Theodicy and Sociobiology

Kevin J. Sharpe

Origins, Time and Complexity, Part II, ed. George V. Coyne, Karl Schmitz-Moorman, and Christoph Wassermann (Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1994), pp.61-65

This paper addresses the problem of evil with insights from sociobiology. God contains, does, begins or creates the potential for moral and natural evil and suffering. Yet God is all-good and all-powerful. Despite pleas for release from suffering, God often does nothing to stop it. Traditional theology tries to relieve the problem by emphasizing such ideas as free will and that God works in mysterious ways. Yet the problem persists. Sociobiology may provide insight. First, it suggests God may not have the morality to which we aspire or even have a morality at all. Thus, it is inappropriate to think God should abide by the human sense of love and justice. Second, sociobiology explains why humans plea for help from God and are angry at God if the suffering continues. The human understanding of God and the pleading to God come from biology. It is, suggests sociobiology, to act under the influence of genes to see God as the all-good and all-powerful. Genes also cause us to plead to God for rescue.

There are two types of evil. When humans do wrong, they sin. This is moral evil. The other sort is natural evil, when suffering and destruction happen through natural agencies and humans are not responsible. All people experience both types of evil. We all feel pain, injustice, suffering, a sense of helplessness, and each of us intentionally and unintentionally does wrong.

Suffering and evil raise a problem for theology to do with God: why the almighty God allows them to happen. John Hick states the theodicy question well: "If God is perfectly loving, God must wish to abolish all evil; and if God is all-powerful, God must be able to abolish all evil. But evil exists; therefore God cannot be both omnipotent and perfectly loving" (Hick 1983: 40-41).

Theodicy is more than academic. Humans hate suffering. So we think it cannot be part of God and the good life on the other side of the grave. We think God has to hate it too. God must have our sense of right and wrong. We think God has this even if it is within a divine scheme or plan beyond our understanding.

This paper will explore these issues using human sociobiology as a source of ideas. Sociobiology is a new field that takes evolutionary theory beyond the biological into the social. Theologians have paid little attention to the light it might shed on their problems (see also Sharpe 1991; and In Press).

Built into the human mind are various patterns or rules by which it works. The sociobiologists E. O. Wilson and Charles Lumsden assume their existence and call them epigenetic rules. They process information which comes into the mind from the outside as well as from internal emotions. There are two types of these patterns. Primary epigenetic rules process raw emotional and sense data. Secondary epigenetic rules assemble inner mental processes. These include conscious and deliberate decision making and the placing of values. Epigenetic rules guide people into thoughts and actions that insure human survival. Genes encode them because they have proved so worthwhile in the struggles of our human and prehuman ancestors (Lumsden and Wilson 1983; and Ruse 1989).

A second aspect of sociobiology has to do with reproductive success. From an evolutionary point of view, people are successful when they pass their genes to the next generation. One way to achieve this is through cooperative behavior called biological "altruism." "Altruistic" behavior enhances genetic success at risk or cost to oneself. For example, parents can promote their children's success by providing an expensive education rather than having a large family and more money for themselves. They are behaving "altruistically." People also practice "reciprocal altruism." This happens when they do something for others. Their reward is that someone sometime may help them more.

Further, humans have altruistic feelings that pressure them to behave "altruistically." These feelings come through epigenetic rules and oppose selfish inclinations which also exist for biological reasons. The rules give morality the feeling of objective truth and guide moral reasoning.

Sociobiology, while making biology the key player in explaining human moral behavior, does not dismiss the role culture has to play. A society's moral system is a cultural construct, based on biological requirements. The culture determines good and bad by comparing various epigenetic rules. Culture builds, sorts, and develops the genetic impulses or epigenetic rules into a morality. Still, at root morality is a biological adaptation.

There are two topics to do with evil and theodicy that I will discuss in the light of sociobiology. First, I will ask if God need be or is moral. Then I will look at the origin of the passion over theodicy and why it matters so much.

The base of ethical claims interests the philosopher Michael Ruse. To recognize morality as a biological adaptation, he maintains, undermines its traditional support. The Christian has to believe in an independent and objective moral code. It cannot change or depend on human conditions. For morality to work, people must think it is objectively true, coming from something higher than and outside of themselves. Christians feel this absolute, moral other as a force on them, and so follow its moral dictates. This belief, Ruse thinks, biology destroys. He adds: "Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, and has no being beyond or without this" (Ruse 1989: 268).

