When intractable theological disputes get debated in the blogosphere, things can get hairy. This one started when Australian philosopher and writer Russell Blackford discussed the problem of evil on his blog last Thursday, concluding that "the intellectually honest response" to evil in the world, "painful though it may be, is to stop believing in [the traditional Abrahamic] God." The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan--a proud Catholic--fired back, and in the process drew into the fray the atheist crusader and University of Chicago professor of evolution Jerry Coyne.

I have never found the theodicy argument against faith convincing. My own faith teaches me that suffering is part of a fallen creation that lives and dies - how could it not be? But it also teaches me that suffering in itself can be a means of letting go to God, of allowing Him to take over, of recognizing one's own mortality and limits. That to me is not some kind of crutch. It is simply the paradox of the cross."
  • Coyne, Monday: "Translation: "the paradox of the cross" =  "I sure don’t understand, but I’m going to gussy up my ignorance with fancy words." He didn't stop there.

When a tsunami sweeps away a bunch of Indonesians, when a baby dies of leukemia, when Jews were driven into the gas chambers of Auschwitz: how, exactly, are those ways of "letting go to God"?  Or of "recognizing one’s own mortality and limits"?  This is intellectual nonsense.  These are words without meaning. And they are insulting and infuriating to anybody with a brain ..."His faith teaches him" means, of course, that somebody told him that suffering was part of God’s plan, and that’s why he believes it. For someone who’s supposedly an intellectual, Sullivan shows a distressing tendency to accept authority and avoid thinking for himself.

"How could it not be?" Easy, if there’s no God.

  • Sullivan, Tuesday: "I wonder how much of my writing Coyne has ever read," Sullivan began, and "how much of my wrestling with doctrine and theology and faith he has perused before he dismisses one side of an ancient debate as 'insulting to anyone with a brain.'" He continued, writing that "obviously, my case of letting go to God reflects a Christian understanding of what one's response to suffering could be. This does not deny suffering, or its hideous injustices." Sullivan concluded by citing his own experiences "liv[ing] through a plague":

I was brought at one point to total collapse and a moment of such profound doubt in the goodness of God that it makes me shudder still. But God lifted me into a new life in a way I still do not understand but that I know as deeply and as irrevocably as I know anything.

If this testimony is infuriating to anyone with a brain, then I am sorry. It is the truth as I experienced it. It is the truth as I experience it still.

Coyne has yet to respond.

Update, 12:22 p.m.: Coyne has, in fact, responded both to Sullivan's response to him and to another Sullivan post on the topic. He appears unimpressed.

"Any dog who hobbles along on three legs after an accident is rising above suffering," Coyne wrote regarding Sullivan's discussion of this "unique human capacity." Coyne expressed "deepest sympathy" for Sullivan's loss of friends to disease, "but even atheists recover from such traumas." Grouping Sullivan with the "smart people whose brains turn to oatmeal when they're forced to take seriously the claims of their faith," Coyne further questioned the Atlantic blogger's categorization of human suffering as "a form of alienation." The atheist stalwart closed with a seemingly deliberate attempt to fan the flames:

[Sullivan]’s a smart guy, and a gay one, forced to embrace a faith that is at bottom inimical to his sexuality.   But my sympathy is hard to sustain when he broadcasts this kind of stuff all over his website.

We'll keep you updated as this debate progresses.