The Delusion of a Just World

You've probably heard religious apologists assert that if God didn't exist, the world would be an unjust place where some people were never rewarded or punished as their behavior deserved. (They usually hold back from explicitly stating the conclusion, "Therefore, God must exist, because it would make us very sad if he didn't," probably out of subconscious recognition that this would make the fallacy too obvious.) As prominent a religious figure as Pope Benedict has endorsed this reasoning.

Claims like these arise from a fundamental bias of human psychology called the "just world" hypothesis, first described by the psychologist Melvin Lerner. In his experiments, Lerner found that people are uncomfortable believing that suffering is random, that sometimes bad things happen for no reason at all. Instead, we prefer to believe that people must have done something to deserve what they get. This is obviously a reassuring and comforting belief, which explains its wide appeal. (If bad things only happen to those who deserve it, and I'm a good person, then I can be sure that nothing bad will happen to me.) Belief in the just world can be thought of as a failure to apply the null hypothesis in the moral domain: rejecting the explanation of chance, we prefer to believe that everything that happens is deserved.

But the problem is that, however much we'd prefer to believe otherwise, the world is random and sometimes bad things do happen for no reason. And because it encourages us to look down on victims of misfortune as deserving their fate, the just world hypothesis usually leads to worse injustices. For example, it lies behind the common belief that people who've been unemployed for a long time must be lazy (and therefore not deserving of a social safety net or other help), or the belief that rape victims are at fault for being raped if they were dressed "provocatively":

Afterwards, they said that the 22-year-old woman was bound to attract attention. She was wearing a white lace miniskirt, a green tank top, and no underwear. At knife-point, she was kidnapped from a Fort Lauderdale restaurant parking lot by a Georgia drifter and raped twice. But a jury showed little sympathy for the victim. The accused rapist was acquitted. "We all feel she asked for it [by] the way she was dressed," said the jury foreman.

But religion, more than anything else, encourages and supports the just-world delusion. By postulating an all-powerful god who orders events, it offers an easy one-size-fits-all explanation for any misfortune: the victims were sinners, and God was punishing them. That's why a Harvard study, from one of the links above, found that

...people who have a strong tendency to believe in a just world also tend to be more religious, more authoritarian, more conservative, more likely to admire political leaders and existing social institutions, and more likely to have negative attitudes toward underprivileged groups. To a lesser but still significant degree, the believers in a just world tend to "feel less of a need to engage in activities to change society or to alleviate plight of social victims."

The just-world belief is found throughout human culture. It has one of its most extreme expressions in Hinduism's caste system, where each person's station in life is presumed to be the result of sins or virtues from a previous existence. But it finds expression in evangelical Christianity as well, in an even more ridiculous (if no less morally outrageous) form: the belief that everyone in the world who isn't a Christian is deliberately suppressing their knowledge of the truth.

As already mentioned, just-world believers tend to show less concern for the suffering of others and less desire to work toward creating an actually more just society. Ironically, belief in a just world impedes justice. When you believe that God is in charge and everything will work out for the best, this can't help but detract from the urgency of attempts to create a better world by our own effort. How much human suffering has been ignored, how many evils allowed to persist, because of the belief that the downtrodden are sinners who deserve what they get, or that injustice should be patiently endured rather than actively battled? If we truly care about fairness and seeing that justice is done, we need to give up the harmful belief that higher powers control the course of events, and recognize instead that the only moral order in the universe is what we create for ourselves.

October 3, 2011, 5:43 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink41 comments

They Have No Answer

The other day, I came across an essay titled "Staining the Silence" on Vox Nova, a Catholic group blog. The author, Mark Gordon, writes about how his son was deployed to combat in Iraq in 2007, how he feared for his safety as any parent would, and how at first he prayed every day for his son's safe return. But as time went by, he found himself unable to avoid an obvious and unpleasant realization: tens of thousands of parents, despite offering countless prayers of their own, had seen their sons and daughters return from war wounded and broken in mind and body, or not return at all. And he was forced to ask himself:

What right did I have to ask that my son be spared? More to the point, could I even believe in a God who might answer my prayer while ignoring the pleas of all those others?

...30,000 children die of malnutrition in this world each day, many of them in the dust, like animals. Can I believe that they are each simply living (or dying) out God's unique "plan" for them? Can I believe that while also believing that God's "plan" for me includes a lucrative new contract, a great bargain at the new car lot, or even the safe return of my son? No.

This is more self-awareness than most theists display, and I give him full credit for it. Not only does he recognize that it would be myopic and selfish to expect divine protection for his own family while others are suffering and dying, he goes on to say that his beliefs don't offer an answer to the larger problem of evil:

Most of us don't have the time, the capacity, or the will to dive deeply into scholarly debates about theodicy... We take the questions that flummox philosophers and set them aside; at least until we're confronted with the reality that life is far more complex than we would like to think. I am confronting that reality this week, and I'm sorry to say I have no real or satisfying answers.

Naturally, there were commenters who objected to this and expressed basically the same viewpoint that's mocked in this poem - that God specially protects a handful of his favorites while ignoring everyone else:

I think that it was your strong prayers for your son that kept him sane and whole admist that immoral war. Just imagine what your son's fate would be if his moral, mental, and physical/mortal fate would be had he had no prayers of intercession or supplication to God.

What a bizarre and unsavory theology this is! It says that God is perfectly aware when someone needs help and could intervene at any time, but won't do anything unless he's asked - in fact, unless he's asked by someone else other than the person in need of help. That sounds less like the plan of a compassionate and loving person, and more like the whim of a sadistic tyrant who demands that supplicants stroke his ego before he'll consider granting a boon.

That view fails the test of morality. But the alternative, which was discussed in the comments, fails the test of reason:

When someone speaks of "God's plan," I say: Look at the Cross. That is God's plan ... for me, for those I love, for those children in the dust, for all humanity.

