We Can’t Figure Out Theodicy Either, Swedish Church Admits Frankly

All the monotheistic religions have a problem known as Theodicy or The Problem of Evil. Simply put, it’s the question “How can there be evil and suffering in the world?”. The religions in question posit that their god knows everything that happens, so he isn’t ignorant of the shit that’s going on. And they posit that their god is endlessly well-meaning and loving, so he isn’t the one inflicting the evil and suffering upon hapless humanity. And they posit that there is nothing he cannot do if he wants to, so he isn’t watching powerlessly as evil and suffering happens. But evil and suffering does happen. So logically speaking, it appears that all the monotheistic religions are wrong about what their god is like.

To my mind, theodicy is the only argument anyone can ever need against these religions. Because the Problem of Evil has a simple solution: that there is no omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent god. So I got to thinking – in apologetics (the art of defending a system of religious beliefs against counterarguments), shouldn’t theodicy be the top item on the agenda? I became curious as to what stance Sweden’s largest religious organisation, the former state church, takes on theodicy.

The Swedish church is a Lutheran denomination founded in c. 1530. My learned Christian friend Mattias explained to me that the church hasn’t really adopted any foundational theological documents since the 16th century. Those still current are collected in Svenska Kyrkans Bekännelseskrifter, encompassing “the three creeds, Confessio Augustana, the Schmalkaldian articles, Luther’s catechisms and a few other documents”. And apparently this body of theological writing does not address theodicy. Granted, it isn’t apologetic literature, but seen from my outsider’s viewpoint it is odd that smart men like Martin Luther and Philipp Melancthon would not see or acknowledge the logical hole at the base of their edifice.

I wrote to the Swedish church’s inquiries email address and asked them if the organisation has an official stance on theodicy. A theologian who chose not to reveal their identity replied (and I translate):

Theodicy has no simple solution. As Birgitta Trotzig put it, suffering is “a mystery whose depth and real dimensions are not available to the instruments of intellect alone”. She continues, “Suffering is a wound that should be kept open; a contradiction that must not be evened out; an insufferable unsolveability which humankind has no right to allow to be solved.” I feel that here, Trotzig has succinctly expressed that it is impossible to find a “solution” to theodicy.

The “answer” that can be given from the perspective of Christian faith mainly consists of showing how God, in Christ, has shared humankind’s conditions and suffered pain, degradation and death under the most degrading and horrifying circumstances.

This is no explanation but it demonstrates God’s love for humankind and God’s solidarity with humankind in her suffering. Christian faith further means that Jesus Christ has overcome evil through his life, his death and his resurrection. This is a foundation for the belief that we shall one day meet an existence where there is no longer suffering.

These are an individual Swedish church theologian’s views, not the party line — there doesn’t seem to be one. And as you may imagine, they in no way make this faith more reasonable in my eyes. Trotzig’s opinions that theodicy is intellectually ineffable and an area of forbidden inquiry amount to no more than replying “Never mind that” to the question. The idea that an omnipotent god would respond to people’s suffering not by ending it, but by trying out what suffering is like for a while, just re-states the basic problem: this being doesn’t seem to be anywhere near omnibenevolent after all. And promising a life without suffering not now, but in a supernatural future, both strains credulity and is kind of irrelevant. Theodicy asks “Why is there ever pain and suffering?”, not “When is this going to end?”.

So maybe Luther’s and Melancthon’s silence on the subject of theodicy actually shows how smart they were. This is not an issue that the wise apologist will bring up. Better ignore it and hope that nobody starts asking questions.


My Kid’s School Takes All Pupils On Festive Procession To Church

The former Swedish state church has been reasonably independent for twelve years. Now Juniorette’s school plans to send the kids walking in festive procession with flaming torches to the Swedish church’s local branch for an “Advent gathering”. Good fun no doubt, and Juniorette would probably be most displeased if I made her stay in school with the more orthodox among the Muslim kids and a temp teacher.

I don’t enjoy being pushed to make this call. So I’ve drafted a letter of protest to the headmistress where I point out that such non-educational favouritism for one of the country’s many religious organisations is inappropriate and illegal. The event will give the Swedish church free brand recognition and goodwill. I emailed the file to the other parents and offered them to make improvements and co-sign the letter with me.

