Inexplicable Justice

"Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mold me Man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me, or here place
In this delicious Garden? As my will
Concurred not to my being, it were but right
And equal to reduce me to my dust,
Desirous to resign and render back
All I received, unable to perform
Thy term too hard, by which I was to hold
The good I sought not. To the loss of that,
Sufficient penalty, why hast thou added
The sense of endless woes? Inexplicable
Thy justice seems."

Paradise Lost, Book X

" is not merely of some importance but is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done."

—Lord Chief Justice Hewart, opinion in R. v. Sussex Justices, Ex parte McCarthy (1924)

The first quote above comes from the scene in Paradise Lost where Adam and Eve are being driven from the Garden of Eden for their sin. As they're cast out, God transforms the Earth from its original paradisical state into a ruined, fallen world - creating scorching summers and freezing winters, pestilent swamps and glooms, introducing death and setting all living things to kill each other in a perpetual war of predation. Seeing this curse take effect, Adam wonders why his sin has brought down such punishment on the innocent planet and on all his future descendants: "Why should all mankind, for one man's fault, thus guiltless be condemned?"

Granted, the text does slip in a self-justifying apologetic - having Adam acknowledge that his act means that all his descendants will be as corrupt and sinful as him. But again, why should this be the case? Morality is not Lamarckian: what we choose has no necessary connection to the character of our descendants. Criminals do not always beget criminal progeny, nor do law-abiding citizens invariably give birth to the same. Adam and Eve were not genetic engineers, to rewire their own genomes to affect their descendants in this way. If original sin gave rise to a sinful race, who could be the architect of such a change but God? If he hates sin so much, why would he work a change that would ensure a vastly greater amount of it would be produced? And how could it be just for him to cause humanity to be sinful and then punish us severely for being what he created us to be? This is truly, as John Milton put it, "inexplicable justice".

But as the famous legal saying goes, it is not just important but is of fundamental importance that justice should be seen to be done. Part of what makes a decision just is that all people, including the recipient, see and understand the connection between the act committed and the reward or punishment accrued. If that connection is broken, so that rewards and punishments arrive seemingly at random with no discernible connection to a person's actions, then how can anyone know which deeds they should or should not commit? If there is no clear link between what we do and what we receive in return, there can be neither moral learning for the agent nor deterrence or encouragement for others.

It follows, therefore, that "inexplicable justice" is not truly justice at all. Even if there's a cosmic overseer counting up our merits and demerits and dispensing karma accordingly, if we do not know why these things are happening, then in fact we have not been treated justly. This argument applies to all the odious religious apologists who explain the natural disasters and catastrophes that afflict humanity as God's justified punishment for our sin. Unless the connection between act and punishment is made clear and explicit - and it has not been, as much as some would like to pretend otherwise - then this theodicy cannot hold up.

The fact that inexplicable justice is a contradiction in terms also applies with a vengeance to another time-honored religious doctrine, the idea of Heaven and, especially, of Hell. As Greta Christina points out, the invisibility - the lack of evidence - of such a place makes it fundamentally unjust, even if it really exists. We cannot know for sure what actions will incur such a punishment, nor can we see others who've been sentenced to it. As a means of social control through fear, Hell is unfortunately very effective. But for this and many other reason, a means of justice is one thing it cannot possibly be.

October 10, 2007, 7:53 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink52 comments

Open Thread: The Problem of Evil

I'm creating a thread to address this comment by Mollie:

I've only been familiar with your site for a few days, so I'm not sure if this is the right place to discuss what I'm about to say. If not, please direct me to a more appropriate place.

My husband thinks it's a bad idea to debate with you guys because we come from two totally different backgrounds of thought- I believe that God exists and that the Bible is totally true and you do not. Therefore, you will not convice me of anything and I will not convice you of anything.

Nevertheless, I can't help but ask the following questions- I don't really want to get in a huge discussion over this either, but we'll see what happens. In your essay above, you give the following:

Assumption (1): God exists.
Assumption (1a): God is all-knowing.
Assumption (1b): God is all-powerful.
Assumption (1c): God is perfectly loving.
Assumption (1d): Any being that did not possess all three of the above properties would not be God.

How did you come to the conclusion that God only has these three qualities, or that these three are the ultimate? I can think of his holiness and justice that would slightly alter the equation.

I do not say this to be offensive, but is seems like you have built up 'your idea' of what God is or who He should be and then proved how he cannot be (rather than taking all he has revealed Himself to be in the Bible) .

Again- this is where the fundamental differences come into play. I believe that God HAS revealed himself in the Bible, so if you don't take the Bible at face value- as it says it is- the Word of God, then it will be hard for me to 'argue' anything with you. I have come to the understanding that without God telling us about himself, through the Bible, we really wouldn't be able to know much about him. So again, I ask, since you don't believe in the Bible- where do you get your idea of what the 'perfect God' should be like?

June 9, 2007, 1:37 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink141 comments

A World in Shadow IV

In an e-mail conversation I had a few weeks ago, a theist visitor attempted to answer my argument on the problem of evil by comparing God to parents who let their children learn from work and life experience, rather than trying to shelter them from all possible harm.

My parents have money, they could have written away all my debt in an instant and then let me come chill back at home. But no, they helped me enough so that I wouldn't starve to death, but they made me work.

