A World in Shadow III

A recent post from the blog Respectful Insolence, A different kind of alternative medicine “testimonial”, graphically illustrated the danger of choosing non-scientific “alternative” treatments over evidence-based medicine when faced with a potentially fatal disease. The post told the tragic story of Michaela Jakubczyk-Eckert, a woman with malignant breast cancer who decided to forsake conventional medical treatment in favor of quackery. The result was her death; but only after the cancer had progressed to a horrible phase called en cuirasse carcinoma. The etymology of this word, I assume, is related to the English word “cuirass” – a piece of armor that covers one’s body from neck to waist. And that gives a terrifying hint of what this stage of the disease entails, as Orac explains:

…a horrible, painful, and nasty manifestation of breast cancer in which the cancer grows from the breast into overlying skin and spreads along the chest wall and back in nodules that eventually coalesce into large contiguous tumor masses. When breast cancer progresses to this point, the en curasse tumor often bleeds and becomes necrotic, leaving the unfortunate woman with a chest wall covered with bloody, partially dying tumor that smells like rotting meat–mainly because it is in essence rotting meat, with living tumor in and around it.

…Indeed, if Michaela had returned to conventional medicine before she was at death’s door, her chest wall and back covered with fungating, rotting, and bleeding tumor, radiation therapy might have done wonders for her. It’s highly unlikely that it would have saved her life, but it could have prolonged it somewhat and provided palliation, making her last months far more tolerable than the horror that she faced.

There may be worse ways to die than of en curasse breast cancer, but I can’t think of very many.

I find myself agreeing with that chilling statement: I can think of few ways to die that would be worse than living out one’s final months in agony, trapped in a body that is rotting, bleeding, and decaying from the inside out. Though Michaela’s decision to trust in pseudoscience was a tragically misguided choice, it did not cause her to deserve such a fate. No loving and powerful god, if such a being existed, would ever permit people to suffer in such a manner, and the failure of any such intervention to materialize must be considered evidence that there is no such being. And if there was a being that cared for Michaela’s suffering but did not intervene because it was not powerful enough to do anything about it, then why should we call that being a god or consider it worthy of worship? As Orac points out, even human beings with the appropriate skill and expertise could have done much to alleviate her suffering, if only she had turned to them in time. If we do not worship doctors for this, why should we worship a being that can do even less?

More generally, the total absence of supernatural intervention in cases like this throughout history, and the failure of people who sought such intervention to receive it, should give us confidence in forming a strong inductive conclusion that there is no being capable of providing such help. If no intervention occurs in one case, or a few cases, then it might still be defensible to reason that a supernatural being chose not to intervene in those instances because not doing so was necessary to achieve a greater good. But when no intervention occurs in millions of cases, that theodicy becomes extremely weak.

Of note here is something that holds true in many other cases as well: while trusting in the supernatural has disastrous consequences, turning to one’s fellow humans and the value of evidence and reason can often significantly reduce the suffering imposed by an indifferent natural world. Through painstaking empirical study, we have learned that treatments such as radiation can cure or at least palliate cancer and many other kinds of illnesses. No doubt, if our study continues, we will find other treatments that are more effective still. This is how we lift the darkness from this world in shadow: not by appealing to nonexistent supernatural beings, but by working together with other people, the only source of help in times of distress that anyone can ever count on.

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.

  • http://www.gibsonian.blogspot.com Ian B Gibson

    Whenever I see footage of those long lines of people at Lourdes, waiting in vain for a miracle to cure whatever disease they happen to have, my incredulousity always turns to anger directed at those who encourage and even profit from the ignorance and desperation (and suffering) of such people.

    I read a particularly odious attempt at justifying this made by a Christian philosopher (Richard Swinburne), who attempts to rationalise why a good God allows suffering:

    Although intrinsically bad states, these difficult times often serve good purposes for the sufferers and for others. My suffering provides me with the opportunity to show courage and patience. It provides you with the opportunity to show sympathy and to help alleviate my suffering. And it provides society with the opportunity to choose whether or not to invest a lot of money in trying to find a cure for this or that particular kind of suffering.

    Incredible, I know, but this is the kind of mindset we’re up against; absolutely anything can be explained away – just so – so they’re effectively immune to criticism.

  • lpetrich

    According to Mr. Swinburne’s arguments, we ought to poison ourselves and give ourselves diseases and induce birth defects in our children so that we may have LOTS of “courage” and “patience” and “sympathy” and so forth.

    In fact, according to such arguments, the progress of modern medicine has spoiled people and allowed them to become uncompassionate impatient cowards.

    And going further, we ought to celebrate criminals for how they improve crime victims’ characters and for how their crimes provoke compassion and concern.

    And we ought to make ourselves vulnerable to natural disasters so that by becoming victims of them, we will provoke great heroism and compassion from other people.

  • http://infophilia.blogspot.com Infophile

    The really scary part is that a lot of Christians see suffering as a virtue – the infamous Mother Theresa among them. Their way of solving the Problem of Pain is to claim that pain is actually good. The cognitive dissonance would be amazing if it weren’t so tragic.

