Theodicy in one witty sentence

Evelyn Waugh’s nastiness is now largely forgotten. But his wisdom isn’t

Some great minds have devoted countless tomes to theodicy, the explanation of how God permits the existence of evil – and some mediocre minds have used such laxity as a target for attacks on faith.

Encapsulating that whole complex argument in a snappy epigram would seem impossible, and so it is.

But Evelyn Waugh made a good fist of it.

A friend of his, Nancy Mitford I believe, remarked that for a Catholic he was a nasty bit of work. “You have no idea,” replied Waugh, “how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic.”

This short sentence invalidates in one fell swoop all the feeble attacks on Christianity launched by the likes of Dawkins, Dennett or Wolpert – or by Hume and other Enlightenment figures before them. They point out all the evil people perpetrated during the Christian centuries and put smug QED smiles on their faces.

Crusades, religious wars, the pyres of the Inquisition are all waved about like so many banners of hateful atheism. Most critics, especially the more strident ones, don’t take the trouble to keep up with the current (or any other) scholarship of such historical events, but that in no way constrains their vituperation.

I could go into historical references at this point, stating, for example, that there were very few properly religious wars in Europe, although there were many like the Thirty Years’ War, where secular appetites were camouflaged with religious slogans.

Or that the Holy Inquisition had no jurisdiction to execute anyone – all it could do was confirm heresy and pass the case on to the secular authorities. Or that in some 400 years of its existence the Inquisition’s rulings led to about 10,000 executions, which score the atheist Soviets could comfortably better in a quiet day.

Or that the crusades were a defensive response to several centuries of incessant Islamic aggression that had almost put paid to Christendom.

However, feeling particularly magnanimous today, I’m willing to accept that people killed during the Christian centuries.

But I’d demand reciprocity from the haters of Christianity: they too should accept the demonstrable fact that people also killed during the pre-Christian centuries, as they did in the pre-pre-Christian centuries. (The earliest sites of human habitation show remnants of numerous busted skulls.)

And, though it pains me to have to state the blindingly obvious, people even killed, and continue to do so, during the enlightened post-Christian centuries, after the West had freed itself from the intolerable bondage of its strangulating religion and begun to live according to high reason and even higher morality.

In fact, more people were killed in the first wholly atheist century, the twentieth, than in all the other centuries of recorded history combined. Yet I’m not even going to insist on a causative relationship between atheism and mass murder on that scale, even though I believe it exists.

My mood being as magnanimous as I claim, all I’m going to say is that, though things like cultures, politics, religions, aesthetics and morality are historically and geographically variable, people’s propensity to commit murder and other hideous acts is constant and universal.

Putting this undeniable fact in the context of comparative creeds, both religious and secular, is a hard task. Anyone undertaking it would have to be able to argue compellingly that this or that creed is better or worse at explaining this murderous proclivity, and more or less effective at containing it.

Christianity explains the evil in human nature by original sin, which leaves all of us in need of redemption. Christ’s death on the cross offered precisely that, while leaving people’s will free to accept or reject it.

Accepting Christ ipso facto entails accepting his ethics. Christ took the morality of Judaism and added some embellishments to found a religion whose God doesn’t just teach love but is love.

Love of not only one’s neighbour but indeed of one’s enemy, charity as the highest virtue, equality of all before God (and, eventually, the law), the transcendent value and dignity of every individual regardless of his status in life – these are the signposts of Christian morality.

Sorry, I left out a critical word: they are the signposts of only Christian morality. None of these concepts would have been intelligible to the pre-Christian world, and you won’t find even a hint of them in the works of the greatest pre-Christian moral thinkers, such as Plato or Aristotle.

Nor do they form a significant part of Islam, what with the Koran containing at least 300 verses that prescribe not loving one’s enemies but slaughtering them wherever they could be found, with the concept of an enemy defined broadly, to include apostates, Jews, Christians and anyone deemed insufficiently reverential to Mohammad.

As to the post-Christian, atheist modernity, it has thrown up veritable death cults of either the national or international variety, where the massacre of infidels is specifically mandated in every founding document. Hence at least the 300 million victims of political democide in the twentieth century alone.

Having accepted mournfully that people are sinners capable of killing one another en masse, and that no religious or secular creed will ever change human nature so thoroughly as to eliminate evil, we must decide which of them is best suited to mitigating it.

It wouldn’t stretch anyone’s credulity to state that Christians do evil in spite of their beliefs, while, say, socialists of either red or brown hue do it because of theirs. The gospel exudes the balm of love, while the founding documents of socialism have blood dripping off every word.

This gets us back to Waugh’s witticism and its intrinsic truth. His faith didn’t prevent him from being nasty, but, had he not had it, he would have been nastier still.

So would the period demarcated by Christendom have been nastier if it hadn’t been Christendom, though it’s hard to say how much nastier. While it may be difficult to establish exactly the number of people killed in this or that ancient war, calculating the number of people saved by this or that hospital, charity or soup kitchen is well nigh impossible.

However, just as it’s easy to believe that many, though alas not all, potential killers were restrained by the religion of love and the authority of the church preaching it, it stands to reason that those institutions saved thousands, possibly millions.

