A World in Shadow V

A while back, I came across the moving story of an individual calling himself Real Live Preacher, whose faith was shattered when he saw a young mother die while working as a hospital chaplain:

30 something. Cute. New mother with two little kids. Breast cancer. Found it too late. Spread all over. Absolutely going to die.

Jenny had only one request. “I know I’m going to die, chaplain. I need time to finish this. It’s for my kids. Pray with me that God will give me the strength to finish it.”

She showed me the needlepoint pillow she was making for her children. It was an “alphabet blocks and apples” kind of thing. She knew she would not be there for them. Would not drop them off at kindergarten, would not see baseball games, would not help her daughter pick out her first bra. No weddings, no grandkids. Nothing.

She had this fantasy that her children would cherish this thing – sleep with it, snuggle it. Someday it might be lovingly put on display at her daughter’s wedding. Perhaps there would be a moment of silence. Some part of her would be there.

I was totally hooked. We prayed. We believed. Jesus, this was the kind of prayer you could believe in. We were like idiots and fools.

A couple of days later I went to see her only to find the room filled with doctors and nurses. She was having violent convulsions and terrible pain. I watched while she died hard. Real hard.

As the door shut, the last thing I saw was the unfinished needlepoint lying on the floor.

This terrible, heartbreaking tragedy, alas, is far from the only one of its kind. Even a world where suffering and disaster were rare, lightning-like events would pose a potent challenge to belief in a benevolent god. But in our world, such tragic stories are all too common. Misery and catastrophe strike virtually every life at some point, including both believers and nonbelievers, and many people live their entire lives in pain and need. As the proliferation of theodicies show, religious believers are very far from finding a satisfactory resolution to this problem.

Yet I’m not convinced that all the effort at theodicy truly helps at all. All religious explanations for evil and suffering have in common the notion that these tragedies do not happen at random, that God has ordained them for some reason of his own. And that, to me, makes the problem even worse.

In a recent column in On Faith, Susan Jacoby makes this point bracingly clear. Simply put, an atheist never has to ask why people suffer natural evil. We do not have to ask “Why me?”, because there is no “why”. We live in a natural universe with laws that do not bow to our will, or anyone’s. Thus, when natural evil strikes, there is no reason, no intentionality behind it. Like all natural phenomena, evil is a random phenomenon, admitting of no deeper meaning.

Religious apologists may think this cold and impersonal, but I find it strangely comforting. Knowing that the suffering we incur was not our fault, that we did nothing to deserve it, is a far more appealing idea than the logical opposite, that we were being deliberately targeted by God. Believers who suffer must inevitably ask if it was punishment for something they did, or if God wanted to teach them some sort of lesson. And this problem afflicts liberal religious believers no less than conservative ones, for they all believe that God orders the world in his divine providence. Atheists, by contrast, do not have to search for a reason justifying tragedy. We know that it is an unqualified evil that should be opposed without reservation, and that the only response that is required is for us to reach out and help one another in times of need.

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.

  • TEP

    Indeed. I can think of few scenarios more terrifying than if certain religions were true – that instead of a tsunami being the tragic consequence of random natural events, it was caused, on purpose, by an all powerful maniac. To think that there exists a powerful being that goes about deliberatly making bad things happen would be far worse than believing that they happen for no reason at all. It would feel like living in a small town with a serial killer on the loose, who has killed thousands, only in this case there is absolutely no place safe from him, because he is so very powerful. He could strike you down at any time, purely by thinking about it, and there is nothing whatsoever you, or anybody else, can do to stop him. THAT would be truly terrifying.

  • Brock

    “Like flies to naughty boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.” sorry, I can’t remember who said this. Here’s another:
    “If there were gods, how could I stand not to be one?” –Neitszche

  • mackrelmint

    Thanks for this Ebon. As usual, you’ve nailed it!
    Although there are multiple reasons that I ultimately rejected my religious beliefs, one crucial turning point for me had to do with the issue of suffering, in very much the way you’ve described. I’d grown up in a very religious home and had previously used the same explanations you mentioned to justify how a good God could permit suffering. That God would use horrible events to punish or instruct did bother me and although I couldn’t discount those explanations outright at the time, I tended to use the “free will” explanation more often, invoking human error and/or perversion as contributors to evil or bad events. (Of course, as you suggested, none of these reasons were very satisfying, and particularly so for explaining suffering caused by natural disasters, such as the incredible scale of death as a result of the 2004 tsunami.)
    Although I suspect that many believers wrestle with this issue after direct experiences, for me it came after viewing the movie, Alive, which retold the true story of an Uruguayan rugby team, whose plane crashed in the Andes and whose survivors had to resort to cannibalizing those who had died. What was most horrible for me, was the depiction of the survivors calling out to God for rescue only to face an avalanche sweeping down through the wreckage, killing more of them. Ultimately, rescue came, not after God miraculously directed the searchers but only long after the search had been called off and two survivors left the wreckage and managed to get down the mountain into Chile where they found help almost three months after the initial accident.
    I’d been taught me to believe in a God who cares so much for us that he cares about even the minutest details of our lives, such that when we lose things, like car keys, he’ll tell us where to look, if we only ask. For me, there is simply to way to reconcile belief in a benevolent god who cares where my keys are but not enough to save people who cry out to him for rescue from death. I absolutely agree and know from experience, that it is MUCH more comforting to not have to explain suffering from anything other than a naturalistic perspective, freeing the victim of guilt and condemnation and leaving it to the rest of us to do our best to provide help and comfort.

