A World in Shadow IV

In an e-mail conversation I had a few weeks ago, a theist visitor attempted to answer my argument on the problem of evil by comparing God to parents who let their children learn from work and life experience, rather than trying to shelter them from all possible harm.

My parents have money, they could have written away all my debt in an instant and then let me come chill back at home. But no, they helped me enough so that I wouldn’t starve to death, but they made me work.

There is an important problem with this, however: notice the correspondent’s acknowledgement that their parents “helped me enough”. A loving parent would not attempt to shelter their child from everything disagreeable in the world, but neither would they stand by and do nothing if that child was suffering or in imminent need of help. But no such being as God has ever been observed to help human beings in similarly dire straits.

I made this point in my reply:

And yet, God (if he exists) does let thousands of people starve to death each day, as well as doing nothing while they suffer and die from many other agonizing, horrendous ailments. How do you think that affects your analogy?

Not surprisingly, I never heard back from this person. However, I’d like to enlarge on this point.

In 2007, an annual TED Prize (for “Technology, Entertainment, Design”) was awarded to the photographer James Nachtwey, whose work documents raw, powerful images of people whose lives have been destroyed by war, natural disasters, or other catastrophes. One image in particular, taken in the Sudan in 1993, is a stomach-turning glimpse of what famine can do to a person. Here is a link to that image (warning: disturbing photo).

For those who don’t wish to click on it, the image depicts a man on his hands and knees, crawling in the dirt past a crude hut. The man himself is impossibly thin and frail, every single curve and joint of his bones visible and sharply delineated, like a skeleton draped in skin. It seems unbelievable that a person in such a state could possibly be alive.

Let us make our mistakes, fine. Let us learn from hard experience. I can accept that, in a world ordered like ours, these things are a vital part of personal growth and the development of wisdom and maturity. But to believe that there is a loving and righteous god who hovers around us, who watches over us, and yet does nothing as his children wither into such a state – this clashes head-on with all notions of reason and morality. The idea that this god is all-powerful and in control of everything, inescapably implying that he withheld the rains and sent the droughts that cause famines like this to happen, is an even more cruel and callous farce. Even if we add the element of human interference, either intentional or through mismanagement, as a contributing factor in many famines, this does not change this conclusion in the slightest.

For all that atheism is accused of being a heartless philosophy, the idea that there is a God who can avert famine and other catastrophes, but instead sits by and does nothing, is a far more revolting and misery-inducing idea. The idea of help available but arbitrarily withheld is much more frustrating and depressing than the idea of help not available at all. Instead, we must learn that we live in a cosmos that does not bend to our needs or listen to our pleas, and that the only assistance and compassion that exists or that we can expect to receive must ultimately come from 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.

  • Tom

    The problem I’ve always had with that particular theodicy is that parents become more “hands off” for several reasons that are not applicable to God. For example, parents let children make some of their own mistakes because:

    1. Parents know they are not infallible and (in certain matters) perhaps the child may develop a different and more accurate understanding of the world if left to follow their own preferences.

    2. Parents know they are not omnipresent or immortal, so they want children to develop decision making skills because they know they will not always be available in the moment to provide guidance.

    3. Parents are not omnipotent and therefore eventually not be able to provide for the child’s every need without the child’s active involvement.

    These limitations obviously do not apply to God, and I think the disjoint between the two is fatal to this form of theodicy.

  • http://stupac2.blogspot.com Stuart Coleman

    I was having a very similar argument with one of my friends. She admitted that she can never know why those awful things happen, but wouldn’t give up her mythology.

  • Polly

    Often, misery is described in terms of preparation/character development, like boot camp training.

    Here’s my addition to Tom’s list:

    4. Parents allow their kids to deal with challenges because they are preparing them for INDEPENDENCE. Nowhere does god ever want humans to be independent of him; quite the opposite! Independence from God is a major sin in the Bible, and I would guess the same for the Koran.

    Another NT teaching nullifies any idea of preparing people for the world to come. Each believer’s own soul will be perfected in an instant when JC returns. This is because even their best efforts in this world are “as filthy rags.” The hardships don’t get you any closer to the perfection that’s expected of the Bible-god; so, all this is pointless, gratuitous suffering.

    There is the concept of “rewards” for suffering. But, there’s no morality in it. People suffer all kinds of things that, given the choice, they’d avoid. What system rewards people just for suffering? Why not eliminate the suffering, that would be a great reward. If it’s to build up faith, then I have to ask: What’s the point of developing the personality trait of faith when in the end it will be completely eliminated (upon seeing the evidence)?

    And what of the “unsaved”? That skeletal man is very unlikely to be a Xian. After a life of astounding hardship, does he go to hell for “original sin”/”imperfection”, because no one is “good enough” to get into heaven? (Q for literalists)

    Boot camp is for going to war, not taking a luxury cruise.

  • heliobarte

    She admitted that she can never know why those awful things happen, but wouldn’t give up her mythology.

    I wonder if she would accept the same standard of “proof” from you when you were trying to demonstrate the truth of evolution, or naturalistic cosmology, etc.

    A bit of schadenfreude is appropriate when creationists, stealth or otherwise, try to catch their opponents on the hip by setting an absurdly high standard of “proof” for things such as evolution—and then pull the cloak of mystery over any of the multitude of inexplicable tenets of their own beliefs.

    Alonzo Fyfe calls this “engineering a false belief”. I dont’ think the penalties are nearly severe enough.

  • andrea

    This is why I do dislike religion. Theists do backflips to try to make it make sense. They salve their consciences with ideas of heaven and getting one’s ‘reward’ when one dies. then they don’t have to worry about the suffering now. “it’s God’s will”. It’s sick, is what it is.