But this makes absolutely no sense! To say that God's plan for us includes tragedy, agony and heartbreak, but this is excusable because he put himself through the same suffering, just raises further and even more baffling questions. If I lose my job and end up sleeping on the streets, and I have a billionaire friend who could get me out of these troubles any time he wished and not even notice the amount spent, what would it accomplish for him to say, "I'm not going to give you any money, but to prove I have compassion on your plight, I'm going to leave my vast mansion, dress in rags and sleep on the street next to you"? What good would that do either of us?

In the comments, Gordon suggested that God is under no obligation to help the suffering because "I don't think he is in that business". But that apologetic just reiterates the question: Why isn't God in that business? Why does he refuse to provide help that's in his power to give?

I wrote last year, in "The Poisoned Cup of Theodicy", about theists who counsel each other to avoid thinking about the problem of evil because doing so damages their faith. This one, to his credit, doesn't flinch from it as others do, but faces up to it squarely. But even so, he has no more satisfying resolution to offer.

It's often said that people embrace religion because it brings them solace in times of tragedy. But how true can that really be when those same people admit that religion has no answer to the question of why we suffer? Isn't what we want a reason, an explanation for the pain we go through? Isn't that what gives us the ability to endure? I would think that, if anything, it would worsen the problem to believe that there's an all-powerful god causing it to happen for reasons that are inscrutable to us. It would add an extra level of bewilderment and frustration to misery and leave believers tormented by the thought that they somehow did something to deserve it all.

The atheist's answer is still the simplest and most persuasive: Suffering happens because there is no god, no cosmic overseer dispensing justice. There's only randomness and the impersonal forces of nature, which sometimes act in our favor and sometimes against. The only ones who are there for us in times of tragedy are our fellow human beings, and we must rely on each other if we want to make this world a better one. It's not the most comforting answer, but it has the benefit of being true, and contains no mysteries, no paradoxes, no unsolved contradictions that simply must be accepted on faith.

July 28, 2011, 5:48 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink187 comments

From the Mailbag: Shedding the Burden of Suffering

Earlier this week, I got a lengthy letter whose author gave me permission to share it with you:

Dear Ebonmusings:

I gave a glimpse to your musing about the carrot and the stick - I didn't expect it to talk about morality, mainly because I realized that the latest part of my life as a christian was about pursuing a carrot and a stick.*

Allow me to share my story. Sorry if it's a bit depressing, but I can assure you that I'm much better now (and much better than before, since I embraced atheism and got rid of many prejudices and sick attitudes).

I had always been a devout Catholic. My devotion was fed in a positive feedback loop by my own spiritual experiences. I had thought God loved me and considered me so special that he had given me some visions and experiences that I read about in the works of Catholic saints. Today I just realized it was mere delusion.

Anyway. My problem was when, for health reasons, I had to leave a hellhole called seminary. I was going to be a missionary priest. I couldn't even finish the first year because there was no doctor there and I got ill more than once - worse, I lost around 20 pounds of weight from malnutrition. To make things worse, they made us work and live in very unsanitary conditions - once, the pork we were going to eat was left to rot for around three days under the sun, without us even suspecting it. I fell ill and had to take whatever antibiotics we had at hand. Eventually I got better. During the mission, I slept less than five hours a day for more than a month thanks to my brothers, who always stayed late, and I had to be the one who would wake up first to be able to take a quick shower before Mass at 6 AM. Eventually I got the flu and had to leave everything.

When I returned home, I realized my father had already given up my home to my sister who recently had gotten married and was expecting a baby. So I had to live in a little storage room that was below the ground level. This was bad because it flooded occasionally and sometimes the sewer overflowed, and I couldn't get my own apartment because I couldn't find a job.

Still wondering why God had left me in this situation, I realized I was growing older and I needed to find myself a wife - as I couldn't stand my loneliness... much less the depression that I was going through. I was tortured by my loneliness and my escapes in masturbation (which meant that I sinned)... at the same time, I was going through such horrible despair that I wanted to kill myself. But I couldn't because God would send me to hell. I begged him to kill me or give me a hand, a new room, etc.

Eventually I realized I could no longer live isolated in that room (only to come to my parents' one-bedroom apartment for breakfast and dinner), so I decided to live with my parents and sleep on the couch. There was a little problem... my dad always woke up at 4 AM and I couldn't sleep well. At one point I began dreaming about having my own bedroom. In the dream, I was so happy but I remembered it was just a dream, and I woke up crying and wanting to die.

During that year, I kept asking myself: "Why, God? Why?" Why was the question that God never answered. And I realized today that I had always wanted an answer as why God was testing me in such a horrible manner. At one point I felt abandoned, crushed and hated by God - I felt there was no other explanation.

I sought help which didn't come. Even after being able by mere chance (actually, the landlord increased the rent and some neighbors had to leave, so we moved to a two-bedroom apartment) to finally get my own bedroom, my bitterness hadn't gone away. I kept asking for and expecting a compensation for all my undeserved sufferings. They didn't come.

A believer's life on Earth is always carrying a burden of suffering... seeking a carrot named "help" with a stick named "Faith". In my case, if I ever dared to question God's infinite love, or even his existence, I would doom myself to hell. I couldn't even curse his name (in fact, I haven't, even as an atheist - except that claiming that he doesn't exist might be cursing him). So, I was doomed to suffer if I challenged ("tempted") God, and I was doomed to suffer and wait hoping God would be compassionate towards me otherwise. Also, because I was such a sinner, I felt that God was punishing me and I couldn't get any help.

This is what I wanted to share. Faith is evil, it forces many unnecessary sufferings on people who seek divine help that will never come, instead of seeking the help of our fellow humans and realizing that if you don't help yourself, nobody else will.

Finally I would like to thank Reddit for sharing so much insight on life and helping me realize there is no God. It's been a liberating experience.

