At this stage theists smell The Problem of Evil, and drag out a creaky old wheelbarrow with which to bring forth the ‘free will defence’ once more. Apparently God – presumably not the predetermining God preferred by austere Lutherans, Calvinists, and ‘modern’ evangelicals – cannot educate us conclusively about right and wrong today, just as He cannot set us straight about His existence. If He did He would obviously violate our freedom, says the suddenly “oh so philosophical” theist. (“Err, would He? Golly, would He really?” I stammer – or at least I might were I an awkward spectacled choirboy in the 1950s – “Yees, by Jove, of course He would young man!” booms the Vicar, who looks very like Steven Fry and who prefers to drown out theological problems with his loud voice rather than risk actually having to think about them.)
Now, if we could might we not say “go on, take our freedom – for pity’s sake – if that means you can put an end to the suffering of just one innocent child in return”? And yet such a trade would be based on a false dichotomy, as if it were self-evident that we can have freedom with ignorance and suffering, or no freedom at all. Forgive me, it is possible to intervene to increase freedom, to educate and empower by showing people how (rather than what) to think. We manage it all the time, in schools, in prisons, and yes, in Churches. Richard Carrier has made the point well:
If all this is good for us, even morally obligatory, and is not a “violation” of the free will of evil doers, it is absurd to say it is wrong for a god to do it, that it violates free will only when he does it but not when we do it.
“Absurd”, and just lame. Ah well, we (who decline the fashionable but ungrounded deference to mass unreason) can, without qualms, fall back on more mirthful attempts to explain why a Manifold Presence might appear so woefully absent. I’d suggest a sick note next time: perhaps an almighty bought of feverishness (or manic depression) could explain all this wavering between the extremes of judgement, mercy, and nothing at all? Another option would be to admit to a more permanent insufficiency: I have in mind Dickensian images of a well-meaning incompetent (the Ultimate Mr Pickwick), or a cruel schoolmaster who is chillingly unmoved by the suffering of the children in his ‘care’ (the Uttermost Mr Creakle). Unfortunately implicit in the Name “God” is the idea that He made Heaven and Earth, and high achievers do find it hard to admit weakness, don’t they?