  • Damien

    “Like flies to naughty boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.”

    Shakespeare. “King Lear”, I think.

  • Damien

    …On the other hand, this is a really bizarre example to use, if you want to disprove the existence of God through theodicy. What’s the tragedy here? What finally (momentarily) broke the preacher’s faith? Not that the lady died — at this point, our protagonist had seen God kill dozens of people, and he was dealing with it — but that God didn’t let her finish her needlepoint before He took her.

    The most obvious answer to this, even for a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, is that the Lord of the Universe doesn’t care about your damn needlepoint. Bad form, maybe, but then how many mortal fathers have dragged their kids away from the beach before they were done building their sandcastles?

    And of course, we have to remember that although the preacher was momentarily broken — or in our parlance, “enlightened” — by this experience, he “decided not to give up without a fight…I read the good stuff and talked with the good people.” He returned to his faith; his life was not substantially changed by the realization that The World is Sad. So…?

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Yes, yes, yes.

    I, too, am very comforted by the idea that the bad things in my life (a) aren’t my fault (well, except for the ones that are), and (b) aren’t being inflicted on me on purpose (again, except for the ones that are). When bad things happen in my life that are simply the result of cause and effect in the natural world (such as illness and aging), I can find actual positive comfort in the idea that what’s happening is happening because I’m part of the physical universe, a universe that I am not separate from but intimately connected with.

    And I sure like that better than an asshole God who not only kills a 30-year-old mother of small children, but who won’t even give her a few extra days to finish her damn needlepoint.

    But I get why people reject it. Accepting that outlook means accepting that you don’t really have very much control over your life, and things can mess you up or kill you that you can’t do a single thing about. I think for some people, that’s more frightening even than the asshole God.

    BTW, on this topic: Has everyone here read “Bless the Child?” on Surgeonsblog? One of the best things I’ve ever read on medical prayer, and very pertinent to this discussion.

    Oh, BTW: I Googled it, and it is King Lear. Act IV, scene i. “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods;/They kill us for their sport.”

  • Thumpalumpacus

    I’ll never forget the Christian who told me that my son’s mother’s breast cancer was God’s reply to my atheism. Never mind that I was the heathen and she was the Catholic. Believers so often have such warped values because they refuse to call god’s evil what it is.

  • OMGF

    Apparently even god can’t make an omelete without breaking a few eggs?

    The Xian concept of god’s benevolence is nothing more than blaming the victim writ large.

  • http://passionateatheist.blogspot.com NoAstronomer

    Very moving article, though I disagree with the use of the word ‘evil’ to describe natural tragedy. To me ‘evil’ implies a conscious decision to harm others. Since something like cancer has no choice it what it does, can it truly be evil.

  • mackrelmint

    Damien,
    sometimes it’s the realization that “God doesn’t care about your damn needlepoint” that is PART of ultimately rejecting the notion of God, not that this in and of itself disproves, or ever can disprove, God’s existence. As I described from experience, having the notion of God’s loving kindness drilled into one from childhood tends to result in believers who think God cares, even about needlepoint. When it becomes apparent that he doesn’t, this can be a crucial part of rejecting the faith…
    “So…”, I think the example Ebon provided is highly relevant.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Damien, I actually think the needlepoint thing is a very good example. Because it just shows how pissy and vindictive God would be, if he existed. The woman wasn’t asking for much. She wasn’t asking for her life to be saved. She was asking for a few extra days to finish a project that she could give to her kids as a farewell gift.

    She wasn’t being a bratty kid asking for just five more minutes at the beach. She was being an adult, accepting reality as best she could, and making a completely reasonable, heartbreakingly modest request.

    If God existed, this story would show him to be a selfish, sadistic control freak.

    People can and will argue “mysterious ways.” But that just brings us right back to the point: To say that God is good, and yet does things like this, is to say that the concepts of “good” and “evil” are meaningless. It’s saying that what we mean when we say that God is good, and what we mean when we say a person is good, are completely 100% unrelated. Saying that God is good becomes like saying that God is latlpratz. It means nothing.

    And I don’t think the words “good” and “evil” should mean nothing.

    I agree with Ebon: A world in which sickness and death happen because of physical cause and effect doesn’t just make more sense. It’s more comforting. I don’t have to make myself crazy figuring out why my own mother died when she was 45 and I was 17: what I did wrong, what she did wrong, what God was thinking. She died because she got cancer. Because that happens in human bodies sometimes. Because she was a living creature in the physical universe.

    And I don’t have to torture myself trying to figure out the motivations of the physical universe. It doesn’t have any. So I can accept it, and move on. Death sucks, and premature death sucks worse; but it’s part of the package deal of getting to be alive.

  • Polly

    Heartbreaking.
    Many religious people, rather than reject god as a result of all the pain and suffering, turn around and embrace pain. I believe the unspoken rationale is thus:

    god is good
    god allows pain
    Therefore: pain must be good for us.