There is an important problem with this, however: notice the correspondent's acknowledgement that their parents "helped me enough". A loving parent would not attempt to shelter their child from everything disagreeable in the world, but neither would they stand by and do nothing if that child was suffering or in imminent need of help. But no such being as God has ever been observed to help human beings in similarly dire straits.

I made this point in my reply:

And yet, God (if he exists) does let thousands of people starve to death each day, as well as doing nothing while they suffer and die from many other agonizing, horrendous ailments. How do you think that affects your analogy?

Not surprisingly, I never heard back from this person. However, I'd like to enlarge on this point.

In 2007, an annual TED Prize (for "Technology, Entertainment, Design") was awarded to the photographer James Nachtwey, whose work documents raw, powerful images of people whose lives have been destroyed by war, natural disasters, or other catastrophes. One image in particular, taken in the Sudan in 1993, is a stomach-turning glimpse of what famine can do to a person. Here is a link to that image (warning: disturbing photo).

For those who don't wish to click on it, the image depicts a man on his hands and knees, crawling in the dirt past a crude hut. The man himself is impossibly thin and frail, every single curve and joint of his bones visible and sharply delineated, like a skeleton draped in skin. It seems unbelievable that a person in such a state could possibly be alive.

Let us make our mistakes, fine. Let us learn from hard experience. I can accept that, in a world ordered like ours, these things are a vital part of personal growth and the development of wisdom and maturity. But to believe that there is a loving and righteous god who hovers around us, who watches over us, and yet does nothing as his children wither into such a state - this clashes head-on with all notions of reason and morality. The idea that this god is all-powerful and in control of everything, inescapably implying that he withheld the rains and sent the droughts that cause famines like this to happen, is an even more cruel and callous farce. Even if we add the element of human interference, either intentional or through mismanagement, as a contributing factor in many famines, this does not change this conclusion in the slightest.

For all that atheism is accused of being a heartless philosophy, the idea that there is a God who can avert famine and other catastrophes, but instead sits by and does nothing, is a far more revolting and misery-inducing idea. The idea of help available but arbitrarily withheld is much more frustrating and depressing than the idea of help not available at all. Instead, we must learn that we live in a cosmos that does not bend to our needs or listen to our pleas, and that the only assistance and compassion that exists or that we can expect to receive must ultimately come from each other.

Other posts in this series:

April 23, 2007, 7:28 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink52 comments

Improving on God's Handiwork

"With every advance in our thought the unity of the creative act, and the impossibility of tinkering with the creation as though this or that element of it could have been removed, will become more apparent."

—C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

In the above quote, C.S. Lewis argued that even an infinitely powerful deity could not have created a world entirely without evil or suffering, and that whatever evil or suffering does exist must be an intrinsic part of creating any world at all, and therefore not something for which we can rightfully blame God. Similarly, the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz claimed that, since God was benevolent and omnipotent, this must necessarily be the best of all possible worlds.

A look around at the world we actually live in, however, should convince any rational person that these claims of Panglossian optimism are born from believers' preexisting apologetic desire to defend their faith, not from any passing acquaintance with the evidence. This world is not the best of all possible worlds, not by a long shot, and there are many ways in which it could have been improved had it been created by a wise, benevolent and powerful deity. Since we would expect goodness, harmony and happiness to be the norm if the world had been created by such a being, whereas in reality we see vast amounts of disharmony, evil and suffering, it is all but certain that the world was not created by such a being. In this essay, I will imagine some ways in which this world could have been improved, things we might have expected to see if our existence had been created by a loving divinity.

In the Christian conception, God is omnipotent. He is not bound by physical laws, but can freely alter those laws to his liking. The only limit which applies to God is the limit of logical possibility: God cannot do what is logically impossible, for example, create a world where there both is and is not evil. Other than this trivial restriction, God can create literally any self-consistent world which it is possible to imagine. In this essay, I will take this conception as a model. Claims that God lacks the power to create a world better than our own will not be considered here, since that is not the position taken by the vast majority of believers.

First, the most obvious response to Lewis' claim is that humans have already removed several elements of the world which we found uncongenial. For example, smallpox has been eradicated completely and no longer exists in the wild at all. Numerous other diseases, such as polio, have been almost completely wiped out or at the very least brought under control through vaccination and other medical advances, so that millions of people can live lives free of the fear and suffering they cause. If this task is possible for mere humans, then it must be possible for a far more powerful supernatural being. As our efforts at vaccination and medical care show, there is no intrinsic reason why our world requires the existence of tuberculosis, bubonic plague, AIDS, or any of the other infectious diseases that bedevil us. If God exists, he would not have allowed such plagues to come into existence in the first place.

To those theists who would respond that eliminating disease and other checks on human population would cause our numbers to grow out of control and cause even more people to suffer and starve, I point out that God could have made human beings so that our natural drive is not to reproduce continually regardless of the environment's ability to support them, but so the population increases only up to a sustainable level and then ceases to grow any further. Even in our world, some species have abilities like this: some bacteria, for example, have a genetic mechanism called "quorum sensing", which enables them to alter their behavior based on how crowded their environment is. God could have installed a more sophisticated version of this sense in human beings, causing either the desire to have more children or the physical ability to do so to decrease in proportion to how many of us there are.

