The meaning of human suffering is not The Meaning of Human Suffering

I started writing this a while back in response to a long, thoughtful, but ultimately misguided post at Bad Catholic on the problem of human suffering (“An Attempt to Explain Christianity to Atheists In a Manner That Might Not Freak Them Out“).

Bad Catholic’s post is a constructive bit of theologizing, pointing toward profound truths that I wholeheartedly agree with about the incarnation and the crucifixion. I’m totally down with all that Moltmann and Weil stuff. Amen. Preach it brother, as far as that goes.

But the problem is that this is not the problem. Our desire to explain human suffering, or to make sense of what it means, is a problem, but it is never, ever the problem.

The Fifth Station: Fire Capt. Chris Fields cradles Baylee Almon on April 19, 1995, in Oklahoma City. Photo by Charles Porter.

Human suffering is not primarily a metaphysical problem. It is also that, and such metaphysical conundrums are immensely important in many ways. But these philosophical and theological dilemmas are always secondary.

The meaning of human suffering is never primarily The Meaning of Human Suffering. The meaning of human suffering is to be relieved.

Hunger, for example, is not a metaphysical problem. It is an acutely, urgently physical problem. The meaning of hunger is not to be found in theodicy or philosophy or mysticism. The meaning of hunger is to be fed.

Why do the hungry suffer? For lack of food. Why do the oppressed and enslaved suffer? For want of liberation.

These are not, primarily, metaphysical puzzles for us to ponder. Such puzzles are also significant, but they mustn’t ever be confused for the most important, most urgent, or most obvious response to human suffering. Human suffering is cause for action — for individual and institutional and structural steps to relieve it and to prevent it.

This, I think, is where that Bad Catholic post goes astray. It frames the matter of human suffering as primarily something to be explained, rather than as something to be addressed. And it goes one step further into abstraction by framing the matter as something to be explained to atheists. That’s fine, as far as it goes, that can be a fascinating conversation. (As to whether BC’s explanation is something atheists will find persuasive, see responses from vorjack and Daniel Fincke.) But such apologetic concerns aren’t even a secondary matter. If we’re going to set about trying to justify The Meaning of Human Suffering, then such justification does not need to be addressed to skeptics but to those humans who are suffering.

This business of theodicy isn’t important for Christians because it may come up in the next debate with Richard Dawkins. It is important because when we encounter people going through misery, horror and pain, we don’t want to add insult to injury by responding with something glib or shallow or stupid.

That Bad Catholic post is not glib, shallow or stupid, and yet, like every primarily metaphysical response to suffering, it still is inadequate. Because, again, suffering is never primarily or exclusively metaphysical.

When it came to human suffering, Jesus always kept his eye on the ball. “For I was hungry and you gave me food,” he said. Not, “For I was hungry, and you gave me an explanation as to how the existence of hunger could be reconciled, philosophically, with belief in an all-powerful and all-loving God.” The latter gift is unlikely to be appreciated unless it accompanies the former.

Hungry people want food. That is the meaning of hunger.

“I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,” Jesus said. “I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me. …”

It exposes how far we’ve come from what Jesus was talking about — and how far removed we are from who he was talking about, “the least of these” — that this can strike us as a dodge, as some attempt to evade the question of theodicy and The Meaning of Human Suffering. That’s backwards. For the hungry, the thirsty, the alienated, the naked and the sick, all of our metaphysical thumb-sucking is the evasion. They believe, rightly, that they have the more urgent claim.

“Love is never abstract,” Wendell Berry wrote. And I suppose that is, itself, an abstract statement of an abstract thought. It’s probably not possible to avoid abstractions and theoretical musing about the nature of love or the meaning of suffering. But I think what Berry was saying was that whatever else may be true about all such theories and abstractions, if they are not also made material, then they do not matter.

“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”

“Keep warm and eat your fill,” can be an excellent thing to say to someone who is shivering and hungry. Or it can be a hideous and horrible thing to say to them. The meaning and the value of those words do not depend on the words themselves, but on what the person saying them is doing. If the speaker is, as the epistle of James says, supplying their needs, then those words are meaningful and they go a long way to addressing The Meaning of Human Suffering. But if the speaker is not meeting those needs, then the words are meaningless. If those needs are not met, then any words are meaningless — even the most profound and insightful ruminations on theodicy and metaphysics.

“As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth,” John’s Gospel says. And his disciples immediately took this as the basis for a metaphysical discussion.

“Rabbi,” they asked, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” What is the cause of this suffering? What is the meaning of it? Who is to blame? What should we think about this?

Wrong question, Jesus said. The meaning of blindness is this — and he healed the man’s eyes and restored his sight.

The meaning of human suffering is that it be relieved.

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  • AnonaMiss

    I’m trying to force myself through that blog post but, as with my attempts to read Socrates, I find myself raising objections to the writer’s basic assumptions and then growing more and more furious as they build their entire argument on sand. “LOOK”, I scream to myself. “You can’t put a brick there! What no what are you doing? Stop! Your entire argument is built around these flaws, my brain is screaming as you screw the fallacies in deeper!

    I’ve gotten as far as the explanation of how we know that god is perfect and the sheer quantity of stupid is making me want to throw something. Even if you could order everything in the universe by something as subjective as “perfection,” and consider god a “thing”, and define god as OBVIOUSLY being the most “perfect” of all things, it still wouldn’t mean he was completely perfect! It would mean he was the most perfect of all things, but you know what, if I order all of the balls in the universe by roundness, the roundest of all the balls is still not going to be completely round! 

  • Joshua

    I’m trying to force myself through that blog post but, as with my attempts to read Socrates, I find myself raising objections to the writer’s basic assumptions and then growing more and more furious as they build their entire argument on sand. “LOOK”, I scream to myself. “You can’t put a brick there! What no what are you doing? Stop! Your entire argument is built around these flaws, my brain is screaming as you screw the fallacies in deeper!”

    I also feel this reading Socrates. I’m trying to wade through Plato’s Republic, but after having this reaction to every single thing Socrates says I’ve kinda given up. At least I gave a good translation.

    Doesn’t help that his opponents are idiots who never call him on this bullshit. If the real Socrates was as portrayed by Plato, I probably would have fed the sarcastic bastard hemlock myself.

  • Jim Roberts

    And after he healed them, he told the disciples that, “We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day.”

  • LouisDoench

     So… nights off then? Good to know… ;)

  • Jim Roberts

    Heh. Something like that, really. One paraphrase of that passage reads, “As long as you can stand up, do good.”

  • Victor

     

    (((And after he healed them, he told the disciples that, “We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day.”)))

    Yes so simple and yet so complicated, “Him who sent Me”.

    “IT” seems that we must understand everything and “I” guess there’s nothing wrong in wanting to do that. The danger is that when “ME” starts to really believe that they are “gods” “IT” can be pretty scary if ya know what “I” mean?

    Gee maybe “I” should instead just start a third blog in order to try and explain this stuff as to how and why “I” see “IT” a certain way but then I might be better off opening my old “Hockey Cards Plus Business” again cause I still own over a half million sport cards to my name.
     

    I hear ya sinner vic! You can’t do that Victor cause we own the soul and spirit of those sport players and we want to hang on to “IT” so don’t sell them!

    As “I” was about to say before sinner vic interrupted “ME”. :)

    Look folks, I honestly believe that “IT” would be easier to try and understand where vampires and/or warewolves originated from before trying to figure out GOD (Good Old Dad) and that’s if they even originated at all. If “I” was to say that they were spirits, souls and/or angels in human bodies who truly thought they were gods of old but GOD (Good Old Dad) said to them, leave my children alone if ya know what’s good for ya. Most would say that “I” was going crazy cause this was just another ferry tail and me, myself and i would certainly not be able to convince them otherwise! Could we NOW?

    Listen Victor! You can’t say those things cause that’s “ONE” of the conditions which the aliens made in order to save the human race from the U>S gods which is that they didn’t want U>S (usual sinners) to know that any of them existed otherwise these human bodies might start believing that “Jesus” really knew what He was talking about when He said in so many words to be careful not to become slaves to sin and we know that was a silly statement, right Victor?

     So let’s give these clowns, I mean, let’s give U>S a chance to clone themselves first.

    OK Victor?

    Whatever ya say sinner vic cause “I’M” not in the mood to argue right NOW!?

    That’s so true Victor and besides, you’re way off topic again!

     (((Wrong question, Jesus said. The meaning of blindness is this — and he healed the man’s eyes and restored his sight.

    The meaning of human suffering is that it be relieved.)))

    Those who say they can see NOW are still blind! :(

    Thanks for setting me straight sinner vic! :)

    Peace

  • http://accidental-historian.typepad.com/ Geds

    The meaning of human suffering is that it be relieved.

    This is the inherent problem of BC’s response and an underlying difficulty in coming to agreement with Fred’s response.

    My formulation of this idea is that the response to human suffering is to attempt to relieve it.  The meaning of any human suffering on a cosmic scale is immaterial.  Human suffering is simply a byproduct of the fact that we live in a cold, cruel, impersonal universe that simply has no shits to give about us or anything else.  So Bad Catholic asks atheists to enter a discussion about how many angels are dancing on a head of a pin while Fred asks us to consider what to do in response to the fact that the angels have driven that pin into someone’s arm and they’re bleeding.

    The atheist response is to pull the pin out and put a bandage over the hole.  There are no angels to consider, only the pin and what it’s doing.  Fred and the atheist might end up taking the same action (for that matter, BC might, too).  But the atheist doesn’t need to have the metaphysical conversation in the process.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Albright/100001047690991 Michael Albright

    I agree; to atheists, human suffering isn’t a grand mystery to be reconciled with one’s comprehension of a just universe; it just is. This is a big part of apologetics, though, because in debates the suffering of those who incur suffering with no opportunity of salvation or grace invariably comes up.

    In a debate I once posited that the flood, if real, was a moral failing on the part of God and met the response that I am a hypocrite because I don’t hold natural selection to the same standard; if natural selection is real then it is founded on the suffering of literally hundreds of billions of billions of animals including humans, and so comparatively speaking, natural selection is responsible for 4 more suffering than God any 6000 year universe. I remain completely unable to convince him that natural selection, not being a moral agent, can’t be held to a moral standard, nor did he seem to grasp that I don’t actually endorse natural selection, I just accepted as an exclamation for biodiversity.

