Johnny Cash and the problem of evil

From the mixture of Johnny-Dee’s second installment on Johnny Cash and virtue and watching this video of Colin McGinn talking about his atheism comes this short thought:

The above video is the third clip on YouTube of a discussion aired on the BBC between McGinn and Jonathan Miller on the subject of atheism, focusing on McGinn’s deconversion from Christianity and his thoughts on arguments for atheism. One such argument (or rather, counterargument) is the problem of evil, and Miller tries to redirect McGinn towards answering some potential criticisms (apologies for the following transcript; I transcribed it myself):

Miller: But there might be religious arguments to the effect that he created this obstacle course…

McGinn: Yep.

Miller: …for his created creatures endowed with free will in order to bring out the best in them.

McGinn: And I always find this, this one to be, to me, the sort of, it – it brings, to me, the sort of, hard-hearted, immoral side of this way of thinking about things. Think about what’s being said when somebody says that – you’ve got the innocent child with some terrible disease, and God’s up there saying to Himself, “I really need to test some people here. They need to put – the obstacle course needs to be put here. Let me pick on this little two-year old girl, put her through this terrible ordeal, and I’ll test the other people.” I mean, would – if any human being said to you that what they’d done – suppose I decided, in my wisdom, “I need to test some people here. They – I need to improve their moral characters, so I’m going to do this terrible thing to their child.” You’d think I was the wickedest person in the world to do that. But why isn’t God? If that’s what God does, I – I have no respect for him. It’s a wicked thing to do…

[emphasis mine]

When I heard McGinn say that, I thought, “Are there any examples of this?” And having read Johnny-Dee’s second essay on Johnny Cash and Aristotle, I found the perfect example: A Boy Named Sue.

The song follows a young boy who is abandoned by his father. The only legacy he is left is a guitar, an empty bottle of alcohol, and his name: Sue. The boy comes to hate his father for giving him a girl’s name, since all that ensues is torment and suffering. Basically, the son thinks his father did the worst thing he possibly could have before he left. So the son grows up, becomes tough, and vows to find and kill his father for what he’s done.

The denouement is as follows:

And he said: “Son, this world is rough
And if a man’s gonna make it, he’s gotta be tough
And I knew I wouldn’t be there to help ya along.
So I give ya that name and I said goodbye
I knew you’d have to get tough or die
And it’s the name that helped to make you strong.”

He said: “Now you just fought one hell of a fight
And I know you hate me, and you got the right
To kill me now, and I wouldn’t blame you if you do.
But ya ought to thank me, before I die,
For the gravel in ya guts and the spit in ya eye
Cause I’m the son-of-a-bitch that named you ‘Sue.'”

I got all choked up and I threw down my gun
And I called him my pa, and he called me his son,
And I came away with a different point of view.
And I think about him, now and then,
Every time I try and every time I win,
And if I ever have a son, I think I’m gonna name him
Bill or George! Anything but Sue! I still hate that name!

Even if this is a bad analogy for God (who certainly isn’t the abandoning, alcoholic type), is it really that absurd to think that God could put things in our way (or even just allow obstacles to get in our way) so that we could become stronger, more fulfilled people? Obviously Johnny Cash didn’t think so, and one should make up his own mind about that.


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