Archive for November, 2009
Last night I attended an end-of-year concert for a friend’s six year old. The school, which hosted the event, had a chart called the Three-Storey Intellect promoting intelligent thinking for students. The concept comes from a quotation of Oliver Wendell Holmes:
There are one-story intellects, two-story intellects, and three-story intellects with skylights. All fact collectors with no aim beyond their facts are one-story men. Two-story men compare reason and generalize, using labors of the fact collectors as well as their own. Three-story men idealize, imagine, and predict. Their best illuminations come from above through the skylight.
Problem of suffering as seen within a religious view – will of God
Unlike naturalism, a traditional Christian religious view conceives of a conscious, eternal reality over-arching our mundane world. This reality is conceptualised as God – a God who created our transient world; who is needed to maintain it; and who is intimately involved in all its workings. As God is perceived as all-perfect, our world must have also been created all-perfect and, most importantly, for a purpose. So why do we have suffering?
Humans were created physical, like other animals, but also uniquely endowed with the ability to “find” God, a spiritual side. However God wants people to freely choose him and so gave us free-will, the ability to choose or reject God freely. So, within a religious view, people are freely able to do good or to create harm and suffering. That is the cause of “moral evil”. “Natural evil”, suffering from natural causes and suffering of other animals, is the dramatic backdrop or environment needed for true human moral growth, so-called “soul-making”.
An alternate explanation involves achieving a greater good. Like a caring parent who administers bad tasting medicine to a sick child, God has to allow some suffering to achieve a greater goods that more than compensates to associated evils.
If all this seems confusing, we need to realise that it is presumptious and arrogant to apply human moral standards and expectations to God’s will. By nature we are limited physical beings with finite knowledge of our physical existence. God’s will is infinite and so far beyond our comprehension.
So, ultimately, a religious response to the problem of evil is to suggest people were created with “free-will” so that we would willingly find God. The apparent imperfections of the world arise from the choices we freely make – good and bad – and from our inherent lack of understanding of God’s infinite motives and workings.
Alex McCullieNo comments
Suffering and the concept of God – a naturalist view from induction
Verdict: the concept of God, though reassuring, is unsupported by evidence of pain and suffering and therefore seems an unnecessary explanation.
Observation: there is extensive pain and suffering amongst human and non-human animals regardless of age, sex, and circumstances.
Reasoning: all evidence suggests pain and suffering occurred for millions of years prior to the evolution of the human species.
Observation: there are many causes of pain and suffering. Some are from “natural” causes such as adverse weather and diseases and others from human and non-human animal actions, both deliberate and inadvertent.
Observation: we have natural explanations for most causes of pain and suffering. This has been one of the great intellectual achievements of humanity.
Observation: there seems to be no discernible overall pattern to occurrences of pain and suffering. Age, sex, genetic history, previous history, and physical location all play chance roles in potential pain and suffering. Our moral assessments and aspirations appear to have no bearing.
Conclusion (1): the “indiscriminate” nature of pain and suffering is consistent with natural “chance and circumstance” explanations of their causes. There seems no evidence of any overall purpose or moral objective in the distribution of pain and suffering. Humans often contribute to pain and suffering of others, including animals, but there is no evidence that we are, in some way, the true beneficiaries of such pain and suffering.
Conclusion (2): an overlay of a powerful anthropomorphic-style being contributes nothing to our understanding of pain and suffering despite placating some people about vagaries of life.
Alex McCullieNo comments
The ‘Problem of Evil’ powerfully challenges a belief in God. It argues that the existence of God, implicitly taken as all-powerful, all-knowing, and morally perfect, contradicts the presence of evil in the world. Such a God should be able to stop or prevent evil occurring and being morally perfect would will it so. Suffering continues so God does not exist.
The evil (or suffering) is pervasive and not just resulting from human immorality. People of all types and ages as well (as other living things) suffer terribly from natural disasters and diseases as well as the immoral acts of others. Suffering is distributed across the innocent and guilty, the religious and the irreligious with no obvious patterns. A similarly behaved parent, class teacher, military leader or political leader inflicting such pain would be charged with a string of heinous crimes. By any human moral standards the inflicted suffering would be comprehensively condemned. However God is supposed to be better than any person, morally perfect beyond our moral capabilities by an infinite measure.
This argument against the belief in God is compelling. The simplest logical argument is:
|EVIL||(1) The world contains instances of suffering (evil)|
|GOD||(2) God exists – and is all-powerful (and therefore able to deal with it)|
|(3) God exists – and is all-knowledgeable (and therefore knows of the suffering )|
|(4) God exists – and is perfectly good (and therefore wills good and not evil)|
If you affirm (2), (3) and (4) you are denying (1) or, alternatively, (1) contradicts (2), (3), and (4).
Most philosophers do not support this harshest form of the Problem of Evil: any evil or suffering disproves the existence of God. Most allow for some suffering for a specific greater good, similar to a parent giving a sick child some bad-tasting medicine. Many support a probabilistic view that with the extensive and indiscriminate suffering in the world the Christian God is highly unlikely to exist.