And it’s a matter not of faith but of fact that already the earliest centuries of Christianity introduced charitable institutions that had never existed before.

Thousands upon thousands of hospitals owed their existence to heroic monks and nuns who risked their lives ministering to patients suffering from deadly contagions, such as leprosy or cholera.

Thousands upon thousands of orphans, widows, the old, poor, hungry and infirm received solace and tangible help that, had Jesus never walked the earth, they wouldn’t have received.

For in those days Christians still practised what Jesus preached – not all of them, to be sure, perhaps not even most of them. But enough to make a vital difference. (Even today, Christians are disproportionately represented among volunteers at hospitals, hospices and charities.)

That was the beginning of history’s greatest civilisation that has since been almost eradicated. However, it has left a legacy that sustains the diminishing modicum of civility we still have left.

Many people invoking fundamentals we take for granted, such as human rights, civil liberties, equality before the law, social provisions and so on may not be aware that, without Christianity, none of these would have existed.

Like Evelyn Waugh, we too are a nasty lot. But we’d be – and would have been – much nastier still if for some 1,500 years our ancestors hadn’t had their lives guided by Christian doctrine, with love at its core.

26 thoughts on “Theodicy in one witty sentence”

  1. “None of these concepts would have been intelligible to the pre-Christian world, and you won’t find even a hint of them in the works of the greatest pre-Christian moral thinkers, such as Plato or Aristotle.”

    In Western Europe, maybe, but you will find all of them in Buddhism.

    1. ‘None’ in your last sentence would be nearer the truth than ‘all’. The difference is that, while Christianity seeks salvation of the world, Buddhism seeks salvation from the world. Hence all you really find there is abstract solipsistic mysticism and the resigned conviction that there’s no escaping the evil of this world without escaping this world. Things like civil liberties and human rights are as alien to Buddhists as they were to the Greeks and Romans.

      1. Not true, I’m afraid. Buddhism teaches about the escape from evil, not from the world. Within the Pali Canon, enlightened beings such as the Buddha and the arahants who followed him do not disappear from the world upon enlightenment; they remain in the world. The Four Noble Truths don’t mention “the world”, but suffering and its cessation. The second Noble Truth talks of attachment to things in the world, but there again, so does Jesus:
        “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires…”

        Many times, the Buddha says that the attachment is the problem, not the world itself as an object of possible attachment.

        The terms “civil liberties” and “human rights” would have been as incomprehensible to the early Sangha as they would have been to the writers of the New Testament, but they are just as derivable from the words of the Buddha as they are from Christian teachings. The key within Buddhism is the insistence that all beings have the potential for enlightenment, and all have absolute responsibility for their own conduct and its consequences.

        1. Sorry – I forgot this bit:

          “Hence all you really find there is abstract solipsistic mysticism and the resigned conviction…”

          1) Abstraction. Yes, the Buddha uses abstractions, but also particular examples and injunctions. His language is quire normal in that respect.

          2) There is no solipsism in the Pali Canon; not even as a disputed doctrine. I don’t think there is even a Pali term for it.

          3) Mysticism? Is that a term for something we don’t yet understand? I would like to see evidence that Buddhism is somehow more “mystical” than Christianity.

          4) “Resigned conviction” sounds like the kind of wrong view that was anathematised by the Buddha on many occasions.

        2. Your mentioning Buddhist enlightenment brought back the memory of my book on Tolstoy, who flirted with Buddhism and other Eastern creeds. I had a whole chapter on this, but here’s just a short excerpt:

          “Every religion begets a complex behavioural system. When it has been in existence for millennia, it has entered the genes and begun to interact with people’s personalities in all sorts of intricate ways. The religion absorbs individual behaviour, and individual behaviour absorbs the religion. This is a meandering, millennia-long road, and the only shortcut can come from a revelatory experience or its approximation. That avenue is open to a would-be Christian, but not to a would-be Buddhist (their ‘enlightenment’ relates to the Christian revelation roughly the same way as their reincarnation relates to the Christian resurrection). That is why most westerners who describe themselves as Buddhists really are not. They simply do not like Christianity but, as we do not live by bread alone, feel they ought to like something in its stead. This is negation rather than assertion, and western Buddhists, the J.D. Salingers and Richard Geres of this world, ought to thank Tolstoy for having shown the way.”

          Incidentally, human rights and civil liberties may be derivable from Buddhism, but I struggle to think of a single Buddhist country where they have indeed been so derived. As to the escape bit, it’s true that Buddhists want to escape evil, not this world. But, since they regard the world as evil, that’s a distinction without a difference.

          1. As I said earlier, the Buddha never regarded the world as evil. That’s a misconception as fundamental as saying that God so regards it. To take a plausibly exclusionist position, one needs to be better informed about what one is excluding.

      2. There is one story of Waugh’s nastiness I remember in particular. During WW2, bananas were more or less unknown in Britain.

        Come the peace, Waugh’s family acquired a banana or bananas . As they eyed these scarcely remembered, exotic imports hungrily, relishing the prospect of consuming the same, Waugh covered them in cream and ate the lot in front of them.