  • Carstonio

    That assumption that the universe is a just place is the whole problem, whether or not one believes in gods. 

  • JustoneK

    The idea the universe is just relates back to that idea of personal power:  if the universe/creator  is just, then I can avoid hardship by doing Right and avoiding Wrong.  When shit inevitably goes down, I spend hours agonizing what I screwed up instead of accepting that sometimes I can’t control what happens to me.

  • http://ifindaudio.blogspot.com/2010/02/joe-hill-sung-by-paul-robeson.html Murfyn

    What is a place?  Are you a place?  We are taught that the world is a cold, dead, stupid thing that has to be forced to provide food and shelter for us (am I wrong?  are we not taught that?), when in truth we are part of the world, as much a part of it as any other object or life form.  All the same problems are still there (don’t worry!) but that business of thinking of the world as dead can be dispensed with.  So you’re that much ahead of the game, see . .  .

  • Carstonio

    Another point that I don’t understand. I’m not sure who is describing the world as dead, or what that even means.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     

    The atheist response is to pull the pin out and put a bandage over the hole.

    In an ideal world, maybe. In the world we live in, the catholic or the evangelical will conclude that there is a deeper meaning to the suffering, and the atheist will decide there isn’t one. And then all three of them will go off satisfied that they’d got it sorted, ignoring the pin, the arm, and the hole.

  • Fusina

    This. This is, I think, the reason Jesus said, “If you did/did not do it to the least of these, you did/did not do it to me.”

    I am becoming a much more liberal christian as I get older. I take some things more seriously (feed the hungry etc…) and some things less seriously (err, lots that is written in the bible, for one).  I really don’t care what religion people follow, or what the skin color is, or even if they have no religion. I have come to believe that those things are irrelevant to god and should be irrelevant to us.

    I hate, hate, hate the way that people are regarded by too many members of my family. There is US, and there is them, and never the twain shall meet. My Dad does not go to my Mom’s church on sunday. He has, on occasion, gone to my brother’s church, usually when one of the grandkids is in a concert or play. This is one of the “altar call churches”, which I call them because they have one during every service (including funerals, which I know because they did during the funeral of my niece who died as a baby), and he hates them because when they start that, all of his grandkids turn to stare at him on the off chance that this time he will “repent”. This is the person who responds to alarms at my mom’s church in the middle of the night (or whenever it goes off) because “someone has to and I was available”. I think they “pray” for my repentance too, because I think that Glenn Beck and others of his ilk are not people we should be emulating, and dared to say so, which got me condemned to hell by my brother. Damn that hurt a lot. And his considering that I should just shut up and suck it up and man up and just come to the family reunion and continue being quiet because no one else wanted to hear my opinion and that my children would suffer from not hanging out with his family…

    I didn’t go. Neither did my kids or my husband. And I still, two years later, am still mourning the death of this relationship.

  • http://mistformsquirrel.deviantart.com/ mistformsquirrel

    That’s similar to what’s happened in my family.  I wish I had something to say to make it better but, yeah, I know that one  (;.;)  I’m sorry you’re going through that too.

  • flat

    well written Fred, well written.

  • MaryKaye

    I once attended a round-table “minority religion” discussion with a Scientologist, a Unitarian Pagan, a Nichiren Buddhist, a Tibetian Buddhist, and a fifth person whose affiliation I can’t remember anymore.

    After an hour or so of debate the Tibetian Buddhist said, “This is fun, and would make a good evening bull session.  But you know, it’s not all that relevant to what we need to *do*.”  Which was clearly, from her talk, show compassion to those who suffer.

    I’m not telling this as well as she did.  She made a profound impression on me, because she took her religion very seriously (she was a nun) but she didn’t take her theology overly seriously.  She came across as a person who knew what was important and gracefully made that her center.

    I also noticed that, standing in that center where she was, she was well-nigh immune to harassment attempts from the Scientologist and the Nichiren Buddhist, both of whom were a bit inclined to it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jrandyowens Randy Owens

    I once attended a round-table “minority religion” discussion with a
    Scientologist, a Unitarian Pagan, a Nichiren Buddhist, a Tibetian
    Buddhist, and a fifth person whose affiliation I can’t remember anymore.

    Was this round table at a bar?  Because I think I might have heard about that.

    (ducks, runs)

  • Andrew Wyatt

    I get what Fred is doing here, and that this is primarily a conversation between Christians about the salience of theodicy questions, but as an atheist who has no dog in that Christian  fight, it’s hard not to see  this post as a colossal dodge. Fred may not view the metaphysical Problem of Evil as particularly worth addressing from  so long as there are hungry or homeless or sick people. Fine. If propagating that idea puts more food into hungry peoples’ mouths, great. But it doesn’t erase the fact that said Problem is a logical conundrum that monotheists haven’t been able to adequately answer (after millennia!) without oodles of hand-waving. And as the recent nonsense spouted by a certain Indiana Senate candidate it *does* have an impact on the practical, tangible response to suffering, because it leads to blanket invocation of that nasty hobgoblin “God’s Plan,” whenever a Christian is confronted with a particular suffering they can’t correct (or don’t feel like correcting). Maybe that’s Bad Theology in Fred’s view, but such sloppy armchair metaphysics is staggeringly common among Christians.  People like explanations for things are this way and not that way, and Christianity’s explanations have the disadvantage of being *both* flat-out nonsensical and leading to monstrous moral outcomes. Fred seems to prefer that his fellow Christians not inspect those metaphysical questions too closely, and just focus on being benevolent to their fellow humans, which is swell, but he’s just changing the subject. If all that matters is how we treat one another, then why hold fast to a metaphysics that is logically unsound? Instead of simultaneously relying upon religious beliefs for one’s pragmatic, real-world actions *and* pretending the nonsensical metaphysics of those beliefs aren’t nonsensical, why not just set down the beliefs and treat people kindly? Millions of godless people do it every day.

    Then there’s the matter of free will, and how increasingly apparent it is that it’s an illusion. That fact seems to have fairly significant consequences for how we as a species address suffering (at least the anthropogenic kind), and it clashes strongly with the (majority) Christian view that we are all master of our actions and have complete freedom to make the choices we make.  (And, yeah, I know I’m generalizing across sects and schisms, but the “mean Christian” is not a theologian with nuanced view of free will.) It has important consequences for entire spheres of human life, such as criminal justice, but Christians can’t even engage with such debates if they’re wedded to the illusion of free will. Because they are rooted in a false metaphysics, a Christian’s answers to moral questions like “Should we engage in retributive punishment against child molesters?” are not only off-topic, they aren’t even answers for the universe in which we actually dwell.

  • konrad_arflane

     

    Then there’s the matter of free will, and the increasing scientific evidence that it is an illusion. (…) Because they are rooted in a false
    metaphysics, a Christian’s answers to moral questions like “Should we
    engage in retributive punishment against child molesters?” are not only
    off-topic, they aren’t even applicable to the universe in which we
    actually dwell.

    But the trouble is, “Should we engage in retributive punishment against child molesters?” – like any question beginning with “Should we” – only makes sense if we have free will. If we don’t, then we will engage in whatever type of punishment we will engage in, because that’s what we will do.

    Debates over the existence of free will always strike me as futile for this reason, since the logical consequences of one of the positions are that a) we are powerless to act differently based on our adopting the position (unless we were going to anyway), b) we are powerless to change the other person’s mind (unless they were going to change their mind anyway) and c) we are powerless to even STOP ARGUING (unless we were going to anyway).

    Regardless of whether free will exists, I think the safest course of action is to assume that it does. After all, if it doesn’t, it’s not *really* your fault that you were wrong…

  • Andrew Wyatt

    Observing that free will is illusory does not equal flaccid acceptance that things are unchangeable. There is a wide gulf between between recognizing that personal agency is chimerical and apathetic fatalism. Our actions still *matter* and have consequences. Causality is self-evidently still in operation.

    That said, the illusion of free will does have consequences for public policy. Perhaps when I say “Should we…” I actually mean, “Does it make any sense for us to…” Punishment as a end of criminal justice, for example, doesn’t make much sense if every individual is being tugged along by countless factors, none of which are the “will”. It makes more sense to lock up criminals for rehabilitation and public safety purposes than for punishment in such a universe.

  • Mark Z.

    Observing that free will is illusory

    Excuse me, but how does one observe that? You make vague references to “scientific evidence”, but to my knowledge nobody has built a freewillometer. How do you detect the existence of free will?

  • Joshua

    Observing that free will is illusory does not equal flaccid acceptance that things are unchangeable. There is a wide gulf between between recognizing that personal agency is chimerical and apathetic fatalism. Our actions still *matter* and have consequences. Causality is self-evidently still in operation.

    This I do not get. How are things not unchangeable if I have no agency to change them? Causality may still work but I have no agency to introduce any causes.

  • Joshua

    Also,

    That said, the illusion of free will does have consequences for public policy. Perhaps when I say “Should we…” I actually mean, “Does it make any sense for us to…”

    Personally, my main criterion for the question “Does it make any sense for us to engage in retributive punishment against child molesters?” is whether that course of action is the best we can devise to reduce the harm caused by child molesters. Whether we or they have free will is beside the point, it’s strictly an empirical criterion.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    Michael Albright:

    It doesn’t sound like your debating opponent was framing the challenge very effectively, but it is a relevant question:  Why, assuming an omni/omni/omni deity, is natural selection not a “moral agent”? If God is omnipotent, can’t we hold him responsible for everything that happens in the universe? If not, why not? What distinguishes a “natural” process like evolution by natural selection from a divine act like Noah’s flood, other than the tautological insignia of “Goddidit”?

  • AnonaMiss

    I believe the debate in question was between a creationist Christian on the one side, and a materialist atheist on the other. In which case, the question is not relevant, because the person who accepts natural selection as fact doesn’t believe it’s directed by anything that could be characterized as a person.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    It’s a relevant question for the atheist to ask of the creationist, however, or–extrapolating here–to ask of any theist who believes that A) some but not all real-world events and phenomena are directed by the hand of God, and B) God is omnipotent. 