One of the parents replied as follows.

There is something called an ecumenical meeting that you should read up on, Martin. Of course the children should take part in the torch procession. It is both fun and then being in the church is both beneficial and educational for most of them regardless of religious background. Secondly it is not illegal! Where in the school law of 1 July does it say so?

I find this to have some wider interest and I don’t want to spam all the other parents with this discussion. And so I’ve decided to reply here on my blog.

1. Ecumenical meetings by definition take place between people of different religious faiths. Not between religious organisations and the secular municipal school system. Secular schools should offer children an unbiased outsider’s view of all major religions, not offer one of them them free support under fun and festive circumstances.

I’m all for religious groups making ecumenical contact among themselves if it can reduce hate between them. But I would much prefer it if people would instead just leave those groups.

2. The school law of 1 July states (as have previous versions going back many decades) that Swedish schools must follow the state curriculum. The 2011 state school curriculum states in its second paragraph (p. 7) that Undervisningen i skolan ska vara icke-konfessionell, “Teaching in school must be non-denominational”. Whether an activity in school should be seen as teaching or not is usually judged simply on the basis of whether it takes place during scheduled school hours, as the Advent gathering does.

Prophets Who Conveniently Receive Divine Encouragement To Screw Kids

Let’s make a list of religious prophets! But only the ones who, having convinced their faithful followers that they spoke the word of God, suddenly received revelations to the effect that God totally wanted them to fuck children or adolescents. I know of three to start with. Let’s have some more, with references!

  • Muhammad, Islam’s Prophet. In sura 33:50, God told the Prophet: “We made lawful for you [several categories of women]. Also, if a believing woman gave herself to the prophet—by forfeiting the dowry—the prophet may marry her without a dowry, if he so wishes. However, her forfeiting of the dowry applies only to the prophet, and not to the other believers.”. He then married a 9-10-year-old.
  • Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s Prophet. When the Prophet was 37 (or possibly 25) God told him that polygyny would be a new covenant, that anyone rejecting it would be damned and that if his first wife complained about this then Christ would destroy her. Smith married at least nine teenage girls, the youngest of them aged 14.
  • David Koresh, Prophet of the Branch Davidians. Having established the Waco compound, the Prophet announced a new theology called the New Light, which prescribed polygamy for him only. He then promptly began sleeping with the 12 and 14-year-old daughters of two cult members.

Hubbard’s Caveman

Kai gave me this lovely piece of old Scientology propaganda. The 1968 book Scientology: A History of Man is a re-titled edition of something L.R. Hubbard completed in 1951-52 and disseminated under the title What To Audit. After the formerly secret teachings about Xenu the evil space emperor etc., this is probably the most widely ridiculed text of Scientology. But with the fine cover image (apparently painted by Hubbard himself) and the new title, the book clearly aims to say something about humanity’s ancient past – which is my job.

In the foreword Hubbard assures the reader that “This is a cold-blooded and factual account of your last sixty trillion years” and explains that he “began to search into the back track of Mankind some years ago”. Now, of course, we know that the Big Bang occurred only about 13.75 billion years ago, and talk about time before the beginning of time is meaningless. But to one with Hubbard’s science fiction background, sixty trillion must have sounded awesome.

Moving on into the text however, it turns out that true to its original title, the whole thing is mainly about reincarnation, memories of past lives, “auditing”, the “E-meter”, evil “theta beings” possessing people, and how to become “clear” from these malicious spirits. We’re not dealing with named palaeontological or archaeological finds or sites. Instead Hubbard envisions people carrying memories of being various pre-human animals along an imagined Chain of Being, then the Piltdown Man (debunked by radiocarbon in 1953) and the Caveman on the book’s cover. This is the “history of man”. But Hubbard never explains the basis for his assertions, never refers to other writers or excavations or labwork other than in general nameless terms. He’s delivering Revealed Truth. The voice in this confused tirade of a book is authoritarian yet clearly slightly mad. (Insiders have reported that some of the material was actually dictated by Hubbard’s 17-y-o son after the father dosed him liberally with amphetamines.)