    Thinking of God as some type of parent only harms real parents. God comes off as a abusive psychotic father that punishes all children for what one might have done, or punishes for nothing at all but to “teach” others, and supposedly favors some children over others. I’m very thankful I do not believes the Christian myth anymore.

  • http://www.johnnysstew.com/cool/coolwet J

    Good post, Ebon. I’m surprised you ever bother to respond to hostile “work” emails (i.e. people responding to this blog). Really, do you expect to have a scintillating conversation with these folk?

    The usual Christian line–”God permits men to choose good or evil”–makes sense right up until you realize that 95% of human beings’ pain and suffering is not caused by other human beings but by things largely beyond the ability of human beings to affect. If one accepts, a priori, a benevolent, all-powerful, omniscient god, then it isn’t necessarily impossible to also accept that men do evil. But it IS impossible to morally explain why men die in earthquakes, floods, tsuanmi, and from infectious diseases. Especially hard to understand are those forms of suffering that do not kill people but merely cause pain, disfigurement or loss of faculties. What is the spiritual signicance of Alzheimers? Heck, I always like to deploy this bit: What, exactly, is God doing when he permits anencephaly to occur? (Warning: Only strong stomachs should click on hyperlink).

  • Jarrod

    I’d say Polly mentioned a crucial difference between a parent and God: a parent prepares his kid for independence, whereas God prepares his kids for something else – and whatever it is, it’s not what we’d call independence.

    As compelling as the post and that picture were, there were two things that bothered me.

    First, it’s a stretch to say that God does “nothing” when it comes to human suffering and even death. At the least, that contradicts the statements of many, many people who have known relief from suffering (whether physical, mental, or spiritual) thanks to what would be best described as God. You can point away at all the examples of God apparently doing nothing. But don’t then ignore all the examples of God doing something. The examples are there: abrupt changes in lifestyle; needed, yet inexplicable, turns of events; convictions maintained despite terrible circumstances; and incredible physical occurences. However you interpret those things, they would count as God doing something. And in each case, suffering – in some form, and to a corresponding extent – is alleviated.

    Second, it is hard to come up with a reasonable account of a loving God while the individual and/or independence is given highest value. If humanity is the most sanctified object, then of course human suffering seems, in light of a God, indefensible and arbitrary. But if the aim of everything is God – somehow or other – than the suffering of individuals is not sufficient grounds for rejecting God’s existence – even a loving God’s existence. The skeletal man has known more true pain than I ever will. Nonetheless, if his personal story was making me shake while I sat across from him, or even if I had actually lived a similarly traumatic life, God’s love for him and me would be unchanged.

    The presence of suffering is not meaningless – there are serious theological reasons to explain it. And God is no less loving for it. But maybe he’s loving people according to his design of everything. Demanding that God love us as we want to be loved seems to miss the point. Offered comfort is there, for everybody – but maybe God’s going to do the comforting, rather than ideas that fit into our scheme of things.

  • http://blog.dmcleish.id.au Shishberg

    Another addition to Tom’s list (if I may):

    5. Parents didn’t design their children to be fallible, have needs, and be able to suffer in the first place; they know that they can’t change any of these things, so the child is going to have to learn to survive despite them.

    If we have to learn to survive in an imperfect world – with the strong possibility of failing – doesn’t that mean that God failed to provide us with the ability to do so from birth?

  • OMGF

    Jarrod,
    Perhaps god does help alleviate the suffering of some (although we also know about Placebo effects, but whatever) but why not all? If he so loves all of us, then why would he not help all of us? He supposedly has the power to do so, but chooses not to. You determine that this is some sort of divine plan that is somehow beyond our grasp. Well, go tell the starving man that god has a plan for him and that his suffering is all well and good because of god’s plan. And, if he ends up in hell, then so be it, it’s still all part of god’s plan; god’s plan that makes us nothing more than pawns to be bandied about. It’s contradictory to the idea of a loving god.

  • lpetrich

    If suffering is such a great thing to experience, will anyone ever suffer in Heaven? After all, Heaven is supposed to be a suffering-free place where everybody is 100% happy all the time.

    Also about free will, I note that Jesus Christ taught that one ought to amputate parts of one’s body that cause one to sin. Thus, is free will makes one sin, then get rid of free will.

    And having only non-evil free will would not be the calamity that some people think it is. If you are psychologically incapable of doing this or that nasty thing, do you feel that you are deficient in something great and valuable? Do you feel a terrible sense of loss if you cannot get yourself to mug some little old lady?

  • Andrew

    Once again great post! You said, “The idea of help available but arbitrarily withheld is much more frustrating and depressing than the idea of help not available at all.” I totally agree. When I believed in god when I was younger all I could only feel depressed about certain horrible things that happened to myself and others. Once I opened my eyes my outlook was much more realistic and hopeful. There was reason to angry but I didn’t have to waste the anger on a supposed god. Bottom line is if god does exist he has some explaining to do and for me life makes much more sense if he doesn’t. Thanks!

  • Polly

    @Jarrod

    Second, it is hard to come up with a reasonable account of a loving God while the individual and/or independence is given highest value. If humanity is the most sanctified object, then of course human suffering seems, in light of a God, indefensible and arbitrary. But if the aim of everything is God – somehow or other – than the suffering of individuals is not sufficient grounds for rejecting God’s existence – even a loving God’s existence.

    The part about the aim of everything being god is, if I understand you correctly, rather chilling.

    God still gets to be considered loving because Man is not worthy of the highest value, therefore it’s OK to treat humanity with horrific cruelty and criminal negligence. Then Human compassion far outstrips god’s. We don’t equate livestock life with Human life, but we go out of our way to butcher them quickly and mercifully – and that’s how we handle creatures we intend to eat.

