There are few women whose legacies have been more of a political football than Hypatia of Alexandria. She was not only the last scientist to work in the Library of Alexandria, but the first female mathematician in recorded history. She also was an expert astronomer, philosopher, physicist, and overachiever. Unfortunately, Hypatia was killed by a mob of Christian zealots in particularly grisly fashion, turning her life story into a point of contention for centuries to come. Let’s try and unwind this gordian knot after the cut.
Theologians worry away at the “problem of evil” and a related “problem of suffering.” On the day I originally wrote this paragraph, the British newspapers all carried a terrible story about a bus full of children from a Roman Catholic school that crashed for no obvious reason, with wholesale loss of life. Not for the first time, clerics were in paroxysms over the theological question that a writer on a London newspaper (The Sunday Telegraph) framed this way: “How can you believe in a loving, all-powerful God who allows such a tragedy?” The article went on to quote one priest’s reply: “The simple answer is that we do not know why there should be a God who lets these awful things happen. But the horror of the crash, to a Christian, confirms the fact that we live in a world of real values: positive and negative. If the universe was just electrons, there would he no problem of evil or suffering.”
On the contrary, if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies like the crashing of this bus are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A. E. Housman put it:
For Nature, heartless, witless Nature
Will neither care nor know.
Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden (1995)
Emma Watson, UN speech, 20 September 2014 #heforshe
Grania Spingies, co-founder of Atheist Ireland, quoted by Michael Nugent
Abraham Lincoln, speech at Peoria, Illinois (16 October 1854)