        1. Mr Vara: Perhaps ‘evil’ isn’t an accurate word. Perhaps I ought to have found a softer negative adjective to describe how Buddha saw the world. But the adjective would have to be negative. For Buddha wasn’t exactly in love with the world, was he? He was so shocked by the inevitability of disease, old death and death, that he taught escape from the world by some inward-looking practices and a lifetime of asceticism, at the end of which nirvana beckons. Whereas Christ promised salvation of the world, Buddha promised salvation from the world, which hardly betokens affection. Anyway, I wasn’t the one who mentioned Buddhism, and it interests me only inasmuch as it is invoked in opposition to Christianity. I have read a few books about it out of general intellectual curiosity, but I never felt the urge to study the subject in sufficient depth to write books about it – or indeed to read any more books than I already have. But I’m still awaiting a list of Buddhist countries committed to human rights, civil liberties and equality before the law.

          1. Again, the Buddha did not teach escape from the world, but escape from suffering. That’s your misconception, one type of which is usually required in order to support absolutist positions such as exclusionist and universalism. It’s akin to using St. John’s Gospel to support the view that Jesus hated the world.

            You might want to Google legal rights in Sri Lanka. They seem quite committed to Human Rights.

    2. The ugliest aspect of Buddhism is its denial of the reality of the individual human person. It is difficult to measure what human rights or human dignity means in Buddhism if the central goal is to view one’s person and personality as nothing more than an illusion.

      1. Again, the Buddha did not teach escape from the world, but escape from suffering. That’s your misconception, one type of which is usually required in order to support absolutist positions such as exclusionist and universalism. It’s akin to using St. John’s Gospel to support the view that Jesus hated the world.

        You might want to Google legal rights in Sri Lanka. They seem quite committed to Human Rights.

        1. “You might want to Google legal rights in Sri Lanka.”

          I was going to use Sri Lanka as an example of the only place in the world where the Christian and Muslim communities band together for protection from violent Buddhist gangs.

          “They seem quite committed to Human Rights.”

          If that isn’t an ironic statement, I don’t know what is.

      2. There are so many errors in here that it’s difficult to know where to begin. The Buddha never denied the reality of the individual person; the anatta doctrine refers to enduring essences, and is therefore in no sense incompatible with human rights and dignity; and you are wrong about the central goal, which is the cessation of suffering.

  2. The trouble is, today’s anti-theists deny that the Soviet Union was secular, because, get this, Stalin was enrolled at a seminary!

    The Troubles in Northern Ireland are a great example of an essentially secular conflict camouflaged by religious livery. Were people killing and dying over such issues as: Justification by faith alone? The virgin birth? The authority of the pope? Somehow I doubt it.

    1. The Northern Irish conflict is a dire warning of what happens if two ethnicities share the same territory. Almost inevitably there is a struggle for power.

      This seems likely to be won by the Nationalists, the Catholic Gaelic Irish as they like to think of themselves, as they are outbreeding the Scots / English Protestant population. In much the same way as Muslims are likely to take over the rest of Britain, actually.

      1. The census of the year 1900 showed the Catholic population of Northern Ireland about 10 %. By the year 2000 the same Catholic population nearing 50 % of the populace. Change does occur. Takes a long time from the human perspective but it does.

    2. “The Troubles in Northern Ireland are a great example of an essentially secular conflict ”

      The trouble makers of the Troubles did organize themselves along religious lines. You had the street with the homes on one side of the street occupied by solely Protestants and across the street the homes occupied by strictly Catholics. Two groups perhaps their fighting not over religious issues per se but religion still an important factor to identify the warring factions.

      1. My contention is that during The Troubles the labels ‘Roman Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ were little more than ethnic badges. The theological content of both creeds long forgotten. In the end, it was about who got to sit in the big boy chairs.

        I might be wrong, this is simply the impression I get of that conflict.

        1. You got it right, Isaac: organized religion is an appalling way of duping gullible people. Jesus started a church, not a human organization, He taught about the Kingdom of Heaven in the heart of each believer. And His Kingdom is not of this world.

  3. “in some 400 years of its existence the Inquisition’s rulings led to about 10,000 executions, which score the atheist Soviets could comfortably better in a quiet day.”

    I think in the hundred most active years of the Inquisition in Spain the tally was 5,000 executions. 95 % of those arrested released with anathema placed on them. Merely showing the instruments was mostly enough to get a signed confession or an admission of guilt.

    You had a greater chance of being hit by lightning than of being sent to the stake?

  4. You omit one key factor. If you ever challenge an atheist, communist or other general purpose socialist about the number of people killed, they will inevitably respond that the Christians did it because they were Christians, but everybody else did it because there were not real atheists, communists or other general purpose socialists.
    Remember, it is never their fault!

  5. I have just been given a Yr.10 “Christian Studies” class after the quick sacking of a colleague. So I ignored the insipid school programme, and instead used this article to critique with 17 questions. Thanks as I wanted something challenging and meaningful. (OH? I hope you don’t mind?)

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