Please feel free to post this on your site, as long as my testimony remains anonymous.

Thank you for listening.

* In a follow-up e-mail, he explained: "One note about my testimony... it wasn't a carrot and a stick used to hit (as in reward / punishment), but a carrot hanging on a stick. This is why I called the stick 'faith', and the carrot 'happiness'. You try to move, but the stick moves with you. You cannot get the carrot until you finally get rid of the stick (the faith)."

July 15, 2011, 6:24 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink8 comments

Theodicy Is Useful in Everyday Life

So, I've been debating Catholic commenters on Unequally Yoked again, and I came across a comment that was so astute, so unusually perceptive, that I just had to share it.

The war with the Canaanites is really just a specialization of the problem of suffering, right? Why does a good God allow suffering, which is presumably evil.

The short answer (from a Catholic perspective) is that we don't know... Nonetheless, it is not the knock-down blow that atheists tend to present it as. It is at least conceivable that finite suffering is in the service of a greater, unseen, good, and therefore reconcilable with a benevolent deity. So there is no contradiction, just a question mark.

Now, being as this statement came from a Roman Catholic, you'd expect me to disagree with it, right? But I don't, not at all. In fact, I myself believe this logic wholeheartedly. How could I not, when it just recently proved so useful to me in my own life?

Allow me to explain. I haven't shared this with you until now, but the last few months, I've been busy with a minor legal matter. It was such a trivial thing, not even worth bothering with really, but sometimes these things just have to be dealt with before they become an annoyance. So there I was, sitting at the defendant's bench while the prosecutor wrapped up his closing arguments. That bastard had such a smug look on his face - he must have thought he had me right where he wanted me. Well, I'd soon show him.

I rose to address the jury (I was acting as my own lawyer, naturally), and delivered my closing statement. Normally I'm a modest and humble individual, but I happen to think that this speech was such a fine example of the art of rhetoric, it was crying out to be shared. I'm proud to reprint it below in full.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury. We've heard a lot of back-and-forth in this trial, a lot of tedious legal jargon, and a lot of so-called evidence. You've all been stuck in this courtroom just as long as I have, so I won't tax your patience by recounting all the details. But if I may beg your indulgence one more time, let me just hit the high points.

"Yes, we've all seen the surveillance camera video that shows me entering a convenience store, holding up the clerk at gunpoint, emptying the cash register and then pistol-whipping him while he cowered on the floor. You've heard the eyewitnesses recount how, after I left the store, I punched out an old lady with a walker and took her purse while she bled all over the sidewalk. You know the story of how I then carjacked a minivan stopped at a traffic light, dragged the driver out onto the pavement, took his keys and sped off. And after hearing from those dozens of police officers who testified about it, I'm sure you don't need me to repeat the details of the ensuing six-hour, three-state joyride, the car owner's screaming infant son strapped into a child seat next to me all the while, which finally ended only when I sideswiped an ambulance and crashed that car through the front wall of a daycare center.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm not going to stand here and lie to you. I have to admit, these acts I committed - sorry, alleged acts - all seem to paint my character in a pretty bad light. I can tell from the way you're glaring at me that some of you might even think of me as evil. And to be frank, I can't say I blame you. If I were in your position right now, I'd probably be drawing many of the same conclusions.

"But, my friends, there's something you may not have considered. I know you're all good and decent people (not to mention handsome and snappily dressed), and I can tell from your clean and honest faces that you all attend church regularly, where they taught you the difference between good and evil. And so, ladies and gentlemen, I ask you: Isn't it at least conceivable that the finite suffering caused by my acts was in the service of a greater, unseen good, the nature of which I'm not going to tell you? And if that's possible, which you must admit it is, then isn't it also possible that I'm really innocent? In fact, isn't it possible that I'm a good person who deserves a medal and an illuminated scroll of thanks from the city?

"Given this argument, the prosecution's case isn't the knock-down blow they've presented it as. We just don't have all the facts we'd need to reach a decision. And so, your verdict on my character can't be guilty. At most, it could be a question mark! Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, if the prosecutors haven't proven their case to the satisfaction of even the most hardcore school of philosophical skepticism, you must acquit!"

Well, I don't like to brag, but I walked out of that courtroom a free man. I guess I'm lucky there were no atheists on my jury - you know how that kind tends to jump to conclusions on the basis of insufficient evidence.

April 1, 2011, 5:43 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink32 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

• President Obama signs a law to fight British libel tourism by barring such judgments from being enforced in the U.S.

• My esteemed guest author, Sarah Braasch, has an article in the latest issue of The Humanist on the French burqa ban.

• After a scary brush with mortality, everyone's favorite squid-loving atheist professor is back in action. Visit his blog and leave some get-well-soon comments!

Did a Catholic priest carry out an IRA bombing? And if so, did the church help cover it up and shield him from justice?

• Susan Jacoby contemplates the theodicy of the bedbug.

• And last but not least, An Apostate's Chapel has this outstanding example of the eloquence, wit and wisdom of Robert Ingersoll, written in response to a Salvation Army-organized vigil of several thousand Christians praying simultaneously for his conversion. (Spoiler: It didn't work!)

August 27, 2010, 12:12 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink10 comments

The Poisoned Cup of Theodicy

The world has seen and heard enough about the misery and destruction in Haiti this past week that I don't think I need to dwell on it. But I do want to take some time to address the perennial question of theodicy, which comes up in the aftermath of every disaster like this.

To an atheist, for whom the Haiti quake was nothing more than the result of tectonic plates slipping - a disaster caused by impersonal natural forces and random chance - there is nothing to explain. The laws of the cosmos are not conscious of human beings and don't take our needs into account. No human action caused this disaster to occur, and no one bears responsibility for it. If we want to live comfortably and safely in this world, it's up to us to learn its rules so that we can mitigate their worst consequences through science and technology, and when disaster does strike, it's up to us to care for each other.