In fact, God could have put such a sense not just in humans, but in all living things. Such a change would have improved the world by putting an end to the Malthusian struggle that currently obtains, where every species seeks to multiply as much as possible and is kept in check only by starvation, disease, parasitism, predation and other means of death. This natural order ensures vast amounts of constant struggle and bloodshed among living things, and what's more, ensures that the scythe always falls most heavily on the innocent young - both human and otherwise. A wise god could have framed the natural order differently so as to exclude this outcome.

Talking of the Malthusian struggle to reproduce, there is another area where improvements could have been made. Giving birth, for human beings, is a horrifically painful and risky affair. The large heads that give us room to be intelligent, and the narrow pelvises that allow us to walk upright, are two highly beneficial adaptations taken separately, but put together, they mean that giving birth is vastly more difficult and dangerous for human women than it is for any other mammal. A blind process such as evolution cannot be blamed for becoming trapped in this cul-de-sac of adaptation, but a foresightful intelligent designer could surely have come up with a better solution. Why not give human mothers a pouch like marsupials, so that a fetus could finish developing in safety outside the mother's womb?

I have another, related suggestion. Christian conservatives often rail against divorce, promiscuity, masturbation, extramarital sex, and other forms of sexual interaction that fall outside their preferred model of total abstinence followed by lifelong monogamy. Yet the very strength of the human sex drive makes that model extremely unrealistic and unattainable for all except a few. If monogamy is what God wants, I have a better idea: create a world where the ritual of marriage induces physiological changes in a person that cause them to forever after feel sexual and romantic attraction only towards their mate, and not toward anyone else. Such a change would eliminate at one stroke most of the social ills pointed to by religious conservatives. If God wanted us to abstain from such behaviors, he could have created us so as to naturally exclude them, rather than creating people with extremely strong inclinations to do the opposite of what he wants them to do, and then becoming furious at and harshly punishing those people who give in to those inclinations.

Likewise, if God is so angered by people hurting other people, there would be an easy way to drastically decrease the occurrence of that. Although human beings already have a decent sense of empathy, he could have given us a much stronger one, something like the emotional telepathy often found in science fiction. With this sense, which there would be no way to block, you would perceive all the emotions of people around you: not just to understand what it would be like, but to actually feel them yourself. Any fear that you induced in another person, any pain you caused them, you would feel as if it were your own. In the vast majority of cases, I am sure, this would so appall the offender that they would be unable to do what they had intended.

There are many more ways to improve this world I could think of that I haven't listed here. Perhaps some readers will disagree with some of my specific suggestions, which is fine. However, I challenge any theist readers who believe in an omnipotent and benevolent god to tell me that they cannot think of one single way in which this world could have been improved upon. I'd wager that honesty would compel them to admit otherwise.

March 16, 2007, 6:37 pm • Posted in: The LoftPermalink48 comments

An Answer That Begs the Question

I don't want to spend all my time picking on the Newsweek/Washington Post blog On Faith, but a recent posting there contained such a devastatingly revealing omission that I couldn't resist the chance to comment on it.

The posting in question was written by Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, president of the Chicago Theological Seminary and a minister of the United Church of Christ. I bear no grudges against the UCC - any denomination that could have given us Barry Lynn is all right in my book - but an irrational theology is an irrational theology, regardless of the ethics or character of the person who believes in it.

Thistlethwaite's post is about the problem of evil, a perennial problem for theists of all stripes. As I have previously remarked, no less an apologist than William Lane Craig has called it atheism's "killer argument". If anything, I think religious liberals and moderates have a less satisfactory answer to this than the fundamentalists. As odious as fundamentalist theology is, it at least offers a clear explanation for evil and suffering: an angry, judgmental god who expresses his wrath by lashing out against human beings. Liberal theology does not seem to have a clear answer for this problem even within the context of its own assumptions, and tends to answer the problem of evil with platitudes about how God wants us to help each other that avoid the question entirely. Thistlethwaite does not do this, but her response is possibly even more telling.

Her post is titled "Fortunately There's Atheism in the Bible", and to give her credit, she does not shy away from the problem. On the contrary, she states it plainly, in vivid terms that effectively show its seriousness:

An unvarnished look at the 20th century could make an atheist out of anybody: the trenches in France, the ovens of the Holocaust, the Killing Fields in Cambodia, 800,000 butchered in ninety days in Rwanda, Columbia, Angola, Guatemala, Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki and on and on...

It may be that the horrors of the 20th century and the violent beginning of the 21st account for at least some of the current interest in atheism. How can any God worth the name countenance these acts and do nothing to stop them?

The question is admirably posed. Now comes her answer - or more precisely, her lack of an answer. Here is how she finishes the post:

Faith that cannot doubt, and doubt completely, has not plumbed the depths of faith - that is what the Book of Job teaches me and it is what a dialogue with atheism teaches me. I would dishonor the deaths of millions of innocents if I did not dare to look radical evil in the eye and ask, "Why?"

Take note: this is her conclusion. That is how the piece ends. She poses the question and then lets it drop with a resounding thud, without even making an attempt at giving an answer. In the face of the world's evil, it seems, she has no answer to give.