    Only a self-centered psychopath would set his own glory above the obvious needs of others. Only a supreme egoist would choose to glorify himself over alleviating suffering. If god is using Man’s suffering as a means to his own end, isn’t he desperately selfish, rather than loving?

  • LiveandLetDrive

    “At the least, that contradicts the statements of many, many people who have known relief from suffering…thanks to what would be best described as God. You can point away at all the examples of God apparently doing nothing. But don’t then ignore all the examples of God doing something.”

    That’s just it, arbitrary suffering and arbitrary “miracles,” how is that not horrendous? I don’t see any other choices, either suffering is random or the sufferers deserve or need that suffering. You know the near randomness of suffering and success almost makes them seem like natural events without any divine wrath or benevolence behind them at all… hmm… I think we decided that about lightning a while back, it’s time to make the complete connection.

    If a parent randomly handed out beatings and praise, the child is nothing but confused. The only thing accomplished is a sick power-trip for the parent. If God exists I’m calling Social Services.

  • Mary

    That was like a couple months ago, when my sister was talking about how it must have been God that saved some person or other from dying in a plane crash. I responded with, “Doesn’t that mean that he meant for all the others to die?” She just said, “Oh.” I think she realized just how dangerous that kind of idea is.

    Religion has a big hold on my family because of several “miracles” we’ve experienced (several of us having very close shaves with death). It just doesn’t occur to them to reflect on just how many other people don’t get saved. I think its because they’ve rarely to never seen how exceeding suffering can be. When they do see it, it’s like they keep it at arms length because deep down they really do realize the implications.

  • http://mcv.planc.ee mcv

    …there is a loving and righteous god who hovers around us…

    If you ment this, really ment this, then I would say that you have a serious misconception of God (as have most people who belive in God).

  • SM

    MCV, how can any conception of god in general (as opposed to some specific version of Yahweh, say) be wrong? The concept of “god” is so vague that it can mean almost anything, especially when a theist is trying to defend his beliefs. Now, the question of whether any of these ideas of ‘god’ corresponds to reality is another issue (I think not, but that is beside the point).

  • bassmanpete

    The presence of suffering is not meaningless – there are serious theological reasons to explain it.

    But isn’t theology just a branch of study invented by people with too much intelligence but not enough common sense?

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

    If you ment this, really ment this, then I would say that you have a serious misconception of God (as have most people who belive in God).

    How sadly typical it is that an apologist would seize on one word choice in my essay while completely ignoring the argument that the entire rest of it makes.

  • Jarrod

    To hit on a few things:

    I’m not sure how we determine whether mankind is being treated with horrific cruelty and criminal negligence. Seems we just look around and inward and say “Hey! it’s bad down here!” Seems that as long as the world was such that it contained, somewhere, some felt manifestation of pain, we would be saying the same thing. I can imagine a world with less pain; I can also imagine a world with more pain. Do I take the stance that God is bad because there could be less pain in the world, or do I take the stance that God is good because there’s not more pain in the world?

    And yes, God is the the supreme egoist. But it’s an ego that we claim is good, fundamental, and loving. I’m hearing that God’s ego is responsible for the pain around the world. However, I’d say that God’s ego is responsible for the love and pleasure around the world (which, like pain, is there). God’s egoistic plans are actually supposed to be the best things for humans. I mentioned serious theological reasons for the presence of pain, and those reasons are vital, here. Pain is not to be attributed to God’s ego; pain is to be attributed to the Fall – to man, in fact. Perhaps there’s the difficulty, this “Fall” thing. But it does not at all follow from making God to be the end of everything that God goes around treating humanity terribly. That idea, to a Christian, is senseless. To atheists, it may in fact seem that way – but that’s because a coherent theology is usually not grappled with.

    And don’t forget a central tenent of Christianity: this egoist God made himself ridiculous, and experienced his own share of intense pain. Analogies break down, we know – but there’s a large difference in credibility between a military leader who’s experienced the sacrifice he’s asking his soldiers for and a military leader who hasn’t experience the sacrifice he’s asking his soldiers for. What I am not saying is ignore all this pain just to maintain a happy image of God. God, apparently, takes pain very seriously – and he can, because he experienced it. We say God’s egoist plan is loving and actually the best thing for humans – and, in fact, the most sure way out of this pain that’s most directly mankind’s own fault.

    It’s after surveying the world’s pain that believers and non-believers seem to really get into separate trains. Non-believers say, very soberly, that no loving God could allow this much pain. Believers say, even more soberly, that God is greater than all this pain. And that is such a big idea, that God’s love surpasses all this pain that we see, that I wonder if it must be experienced rather than grasped. That’s unacceptable, of course, if Humans are the end of everything. That’s why it must be kept in mind that a loving, fortunately egoist God is the end of everything.

  • heliobarte

    I’m hearing that God’s ego is responsible for the pain around the world. However, I’d say that God’s ego is responsible for the love and pleasure around the world (which, like pain, is there).

    Talk about “counting the hits and ignoring the misses”!

  • Polly

    @Jarrod:

    I’m not sure how we determine whether mankind is being treated with horrific cruelty and criminal negligence. Seems we just look around and inward and say “Hey! it’s bad down here!” Seems that as long as the world was such that it contained, somewhere, some felt manifestation of pain, we would be saying the same thing. I can imagine a world with less pain; I can also imagine a world with more pain. Do I take the stance that God is bad because there could be less pain in the world, or do I take the stance that God is good because there’s not more pain in the world?