Such is the atheist's view, and it is comforting, in a sense. But to people who believe in a personal deity who set these laws in motion and foresaw their consequences, there's a much more glaring problem. In a post titled Why Did God Allow Haiti's Earthquake?, Christian pastor Dave Schmelzer reflects on the topic.

Schmelzer does have a dead-on and even, dare I say it, scriptural response to Pat Robertson's vile mouth:

The heart of the great biblical book on suffering—Job—critiques Job's false friends who are determined to figure out why Job is suffering. It's as if they can't live in the tension of seeing someone else suffer without establishing that somehow the sufferer deserved their suffering, so we, the onlookers, are safe.

I have no argument with that. But there's another section of Schmelzer's post that caught my attention:

The best thing I've read on this subject is Gregory Boyd's God at War. Boyd says that it's our Greek influence that makes us need answers to suffering and evil. The issue, he says, isn't intellectually figuring out evil. That will lead to two bad outcomes: torment (as Bart Ehrmann discovered) and complacency. To Boyd, the world is a thick spiritual battle. When we confront suffering and evil, our task is not to analyze the suffering and evil, it's to fight it.

What I find most interesting about this is Boyd's claim that we shouldn't try to find an explanation for evil that's compatible with Christianity. Attempting this, he says, can have only two outcomes, both of them bad: either we become convinced that God is malevolent or indifferent, which plunges one into despair (or leads to deconversion, as happened with Bart Ehrman), or we become convinced that God is justified in causing it, which leads to the Robertson-like callousness which believes that only evil people suffer.

Now, I'm not denying the logic of this argument. Those do seem to be the most common outcomes when Christians contemplate the problem of evil. But what I want to point out is his conclusion: therefore, Christians should stop trying to find an explanation for evil. They should just stop thinking about the topic, because it does damage to their faith if they dwell on it too closely.

Schmelzer endorses this conclusion himself:

"Why" never offered anyone any comfort, any power or any answers... So let's not over-analyze "why God allowed" Haiti's earthquake.

This is a rather surprising view, inasmuch as it categorically dismisses the possibility that apologists' attempts to justify evil and suffering could ever assist faith. It seems he agrees with us atheists that conventional Christian explanations for evil are insufficient.

But it's not just evangelical Christians who take this view. A Mormon blog calls the project of theodicy a "poisoned cup", and says:

I find myself increasingly ambivalent about the whole project of theodicy. On one hand, I want to reject a fideism that insists on belief in the irrational as a mark of true faith. Hence, I want a religion that at least holds out the possibility of increasing my understanding of the ways of God and the nature of the universe through the use of reason. We shouldn't have to crucify our brains in order to believe. And yet there is also a part of me that wants to maintain the mystery of evil... Ultimately... the most important reaction to suffering is its alleviation rather than its explanation.

This blogger, obviously an intelligent person, doesn't want to have to shut off his mind in order to believe. And to his credit, he rejects the Robertsonian argument that black people were justly excluded from the Mormon priesthood as punishment for sins they committed in a previous life:

I would much rather ascribe the priesthood ban to the tragic failings and racism of good and great men like Brigham Young rather than warp the cosmic narrative of the plan of salvation to make an injustice just.

This is an eloquent and laudable honesty, far superior to the usual apologists' approach of enshrining contingent historical prejudices as eternal truths. And yet he, too, counsels fellow believers to cease trying to explain evil and "simply let the mystery be" - as though the project of theodicy was a blister, or an unhealed wound: something that we only make worse by picking at it.

What's remarkable is that both these writers, in their own ways, implicitly acknowledge that the argument from evil is irrefutable. There is simply no moral way to reconcile belief in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving deity with the fact of evil and suffering in our world. This is just what atheists have been saying since the time of Epicurus. But rather than take the obvious next step - that the argument from evil is unanswerable because the atheists are correct - they instead advise their fellow believers to stop thinking about it.

Is this not remarkable? It's as though, for people in these religious traditions, an entire continent of their inner mental world has to be cordoned off and declared a forbidden zone. Their mental landscape is littered with locked doors, fences of barbed wire, and sternly worded "Keep Out" signs - all delimiting the sphere of dangerous ideas which they're advised never to examine.

Can anyone dispute that atheists have nothing like this? Is there any idea we place off-limits for examination, any question we deem too dangerous to ask? Is there any place where we say the free mind must never travel? And if your answer is "no", as it inevitably must be, then I have a followup question: Which kind of belief would need to be protected from scrutiny: a true belief, or a false one?

January 25, 2010, 1:32 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink39 comments

A Dialogue with Quixote, Part VII

Hello Quixote,

Considering your last letter to me was some time ago, I apologize for the lateness of my reply. To tell the truth, this was the hardest one for me to write. It's not that I couldn't think of anything to say. Much the opposite: If I had said everything I wanted to say, this post would have been too long! Cutting it down to a reasonable length was more of a struggle than writing it. I've endeavored to edit in a way that does justice to your points and to mine.

I also want to say at the outset that this will be my last reply. I've enjoyed our conversation these past few months; I think we've both had ample opportunity to speak our minds and I'm glad for that. If you'd like to offer some final thoughts in reply to this letter, you're welcome to do so.

While you good folk may connect these observances, and they are real world observances, with logical arguments or rationale for unbelief, most do not. In ministry, we engage believers and unbelievers continuously, and it's a rare bird that cites any of the philosophic staples in my first paragraph, or others like them. The ones who do generally do not exhibit even a serviceable grasp of the attendant issues. This is my overwhelming and consistent experience firsthand.

That may be one of those points where we'll have to differ. In my experience, most atheists, even if they aren't experts in theology, come to atheism because they've decided that something about religious belief doesn't rationally add up. This may, of course, be self-selection bias - it's likely that most of the people who visit Daylight Atheism come here because they like to give thought to these issues.