    These are people who wallow in martyrdom, abusing themselves and allowing themselves to be abused. Others think nothing of inflicting pain on others, directly or indirectly, if it serves the “purposes of god.” This is why some religious rituals involve beating oneself bloody – not just in xianity.
    This goes hand in hand with self-denial for its own sake – asceticism. Somehow deprivation is viewed as good.
    What did St. Paul call it if a xian is beaten unjustly (a slave by his master)? commendable.
    Throughout the NT, suffering is spoken of in a positive light.
    “Blessed are you when you’re persecuted” – JC
    James says that you should rejoice when you encounter all kinds of trials…

    JC of course was the ultimate example and is to be emulated. Some xians lament that they are not suffering as much for their faith. Probably where they get the victim complex – they want to measure up so badly to the biblical standard, that they invent persecutions in this country.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    “This is why some religious rituals involve beating oneself bloody – not just in xianity.” — Polly

    The first time I saw the last Friday [the Muslim sabbath] of Ramadan in Teheran, in March of 1975, I was blown away. I was eight years old, but that changed me and my views on religion forever, and set me on the road to rationalty. They may not have expiated their own sins, but they certainly purged ME of one folly.

  • Polly

    @Thump,

    That’s one of the “celebrations” I had in mind. I only saw an example of it last year or the year before on the news, but the image has stuck with me.

  • camile

    I can’t dispute that bad things happen. I don’t know why bad things happen anymore than anyone else does. However, if one decides to take the position that God is responsible for everything then isn’t it necessary to say that he is responsible for all the good as well? What about all the good in the world?

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    What about all the good in the world? That’s the part that is consistent with a loving, all-powerful God. The bad stuff is the stuff that’s inconsistent with that. If you want to say that God is partly good and partly evil, then yeah, you can laud the good stuff even as you deplore the bad. But if you want to say that God is entirely good, then naturally it is the bad stuff that stands out, because that is the stuff that we simply wouldn’t expect to happen at all.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Camile, I’d venture to say you didn’t read my post very carefully. The problem of evil may be an inscrutable mystery for religious believers who are wedded to assumptions that are contradicted by the facts of the world. But for atheists, human suffering is not a mystery at all. It’s an unfortunate, though unavoidable, outcome of the random interaction of forces of nature.

    In response to your question, a being that created or allowed evil would necessarily be evil itself, regardless of any incidental good it might bring about. We would not excuse a husband who battered his wife because he occasionally took her out to dinner or did chores around the house.

  • camile

    Ebonmuse,

    Sorry, about not reading your posts better, but I got a personal response from you so I am not that sorry :)
    How do you know that human suffering is “an outcome of the random interction of forces of nature” ?

    Okay, logically yes this would make God evil, but my comment was, based on the view that God is responsible for everything, he must be responsible for the good also, correct? That means he created good and evil(and you are concluding from this that he must be evil, right?). Doesn’t this also make him good (forgive me if this is something you have already addressed)? So, what about the good?

  • Jeff T.

    I found this story very sad. When I was a young teenager, part of my training to become a future preacher was to visit the sick and elderly. I now think that it was probably wrong to be subjecting a child to such an environment. When I would read the bible next to the bed of the sick, and then pray for them, my heart was in the right place because I really did want them to be better—but, in my mind, I started to lose faith in miracles and I began to realize that mental illness, cancer, and age itself are things we simply cannot overcome by wishful thinking.

    It was hard for me to reject religion and become an atheist. But as so many atheists on this blog have stated before, god does not exist regardless of how many people claim otherwise. Living in a delusion does not make the lies of religion true.

  • Jeff T.

    I also want to add that I was often made to feel very guilty because I was taught (and in the scripture it is written) that if you have but the faith of a mustard seed, then you can move mountains. Well, what friggin ever… if someone else is suffering because my faith isn’t strong enough… then the god who created that scenario does not deserve worship.

  • J Myers

    Camile, your question has been addressed in two different posts above; what exactly do you find lacking?

    ******

    In what manner do most cancer victims die? Painful convulsions and intense suffering as described above? How is this humane? How can anyone claim (I would say acknowledge) that the euthanization of an animal might be in its best interest but then insist that a human being must always endure the horrors of any affliction until the affliction triumphs?

    ******

    This was my second comment–can I read a chapter of your book now? ;)

  • KShep

    Camille:

    So, what about the good?

    The problem here is the discrepancy of god’s supposed good acts that also result in suffering. Example: here in Michigan we just had a nasty tornado come through and toss a new modular house into a pond—killing the couple inside, as well as inflicting major damage to property all over. Yet, here was the mayor of the little town, on TV saying, “someone was watching over these people last night, look at how this tree fell between these houses….” etc. etc.

    Was god watching over that couple who died? If not, why not? He “saved” all those other people from the tornado he sent, but not the couple in the modular house? We’re supposed to believe that god has some mysterious ways to him, or a divine plan, or the couple weren’t xtian, or some other goofy excuse for what is simply the terrible aftermath of a natural phenomenon.

    Do you see the discrepancy I’m talking about? What kind of god kills people in a random act of goodness?

    This makes no sense at all, and believers will drive themselves crazy with guilt for not being a good enough xtian and letting bad things happen. Atheists understand that sometimes shit happens.