The strength of the Problem of Evil has forced Christian thinkers for many years to justify the rationality of believing in the existence of such a God while accepting the presence of evil or suffering.
The ‘Problem of Evil’ attacks antiquated concepts of God and Evil, both inexorably linked to the Middle East of some 2000 to 3000 years ago. These ancient peoples were far removed from today’s protected lives – largely illiterate, tribal societies with superstitions, demons and evil spirits dominating short, hard, and brutish lives. Thirty years or more was old-age; five children per family were needed just to maintain the population; and a tooth absence was a death sentence.
Originally people worshipped gods to survive precarious existences with little interest in or conception of an after-life. They needed protection against a palpably real Evil. Worshipping one all-powerful god introduced problems of responsibility. How could a morally-perfect god create so many everyday hardships and calamities? Warring immoral gods never had that problem. Over time evil spirits and demons transmuted to a personified Evil, a powerful (not as much as God of course) Satan, seeking to undo God’s fundamental goodness. Even the after-life, never a personal part of most polytheist pagan religions and only a later development of Judaism, helped to shore up faith amongst seemingly indiscriminate hardships. Paul’s Christianity later institutionised that as an intrinsic part of Christian faith.
Over the years Christian thinkers have twisted and adapted God and Evil to suit the sensibilities of changing societies. St. Augustine rightfully de-objectified Evil to avoid a devastating dilemma – God, a morally-perfect being, having created Evil. So Evil, at least for the theologians, moved from fearful objective existence to “lack of goodness”, a deprivation – the metaphorical hole in the doughnut of God’s goodness.
So why study the Problem of Evil when the underlying concepts are so irrelevant to today’s secular society? Firstly, it is interesting intellectual puzzle-solving. Brilliant minds have contributed intricate arguments weaving newer and newer clothes for the emperor. Also, secondly, millions of conservative Christians still hold to these concepts. Famously George W. Bush was one of those who saw very-real Evil lurking around every corner, only kept in check by faith in a super-human God.
My dad enjoyed boxing. He used to described in colourful ways previous boxing champions and their personal stories outside of the ring. I took an interest as it meant common ground for both of us. One surprise for me was his saying that an opponent smiling was one in a lot of pain, presumably to hide his anguish.
I read an opinion piece in The Age, Melbourne Australia, by Greg Craven and understand what Dad meant. It’s a boostful, sarcastic attack on “the new hobby atheist is as brash, noisy and confident as a cheap electric kettle” by the vice cancellor of a local Catholic university. Craven equates this group of atheists to a new plague of blowflies or something fictitious from biblical Egypt.
The Roman Catholic Church is apparently a particularly popular target. Is it the endless cover-ups of priestly child abuse around the world? No. Is the use of misleading scare campaigns against the use of condoms to fight HIV infections in Africa? Is the historical distorting of the evolution science message in Catholic schools and communities? Is the selective application of healthcare driven by theology ahead of humanity? Is it the discrimination of women and homosexuals from positions of power within the church? It is none of these: apparently its because the church is big and, unlike their protestant bretheren, they actually believe in something. Craven sees the media as full of Christian attacks as today’s modern blood-sport.
I shall give Greg Craven the closing words:
At the bottom, of course, lies hate. I am not quite clear why our modern crop of atheists hates Christians, as opposed to ignoring or even politely dismissing them, but they very clearly do. There is nothing clever, witty or funny about hate.
Alex McCullieNo comments
Tom Scott says it all.
It’s a theme here – stop giving religions immunity from criticism about their human rights attitudes. Religions, faiths and churches should be subject to the same standards as applied to all in our societies. Adverse homophobic attitudes should be unacceptable from all secular and religious organisations. Some (not enough) have highlighted the Vatican’s appalling offer to disaffected Anglicans – homophobes, misogynists and bigots – to join an organisation happy with those attitudes – the Roman Catholic Church. And the same churches are so sensitive to criticism!
Randy Cohen in the NYT comments
Richard Dawkins has a few low-key words, including:
What major institution most deserves the title of greatest force for evil in the world? In a field of stiff competition, the Roman Catholic Church is surely up there among the leaders. The Anglican church has at least a few shreds of decency, traces of kindness and humanity with which Jesus himself might have connected, however tenuously: a generosity of spirit, of respect for women, and of Christ-like compassion for the less fortunate. The Anglican church does not cleave to the dotty idea that a priest, by blessing bread and wine, can transform it literally into a cannibal feast; nor to the nastier idea that possession of testicles is an essential qualification to perform the rite. It does not send its missionaries out to tell deliberate lies to AIDS-weakened Africans, about the alleged ineffectiveness of condoms in protecting against HIV. Whether one agrees with him or not, there is a saintly quality in the Archbishop of Canterbury, a benignity of countenance, a well-meaning sincerity. How does Pope Ratzinger measure up? The comparison is almost embarrassing.
Alex McCullieNo comments