The recent Haitian and Chilean earthquakes have once again put theodicy in the spotlight. Like the massive South Asian tsunami of 2004, these are natural disasters that kill thousands of men, women, and children during the disaster itself and doom thousands more to painful starvation and homelessness. Theodicy, the attempt to reconcile the concept of a loving, all-powerful god with the obvious existence of suffering in the world, as you might expect, has a long pedigree as a feature in the larger religious knowledge structure. However, in the last few centuries it ( or rather the economic, political and cultural environment that theodicy has been forced to deal with)has undergone some important transformations that I think auger well for the future prospects of atheism and secularism.
In the days of local temple and city gods, and subsequent pantheons composed of many gods with human-like personalities, the “problem of evil” isn’t much of a problem at all. One can simply read the religious stories (oops, I forgot we call these ones “myths”) of Near Eastern and Mediterranean antiquity: there we see that if an individual sickens and suffers, or even if an entire city’s population is crushed by some nasty turn of fate, it is assumed that some deity was behind it. This doesn’t really present a problem for most believers, however: if those suffering are unknown to you or enemies then of course they may be thought to have brought the suffering down onto their own heads through their wicked ways, and if the suffering is visited upon you, those you love or your friends/countrymen then of course it might not be the work of YOUR specific God at all but rather that of a competing/jealous/enemy deity. So far, so simplistic.
An interesting aside to this is the discussion of the development of doctrines of karma in Hinduism and Buddhism. Both “karmic” explanations and “propitiating your owner god/watching out for competing gods”-type explanations have the benefit, of course, of being wonderful rationalizations for all sorts of hierarchical social practices- here we see religion’s role as a type of “anti-sociology” that undercuts any attempt at rationally analyzing one’s social situation. I remember the first reading I did that really brought this home to me were the descriptions of ancient Near East god-kings in Julian Jaynes “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” (a flawed but really entertaining and intriguing book…)
Back to theodicy, the problem of evil really became an issue once monotheism gets running. The ancient Jews actually unwittingly charted this transition in their own holy texts, where we can see lingering hints of the older “many Gods competing” narrative next to the newer omnipotent concept of Yahweh who takes gleeful credit for suffering in the world. Bart Ehrman’s "God's Problem" is an excellent mapping of the various theodicies in the Old and New Testament; his treatment of Yahweh’s behavior in the book of Job alone is a pretty good demonstration of just what a unethical and capricious monster the Old Testament Yahweh was thought to be.
For the ancient Hebrew tribes, God was all powerful and yet the continual humiliation of Israel and Judea at the hands of invading conquerors even when the Jews were doing the right things (i.e. executing non-virgin brides, keeping men with injured testicles away from the Temple, ritualistically killing animals, smearing their blood around the altar in the right order, burning them “to make a sweet savor unto the LORD” etcetcetc…) meant there was a problem. Eventually they resigned themselves to the fact that god will visit pain on the deserving and the innocent alike, just as the big man asserts in his rant to Job. Of course, this is tantamount to being ruled by an insane dictator, one with whom there is no chance to even get on his good side. No surprise, then, that by the time Christianity spreads in the cosmopolitan world of imperial Rome, there is a return to the “competing gods” line in the form of demons and, of course, the bad behavior of that horny old goat Mr. Splitfoot.
Notice all this rationalization is pretty far from the New Age "apophatic" god so popular with apologists these days, who hardly seems substantial enough to burn a bush let alone raze a city.
So much for the history-next time I’m planning to talk a bit about why it looks like theodicy is becoming an increasing problem for religion today. I think this is bound up with the increasing cosmopolitanism of world cities and, even more importantly, the globalizing processes that have occurred over last few centuries in both economic and political spheres.