    This is the most blatant use and abuse of relativism I’ve ever seen. Because any pain could exist, we should discount the extremes? Don’t you think god could put an upper limit on pain and we’d still get “it”?
    Blaming it on the Fall is blaming the victim. Where is the justice in condemning all of humanity for the relatively benign actions of two people? And I repeat my question, why does it have to be as bad as it is? Humans CAN tell the difference between horrific, disfiguring diseases, malnutrition, et al and common everyday problems. Even the pain of lacerations or broken bones would be OK.
    But, there are diseases that would be considered just plain torture if they were inflicted by a sentient being rather than nature.
    On top of it all, is Hell.

    If letting people starve to death and die horrific deaths by means of dreadful diseases while standing by idly, fully capable of helping but not doing so, isn’t NEGLIGENCE, then what exactly is the definition of that word?

    JC’s sacrifice not withstanding, most of Humanity is going to Hell according to strict Christian theology. You still haven’t demosntrated HOW god’s egoism is good for Humanity. In light of the avalanche of evidence to the contrary, it’s incumbant on you to support your assertion or abandon it. Even with JC, the vast majority of the human race is going to suffer eternally, so the cross’s ameliorating effects are severely limited. Surely, god could have done better. If he couldn’t, then maybe he should have reconsidered this foolhardy foray into free-will experimentation.

    Re: miraculous healings. Studies have been done which show no statistical difference between patients getting prayed for and not.

    I’ll concede that JC, in Xian theology, suffered greatly FOR humanity and this lends some strength to the assertion that the Christian god is loving. But, why does this blood-thirsty god REQUIRE so much pain? It seems like more of a neurosis, than a corollary of perfect justice. Why couldn’t he say to all of Humanity, like he said to King David, “the LORD has taken away your sin…” [2 Samuel 12:13] (Of course, god then kills an innocent baby, but that’s a different argument. God still claimed to take away David’s sin.)

    At the very least, this god should be reasonable enough to allow for doubts about his existence.

    Believers say, even more soberly, that God is greater than all this pain. And that is such a big idea, that God’s love surpasses all this pain that we see, that I wonder if it must be experienced rather than grasped.

    What does that mean that god is greater than pain? How do these things even compare? And which kind of experience are you reffering to? The burning in the bosom of Mormons, the Muslim experience, the spiritist experience? Are these ALL the same god? If not, then why trust your experience?

    That’s why it must be kept in mind that a loving, fortunately egoist God is the end of everything.

    I still don’t see how god’s being the end of everything justifies all this, other than that what you are really saying is that Human suffering means nothing, becuase god is the only really important one. For a being to take that stance regarding himself is still supremely evil – case in point, Satan.

  • heliobarte

    Studies have been done which show no statistical difference between patients getting prayed for and not.

    And the cure rate for Lourdes is below chance.

    Dare I mention Susan Blackmore?

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

    For Jarrod:

    Do I take the stance that God is bad because there could be less pain in the world, or do I take the stance that God is good because there’s not more pain in the world?

    When God is all-powerful and capable of preventing all pain if he wishes, I think the only reasonable conclusion is the former. Your argument can be applied in an exactly analogous way to other situations where its Stockholm Syndrome-like logic can be plainly seen. For example: should a battered wife take the stance that her husband is bad because he beats her, or should she take the stance that he is good because he doesn’t beat her more than he does?

    I mentioned serious theological reasons for the presence of pain, and those reasons are vital, here. Pain is not to be attributed to God’s ego; pain is to be attributed to the Fall – to man, in fact. Perhaps there’s the difficulty, this “Fall” thing.

    Did the “Fall” remove God’s ability to assist humanity? Did it remove his desire to do so? If your answer to both these questions is no, then please, explain in more detail what you mean.

    And don’t forget a central tenent of Christianity: this egoist God made himself ridiculous, and experienced his own share of intense pain.

    If there was some grand cosmic reason why God had to bring pain upon himself to be able to do anything for humanity, then perhaps I could accept that logic. But if God is all-powerful and submits to no law above himself, then your argument cannot hold. If you believe, as Christians must believe, that God could end pain and suffering at any time but chooses not to, then the idea that he himself took human form and subjected himself to the very same torture does not mitigate the conclusion that he is morally evil. At best, it adds a bizarre layer of masochism to that conclusion.

    If I’m starving to death, I don’t want my rich friend to renounce his wealth and come suffer in the dust beside me; that doesn’t help me one bit. The utter pointlessness of such a thing, in light of what he could do but chooses not to do, would certainly undermine any claim that my friend was a compassionate and noble person for performing such an act.

  • Polly

    There’s something in the water.

    The way I look at it is, if god-belief were not so cherished, it would never withstand the moral and logical challenges it poses. Even believers would have to acknowledge that none of their other ideas, about the universe or anything else, require SO MUCH special-pleading.

    That’s to be expected, and to an extent, is a logical inevitability, if you’re talking about a being that is external to the known universe. Nevertheless, to postulate a loving and intelligent entity for whom the standards of love and logic don’t apply, is like saying that in god’s mind, 1 can, and does, equal 3; indeed, Christians say exactly this. Naturally, this is termed “mystery.” Such mysteries would have been abandoned long ago had the stakes been less than eternal life.

    But, what if it were true? What if study after study showed that prayers to the xian god got statistically significant results? What if limbs DID grow back at the Jesus-carnivals and prophets of YHWH really were the only ones who could make specific and 100% accurate predictions? Then we’d be forced to admit that he exists. And all the appeals to mystery with respect to how we can reconcile evil and god, would be the correct response. It would be a legitimate mystery.

