Tuesday, October 19, 2010

God's existence: The problem of suffering


God’s existence: The problem of suffering

Posted: 18 Oct 2010 06:24 PM PDT

Many atheists base their skepticism about God’s existence on just one argument. There can’t be an all-powerful and loving God, they say. Otherwise there wouldn’t be so much suffering in the world. If God really can count the hairs on our heads (Luke 12:7) and knows about every sparrow which falls from a tree (Matthew 10:29), surely his concerns should extend beyond those of the barber or the bird watcher.

But is this really the knock-down argument which many atheists believe?

Many Christians differentiate between the suffering caused by people, such as wars and crime, and all other types of suffering such as natural disasters and disease.

The Christian stance on the first kind of suffering is predictable. If someone carries out evil acts which harm people, you can hardly blame God. (Let’s pass over whether that is true of the genocides ordered by God in the Old Testament.) Rather, the guilty person is Satan who encouraged Eve to sin in the Garden of Eden and who therefore brought evil into the world.

But why would God have made us in such a way that Satan was able to tempt Eve to sin with the result that we were all born with a sinful nature? The Christian response is free will. It goes like this: God’s greatest gift to us is to be able to love him. That involves us having the freedom to sin, but instead choosing to repent and to love God. It isn’t really love if the only reason why we love God is because we are programmed to do so.

And, as CS Lewis explained, it would be meaningless to say that we can have free will but not be able to sin. And “meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words ‘God can.’”

Lewis’ mid-twentieth century mind couldn’t imagine varying degrees of fetters on free will. But that doesn’t mean that an omnipotent god couldn’t have done so. It is a clear biblical Christian principle that one minor sin will condemn someone to hell unless he repents. And so if God had restricted our ability to cause each other misery, he could have done so in a way which ensured that we still needed to choose to love him and repent of our sins if we wanted to share eternity with him.

And what about the millions of people who are born with no real free will due to cognitive and psychiatric disabilities? Are they outside God’s grand plan?

But let us assume that CS Lewis is right. Let us assume that because of our sin, we need to choose to repent and love God, but that it will not be genuine love unless we can choose not to love him. In that case, our sinning is a vital step in the process which leads to us turning to God out of genuine love for him. Yet it was Satan who infected the world with sin. Surely it is wholly implausible that God’s plan was dependent on Satan doing this.

Besides, this Christian explanation presents God as an abhorrent being who is prepared to condemn the majority of the earth’s population to eternal damnation (Matthew 7:14) so that he can feel that the love which he receives from everyone else is genuine.

Some Christians will say that the reason why God gave us unfettered free will is not so that we can love him better. Rather it is simply because free will is such a good gift. Yet that is surely nonsense. Imagine it: All humans could have free will, but one which prevents them from harming each other. The world would be a happier place and our prospects of eternal life with a loving God would no doubt be increased. Would that really be worse than what God supposedly chose to give us instead?

It is easy to see why Christians seek to divert blame from God and onto sin. The Christian faith is preoccupied with sin. The more blame that can be heaped upon it, the more appealing the central message of Jesus’ forgiveness becomes.

Leaving aside free will, there is a second argument on which Christians rely. They say that God wants the human race to bear the consequences of its own actions. This is sometimes called the Natural Law. We have no right to expect God to bend the Natural Law in favor of just isolated individuals, such as by preventing the Holocaust or the genocide in Rwanda.

Yet if God is as all loving as Christians believe, one must question why we cannot expect him to intervene when he could easily do so. Let us imagine a police officer who is able to intervene to prevent a violent street mugging but who stands by idle. Later he defends his inactivity by saying that we should not criticize him because the real culprit was the criminal. Would we be satisfied with that explanation? If he claimed that he greatly loved the victim of the mugging, would we believe him? And would it not be absurd if the mugging victim was so sure of the police officer’s love for her that she chose to shower him with praise?

Some Christians cannot contain their indignation when this point is made. God sent his son to die on a cross for you, they say. Is that not a sufficient act of his love? Quite frankly, No. This Christian response paints the picture of God as an ageing rock star who tours the concert venues on the back of his one hit single eons ago, and who hasn’t bothered to do anything worthwhile in the meantime.

How do Christians explain the suffering which isn’t obviously caused by human evil? Cancers, tsunamis, hideous accidents – are humans to be blamed for these also?

Many Christians reply Yes. The logic goes like this. When the human race rejected God in the Garden of Eden, he allowed the world to be cursed (Genesis 3:16-19). The mind boggles to how wicked God must be if this unprovable assertion is true. Nevertheless this explanation can at least be justified by biblical reasoning.

But what about Christians who aren’t tied to literal interpretations of the bible? Are they able to offer a more satisfying explanation?

Francis Collins, the prominent Christian geneticist, wrote that we along with the universe and our planet are engaged in an evolutionary process. If at the beginning of time God used these forces to create human beings, then the inevitability of natural disasters and, say, the misspelling of a cancer gene in the normal process of cell division was also assured. Yet surely this misses the point that if an omnipotent God can suspend his own laws of nature by performing miracles, he would surely have little difficulty doing so for rather more worthwhile purposes than those fulfilled by, say, Jesus’ conjuring tricks.

For some, the answer is simply that God works in mysterious ways.

For others, the answer is that life on earth is but a very brief testing ground on a journey to eternity. Not only do our tribulations form our character, but the pain and suffering is virtually an irrelevance when compared with the opportunity of a lifetime in heaven.

Theologian Thomas Swinburne saw God’s seeming indifference to illness as a sign of divine foresight: “If God answers most prayers for a relative to recover from a cancer, then cancer would no longer be a problem for humans to solve.”