To forestall the otherwise inevitable reply, I stress that I am not expecting a theist to know everything or to have an answer to every question they might be asked. But there is a vast difference between a question that simply remains to be answered and a gap that undermines a crucial point in a belief system. This is the latter and not the former. The problem of evil is not a minor matter of only academic interest, but a contradiction that bears directly on the heart of belief in God. As long as such a gaping logical hole exists, it would be unreasonable to believe without some answer, but none is given here. When it comes to evil, this seems to be at least one case where religion falls silent.

* * *

On a related note, I hereby nominate Ronald Spooner of Port Arthur, Texas for the first annual Not Getting The Point Award, for this comment recently published in his local paper:

Most of the killing going on in the world today is being done — or caused to be done — by people who believe in a supreme being. Can you imagine what would be capable of if they did not believe?

Mr. Spooner's letter is a classic example of missing the obvious. Honestly viewing the violence and devastation occurring around the world in the name of religion, yet driven by an assumption that religion can only make people better and not worse, he concludes that theism is the only thing holding people back from even worse atrocities. (How much worse does he have in mind?) The notion that religion might actually be playing a causative role in these tragedies never even seems to occur to him. This is a little like a man throwing water on a grease fire, and consoling himself as the flames spread with the knowledge that things would be even worse if he hadn't tried to extinguish it.

I have an answer for you, Mr. Spooner: Yes, I can imagine what people would be capable of if they did not believe in God. They would be capable of building a peaceful world of reason where our mutual differences are set aside in the name of our common humanity. Religion is not the only cause of our ills, but as long as it divides us, and as long as people think their dogmas are more important than other people's freedom and happiness, the killing you refer to will never end. Atheism is not the solution to all our problems, but it is definitely the solution to one of the bigger ones. Put aside your prejudices and view it with open eyes, and you may realize that for yourself.

January 2, 2007, 10:48 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink41 comments

The Theodicy of Narnia

When I was a child, I read and devoured C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia books. I was too young then to understand most of the religious symbolism, and didn't realize that Lewis had intended the series as a Christian allegory until the end of the very last Narnia book, The Last Battle, which makes the comparison explicit. I will say, however, that I enjoyed the books greatly, and that they were a great source of inspiration to my young imagination. Even now, though the Narnia books have aged somewhat, I still derive pleasure from rereading them.

However, now that I'm an atheist, I think the Narnia books can be used to make an entirely different point, one which their author almost certainly didn't intend.

In addition to his life as a fantasy author, C.S. Lewis wore another hat, that of a Christian apologist. In books such as The Problem of Pain, he passionately defended Christianity against the atheist argument from evil, arguing publicly that the existence of evil and suffering, no matter how terrible, should not alter in the slightest the conviction that a just and benevolent deity exists. However, when he took off this hat and resumed writing fantasy - when, perhaps, the need to defend Christianity was not always uppermost on his mind - a different belief seemed to come to light.

The following excerpt is from the seventh and last Narnia book, The Last Battle. I hope my readers will forgive the length, which is a bit excessive, but it's necessary to quote it in full to make an important point:

"Oh, this is nice!" said Jill. "Just walking along like this. I wish there could be more of this sort of adventure. It's a pity there's always so much happening in Narnia."

But the Unicorn explained to her that she was quite mistaken. He said that the Sons and Daughters of Adam and Eve were brought out of their own strange world into Narnia only at times when Narnia was stirred and upset, but she mustn't think it was always like that. In between their visits there were hundreds and thousands of years when peaceful King followed peaceful King till you could hardly remember their names or count their numbers, and there was really hardly anything to put into the History Books. And he went on to talk of old Queens and heroes whom she had never heard of. He spoke of Swanwhite the Queen who had lived before the days of the White Witch and the Great Winter, who was so beautiful that when she looked into any forest pool the reflection of her face shone out of the water like a star by night for a year and a day afterwards. He spoke of Moonwood the Hare who had such ears that he could sit by Caldron Pool under the thunder of the great waterfall and hear what men spoke in whispers at Cair Paravel. He told how King Gale, who was ninth in descent from Frank the first of all Kings, had sailed far away into the Eastern seas and delivered the Lone Islanders from a dragon and how, in return, they had given him the Lone Islands to be part of the royal lands of Narnia for ever. He talked of whole centuries in which all Narnia was so happy that notable dances and feasts, or at most tournaments, were the only things that could be remembered, and every day and week had been better than the last. And as he went on, the picture of all those happy years, all the thousands of them, piled up in Jill's mind till it was rather like looking down from a high hill on to a rich, lovely plain full of woods and waters and cornfields, which spread away and away till it got thin and misty from distance.

This seemingly innocuous passage, when read for what it's really saying, takes on a totally different aspect. In actuality, it's a thunderbolt against Christian theodicy, one which casts serious doubt on whether even Lewis himself believed his own words when arguing for the compatibility of evil and a loving god.

In its seven-book tenure, Narnia faced many threats - a white witch who wrapped the land in a blanket of endless winter, another witch who kidnapped the royal scion and bewitched an army of subterranean Earthmen to launch a war against the king, cannibal giants, warlike Calormenes who threatened their Narnian neighbors, an antichrist ape who turned the Narnians from the worship of Aslan the Lion and ushered in the demonic Tash, and more. In the end, usually with help from Aslan, Narnia always survived, though it often took battles and the sacrifice of innocents.

