A World in Shadow II

In the first post of this series, I wrote about some of the diseases that afflict human beings from without. In this post, I will shift focus and discuss two articles about disorders that afflict us from within. The first, from March, is titled A Hunt for Genes That Betrayed a Desert People, about inherited genetic disorders among Bedouin people in the Negev Desert:

In a sky blue bedroom they share but rarely leave, a young sister and brother lie in twin beds that swallow up their small motionless bodies, victims of a genetic disease so rare it does not even have a name.

Moshira, 9, and Salame, 8, who began life as apparently healthy babies, fell into vegetative states after their first birthdays.

Now their dark eyes stare enormous and uncomprehending into the stillness of their room. The silence is broken only by the boy’s sputtering breaths and the flopping noise his sister’s atrophied legs make when they fall, like those of a rag doll, upon the mattress.

“I cannot bear it,” said the children’s father, Ismail, 37, turning to leave the room as his daughter coughs up strawberry yogurt his wife feeds her through a plastic syringe.

The article lists, in a litany of horror, some of the more severe genetic disorders that afflict the Bedouin: disorders in which babies are born with no skin covering their skulls or with no eyes; mental retardation and lethal neurological diseases; twisted and malformed limbs; and a genetic disorder which leaves a person unable to feel pain, which sounds like a blessing until one realizes that it means sufferers are constantly hurting themselves, sometimes seriously, without feeling it, and end up with infections, amputations and the other consequences of untreated wounds.

As the article explains, the frequency of these genetic diseases has to do with the Bedouin custom of marrying cousins. But although interbreeding increases the risk of children being born with these disorders, due to the greater chance that more closely related people will share the same rare recessive disease genes, it does not create them. No child could be born with diseases such as these unless those genes already existed in their parents’ DNA.

Another article, this one from March, is titled Finally, With Genetic Discovery, Hope for Escape From a Prison of Bone, and concerns a truly horrifying genetic ailment called fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva. In this condition, stem cells that normally congregate at the site of an injury and differentiate into muscle, ligament or whatever type of tissue is needed to heal the damaged area instead turn into bone. The more time passes, the more healthy tissue is inevitably replaced, and eventually sufferers become living statues, immobilized by twisted ribbons of bone running throughout their bodies. Death finally comes when cages of bone immobilize the lungs. There is no cure and no effective treatment, although new genetic research pinpointing the specific mutation at fault may someday give us the ability to do both. But most heartbreaking is that, like the ailments of the Bedouins, FOP is a childhood disease.

Peering into the hollow stump of a redwood tree, Hayden Pheif, 5, finds a cache of treasured river rocks exactly where he left them.

It’s a luminous afternoon in Mill Valley, Calif., perfect for tossing a few of them back into the creek that runs through this small park. But Hayden’s mother, Megan Pheif, knows better than to let her son scramble down the steep embankment to the stream.

Hayden can barely bend forward, and he cannot raise his arms much above his shoulders. Once down that slope, he may not be able to get back up. So she lifts him, over loud protests, back onto the walking trail, lingering for a moment over the hunch that has begun to form on his back. In Hayden’s body, too, there are pockets of stone.

“It’s upsetting, obviously,” said Ms. Pheif, 41, a sales representative for a textiles company. “The childhood you thought your kid would have isn’t possible. The doctors don’t have a cure, and they can’t tell you what’s going to happen to him or when.”

The suffering and misery caused by diseases like these beats with overwhelming force on the wishful thinking of theistic religion. According to the tenets of theism, God was and is directly responsible for creating diseases as terrible as these and others – diseases that primarily afflict children, causing them to suffer without reason and robbing them not just of the joy and innocence of childhood, but of the prospect of a long and happy life ahead. That deprivation and the fear and despair that accompany it may be far more terrible than the simple physical pain and agony these conditions cause. How can a theist who believes that God has dominion over all things dare to call him good when, according to their beliefs, he stands by and watches these boys and girls – and their families – suffer and does nothing?