There is one obvious theme in all these responses: God’s will is not to be questioned even when the results of his handiwork are so appalling. Although the following passage from www.christiananswers.net pulls no punches, it merely expresses a commonly-held, and biblically-correct, Christian opinion:

We need also to recognize that our very minds were created by God. We can only use these minds to the extent that He allows, and it is, therefore, utterly presumptuous for us to use them to question Him and His motives… We ourselves do not establish the standards of what is right. Only the Creator of all reality can do that. We need to settle it, in our minds and hearts, whether we understand it or not, that whatever God does is, by definition, right.

Yet there is a simple answer to the question of suffering: The world is exactly how we would expect it to be if there were no God. Life on earth is a random hotchpotch of happiness, suffering, wealth and poverty. No God to prevent the violent thug from raping your daughter. No God to divert Hurricane Katrina away from New Orleans.

The only explanation which is remotely consistent with the existence of a caring God involves concluding that there are two reasons why there is suffering in the world: first, God wanted us to love him more genuinely; second, he cursed the world because two people had the temerity to eat a forbidden piece of fruit in the Garden of Eden.

To believe that a loving God acted out of such seemingly selfish and spiteful motives means accepting that our concept of love and infinite justice is flawed because we lack God’s omniscience. Yet when believers say that they believe that God is all-loving and just, they are referring to what they understand love and justice to mean. As soon as you accept that there are aspects of God’s idea of love and justice which equate to our ideas of megalomania and vengeful jealousy, it makes you want to pray that he doesn’t exist.

Related articles:

1.       God’s existence: Who bears the burden of proof?

2.      Pray4Trig Seeks Miracle to Prove God's Existence to World

3.      Heavenly Head Trip: Is there sin or free will in Christian Heaven?

Laura Ingraham: Being gay “absolutely not a choice”

Posted: 18 Oct 2010 08:52 AM PDT

While interviewing Colorado Senate candidate Ken Buck today, conservative radio personality and frequent fill-in host for Fox News’s “O’Reilly Factor” Laura Ingraham announced her firm belief that homosexuality is not a choice.

How did she come to this announcement? Defending Ken Buck from his “attackers”.

Buck, Republican campaigning for Senate in Colorado, recently appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” opposite Democrat Michael Bennet. Having previously announced his support for the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the military because its repeal “allow[s] lifestyle choices to become part of the discussion”.

Bennet supports repealing the policy.

“Meet the Press” host David Gregory asked Buck to clarify his views on homosexuality; Buck promptly compared being gay to alcoholism.

GREGORY: Do you believe that being gay is a choice?

BUCK: I do.

GREGORY: Based on what?

BUCK: Based on what? I guess you can choose who your partner is.

GREGORY: You don’t think it’s something that’s determined at birth?

BUCK: I think that birth has an influence over it, like alcoholism and some other things, but I think that basically, you have a choice.

On today’s show, Laura Ingraham (in progress; transcript not available), raised this subject and asked Buck to clarify his viewpoint . . . which was substantially the same as that stated on “Meet the Press”. Ingraham then pointed out that, “My brother is gay, and it is absolutely not a choice.”

She went on to describe how she disagrees with many of her (assumedly heterosexual) Republican friends on this issue, but that she is in no position to comment on how others live their lives because she has her own life to deal with. A supporter of Buck, Ingraham swiftly changed subject and reminded her listeners how liberals are raising last-minute character assaults on candidates, “like that Meg Whitman and her illegal alien maid”.

(You may recall that Republican candidate for California Governor Meg Whitman had an illegal alien on her payroll for nine years, from 2000-2009, and refuses to take any responsibility for the issue . . . even though the Social Security Administration sent her at least one letter raising questions about the housekeeper’s legal status as early as 2003.)

Ingraham did not mention her vigorous opposition to gay marriage, her support for Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and related gay civil rights issues — positions she holds which seem inconsistent with a belief that being gay is “absolutely not a choice”. She did not take the time to explain why she believes her brother should be a second-class citizen.

Perhaps Bill O’Reilly should interview her on the subject.

Related articles:

1.       Fight Freedom of Choice Act!

2.      SCHOOLS: Offer creation as choice

3.      Employee Free Choice Act: Specter Says No

Your local newspaper: 10/18/10 atheist cartoon

Posted: 18 Oct 2010 08:23 AM PDT

BHA comments on think-tank’s assisted suicide report

Posted: 18 Oct 2010 08:21 AM PDT

A recent report on the debate concerning assisted dying published by a think-tank has been characterised as ‘unhelpful scaremongering’ by the British Humanist Association (BHA) today.

In Assisted Suicide: How the chattering classes have got it wrong, authored by Cristina Odone for the Centre for Policy Studies, it is argued that ‘once introduced on compassionate grounds, assisted suicide will lead to death on request or euthanasia without consent’.

Pepper Harow, BHA Campaigns Officer commented, ‘In consistently using phrases such as “death squad” and “death regulator” and discussing “a society cleansed of the feeble, the infirm, the imperfect,” Cristina Odone has not made a helpful contribution to the discussion on this complex matter, but used intentionally overly emotive language that limits, rather than encourages, open debate.

‘The BHA is of the view that permitting consensual assisted dying in cases of terminal illness within a system of strict legal safeguards is ethically preferable to the current situation, where cases of assisted suicide occur irrespective of their legality, and are only identified and assessed retrospectively.

‘There is, of course, a broad range of opinion on the sensitive topic of legalising assisted suicide, however it is imperative that any report presented on the debate facilitates discussion and is based on sound evidence.’

Related articles:

1.       Suicide, age and poison

2.      Equality and Human Rights Commission release first Triennial Report

3.      Religion and suicide – a patchy global picture


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