Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Adventures With Jesus #2: Non-Binding Resolutions

Today on Adventures With Jesus we consider the age-old question: why does God allow earthquakes?

The suggestion given in this afternoon's talk was that this is one of the toughest theological questions to answer. I actually disagree; I think it's pretty easy. If we assume God exists and wants us to have free will (not that I believe free will either, really, but that's another story) then he can't control our lives. And once you realise that, then it becomes at least arguable that there is no sensible line to draw between which problems He won't intercede and which He will. "This earthquake; yes, this hurricane; no" doesn't really make much sense, and part of my own understanding of God is that he's probably pretty good at logical progression. Another way to look at it would be to note that there are things that are much, much worse than tsunamis from which God does protect us, but that doesn't really get us anywhere, so I prefer the former idea.

Naturally, given that that's a five-second argument that even an atheist can be entirely happy with, today's talk didn't come even remotely close to making it. What it did come close to was forcing me to gnaw out my own tongue (yes, I know that would be an up-side, shut up). I didn't agree with much of yesterday's talk, obviously, but I at least it had a reasonable structure. This one, though, I thought was pretty poor.

The advantage to this is that it should take me far less time to deconstruct the talk, seeing as how it was already a smoking wreck of an argument to begin with. The basic points, to the extent they are worthy of the label, are as follows:
  • If you don't believe in God suffering can no longer be described as wrong;
  • At least if God is real we can hope things will get better;
  • Suffering may be for the greater good;
  • Much of our suffering is at the hands of our fellow man;
  • God may make us suffer, but he does not abandon us during our suffering;
  • Jesus Christ suffered too;
  • Mankind deserves to suffer.
Even without going into detail several problems here are obvious. Whether or not we can label a given situation as right or wrong without God has nothing to do with why suffering exists, nor does the idea that eventually everything will work out. Both of those arguments fall into the depressingly common trap of assuming a preferable alternative is the more likely one (the latter explicitly, the former more subtly by assuming people in general prefer to think of cancer or cyclones as wrong, rather than simply bad). Not so much Occam's Razor as Occam's Bedtime Story. It also brushes up against the old (and tremendously aggravating) argument that right and wrong can only exist when some supreme being defines them, when it should be fairly obvious that a society can draw its own conclusions on the subject without too much difficulty in most cases. Murder, for example, is something we can safely label as wrong without the input of a higher power.

It's also odd to point to humanity and say "You're doing most of it". No-one would doubt that there is far too much truth to that. But since a) we're operating with the design we were given and b) it doesn't seem unreasonable we get an explanation for the shit that isn't our fault, I'm struggling to see the relevance.

While we're on easy counters, we can also pretty quickly dispatch the argument regarding Jesus' own suffering. It was nice that he put his money where his mouth was, sure, but that (at best) is evidence that God isn't a hypocrite, and has no bearing on whether or not the reasons behind suffering are justified.

Much like yesterday, I'll cover the remaining points one by one.

Suffering may be for the greater good

I hate this argument for two reasons. The first is arguably a philosophical disagreement. The common line taken by those trying to justify this position is that we can't possibly expect to understand the plan God is working to. "Before the laws of God we are as swine", as Reverend Hale would have it. My problem with this is twofold. Firstly (and this is maybe as much a matter of belief as Christianity, I accept that), I subscribe to the theory of universal logic. In other words, I believe that the axioms of rationality are not human constructs, but exist beyond us, even if at this point there is no reason to believe that there exists any other beings in the universe aware of them. This sits uneasily with the idea that God's thinking is totally inexplicable.

Even if that isn't true, there are other issues. Piaget argued that it is possible to teach a child of any age old enough to understand language any topic whatsoever in a way that was "intellectually honest". It may be necessary to simplify considerably, and one may question whether teaching given topics is actually wise, but it can be done. Proponents of the "Great Plan" idea have to believe that the best way for God to deal with us on our level is to tell us it'll all be fine, and to leave him alone. I'd argue that this is hardly compelling. Galileo would agree with me, I think: "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use."