  • Michael Albright

     Andrew: we weren’t assuming a deity, or at least I wasn’t.  The conversation was less broad than I usually like to have them (i.e., your way of thinking is not the only way; here’s what I think, here’s what Buddhists think, etc.) and thus was his Creationism vs. my materialist naturalism.  If the dichotomy is that firm, then there is an obvious distinction between divine act and natural process, explicitly the presence or lack of sentient intent.  God is a willfull being with the capacity to reason.  Natural selection is a process; the tendency of creatures better-suited to a given environment to overtake, in terms of population, creatures less well-suited, which really can’t be attributed any traits of sentient beings like empathy, understanding or interest in human affairs.  Natural selection, unlike God, can’t be said to know better — even removing God’s supposed and poorly-established omniscience (half of the plot points Genesis wouldn’t have happened if God hadn’t wandered off to some other part of existence where he couldn’t watch us, and the other half wouldn’t have happened if he’d tried any form of guidance other than retributive punishment), it’s horribly inconsistent to say that I continue to bear moral weight for Adam’s sin, but God bears none for flooding humanity out.

    The introduction of other philosophies such as theistic evolution (the acceptance that evolution happened coupled with the presumption that it was guided by God) would have probably affected that conversation, but none were involved.

  • Magic_Cracker

    As neo-animo-anarcho-dada-crypto-existential-pagan-ego-nihilist, I have no squid in this brisket, but I appreciation (and agree with) Fred’s core point — suffering exists to be alleviated. I mean, what else are you going to do with it? Put it in a Mylar bag and wait for it to appreciate? That’s what everyone did with The Death of Superman, and look how that turned out!

  • Albanaeon

    Interestingly enough, in Philosophy class we had something similar come up.  Two people were confronted with the chance to take a large amount of money from a wallet.  Both gave it back, but one (a Kantian Ethicist) struggled with the temptation for a while while the other (a Virtue Ethicist) gave it back without a thought and we were asked to judge which one had more moral worth.

    Now I lean toward Virtue Ethics myself, so it was tempting to say the latter, but really, the effect was the same, so I had to say there was no difference in moral worth.

    Now, here we have one trying to hand wave why there is suffering and Fred going basically “who cares, just fix it” and I can’t help but think how it relates to that question.  There’s a lot of thought devoted to why someone does something to the point it neglects what was actually done.  And that seems wrong to me, because I care far more about what you do than why you do it.

  • AnonymousSam

    Worse than explaining why we have suffering is the deeper question of why we must have suffering. “Why do we have suffering” is an explanation of consequence. “Why must we have suffering” is a justification of having those consequences.

    People who strive to answer the former seem so often to answer the latter without even being aware of it, and without being aware that they are painting God out as a monstrous sociopath with rules he created, can and won’t break, and which have the direct consequence of making many people (the majority?) miserable throughout a large portion of their lives. They score bonus points if their explanation (inadvertently or otherwise, though often it does seem intentional) sums to God making the majority of people miserable in order to benefit the 1% who gets to Heaven.

    In my mind, it comes down to a crucial fork: either God can’t (directly or otherwise) relieve suffering, or he won’t (because it breaks his own cosmic rules). Both of these are a condition which requires justification. Why can’t God wave his perfect hand and have us all live in comfortable harmony, or why must God have rules which apparently exist to trap us in a state of suffering (even more so if you believe most people go to Hell to suffer for eternity)?

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    Well but and yet also…

    OK, yes, the meaning of famine in Village is that there are people in Village who are starving, and who must be fed. Certainly.

    But addressing broader questions is often relevant and sometimes crucial to ensuring that those people are fed. If it turns out that they are hungry because they are using agricultural techniques ill-suited to their climate, then part of ensuring that they are fed is teaching them more useful techniques. If it turns out that they are hungry because their food is being stolen from them by a local warlord, then part of ensuring that they are fed is liberating them from said warlord. If it turns out that they are hungry because food shipments can’t get to Village, then part of ensuring that they are fed is improving Village’s transportation infrastructure. Etc. Etc. Etc.

    So if someone comes along and starts talking about the broader issues related to that famine, and how it relates to agriculture or local politics or the quality of roads or what-have-you, it’s possible that pursuing the chain of thought they’re on is far, far more effective at ensuring the hungry are fed than continuing to airlift food supplies into Village for the rest of time. In other words, maybe what they are saying really is about the meaning of hunger (which is feeding the hungry), even if it’s not obvious at first.

    Of course, it’s also possible that they’re completely full of it and distracting attention from the actual alleviation of suffering. If someone comes along and starts talking about how the famine relates to the color shoes that the people of Village wear, I will probably dismiss them as irrelevant to the real meaning of hunger. And this is because I believe addressing the color of people’s shoes does nothing to alleviate their hunger. (I might, of course, be wrong, but all I can do is draw my best conclusions from the data I have.)

    In the same spirit, if it turns out that George, who lives in Village, is sitting on top of a huge well-defended stockpile of food, and could feed everyone in Village for years if he were convinced to… well, in that case understanding George’s psychology becomes an important part of the meaning of hunger. And if I dismiss discussion of George as irrelevant to feeding the hungry, I am implicitly asserting that there is no such potential-Village-feeding George. (Of course, there might be a George, or even several, but from the perspective of feeding the village he/they are irrelevant.)

    And if it turns out that God could feed everyone in Village forever if He chose to… well, in that case understanding theology similarly becomes an important part of the meaning of hunger. And if I dismiss discussion of theology as irrelevant to feeding the hungry, I am similarly implicitly asserting that there is no such potential-Village-feeding God.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    And if I dismiss discussion of theology as irrelevant to feeding the hungry, I am similarly implicitly asserting that there is no such potential-Village-feeding God.
    This.

  • Magic_Cracker

    Why can’t God wave his perfect hand and have us all live in comfortable harmony, or why must God have rules which apparently exist to trap us in a state of suffering (even more so if you believe most people go to Hell to suffer for eternity)?

    Because God rolled  “cold, unfeeling universe” on the Random Dungeon Encounter table, and we are all “Fuuuuu-uuu-uuuuu-uuuuck, why couldn’t it just be bugbears?”

  • Madhabmatics

     God being The Great Dungeonmaster would totally explain why we have so many types of polearms

  • http://mistformsquirrel.deviantart.com/ mistformsquirrel

    I dunno, being as I suspect I’m a first level commoner bugbears would be pretty nasty.  I’m like CR 1/4… I get pwnt by housecats dammit >_<

  • Carstonio

    No disagreement about the meaning of human suffering, and no question that Bad Catholic is tragically wrong in focusing on explanations. But I don’t see any relevance for the metaphysical at all when looking at suffering. Making the subject about the metaphysical inevitably makes it about explanations, which is really about whether people who suffer did something to bring it on. Not quite the same as saying they deserve to suffer, but it still assumes that one can control the universe to some extent.

  • olsonam

    “And if I dismiss discussion of theology as irrelevant to feeding the
    hungry, I am similarly implicitly asserting that there is no such
    potential-Village-feeding God.”

    Frank addresses this in his post – he quotes Jesus over and over again. Our “potential Village feeding God” has told us over and over that we need to feed the hungry.  If I consider the theology irrelevant then it is because I’m following the example of my God.  Or am I forgetting passages in the Gospels where Jesus is debating metaphysics with the Pharisees?

  • Andrew Wyatt

    “Jesus Commanded Us To” is just an appeal to authority. It’s not an argument. Maybe following Jesus’ commands (or the commands of the people who wrote and edited the Gospels, at least) is a good behavioral shorthand (the WWJD canard), because one has judged Jesus’ moral correctness to be pretty unshakable (if not perfect) when it comes to matters of humanitarianism. It’s still doesn’t address the question of why God doesn’t feed the hungry himself. Either he can’t or he won’t, which raises the questions of why we should be worshiping him or listening to what he has to say at all.

  • Beleester

    If God’s only input is to tell you to feed the hungry, then you have to assume he’s not potentially-Village-feeding.  Because if he is potentially-Village-feeding and doesn’t feed the Village, something is very wrong (Problem of Evil, you’ve heard this one before).

    On the flip side, if all God does is tell you to feed the hungry, then what makes him so special?  George can tell you that just as well as God.

    Dave isn’t arguing that God does or doesn’t exist, but that he is not useful for alleviating suffering.  Which is kind of what Fred is saying, as well.  Fred is using Jesus as an example of what we should do, not talking about what God can do.

  • http://twitter.com/gndwyn Urthman

    I like what Fred has written here, but it does seem like he’s dodging the question.  The question is not, “How do we respond to suffering?”  the questions are: “Doesn’t suffering demonstrate that there is no God?  Or, if there is, that God is not good, can’t be trusted, and should not be worshiped?”

    This essay doesn’t answer those questions unless Fred is saying, “God allows suffering in order to give people the chance to love and help each other.”  Is that what you’re saying, Fred? If so, I don’t think it’s a very satisfying answer.  (We can’t love without suffering?  Will there be no love in heaven?  Was there no love among the Trinity before the Fall?)

  • Carstonio

    That ignore other possibilities for a god. Maybe the being doesn’t have the capability to cause for alleviate suffering. Or maybe it does have that capability but is indifferent to human suffering or even unaware of it.  Your post seems to assume that the Christian ideas for deity are the only ones on the table.

  • http://twitter.com/gndwyn Urthman

    That’s covered under the second part of the question, which is whether any God that exists is worth trusting and worshiping.  I’d say no, for a God who is indifferent to suffering or a God who is unable to do anything about it. 

    If God can’t fix the world today, why should I trust that God will ever fix it?  Why should I trust that the arc of the universe bends towards justice?  Or that all manner of thing shall be well?

  • Andrew Wyatt

    I’d say no, for a God who is indifferent to suffering or a God who is unable to do anything about it.

    Monotheism has been hand-waving this since the Book of Job was written, mostly by saying that our pitiful, finite human understanding of good is woefully inadequate compared to God’s. Which, of course, just shifts the question to why God would create humankind with such feeble brains and such a humanocentric conception of good that causes us such confusion and despair (which, is itself a form of suffering). For our own good, I suppose, in the same way that a husband occasionally has to give his wife or kids a good, hard smack.

  • Victor

     (((For our own good, I suppose, in the same way that a husband occasionally has to give his wife or kids a good, hard smack.)))