On the back cover is the blurb “Discover how to create sanity for future generations”. Flipping through the book I get the definite impression that the problem L.R. Hubbard was really struggling with was that of creating sanity for himself.

Sixth World Skeptics Conference

I’m at the Sixth World Skeptics Conference in Berlin, co-organised by the German GWUP and the US CSI. These conferences have been going on biannually since the mid-90s with a recent hiatus. It’s the first time I’m at a skeptical event in Continental Europe. With only 300 seats it’s not quite as planet-spanning as its name suggests, but it’s a good crowd anyway. Some impressions:

  • I prefer to be a speaker at conferences.
  • I’m doing some intensive networking for the Swedish Skeptics who sent me here.
  • Also talent scouting for the European meeting we’re organising next year.
  • It’s good to hear speakers who are not on the Anglophone circuit I’ve been following live and on podcasts in recent years.
  • Good venue, good food, lovely greenery in the courtyard.
  • Good schedule with ample opportunity to talk to people.
  • Open day for the public is a good idea when you’ve paid speakers to fly in.
  • Best talks so far: Eugenie Scott and Johan Braeckman, both on creationism.
  • Looking forward to: Rebecca Watson and Chris French.

Harry Martinson Talk


The Swedish Skeptics have received the 2012 Harry Martinson Memorial Prize from his birth municipality Olofström and the Harry Martinson Society. Martinson, a Nobel laureate, was a poet and prose writer who is particularly well known for his book-length science fiction epic poem Aniara. As chairman of the Swedish Skeptics I was invited down to Blekinge province where I spent Friday looking at archaelogy and doing some metal detecting with my colleague Mikael Henriksson from the County Museum — and on Saturday morning I delivered an acceptance speech and a talk (in Swedish) on Martinson’s relationship to science and popular enlighenment.

Soul Warrior

This past weekend the Swedish Skeptics celebrated our 30th anniversary with a two-day conference in Gothenburg. It included the annual business meeting of the society at which I was reelected as chairman for a second year. And at dinner, I sang a song about how I view my role in the society, and the Swedish Skeptics’ role in Sweden at large. It’s Tomas di Leva’s 1991 Själens Krigare, “Soul Warrior”. Here’s a quick translation.

Can you feel it?
It is everywhere
Space opening
In our hearts

I am the soul’s warrior
With love as my weapon
I am the soul’s warrior
And the light in the tunnel
I am the soul’s warrior
And I help you get to Paradise

Forget everything
In green hypnosis
Beauty fights for us
We make a cosmic wave
Butterfly, long for more!
Become reborn again!

Among stars I sneak
And spread my seed by the power of thought
My kiss is a whirlwind
Spin, oh my Earth, through famine and distress
Indifference is everyone’s death

You can do whatever you want

Lala, lala, dreams shall sing in the blue

Scam Publisher Fools Swedish Cranks

Perennial Aard favourites N-A. Mörner and B.G. Lind have published another note in a thematically unrelated journal. It’s much like the one they snuck past peer review into Geografiska Annaler in 2009 and which Alun Salt and I challenged in 2011. The new paper is as usual completely out of touch with real archaeology, misdating Ales stenar by over 1000 years and comparing it to Stonehenge using the megalithic yard. No mention is made of the fact that this unit of measurement was dreamed up by professor of engineering cum crank archaeoastronomer Alexander Thom and has never had any standing in academic archaeology. The megalithic yard does not exist.

At first I thought, damn, they’ve managed to game the system again. But then I looked into the thing some more and came to the conclusion that this time, Mörner & Lind have been scammed, poor bastards.

The journal they’ve published in is named the International Journal of Astronomy and Astrophysics. It’s an on-line Open Access quarterly, and though it has an ISSN number for a paper version as well, this is not held by any Swedish library. This may not be cause for suspicion, because the journal is new: its first four issues appeared last year. The Head Editor is professor of astronomy at a young English university that is quite highly ranked within the UK.