But even let us say, as some theists do, that God did not create these diseases directly but that they are the unfortunate yet inevitable byproduct of a world ruled by regular natural laws. That still does not alleviate the dilemma in the slightest degree. If you were an engineer and discovered that one of your products had the possibility of malfunctioning in such horrific and dangerous ways, would you not take every possible measure to fix the problem, or at the very least warn users of the danger and what they can do to forestall it? If you choose not to do that, then are you not, through your negligence, every bit as culpable for what results? Why does God, if he exists, not issue a safety recall on the human species?

But while the frail hopes of faith shatter against these hard shoals of facts, atheists steer a clear course through them. We have no higher designer to blame, or worse, praise; all we have is the recognition that our bodies, marvelous products of evolution though they are, are still vulnerable to malfunction and breakdown. If we ever wish to be free of these afflictions, it is futile to beg the empty skies for aid. We must track down the causes of these illnesses and we must find ways to cure them ourselves, using our own intellect and our own skills of reasoning. We are in this by ourselves, and we can and must turn to each other.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Philip Thomas

    This is not a valid argument against theism itself. Theism is merely the belief in a personal God: this God need not be all-powerful nor need he or she have created the universe, and so it may well be that he or she cannot do anything about human suffering (also, strictly speaking, there is no requirement that a theistic god be benevolent in the slightest, let alone maximally benevolent). The Ancient Greek Gods are an example in point.

  • Alex Weaver

    It is, however, a valid argument against the existence of God as traditionally defined, and arguably against the existence of any god deserving of worship.

  • Philip Thomas

    Quite so. What is necessary for something to be deserving of worship is obviously highly arguable: one could think that nothing could possibly be worthy of worship , as opposed to praise, thankgiving, recognition, or petition.

  • andrea

    I’m curious, Philip. How do you define “worship”? My personal definition is worship is the act of obediance and belief that a deity, for some reason, needs. To me, this covers praise, thanksgiving, recognition, etc.

    Back to the original subject, I’ve also read about how the Amish are also rife with genetic diseases. They refuse to use most technology but they are slowly coming around to recognizing modern medicine. The suffering of children is definitly one of big questions in religion. Since, Bibically, we do know good and evil as well as God does, and we know it’s wrong to let things suffer, what does that say about God?

  • Terrence Kaye

    Since, Bibically, we do know good and evil as well as God does, and we know it’s wrong to let things suffer, what does that say about God?

    Andrea, I have long thought that Twain’s “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so” was the grand champion short comment. I hereby nominate the above for at least a tie for first.

  • EnigmaOfSteel

    A response I have heard to this dilemma is that the creator god originally created everything good – ala the Garden of Eden. So there would have been no disease. Then humans sinned, and this sin brought corruption into the world. Disease and other maladies followed. This lets the creator god off the hook for defective creations – it becomes the fault of humans. Although one could argue that the god created something prone to defects.

    Also it lets the god off the hook for fixing the problems, because a secondary argument is usually made that the god does not interfere with free will.

    Of course, how the act of sinning would change genetic processes is not explained. Nor do I think there is an adequate explanation of why children should bare the burden of this supposed sin. Or why free will seemingly trumps everything including love.

  • andrea

    Thanks for your words, Terrance.

    Enigma, since God knew that humanity would do what it did and put the potential for falling in there, a defect, I would think that God is totally responsible (Adam addressed this in one of his essays). Free will can be argued for but it falls apart when you consider that, according to the Bible, God interferes with humanity when he feels like it. Only a deistic Clockmaker comes close to actually allowing free will by not interfering.

  • EnigmaOfSteel

    Thanks I’ve been meaning to re-read some of the essays. But regarding the free will issue, by definition it would seem the creator god would have to allow for the potential of any action in it’s creations, even if this god could see into the future and know what would happen. Certainly though one could argue that a better job might have been done in creating humans, such that we would not seemingly be so predisposed to failure – at least as failure is defined by the god. If the test is one sin on earth, and in the case of a child arguably no sin, with the payment being a potential eternity in a place called Hell, then it seems to me the creation is inadequate for this test. Consider that under most forms of Christianity, the position is that no human has every passed this test. That’s a 100% failure rate. A very poor track record for that god’s creations.