    If god would at least allow his existence to be demonstrated, the other obstacles to belief, though still remaining, could be hurtled with these happy facts of healings in hand. But, I find nothing to hang my hat on. And the fact that a god would go out of his way to save only those who willingly put blinders on after giving the human race brains and free will can only mean that he wants those same creatures to use their freewill to subvert their intellects (AND THEIR CONSCIENCES in some cases), thus choosing him over their minds, their very selves – because HE is the end-all be-all of everything. The whole thing makes a kind of perverted sense. I would say that any theology can be made to be “coherent” once one gives up the supremacy of reason. I, for one, see no merit in making that deal.

  • Jarrod

    “choosing him over their minds, their very selves – because HE is the end-all be-all of everything. The whole thing makes a kind of perverted sense. I would say that any theology can be made to be ‘coherent’ once one gives up the supremacy of reason. I, for one, see no merit in making that deal.”

    This is worth highlighting. I pretty much agree with what the above says. I know I should explain further, but I’m just struck by the direct accuracy of the quote. As for the choosing God over mind and self, I guess atheist’s think God’s too selfish, and Christians think atheists are too selfish. In a funny role reversal, atheists seem like the close-minded stubborn ones, while Christians seem like the unprincipled lax ones.

    Am I the only who has always given up the supremacy of reason? I give up the supremacy of reason every time a piece of music moves me; or every time I spend time with a good friend without saying a word; or every time I hug my parents after seeing them; or every time I’m inwardly happy with a hard day of work. Perhaps my view of reason is too narrow. Please let me know.

    I’m confused how God – who’s being posited as the supremely good being – can’t make a convincing case that his egoism is good for humanity, yet humans are quite willing to accept human egoism as beneficial for themselves.

    But it’s a fair question: How is god’s egoism good for Humanity? I guess I thought the answer simply followed from the attributes we believe God to embody: goodness, love, justness, knowledge, wisdom, etc. Lump those adjectives under “Good” with a capital “G.” If egoism is a concern (even an exaltation) with or of the self, then if God is purely Good, God’s egoism will be a concern/exaltation of the Good. Human beings would benefit from interacting with Good, from receiving stuff from Good, or maybe just from being near Good. An egoistic God increases the Good available for humans to experience. What’s with the hell doctrine? I’ll be honest, I don’t fully grasp it, and it troubles me. But, to return to the Fall (and I’m sorry I can’t flesh out the concept more – find a theologian): if hell didn’t exist, it does seem like there’d be a lessening of the justness of God. So we want God to be less just? Which is why Jesus’ whole thing happened: maintain God’s justness, maintain God’s love, and keep God purely and perfectly Good.

    There is a difference between a battered wife and a pensive non-believer. The wife evaluates her husband within the context of a world. The non-believer is evaluating the world in the context of the world. The wife has access to standards of human behavior that do not involve her husband. The non-believer has no access to standards of morality that do not involve the world. The wife has external information on which to take a certain stance. The non-believer has no such external information. This is not relativism in the least. Pain exists, that’s for sure. What’s not for sure is whether there could/should be more or less pain. Let’s just work with what we have. From what I gather, atheists still think that that’s plenty. But we’ll get somewhere faster if we do away with the less helpful – for everyone – concepts.

    And yes, I do speculate that there is some grand cosmic reason why God had to bring pain upon himself to be able to do anything for humanity. Has something to do with preserving the nature of humans and creation as much as possible while restoring hope to a place humans had made hopeless. Again, I’d ask a theologian.

    I apologize for the length of this comment, and I know I didn’t get to everything there was to get to. I’ll keep things shorter, if with less attempted-comprehensiveness.

  • ellen

    Jarrod said:

    I’m not sure how we determine whether mankind is being treated with horrific cruelty and criminal negligence. Seems we just look around and inward and say “Hey! it’s bad down here!” Seems that as long as the world was such that it contained, somewhere, some felt manifestation of pain, we would be saying the same thing

    I can’t tell you how often I hear this canard from Christian theists. Let’s put this into perspective. Somewhere between 5 million and 10 million children under the age of five die of starvation and malnutrition-related disease every year. Virtually any feeling thinking person would put an end to that if they could. No one could convince me that there’s a legitimate reason for allowing those children to be born, suffer horrible hunger and diseases and die. How much worse is their suffering than your Christ figure? At least in the Christ myth, Jesus had the benefit of understanding why he had to suffer. How do you square those children’s misery with a benevolent, omnipotent god? Answer: you can’t, if you are honest.

    To say they are somehow guilty and deserving of this punishment because of a mythical “fall”…pah.

    The real reason Christians can’t accept the truth is that they don’t want to face the harsh reality of an unjust world.

  • Jarrod

    Quickly -

    “I can’t tell you how often I hear this canard from Christian theists.”

    Let me try to be a bit clearer about this. To me (at least), there’s a difference between decrying the pain in the world because it’s bad, and decrying the pain in the world because it could/should be less. I have nothing to say against the point that there is much horrible suffering going on; take that and run with it, if you want. But I don’t think we can start making claims about possible worlds with more or less pain. We have one world with a lot of pain. No need to talk about other worlds God should’ve created.

    So, I see a difference in asking God “How could you allow all this pain?” and saying about God “He could’ve made a world with less pain.” It has everything to do with our natural limits of perspective.

  • http://www.johnnysstew.com/cool/coolwet J

    But I don’t think we can start making claims about possible worlds with more or less pain. We have one world with a lot of pain. No need to talk about other worlds God should’ve created.

