Is One Person’s Theodicy Another’s Anthropodicy? Preliminary Considerations

Anthony B. Pinn

In this article, I want to push past the question of what can be said about God in light of moral evil in the world (that is, theodicy). Instead, I want to call attention to the need to address moral evil from a different vantage point: anthropodicy. By anthropodicy I simply mean the effort to understand the nature and meaning of the human in light of moral evil in the world. That is, what can we say about people in light of moral evil in the world? But before getting to that, I offer a brief discussion of theodicy as a backdrop.

Think in terms of the Christian faith—a religious orientation in which notions of God have fueled extended theologizing regarding the nature and meaning of moral evil. Such a loving, concerned, and involved God matched by a world marked by misery poses a problem. What can be said about God in light of these troubling circumstances? Theodicy, the theological and philosophical discussion concerning what can be said about God in light of the persistence of moral evil, has figured prominently over the course of centuries.

Where there have been Christian thinkers, there have been efforts to maintain the existence of a loving, kind, just, and compassionate god against the reality of human suffering forged vis-à-vis moral evil. One would expect this wild theological wrestling in a religious tradition such as Christianity with a low anthropology (a negative view of human nature) and a correspondingly limited confidence in humanity’s ability to behave in productive and fruitful ways. Of necessity, such a low opinion of people demands the ability to envision a robust doctrine of God that balances human shortcomings against a cosmic corrective.

Thinking about God in a Damaged World

Early church leader St. Augustine and a host of others closer to our own time period have agonized over this theological land mine.1 The theological arguments resulting from these energized discourses are legend. Some proposed that this is the best of all possible worlds; hence, moral evil acted out in the mode of human suffering doesn’t point to a flaw in the divine logic of the world. Others proposed that this world as we know it is a “vale of soul-making,” which is to say that even the suffering lodged in human history points to an opportunity to advance ourselves—to be our best spiritual selves. Still others argued for a pedagogical dimension to moral evil by means of which we suffer because we have offended God. For others, the proper response involves a rethinking of evil. Rather than being like a substance, evil is the mere privation of good—the diminishing of the good. Some found no way of connecting historically situated moral evil and cosmic justifications, and so they chalk it up to mystery. In all these formulations, there is little serious attention given to the idea of an evil god because such a formulation runs contrary to God’s description in sacred texts.

If there has been no radical rethinking of God as anything other than good-intentioned (except among some humanist philosophers; see Stephen Law’s and David Koepsell’s articles in this section), certain theological innovators have proposed a softening of the God idea, asserting that God feels what we feel. God unfolds as the universe unfolds. Hence, one can’t really blame God for evil in that God doesn’t create misery but instead experiences it as we experience it. Furthermore, some suggest a god who makes mistakes. That is to say, God is always concerned with the promotion of the good, but God’s strategies don’t always advance the plan. Along these lines, the Christ event is imagined as God’s effort to bring about ultimate good and well-being, but it failed. Oops, that’s God’s “bad,” but no worries—God is never without a range of “helpful” options.2 Or, so theists need to hope.

God’s character is certain, and so raising the moral-evil question can be a slippery (theological-philosophical) slope that descends to the assumption of disbelief. Again, a great deal of theological and philosophical effort has gone in to this topic of theodicy. Yet it’s wise to give consideration to theologian Terrence Tilley’s warning: Christians should avoid theodicy. It isn’t a theological-philosophical game Christians can win.3 Theodicy is the casino game of the theological world. There’s no good response, and even the most tolerable responses still leave something unaddressed. In essence, theodical arguments work to make Christians “OK” with moral evil and its historical manifestations: “No cross, no crown
. . . We are tried by fire . . . God doesn’t give us a burden we can’t bear” and so on. In the abstract, such arguments make headway in safeguarding the most essential element of the Christian faith—a good and active god—but at a large cost: the integrity and well-being of humanity.