  • Jeff

    Excellent post, but I don’t think there is such a thing as “natural evil”. Attributing evil to something that happens naturally is just superstition; evil requires intentionality. I always refuse to use the word “evil” in arguments with theists, when we’re not talking about someone with the conscious ability to choose to do evil. This deflates their “Why is there evil in the world?” question. Evil is caused by people who choose to do evil, plain and simple. Bad things that happen that were not caused by someone are just unfortunate for us, based on what we prefer to happen. The universe is not out to get us, it’s indifferent, and things that are bad or good for us just happen.

  • Camile

    Jeff,
    your comment makes the most sense to me. I think you can help my confusion, but first before we go on, I want to make sure I understand what you are saying. Good and bad are subjective terms that humans use to describe if they like something or not, but the universe is neutral, is this a correct representation of your actual view(I really want your true view. I want to undertand your perspective)?

  • OMGF

    NoAstronomer,

    Very moving article, though I disagree with the use of the word ‘evil’ to describe natural tragedy. To me ‘evil’ implies a conscious decision to harm others. Since something like cancer has no choice it what it does, can it truly be evil.

    True, cancer is not evil in itself, but a god that created cancer knowing full well what it would do was committing evil. For shorthand, we call the cancer evil.

    Jeff, this speaks to your post as well.

    Camile,
    If god is responsible for good and evil, then you can not speculate that god is all-loving or all-good. Yes, god may be responsible for some good, but as Ebon pointed out, we wouldn’t let a wife-beating husband off the hook for taking her out to dinner. This speaks directly to your point. Simply asking the same question again once it has been answered is not going to get you anywhere.

  • Camile

    OMGF,

    Let me try an explain myself better. I am on an atheist website asking atheist about “good”, and (except Jeff)I keep getting responses that I am viewing as saying bad things happen God doesn’t exist. Fine, Fine, God doesn’t exist. Now I am an atheist. I am on your team we are friends. I don’t believe in God anymore. I used to believe good was defined in terms of God. I can’t do that anymore. What is good? Tell me about good.

  • Damien

    Thank you, Ms. Christina! Now I feel all vindicated and fuzzy.

  • Damien

    As far as the “needlepoint” issue goes, that goes back to Matt’s question a few posts back. That is, if God is cruel or insane or incomprehensible for whatever reason, does that necessarily show that God does not exist? After all, it’s not called “a-maltheism” or “a-eutheism”. It’s called “a-theism”: no gods at all, even of the bloodthirsty, sacrifice-demanding, pulls-wings-off-flies deities. (Who apparently used to be quite popular among Stone and Bronze Age people. Perhaps because they were more frequently exposed to circumstances that disproved an omni-benevolent God?)

  • Damien

    And as far as Camile’s question:

    I am on an atheist website asking atheist about “good”…What is good? Tell me about good.

    …I would look over http://www.ebonmusings.org/atheism/carrot&stick.html . It’s a bit wordy, but mostly worth it. ;)

  • lpetrich

    Camile, did you ever think that there was something non-tautological about God being good?

    That is, God is good for some other reason that goodness is what God decides.

    I am far from the first to note this conundrum, it was noted nearly 2400 years ago by a gentleman named Plato in his dialogue Euthyphro.

    And Camile, if you had concluded that God is good without believing that goodness is what God decides, then you’ve got a ready-made answer to the what is goodness — whatever criteria that you had earlier decided on.

  • KShep

    Camille:

    I keep getting responses that I am viewing as saying bad things happen God doesn’t exist.

    Nobody is saying “bad things happen, therefore god doesn’t exist.” What we’re saying is that theists attribute good things to god (“Thank the lord I survived Katrina!”), but do not attribute to their god the bad things (such as the many thousands of deaths from the same hurricane) that result from the same “good” acts. This enormous discrepancy is what makes no sense. God, if he exists, is either good or evil–you can’t have it both ways.

    Some theists will try to solve this dilemma by claiming that Katrina was actually a good act in disguise (“god sent that hurricane to put a stop to the upcoming gay pride parade in New Orleans”), but have no explanation as to why the hurricane also flattened the Mississippi coast. Another enormous discrepancy they can’t resolve.

    I used to believe good was defined in terms of God. What is good? Tell me about good.

    I believe you’re saying that you’ve always been taught that good doesn’t exist without god providing it, am I right? This is one of those fallacies thrown about by religious leaders throughout history. People are good, bad, and everything in between—god has nothing to do with it.

    If he did, there would never have been the pedophile priest scandal, right?

  • Angie

    @Camile

    I think one thing people are sort of glossing over is the idea that, if there is good and bad in the world, then God is BOTH good and bad. God and Satan are two sides of the same coin. But that view is not kosher. That’s what, in particular, irritates me about the “God is trying to teach you a lesson/punish you” stuff.

    Such a view would also indicate that God is really no better than the average human being – in fact – God wouldn’t live up most people’s standard of what a ‘good human being’ is. He would be like the wife beating husband – not all good and not all bad – but someone with serious problems who needs to seek help. Worthy of some sympathy if change is genuinely attempted. Worthy of worship? Not so much.