    Sure we can! We ourselves–yeah, we wretched human beings who are supposedly the cause of all that’s ill down here–have grasped and made real “possible” worlds with less pain again and again in history. We’ve largely eradicated smallpox, polio, and leprosy and we’re making serious inroads on malaria: Diseases that all caused massive pain and suffering. I predict you’ll rejoinder that by claiming these diseases were no big deal. You’d be wrong. Ever seen pictures of those iron lung wards from the pre-Salk days of polio? That we have done away with those forever says something about the availability of “better” worlds.

    If all suffering has a “purpose” then aren’t human beings who reduce suffering (be they scientists, physicians, diplomats, or even just neighborhood volunteers) therefore the worst kind of bastards? (I’ve had both Christians and Ayn Rand fanatics answer, very soberly and sincerely, that yes, they are). Oh and lots of people who do, in fact, reduce the suffering of others, do not believe in god. And those who do do not all believe in the same god. Ever hear of the Red Crescent?

  • Polly

    I doubt that a theologian would fare much better in explaining these things. I know several people who’ve received their M.Div. and I haven’t heard any better explanations other than a fancy way of saying, “I don’t know.”

    I guess I thought the answer simply followed from the attributes we believe God to embody: goodness, love, justness, knowledge, wisdom, etc. Lump those adjectives under “Good” with a capital “G.”

    We could lump those attributes under giraffe with a capital, “G” but, it still doesn’t get us any closer to demonstrating that the god that created this world is in posession of said qualities. Is there anything that LINKS god to his purported goodness? Aside from our assigning it to him, or (worse) his self-proclaimed goodness? Read on before answering that…
    In a completely natural world with no divine influene and no creator, a world of both suffering and pleasure makes sense since there’s no morally good being at the center. The presence of both, indicates an untampered nature. Sentient beings like us, like a god would be, make value judgements and work to shift the balance away from suffering. Those who do the opposite we call “psychopaths.” Even warmongers want to reduce suffering/increase happiness in their own limited scope – their own group’s at the expense of others.

    I really do want to emphasize that rejection of Christianity is NOT (usually) the result of misunderstanding or incomplete understanding. There are basic, logical holes in it that a stack of theology books and a gaggle of theologians couldn’t reconcile. 1 will never equal 3.

  • Polly

    1≠3
    (in case it doesn’t come across it’s a “not equal” sign between 1 and 3)

    I think I’m going to have a T-shirt (or something) made with this on it. It’s sufficiently terse to be enigmatic (especially to a math-phobic culture) and only the initiated are likely to get it.
    The drawback is that it says nothing about all the other superstitions in the world. However, at least in the Western world, I think this is an adequate symbol for protesting all illogical belief. That it can be expressed in the universal language of science, makes it all the better, IMHumbleO.
    It’s also a nice rejoinder to that irritating “3in1.”

  • OMGF

    @ Polly,

    Blaming it on the Fall is blaming the victim. Where is the justice in condemning all of humanity for the relatively benign actions of two people?

    You hit the nail on the head here, although I would go even further. God facilitated the act by placing then there knowing what they would do. He placed the fruit within their reach knowing they would eat it. He didn’t give them the knowledge of good and evil, so they had no way of knowing what they did was wrong until after they did it. In short, Adam and Eve were set up by god. So, god is punishing them, and all of us, for something that he caused to happen on purpose.

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

    The wife evaluates her husband within the context of a world. The non-believer is evaluating the world in the context of the world. The wife has access to standards of human behavior that do not involve her husband. The non-believer has no access to standards of morality that do not involve the world. The wife has external information on which to take a certain stance. The non-believer has no such external information.

    By this argument, a person who has never known anything but suffering and abuse should just accept this as the default state of affairs, since they have no knowledge that things can be different. It is a basic mental ability of human beings to imagine situations that do not actually obtain and compare them with the actual world. Researchers working to cure a currently incurable disease, for example, are not stymied just because they have no access to different worlds where that disease no longer exists.

    Pain exists, that’s for sure. What’s not for sure is whether there could/should be more or less pain. Let’s just work with what we have. From what I gather, atheists still think that that’s plenty. But we’ll get somewhere faster if we do away with the less helpful – for everyone – concepts.

    Thanks for the advice, Jarrod, but no thanks. The entire basis of the argument from evil is that, if God is omnipotent, he could have created worlds that differ from this one. By asking us to reject that statement a priori, you’re basically asking us to give up the argument from evil entirely. I don’t see what basis you have for that request. Why shouldn’t we try to imagine different possible worlds and compare them with this one? That is helpful precisely because it shows where our world is deficient by comparison.

    Imagine me saying to you, “We know that there is far more pain and suffering in the world than can be rationally justified. Let’s just work with that. We’ll get somewhere faster if we do away with the less helpful concepts, like the claim that there actually is a hidden reason for it all.” I have no doubt you’d lodge a protest, and rightly so, because you’d probably recognize that I was asking you to surrender your entire argument as a first assumption.

    But I don’t think we can start making claims about possible worlds with more or less pain. We have one world with a lot of pain. No need to talk about other worlds God should’ve created.

    “No need”? There is every need if we intend to discuss theodicy.

  • Alex Weaver

    Amusingly enough, I (“Azkyroth”) seem to be having basically the same argument on SHS. O.o

  • valhar2000

    Much though I disagree with you, Jarrod, I am grateful that you have not accused anyone of being “angry” yet, and instead made arguments.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Sorry to pile on you, Jarrod – you’re being beautifully honest and respectful, and I appreciate that.

    [I]f hell didn’t exist, it does seem like there’d be a lessening of the justness of God

    Not at all. I might accept that some of us (most, even?) deserve a finite amount of time in hell after we die, but not one of us deserves eternity. Eternal hellfire is an infinite injustice.

