Saturday, April 4, 2009

Supervillains and Religion

It is, without doubt, because I am a nerd that I often find comic book parallels for theistic and apologetic arguments. I'm going to address one of them today.

The problem of evil was first (as far as we know) articulated by Epicurus around three hundred years before the Common Era. It's a rather simple argument and, while it doesn't disprove the existence of any gods, it rather handily disproves the existence of a benevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient god. That's what Epicurus wanted to do, after all; he simply thought the gods (plural) were removed and uninterested in humanity.

It goes like this:

There is evil in the world.

Does God not want to prevent that evil? Then he is not benevolent.

Is God unable to prevent that evil? Then he is not omnipotent.

If he is both benevolent and omnipotent, then why is there evil?

That's sort of the David Hume version. There exist numerous responses to this, all of which fail to understand the meaning of the words "omnipotent" or "benevolent." I'm going to address one that fails on the latter.

Saint Irenaeus and others have said that evil is a necessary part of spiritual growth. After all, if we had no hardship to endure, we would have nothing to build our characters. There is no courage without fear, for instance. On some level, this misunderstands the nature of omnipotence; simply because we cannot conceive of something does not mean that it could not be so. Indeed, if God is omnipotent, exactly the opposite. He must be able to accomplish the logically impossible, or there are limits to his power.

However, setting that aside, let's grant the premise that evil must exist for spiritual growth. Is it worth it? Is that moral?

Zoom is an enemy of the Flash in DC Comics, who, like many well-constructed villains, follows a different moral code. He thinks he does what he does for the greater good, while the rest of us view his actions as obviously and horribly evil. He attempted to murder the Flash's pregnant wife, and succeeded in causing a miscarriage of their twin children. He has been responsible for numerous tragedies in the lives of many heroes, all with the goal of making better heroes. The element of personal tragedy that marks so many heroes, Zoom reasons, is what makes them sympathetic to the suffering of others. This is why they risk so much to help people. Thus, inflicting evil on an individual builds his or her character.

Sound familiar? Strange, isn't it, how a defense of God's motivations so easily translates into the motivations of a supervillain. That's not a benevolent god, that's a sociopath.


Ergo said...

I once had a course in university called "The Problem of Evil in Literature". I graduated with a nice little essay stating how Milton's Satan is a tortured victim of an astonishingly malicious God, and that real evil can instead be found in the character Noah in Oliver Twist - a child.

Best course I ever had.

GWD said...

I tend to agree, Satan is an extremely sympathetic character. Very much like Prometheus, or the Founding Fathers - love of man and refusing to accept a figure's authority based solely on that figure's claim. It's really baffling that he is accepted as the obvious villain by so many.

Q said...

Childhood indoctrination can account for probably >80% of the crazy things people believe.

Someone told a 4 year old that poor Lucifer was the bad guy, even though in their mythology he really is just some poor slob that got the shaft by their malevolent, megalomaniacal sky daddy of DOOOOM, and so they are stuck in that paradigm until/unless they can break free.