    Also – a comment about asking why bad things happen. It’s not that an atheist doesn’t need to ask why. We should always ask why. The answer has potential to be instructive. Maybe the answer to ‘why?’ is ‘because you didn’t look both ways before you crossed the street’ or ‘because you were genetically predisposed’ or even ‘because she chose to get drunk and then get behind the wheel.’ Unfortunately sometimes the answer is, in fact, ‘for no reason at all.’ It’s absolutely normal to rage because something so unfair happens. But for an atheist/agnostic you eventually have to spend your rage and your tears and accept that that’s just the way it is. Personally, I think this process makes one stronger than always having a fallback position of ‘God’s wrath, God’s lesson,’ etc.

    Re: evil requires intent – I agree. If a tornado takes out my house and kills me, it’s not evil, it’s just weather. If someone makes a device to create a tornado and purposely takes out my house and kills me, that’s evil.

    Would it be ironic of me to say “God, I love this forum?”

  • Camile

    Ipwrich,

    There is no truth in logic, it is a tool. God is good is an atomic sentence the only value it has is what you assign to it. I thought many intelligent people on both sides of this argument came to the conclusion that you can’t prove or disprove God’s exsistence from logic.

    Damien,
    Thank you, that is more of what I am trying to understand. I want to make sure I interpreted it correctly. This is what I got from the article. So, is the author saying that atheist morality is based mainly in empathy for others and a pursuit of happiness? Good then for an atheist is whatever adheres to this value system, correct?

  • Camile

    Angie,

    Thanks for your comments. I think you are saying that God doesn’t exist and that crap happens, and evil is when a human conscisely does something to harm another being? Is good then when a human conscisely does soemthing to help another being.

    Kshep,
    If God has nothing to do with good, bad and everything inbetween then trying to convince people there isn’t a God shouldn’t affect their morality, should it?

  • J Myers

    The use of “evil” in this article is perfectly consistent with one definition of evil–from dictionary.com:

    10. anything causing injury or harm: Tobacco is considered by some to be an evil.

    Clearly, there is no conscious intent underlying the effects of tobacco. Some definitions imply agency; others do not. There are even more definitions of “good.” Multiple definitions complicate the discussion; we need to be clear when someone is referring to “good vs evil” (implying agency) or “good vs bad” (things we like or do not like).

    Camile, no universal negative can be disproven, so you are correct that God cannot be disproven, anymore than you can disprove the existence of fairies. In the absence of evidence for such things, the only reasonable position is to doubt their existence.

    Some people claim that if they did not believe in eternal damnation in hell, they would simply do whatever they felt they could get away with, so for these people, not believing in God would definitely affect their morals.

  • J Myers

    I should say that not believing in God would affect their actions; they apparently see nothing immoral about doing anything they choose, they simply fear the supposed consequences.

  • http://grimrhapsody.wordpress.com Dawn Rhapsody

    Great post, Ebon. Unfortunately, it can get worse; some theists will go on to forgo medical treatment in favour of the ancient healing powers of Jesus (as you discussed a couple of posts ago).

    Camile: it’s my understanding that definitions of good and evil are quite diverse. Personally, I dislike dictionary.com’s defition because it’s too general (it could be interpreted to encompass every living organism being evil for inflicting harm on other animals and plants).

    I agree with Ebon’s definitions, outlined in his brilliant essay on morality; that is, anything act that increases net suffering and/or decreases net happiness is considered evil and vice versa. Natural disasters I consider evil because they inflict unnecessary suffering on all (due to the random interaction of physical forces and events). We can minimise their impact by predicting when they will occur, but otherwise they are all but unstoppable.

    If God has nothing to do with good, bad and everything inbetween then trying to convince people there isn’t a God shouldn’t affect their morality, should it?

    As for belief in God affecting theists’ morality, it’s hard to draw a general statement. From my experience, most theists believe that God has everything to do with good and evil, and that we’d be immoral anarchists without his rules. We, however, understand that empathy and the desire to reduce suffering in the world are intrinsic parts of being human. Until we convince theists of this, they will continue to associate lack of God with lack of morality.

  • yoyo

    as someone in the position of this mother although with a little more time, I find the fact that i dont believe in god a great comfort. if I believed it would be “why has thou forsken me” but seeing myself as part of the natural beautiful web of life that is our universe makes death, even early death understandable. Although like Judith Wright said we should all rage against the dying of the light.

  • KShep

    Camille:

    If God has nothing to do with good, bad and everything inbetween then trying to convince people there isn’t a God shouldn’t affect their morality, should it?

    Absolutely correct.

    J Myers:

    Some people claim that if they did not believe in eternal damnation in hell, they would simply do whatever they felt they could get away with, so for these people, not believing in God would definitely affect their morals.

    I have to disagree. Anyone who suddenly turned to a life of crime after leaving religion behind is a corrupt person to begin with. Further, history proves that a person’s belief in a god is no guarantee their behavior will be any more moral than anyone else’s.

    Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Benny Hinn, all deeply religious, all corrupt to the core.

    I could list more, but you get the point.

  • J Myers

    KShep, look at my follow-up post (… affect their actions…); would seem we’re saying the same thing. I concede that my original statement was inaccurate.

    Further, history proves that a person’s belief in a god is no guarantee their behavior will be any more moral than anyone else’s.

    I am well aware of that and never implied nor claimed otherwise.

    Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Benny Hinn, all deeply religious, all corrupt to the core.