However, I maintain that since there isn't (yet!) a thriving, real-world atheist community in the same way that there are religious communities, very few people are going to become atheists just because it's the default option in their peer group. Most people who become atheists do so as the result of a conscious decision on their part and an intentional effort to seek out the advocates of that philosophy. Granted, if we're as successful as I'd hope, that may change in a few generations. Greta Christina wrote a very thoughtful post about this (link), about how every social movement needs must start with the most independently-minded, committed people, and how that inevitably diminishes as its goals are accomplished and it becomes a more widely accepted position.

An insulating factor actively laboring against this realization is immersion. I define immersion as a progressive group dynamic which isolates and subsequently reinforces cognitive structures, mores, and peculiar linguistics — and a host of other things — among individuals sharing (un)beliefs and community. We're all guilty of it, and I can't speak for y'all, but one thing accomplished by this dialogue is the weakening of this exclusive immersive web by the coupling of new strands to existing ones.

I couldn't agree more! Why do you think I wanted to do this in the first place?

Lastly, I might also ask you a related question: to what degree is your atheism dependent upon your birth in a western culture steeped in secularism? Would that influence your estimation of the reasonableness of your atheism? I'd also like to hear to what degree you believe your birth into a Judeo-Christian culture has imported tenets from those religions into your atheism, whether consciously or subconsciously.

I don't accept that Western culture, particularly American culture, is steeped in secularism. On the contrary, I'd say that being an atheist where I live requires swimming upstream against an overwhelming tide of public opinion: opinion treating belief in God not just as the expected, but the only moral position. Look at the money in your wallet if you don't think that's true. There may be some places where your remark about our secularism-steeped culture has a degree of truth. But in vast swathes of this country, nonbelief in public life, or even in private life, is all but impossible unless carefully concealed.

I'll grant that living in this culture does make atheism possible - in the sense that, as god-saturated as our society is, we've still managed to carve out some breathing room between religion and government, creating a small space where nonbelief can exist. In many cultures of the past and the present, even that wouldn't have existed, and outspoken atheism would not be an option at all. In those cultures I'd have been imprisoned or worse for saying the kind of things I say nearly every day on this blog.

As for importing Judeo-Christian tenets into my atheism - I don't know, which tenets do you have in mind? There are many moral principles, like the Golden Rule, that find expression in every culture. In our culture, which is heavily influenced by Christian thinking, these universals naturally find expression in a Christian context. In that sense, I'll concede that my worldview has been influenced by these beliefs; it would be virtually impossible for anyone who grew up in 20th-century America to say otherwise. On the other hand, the Bible and historic Christianity have promoted many principles that are antithetical to my worldview, and many social reform movements to whose ideals I subscribe - separation of church and state, women's equality, secular public schools, birth control, GLBT rights - were and often still are viciously attacked for being anti-Christian.

I've never lived a moment without out it that I can recall. There's definitely times when it's stronger, though. After absorbing so much heat for this admission, I'm figuring I should just go ahead and claim it as an evidence for God — I've got nothing to lose! I'd enjoy hearing of your comparable experience...

Well, now you've asked me a hard question! Trying to do justice to experiences like this is like trying to describe the experience of listening to a symphony. But I'll give it my best shot.

This kind of experience tends to come upon me suddenly at my happiest moments, though it sometimes wells up for no apparent reason. (Maybe it's from a little trickle of current in my temporal lobes.) The most salient aspect is a sense of heightened awareness - a feeling that all the world has suddenly become much richer in detail, that everything has become immeasurably more significant. Always accompanying this is a sense of great affection, of love for all the beauty of the world and my fellow living things. And lastly, there's a feeling I can only describe as oceanic: like the boundaries of my self dissolving, being opened up to all the unimaginable vastness of the world, and experiencing it as a source of bliss. In those few perfect moments, it feels as if the world is full of magic, and I've only briefly gained the ability to see it.

I won't say that this state, this awareness, is present in my life every waking moment. But when it does emerge, it's like the sun breaking through clouds, and I wonder how anyone ever does without it.

When I read your commentary and essays, I sense that you consider some things to be right, and others wrong, in a manner that equates them with objective moral values — in a manner that you would consider them right and wrong if you and every other human had never existed; simply put: more than only the natural functioning of a human cortex, a deliverance of human reason, or an emergent consciousness. I'm not convinced yet that your and your commentator's actions match your beliefs. Where is my misstep here?

I do consider that some things are objectively right and others are objectively wrong. However, I do not consider that this is mutually exclusive with the natural functioning of the cortex. I think these explanations are complementary: the existence of conscious, reasoning beings brings right and wrong into the world, just as it brings in a whole host of other abstract concepts - democracy, for example, or money, or science, or music. It wouldn't make sense to say that those things aren't "real", that they're just tricks of the cerebral cortex. We make them real by participating in them.

How can you prove that the only reason God would permit evil to occur is to bring about some other end?

Truthfully, I think that's the only defense a Christian could possibly offer, even as unsatisfactory as it is (a point you seem to agree with, if I read you correctly). For if God did not create evil as a means to some other end, there's only one other logically possible option: that God created evil as an end in itself. In other words, he created evil for its own sake. That's the definition of what an evil being is, and that creates an irreconcilable contradiction with the core tenet of Christianity that God is good.

If a genuine free will exists, not every possible world is feasible for God to create, and the one we know may just be the possible world feasible for God to create that contains the most good with the least amount of evil given the counterfactuals of creaturely free action. As I think I'm on the side of reason here, I'll endure the Panglossian taunts happily.

I really doubt that very strongly. When you look out at this world, you can't think of any way it could be improved? We wouldn't stand to gain by making human beings more empathetic, less prone to resort to violence to settle their disagreements? We couldn't gain by making free agents who are more inclined to take the long view, less inclined to value immediate short-term gain? By making people who are more courageous and morally steadfast, less willing to compromise their principles for material benefit?