    I know that you’re being funny Andrew Wyatt! Having said that, I also know where you’re coming from butt “I” won’t start here although I could probably write a book on “IT”.

    I hear ya sinner vic! Butt who would read “IT” Victor? :)

    Peace

  • Andrew Wyatt

    FWIW, I edited my comment because it seemed unnecessarily insensitive and triggering.

  • Carstonio

    I take worship and trust off the table with such questions, because a god that deserves those things is no more or no less likely to exist than one who doesn’t. And because it implies that what we want is what should be, like the universe is being defined in human terms.

  • http://twitter.com/gndwyn Urthman

    That’s fine if you’re not interested in the question, but traditionally the “problem” of pain and suffering is specifically that suffering makes it hard to believe in a particular kind of God: one who is good, who loves us, who is worthy of our trust and worship, one who promises a Heaven free from suffering yet for some reason does not give it to us now.  And I was just pointing out that Fred’s essay doesn’t really address that problem. 

    I think I confused you because I said it raises the question of whether God exists.  I meant to say that either God doesn’t exist OR is not that sort of God, but I guess I wasn’t clear.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I was just pointing out that Fred’s essay doesn’t really address that problem.

    Well, no, of course not. Fred’s point is that that problem is a distraction from the many people who are in pain, who are in need, and who we are all capable (at least in a small way) of helping.

  • Carstonio

    Thanks for the clarification. My point was theodicy treats that particular kind of god as the only possible one, and many anti-theists argue against it to the exclusion of any other kind. Ellie is right that it is a distraction, which is why I questioned the need for even bringing up the metaphysical when talking about relieving suffering.

  • Idefeatedvoldemort

     And with your posts you distracted us to have a conversation about it so we all ended up sitting at our computers instead of going to the local soup kitchen to do some actual help. Lots of things in life distract us and we can’t always be helping so how about you and Fred and Ellie and co actually address ” the problem of evil” or just honestly admit that you haven’t got any more answers to it than any other believer has ever had?

  • EllieMurasaki

    I’m an atheist, Mr. Potter. The problem you wish me to address does not interest me.

  • Idefeatedvoldemort

    Then perhaps you could stop making excuses for those who do believe and let them come up with them all on their own? It’s miss, btw.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Sorry; your username does imply male, though. And I don’t recall making excuses for anybody. I recall pointing out that addressing the problem you wish me to address, however valuable it may be to address it, is not actually going to provide any poor people with legal assistance or health care.

  • Carstonio

    The “problem of evil” doesn’t need to be answered because it’s wholly artificial. We know that suffering exists but we don’t know if gods exist or what they might be like, and the problem starts with a particular concept for gods as if that one were obvious. Instead, suffering may be inherent to existence and we can never eliminate it entirely, but we should alleviate it when it’s in our power to do so. We don’t know if there is a life beyond this one, and that’s a big reason for alleviating the suffering of others, because we knows that our lives here are finite.

  • Idefeatedvoldemort

    You don’t seem to understand the problem of evil. Evil being inherent in our universe would rule out God’s omnipotence since even God himself couldn’t create a different kind of world. It s solves the problem but leaves us with a weaker god. For many believers this is less than ideal. If you are willing to say that god is not all-powerful or that he’s just a real nasty bastard you have pretty much solved the problem of evil. This is a real problem only for those who want a god that is at the same time allpowerful, all-loving and all-knowing. They try the find ways out of this problem of course. Fred did not and just went ahead and dismissed the whole problem.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Evil being inherent in our universe would rule out God’s omnipotence since even God himself couldn’t create a different kind of world.

    God herself couldn’t make a square circle. Does that also rule out her omnipotence?

  • Idefeatedvoldemort

    Why, of course she could. That is what being able to do everything and anything means. Squares that are circles, rocks so heavy that they can’t be lifted and then lifting them. You are talking about all-powerful God, not some Batman or Zeus. Omnipotent, not quite potent. What does the word omnipotent mean to you, then? Quite good at things?

  • EllieMurasaki

    Omnipotence can make a set of perpendicular straight line segments the same thing as a single curved line? ‘Cause I have been working with the definition of ‘omnipotence’ that goes ‘capable of all things that are possible’, not the one that goes ‘capable of all things, even the ones that are contradictions in terms’.

  • Idefeatedvoldemort

    Doesn’t really strike as omnipotence to me that. God, to be all-powerful, really should be capable to all. I believe there exist such theological consept as paradox of omnipotence? This I do not swear but I seem to recall the rock lifting to be example from that paradox. Omnipotence really is quite absolute. Either everything is possible or one is not omnipotent. Same with all-knowing: if there is something you do not know, you are not all-knowing. God really should be able to make your square circle or admit that he is someway limited in his powers.

    Perhaps we do see the OP differently then. I do see your point but frankly I also do think that it has a handwawing quality to it as I already wrote in my posts.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jrandyowens Randy Owens

    Omnipotence can make a set of perpendicular straight line segments the same thing as a single curved line?

    Actually, you seem to be working with a misconception of what “squaring the circle” means here.  It actually refers to taking a given circle, and using geometric methods, construct a square with exactly the same area.  And yes, it’s been proven impossible, with the universe and laws of geometry as we know them.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squaring_the_circle

    ETA: And to be fair, it looks as though Idefeatedvoldemort (Ms. Potter? Neville Longbottom?) shares your misconception.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Did I actually say ‘squaring the circle’ or did I say ‘making a square circle’? Because I’m pretty sure I said the latter, because I did in fact know what the former is, and with calculator and sufficiently precise ruler it’s quite doable, and I didn’t want to have that argument.

  • PandaRosa

    How about a “perfect” cylinder? A perfect square from the side, a perfect circle from top or bottom.

  • Carstonio

     I may or may not understand the problem of evil, but I definitely don’t understand your point. Whether some see a weaker god as less than ideal, or want an all-powerful/loving/knowing god, is irrelevant to what type of god actually exists.

  • Lori

    Some how I seriously doubt that you’d be out helping at a soup kitchen if Fred hadn’t written this post and people hadn’t commented on it.

  • Carstonio

    And I suppose my point wasn’t clear either. I don’t understand why that particular concept for a god is treated as a default. The only reason that I can think of is that people understandably want a god to have those qualities, and obviously there may be other reasons that escape me. I’m not saying that the existence of suffering disproves the existence of such a god, or of any gods.

  • Carstonio

    I’m confused. What does worship have to do with it? One can believe that a god exists without believing that the god is worthy of worship. Are you suggesting that a god that’s worth worshiping is far more likely to exist than a god that isn’t?

  • http://www.facebook.com/jrandyowens Randy Owens

    That ignore other possibilities for a god….  Your post seems to assume that the Christian ideas for deity are
    the only ones on the table, as if atheism was the only other option.

    Caveat: Urthman’s comment to which Carstonio was responding has been edited, so I might not be seeing the same comment he did.

    It looks to me like Urthman was responding to Fred’s discussion, which makes it quite reasonable to limit it to Fred’s Christian God.  On the contrary, it looks like you (Carstonio) have taken Urthman’s hypothetical no-Christian-God, and equated it to an atheist’s no-god-at-all, since Urthman simply didn’t discuss other gods, nor did he (I’m guessing) claim that it would be a mark against any other god(s).

  • Carstonio

    Here’s what Urthman originally wrote:

    the questions are: “Doesn’t suffering demonstrate that there is no God?  Or, if there is, that God is not good, can’t be trusted, and should not be worshiped?”

    I read that as assuming that any god would be as described in Christian theology, and taking the Mark Twain stance on the character of such a being. It seems to throw out the baby with the theodicean bathwater. I’ve been arguing that suffering doesn’t necessarily disprove the existence of gods of any sort, but it does call into the question the assumptions used in the theology. 

  • Ben English

    Of course I won’t claim to speak for God or any other metaphysical being that may or may not exist, but it seems to me that, if humans as they are are somehow important (not necessarily optimal, or the logical consequence of evolution, but Significant because of our sapience) then a world in which there is no suffering wouldn’t work for us. A race consistently pampered and shielded from anything it perceives as negative wouldn’t be able to relate to each other or to the Deity at anything resembling an adult level, a meaningful level. We’d be less than pets.

    That’s not to say that this God desires suffering for us. All (or nearly all) religions teach that there is a metaphysical approval of good deeds, that suffering should be alleviated. To put it pragmatically, we earth-dwelling species evolved compassion before we evolved the capacity to comprehend the horrors that can be unleashed by those who lack it. As for non-intervention, it seems to me that if we accept the idea that omnibenevolence requires God to intervene miraculously in one starving village or smite one awful human before he commits crimes, then it requires God to intervene miraculously every time, which again negates humanity’s ability to have any moral agency.

    This is how I think about this issue. But as Fred says, the metaphysical questions are of secondary importance to doing good.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     

    a world in which there is no suffering wouldn’t work for us

    I don’t know if this is true or not, though I’m inclined to doubt it. Even if I accept it for the sake of comity, though, it’s clear to me that less suffering works for us pretty well. I suffer in my life quite a bit less than many people I know, and I am nevertheless able to operate on an adult, meaningful, more-than-pet level.

    it requires God to intervene miraculously every time, which again negates humanity’s ability to have any moral agency

    And yet, all of the horrible atrocities that miraculously fail to manifest in our lives, that we don’t even know are possible and consequently don’t even have words for, haven’t robbed us of our moral agency. Why is that?

    Or have they? Do you think there’s some greater moral agency we could have, if only we were allowed to suffer those atrocities? Would you choose to suffer them, in exchange for having such agency? Would you choose for me to suffer them, in exchange for my having such agency?

  • PandaRosa

    Dave, if you are not willing for your nearest and dearest to suffer beyond all human reason, then you are not a Real True Xian. 
    Now get on your knees AT Once and pray Pray PRAY for this sorry earth to be smited again and yet again, in order that the select few (and oh let it remain ever the smallest smallest sliver) may, and I repeat MAY repent. Nevermind if Faceless God accepts them, the important thing is that they REPENT.