    “Corrupt” is a rather charitable description of these folks :)

  • J Myers

    Dawn, dictionary.com (or any dictionary) lists all the accepted definitions of a word; the one I cited, though perhaps not the exact definition in Ebon’s mind when he wrote the post above, is at least consistent with his usage, and illustrative of the fact that “evil” need not imply intent, as some other posters have remarked.

    I’ve read Ebon’s morality essay before, and I skimmed it again via your link… I did not see “evil” defined explicitly therein, but I would say the definition you give is as good as any (though, to my original point, certainly not the only recognized one).

  • jack

    Camille:

    I thought many intelligent people on both sides of this argument came to the conclusion that you can’t prove or disprove God’s exsistence from logic.

    In my view, this depends on which God we’re talking about. The God of deism, who merely created the universe and thereafter plays no role in it, may be impossible to disprove by logical argument (although Dawkins comes close in The God Delusion), but that God is a red herring: I doubt that’s the God you worship. I suspect you worship the “omnimax” God: omnipotent, omniscient and all-loving. Correct me if I’m wrong. If you read Ebon’s essay All Possible Worlds, you’ll get what strikes my as an extremely close approximation to a logical disproof of the omnimax God, so close that I’m satisfied with it.

    The real problem, of course, is that you probably do not believe in God for logical reasons. Most theists believe in God for emotional reasons, so logical arguments to not impress them. I’m curious how you came to your belief in God. I’d be surprised if it turned out to be as a result of an exercise in pure logic.

    As for the meaning of Evil discussed by several folks, the phrase “The Problem of Evil” has, regrettably, become firmly attached to this subject for historical reasons. A much better choice would have been “The Problem of Meaningless Suffering”, but I doubt that will catch on.

  • KShep

    J Myers:

    Looks like I did indeed overlook your follow-up. Hope I didn’t come across too gruff there—I wrote it quite early in the morning!

  • Angie

    Camile:

    Re:I think you are saying that God doesn’t exist and that crap happens…

    Pretty much. I’m saying that I think it’s stupendously dubious that God exists. So small a chance that I don’t find it worth more consideration than I’ve already given it. However, I still try to keep an open mind. If real evidence existed – I don’t know what exactly that would be, mind you – that there is a God as the average Christian describes, I’d be happy to reconsider. There have been several times in my life when I’ve had my assumptions proven wrong. For the most part, I love when that happens. I love that life and other people can surprise you and show you how your path was narrow and you didn’t know it. Sometimes the surprises are disappointing. Then I try to keep perspective and not allow a nasty surprise to speak for more than the specific instance which generated it.

    …and evil is when a human conscisely does something to harm another being?

    Yep. Sometimes an action or lack of action may cause unforseen harm, but I would call that bad fortune. I think intent is the key.

    Re:Is good then when a human conscisely does soemthing to help another being.

    Yes. Again, an action or lack of action may cause unforseen joy. That’s just plain cool.

  • J Myers

    KShep, not at all; it’s not always easy to convey the precise tone one intends, so I generally assume everyone is simply stating their opinions (and I don’t think anything about your reply was even marginally antagonistic, anyway). If someone is actually trying to be gruff, it’s pretty tough to miss.

  • Paul Sheats

    There’s a great piece on Ebonmusings.org, where the “unknown purpose defense” is smacked right between the eyes:

    Though many who use this defense may not realize it, the unknown purpose theodicy effectively amounts to abandoning the claim of God’s goodness. After all, if God allows evil for reasons unknown to us, then what grounds do theists have for judging him to be morally good? Making that determination requires at least some understanding of motive and intent. If we have no idea at all why God does what he does, if the reasons for his actions are incomprehensible to us, then to be consistent we would have to say that we do not know whether he is good or evil. Certainly there is no obvious reason why disasters happen as they do, so how could any theist know that the true reason, whatever it is, is for the better and not for the worse?
    If a believer would sit down and truly try to reconcile the concepts of an unknowable God, along with the existence of evil, they would have to logically determine that there is no way to determine if God is good or evil (or totally neutral). But since logic and religious beliefs are mutually exclusive, I wouldn’t expect the logical determination to overtake the strong emotional ties to someone’s religious beliefs.

  • DaVinci

    You hear words like these on a regular basis, “they will continue to associate lack of God with lack of morality.” when I believe the opposite is true; I tend to associate belief in God with a lack of morality.” Until a plausible reason for a controlling all good god to exist in the universe, and evil in the same universe are reconciled, there is no model that can logically render theists moral, at least those who adhere to it in deed.

    The Gnostics had one of the best solutions I’ve heard, if certainly the least parsimonious that I’ve heard. They say the world (universe) was created by a lesser god who was indeed evil, but JC was from the one true god who came to save us out of this evil universe using things that make no sense to those with materialistic outlooks. This would make irrationality a virtue that is necessary to be saved from the god of the universe, which is consistent with what we see in certain religions today.

    The real tragedy in your post is that the dying woman had such a bad metaphysical outlook as to still expect that there was a god who cared about what happened to her or her offspring, that she placed so much hope in it. In all honesty, I don’t know how well I’d do in a situation like that. It is hard to deprogram theism completely in a person.