These are all contingent parameters of human behavior that could hypothetically be altered; a creator could twiddle those knobs without depriving us of free will. If you really think this world is unimprovable, that's your right. All I can say, though, is that if God turned things over to me, it wouldn't take long to draw up a list of fixes.

Put yourself in my shoes for a moment: if you were convinced there existed an all-wise, all-good, all-powerful being, wouldn't you trust in Him with regard to evil?

If I was convinced of the exact statement you gave, yes, I'd pretty much have to. However, that's because your conclusion is contained in your premise: if there existed an all-wise, all-good, all-powerful being, it follows as a matter of logic that there can be no unnecessary evil in the world. But that's putting the cart before the horse. I see no rational way to draw such an inference, given the fact that unnecessary evil manifestly does exist. How anyone could look at this world and infer that supreme moral goodness intended it all to be this way, that's a conclusion I simply can't see any way to justify.

As I've said before, to infer moral goodness, one has to have at least some understanding of the actor's motives. But you say we should treat God's plan as a mystery, that we can't know he doesn't have good reasons of his own and therefore should trust him. Again, this is putting the cart before the horse. If God's motives are unknown to us, to be consistent, you'd have to say that his moral status, good or bad, is also an unknown quantity. Believing that God is absolutely good and that he has a motive for all the evil he causes is an argument that goes straight from premise to conclusion without any intervening steps.

August 30, 2009, 3:11 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink12 comments

A Dialogue with Quixote, Part V

Hello Quixote,

In reference to your list of reasons why people become atheists or theists, I have to disagree. I don't think most of those are the initial reasons why people choose one or the other. Many of them are common causes that are frequently taken up by people on one side or the other, or are shared aspects of membership in those communities, it's true. But I don't think people become atheists because they have more fun than theists (although, if true, that might be a reason why people stay atheists), or that people become theists because of the sense of community they get from attending church (although, again, that might be a reason why they stay theists).

However, I would zero in one item of your second list, the first item: Most people who are theists were taught from childhood to believe that way. People do convert in adulthood, but we both know that that's relatively rare. For the most part, the things that people were raised to believe are the ones that they end up believing for the rest of their lives.

Would you agree with that? If so, I'm curious how it influences your belief in the reasonableness of your faith. If you (or I) were raised in a predominantly Muslim country, we'd almost certainly be Muslims; if in a Buddhist country, we'd more likely be Buddhists. Do you think that should mean anything to people who live in a largely Christian country and are Christians themselves?

That this particular portion of my initial post would have garnered the interest it has baffles me, to be honest. I inserted it as almost an afterthought, because I suspect many theists use this awareness as a basis for God's existence. I do not, nor am I the charismatic type Christian who would be prone to such experiences.

It doesn't surprise me at all. I think that many atheists find this the most novel claim in the theist's arsenal, as well as the one they're personally least familiar with. And notwithstanding the fact that you don't rely on it as the primary basis for your belief, I think most theists do. In fact, for many of them, I think it's the first reason they would give.

From what you've said so far, this is a hard thing to describe. I accept that, but I'd like to explore it a little more, with your permission. I've had experiences that strike me as comparable, but maybe if we talk it over a bit more, we can see if we're talking about the same thing. Here's the most important thing I'm curious about: Is this sensation a continual awareness, or are there moments when it's absent and others when it's especially intense? you would ever conclude that there is evil and injustice. If these things come about by accident, as you say, why would we consider them good? If they come about by random chance, where's the injustice or the evil? Certainly you don't conclude that there's evil and injustice in the insect world, yet if we're the same product of naturalism that the insect kingdom is, and there's no higher authority overseeing our existence, why would we presume that there's actual injustice or evil simply because we're a more highly evolved lifeform with an emergent consciousness?

You've answered your own question, my friend. Insects are programmed by genes and instinct, and cannot choose in any meaningful way how to live their lives. But human beings are conscious, rational creatures who can explicitly reflect on and compare reasons in order to steer our own behavior. That makes us moral agents who bear real responsibility for the actions we undertake. If we suffer harm that is not merited by our actions, then an injustice is done, even if it's not done by someone. Similarly, a natural event may be good for us, in accordance with our reasons and desires, even if it was not caused by a conscious being. Our quest for justice is really the quest to impose a rational pattern on an irrational world, to bring the world into alignment with what a consideration of our reasons would suggest.

The primary cause of this wholesale withdrawal has been the inability for philosophers to demonstrate that God cannot possess a morally sufficient reason to permit evil.

With respect to the philosophers you cite, I don't agree. Assuming evil is not an end in itself, the only reason God would permit evil to occur is to bring about some other end, some other goal that he desires. But if God is omnipotent, that can never be necessary. That's what omnipotence means: an omnipotent being can directly actualize any logically possible state of affairs, and is not bound, as we are, by the necessity to use tools or contrivances.

If God wants to cross a river, he doesn't need to create stepping stones in the water; he can just teleport to the other side. If God wants to start a fire, he doesn't need matches or tinder; he just creates fire. I don't think you would disagree with either of those statements. What grounds can there be for reaching a different conclusion in the case of evil?

I know the usual Christian response to this question is that true free will requires the ability to do wrong. But - not to preempt your reply - I don't think that's the one you'll go for, unless I've misunderstood your views on the nature of humanity's relationship to God. Of course, I await your reply to see I've gone astray!

June 1, 2009, 9:59 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink29 comments

Mr. T Tackles the Problem of Evil

It's not only professional philosophers and theologians who have an opinion on matters touching the sacred. Sometimes, gold-jewelry-wearing, mohawk-having, former '80s television and movie action stars have words of wisdom to express on these weighty matters. Like, for instance, Mr. T, who recently gave an interview to Bizarre magazine in which he made a very interesting, and unintentionally revealing, comment.

