A regular reader writes about what is now being termed the Sandra Cantu killing. It's a pretty grim story, and my correspondent is troubled:

You and I have earlier engaged in discourses about religion, and you know that I am an admirer of your entirely sane and reasonable comments at Pharyngula. I submit to you a question: if religion does not/cannot prevent such an event from taking place - let alone decide and impress what is right and wrong, and if the so-called omnipotent and omniscient God cannot do a thing, what is the purpose of the existence of such religion, and why would one venerate such a God and burden oneself with theological contemplation?

Well, this is actually several questions.

Religion, of course, cannot prevent such tragedies. But is it in religion's nature to promote such tragedy? Much is being made of the alleged murderer's role as a Sunday School teacher, but I see no reason to believe that this is a substantive part of the whole affair. It was a job arranged for her by her grandfather, a church pastor, and the news article hints that she has a troubled history. Did some misguided belief lead her to kill, or (as seems more likely) is this simply a case of a human being who happens to be employed by a church acting very badly?

It certainly seems to be part and parcel of human nature that our most cherished institutions are ultimately corruptible. For an up-to-the-minute example, consider the confession of former Bishop (and now President of Paraguay) Fernando Lugo. With almost unbelievable thoroughness, the 46-year-old Lugo has seemingly betrayed his church, his country and pretty much everyone he has ever had any meaningful relationship, including his teenage mistress. Compared to Lugo, the tawdry antics of Bill Clinton seem tame by comparison.

But, whatever its' flaws as a human institution, religion certainly claims the magisterium of truth where right and wrong are concerned, and last time I checked, I'm pretty sure that most religions would certify the alleged conduct of Melissa Huckaby as being not merely wrong or misguided, but wicked. Presumably, the God the various faithful worship would similarly condemn the senseless murder of children . . . .but then, as my correspondent notes, this (presumably) all-powerful and all-knowing being doesn't seem to act on these nobler impulses. You would think that if the God of the Bible would rein in the homicidal impulses of anyone, it would be the young woman who leads a Bible study of His Word. But that manifestly didn't happen. If there is a God, he allowed someone to kill a little girl, and the authorities think it's the pastor's granddaughter.

Who would want to worship a God that allowed that to happen?

Well, no one with any sense. I would not venerate a God who failed to save a single child, when the exercise of his power would be the just and righteous thing to do. I believe that if it was in my power, I would've attempted to save the child, even to the point that I might put myself at risk, and I would like to think that I would have been justified in doing so, regardless what I or any of the other actors in this thought experiment might believe about this or that.

But here's the thing: the only reason that I could make that or other choices is that I am free, or at least have the illusion that I am free to act. Phenomenology be damned, I behave as if I am free, and so does everyone else. My correspondent's question only makes sense if I am truly free to choose: otherwise, this good and evil, right-and-wrong stuff is just so much cultural convention and biological impuse. If I am not truly free, then Melissa Huckaby is not truly free, either. We are but slaves, and we can rail against the injustice of the divine slavemaster, but it is all artifice. If every little mite and every little mote, that floats evanescent and unrefined, is the perilous plaything, the terrible toy of the mind of God, then the question is not whether or not such a God is worthy of worship, but why he lets some of his slaves believe and others of his slaves be non-believers.

Alternatively, God does not exist, and we must console ourselves with the knowledge that we can pretend that we are free agents even though evidence and reason argue against it.

I find both of those views equally bleak and uncertain. Bleak, because they deny that we are truly free to choose. Uncertain, because they reflect an unwarranted confidence in our accounts of both ethics and epistemology. A God who will routinely intervene to prevent all manner of pain and suffering is surely a far greater tyrant than the parochial God of the Israelites, and His action would rob us of the freedom to meaningfully reject him as tyrant, much less play his game. Further, we do not have the foresight such that we can assume that the course of action not taken is the best course. We rage bitterly at the recalcitrant deity who can't lift even one cosmic finger to save a little girl, but we can not in fact know what the consequences of that act would be down the road.

It's a pickle. Ultimately the real question is not why God doesn't intervene to eliminate individual cases of pain and suffering, but why there should be any pain or suffering in the first place. And I frankly 'burden myself with theological contemplation' precisely because I am interested in the latter question. But I've written enough heavy things for one post, and so I'll continue this some other time.