Theological anthropology (that is, the discussion of the theological nature and meaning of the human) and ethics are held hostage by a divine figure that is at best sadomasochistic: first it inflicts pain on its creation and then on itself (pain is the gateway to pleasure). The very logic of sin, evil, salvation, and redemption—key conceptual frameworks that buttress Christian faith—are tied to the necessity of misery hitched to the destruction of bodies for the well-being of a “soul” foreign to empirical considerations. With all this in mind, how could theodicy be anything other than a problem, an opening into the bizarre behavior of God and God’s minions? Again, as Tilley remarks, Christians should avoid theodicy at all cost. Yet, this warning not to entertain theodical argumentation only serves to prompt unwise investigations—anything to safeguard the “tradition.”

Atheists have targeted this theodical quagmire for several reasons. First, to point out and attack the illogical and unreasonable underpinning for the Christian faith: a loving, kind, just, and compassionate god possessing (any degree of) power. If this notion of God must be taken out, then the very foundation of Christianity is damaged deeply. Second, and as a corollary, atheists use this theological-philosophical dilemma to advance an atheist agenda. This is low-hanging theological-philosophical fruit for atheists in that, as Tilley rightly notes, Christians can’t provide a good response to moral evil. Through this rhetorical maneuver, atheists gain some intellectual ground. And this leads to a third reason: use the dismantling of the God-idea as a way to bring more people into atheism as a logical alternative to an illogical theism.

Anthropodicy as the Flip Side of Theodicy

But there is another dimension to this moral evil conversation. Rigorous critique of theodicy raises another question, in fact begs a particular question: In light of a general optimism on the part of atheists regarding human capacity for good (and evil), how do atheists explain crushing moral evil? That is to say, what can one say about humanity in light of moral evil in the world? Just as Christians feel compelled, despite Tilley, to respond to theodicy, atheists need to respond to the issue of anthropodicy.4 And by this term, I do not mean “the justification of humans by God.” No; I mean the exploration of what can be said and known about the human in light of moral evil in the world.5

In this sense, anthropodicy is first an embodied interrogation. It deals with events that force an examination of causes and ethics, with the priority on ethics. Can one speak of humans as good in light of the moral evil (think in terms of systemic modalities of harm) they produce? Can one be optimistic concerning human life in light of misery, pain, and suffering in the world?
One could consider this call to address moral evil the atheist’s atheological challenge to face. Atheists who are “awake” in the world provide at least an implicit anthropodicy (perhaps tied to an atheology). But shouldn’t it be an explicit dimension of the atheist’s approach to life, to movement through the world?

What I share in the remainder of this piece are preliminary thoughts on such an atheological move in face of moral evil.

The Enlightenment (roughly 1620–1780s) urged humanity to take upon itself responsibility for human life, for the content and details of human history. Its thinkers were marked in a general sense by a strong optimism, tinted with a somewhat teleological view of history. Yet so many atrocities resisted the logic of the Enlightenment even as the years pushed into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—developments such as the emergence of Africans as subjects of history, colonization that urged attention to the “other,” war, and so on—that they modified this optimism (at least, some did) and urged attention to the Enlightenment’s “underbelly.” Postmodernity’s challenges to the intellectual assumptions of the Enlightenment, however, have not wiped out the nagging challenge of moral evil. To clarify my meaning, the Enlightenment (and its postmodern “corrections”), while advancing human knowledge and know-how, also marked out problematic categorizations of life—fostering a sense of difference as a problem to solve, with those of European descent controlling the content and rules of engagement. Suffering, pain, and misery continue to shape the language of life. And, I would argue, for atheists anthropodicy is the appropriate grammar of this language. In fact, the Enlightenment and postmodern responses to it constitute something of an anthropodicy—a multidisciplinary anthropodicy—but one in need of some correcting.

