Combining HuffPo with the new, wooish reincarnation of TED is likely to prove a toxic combination. Sure enough, HuffPo has begun featuring essays based on TED talks. The latest one, “Why do evil and suffering exist?” by Jeffrey Small (based on a nonreligious talk by Phil Zimbardo), is dire. It’s garden-variety theodicy dressed up for HuffPo readers. As Small puts it:
But theologians continue to struggle with a fundamental question: How can a purported loving, yet all-powerful, God permit evil and suffering, especially when they strike saint and sinner alike? Witnessing the reality of the human condition leads many to ask whether God is truly omnipotent, omniscient, or loving, or to conclude that maybe God simply does not exist at all. Why wouldn’t God prevent a young child from being struck by cancer, killed by a deranged shooter, or drowned in a tsunami? The common retorts that God’s ways are “mysterious” or that God has an overarching plan that we cannot know are unsatisfying both emotionally and logically.
To any thinking person not brainwashed by upbringing or desire, the answer is clear: there isn’t any God. (The less parsimonious theory is either that God is malicious or that, as John Haught posits, He’s relaxing on his celestial throne with popcorn and a Big Gulp, enjoying the show.)
The “evils” of the world, both manmade and natural, are simply a result of evolved animals living in a dynamic and unstable world. There is predation, parasitism, and disease. Humans hurt others to advance themselves. The tectonic plates move, and multitudes die in earthquakes and floods. This is precisely what you’d expect if there is no God.
But of course that conclusion is unacceptable to the faithful. Small, who is religious, offers a version of the “free will” explanation—presumably involving dualistic free will, or a ghost in the machine:
Evolution only works because of freedom in the natural world: a freedom of genetic mutation, a freedom of natural selection, and a freedom of randomness. This freedom led to the existence of conscious humans, but by necessity the same freedom also causes cancer, disease, natural catastrophes, and even extinctions. The paradox of existence is that death and destruction bring forth new life. Spring follows winter.
As unpleasant as the physical and emotional sensations of pain and suffering may be, they are neurological adaptive responses necessary to protect us from harm. Similarly, human freewill, in conjunction with a biological self-interest for preservation, are programmed into our natures to ensure our survival. But these same qualities when unchecked can also lead people to commit atrocities. [JAC: Couldn't God check them?]
“Freedom” of genetic mutation? Is that the unpredictability of mutations that might rest on quantum phenomena? Well, God could have stopped that had He wanted. In contrast, there’s no “freedom” in natural selection and other sorts of randomness, which is determined at bottom. And even if we have “choices”, God could made our choices ones that didn’t produce evil.
If you accept compatibilist free will, things become worse, for that’s not the kind of free will posited by the faithful. To them, at each point we must be able to choose between good or evil. In the end, Small must conclude that his God could have tinkered with the world—and with evolution—to prevent suffering, but chose not to do so.
But Small wants something more—meaning. He’s already provided it from a naturalistic perspective, but needs to explain why God permits preventable suffering.
While science can explain the cold-hearted mechanics of the human condition, it leaves us wanting something more: meaning. Can we combine the insights from religion and science in making sense of death and suffering?
What a rhetorical question! Does one expect the faithful to answer this in anything but the affirmative? (My answer is “Yes, you can make sense of anything—including Auschwitz—using the theological sausage grinder.”) Small gets in deeper:
What if instead of viewing God as a cosmic judge punishing us for our misdeeds or as a capricious chess master toying with our lives according to some mysterious plan, we think of God as the power of being itself — a power that supports all existence as its creative ground but does not make a choice as to which unfortunate events to change? Thus, the problem of evil is ultimately one of perspective: from a micro view we lament the sufferings of humanity, but from a macro view we can understand that this suffering is part of the very fabric of existence itself — an existence that on balance is good.
The nature of existence is such that humankind must be free. To be free, we have the ability to do evil, to turn away from God, the true ground of who we are. Thus, the reality of evil and suffering is built into the very fabric of life as a requirement for life to be.
“Power of being.” “Ground of being.” Those are the weasel words of theologians who don’t know what they’re saying, and so emit fancy phrases to cover their ignorance like a blanket of snow. What, exactly, is a “power of being”? Is it benevolent and omnipotent? If so, the question remains.
And what about all that evil and suffering not caused by human choice: children getting leukemia, thousands wiped out by natural disasters like tsunamis, and all those animals whose suffering is as painful as ours? Why is that a “requirement for life to be?” Why couldn’t an omnipotent god prevent tsunamis and kill those cancer cells? How do these things play into the “greater good”? Small doesn’t tell us.
If the fabric of existence is good “on balance,” well, it could be even better on balance if the Power of Being could turn our choices to the good, or could tinker with geology. If the P.O.B really is omnipotent, he could do stuff like that.
It’s never been clear to me why God supposedly gives us free will, knowing that we’ll “choose” bad actions, and then punishes us for making the wrong choices. He even knows what wrong choices we’ll make! What is gained in all this?
In the end, Small finds meaning in a kind of powerless, watered-down deity who would not be recognizable to most religious folks as God:
Our individual lives are short, inconsequential in a universe that is 13.7 billion years old. We are finite. We suffer. Yet the faiths of the world also teach us that we can transcend suffering and death because we are part of something bigger than us. Behind our everyday realities lies an Ultimate Reality, what we might call God, Allah, Elohim, Nirvana, Brahman. By transcending our individual egos, our wants and desires, and connecting on a deeper and broader level with this Ultimate Reality, we can find true peace.
Yes, some religions, like Buddhism, can give us tips for dealing with suffering, but their lessons are secular, for Buddhism is more akin to philosophy than religion. But dealing with pain still gives us no evidence for an “Ultimate Reality.” The Ultimate Reality is pain, and some joy along with it. For most animals, it’s a joyless search for noms and an eternal avoidance of predators.
If after reading Small’s piece you want more pain, peruse the readers’ comments, many of them pure religious nonsense. But one smart commenter reprises the argument of Epicurus:
Of course he’s not God—he’s the Power of Being? Get the difference?
Small’s HuffPo biography gives these details:
Jeffrey graduated summa cum laude from Yale University and magna cum laude from Harvard Law School. He earned a Masters in the Study of Religions from Oxford University in England where he was a member of Oriel College.
So how can such a smart guy spout such nonsense? The next line in the biography tells the tale:
Jeffrey is active in the Episcopal church, but he has also studied Yoga in India and practiced Buddhist meditation in Bhutan.
To paraphrase Steve Weinberg: “With or without religion, there are some people who say smart things and some people who say dumb things. But for a smart person to say dumb things—that takes religion.”
Finally, my advice to atheists: your best chance to change the minds of religious people is to make them justify evils—both manmade and natural.