Theodicy and Secularism

Theodicy is a philosophy organized and documented by Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430CE). Theodicy addresses specifically the question: “If God is good, loves all things and created all things, why is there evil in the world? Either God also created evil and therefore is not good and loving, or God does not exist.” Theodicy is a defense of God’s perfection in light of the existence of evil.

The question itself was asked as early as Plato and was posited as a reason for nominalism[1] by William of Occam, famous for Occam’s Razor. Bertram Russell, a famous British agnostic, mathematical theorist and inquisitor at large, presented the following thought experiment in an article titled, “Is there a God?”

“If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes.

But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”

“The existence of this teapot cannot be disproved. We can look and scan the skies almost for eternity, and it may always just be the case that it wasn’t in the place we looked – there may be another spot we’ve overlooked, or it may have moved while we were looking. However, given the absurd nature of the specific example, the teapot, we would rightly infer that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Russell’s audacity in the thought experiment was to question why people don’t like to apply the same, sound, logic … to the existence of any particular deity; there is no difference in the evidence base provided, therefore there is no reason to assume a God and not a celestial teapot.[2]

Theodicy addresses these logical challenges to deism – the belief in a supreme god. Saint Augustine, simply, said that God is perfectly good. It was God who created the world and the universe out of nothing and that evil is a byproduct of humanity’s sin. Evil is the punishment for original sin[3]. Augustine states that continued sin is created by human free will, an attribute made possible by eating fruit from the tree of knowledge. God remains whole and not responsible for sin and suffering.

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During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, secularism[4] emerged as a broadly accepted philosophy. Secularism is different than agnostic or atheistic philosophies which require, more or less, theistic presumptions. Secularism has ethics derived from humanism, pragmatism, and anthropological reasoning. Secularism is a self-contained life experience where the existence or non-existence of God does not matter.

Augustine (and many other theologians) would consider secularism sin. In religious context, God is the source of goodness and love – elements that are not necessary in secularism. Secularism is founded in vanity and self aggrandizement. The original question about the existence of God is replaced by the question, “What is good?” Humans tend to answer this question in terms of convenience and privilege for the self, the community or the nation – whatever works best – especially for the individual.

It is obvious already that great questions confront humanity in the twenty-first century. Human culture is yanked back and forth by new technologies, new scientific frontiers, abuse of the planet, power shifts in national supremacy, and even the existence of humanity itself. Some will argue that only secularism will allow the best decisions to be made in the future; others will argue that, despite the vagaries of the future, the belief in a superior force – one that predefines what is good – is our only rudder.

We shall see.

Ancient Mariner

  1. [1] Oxford Dictionary: “the doctrine that universals or general ideas are mere names without any corresponding reality, and that only particular objects exist; properties, numbers, and sets are thought of as merely features of the way of considering the things that exist. Important in medieval scholastic thought, nominalism is associated particularly with William of Occam. Often contrasted with realism.


[3] Old Testament, Genesis 3.

[4] Merriam –Webster Secularism: indifference to or rejection of religion and religious considerations.

2 thoughts on “Theodicy and Secularism

  1. I thought it was interesting that the Dalai Lama said that we cannot count on religion as the basis for our ethics, since the people of the world cannot agree on one religion–and many don’t believe in any religion at all. (This was in the UN World Happiness Report.) The Dalai Lama said that we need a secular ethics. The World Happiness Report suggested a secular ethics based on the Greatest Happiness Principle. I think the UN has made a great start in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We have the plan already in place, if only we would follow it. Ha! Isn’t that always the problem!

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