  • Raymond

    I’m not sure that the phrase “suffering exists to be alleviated” has much meaning. It presupposes that there is a purpose behind it, or behind anything. I think a better phrasing is “suffering exists, and the moral imperative is to alleviate it”. Suffering doesnt exist for a REASON, any more than anything else exists for a reason.  But if you have compassion, or if you think this is the only world we have, then trying to ease that suffering is the moral imperative.

  • LL

    But Fred, alleviating suffering is so much WORK, darn it. I mean, I got stuff to do. Gays to hate. Brown people to eye suspiciously. Whorish women to condemn. If I spent time actually helping people, well, I wouldn’t have time to judge them and find them wanting, as the Good Book so obviously wants me to do. C’mon. There’s only 24 hours in a day.  All those people aren’t going to judge themselves, are they? Be reasonable. 

    So you all go on and help all those people who are going to hell anyway, if you want to waste your time. I’ll be over here doing the Lord’s work, sneering contemptuously at people who fail to live up to the lofty standards that I myself never, ever fall short of (as far as anybody else knows). 

    Damn liberal pinko commies. 

  • PandaRosa

    LL, you have found out the TRUTH, the undeniable TRUTH, therefore you must be forever damned, and shut out of the LAWD’s Good Heaven, and be pitched in an Olympic-worthy dive into the Lake Of Fire.
    So sayeth Jack Chick. So believeth every True and Proper Good Xian.

  • veejayem

    And you won’t need to get your hands even slightly dirty. Or risk starting to think that free-at-source healthcare, higher taxes and/or a smaller defense budget could do an awful lot of alleviating.

    And now I’m thinking of Romney at that shelter for the homeless, washing those pre-washed dishes.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Ryan, not Romney, though I wouldn’t put it past Romney to have done the same thing if Ryan hadn’t thought of it first. Romney’s smart enough not to try it now that Ryan’s caught flak for it.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    That was Paul Ryan, not Romney.

    However Republicans are now making a concerted effort to destroy that soup kitchen with a mass exodus of donors and a flotilla of harassing phone calls.

    The party of Christian Values indeed.

  • EllieMurasaki

    However Republicans are now making a concerted effort to destroy that soup kitchen with a mass exodus of donors and a flotilla of harassing phone calls.

    Really?

    Ugh.

  • Jessica_R

    I guess this another thing that helps me clarify why I don’t believe in god. I believe humans should help each other, but this post makes me wary, as it comes dangerously close to the nonsense that “poor people were put on Earth for rich people to help them, in token amounts of course”. I know that’s not what Fred is saying at all, but still, it goes back to why I don’t bother with apologetics or the problem of evil. So much suffering just is, and so much suffer is caused, directly or indirectly by human agents and their systems of injustice and oppression. 

    In other words I actually find it a lot more comforting for there to be no God. The universe just is, and it’s up to us to behave decently, and to step up when others don’t. 

  • Andrew Wyatt

    In other words I actually find it a lot more comforting for there to be no God.

    I grok this. If the monotheistic God envisioned by the median believer were real,  the primary moral decision of my life would be whether to cower in quaking fear at His obvious sadism and insanity, or to have the courage to actually oppose Him. (How, exactly, I might oppose an omnipotent deity, I’m uncertain.  I’m counting on Him to have foolishly created a Saint of Killers who has the power to slay Him.)

  • Jim Roberts

    Or, say, if you’re flying a plane where one of his mortal scions is cackling at the death and destruction he’s wreaked, you could fly it into a cliffside.

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    (How, exactly, I might oppose an omnipotent deity, I’m uncertain. I’m counting on Him to have foolishly created a Saint of Killers who has the power to slay Him.)

    Robin Williams opined that God sometimes gets stoned (hence the existence of the platypus).  So I figure we just wait until one of those times, and strike then.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2CUJHSQSQYTYT4DPZSKTVESYNQ B

    Perhaps I’m weird, but to be honest, as a theist, I’ve never been that worried about these problems.  Perhaps it’s a byproduct of my view of God (which tends toward the panentheist rather than the “God is being outside the universe sticking a hand in messing with things) but I suppose I just figure that suffering is a result of the way the universe works and not of God per se.

    Consider the question: could God create a fully functioning human being with no head?  I would say no, not so much because of the properties of God, but because of the properties of humans (specifically, that we require brains to function). 

    So, we could ask the question, why are there earthquakes?  Couldn’t God make a planet with no earthquakes?   Maybe not… again, not so much because of the properties of God, but because of the properties of planets.  I’m no kind of expert, but it sounds like planetary scientists have suggested that an active core and plate tectonics are necessary to sustain life on a planet, and when you have plate tectonics, you’re going to have earthquakes.

    I found an interesting quote this morning in an article a FB friend linked to.  Speaking of some recent Republican statement re: rape and pregnancy, a Father Tom Reese said, “Someone getting pregnant through rape simply means biology continues to function.  That doesn’t mean God wills it.” 

    I think many of the terrible things that happen aren’t a result of an “act of God” but rather the fact that chemistry, biology, and physics continue to work the the way they always have and always will.  If you see God as an interventionist God that will step in and break the laws of physics to (say) zap or speed along individual sperm cells depending on whether God wills a woman to get pregnant, then this a problem, but personally that’s not how I see God.  YMMV.

    Of course, you could ask why chemistry/biology/physics works the way they do and not totally differently, but I guess I’m willing to take it on faith that there’s a reason for that. :-)
     

  • Andrew Wyatt

    I think many of the terrible things that happen aren’t a result of an “act of God” but rather the fact that chemistry, biology, and physics continue to work the the way they always have and always will.

    I don’t really follow this line of reasoning at all. If God established natural laws, perhaps at the beginning of time, then he can presumably break them at any time, yes?  Is he capable of straight-jacketing his own future actions by forbidding himself from taking certain actions? (Is he like a cosmic ascetic who *could* partake of meat or alcohol or sex, but *chooses* not to?) If he’s benevolent and all-knowing, why would he do this? Surely he could see that this voluntary restriction of his power would result it a great deal of suffering for humankind (not to mention every living thing)?

    Or were natural laws *not* dictated by God? Are they out of his control? If so, he’s not nearly as powerful as he would have us believe. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2CUJHSQSQYTYT4DPZSKTVESYNQ B

     Well, the idea of panentheism is that the universe is a proper subset of God (as distinct from pantheism, which says that the universe IS God).  So it’s not a view that sees God as potentially stepping in from outside the universe and breaking the laws of physics.  Rather, the laws of physics are in fact God (along with everything else plus more besides).  I assume there’s a reason they are what they are and not something totally different (I believe I’ve read that if the laws of physics were even slightly different than they are life couldn’t exist, but I’m not a cosmologist so I can neither confirm nor deny this.)  I suppose in a sense this means God isn’t omnipotent and I’m OK with that (and he’s never told me he is!) but in another sense I think it’s just not a question that makes sense to me in the context of my beliefs about the nature of God.   YMMV.

    I suppose I’m not being very articulate but I don’t know how to explain any better how I feel.  You’d probably have to go to a pantheist philosopher for that, which I most definitely am not! :-)  

  • Andrew Wyatt

    Rather, the laws of physics are in fact God (along with everything else plus more besides).

    This is a great example of why inclusive theism is just as exasperating (sometimes moreso) as exclusive theism.  It starts to erode down a gooey nub that permits no meaningful statements whatsoever.

    If God is equal to the the all-inclusive One Thing that includes the subset of the Universe, what possible effect does this have on human life, and how can it possibly be distinguished from a reality in which there are no deities at all?  How is a God that encompasses all things (the physical universe and Everything Else, whatever that Everything Else might be) revealed to us? What are the consequences of its existence, versus its non-existence?

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     

    inclusive theism [..] starts to erode down a gooey nub that permits no meaningful
    statements whatsoever. [..] what possible effect does this have on human life, and how can it
    possibly be distinguished from a reality in which there are no deities
    at all? 

    I am sympathetic to this frustration, but I ultimately don’t share it.

    Let me start with a simpler variation to explain why.

    If I assert that people have moral worth, this is not a verifiable claim. It’s not a falsifiable claim. There is no “essence of moral worth” out there in the world that I’m hypothesizing attaches to people but not to, say, rocks; I don’t anticipate that someday someone could develop a moralworthometer they could use to test my assertion. If someone else asserts that people don’t have moral worth, we’re not really disagreeing about how the world is. There’s no test anyone could perform that could determine which of us is accurate.

    But neither are we saying meaningless things. When I say that people have moral worth, I’m asserting that I value certain things more than other things. If someone else asserts that people don’t have moral worth, we’re disagreeing about what is valuable.

    In other words, when I make statements about the moral worth of people (or rocks, or whatever), I’m taking a particular stance with respect to people (or rocks, or whatever).

    Is that a cost-effective use of
    my time? Maybe not… I’m not really sure. It’s not like I go around spending hours every day asserting the moral
    worth of people, or the moral worthlessness of rocks, or whatever, so I
    don’t really worry too much about it. Still less do I worry about whether it’s a cost-effective use
    of someone else‘s time.

    Might I do better to frame that stance some other way, and give over talking about “moral worth” altogether? Maybe. I haven’t yet found an alternative formulation that I like, but if you’ve got one to propose I’m open to it.

    In my experience, the sort of “gooey nub” of theism that you describe here can be the same sort of thing, such that asserting it (or denying it) is a way of taking a particular stance with respect to the universe as a whole. That’s harder to wrap my brain around, of course, since it’s so much larger a target, but that doesn’t make it meaningless.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2CUJHSQSQYTYT4DPZSKTVESYNQ B

     
    This is a great example of why inclusive theism is just as exasperating (sometimes moreso) as exclusive theism.  It starts to erode down a gooey nub that permits no meaningful statements whatsoever.

    If God is equal to the the all-inclusive One Thing that includes the subset of the Universe, what possible effect does this have on human life, and how can it possibly be distinguished from a reality in which there are no deities at all?

    Well, I’m not saying you have to believe it.  It’s just what I believe. :-)

    If you mean “can we detect the existence of God via objectively observable consequences, as in the scientific process” then I don’t know, maybe we can’t.  I’m agnostic on that point. 

    As a scientist myself, I’m a great believer in the scientific process and I believe that things we discover through the scientific process do exist.  However, I’m not committed to the inverse: that nothing exists that can’t be discovered through the scientific process.  On the contrary, I’d be astonished to discover that one species of primate on one little planet — important and valuable as we may be — were capable of discovering and understanding everything in the entire universe.