    Regarding the point about the Bible, it does seem that the actions of the biblical god undermine free will arguments. One can split hairs about whether or not the god is interfering if the human still has a choice, but what kind of real choice does a human have if the god essentially says “do this or else”? It does seem the biblical god is regularly interfering in human affairs.

    I think the inspiring thing about Atheism as Adam noted, is that we can work here on earth to alleviate much of this suffering – that solutions are in our hands if we work together. Hopefully one day many of these sicknesses will be relegated to history.

  • Philip Thomas

    We can work here on earth to alleviate much of this suffering without being atheists. I admit that the worldview adam evangelises is helpful in this regard, but there’s no need to exclude people just because they have a few irrational beliefs.

    Andrea, I’m not sure how I define worship: I’m not at all happy about saying it is something a deity needs. It certainly does not consist merely in believing in said deity: according to the New Testament the devils believed in Jesus, but they did not worship him. Nor is mere obedience sufficient, and I don’t think belief and obedience is enough either.

    Not all praise is worship. Not all thanksgiving is worship. Not all recognition is worship, and not all petition is worship. And I would think this would be true even when the object of the praise, thanksgiving, recognition or petition is believed to be a deity.

    “Since Biblically”, “according to the Bible”: what do you mean by this?I can think of a number of meanings, most of which are pretty unhelpful. If you think even one clear and obvious message can be derived from the Christian Scritptures on their own, you have greater faith than I do!

  • EnigmaOfSteel

    We can work here on earth to alleviate much of this suffering without being atheists. I admit that the worldview adam evangelises is helpful in this regard, but there’s no need to exclude people just because they have a few irrational beliefs.

    I wouldn’t advocate excluding people. We all need to work together religious or not. But depending on the irrational beliefs, people could be excluding themselves from being helpful with this particular issue.

    Are there not some religions whose members are against much of what modern medicine has to offer? Some will not even accept blood transfusions. These people would likely not be of much use in advancing medical science. Nor would those who believe certain diseases are a scourge from their god on the sinful. Along with those who are seemingly more interested in a supposed afterlife than the one we share here on earth. I see potential issues in dedication to solving these medical problems. Consider that if the so called “rapture” is at hand next month, people may not care much about curing cancer.

    This is not to say that atheists might not also have irrational beliefs that could hinder action on solutions to disease. The homeopathy and alternate medicine issues have been discussed on this site, and while some may have merit, I would surmise the non-religious are no strangers to holding the more scientifically dubious views.

    The thing I find inspiring about the atheist view on this matter, is that it is built on the premise that the solution is in our hands and attainable simply though our ingenuity, without involvement of an inscrutable supernatural force. And it removes what the atheist would argue is a significant amount of wasted time in appealing to and trying to divine the workings of these supernatural forces. But how atheists decide to run with this is a good question.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    This is not a valid argument against theism itself. Theism is merely the belief in a personal God: this God need not be all-powerful nor need he or she have created the universe, and so it may well be that he or she cannot do anything about human suffering…

    Strictly speaking, it’s true, the argument from evil would be ineffectual against theists who believe in a god that was indifferent to human suffering, or one that lacked the power to do anything about it. But no major religion that I know of believes either of those things. On the contrary, religions that hold to belief in a personal god (which describes the religions of the vast majority of humanity) near-universally claim that that god is omnipotent, loving, and morally good. The argument I present in this article retains its full force against such a religion.

  • Philip Thomas

    Quite so.

    Now, if one assumes that a maximally benevolent being exists and has existed for some time, it follows that this being is doing everything it can to prevent suffering. It is quite simply logically impossible that there is anything else it can do, for if there was, it would have done it.

    Given that it is logically impossible for such a being to do anything more to prevent suffering than it is already doing, it follows that such a being could be omnipotent, in the sense that it can do anything that it is logically possible to do.