In the above passage, the human Jill is lamenting the fact that Narnia always seemed beset with war and strife, only to have the unicorn Jewel explain to her that these dark times were nothing but brief blips in a vast ocean of peace and happiness; that, in fact, Narnia was a joyous, paradise-like land for the overwhelming majority of the many ages of time during which it was in existence.

Why did Jewel (actually, why did Lewis) feel the need to reassure Jill in this way? Presumably, it was because Narnia was created by Aslan, and it wouldn't speak highly of Aslan if he created a world that was constantly in turmoil and at war. It would, indeed, cast considerable doubt on Aslan's benevolence if the world which he created with his divine power turned out to contain continual death, suffering and strife; a world where justice was not always done, where the evil frequently ruled over the good, where most lives were full of pain and want, and where tragedy struck capriciously and randomly. It would cast considerable doubt on Aslan's presumed omnipotence if he could not plan a world that would turn out the way he wanted (he described his intention in the first book, The Magician's Nephew, to make Narnia a "kindly land"); and it would cast even more doubt on his goodness if he did not want it to turn out well.

But now comes the obvious point which, in his fantasy-writing mode, seems not to have occurred to Lewis: Narnia may not have been such a place, but our world is. Our world does contain near-constant warfare, death and suffering. Our world is a place where the good do not always triumph and where the innocent often suffer needlessly. Our world is a place where tragedy often strikes without warning or reason. If it would have led us to doubt Aslan had he created such a world, is it not the logical conclusion from Lewis' very own words that the sorry state of our world should lead us to doubt God and to consider seriously the possibility that he does not exist? And is it not a further conclusion that, when Christian apologists assert the compatibility of God's existence and evil, we should seriously consider whether they even believe their own arguments, or whether they are simply employing them insincerely to defend a belief to which they already have a preconceived and non-rational attachment?

December 4, 2006, 10:23 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink33 comments

A World in Shadow III

A recent post from the blog Respectful Insolence, A different kind of alternative medicine "testimonial", graphically illustrated the danger of choosing non-scientific "alternative" treatments over evidence-based medicine when faced with a potentially fatal disease. The post told the tragic story of Michaela Jakubczyk-Eckert, a woman with malignant breast cancer who decided to forsake conventional medical treatment in favor of quackery. The result was her death; but only after the cancer had progressed to a horrible phase called en cuirasse carcinoma. The etymology of this word, I assume, is related to the English word "cuirass" - a piece of armor that covers one's body from neck to waist. And that gives a terrifying hint of what this stage of the disease entails, as Orac explains:

...a horrible, painful, and nasty manifestation of breast cancer in which the cancer grows from the breast into overlying skin and spreads along the chest wall and back in nodules that eventually coalesce into large contiguous tumor masses. When breast cancer progresses to this point, the en curasse tumor often bleeds and becomes necrotic, leaving the unfortunate woman with a chest wall covered with bloody, partially dying tumor that smells like rotting meat--mainly because it is in essence rotting meat, with living tumor in and around it.

...Indeed, if Michaela had returned to conventional medicine before she was at death's door, her chest wall and back covered with fungating, rotting, and bleeding tumor, radiation therapy might have done wonders for her. It's highly unlikely that it would have saved her life, but it could have prolonged it somewhat and provided palliation, making her last months far more tolerable than the horror that she faced.

There may be worse ways to die than of en curasse breast cancer, but I can't think of very many.

I find myself agreeing with that chilling statement: I can think of few ways to die that would be worse than living out one's final months in agony, trapped in a body that is rotting, bleeding, and decaying from the inside out. Though Michaela's decision to trust in pseudoscience was a tragically misguided choice, it did not cause her to deserve such a fate. No loving and powerful god, if such a being existed, would ever permit people to suffer in such a manner, and the failure of any such intervention to materialize must be considered evidence that there is no such being. And if there was a being that cared for Michaela's suffering but did not intervene because it was not powerful enough to do anything about it, then why should we call that being a god or consider it worthy of worship? As Orac points out, even human beings with the appropriate skill and expertise could have done much to alleviate her suffering, if only she had turned to them in time. If we do not worship doctors for this, why should we worship a being that can do even less?

More generally, the total absence of supernatural intervention in cases like this throughout history, and the failure of people who sought such intervention to receive it, should give us confidence in forming a strong inductive conclusion that there is no being capable of providing such help. If no intervention occurs in one case, or a few cases, then it might still be defensible to reason that a supernatural being chose not to intervene in those instances because not doing so was necessary to achieve a greater good. But when no intervention occurs in millions of cases, that theodicy becomes extremely weak.

Of note here is something that holds true in many other cases as well: while trusting in the supernatural has disastrous consequences, turning to one's fellow humans and the value of evidence and reason can often significantly reduce the suffering imposed by an indifferent natural world. Through painstaking empirical study, we have learned that treatments such as radiation can cure or at least palliate cancer and many other kinds of illnesses. No doubt, if our study continues, we will find other treatments that are more effective still. This is how we lift the darkness from this world in shadow: not by appealing to nonexistent supernatural beings, but by working together with other people, the only source of help in times of distress that anyone can ever count on.

Other posts in this series:

November 18, 2006, 8:03 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink14 comments

A World in Shadow II

In the first post of this series, I wrote about some of the diseases that afflict human beings from without. In this post, I will shift focus and discuss two articles about disorders that afflict us from within. The first, from March, is titled A Hunt for Genes That Betrayed a Desert People, about inherited genetic disorders among Bedouin people in the Negev Desert:

In a sky blue bedroom they share but rarely leave, a young sister and brother lie in twin beds that swallow up their small motionless bodies, victims of a genetic disease so rare it does not even have a name.