    Am I the only who has always given up the supremacy of reason? I give up the supremacy of reason every time a piece of music moves me; or every time I spend time with a good friend without saying a word; or every time I hug my parents after seeing them; or every time I’m inwardly happy with a hard day of work. Perhaps my view of reason is too narrow. Please let me know.

    The important difference between those things and the idea of an omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent God is that such things do not contradict reason. We experience them in a way that is different to rational thought, but we can still reason about them if we choose and not end up concluding that they don’t exist or make no sense.

    To me there seems to be a disconnect between the idea that God is “goodness, love, justness, knowledge, wisdom” and the idea that God created the world. The world just doesn’t look as if it was created by “goodness, love, justness, knowledge, wisdom”. That’s not to say that I’m unwilling to take the world as it is, just that the world as it is seems to contradict the idea that it was created by a God such as you describe.

  • http://thereisnobeep.blogspot.com heliobarte

    Polly: your kung fu is very good.

    I’ll hold your coat while you mop the floor with ‘em, any time.

  • terrence

    Folks, this is so simple. There are 2 approaches: No. 1, there is an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving god. The horrific things we experience in the world do not square with this idea. Therefore, we must engage in all kinds of contortions, acrobatics, painfully twisted rationalizations to make it square, or…

    Approach #2: START AT THE OTHER END. Observe and experience this world as it is, and ask, does such a world imply such a god, or no-god?

  • Wayne Essel

    Are we talking about man making God in his image (anthropomorphism) or are we talking about actual God? In other words, “If I were God, I would…”

    the presence of pain and suffering does not disprove God. If there is a God, it simply proves that we do not understand.

    If there is no god, it matters not.

    The absolute truth of the matter is not knowable, in my estimation.

    In either case, do what you can to alleviate suffering. And love each other best you can.

    I advocate using reason reasonably. Eternal matter smaller than a nuclear particle, yet containing enough energy to spawn the entire universe after it blows up is no more plausible than God, IMHO. In either case you can use logic to make your arguments from there, but in both cases the first assumption is just that, an assumption (eternal matter or eternal spirit), and selecting it is an act of faith.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    If there is a God, it simply proves that we do not understand.

    That’s not very helpful. The existence of God under such circumstances becomes an untestable hypothesis – any evidence against God simply proves that we do not understand.

    The absolute truth of the matter is not knowable, in my estimation.

    Given what I just noted, it is unsurprising that you have come to this conclusion.

  • Wayne Essel

    Lynet,

    It wasn’t my intention to be completely helpful. It was to be somewhat provocative. I believe that some things are not knowable or testable, even with our current technology and knowledge. I believe that an honest seeking of truth requires us to acknowledge that.

    We often act as though we have all the answers. We have a congruence in our bodies because our thoughts, experience, the shared thoughts and experience of our peers all line up. So, we know… However, truth is unaffected by our experience. It is what it is. But that’s MY belief and likely not shared by all.

    Is it appropriate to accept that some things are unknowable, and agree to disagree?

    How might people treat each other, or deal with suffering in that light?

    What we all seem to agree upon is that suffering is cause to act to alleviate it.

    I would favor tolerance and working together to alleviate suffering. As human beings we have the potential to agree upon and accomplish much even when we emotionally disagree on existential issues.

    Even as I write this, I can feel a certain preachiness in my tone (I apologize) and am at a loss as to how to make the point without it. So the best I can do right now is to acknowledge it. I’ve been editing the post for too long.

  • OMGF

    We often act as though we have all the answers.

    Like, when people say that god is the answer to all? Scientists generally will tell you when they don’t know something. So, where does this untrue belief in the arrogant scientist come from? Theists, on the other hand, really do know all, because they have a ready answer for everything. Unfortunately, their answers generally are no more informative than, “I don’t know.”

    However, truth is unaffected by our experience.

    What do you mean by truth? Some things are wholly true or not regardless of our experience. One does not equal three, regardless of our experiences, for instance.

  • OMGF

    Oops. Sloppy reading on my part Wayne Essel. I didn’t see the “un” in “unaffected” in the sentence that I quoted. Wow, big mistake on my part.

  • Wayne Essel

    OMGF:

    Two things:

    1.) I think anyone; scientist, layman, theist or atheist can act with such “knowing”. I’m doing it now. It is not necessarily bad unless it is also accompanied by arrogance or intolerance, etc.. All sides are capable of those vices, which are often mitigated by age and experience. I’m not pointing a finger at the “arrogant scientist”. Being a theist, I know plenty of arrogant theists. And I need to be aware of when I am arrogant, patronizing, condescending, etc., so that “Who I am doesn’t speak so loudly that you can’t hear what I am saying.” (paraphased from som long forgotten source)

    2.) Easy mistake to make. It does provide an opportunity to expand a bit, though. I might have mentioned relative “truth” which even though accompanied by congruence, peer agreement, body commotion etc. can be at odds with “Truth”, which is absolute.

  • OMGF

    Wayne Essel,
    For number 1, I have no clue what you are talking about. I was simply replying to your statement that I quoted and pointing out that “goddidit” is not an answer for anything.

    For number 2, I don’t really want to go into it, but I do find it odd when theists take a post modernist stance.

  • Alex Weaver

    I advocate using reason reasonably. Eternal matter smaller than a nuclear particle, yet containing enough energy to spawn the entire universe after it blows up is no more plausible than God, IMHO. In either case you can use logic to make your arguments from there, but in both cases the first assumption is just that, an assumption (eternal matter or eternal spirit), and selecting it is an act of faith.

    Are you actually contesting the validity of big bang theory on the grounds that it’s counter-intuitive, or am I misreading?

  • Wayne Essel

    Alex,

    Let me try to say it a different way. If you still feel that I’m saying that the big bang theory is counter intuitive, then so be it.