    Of course, this in no way proves the existence of such a being, but it at least shows its existence is not impossible.

  • Void

    But it’s not logically impossible for god to prevent more suffering than he already is, there are thousands of crimes and natural disasters that god supposedly cannot prevent that we can prevent or at least minimize the effects of.

  • Philip Thomas

    If God could prevent them, he would (assuming he is maximally benevolent). Since he doesn’t prevent them, he can’t. That we can prevent them is irrelevant: we are not God.

  • andrea

    “”Since Biblically”, “according to the Bible”: what do you mean by this?I can think of a number of meanings, most of which are pretty unhelpful. If you think even one clear and obvious message can be derived from the Christian Scritptures on their own, you have greater faith than I do!”

    Ah, and that’s the problem. I would certainly expect a perfect divine being to make sure its message was clear but the Bible fails miserably as a way to figure out what God wants. What I mean by “biblically” and “according to the bible”, is just that. Genesis 3:22 can’t be much clearer than it is. Context and history is important to get the meaning but some verses are pretty much intact without any creative interpretation. If you would claim that the Bible can *only* be understood by believers or those with the “holy spirit” as some Christians do, that does bring up the question of how can anyone be expected to believe in the first place with this supposed lack of understanding.

    and omnipotent and logical don’t much go together. Omnipotent means all-powerful, totally consumingly in absolute charge of what happens in existence/universe/reality, not kinda-sorta powerful.

  • Philip Thomas

    (looks up Genesis 3:22)

    I did not mean that the Bibl can only be understood by believers or those with the Holy Spirir. I did mean that understanding the Bible is a complex process in which you need to take account context both within the text and with, in this case, the wider framework of Ancient Hebrew beliefs.

    The idea that Omnipotence is restricted by logic is quite common. You can get into all sorts of tangles otherwise.

  • Void

    Phillip, you have not shown that is logically impossible for god to prevent more suffering. The fact that we can prevent more suffering shows that there exists suffering which is not logically impossible to prevent, and it’s a very obscure definition of omnipotent that defines it as “less capable than a child”

  • Philip Thomas

    Its quite possible that God is preventing more suffering: indeed he must be preventing all the suffering he can prevent, if he exists and is maximally benevolent.

    Actually I will stop teasing you now. The argument I was using has a fatal fallacy: I will use a simpler example of it to show it up.

    1) Either God (or anythinhg really) exists or he does not exist
    2) If he does not exist, proofs that he does not exist are superfluous
    3) If he does exist, proofs that he does not exist are flawed
    4) Therefore we can discount proofs that he does not exist.

  • Alex Weaver

    I’m having a little trouble following this, but the argument you’ve been using, Philip, sounds suspiciously circular (“if god is good, therefore he prevents all the suffering he can, therefore if he is not preventing suffering he must not be able to”). And I have a drilling template to fix, so I’ll have to get back to the rest of that.

  • Philip Thomas

    Yeah, its flawed, as I said in the post before this one. It assumes God exists and fits the universe around that assumption, rather than treating God’s existence as a matter for proof.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    If God could prevent them, he would (assuming he is maximally benevolent). Since he doesn’t prevent them, he can’t. That we can prevent them is irrelevant: we are not God.

    I’m not certain I’m following you here, Philip. Are you saying that God is not all-powerful? Human beings can do things that God is unable to do?

  • Philip Thomas

    Yes.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I’m curious about this now. What is it that limits God’s power, in your view?

  • Philip Thomas

    That is a good question. The limitation also appears when we consider the problem of Divine Hiddeness, by similar reasoning.
    Like all things, God is bound by laws. What those laws are is something for further reflection (not least by me).

  • Philip Thomas

    Further reflection suggests a number of possible limiting factors.
    1) (Atheism) He doesn’t exist- this is obviously going to prevent him doing very much.
    2)(Dualism) He is limited by an equal and opposing force which is maximally malevolent. This has problems of its own, but at least its going somewhere.
    3) He can only act through human agency (including, for Christians, the agency of the Son) This leads to two further questions 1) Why? and 2) Granted that he can only act through human agencey, why does he not do so more often? It also places a Question mark over Creation.
    4)(Mysticism). We do not know what limits God’s power. This doesn’t really help!
    5) Deism: God cannot intervene in the normal workings of the Universe, after He has created it. This pretty much makes his maximal benevolence irrelevant…also Why? is still a valid inquiry here.