The other problem here strikes me as such a serious one, philosophically speaking, that I pulled the speaker up on it during the Q&A session because I felt he had fumbled it so badly [1]. One of the standards objections to the idea that the universe is being run according to some unfathomably long-term plan is that it's spectacularly unfair. Which is obviously true, but it's so obvious that Christianity has had a counter for quite some time: it does no good to compare children killed in earthquakes with Pol Pot, because there will be a reckoning after death which will make up for the injustices in this life.

This, though, isn't what bothers me. My issue doesn't arise from the difference between a good person suffering and a bad person living well, it's springs from the difference between a Christian suffering and a Christian living well. If the object of this life is indeed to accept God and try to do His will, then why make that process harder for some than others? Especially given the potentially unspeakably high price of failure (hello pitchforks!). Our decision to be responsible individuals exists independently of our circumstances, to some extent. Our ability to hang on to our faith does not.

Now, since God is omniscient you might be able to live with the idea that he is capable of judging your actions conditional upon your circumstances and your degree of faith conditional upon your circumstances. There are problems here too, however. Firstly, the only choices offered by Christianity to my knowledge are Heaven and Hell (plus possibly Purgatory), and such an infinitely complex decision-making process would sit pretty uneasily with such a limited choice of fates (q.v. Ashcroft Fallacy). Secondly, there's the problem of the casting of God as being just, someone who refuses to compromise his principles, and forgiving all at the same time (obviously this is an issue beyond this narrow point), a combination which I cannot reconcile.

God Does Not Abandon Us During Our Suffering

This was the point that gave me the title for this entire post. As far as I can see, God doesn't abandon us when we suffer in the exact way the United States Congress doesn't abandon Africans when they're being hacked to death with machetes. That is to say, it is very clear that the victims have the moral support of the US Government, but that comes as no comfort when your family has been butchered, and claiming otherwise while trying to justify that suffering is pretty messed up. It's particularly bad when it appears during a talk in which you've already listed Rwanda as a horror humanity visited upon itself. If you want to say "We brought this on ourselves", fine, but don't try to add in "But I feel really bad about it, if it helps".

Mankind Deserves To Suffer

It's always interested me that there are people out there who can simultaneously argue that punishing us in this life according to our crimes isn't something God is prepared to do, but slapping us around as a race is totally OK. It just fails to compute on every level. It all comes back to original sin, I guess. Punish Dave for murdering ten people wouldn't be cricket. Punish Dave for sharing his DNA with the guy who pissed God off millenia ago, well, that makes much more sense.

Of course, the entire idea of original sin is so bat's arse crazy it's hard to know where to begin with it. The most obvious layer to this particular onion-of-madness is how a loving God can punish humanity en masse for a mistake made so long ago, or how rejecting Him was really worse than executing eleven million people in the Holocaust whilst trying to rule the world and wipe out an entire race. That then peels off to reveal the deeper bizarreness of suggesting the events in the garden of Eden involved mankind rejecting God, when it would be much more reasonable to say that Adam disobeyed God which resulted in God rejecting us. Thousands of years (even if we pretend we don't know how geology works) of misery for one guy eating one fruit that should never have been there in the first place (planting that tree may not be the legal definition of entrapment, but it must be close) and which he probably wouldn't have touched if God had chosen to explain rather than simply command. If nothing else, the whole thing makes one wonder if the problem isn't that God can't justify to us why we suffer, but that he would rather just order us to suck it up.

In summary, then. One atheist's response: God doesn't want to make all our decisions for us. The summation of Christian thinking on the subject: God only kills babies because it'll make things better thousands of years later, and they had it coming anyway, though he does feel bad about all the pointless, miserable, horrific pain and heartbreak and death that's going on, and he'd like to make that clear, because if you forget that and give up on him then you'll be in a world of trouble.

Like I said, it wasn't really the best of talks.

[1] His direct response to my question was pretty feeble, too, though in his defence I don't think he understood the point I was making, and there wasn't time to go into it in more detail.

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