    Building a personal morality is like building a house, there are different ways to do it, but all of them rely on owning up to some basic truths about reality that form premises. If one of the premises is faulty, the whole thing is likely to fall. Looking at the way the world (obviously is) with all the good things happening to bad folk and all the bad things happening to good folk, we need to understand that although it wont disprove God, (you can’t disprove God unless you have searched the entire universe), it certainly shows us that we need a better plan for a basis of our morality.

    Personally the only excuse I can give for God’s apparent lack of concern for physical things would be that perhaps he finds that the most utile course of action regarding his interaction with the universe is to do nothing at all, wouldn’t that just be hilarious?

  • jack

    you can’t disprove God unless you have searched the entire universe

    DaVinci, I know this is just a minor peripheral point in your comment, but one hears this a lot (often from theists), so I think it deserves some scrutiny. As I stressed in my previous comment, it depends on which God we’re talking about. If it is any God that supposedly cares about the events of our lives, listens to and answers our prayers, performs miracles or intervenes in events on Earth, then we can do the necessary tests right here on Earth, without searching every nook and cranny in the universe to be sure there is no God hiding somewhere. Whenever those tests are done in a properly controlled scientific manner, there is no evidence of divine intervention. The recent double-blind study of intercessory prayer is a good example.

  • Camile

    Jack,

    You are absoultely correct my belief in God is emotional. I scrolled through All Possible Worlds, and didn’t see a logical proof in it anywhere. Even if there were a logical proof in the essay, in logic you either nail it or you don’t. There is no coming close, the beauty of logic is in it’s lack of ambiguity. It is very plausible that God doesn’t exist, but it can’t be proven through logic or science(at this time). As J Myers put it “no universal negative can be disproven”. The implications of disproving a negative would change the very foundation of modern science.

  • Camile

    Jack,
    It is an argument from atheist and theist alike. Let’s say 500 poeple prayed for the healing of a cancer patient and the patient got better, how do you know the prayer healed the patient or the cancer just went away on it’s own. (I feel like I am arguing the atheist side and you are arguing the theist side). You can’t prove it was the prayer.

  • Camile

    Jack, sorry let me clarify,

    You were saying there were no results to the prayer studies. In science just because you get no results from an experiment doesn’t prove anything. Science is based on testing theories that can be disproven, anything else is pseudoscience.

  • DaVinci

    Jack-
    I am well aware, however if I champion science then I should be held accountable to it’s method, same goes for philosophy, if there is no way to prove a negative, then I have to concede the possibility.
    Unless you read this: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/theory.html
    Cheers Russ

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    I scrolled through All Possible Worlds, and didn’t see a logical proof in it anywhere.

    It’s at the beginning of Part 2, Camile:

    Assumption (1): God exists.
    Assumption (1a): God is all-knowing.
    Assumption (1b): God is all-powerful.
    Assumption (1c): God is perfectly loving.
    Assumption (1d): Any being that did not possess all three of the above properties would not be God.
    Premise (2): Evil exists.
    Premise (3): An all-knowing being would be aware of the existence of evil.
    Premise (4): An all-powerful being would be able to eliminate evil.
    Premise (5): A perfectly loving being would desire to eliminate evil.
    Conclusion (6): Evil does not exist. (from (1),(3),(4),(5))
    Contradiction: But evil does exist. (from (2))
    Conclusion (7): There is no being that is all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly loving. (from (2),(3),(4),(5))
    Conclusion (8): God does not exist. (from (7),(1d))

    The argument is logically valid, but might be able to be disproven by denying one of its premises, as the essay notes.

  • Camile

    Lynet,

    Thanks, I scrolled over that. I was looking for a proof in symbolic logic. I am not used to proofs looking like that.

  • OMGF

    There’s a whole book devoted to disproofs of god’s existence called, The Impossibility of God. They are all logical proofs based on disproving god via defintional disproofs, deductive evil disproofs, doctrinal disproofs, multiple attribute disproofs, and single attribute disproofs. As others have said, some concepts of god are not disprovable due to the lengths that their adherents go to try and hide him from such disproofs, but others, like most mainstream Xian conceptions, are open to logical disproof.

    Camile,
    What Jack said about intercessory prayer was correct. We’ve seen no evidence to indicate that it has any affect on healing. We should see something if god does interact in our world and supposedly answers our prayers. It’s not the case where we find a cancer that goes into remission on its own and try to determine whether prayer did it or not. It’s more like a large study involving groups of cancer patients that undergo different treatments and have different groups either pray for them or not in a double-blind manner. These studies show no effect inherent to prayer.

  • Camile

    What you don’t understand is this isn’t an argument about the existence of God. It is an argument about the philosophy of modern science and logic as regards to truth. If you believe that logic and science can prove or disprove metaphysics okay, but I come from a very secular university and was taught that this is not an appropriate view anymore. Look at what you said, “we have seen no evidence to indicate”. You didn’t say we have seen no evidence to prove.

  • jack

    Camille,

    You agreed that your belief in God has its basis in emotion, not logic, so much of what follows is irrelevant, really. I know that such things can be highly personal, so you might not want to share the details on this blog. But consider this: if your feelings or emotional experience is what has convinced you of the reality of God, what would it mean if it could be determined that those emotions have a completely natural, biological origin, rather than the supernatural origin you assume?