Moshira, 9, and Salame, 8, who began life as apparently healthy babies, fell into vegetative states after their first birthdays.

Now their dark eyes stare enormous and uncomprehending into the stillness of their room. The silence is broken only by the boy's sputtering breaths and the flopping noise his sister's atrophied legs make when they fall, like those of a rag doll, upon the mattress.

"I cannot bear it," said the children's father, Ismail, 37, turning to leave the room as his daughter coughs up strawberry yogurt his wife feeds her through a plastic syringe.

The article lists, in a litany of horror, some of the more severe genetic disorders that afflict the Bedouin: disorders in which babies are born with no skin covering their skulls or with no eyes; mental retardation and lethal neurological diseases; twisted and malformed limbs; and a genetic disorder which leaves a person unable to feel pain, which sounds like a blessing until one realizes that it means sufferers are constantly hurting themselves, sometimes seriously, without feeling it, and end up with infections, amputations and the other consequences of untreated wounds.

As the article explains, the frequency of these genetic diseases has to do with the Bedouin custom of marrying cousins. But although interbreeding increases the risk of children being born with these disorders, due to the greater chance that more closely related people will share the same rare recessive disease genes, it does not create them. No child could be born with diseases such as these unless those genes already existed in their parents' DNA.

Another article, this one from March, is titled Finally, With Genetic Discovery, Hope for Escape From a Prison of Bone, and concerns a truly horrifying genetic ailment called fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva. In this condition, stem cells that normally congregate at the site of an injury and differentiate into muscle, ligament or whatever type of tissue is needed to heal the damaged area instead turn into bone. The more time passes, the more healthy tissue is inevitably replaced, and eventually sufferers become living statues, immobilized by twisted ribbons of bone running throughout their bodies. Death finally comes when cages of bone immobilize the lungs. There is no cure and no effective treatment, although new genetic research pinpointing the specific mutation at fault may someday give us the ability to do both. But most heartbreaking is that, like the ailments of the Bedouins, FOP is a childhood disease.

Peering into the hollow stump of a redwood tree, Hayden Pheif, 5, finds a cache of treasured river rocks exactly where he left them.

It's a luminous afternoon in Mill Valley, Calif., perfect for tossing a few of them back into the creek that runs through this small park. But Hayden's mother, Megan Pheif, knows better than to let her son scramble down the steep embankment to the stream.

Hayden can barely bend forward, and he cannot raise his arms much above his shoulders. Once down that slope, he may not be able to get back up. So she lifts him, over loud protests, back onto the walking trail, lingering for a moment over the hunch that has begun to form on his back. In Hayden's body, too, there are pockets of stone.

"It's upsetting, obviously," said Ms. Pheif, 41, a sales representative for a textiles company. "The childhood you thought your kid would have isn't possible. The doctors don't have a cure, and they can't tell you what's going to happen to him or when."

The suffering and misery caused by diseases like these beats with overwhelming force on the wishful thinking of theistic religion. According to the tenets of theism, God was and is directly responsible for creating diseases as terrible as these and others - diseases that primarily afflict children, causing them to suffer without reason and robbing them not just of the joy and innocence of childhood, but of the prospect of a long and happy life ahead. That deprivation and the fear and despair that accompany it may be far more terrible than the simple physical pain and agony these conditions cause. How can a theist who believes that God has dominion over all things dare to call him good when, according to their beliefs, he stands by and watches these boys and girls - and their families - suffer and does nothing?

But even let us say, as some theists do, that God did not create these diseases directly but that they are the unfortunate yet inevitable byproduct of a world ruled by regular natural laws. That still does not alleviate the dilemma in the slightest degree. If you were an engineer and discovered that one of your products had the possibility of malfunctioning in such horrific and dangerous ways, would you not take every possible measure to fix the problem, or at the very least warn users of the danger and what they can do to forestall it? If you choose not to do that, then are you not, through your negligence, every bit as culpable for what results? Why does God, if he exists, not issue a safety recall on the human species?

But while the frail hopes of faith shatter against these hard shoals of facts, atheists steer a clear course through them. We have no higher designer to blame, or worse, praise; all we have is the recognition that our bodies, marvelous products of evolution though they are, are still vulnerable to malfunction and breakdown. If we ever wish to be free of these afflictions, it is futile to beg the empty skies for aid. We must track down the causes of these illnesses and we must find ways to cure them ourselves, using our own intellect and our own skills of reasoning. We are in this by ourselves, and we can and must turn to each other.

Other posts in this series:

July 31, 2006, 11:39 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink31 comments

A World in Shadow I

The New York Times recently ran a series, titled "Diseases on the Brink", that surveyed five diseases - polio, measles, dracunculiasis (also known as guinea worm), blinding trachoma and lymphatic filariasis - that it may be possible to eradicate, if the political will of the world community is up to the task. All these diseases can be treated with relatively simple measures, and have been wiped out or nearly so in industrialized nations thanks to improved sanitation and vaccination, but remain endemic in the Third World. All of them are also notable for their effects, which can include lifelong debility, disfigurement, or both.

