presence of an enemy become so palsied with fear as to become incapable of defence, even that of flight. And with man it is not as the danger becomes most acute that his nerves become steadier and his courage firmer. The opposite is probably more often the case. In all these cases it is as though nature had lured the animal or man into a position of grave danger, and then does its best to divest him of adequate means of defence against it.

Common sense revolts against the doctrine that pain is a good thing, and the fact of this is everywhere seen in the attempt of man to get rid of it. No one trusts it as a sure warning against disease, no one turns to it as a means of purifying character. All these pleas are the mere platitudes of a religious apologetic trying to harmonise a primitive theory of things with a larger knowledge and a more developed moral sense. Pain and suffering in the world remain facts whether we believe in the existence of a God or not, but we are at least freed from the paralysing horror of the belief that all the suffering and pain in nature is part of a plan. If man realised all that that belief involved it might indeed rob his mind of all strength to struggle against the forces that make for his destruction. Fortunately no race of people could act upon the logical implications of the theistic theory and maintain its existence. In practice, as well as in theory, theism has had to come to terms with facts. And now the series of adjustments have almost reached their end. The belief in God has been traced to its origin, and we know it to have issued in an altogether discredited view of the world and of man. We know that man does not discover God, he invents him, and an invention is properly discarded when a better instrument is forthcoming. To-day the hypothesis of God stands in just the same relation to the better life of to-day as the fire drill of the savage does to the modern method of obtaining a light. The belief in God may continue awhile in virtue of the lack of intelligence of some, of the carelessness of others, and of the conservative character of the mass. But no amount of apologising can make up for the absence of genuine knowledge, nor can the flow of the finest eloquence do aught but clothe in regal raiment the body of a corpse.