Monday, September 08, 2008

The divine tragedy

Justin Thacker discusses, in light of the problem of evil, why it is that “so many people persist with faith despite their own experience of suffering”.

He notes that human suffering is at its worst across Africa, “yet still the vast majority of Africans trust and pray and hope”. Why should this be?

Of course, one of the answers given at this point is to posit a form of cultural intellectual hegemony and suggest that the reason all those Africans retain their faith in God is simply that they haven't thought through the issue sufficiently. If only they had the benefit of the enlightenment eyes with which we are blessed then they too would realise that the reality of suffering disproves the existence of God.

Thacker cites an appropriately noxious quote from David Hume about about “negroes” being “naturally inferior to the whites”, and argues: “Such blatant racism, either from Hume or his contemporary followers, must not be tolerated.”

A sly move. And a ridiculous one.

Let’s set aside the fact the most Africans are not Christians, set aside the fact that Thacker names none of these “contemporary” racist atheists and set aside the peculiarly selfish (unchristian?) idea that one’s own suffering is a more proper motivator of belief than the suffering of others.

Now let me use some strong language of my own. I think that people who believe in god – whether they are black or white, African or British, healthy or ill, destitute or prosperous, intelligent or stupid, illiterate or well-read – are (wait for it)… mistaken.

Thacker thinks back to when he used to be a paediatrician, in which role he “had to give treatments or conduct tests that were uncomfortable and distressing for the children”. He himself was not viewed warmly by the children as a result, but the parents who let these painful, incomprehensible things happen, escaped similar blame and retained their children’s affections: “Even though they couldn't always understand why their parents let this particular thing happen, they knew that their parent loved them despite it.”

Similarly for the attitude of people undergoing great suffering towards god.

Marvellous: Africans maintain their faith despite their troubled lives because they think like children. This perhaps isn’t Thacker’s intended message, but that’s how it comes across.

He further argues, on why tragic suffering elicits such different reactions in atheists/agnostics and theists:

Atheists or agnostics do not have a context of God's love into which this particular painful tragedy can be relativised. All they have is the tragedy itself, and no wonder their response is an even more ardent form of atheism or animosity towards the god hypothesis. In contrast, the people of faith do have such a context. This means that even though they may not be able to explain why God would allow this particular event to occur, they know that the God who on countless other occasions has demonstrated his love and compassion must have a reason …
Christians, then, who have an awareness of God's love and compassion, are entirely rational to conclude that their own particular suffering must be fitted into a wider context

But how rational is it to have this supposed “awareness” of god in the first place? Once you skate over that question, the subsequent ones become that much easier to answer or dismiss.

This is the trouble with faith. Religious people may be fantastically intelligent, but the epistemology of faith mandates that this intelligence be deployed in limited, circumscribed ways. First you attach yourself firmly to the desired conclusion (god exists) and only then do you set about looking at evidence and reasoning about it. Theological apologists may deploy, brilliantly, many of the intellectual tools of philosophy and science, but their approach can be more that of the lawyer with a brief than that of the open-minded truth-seeker.

I should note that people can and do have faith in matters other than religion (such as politics or family life) and that people can and do have reasoned and evidential (but in my view mistaken) arguments that motivate them to believe in god.

But only somebody already committed to theistic religion could possibly look at the amount of suffering in the world – even excluding that caused by ‘free will’ – and judge that this would most likely be what a perfect being would want. An observer committed neither way would conclude that any omnipotent being that may exist is at best largely indifferent to human suffering and at worst positively insistent that a very hefty amount of it – distributed with striking inequality – should exist.

3 comments:

Cassilis said...

"But only somebody already committed to theistic religion could possibly look at the amount of suffering in the world – even excluding that caused by ‘free will’ – and judge that this would most likely be what a perfect being would want. An observer committed neither way would conclude that any omnipotent being that may exist is at best largely indifferent to human suffering and at worst positively insistent that a very hefty amount of it – distributed with striking inequality – should exist."

OK - firing off a response here which might have benefited from a bit more thought but....

Isn’t this entire argument predicated on the notion that 'any omnipotent being that may exist' has an anthropocentric view of the world and should be judged with reference to how they affect humans? Granted that's how most \ all major religions describe their 'god' but it's not a given.

I'm more or less an atheist but I've always thought the 'but why all the suffering' argument the weakest in the atheist armoury - it sort of accepts the religious framing that any god who did exist would be there as some sort of celestial guardian of the human race. When religious people offer up the complexity of evolution as evidence of 'intelligent design' it’s quite rightly rubbished by Dawkins & Co – isn’t it equally absurd for atheists to cite hurricanes and earthquakes as evidence ‘against’ God?

Tom Freeman said...

Um... I may be reading you wrong but aren't we saying the same thing? That a god along the lines of the Abrahamic tradition, who is deeply concerend about humanity, appears not to exist given the way things are.

Clearly if you posit an omnipotent creator and say nothing about its character, interests and motives, then the problem of evil can't get any purchase.

tim f said...

I actually think your post here is a little unfair in places. Will write more when I have time tonight.

For now, I'll just comment that whilst it isn't true that most Africans are Christians, it is true that Christianity is growing in parts of Africa, in China and in many other places where there is great suffering faster than it is in the West.