    If you believe that logic and science can prove or disprove metaphysics okay, but I come from a very secular university and was taught that this is not an appropriate view anymore. Look at what you said, “we have seen no evidence to indicate”. You didn’t say we have seen no evidence to prove.

    If by “metaphysics” you mean something that is outside the natural universe, something that has no effect on the natural universe, something unobservable, unmeasurable and undetectable, then yes, science cannot test the existence of such a thing. The existence of a God that has these attributes cannot be tested by science. But such a God is indistinguishable from a God that does not exist, and such a God is not one that would garner many worshippers.

    In a sense, science does not really “prove” anything. Science works by formulating tentative explanations (hypotheses) for how some aspect of the natural world works. We try to think of as many alternative explanations as possible to explain that aspect. We try to make them as specific as possible, so that we can specify the different consequences of each alternative explanation. Then we do experiments to see which of the these consequences (i.e., predictions) actually occur in the real world. The hypotheses whose predictions are not confirmed are disproved. The ones whose predictions are confirmed are elevated to the status of theories. This does not mean they are proved, only that they have been tested and have not been disproved, and so are the best approximation to the truth we have at present. Better experimental techniques, new hypotheses and new observations may cause some theories to be discarded in the future. In this way science asymptotically approaches, but never reaches, The Truth. Some theories are supported by such vast quantities of evidence (i.e. so many of their predictions have been confirmed), that the chance that they will be discarded is essentially zero, although they may undergo minor refinement. The theory of evolution by natural selection is one of these.

    Way back near the start of this thread, Damian commented:

    …On the other hand, this is a really bizarre example to use, if you want to disprove the existence of God through theodicy. What’s the tragedy here? What finally (momentarily) broke the preacher’s faith? Not that the lady died — at this point, our protagonist had seen God kill dozens of people, and he was dealing with it — but that God didn’t let her finish her needlepoint before He took her.

    Why is it that the “denied needlepoint” is what broke the preacher? I suggest it is because the request for a few extra days to finish the needlepoint is just the kind of ‘miracle’ that both the patient and preacher had learned, from experience, that God is willing to do. God doesn’t restore the severed limbs of amputees. He doesn’t bring the dead back to life. He doesn’t resurrect skyscrapers that have been reduced to rubble by ten fanatics with knives. He doesn’t even find some way to keep them off the planes beforehand to prevent the disaster. But, every once in a while, if you pray for a pay raise or for your child’s measles to get better, what you pray for happens, and you can convince yourself you have witnessed a ‘miracle’.

    Russ,

    Thanks for the pointer to the essay by Carrier; most interersting!

  • Thumpalumpacus

    “You didn’t say we have seen no evidence to prove.”

    “If you believe that logic and science can prove or disprove metaphysics okay, but I come from a very secular university and was taught that this is not an appropriate view anymore.”

    Science, that branch of epistemology which deals with learning the outside world through the analysis of evidence, doesn’t prove anything; as Jack so ably stated, science is always contingent. It cannot therefore disprove god. For all we know god might show up tomorrow taking a bath in my home.

    Logic, however, can grapple with certain metaphysical concepts, as Lynet’s excellent example shows. The critical factor seems to be the definitions involved. As Lynet’s proof shows, given a certain number of definitions, we can decide whther god, or any other metaphysical concept, is internally coherent. Lynet’s post is one of the most basic and crucial reasons why I reject an Abrahamic god.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Golly, I’d better go home and scrub my bathroom now.

  • camile

    Hey guys thanks for commenting. I enjoyed this.

  • Polly

    The argument is logically valid, but might be able to be disproven by denying one of its premises, as the essay notes.

    Under selection pressures, the concept and conception of god is bound to change as the human race’s morality and technology evolve. So, this “disproof” has a shelf-life for its relevance.
    An analogy would be bacteria (not that I’m calling believers infected). We think we’ve found a cure, but all they do is mutate to accomodate the new environment until we develop more anti-biotics then they’ll adapt to those and so on, probably forever. [actually, the resistant population is already present in smll numbers and we simply wipe out their competition]

    In society, carriers of outmoded conceptions of god either “get well” and lose faith, or they are marginalized even within theistic traditions. The new generation will start out small (and probably persecuted) but eventually will grow to outnumber the those holding to the original paradigm and become dominant.

  • Brad

    Because the Evolution and the Problem of Evil thread was closed, I feel this is the next best place to put this quote from Ingersoll:

    Would an infinitely wise, good and powerful God, intending to produce men, commence with the lowest possible forms of life; with the simplest organism that can be imagined and, during immeasurable periods of time, slowly and almost imperceptibly, improve upon the rude beginning, until man was evolved? Can the intelligence of man discover the least wisdom in covering the earth with crawling, creeping horrors that live only upon the agonies and pangs of others? Who can appreciate the mercy of so making the world that all animals devour animals; so that every mouth is a slaughterhouse and every stomach a tomb? Is it possible to discover infinite intelligence and love in universal and eternal carnage? What would we think of a father who should give a farm to his children but before allowing them to take possession should plant upon it deadly shrubs and vines; should stock it with ferocious beasts and poisonous reptiles, and take pains to put a few swamps in the neighbourhood to breed malaria? Yet this is exactly what the orthodox God has done…