While polio and measles will likely be familiar to readers, the other three may not be. Guinea worm was discussed in the Ebon Musings essay "All Possible Worlds", to which I direct interested readers (although a strong stomach is advisable).

The other two are equally revolting in their effects. Blinding trachoma is an eye infection caused by the same microorganism that causes chlamydia, Chlamydia trachomatis. Spread from person to person by flies or by contact with infected individuals, the disease causes the sufferer's eyelid to turn inwards, painfully scraping the eyelashes over the surface of the eyeball with each blink. If not treated, the corneal scarring this causes eventually leads to total blindness. The World Health Organization estimates that 70 million people worldwide are infected with trachoma, with infection rates as high as 86% in countries such as Ethiopia, and as many as 5 million suffer from the late-stage trachoma that ultimately causes blindness.

The Times' description of how the disease is spread:

Swarming Musca sorbens flies play an ignominious role in spreading the disease. They crave eye discharge and pick up chlamydia as they burrow greedily, maddeningly into infected eyes.

recalls Mark Twain's description in the essay Thoughts of God, where he imagines God giving the fly its marching orders:

"Depart into the uttermost corners of the earth, and diligently do your appointed work. Persecute the sick child; settle upon its eyes, its face, its hands, and gnaw and pester and sting; worry and fret and madden the worn and tired mother who watches by the child, and who humbly prays for mercy and relief with the pathetic faith of the deceived and the unteachable. Settle upon the soldier's festering wounds in field and hospital and drive him frantic while he also prays, and betweentimes curses, with none to listen but you, Fly... Harry and persecute the forlorn and forsaken wretch who is perishing of the plague, and in his terror and despair praying; bite, sting, feed upon his ulcers, dabble your feet in his rotten blood, gum them thick with plague-germs... carry this freight to a hundred tables, among the just and the unjust, the high and the low, and walk over the food and gaum it with filth and death. Visit all; allow no man peace till he get it in the grave; visit and afflict the hard-worked and unoffending horse, mule, ox, ass, pester the patient cow, and all the kindly animals that labor without fair reward here and perish without hope of it hereafter; spare no creature, wild or tame; but wheresoever you find one, make his life a misery, treat him as the innocent deserve; and so please Me and increase My glory Who made the fly."

Filariasis, by contrast, is caused by parasitic worms whose larvae are spread by mosquito bites. Inside the body, the worms grow to adult form, up to four inches long and as thin as hairs, and take up residence in the lymph nodes. They obstruct the vessels that allow lymphatic fluid to flow properly, causing it to pool in the body's lower extremities - the legs, feet, and for men, the scrotum - and producing a grotesque swelling called elephantiasis. (The scrotum of an infected man can swell to the size of a basketball.) Even besides the pain and humiliation this condition causes all by itself, it can lead to fevers, sores and infected ulcers of the skin. Victims can be left literally unable to walk. The worst part is that, even if the parasite is killed by anti-worm medications, the swelling is permanent, because the overstretched lymph nodes do not shrink to their former size.

The suffering caused by these diseases is beyond description. Why, then, do theists praise the goodness of the God whom they believe created them? If a human had created one of these pathogens and released it into the wild, he would be reviled as one of history's greatest villains. But when God is held to be the cause, believers sing hymns of praise to his name and proclaim his infinite goodness. Few of them even seem aware of the discrepancy, and those that are aware typically appeal to patently unsatisfactory evasions such as proclaiming it a "mystery".

An atheist, on the other hand, faces no difficulty in explaining these pathogens. As with every other species, they came about through evolution, which like all natural processes is neither morally good nor morally bad and does not take human needs into account. These species have adapted to prey on human beings, and so long as they continue to gain reproductive advantage by doing so, they will continue to torment us. If we ever want to eradicate them, we must use our faculties of reasoning, themselves the product of evolution, to better understand how nature works so that we may control it to our benefit.

But more than that, we must come together and work for the outcome we desire to see. The most effective cure in the world is nothing if there are not people willing to distribute it. Prayer and other appeals to the supernatural are worse than useless, in that not only do they achieve nothing in and of themselves, they draw time, effort and attention that could otherwise have been spent on useful tasks such as vaccinating another child or treating another contaminated pond. Witness the abject and pitiful superstition some families turn to in lieu of effective treatment, quoted from the measles article:

The swami, Grishm Giri, 82, his long white beard hanging halfway down his stained tunic, explained that last year had brought twice the usual number of measles cases. He waved a staff of peacock feathers over each child and chanted prayers, collecting about 12 cents from each family.

His assistant, Niraj Giri, a middle-aged man in a saffron-colored shirt, measured the distance from the children's navels to their nipples with a string. "We try to find out if the center of the navel is in the right place," the assistant said. "If it is not, we correct it." He explained that this displacement of the center is the real cause of disease, a problem that can be fixed through the nerves by hitting the bottoms of a person's feet.

Among those waiting for help was Ram Pukar, a rickshaw driver, holding his 6-year-old daughter, Sujita, who was so sick her head lolled from side to side. Her long black hair hung like a matted screen across her face.

(Note that 12 cents is almost exactly the cost of the measles vaccine. What good could that money have done for this poor family, rather than being wasted on the ignorant posturings of a charlatan?)