    As far as subjective consequences go: there have been many people thoughout history who feel that they’ve in some way or another experienced God / the divine / the ultimate nature of the universe.  One can’t prove they’re correct — as I said, these are subjective and not objective experiences — but I don’t know that you can prove they’re wrong, either.

    As far as possible effect on human life, well, one, it doesn’t follow that only things that have effect on human life exist.  (On the contrary, I suspect the vast majority of the Universe has basically no effect on human life whatsoever.)  Two, on the contrary, I’d say that in this view God has a complete effect on human life and on everything else — if there weren’t God, there wouldn’t be anything at all. 

    Third, if one believes that humans do sometimes have experiences of the divine, then people who have had these experiences have clearly had a significant impact on human history, since they include individuals that have founded and spread religious movements.  (For example. Paul of Tarsus describes several such experiences, one of which led to his becoming a member of the early Christian movement.  Like him or hate him, I think it’s hard to argue that his becoming a Christian has had absolutely effect whatsoever.)

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2CUJHSQSQYTYT4DPZSKTVESYNQ B

     To take another example, we could take the question of “Why is there suffering?” in the most literal way possible, and ask, “Why do humans experience pain?”  Pain sucks.  If there were no pain, it seems like the world would be a much better place.

    Except that there ARE people who are born unable to feel pain, and it turns out it’s not such a great thing.  In particular, getting them through childhood without sustaining permanent injury is tricky since without pain they don’t avoid doing things that hurt themselves: I read one description of a guy explaining how he used to deliberately burn himself as a kid because he liked the sizzling sound it made, another of a couple trying to stop their child from constantly crashing into things while running at full speed (it didn’t hurt, so no reason to go around that pole instead of just crashing into it and bouncing off again!)  As adults the main problem is not longer hurting themselves deliberately, but rather just not noticing and treating injuries.

    (The article is short but has some very interesting external links.)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congenital_insensitivity_to_pain

    Perhaps an organism that didn’t need to have the experience of pain to avoid inadvertently scratching its own eyes out would be logically possible.  I don’t know.  But such an organism definitely wouldn’t be a human — it would have to be different from humans biologically and psychologically.  And maybe it wouldn’t be better tham humans.  Maybe humans are actually good things to have around?  That one I can’t answer.

    So it might be logically possible to have a universe where the laws of physics were being altered or overridden — which would be necessary to have a God that eliminated all suffering —  but it wouldn’t be the universe we have now.  Personally, I’m taking it on faith that there’s a reason we have this universe and not some other universe.  Naturally, YMMV. :-)

  • Joshua

    I believe I’ve read that if the laws of physics were even slightly different than they are life couldn’t exist, but I’m not a cosmologist so I can neither confirm nor deny this.

    I have studied cosmology, the astronomical kind, and this is indeed true. One particularly sensitive parameter is the overall mass density of the universe. If it was smaller by one part in some number with lots of zeroes, universal expansion  would have been so rapid that no large bodies of matter would have formed, eg stars or planets. If larger by the same amount, the universe would have collapsed into a black hole in the first few minutes.

    At the time I was studying, why the mass density looked to be so carefully chosen was a bit of a mystery. Since then, this has been an active area of research (and dark energy has been discovered) and I think it may currently be thought to be a consequence of inflation or something. I’m not sure.

    Anyway, for this parameter as well as a number of others, metaphysical explanations tend to be along the lines of the anthropic principle for atheists, and “This is evidence that God exists and wanted to create a universe with people in it” for theists. I was uncomfortable with either, frankly. The weak anthropic principle seems to me to be tautological, with no explanatory power, let alone testability. “God exists” may make sense at the time, but makes you look a little foolish when research moves on and you see a good reason why that particular parameter should have wound up that way.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_2CUJHSQSQYTYT4DPZSKTVESYNQ B

    Oh, I’m not saying it’s proof that God exists.  I’m just suggesting it as a possible answer to the question, “If there is something like God, then why don’t we have a fundamentally different sort of universe, where everything is just like it is now, except that the laws of physics are constantly being altered in a way that eliminates human suffering?”  (So that people who topple from high places don’t fall, for example.)

    I’m suggesting that maybe the nature of the universe is much more constrained then we think.  It’s a very complicated system and changing anything, however slightly, is going to change other things it what may turn out to be undesirable ways, and at any rate would definitely not be the same as what we have now.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    The way I see it, given the possible existences of multiple universes, there is going to be some probability that one will develop that is ours, and will remain in steady state.

    I don’t really feel it’s that much of a mystery or that there need be any conscious ‘design’ behind the mass density problem.

  • Joshua

    The way I see it, given the possible existences of multiple universes, there is going to be some probability that one will develop that is ours, and will remain in steady state.

    Well yes, the strong anthropic principle, where multiple universes are explicitly a thing, would explain it if correct. And I suppose it is testable, in principle if not in practice. Build a multiverse-travelling machine and it either works or doesn’t.I don’t buy it as a practical answer to anything, but it’s the weak version at which I was really aiming my criticism.

    I don’t really feel it’s that much of a mystery or that there need be any conscious ‘design’ behind the mass density problem.

    Neither do I, although a lot of people do seem to. I would call it an open research question, at least it was back then.

    And while I believe there happens to be a conscious design behind it and the rest of the universe, I do not feel that there “need be”. At least, according to any evidence or chain of reasoning that I’ve found.

  • AnonaMiss

    Squid eyes. Though I suppose you could abstract back to natural selection being requisite for life to exist and get to the point of breeding things with big enough brains to notice god – though that then begs the question of how we know that we’re the intended species and not just a sparrow on the evolutionary tree to god’s eventual intended Master Species.

    The kind of anthropocentric exceptionalism that Christianity requires can allow a guided/directed evolution, an evolution that is a process used to churn out the Wonder of Man; but the kind of undirected evolution that gives us mammal eyes instead of squid eyes implies that we weren’t a pre-designed/pre-desired product, and thus that evolution wasn’t set into motion with us in mind.

    I can only imagine two kinds of creator deities who actually care about certain, exceptional species of life in their universes in a personal way – exceptional enough to incarnate itself into that sort of body, suffer and die for that species’ spiritual growth. 

    The first is a creator deity with a certain, perfected design in mind, with the entire workings of the universe a factory working towards the creation of this perfect species; we can be certain that humans aren’t this species, because we have design flaws, so if this universe was created by this kind of deity, our species would have come about as part of the process of iterating towards that species – an early model, or a product of the generation process on a suboptimal seed. At this point in our evolution, it would be impossible to say. Our species receiving a visit from the deity in “us form” could be a part of the perfection process that we don’t understand, though if it ever came to light that Jesus had children that would lend this view of his visit a lot more credibility. A little genetic shove in the preferred direction.

    The second kind of creator deity that would incarnate himself for his species’ benefit is one who loves variety in his life-forms and values them all enough to consider their lives precious (2A), or at least once they’ve gotten to a certain level of development (2B). With type 2A we’d expect not only a human messiah, but a crow messiah, an earthworm messiah, a platypus messiah, an archaebacteria messiah… or, with 2B, a Klingon messiah, an Unas messiah, a Twi’lek messiah… In a universe created by a type 2B deity, we’d expect to find planets with life pretty densely, as densely as they could be packed without the different species annihilating each other (or, if the deity prefers to watch each ‘valuable’ species develop separately, without coming into contact with each other). A type 2A deity would presumably not care as much about species destroying each other as about generating as many as possible, so the lack of life elsewhere in our solar system makes a 2A unlikely.

    tl;dr Evolution by natural selection and a god who values human beings enough to make a Christ of himself cuts down the reasons why god would have created us to a handful of fascinating possibilities!

  • Joshua

    we require brains to function

    No no, that’s zombies.

  • LL

    Once again, Victor says what we’re all thinking, after we’ve mixed a powerful narcotic with large amounts of some kind of alcohol. With maybe a dash of manic depression thrown in. 

  • Victor

    (((Once again, Victor says what we’re all thinking, after we’ve mixed a powerful narcotic with large amounts of some kind of alcohol. With maybe a dash of manic depression thrown in.)))

    Gee Loving Lady, what box of pop corn did you get your internet http://dictionary-psychology.com/ deplomat from cause I can’t recall having said that “I” knew what most people were thinking and/or what drugs they might even be on and……????

    Don’t be sarcastic sinner vic! She’s just as entitled to her opinion as you and/or any of your imaginary so called puppets besides,  how do you know that she’s not a real working professional so have a little respect!

    SORRY VICTOR! “IT” won’t happen again! :)

    Time will tell sinner vic! :(

    Peace

  • KNicoll

    I’m afraid my ability to plow through the linked post crapped out at the point that it appeared that it was defining existence as axiomatically sinful….  That’s a level of nihilism that I can’t take as a given; in fact, I tend more towards ‘this is self-evidently immoral’ in my response to it.

    That the posited equation of ‘sinfulness’ with ‘existence’ seems to me to inevitably lead to ‘a sinless god does not exist in any meaningful way’, too, which means it doesn’t work well for me as an argument for Christianity.

    (I mean, as a pagan theologian I don’t worry much about Christian theology arguments, but I just stalled out right there.  I know C. S. Lewis thought the world itself was sufficient proof of a fallen creation, but I can’t get theyah from heeyah.)

  • Michael Pullmann

    See, this is why people hate pragmatists. Always focusing on results instead of who’s “right”. Can’t they just engage in self-aggrandizing “debate” like the rest of us?

  • MaryKaye

    I agree with thread that what you believe about suffering is less important than what you do about it, but since I’m not doing anything about it this afternoon….

    I’m not a Christian but will put this into relatively Christian-ish terms for convenience:  I think that there is a specific value in humans that is not found in angels, and I think that humans as we know them cannot exist without evil. If the Divine values humans, it has to create evil.  It’s a package deal. And this applies to natural disasters as much as it does to human evil, because a world in which humans hurt each other but the natural world was totally benign would produce very different people than our current one–to start with, there would be an incredible pressure to be solitary, and all misfortune *would* be someone’s fault.

