It problably is a matter of fact that people are religious as well as non-religious or even anti-religious since the beginning of human mankind.
For some reason one often faces the opinion that religion, that to be religious, is primitive, intellectually not very ambitious, if somehow intellectually ambitious at all. This comports with the estimate of the earliest accessible religious texts, thus of early religious life, as dumb and brutalized. But this isn’t true, it’s a primitive arrogance. Already in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh or in the Israelite Book of Job, those thousand-of-years old ancient texts, we witness sensitive and deep shocks of (still? how?) religious people in view of maladies and the evil in the world. How longer can they believe in God? As a reader of those text one is inclined to be conjointly shocked, to feel with them. As I will argue, not necessarily because one shares (the same) belief with them.
Those texts take an approach to this experience and question that isn’t different to those of Fjodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov or Albert Camus’ The Plague. Those texts are full of concernment.
There is another approach, namely the intellectualistic one. With regard to theistic religions the question is, whether there is an absolute good, almighty, and all-knowing Godwhen there is the evil, physical as well as moral maladies. The intellectual, or intellectualizing, defence of this God in face of physical and moral maladies are the different forms of what is called theodicy.
However, in course of time, I got dissatisfied with and dismissive of this approach. In my discretion it doesn’t do justice neither to our moral relationships to people nor to what may be called religious experience.
Because first of all it uncloses the non-compounding suspicion that the defence of this God is in the same breath a justification of maladies. This inevitably lies in the nature of the attempt to answer this challenge.
With this hangs together that neither the attacks nor the defences practically or morally help the victims. Which is to say, how can I lament or search for consolation if the malady that befell me has some higher, general sense or in principle none at all? Furthermore, I cannot expect healing, rectification, rescission and the like from (accepting) those answers.
Apart from this, those attacks as well as the defences take on heavily a rationalistic, metaphysical, academical strain. Contrariwise I think that moral life as well as what one may call religious experience are essentially something different. (That doesn’t rule out the possibility that there may be perhaps moral or religious positions that are rationalistic, metaphysical, and academical. Anyway, they are marginal, because they are comprehensible only for few people.Furthermore, I won’t suppress the fact that there are non-intellectuals who yet intellectualize in generalizing thoughts like the following: in suffering one comes, feels, closer to God; or, how else to think about human freedom.)
Finally some of the grave a-religious or anti-religious positions articulate an absolutely hopeless view. Schopenhauer’s glib, somehow witty response to the thesis that evil is lack of good, namely that good is lack of evil, puts it in a nutshell. Just let me exemplarily cite Hobbes’ and Freud’s image of humanity. People are fundamentally evil and society is just there for self-protection.
But what does the physical as well as the moral malady demands from us? In the first place we are practically challenged, namely to counteract the evil. However, asking for causes and origins won’t solve any problem. For example, it is the concern of utilitarism to justify and promote actions having appreciative effects. Existential approaches like those of Foucault or Derrida are heading for doing justice to the single human being. And there are moral approaches many religious people follow that are oriented towards a vision of a just and good community and society.
However, one could object, that this is an immunization to the question of evil.
First of all I’m of the opinion that the question for causes and origins is practically absolutely irrelevant. In case it is of practical interest, then only in a secondary, derivative sense. Because in this case it’s a matter of solving a problem. With regard to this no claim for a correct understanding is necessary. Thus, it is more important to ask what is bad and how to deal with it.
Hence, the question of the relation between a theistic God and the fact of evil seems to be in effect a moral question. Why should I treat people good, why should I help people and support victims, although I could act otherwise and possibly could profit from this?
But, therewith, is the question of the relation between God and evil obsolete?
The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Book of Job, Dostoyevsky’s Karamazov, or Camus’ Plague, they all display fiercely, paralyzingly, impressively, and horribly how sorely the experience of evil can afflict a religious person. The point here is that the belief in a theistic God is connected to him intervening in world affairs. As soon as this becomes dubious one seems to be left alone as an actor. Then the question raises, whether I need God to act.
Dostoyevsky’s infamous answer in The Brothers Karamazov and Demons is that anything is allowed if there is no God. Slavoj Žižek, in his Violence, counters this with the statement that anything is allowed if there is a God. Maybe one of the most famous examples is the Old Testament story of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac after being told so by God to do. (A story being an inspiration for Mohammed Atta.) This is a story religious people as well as people interested in religion got something out of. Kierkegaard, Rosenzweig, Derrida, or Putnam – just to name a few. Otherwise put, religion and (the justification of) violence is a phenomenon that cannot be denied. But is also a phenomenon, as controversial as it is, that strikes a nerve concerning morality. The claim to merely and exclusively evaluate human conduct morally, and the claim to only solve human conflicts morally, is moralizing. Or, as Stanley Cavell puts it, morality is an autonomous sphere. However, there are also excellent positions we are not able to determine. But we cannot and don’t want to dismiss them too. He names Kierkegaard and Nietzsche as two examples.