The interviewer asked T if he'd ever seen a UFO, to which he responded:

I'm a Christian – I really don't believe in UFOs.

What one has to do with the other is not clear to me, but leave that aside. Mr. T is in fact an evangelical Christian, as he confirms in this Beliefnet interview:

I am a sinner who has been saved by grace. It's by the grace of God that I'm here. We all have sinned and fallen short on God's glory. I come home and I ask God to forgive me for my sins. Everyday I ask for a new cleansing. I say, "God, let me show kindness to someone, let me give someone hope. Let me be a light at the end of a tunnel for somebody." I tell people, they say I'm a farmer, I plant the seed of hope, plant the seed of inspiration, plant the seed so they can start praying and believing again.

He credits his surviving a bout with cancer (he had, yes, T-cell lymphoma - no, I'm not making that up) to his faith:

The story of Job gave me strength when I had cancer. I said, "T, if you just hang in there, God will give you double for your troubles." That's what I was taught in church and that's what happened to Job. What he lost, he gained more in the end. Job said, "Though you slay me, yet will I trust you." God giveth and God taketh away. Blessed be his holy name." And that's how I live.

So far, this is the standard evangelical Christian platter of beliefs. But in the Bizarre interview, the interviewer asks Mr. T a different question, and his answer gives the game away:

If you could have a magical power, what would it be?
Easy question! That's too, too easy Alix! Wow. I appreciate your sweetness giving me such an easy question! I'd have the power to heal little children. I'd want to make sure they all got an education and weren't scrabbling around in garbage and eating scraps of junk, like the kids in India shown in that movie, Slumdog Millionaire. I hope the people that made that film are investing some of the profits into cleaning up the area where they filmed, and doing something to improve those kids' lives. Yeah, I'd want to help the tiny ones who are blind, who have diseases like AIDS and problems like muscular dystrophy... I'd heal the children and save the babies.

If he had any magical power, Mr. T says, he'd end poverty and cure disease among the world's children. In fact, he doesn't even have to think hard about this: he considers it an "easy question".

But he seems to have forgotten something important. Mr. T is an evangelical Christian and therefore, presumably, he believes in a god who has the power to do all those things at this very moment. So why doesn't God do that? Does Mr. T even realize that he's just inadvertently outlined one of the strongest pieces of evidence against his own religious beliefs?

Theologians have tied themselves in logical knots for millennia trying to explain what reasons God could have for allowing evil and suffering. But Mr. T, in his own inimitable style, brushes those convoluted theodicies aside by saying that the choice to end evil, if he had the power to do it, would be an easy one. Either he is a more compassionate and loving person than the god he claims to serve, or else that god does not exist.

Mr. T isn't the first Christian to contradict his own beliefs like this. C.S. Lewis did the same thing, as I pointed out in "The Theodicy of Narnia". They, like many other Christians, insist on believing in a god who has deep and mysterious reasons for allowing persistent and terrible evils. But both of them, when apologetic considerations are not uppermost in their minds, inadvertently contradict their own belief by stating that of course they would create a world without evil if they could.

And of course they would - as would any of us, I hope. Of course we would abolish evil if we could. Basic decency and simple compassion mandate no other conclusion. It's only the necessity of accounting for the evil that does exist, in a world claimed to be ruled by a benevolent deity, that forces religious apologists to bend over backwards trying to excuse the inexcusable. But when religious concerns are not at the forefront, when simple human conscience is allowed to express itself, most believers prove by their words and actions that they themselves are better and more rational than the faith they claim to represent.

May 30, 2009, 11:11 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink21 comments

A Dialogue with Quixote, Part IV

Hello Ebon,

To approach your larger question, what are the real reasons people believe or disbelieve, I've offered a bulletized list for anyone who's interested in pursuing this question:

For theists, then:

These, and probably more could be added, are reasons for belief and unbelief. Faith and unbelief, in my experience with people, is generally caught and not taught. The well-considered reasons generally follow; there are notable exceptions, I'm sure, but it's not normative for the well-considered reasons to lead. If you like, we can add, delete, unpack, and/or expand these.

To your specific questions, then:

"That said, I am interested to know more about this feeling you speak of, and I'd like to hear you describe it in more detail, if you can. Is it a unique quale, something indescribable through other sensory modalities, or is it an awareness that comes through the usual five senses?"

That this particular portion of my initial post would have garnered the interest it has baffles me, to be honest. I inserted it as almost an afterthought, because I suspect many theists use this awareness as a basis for God's existence. I do not, nor am I the charismatic type Christian who would be prone to such experiences. I suspect my temperament mirrors yours in many respects.

Nevertheless, we imagine ourselves separated by a gulf of experience, so let's press on the best we can. Can I describe this awareness to you in more detail? I doubt it. The closest I might bring you to the experience is your encounter with the sublime or perhaps the numinous, so let's take a quick look at both.

Certainly you've encountered the sublime: a gaze at a sunset, a fascination with the stars, a sense of something greater than yourself. In fact, I believe I recall your exposition of the sublime from an atheist's perspective in one of your essays. I'd not suggest to you that your confrontation with the sublime is equivalent to the awareness I've mentioned. It's not; however, theists tend to meld the two in their minds, so perhaps that experience of the stars at night is as close as I can guide you to my personal experience. I suspect it is.

But, perhaps the numinous, a term coined by Rudolf Otto as far as I know, is more fertile ground. Otto described the sense of contact with a being wholly other as the numinous. While I would not describe God as wholly other — there must be some common frame of reference for contact with God if we were to know him — the conception of a being similar to the attributes customarily ascribed to the Christian God should engender a sensation of the numinous. The feeling produced by the holy God described by Christianity may cause this aspect of Otto's numinous: the mysterium tremendum, an unsettling awareness, one perhaps of fear. Moreover, there's the mysterium fascinas: as the phrase suggests, an awareness of a being so infinitely wonderful that it's irresistible in its allure.