    To me it’s much the same question as “Why do I want to live even though existence is full of suffering?”  I find value in myself, in living.  I personally do not believe that the cut-rate angel produced by taking me and removing both external and internal evil would be “me” in any real sense.  So if the Gods wanted me to exist, all this awfulness…comes with the territory.  Didn’t want that, shouldn’t have had humans.  Where I part company with other theologizers is that I don’t think the alternative of evil-free humans is even logically possible.  (Try writing a story about them.  Just try, I dare you.)

    This ties in with my pagan view of the creator-god, if one exists, as being an artistic rather than a moral force.  It created all good and all evil.  It can’t really be all-good.  I therefore don’t feel impelled to worship it–some appreciation when I encounter a particularly fine part of the creation, perhaps, but I save worship for other deities.  The imperative to reduce evil doesn’t come from the creator-god who made both good and evil, but from the deities I’m personally pledged to, who are not seen as omnipotent.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I don’t think the alternative of evil-free humans is even logically possible. (Try writing a story about them. Just try, I dare you.)
    CHALLENGE ACCEPTED

    Hold that thought, though, I’m supposed to be data-entrying, not creative-writinging.

  • AnonymousSam

    Simple enough prospect: just remove the apple tree.

    I had a setting consisting of this. It doesn’t make for very interesting writing by itself, but it can be done quite easily. The requirement that a story have antagonism and character foils is purely a human device.

  • olsonam

     MaryKaye – You seem to suggest that evil exists in a tangible way like good does.  The general Christian belief is that evil isn’t something that exists in balance to good but it’s more like how darkness exists when there isn’t any light. Simply put, heaven is filled with light and there aren’t any dark corners.  And while Christians have the imperative to help one another, there isn’t any imperative to fix the innate corruption of nature. Hence why salvation, redemption comes from God, etc.

    And it seems like one undercurrent question I’m seeing is “How can you believe in God when your religion doesn’t adequately explain needless suffering?”  And in answer I can say that no, the question isn’t adequately answered by the Bible, but the Bible does provide hope, comfort and love, as well as some myths that may point to a higher truth and does promise that one day suffering won’t exist.  I don’t think answers are promised though, haha.

  • Carstonio

    I wasn’t questioning why believers in gods hold those beliefs, I was questioning what I see as assumptions inherent in theology. I strongly suspect that NO proposed explanation for suffering, metaphysical or otherwise, can ever be falsifiable or testable, partly because we cannot really know if human existence can be any other way. And while emotional reactions to a theory have nothing to do with its accuracy, it may be that theories about suffering’s origins can never be fully satisfying, either. Promises of lives without suffering seem, to me, to be escapism at best and cruelty at worst, but I don’t blame anyone else for having different relations to those promises. 

  • The Guest That Posts

    I am very happy that you wrote this post, Fred. Love will always be in actions, not words

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    Honestly, looking at the Bad Catholic piece, my biggest question is: Why does Marc think that religious discussions “freak atheists out”?  And why does he think that his post, which contains no ideas I have not heard a thousand times before, would be less likely to freak out an atheist? 

  • http://politicsproseotherthings.blogspot.com/ Nathaniel

     Because he is the worst stereotype of an furiously intellectually masturbating goober with pretensions of being an philosopher, convinced that his ejaculations are pearls of wisdom. His abuses of that discipline are only surpassed by his ignorance of scientific answers to his inane questions.

  • CoolHandLNC

    Honestly, looking at the Bad Catholic piece, my biggest question is: Why does Marc think that religious discussions “freak atheists out”?  And why does he think that his post, which contains no ideas I have not heard a thousand times before, would be less likely to freak out an atheist?

    Because the Bad Catholic is talking to an empty chair. 

  • Andrew Wyatt

    Excuse me, but how does one observe that?

    I would start here for the neuroscience side of things:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neuroscience_of_free_will

    There are also, of course, logical proofs for the illusory nature of free will (so-called “hard determinism”) that can be laid out in the abstract on purely philosophical grounds. Clearly, such proofs are not persuasive to everyone, as the continued existence of philosophers who accept empiricism *and* free will testifies.

  • Amaryllis

    Why do the hungry suffer? For lack of food. Why do the oppressed and enslaved suffer? For want of liberation.
    These are not, primarily, metaphysical puzzles for us to ponder.

    Nothing has changed.
    The body is a reservoir of pain;
    it has to eat and breathe the air, and sleep;
    it has thin skin and the blood is just beneath it;
    it has a good supply of teeth and fingernails;
    its bones can be broken; its joints can be stretched.
    In tortures, all of this is considered.

    Nothing has changed.
    The body still trembles as it trembled
    before Rome was founded and after,
    in the twentieth century before and after Christ.
    Tortures are just what they were, only the earth has shrunk
    and whatever goes on sounds as if it’s just a room away.

    Nothing has changed.
    Except there are more people,
    and new offenses have sprung up beside the old ones–
    real, make-believe, short-lived, and nonexistent.
    But the cry with which the body answers for them
    was, is, and will be a cry of innocence
    in keeping with the age-old scale and pitch.

    Nothing has changed.
    Except perhaps the manners, ceremonies, dances.
    The gesture of the hands shielding the head
    has nonetheless remained the same.
    The body writhes, jerks, and tugs,
    falls to the ground when shoved, pulls up its knees,
    bruises, swells, drools, and bleeds.

    Nothing has changed.
    Except the run of rivers,
    the shapes of forests, shores, deserts, and glaciers.
    The little soul roams among these landscapes,
    disappears, returns, draws near, moves away,
    evasive and a stranger to itself,
    now sure, now uncertain of its own existence,
    whereas the body is and is and is
    and has nowhere to go.

    – Wislawa Szymborksa, tr. Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh

  • Andrew Wyatt

    How are things not unchangeable if I have no agency to change them? 
    Things change all the time. Does this really need to be stated? Just because we don’t have agency doesn’t mean we don’t affect our surroundings. We take actions, but we don’t take them because we will it to be so, but because of a host of external factors (many of them invisible to us).It admittedly doesn’t “feel” right to assert that we have no will, but that doesn’t change the evidence that it appears to be an illusion that emerges from the phenomenon consciousness, rather than a real thing. There are plenty of things in nature that seem to be one way to our limited senses, but are another way in reality. The moon and sun, for example, appear to be about the same size, but thanks to scientific advances in optics in rocketry, we know that they are, in fact, hugely different in size. We know by now not to trust our immediately perceptions of the world where the objective reality of the world are concerned.

  • Joshua

    I think you’ve kinda missed my point entirely. I do not mean that the universe is static, obviously.

    I was using the word “unchangeable” in the same sense you did in the comment to which I was replying. You did not mean by it that that the universe is static, either.

  • Hilary

    Fred – are you sure you’re not Jewish?  Because that part of Matthew (I was hungery and you fed me) is the only part of the Gospel I really get.  Like, dude, do something concrete for once instead of just trusting to perfect belief. Better to have right action – feeding someone, getting them clean water, warm clothes, medicine, shelter, whatever – with shaky faith or less then pure motives then perfect belief that just sits there. 

    The whole point of the Law – of Mitzvot – is to make this stuff habit so even if you are having a bad day and not in the mood, you still drop off a can at the food shelf on your way out of a shopping center. From habit.  Argue theology later.

    Yes, I think the platypus is good proof of G-d getting stoned.  I’d condsider the giraffe proof of a pantheon, creating creatures by committee as well.

    Hilary 

  • Fusina

     I’m coming up on the second anniversary of the break, so I am a bit gloomier than usual. I’ve told a bit of my story elsewhere in comments, so won’t go into it, but…I got cut loose by my most recent therapist a while ago–eight months, around, and part of the reason I needed one was due to this particular situation.
    Family has always been

  • Idefeatedvoldemort

    Really, it is quite usual, isn’t it? You see a headline that promises a lot, perhaps the answer the question of why there is suffering or the meaning of life. You are of course curious, it would be swell to what the damn one is in this world for. Then you read the article. It proclaims the meaning of life to be “being kind!” and you just stare. Yeah, really profound and actual answer to a serious question. Promise a lot, deliver a little. Fred’s post is no different. This should not bother me anymore because it happens all the time but it’s still not very nice to find a yet another article that claims to deal with a certain subject but in the end is just full of off-topic platitudes masquerating as deep wisdom.

  • EllieMurasaki

    This, folks, is a prime example of Missing The Point.

  • AnonymousSam

    And missing the point she thought was the point.

  • Idefeatedvoldemort

    Nah. I do get the whole theology talk not helping anyone point, amazingly enough. Just take issue with this talk of distractions. Declaring talking about God’s role in allowing suffering a distraction is in itself a good distraction if you don’t want to discuss the problem of evil. Surely it is possible to discuss theology and help people during different times in your life, no?

  • Madhabmatics

    You must really hate existentialists. “God this person says the meaning to their life is enjoying gardening!!!! DOES THEIR HATRED FOR TRUE WISDOM KNOW NO BOUNDS?!”

  • Lori

     

    You see a headline that promises a lot, perhaps the answer the question of why there is suffering or the meaning of life.  

    If that’s what you expected when you looked at the title of this post your problem lies with your poor reading comprehension, not the post. Fred didn’t promise you the meaning of life.

     

    This should not bother me anymore because it happens all the time but
    it’s still not very nice to find a yet another article that claims to
    deal with a certain subject but in the end is just full of off-topic
    platitudes masquerating as deep wisdom. 

    Sounds like it might be time to stop reading articles and get on down to the soup kitchen and help out.

  • Jurgan

    This reminds me of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  If people’s most basic needs aren’t met, there’s no hope of meeting their more advanced needs.  Hence the fault in focusing on “witnessing” instead of direct help.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Yes! This! Get people food and health care, then worry about why God made a world in which people can have insufficient food and inadequate health care.

  • Madhabmatics

    My favorite part of the original objection is that good works distract us from more important things – like settling the Agon about why evil exists with strangers using goofy nicknames on the internet.