There are linguistic challenges accompanying this shift to a human-centered discussion of evil. First, according to scholars such as philosopher Frederick Sontag, such an anthro-focused discourse maintains a grammar of discovery indebted to a theological orientation buttressing theistic sensibilities.6 However, this take makes several problematic assumptions that are apparent when one pushes beyond the etymology of the term theology and looks at its use, its application. First, it assumes that theology is static and constitutes more than a methodology for exploring human experience within the context of human history. Developments such as philosopher Mark Taylor’s atheology, as well as its antecedents such as the “Death of God” movement—and to a lesser extent even theologian Paul Tillich’s existential theology—raise questions concerning Sontag’s pronouncement and his framing of the nature/function of theology: gods aren’t required. The absence or even “death” of God(s) doesn’t wipe out the need to wrestle with metaphysical questions in an interested (not disinterested) manner, while it does shift the “material” used as “data.”7

Second, and related to the first corrective, theology is a second-order enterprise, as theologian Gordon D. Kaufman8 argues, and one might think of it as providing a discourse on the fundamental questions of human existence: Who are we? What are we? When are we? Why are we? Theology (or atheology) is simply a tool promoting a particular archeological function in that it brings to the surface key questions and concerns. This is all said as a way to emphasize and safeguard the significance of a certain range of interrogations that atheists shouldn’t surrender to theists.

As a starting point for anthropodicy, the idea of God has been dismissed, banished to youthful ignorance and fear. This much is evident—quite evident. In its place, there is the human need to assess accountability and responsibility. What does one make of anthropodicy in light of such perspectives?9 Is anthropodicy anything more than the given-ness of human existence or the “thingness” of our existence? There is no god, but rather an earthy “love” that allows for interrogation of human life and its various points of connection and interaction.10 We are material that speaks itself into being, and this is further circumscribed by the performance of flexible markers of identity such as race, gender, sexuality, and so on.

I propose an anthropodicy that doesn’t assume answers premised on the human ability to resolve all problems. Rather, the idea is to first confront the problem and second to gain perspective on how humans have fostered harm and promoted well-being. Then, and only then, one marks out steps to address (not necessarily resolve) these trappings of moral evil. What does it mean to attempt justification of human goodness in light of moral evil in the world? And what ethics might be suggested?

Anthropodicy, unlike theodicy, isn’t about the source of evil. No, it has a much more focused ethics orientation. The source is clear—humans. The question, then, becomes what “ought” humans do about what they have fostered? To the extent there is concern for origins, it is about the characteristics of humanity, perhaps the neuroscience-related organization of human being and doing. In the context of all this, we seek meaning—a logic or “rhythm” to life. We are in the world but uncomfortably so. We are individuals who, on some level, crave connection, although these connections aren’t always physically arranged. Instead, they are just as easily defined by agreed-upon principles and ideals that have no relationship to physical geography.

What Focusing on ‘Anthro…’ Might Mean

Anthropodicy demands clear and precise attention to the conditions of life in the world—racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and so on—and promotes development of a cartography of human activity related to these conditions. This, if nothing else, might entail the predominance of social-justice issues within atheistic circles, not as an add-on but rather as a significant component of thinking about what it means for humans to be humans within the context of this world.

More to the point, something about anthropodicy involves thanatology—the study of death. That is to say, to struggle with moral evil as a human responsibility involves recognition of and preparation for death but death as the philosopher Montaigne understood it and as the moralist Thoreau “lived” it at Walden. You will recall that Thoreau alerts the reader to the fact that he wanted to live deliberately while in the woods so that at the end he would know he had indeed lived. Thinking and doing take place within the context of loss—of change. As compelling as this is, as Thoreau romanticizes it, such is not the case of necessity.11 Anthropodicy is a heuristic of sorts that promotes accountability and responsibility on some level, if for no other reason than it forces confrontation. It involves critical engagement with our subjectivity. In our current environment, we experience a type of ontological, epistemological, and existential friction that wears us down and fosters anthropodical questions.

Technology and/or Anthropodicy?

In the context of atheism and humanism, anthropodicy is also a question of technology in two senses: first as the building of new capacities based on science and, second, as some philosophers argue, as practices geared toward particular concerns and constructions and refinements of individual and collective organization.