Hopefully, that gives you an inkling of the experience. It's an odd situation. I have no doubt of your honesty when you claim to possess no like experience, yet I'm certain that billions of theists would report similar experiences. They'll know what I'm talking about, but collectively we won't be able to adequately explain it to you.

In that manner, it does resemble a quale, doesn't it? But I hesitate to term it such, for it ushers in a host of philosophic associations that may or may not be helpful, and they may very well prove misleading. I also hesitate to utilize the conceptions of sensory modality and the usual five senses. An historic theological phrase, the sensus divinitatis, is more than likely the best descriptive vehicle, but it carries baggage when used around atheists that I'd rather not unearth, as I've stated previously on DA. What I can say — for myself, that is — is that it appears to be part of an epistemic cognitive function capable of apprehending this awareness.

But, of course, this last statement is contingent upon the de facto consideration of whether God exists. If He does not in reality exist, then your (and mine, actually) likely conclusion that I have a God gene or some other neurological peculiarity, as you put it, seems almost certain. That, or I'm simply deluded. Either way, it would seem that here I stand, I can do no other, unless of course you are successful in convincing me that God does not in fact exist, which may not prevent the awareness, but only provide me a better explanation for the phenomenon. Naturally, another option is that God actually exists, and this awareness somehow is reflective of an actual presence. And, if we care at all to logic, it would appear that there may be other possibilities available to us as well: perhaps God exists and this awareness is in no way related to him. Whatever the case may be, the question is bound inexorably to the de facto question of existence, so while it may be interesting to ponder, it seems to me it has to be tabled until the time that question is actually settled. Until that time, if there is one, the theist and atheist are likely to proceed with their thinking in relation to this question based upon their current beliefs.

So, then to your second concern:

"Why is it the case that justice, consciousness and the like raise the odds in favor of a world-with-God hypothesis over those of a world-without-God hypothesis?"

As you well know, this question, and any subsequent answer by a Christian, will mire us in the invariable discussions endlessly volleyed by Christians and atheists. And it leads the theist inexorably into an axiological argument for God's existence. For example, I'd be interested to know based on your description of the world as you see it:

"It's easy to see how those good things you mention could come about by accident, at least some of the time, in a world with no higher authority; random chance will sometimes turn out in our favor, sometimes not. But I think it's a lot more challenging to explain how evil and injustice could come to be in a world overseen by a deity that does not desire such things."

how you would ever conclude that there is evil and injustice. If these things come about by accident, as you say, why would we consider them good? If they come about by random chance, where's the injustice or the evil? Certainly you don't conclude that there's evil and injustice in the insect world, yet if we're the same product of naturalism that the insect kingdom is, and there's no higher authority overseeing our existence, why would we presume that there's actual injustice or evil simply because we're a more highly evolved lifeform with an emergent consciousness? Did we awaken in this world as Gregor Samsa, as monstrous vermin?

But before we do all that, let me address the greater question of the problem of evil:

"But I think it's a lot more challenging to explain how evil and injustice could come to be in a world overseen by a deity that does not desire such things."

We need to frame this question before delving into it. Many atheists, not to suggest yourself, are unaware that the logical problem of evil is now, I'm pleased to report, widely abandoned. The logical, or deductive form of the problem of evil attempts to demonstrate that the propositions "God exists" and "evil exists" are contradictories. The primary cause of this wholesale withdrawal has been the inability for philosophers to demonstrate that God cannot possess a morally sufficient reason to permit evil. Hence, there exists no persuasive deductive path to demonstrate successfully a contradiction between the existence of God and the existence of evil.

For instance, the highly esteemed atheist philosopher, and former DA poster, I believe, Dr. Michael Martin has stated "Most philosophers now believe that there is good reason why the Deductive Argument from Evil fails: it is logically possible that evil can exist even if God exists if God has good moral reasons for allowing it." Moreover, atheist philosopher William Rowe states "Some philosophers have contended that the existence of evil is logically inconsistent with the existence of the theistic God. No one, I think, has succeeded in establishing such an extravagant claim. Indeed, granted incompatibilism, there is a fairly compelling argument for the view that the existence of evil is logically consistent with the existence of God."

While this is inconclusive in itself with regard to whether the problem of evil is a true defeater for God's existence, I think it is important to note that there's no logical or deductive path between the existence of God and the existence of evil that impedes belief or founds unbelief. Thus, the problem of evil is relegated to inductive or abductive arguments.

In fairness, then, I would expect every atheist to approach the POE with the same level of skepticism they showed with my hinted at inductive arguments for the existence of God; that is, I would expect them to accuse themselves of the very things they accuse me of — appeals to ignorance, personal incredulity, and the like — before accepting the POE as evidence against God. For every atheist that truly applies this skepticism to his own argument, I take no exception to their rejection of God.

Moreover, inductive arguments often fall prey to emotionalism, and this fact is exacerbated with subjects such as evil. Very often an atheist's rejection of God is based on emotionalism combined with the problem of evil. I think this is self-evident with regard to your greater question as to why some people disbelieve, and I would guess that it is a common path trodden by those deconverting from theism to atheism. Again, if any of your readers have taken the intellectual steps to ensure this is not the case with their thought process, and still remain convinced, I take no exception. In general, I take no exception to honest, well-thought through belief or unbelief.

So, properly framed, let's see where the discussion leads. The POE, the axiological argument, or perhaps "And Now for Something Completely Different."

May 11, 2009, 8:17 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink172 comments

Older Posts >

Now available from Big Think!


MUST-READ POSTS (view all)


SITE CATEGORIES (explanation)




see all >













SSA Speaker Page
Find Me on Facebook Find Me on Atheist Nexus
Kiva - loans that change lives
Foundation Beyond Belief
The Out Campaign
Winner of the 2009 3 Quarks Daily Science Writing Prize