Human morality is a product of human evolution and is peculiar to our species. The morality of any other species, if it has one, developed for its own social and evolutionary needs. Human morality does not apply to them.

This insight leads in two directions.

Since morality is a product or function of biological evolution, why should God have a morality? Perhaps morality does not apply to God; God is amoral. People think God has their morality because they project their morality onto God. This is a biologically-motivated activity.

The second direction assumes God does have a morality. Then, since human morality is peculiar to our species, it asks if God's morality is like a human one. The challenge is to discover what is God's morality.

There are good reasons for rejecting this second approach. From an evolutionary point of view, there are problems with God's having a morality. It would show as a tendency throughout the world, since God is its creator and sustainer. (a) This could make God's morality common across species. We do not see this. Different species have different moralities, as we understand the term. Cannibalism (the praying mantis) and incest among many species, for instance, differ from human ideals. (b) One could also say the process of evolution should bring out God's morality, especially in the human. Evolution is the way God is working to create life. However, the genetic survival pressures that produce human morality need not reflect or recreate God's morality. God does not have a digestive tract because we do.

Thus God need not have a morality. This removes the idea that divine creation and sustaining plant God's morality in the world. The world is morally neutral. Like God it is amoral. Neither does it have an end or telos. God does not have a purpose for the universe because having a purpose requires having a morality. That end defines what is the good.

That God is amoral affects theodicy. Theodicy tries to understand why God contains or does or allows the evil and suffering of the world. This quest assumes, first, that God has the power to stop the evil and suffering. This is an important point which any responsible theology must address. Second, it assumes God has the morality to which humans aspire. It assumes God loves us in the same way parents love their children. If you really love someone, you fervently want to shield them from evil and suffering if possible, especially from extreme cases. So it assumes God has our highest sense of morality. That God does not share our morality removes much of the force to the problem of evil.

The above argument has important implications. Theologians cannot start with God's being moral. If they want to defend God's being moral in the highest human sense, they need to make a case for it. Their defense, on the other hand, cannot rest on the natural world.

Besides helping with theodicy, sociobiology also suggests why theodicy is important. Traditional answers to the problem of evil do not fully satisfy our pain and anger. We feel the enormity of suffering and evil. It is natural therefore to ask about God's responsibility for them. Like Job, we continue crying to the heavens. We believe God has the same morality and sense of justice to which we aspire. We also believe God has the power to do anything. If God really loves people, God would not let all this misery happen. So we hold God responsible for evil and suffering. Other questions pale in comparison. Despite all the wisdom poured into theodicy, the questioning persists.

Why? It is this driving desire that needs exploring. Why are there these strong feelings and fervent questions of God?

Biology is responsible. First, we suffer because we are biological beings. Suffering and evil have the weight we give them because we have evolved to do so. Biology makes us want a world free from them - we want this for our survival. Second, biology promotes belief in a caring power beyond the world. The trumpet call of this power is to a morality in tune with what genetic survival requires. God is all-loving because that is part of the morality our biology wants us to project onto God.

So for the sake of survival, biology makes us cry out for release from suffering and evil. The force and persistence of our crying out to God in the face of evil and suffering directly reflects human survival. It is the strongest drive in us. Biology also makes us create an all-loving, all-powerful God. Biology, therefore, places us in the contradiction of theodicy. The problem of evil comes from tactics biological evolution has instilled in us.

If there is merit in sociobiology and its implications for theology, there is much interesting construction to do. Taking the perfectly good from God, while not from the human ideal, is a severe step for a Christian theology. This requires considerable exploration. Sociobiology raises many other questions too. What is the relation of God to the world if not one of morality? In what ways ought one to think of God transcending the world? What is the good to which humans might aspire? Further, where does the power behind the good come from to encourage humans to strive toward it? Sociobiology requires telling a new theological story about God, the universe, and humanity.


Hick, John. 1983. Philosophy of religion. 3rd edn. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Lumsden, Charles J., Wilson, Edward O. 1983. Promethean fire: reflections on the origin of mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ruse, Michael. 1989. The Darwinian paradigm: essays on its history, philosophy, and religious implications. London: Routledge.

Sharpe, Kevin J. 1991. "Science and religion: from warfare over sociobiology to a working alliance." Current Contents 23(25)(24 June): 8-13.

________. In Press. "Biology intersects religion and morality." Biology and Philosophy.

Copyright 1994 by Kevin Sharpe.