Think in terms of artificial intelligence and the potentiality of singularity, for instance. Is singularity—the transcendence of intelligence beyond the confines of the material body—the perfect union between human and “machine” that ends anthropodicy? Might singularity be the answer for atheists on moral evil, as the grand unity of God is considered the answer for theists? Is technological transcendence the destruction of anthropodicy to the extent that it consumes the human flaw that makes possible—likely, really—destruction and suffering? The threat of death is no longer looming; traditional sources of pain (such as disease) are reduced if not destroyed. What is left to fester, to spark the angst of moral evil, once such limitation and shortcomings of human embodiment are resolved?

What does it mean to be “moral” within the context of the singularity, a context in which the full vitality and potential of life has been maximized? What would be the nature of moral evil in a context without the constraints of embodied bodies? Can a mode of technological “transcendence,” so to speak, occur by means of which the terrain of engagement is no longer defined by the strict dimensions of a rough and inhospitable physical environment?

The body is a cipher of sorts, or a circuit board of a particular type by means of which data is collected and stored. This information, when processed, urges issues of anthropodicy that the singularity might resolve in certain ways by transforming atheology not into thanatology but rather a new language of “technology.” Even if atheology remained (for that matter, even if theology remained), it would involve code, a program, addressing particular and new functions and concerns. Or, effort toward the singularity might serve to intensify our preoccupation with death.

Perhaps the central concern is preparation to die well through our efforts to promote more good in the world than evil, to think and “do” in ways that promote well-being to the extent we can. The goal is to gain lucidity concerning the nature of struggle and the outcomes of that effort.

Could longer life be a new modality of misery? Freedom from the constraint of the body could give way to new and more sophisticated modalities of repression. Such technological advances might destroy certain types of moral evil but might also reinforce others. For instance, economic classes could intensify around the singularity in that only those of means might have access to the benefits of technological advance: economic struggle might mark out a persistent source of anthropodical concern. Sad to say, there is reason to believe anthropodical issues might persist despite advances, despite effort otherwise. Yet this isn’t a call for inactivity, for “accepting” things as they are. Rather, I call for informed action—for effort to minimize the harm we do and maximize life’s ability to flourish. If attention to anthropodicy does nothing else, it has the potential to keep us ever mindful of how we have gone wrong and ways that we might act differently.


  1. See, for example: St. Augustine, Confessions (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); St. Augustine, City of God (New York: Penguin, 2003); Gillian R. Evans, Augustine on Evil (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
  2. For an example see: John Cobb Jr. and David Griffin, Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1982); David Griffin, God, Power, and Evil: A Process Theodicy (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2004).
  3. Terrence Tilley, The Evils of Theodicy (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2000).
  4. For an early example of attention to this issue, see Frederick Sontag’s essay in John B. Cobb Jr. and David R. Griffin, Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, Press, 1982), 137–66; Anthony Pinn, The End of God-Talk: An African American Humanist Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), chapters 3 and 5; William R. Jones, Is God a White Racist? A Preamble to Black Theology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).
  5. John Weborg, “Abraham Joshua Heschel: A Study in Anthro­podicy,” Anglican Theological Review, October 1, 1979: 483–97.
  6. See Frederick Sontag, “Anthropodicy or Theodicy? A Discussion with Becker’s The Structure of Evil” in The Journal of the American Academy of Religion XLIX/2: 267–74.
  7. For instance, Mark Taylor, Erring: A Postmodern A/theology (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1987); Thomas J. J. Altizer and William Hamilton, Radical Theology and the Death of God (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1966); Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964).
  8. Gordon D. Kaufman, An Essay on Theological Method (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1975).
  9. Rene Girard, Evil and the Sacred (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977).
  10. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (New York: Vintage International, 1955); Camus, The Rebel (New York: Vintage International 1956).
  11. Michel Montaigne, The Complete Essays (New York: Penguin, 1993); Henry David Thoreau, Walden (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).

Anthony B. Pinn

Anthony B. Pinn is the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and a professor of religion at Rice University. He is also director of Research for the Institute for Humanist Studies. Pinn is the author of thirty-five books, including Humanism: Essays in Race, Religion, and Popular Culture (2015).

“. . . In light of a general optimism on the part of atheists regarding human capacity for good (and evil), how do atheists explain crushing moral evil?”

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