Worse, sometimes superstition directly interferes with the genuinely effective efforts. The article on guinea worm discusses a rural village that refused to let international workers treat its contaminated pond with a mild pesticide that kills the worm's larvae, because the pond is "sacred" to them. Similarly, the polio vaccination program has run into intense difficulties because some Muslims believe the vaccine is part of a Western plot to sterilize them, or because Muslim families refuse to let male strangers enter the household if the husband is away.

If we are ever to wipe out these scourges, we need to overcome the distracting and stubborn superstitions that stand in the way of true cooperation. It can be tempting to let people who refuse effective help in favor of superstition suffer the consequences of their folly, but compassion demands a higher standard - if for no other reason, then for the sake of the children and other innocents who do not deserve to suffer for the irrational beliefs of others, and who have a chance to grow up into a future free of diseases both of the body and of the mind. For the time being, this is still a world very much in shadow, but if the human community can truly come together to work for what is good, then we have a chance at inheriting a future full of happiness and light.

Other posts in this series:

May 22, 2006, 12:55 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink24 comments

Answer the Question, Billy

Thanks to a Google news alert, I recently became aware that the evangelist Billy Graham has a syndicated newspaper column, entitled "My Answer". Graham addresses both theological queries and requests for advice, both of which he typically answers by quoting Bible verses and ending with a standard invitation for the reader to convert to Christianity. (Despite Billy Graham's fame, few Christians today know that when he began preaching, he was one-half of a team. His partner, Charles Templeton, took a break from evangelism to attend seminary and study the origins of Christianity, and ended up deconverting to agnosticism and writing a book titled Farewell to God.)

However, one recent question caught my eye:

I know heaven is supposed to be a place of supreme happiness, but how can we be happy there if our friends aren't with us? My two closest friends don't want anything to do with God and claim to be atheists, and it hurts me to think I'll never see them again after we die.

This is a very good question to ask Christians, because it lays bare the immorality at the heart of that religion. For all the assertions that Christianity provides a superior and incomparable moral system, the fact is that the Bible teaches, and generations of Christians have believed, that failing to believe correctly is a crime worthy of eternal suffering, regardless of what kind of life a person has led or what good they have done. This, as Charles Darwin put it, is a damnable doctrine. It is a plainly and inescapably evil idea, and to anyone with a functioning conscience, it should make the idea of Heaven seem not a glory, but a horror. As I wrote in "Those Old Pearly Gates":

How can anyone enjoy Heaven, knowing that while you have eternal bliss there are people experiencing eternal suffering? Unless you belong to an insular religious community or a cult, it's almost certain that you know someone - a friend, a relative, a loved one, an idol who inspires you - whose religion of choice is different than yours, or who has no religion at all. How will you be able to enjoy Heaven in the certain knowledge that that person is, at the same moment, suffering the torments of the damned? What if it's a spouse, a parent, a best friend, a child? (Some theists claim that watching the damned suffer is one of the rewards allotted to those who reach Heaven. About this no more will be said.) How can Heaven be any sort of reward at all if it means eternal separation from the people you care about, all the more so if those people must suffer without release while you are powerless to help them? And will you, a saved soul in Paradise, be content to kneel and worship the same god who, elsewhere at that same moment, is pouring out the flames of his wrath upon your lost loved ones?

So, as I said, this is a very good question. And that makes Graham's response to it noteworthy:

Perhaps the most important thing I can tell you is to urge you not to give up on your friends. Someday they may realize their own spiritual emptiness and hopelessness, and give their lives to Christ.... Are you praying for them, and are you asking God to help you be a witness to them both by the way you live and by your words?

As anyone who follows the link to read Graham's answer for themselves can see, he completely dodges the question. He does not even attempt to justify how Heaven can be a place of happiness if it exists alongside Hell, or explain how the saved can be happy despite the damnation of their non-Christian friends and loved ones. Instead, he merely provides a trite answer encouraging Christians to evangelize, ignoring the thrust of the questioner's point.

I strongly doubt that this evasion was unintentional. On the contrary, when confronted with the evil at the heart of their belief system, Christians tend to tiptoe around it rather than face it squarely, covering up the problem with pat assurances that God will, somehow, make everything all right in the end. And no wonder: the more one thinks about this, the more immoral it seems. One of the few apologists who admitted the incompatibility and tried to reconcile it was C.S. Lewis, but his book The Great Divorce ironically only illustrates the depth of the problem by painting a Kafkaesque afterlife where the saved souls are stripped of all trace of human compassion and look down impassively, like bright machines, on the misery of their damned friends and loved ones.

The Bible clearly teaches that all non-Christians are damned (Mark 16:16, for one). Given this fact, a Christian has two alternatives: either proclaim that those in Hell deserve to be there and the saved will glory in their damnation, which is a truly evil belief, or do as Graham does and abandon reason and conscience altogether and trust blindly in faith, hiding behind Bible verses and steadfastly avoiding the implications of their own creed.

But for people who recognize this dilemma for what it is and decline to participate, there is another course of action: to turn from Christianity altogether. Deconverts such as Kenneth Nahigian have, and deserve to be applauded for their moral courage and their honesty. It is probably much too late to hope that Graham will come to a similar realization, but with luck, his anonymous questioner will realize the obvious insufficiency of Graham's answer, and trust in conscience to a better way.

April 25, 2006, 1:50 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink17 comments

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