  • SM

    Your logic in the second-last paragraphs is a bit weak because you don’t go through all the possibilities implied by the problem of evil: if there were one or more gods, then either they could not care about averting such evils (not be good) or be powerless to avert them (not be omnipotent). On the other hand, readers are likely to be familiar with the problem of evil, and any theists reading are unlikely to be reassured by the option of worshiping an amoral being, or one who can’t cure cancer! (On the other hand, the number of theists willing to claim that God defines goodness and therefore is not subject to moral evaluation is frightningly high).

  • Jeff T.

    To SM:
    Ebon has a very detailed essay on that very topic on his Ebon Musings website. It is the first one listed: All Possible Worlds. It is Ebon’s logical thought pattern that that is presented in this essay that I prefer over Richard Dawkin’s deductions in The God Delusion when it comes to ‘proof’ that God does not exist.

  • TK

    Approach #1 to the problem of evil: Starting from the Front End, i.e., the traditional God exists. This does not square with the biological and moral world in which we actually live. Therefore, let us engage in all kinds of acrobatics and contortions, such as “suffering is actually good” or “why do bad things happen to good people” or ” I concede, we can’t fathom God’s ultimate plan” etc etc etc.

    Or, we can start from the Back End: To wit, looking at the world we actually live in, does it imply the existence or nonexistence of that traditional God? Voila, problem of evil solved. There is no problem if there is no god. I’ve sometimes fantasized interviewing every worshipper who left the National Cathedral “interfaith service” shortly after 9-11 with just two questions: 1) Would you have prevented 9-11 if you had the means and opportunity? and 2) If “yes” , then just who the hell are you praying to?

  • SM

    Jeff, I’ve read and enjoyed that essay along with many of the others on Ebon Musings’ website. Still, as part of a stand-alone essay, the second-last paragraph of the above post could be improved. Perhaps I am just being pedantic though!

  • Christopher

    Response to Infophile:

    Sadly, what you say is true: most Christians look at the death and decayof our bodies as the beginning of some glorious transfiguration of our spirits as they ascend to the father. What a load of shit!

    Those Christians that actually go through this kind of pain, on the other hand, tend to adopt radically different perspectives. Perhaps this is because it’s much easier to rationalize pain away when you’re not the one going through it…

  • bassmanpete

    I saw the reference to All Possible Worlds but couldn’t find it (quickly) on the site so I Googled “All Possible Worlds” and it returned EXACTLY 666,000 entries. I was going to say to everyone here “Try it yourself” but before doing this I tried it again and it returned 667,000 entries. It’s probably changed again now!

    But considering that my first search returned that particular number, is this a sign from God that even looking at the Daylight Atheism site is evil? or is it a sign from The Devil that atheism is part of his plan? I’m confused; I need some person with more intelligence than I have to tell me what I should think :)

  • http://therareoften.blogspot.com Kyle M. Terrizzi

    by far the best blog i’ve found since i started my own a few days ago. i’ll drop in often. thanks so much.

  • http://franksatheisticramblings.blogspot.com frank

    Ebon,
    You already know the standard apologetic response to this: free will. This person exercised her free will and thus she suffered for it. Glory to god and jebus in the highest. We have free will!

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

    I usually use an argument from my essay “One More Burning Bush” to respond to that argument:

    Imagine that you were a loving and devoted parent with a house near a busy highway, and you told your young child not to go out into the road because he could be hit by a car and seriously hurt or even killed. But one day, several weeks after you gave this warning, you happened to glance out the window and saw your child running toward the street and its oncoming traffic. What would you do? Would you shrug your shoulders and say, “Oh well, I warned him about the danger, it’s his choice”? Of course not! You would run out and snatch him back, away from the danger – any parent would. Are we then to believe that God, who is infinitely more loving than any human parent, in an equivalent situation chooses to do nothing? Such an interpretation casts serious doubt on the claim of his goodness, to say the least. Yet theists do not object to this behavior; few even seem to recognize that there is any incongruity.

  • Alex Weaver

    Right. A loving parent allows their children to learn from mistakes that the children “can walk away from,” so to speak (and which will not result in others being unable to “walk away” either). Similarly, a loving god (assuming the existence of viruses could be reconciled with the existence of such) might well let a person get a cold as a partial result of not bothering to put a sweater on before going out in 50-degree weather (assuming the role of being cold in depressing the immune system is really as central in causing viral colds as conventional wisdom makes it out to be), despite being able to prevent it. A loving god would not allow a person to die of breast cancer (or allow breast cancer to exist).

  • jeromy

    lpetrich, your post gave me a good chuckle. I would like to add that Christians can also work this into their busy rationalization schedule. Why, just think of all the good they can do through adultery. And just think about it! They can even teach god a lesson, by worshiping some graven idols, thusly helping god learn some patience, tolerance, and maybe a few more positive character traits that he ain’t exactly displaying to the general public. Can’t stop laughing. Somebody slap me on the back!