    I’m sure there are other possible angles as well. I shall continue to think about the matter.

  • K Brown

    Hello Ebon

    There is a response to the problem of natural evil wich, as long as I know, is entirely new. It attempts to show that what we call natural “evil” is neccesary in order to produce things we value like freewill, goodness and consciousness.

    Here it is:

    It is fairly clear that God grants the universe a great deal of freedom in the way it operates. The whole point of natural laws is that the universe can function without the need for God to step in and make adjustments the whole time to keep the show on the road. At the same time, those natural laws are not deterministic and so God has not set everything up in advance to come out a certain way. However, he does know the way it is going to turn out and so must think of the result as being good. Thus, I would say that the universe is allowed a ‘radical integrity’ and given the trouble this can cause we must assume that it is central to God’s purposes.

    So why did he not create a world where things are better than they are here? Why does he tolerate the inevitability of scarcity, evil and pain? Why not create a world where everyone has what they need and do not have a desire for more than that? I suggest that the reason for this is tied up with the idea of ‘radical integrity’ and God’s obvious desire that we should be our own creatures and not simply automatons.

    Imagine a perfect world. In that world, there are animals who never need worry about where the next meal is coming from, never need worry about finding a mate and never need worry about getting eaten. We can be absolutely sure that these animals will never evolve into conscious beings because there is simply no need to. They won’t be happy because the concept of happiness can never occur to them. Evil doesn’t exist but neither does the concept of good. They simply do not have the ability to comprehend either concept. What about love? I can’t see how that can have appeared either because love almost always involves some sort of self-privation which is impossible in a world without scarcity. Of course, God can step in and create the difficult conditions in which these ideas can develop, but that makes him even more responsible for evil than he is already. If you want a universe that enjoys radical integrity and you want love and good to develop, you have to ensure that the conditions exist for them to appear. Without scarcity, they won’t. The flip side is that scarcity gives rise to other consequences. The human desire for status is a direct evolutionary result of the fact that there is not enough to go around.

    In our universe, love and good have developed to a quite remarkable extent. This has happened because natural evil exists. This natural evil has also given rise to much moral evil because pride, violence and promiscuity have all evolved because of it. But without it, we would not be conscious of good either or, if we were, we would not be free as the concept of good would simply have been planted in our heads by God rather than being something we discover for ourselves. Thus beings who know love and good through their own efforts can only evolve in a world of privation. Otherwise, everything we value, including freewill and consciousness, simply won’t exist.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    K Brown,

    How does God know about love and goodness?

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    K Brown,
    This is not a new idea; C.S. Lewis used it.

    However, he does know the way it is going to turn out and so must think of the result as being good.

    This presupposes that god wants the outcome to be good. What evidence do you have that this is so? I would argue that the existence of hell is prima facie evidence that god is not so concerned with things being good. If evil is here for us to realize what good is, then why would it be necessary after we are dead? Why is natural evil necessary, and by that I mean earthquakes, hurricanes, etc.?

    I suggest that the reason for this is tied up with the idea of ‘radical integrity’ and God’s obvious desire that we should be our own creatures and not simply automatons.

    I won’t go into free will being logically impossible, but I will say that free will is basically your defense for why bad things happen to good people, right? god allows us to be bad through our free will so that we won’t be automatons. OK, so what about in heaven? Is there evil in heaven? If not, does that mean that all souls in heaven will be automatons? If not, why is it different there than here? If so, then why would god desire that there but not here?

