Monday, 20 January 2014

David Silvester and the problem of evil

David Silvester, the (now ex-)UKIP councillor has inadvertently added to the gaiety of the nation with his idiosyncratic notion that same-sex marriage causes flooding (much ensuing hilarity in the Twittersphere and the Mash). Silvester's insecurity-driven need to establish his own status by identifying and attacking an out group is a necessary, but not sufficient explanation for his outburst.

As Tom Holland mentioned on the radio this morning, theology filled in the gaps. If the existence of a deity who is all-powerful and all-wise, but who also refrains from preventing disaster and suffering is central to your world view, then you have to carry out some mental gymnastics to reconcile his goodness and all-powerfulness with the various disasters afflicting the world. One way to reconcile God's loving omnipotence with his apparent indifference is to conclude that, since God can do no wrong, anybody who falls victim to an Act of God must clearly have deserved it.

Which at least has a sort of internal logic although, as Holland pointed out, Silvester failed to explain why God chose to smite Cornwall with His watery wrath, but spare Old Compton Street.

This poses something of a problem for the majority of nicer, saner theists out there. The Silvesters of this world can at least point to a simple, understandable explanation for life's apparent random unfairness. If you're nicer and more sophisticated, but still hold on to the when-good-deities-do-bad-things model of existence, you're forced into more convoluted mutterings about God moving in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform, which is all well and good, but doesn't provide a narrative which is much simpler, or more satisfying than the non-believer's assumption of an indifferent universe where shit just happens.

I'm more than happy to be living in a time when Silvester's simple-but-wrong explanations are on the lunatic fringe, rather than in the mainstream, but I suspect that it's that loss of that explanatory certainty and simplicity that's partly behind the continuing decline in religious belief in this country.