    The initial premise of the big bang theory, from what I have read, is eternal matter and energy. The initial premise of a theist theory is eternal consciousness. In both there is no beginning.

    I simply fail to see why one is more valid than the other. Eternal anything is not testable and must be taken as an assumption.

    To me it is a miracle that anything exists at all. There is no provable explanation for any of it. It would be hypocritical for me to say to someone, “You are wrong” given the importance of that base assumption. I also feel that the reverse is true.

    I’m very interested in making a case for open-mindedness and cooperation and truth-seeking and not so much in winning an argument about the origin of the universe. If I can’t prove either side, I must keep an open mind. Even if I favor one side over the other, which I do.

    If we are more cooperative, we can do more in the way of alleviating suffering, and furthering the well being of the human race.

  • Alex Weaver

    Unfortunately, alleviating suffering and furthering the well-being of the human race:
    A) are a goal actively opposed by some and
    B) are a goal even those who support them have different, often mutually exclusive ideas about how to accomplish, which therefore cannot all be right
    Open-mindedness and cooperation by themselves will consequently accomplish nothing. Truth-seeking is absolutely essential to any serious attempt to alleviate suffering or further the well-being of the human race, since cannot expect to accomplish either of these goals unless we know how best to work toward them, and confusing truth-seeking with “trying to win an argument” doesn’t help matters.

  • http://mcv.planc.ee mcv

    Sorry for dodging the discussion.

    What I ment to say was that to attribute such qualities (that it hovers) to God is ridiculous. It’s not an seperate entity. That’s the problem with most westernt cultures – all nouns must correspond to some thing.

    I understand that you probably weren’t trying to make the assertion that God is something that hovers, but to prove a wholly another point. But still you should try to be precise in theese kind of things.

    As for the argument in hand one could say that for God all the people in the world make up the “child of god” and while others suffer, some live in idyll. Just as in that parents analogy – sometimes parents let the children experience the bad things for themselves and sometimes they help the children.

    PS. please note that I do not represent any major (nor minor for that matter) religion.

  • OMGF

    The initial premise of the big bang theory, from what I have read, is eternal matter and energy.

    That is one possibility, but we simply don’t know enough yet to say that.

    I simply fail to see why one is more valid than the other.

    Occam’s Razor.

    To me it is a miracle that anything exists at all. There is no provable explanation for any of it.

    No provable explanation or none proven yet? Either way, if you use that gap in our knowledge to insert your god, then it is a god of the gaps fallacy.

    If I can’t prove either side, I must keep an open mind. Even if I favor one side over the other, which I do.

    That’s refreshing, but reason does demand that one side bear the burden of proof. One side of this makes positive assertions, and unless those positive assertions have been proven or at least have evidence, logic demands that we favor the other side. You seem to favor the side with no evidence, however.

    If we are more cooperative, we can do more in the way of alleviating suffering, and furthering the well being of the human race.

    Exactly, we can do more, and that’s the whole point. God obviously isn’t going to do anything about it.

  • Wayne Essel

    OMGF,

    Ironic that Occam was a Franciscan friar. Fascinating discussion about the razor here: Occam’s Razor Discussion in Wikipedia. Quite a few paragraphs about the application of the razor to theistic/atheistic theories.

    I realize that Wikipedia is not always absolutely correct. But is accessible and interesting nonetheless. Caveat emptor.

    In that discussion it appears to me that both sides have used the razor and claimed success. Anyone surprised at that?

    I don’t think it’s so much as a case of “no evidence” as much as “no testable hypothesis” I’m not trying to say that “god of the gaps” is acting in some way or filling a gap. And I don’t believe it fair to eliminate the first cause in either case when there is only one in both cases.

    What I’m saying is that either energy/matter or consciousness is first cause. I don’t see that the case is successfully made for either. You simply make your choice based upon experience and belief. I do not believe the razor applies to that choice.

  • OMGF

    Wayne Essel,

    In that discussion it appears to me that both sides have used the razor and claimed success. Anyone surprised at that?

    Actually, I’m surprised you came away from that page thinking that’s what it said. The discussion actually describes theists trying to explain away Occam’s Razor or work around it, not use it, unless I missed something.

    I don’t think it’s so much as a case of “no evidence” as much as “no testable hypothesis” I’m not trying to say that “god of the gaps” is acting in some way or filling a gap.

    That is true, there are no testable hypotheses, and therefore no evidence.

    And I don’t believe it fair to eliminate the first cause in either case when there is only one in both cases.

    That’s begging the question. We don’t know what caused the universe if there was a cause at all. Further, by your logic we could posit anything, like Baal, Thor, Zeus, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster and all of them are equally likely, so we should believe in all of them…or at least not rule them out. But, I suspect that you rule out all but Yahweh, correct? Why is that?

    What I’m saying is that either energy/matter or consciousness is first cause. I don’t see that the case is successfully made for either. You simply make your choice based upon experience and belief. I do not believe the razor applies to that choice.

    Occam applies because “goddidit” is just an extra, non-explanatory layer that isn’t necessary. “We don’t know” is the most intellectually honest answer to the question of what caused the big bang, if anything did. Adding a god layer means that not only don’t you know how the big bang worked, but now you’ve added a whole mess of other questions about this god figure. So, you’ve answered nothing and added a whole new layer of complexity and questions. Occam throws it out.

  • Jarrod

    Sorry to have been absent the past few days. And things got interesting right after my last post.

    I made up another comment with questions, but with the turn the discussion’s taken, this might be a convenient time to politely exit the conversation.

    Sad to leave things off with my own questions in mind. Hopefully they’ll come up again, later.

    Best to all.