    Additionally, why is natural evil necessary for us to be independent? Do I need hurricanes, tornados, etc. in order to decide for myself what I will do? Do I truly have free will if I’m not able to always choose good on my own? Surely, you believe I can’t do that else Jesus would be superfluous, right? So, at some point I have to sin, meaning that I don’t truly have free will because I have to choose evil at some point. god made this so, and if it doesn’t impinge on our free will to have to choose evil, then why would it if we desired to choose good?

    Also, I find the idea that we have to feel pain in order to know non-pain to be unconvincing. Pain is good when it tells us to stop doing whatever it is we are doing that is harming us, but why couldn’t god come up with a different signal, like a voice in our heads that says, “Stop doing that?” Instead, god set up a system where we feel pain. Why is that?

    Imagine a perfect world. In that world, there are animals who never need worry about where the next meal is coming from, never need worry about finding a mate and never need worry about getting eaten. We can be absolutely sure that these animals will never evolve into conscious beings because there is simply no need to.

    Why would god need to create strife in order to have evolution take its course?

  • K Brown

    Ebon: This knowledge comes soley from his divine nature. I’m not saying it is logically imposible to have this knowledge without experimenting evil, however, I’m arguing it would be biologically imposible.

    OMGF

    I dont believe in hell, and this is not the point anyway. The point is that dificult conditions are necesary for loving and rational beings to evolve in nature.

    I never used the free will defence, you are merely sidesteping the hole argument.

    About pain: What reason would we have to obey the voice in our heads? Pain is necesary or we would keep hurting ourselves without even realizing.

    Regarding your last question, In a perfect world, there are animals who never need worry about where the next meal is coming from, never need worry about finding a mate and never need worry about getting eaten. How could natural selection work? What traits would be passed? It will simply be unnecesary.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    K Brown, I don’t understand your position. If God is omniscient, then whatever is logically possible is possible for him, period. Are you saying that there are reasons why God cannot give us understanding of evil without our actually experiencing evil? If so, what are those reasons?

  • OMGF

    K Brown,

    I dont believe in hell, and this is not the point anyway.

    Actually, it is the point. You’re trying to apologize for the evil things that god does by claiming that he is good and they are necessary. Well, what is your evidence that god is good, that god wants good to happen? If you read your Bible, it’s very apparent that god is not good, what with all the genocide, rape, etc. either ordered by god or carried out by god.

    The point is that dificult conditions are necesary for loving and rational beings to evolve in nature….
    Regarding your last question, In a perfect world, there are animals who never need worry about where the next meal is coming from, never need worry about finding a mate and never need worry about getting eaten. How could natural selection work? What traits would be passed? It will simply be unnecesary.

    These two comments are related, so I’ll address both at once. You are presupposing that god had to use or chose to use evolution for some reason. That was what my question was about. Why does god need evolution? If god wanted humans to appear, why couldn’t he simply zap us into existence, with all the knowledge of good and evil already intact? Most theists think that humans are the end of evolution, that god either simply created us or went through the whole evolution process so that we would come about; we are the end product. Why go through all of that hassle to do something that he could have simply done, and without all that strife, death, killing, time, etc?

    I never used the free will defence, you are merely sidesteping the hole argument.

    You argued that god wanted us not to be automatons, which is generally a comment on free will. If it isn’t, then what is it a comment on? And, no, I’m not sidestepping anything, I’m attempting to address your specific points. If I misunderstood what you meant, then please clarify.

    About pain: What reason would we have to obey the voice in our heads? Pain is necesary or we would keep hurting ourselves without even realizing.

    Why do we obey pain? Are you saying that it would be logically impossible for god to create a signal that didn’t hurt us that we would obey to stop ourselves from hurting ourselves? You are making the mistake of the is/ought fallacy, where you take what is assume that it is what ought to be and then try to rationalize why god did it that way, while also holding sacrosanct that god only does good. This is fallacious, however. god could very easily have created signals that we would obey that would not cause us the evil of pain. And, we would have reason to obey because we were made that way, and it would keep us from hurting ourselves (further) without even realizing it.

    Besides that, why does god allow one to inflict pain on others? If the good of pain is to help us know that we should stop doing something that is damaging us, then why allow the bad aspects of pain?


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