So far, it may look like Mörner & Lind have simply published in a low-impact but legit academic venue. But let’s have a look at the publishers of IJAA, Scientific Research Publishing (SCIRP). This outfit publishes from Irvine, CA, but its web site is registered in Wuhan, China, where its president Huaibei “Barry” Zhou is based. He is apparently a physicist. According to a 2010 statement by Zhou to Nature News, he co-founded SCIRP in 2006 or 2007. In the five or six years since, the firm has launched over 150 on-line Open Access journals. Uh-oh.

Suspicions about SCIRP began to gather in December 2009, when Improbable Research, the body behind the IgNobel Prize, said the publisher might offer “the world’s strangest collection of academic journals”. Improbable Research pointed out that at the time, SCIRP’s journals were repurposing and republishing decade-old papers from bona-fide journals, sometimes repeating the same old paper in several of its journals, and offering scholars in unrelated fields places on editorial boards.

This was taken up by Nature News in January 2010, when they contacted Zhou and received the explanation that the old papers had appeared on the web site by mistake after having been used to mock up journals for design purposes. “They just set up the website to make it look nice”, said Zhou. While he had otherwise represented himself as president of SCIRP, Zhou now told Nature News that he helped to run the journals in a volunteer capacity. The piece reports that SCIRP had listed several scholars on editorial boards without asking them first, in some cases recruiting the names of people in completely irrelevant fields. In other cases, scholars had agreed to join because a SCIRP journal’s name was similar to that of a respected publication in their field. Recruitment efforts by e-mail had apparently been intensive and scattershot.

Now, what is this really about? Why is SCIRP cranking out all of these fly-by-night fringe journals that anybody can read for free? The feeling across the web is that it’s most likely a scam utilising a new source of income: the “author pays” model built into bona fide Open Access publishing. A kinder way to put it would be that SCIRP is a pseudo-academic vanity press.

Instead of charging a subscription fee, many Open Access journals charge authors a publication fee once their manuscripts have gone through peer review and been accepted. This gets research out of the stranglehold of the big publishing houses (Elsevier et al.), making it available to tax payers and scholars in poor countries. Instead of putting huge money into their libraries to buy expensive journal subscriptions, universities can distribute smaller amounts among their faculty to pay Open Access publication fees.

But Mörner & Lind’s new paper has clearly not been vetted by any competent scholar. This suggests that anybody can publish anything in SCIRP’s International Journal of Astronomy and Astrophysics as long as they pay the fee. Its Head Editor tells me by e-mail that he is “concerned about the refereeing process and should investigate”.

And as for the other 150 SCIRP journals? Well, what can you tell me, Dear Reader?

(SCIRP has a few other lines of business too. One is apparently scam conferences. Beware of the International Conference on Internet Technology and Applications.)

Update 16 April: Michael D. Smith, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Kent, stands by his journal. He wrote me today:

I have checked – the article was indeed refereed properly.

I also note that your blog contains many many errors and also draws on selected information taken out of context.

I believe few academics would agree with him regarding the quality of the peer review in this case — be they astronomers, archaeologists or archaeoastronomers.

El-Mag Crank Gets Galileo Argument Wrong

I got a letter with criticism from a man who believes in electromagnetic hypersensitivity and thinks I should too. Most of the letter is the Galileo argument, where the letter writer refers to an anthropologist whose ideas were, in his view, once highly respected until they were taken apart by critical thinkers. I should be as critical of the current medical consensus regarding radiation phobia as these thinkers were of the anthropologist, says the letter writer, because the current medical consensus has been paid for by the telecomms industry. In other words: it’s a conspiracy.

But who, then, is this anthropologist whom the letter writer selects to represent a mainstream scientific consensus that may soon be toppled by independent critical analysis?

Thor Heyerdahl.

It’s sad but also absolutely priceless.

Skeptic’s Guide Interview

I’m on the latest instalment of the Skeptic’s Guide podcast talking about the Mora/Orsa electrophobia case and the Obscurantist of the Year anti-award. I also mention a bunch of upcoming European skeptics’ conventions, though Steve Novella cut out the bit where I recommended that the skeptical rogues grow mullet hair styles and mustaches for the Berlin meeting in May to honour the German porn industry.

(My previous interview with the SGU, about the Swedish Skeptics and weird archaeology, was almost four years ago! Time flies.)