  • Idefeatedvoldemort

    Ellie, perhaps my snarky tone with you was unnecessary. I apologise. You seem to be quite serious so let me do the same. You talk as if we have to choose between to things: between helping the suffering and talking theology. We don’t. We can do both. You can donate to charity at 8 am, give blood at 4 pm and talk the problem of evil at 8 pm. It’s dismissive to shrug aside the theology talk, as if you have so many more noble goals to pursue and implies that you are so much better than those who do want to talk theology. Fred could do a post addressing the PoE and it would not distract us from say charity anymore than having breakfest or tv or going to work would. I hope he does write a post about that. I would find that interesting myself.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Well, yes, of course we can do both. Fred’s issue is that a lot of people only do one, and a lot of those pick the one that’s talking about things rather than the one that’s fixing things.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Yes, of course, suffering must be relieved if possible. But.

    I suffer every day. I’m in varying states of pain, from utterly unbearable to just bearable with heavy meds, every single day. I sleep in pain, I wake in pain, I’m in pain while eating, while playing video games, while writing, while having sex, while taking a shower. And it’s not just pain — even if the pain were to miraculously disappear, my body would still not function correctly. I cannot drive. I cannot make my own bed. 

    There are many things that can be done to alleviate my suffering. Much of it will be alleviated by surgery, and likely the surgery will also stop the constant increase of pain. But it’s also entirely possible that surgery won’t fix everything. It is possible that I will need heavy pain meds for the rest of my life. Meds that make my brain work not-quite-right and that mess up my body in other ways. It’s possible that, even if I somehow get millions of dollars tomorrow, nothing can be done to keep me from this extreme physical suffering. If there is an all-good personal god, how can this be? 

    Last time I even asked “why”, I was excoriated for it and my intentions were judged to be bad, and I was told I did not deserve an answer. But I want an answer. Even if it’s “I haven’t got the first clue.” My primary desire is for the suffering to stop, but people who suffer are not only suffering and nothing else. The hungry person is not only hunger, the enslaved person is not solely a slave. The suffering seek answers too. 

  • EllieMurasaki

    I haven’t got a clue, I’m afraid. But if you had to choose between pain meds and an explanation of the great cosmic reason why you need them, I suspect you’d choose the meds. Certainly I would.

    There’s no need to choose between trying to explain suffering and trying to reduce suffering, mind. It’s just that a lot of people do choose, and a lot of those choose explaining, and the key point here is that the explaining isn’t worth much without the reducing.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    But if you had to choose between pain meds and an explanation of the great cosmic reason why you need them, I suspect you’d choose the meds.

    Sure, but luckily, human beings are pretty good at multitasking for these sorts of things. 

    I have my own answer as to “why” — that there really isn’t one. Cuz I’m an atheist. But I really want to know Fred’s answer, and/or the answer of religious people of Fred’s basic ilk. Because it truly is an important question. And I think it’s easy to forget that of everyone who asks “why” about stuff like this, the people who ask most often and most loudly are those who are suffering. 

    Fred talks about giving food to the hungry and etc. But what if you are the person who is hungry? Or, in my case, in pain all the time? I’ve got everything I can have to alleviate it as much as I can (unless I take stronger pain meds, which I do not want.)  I’m not just pain. 

    Fred phrases this post as an outsider looking on suffering people and wanting to help them. That’s fine. But for me, suffering doesn’t exist as something in another person which I can help to alleviate and then go home. It lives inside me, it is part of me, all the time. “Why” is not a useless question. I want to know if Fred thinks there’s an answer to that, in his theology.

  • EllieMurasaki

    *nodnod*

  • Münchner Kindl

    If I had to guess (without studies to back up), I think it’s because of what type of suffering the average (white middle-class) American Christian usually encounters. It’s NOT the hungry (except in TV ads for Africa – and that’s explained as being either the black’s people fault or nature causing a drought), the thirsty or those in prison. (The prison and homeless problem is away from the eyes of the middle class, so invisible = forgotten, as happens with humans).

    Usually, the average person encounters suffering with illness or disease in their family or friends circle, or some tragedy striking: somebody killed/ injured by a drunk driver, somebody gets cancer/ stroke, somebody is laid off and can’t find a new job.

    There’s not much you can do in these cases, and with the just world fallacy (and Job) Christians are often implicitly or explicitly taught, the question of “why do bad things happen to good people” is the most important thing about the tragedy. Both the sufferes and their friends/ family try to grapple with it, to make sense out of a senseless thing, or why God/ Angels who help you find a parking space* don’t heal cancer.

    And in Dostojewskis books, the question of “If God is kind, why does he allow the suffering of innocent little children?” is the most basic question that leads not only away from faith but to the famous parable of the Grand Inquisitor.

    It’s one that Christians who argue that their faith is better than atheism will regularly encounter when debating atheists.

    That people who suffer must be helped first is, OTOH, something that both atheists (with a humanistic bent) and Christians (those who don’t obey the prosperity gospel / Calvinist predetermination) agree on, so there’s no argument and no need to clear it up.

    * The amount of personal involvment of God via Angels in banal miracles of daily life that’s passed around in glurge emails and Christian literature is theologically and spiritually very bad, because it doesn’t prepare people for bad things happening. There’s a reason that a smart person said “After Auschwitz, God is dead” – the concept of a God who interferes with miracles in daily life simply doesn’t fit in todays world for any half-way intelligent adults.

  • MaryKaye

    I think the “humanity requires suffering, but not THIS MUCH suffering” argument falls apart if closely examined.  In any universe with any human suffering at all, humans would still be saying “It could be less, right?” and I think they would always be able to point at any *given* instance of suffering and say “That one isn’t needed.  We’d still be human even if I hadn’t lost (whatever) or suffered (whatever).”

    But the end result of that argument is *no* suffering, and I hold that no suffering is no humans.  Angels of some kind, sure.  I have a view–an axiom, I guess, not derivable from anything else–that there is specific value in having humans.  I do not feel myself in a position to say “There’s a cheaper way to have humans than the painful messy universe we have.”  I can’t do the experiment and I don’t feel I can reason it out either.  –For those who can reason it out, you may well find out that you disagree with hypothetical creator-god about it, and I’d say, go for it.  You get to disagree.

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    I was really, really tired last night, but in re-reading Marc’s OP, this catches my eye:

    The secular cannot answer the problem of suffering (as I’ve spoken in depth elsewhere), but suffering is still a problem we naturally want resolved. (If you don’t believe it is, develop leukemia, have a close family member die, and then try being content with not having any answers, meaning, or purpose.)

    This is not the first time I’ve heard that atheists obviously have never known real pain or loss, because otherwise they would believe, or at least they would not want to be atheists.

    (I guess I should “content warn” here: discussion of death and dying)

    Let me assure Marc, and anyone else who might think that, that I have mourned the loss of both beloved friends and family members.  Most recently, my grandmother died almost two years ago.  I watched the progression of her illness and was with her when she died.  I loved her, I miss her, and I will miss her always. 

    But I am content, even with no grand, metaphysical “purpose” behind her pain.  I have a reason for her pain: she had cancer.  And there are many reasons that her pain was lessened: the excellent doctors working with her, and, at the end, the endlessly kind and devoted hospice workers.  Not to mention her daughter, my mother, who sat by her side for a month, all but living at hospice with her, so she would never be alone.

    Our lives (and our deaths) have the meaning we give them.  I know who my grandmother was, how much we loved her and she loved us, and none of us needed any grand “answers” to her final illness.  We live and we love, and we don’t need any religion to tell us how.

  • EllieMurasaki

    This is not the first time I’ve heard that atheists obviously have never known real pain or loss, because otherwise they would believe, or at least they would not want to be atheists.

    I kind of want to beat these people upside the head with a printout of Greta Christina’s grief diary, or at least make them read the parts relevant to grief vis-a-vis atheism. But that seems a really good way to get people descending on Greta who will seriously fuck with her mourning process, and I don’t wanna be responsible for that.

  • Anton_Mates

    I agree with the posters saying that theodicy arguments can be worthwhile–or at least harmless fun–even if you haven’t managed to solve all suffering in the world yet.  Everybody spends time and energy on things other than charity; I’ve got no problem with philosophical arguments being one of those things.  However, Marc’s particular take on this issue does seem pretty liable to the “distracts from useful action” charge.  With the attempt to distinguish suffering from “useful pain,” the idea that “our suffering saves the world” and that when we look at a kid with leukemia we should see Christ suffering in order to undo the Fall…yeah, I can see why Fred calls that counter-productive.

    “As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth,” John’s Gospel says. And his disciples immediately took this as the basis for a metaphysical discussion.
    “Rabbi,” they asked, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” What is the cause of this suffering? What is the meaning of it? Who is to blame? What should we think about this?
    Wrong question, Jesus said. The meaning of blindness is this — and he healed the man’s eyes and restored his sight.

    That’s one way to interpret John 9, but I’m really not seeing it.  So far as I can see, the disciples started a metaphysical discussion and Jesus joined in.  Good question, Jesus said.  And here’s the answer: the man is suffering “so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  And then he heals this guy, thus performing God’s works, and then the guy goes off and talks to everyone about how Jesus must be divinely-powered because he can do stuff like this, and that conversation spreads all over town, and Jesus uses this as a springboard for telling people about his part in the divine plan, and there you go.  The man suffered so that people could be educated about and called to the true faith. 

    Even if you overlook the publicity-stunt aspect of it, Jesus is still saying that the man was made to suffer so that he could be healed, according to God’s timetable.  That’s totally philosophical and metaphysicsy.

    It’s also not exactly the disciples’ fault that they don’t jump to “the meaning of this man’s blindness is that we should cure it,” since, y’know, they probably can’t cure it.  (Odds are 21st-century medicine can’t either.)  Jesus can cure it–he can cure pretty much anything, at least as depicted in this Gospel–so if there’s anyone guilty of talking at length about theodicy and philosophy and mysticism when they should be eradicating world hunger and disease, it’s him.
     

  • Cissa

    I remember, many years ago now, reading an “enticing” summary of a new book written by a nun. It seems that she had been approached on the street by a young girl who had been forced into prostitution and was enslaved.

    The nun’s response? Hand her back over to her abusers/owners, then write a book about how sexually sinning women can find redemption in the Church. Because obviously her REAL problem was theological, not daily rapes.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Actually, nitpicky calculus-y nitpicker here.

    One way to create an “infinte plane” is, literally, to make an “infinite disc”.

    So yes, a circle can become a square in physics, because the approximation of an infinite plane of charge is how we characterize parallel plate capacitor behavior.