No Method to the Madness

I’ve been rereading Bad Catholic’s An Attempt to Explain Christianity to Atheists In a Manner That Might Not Freak Them Out, trying to come up with a response that’s more solid than the long shrug that I gave it earlier. It’s probably silly, because just about everyone has weighed in by now. See Daniel Fincke‘s or Deacon Duncan‘s response. I also really like The Barefoot Bum‘s response, particularly this section:

… Marc does not give us any reason to actually believe his story. He gives us a version of the Politician’s Fallacy: we need an answer to the problem of suffering, this is an answer to the problem, therefore this is the correct answer to the problem. But why should we believe his answer? Even if we must need to look to supernatural teleological, why should Marc’s “bizarre” and paradoxical story be the correct one? According to the title, Marc wants to explain Christianity to atheists, but succeeds only in describing an especially weird, counter-intuitive, narrative that we cannot distinguish from pure fiction. We atheists are made of sterner stuff, he won’t freak us out, but he fails to explain Christianity in a way that makes us see it as anything but fiction.

That echos the complaint that I had when I wrote that BC doesn’t provide any reason to prefer his explanation over any other explanations. Most of what we get is a string of assertions, which doesn’t actually help.

Look, let’s say I shift my preconceptions to include the existence of the supernatural and the divine realm. Hell, I’ll even spot you monotheism and the Trinity at the same time. I can still find people throughout the ages who share these preconceptions and yet have produced many different and competing answers to the big questions. There are many different answers within Christianity to the problem of evil, the purpose of suffering, christology and soteriology.

I don’t need another recitation of the answers that you accept. That leads me back to the same shrugging response I complained about earlier, “Yes, that’s nice, thanks for your opinion.” What I need is some method that helps me winnow through the myriad of different answers. I need to know why you accept that answer over all the others. Something beyond “this is what my tradition teaches me,” or “I find this answer consoling.”

And of course the number of potential answers expands exponentially as you accept fewer Christian preconceptions. Here I sit in one of the most religiously diverse nations in history, blogging on a website dedicated to exploring religious diversity. I’m hardly starved for choice here. Just the opposite, in fact, I’ve got more religious options than I know what to do with. If the best you can give me is “This I Believe!” then you can’t help me with that and we have nothing to talk about.

Hallquist on Eich
Overwhelming Religious Diversity and the Agnostic Chair
Rise of the Nones Re-examined
The Church of LDS May Get Its Day in Court
  • Reginald Selkirk

    He gives us a version of the Politician’s Fallacy: we need an answer to the problem of suffering…

    He lost me right there. We do not need an answer. There is no reason to believe that suffering has meaning. Rather he wants his suffering to have meaning. You covered this well enough in your earlier post.

    • trj

      Agreed. Suffering only requires an explanation when you insist on interpreting the world through a religious lens. When you throw away the skewed premises introduced by religion there’s nothing that needs explaining.

      There’s no need to jump through theological hoops to come up with an explanation, and no need to feel bad that the explanation inevitably seems inadequate. The question itself was flawed from the beginning.

  • smrnda

    Agreed totally. If suffering has meaning, then that’s like saying there’s something good about it, which is a step away from compassion. Tell the preacher your kid died, you lost your home, or you have cancer and you’ll get some “well, this suffering is all part of God’s plan.” Ask me and I’ll tell you “Wow, that sucks. I’m not going to insult you with some platitude about how this is all part of some great big plan or that it’ll make you a better person.”

    Just had to throw this in on suffering, a few Christian apologists have said that if we ask for a world without suffering, or even with less suffering, it’s just a ‘moving the goalposts’ thing that we’ll do again. First, I think you can find a level that will ensure some reasonable amount of contentment, but I also don’t see that as a problem. People probably actually do suffer less today than in ages past, partly because of technology, partly because of better government systems. If anything it makes people less likely to need to find some way to find meaning in a horrible existence.

  • Kodie

    I commented elsewhere but really didn’t dive into it (unless I’ve forgotten what I already said, lol), but I kind of get stuck on where if there is suffering, there must be a god seems to imply that if there were no god, then we wouldn’t have any suffering. I’m not sure I can actually deduce such a thing logically, but a god who could take away suffering but leaves it as a sense of who he is then is assumed to exist, where if we could assume he doesn’t exist would mean everything feels a lot better than it does. Help me out here.

    • blotonthelandscape

      That is a correct application of the contra-positive insofar as A->B is logically equivalent to ~B->~A. He is essentially saying the only world in which we could conclude there is no God is one in which there is no suffering, which makes sense as he’s specifically defined suffering as “pain with no secular purpose”. If all pain has secular purpose, then on his definition there is no suffering and we can safely conclude no God (assuming we fix the goalposts).
      Of course, we know that pain as a physical response to external stimuli does have a secular purpose (to warn us that we are in peril). Even if we experience pain in times when we are not necessarily in peril, it’s preferable to being incapable of experiencing pain. And the lack of a middle ground (only experiencing pain when we’re in peril and being otherwise pain-free) is well within the purview of natural explanation. This then serves as a metaphor for what may be considered non-physical pain (e.g. emotional pain brought about by empathy with the plight of others), i.e. that it is a natural extension of a function with secular utility.
      So it may be possible to construct a strong case that our universe contains no “suffering” on his definition (or at least that we have no reason to suspect that there is not some scenario in which a painful experience may have secular motives), and that by his definitions we can safely conclude God does not exist.
      But that’s being kind and granting his premise (that a universe with purposeless suffering implies a “purposer” outside of the universe).

      • Kodie

        That sounds pretty convenient to allow some kind of suffering and determine for everyone else that it has a secular purpose. I was hoping that without a god then everything would be perfect, so why would we need god because it kind of sucks more that way. It’s hard to talk to people who believe in god because every word out of their mouth is some arbitrary rule they made up or that they buy as an answer to the variety of questions that can be put, “but what about _______?”

  • Gordon

    Why there is suffering is a huge problem if you believe there is a benevolent god and not any kind of puzzle in the absence of one.

    • Quine

      Yes, Gordon, that is exactly correct. The problem of pain and suffering has been a big theological embarrassment that often ends up being a deal breaker for those who look into it deeply. However, pain and suffering are necessary for evolution to produce complex multicellular organisms like us. I have written more about that here.