A series on NPR examining the science of God brings up a lot of interesting points, focusing primarily on brain chemistry and structure. Titled Is This Your Brain On God?, the series has five parts, each with accompanying articles and multimedia. The part that I found the most interesting was The God Chemical. Evidence has been slowly amassing for decades showing that certain chemicals or mind states can induce spirituality. These types of experiences have been documented by Barbara Bradley Hagerty in her  new book Fingerprints of God.

In her interview with Diane Rehm, Barbra says that these experiences reaffirm her personal belief in god, and insists that the science is still inconclusive on whether or not god exists. The evidence could either say that god is simply a creation of certain brain chemistry or that god has set up these conditions in order to communicate with us. She seems to subscribe to the “god on a mountain” idea, that all religious experiences are different paths to the same diving being at the top. This is a lovely idea that could help bridge the divide between adherents of different religions and encourage believers of one religion to accept and value the beliefs of others. However, the similarity of spiritual experiences across religions may be evidence that these experiences are simply due to brain chemistry.

Atheists, agnostics, and non-religious people may have “religious experiences” while taking mind altering chemicals but do not believe there is a supernatural component. If these same chemicals are taken with the presupposition of the supernatural, the experience may be seen as communication with god. Is either view right or wrong? Could these shared experiences somehow help non-religious to better understand the fervor of the religious? I look forward to having this as a discussion topic in the fall semester for our student group. Any thoughts to get us started?

Crossposted at the Atheist and Agnostic Society blog.


Well, no, of course not.  But why not?

When I was on Atheists Talk with Mike last year discussing theistic evolution, it struck me that many if not all of the questiotheistic embryology vs intelligent developmentns I faced were about belief and not about theistic evolution per se.  Nothing wrong with that, of course, in fact it was fun and stimulating (for me, at least).  But we really didn’t deal with theistic evolution as a particular kind of thought.  We discussed (briefly) the problem of evil, and PZ Myers brought out a paragraph-long question that focused (among other things) on the concept of an “interventionist” God.  Those are interesting and important questions, but they don’t seem to me to hit anything unique to theistic evolution.

So I’ve been thinking about this off and on, and when I was asked to give a talk at a symposium at the North American Paleontological Convention in Cincinnati this summer, I decided to speak on a device that I think helps to get people thinking about what (if anything) is unique about theistic evolution.  The device is “theistic embryology” and I’d love to get some feedback on the basic premise.  So here’s the title and abstract, and let’s see what people think.

Why is there no controversy surrounding theistic embryology? Dissecting critical responses to theistic evolution.

Those who simultaneously express Christian belief and affirm evolutionary theory are said to espouse a position called “theistic evolution.” The view holds the peculiar distinction of being reviled by both hard-line creationists (who call it “appeasement”) and prominent atheist commentators (who deride it as fallacious). I argue that these critics typically fail to articulate objections that are specific to the view. Most creationist critics of theistic evolution object to one or both of these characteristics of the view: 1) its reliance on naturalistic explanation, a feature common to all scientific theorizing; or 2) its embrace of “random” causal events, a feature common to myriad scientific explanations. Most atheist critics of theistic evolution object to its openness to supernatural explanation, a feature of religious belief in general. Such criticisms, valid or not, fail to address anything specific to theistic evolution. In other words, attacks on theistic evolution are usually attacks on theism or attacks on evolution, but rarely represent specific criticisms of the theistic evolution position. To better understand the controversy surrounding theistic evolution, I propose that critiques of the position be considered in light of a lesser-known position we may (with tongue in cheek) call “theistic embryology.” Theistic embryology describes the thinking of those who simultaneously express Christian belief and affirm basic theories in human developmental biology. Although the logic is indistinguishable from that of theistic evolution, the view is uncontroversial and the term “theistic embryology” is practically non-existent. I suggest that critiques of theistic evolution be subjected to the “theistic embryology test.” Most critiques that claim to identify weaknesses in theistic evolution make arguments that are equally damaging to “theistic embryology” and so fail the test. Critiques that fail this whimsical test are likely to be arguments against belief, or against naturalistic explanation, and should be considered as such.

Parents Teaching Each Other

Skeptical Parent Xing

Skeptical Parent Xing

I have hosted many blogging carnivals, but this is the first time that I have hosted a parent’s carnival.  I am a divorced dad, with three kids (one of whom is about to make me a grandfather.  Yes, I am happy about it.)  One thing about this carnival that bothers me is the amount of irrelevant content that was submitted through the carnival submission process.  It seems that the whole concept of using social networks to enhance one’s exposure (or to drum up business) is catching on.

What I mean is this; there was more than one post submitted that shilled a product or a website.  I don’t think that this is appropriate for a carnival because as a skeptical parent I don’t like reading posts that are poorly-concealed advertisements.  What I am looking for is good discussion on how to raise children with an ability to discern between crap and fact.  It’s more than just a game, it teaches them how to approach life.  Which things will help them make better decisions?  Which things will help them lead more fulfilled lives?  Which things will teach them how to have good fun?

If your submission didn’t make it, this was the reason.  I had one submission that was merely a linkfest for Christian families, including a link to the Quiverfull movement.  Did they not even notice that this is a Skeptical Parent’s Carnival?  I don’t mean to say that religious people can’t have some skeptical approach to rasing their children, but a post that focuses on religious resources just doesn’t fit the purpose of this carnival.  Another submission was a post in which the writer explained the differences between why men cheat and why women cheat, using some sort of faux-phsychology based on our caveman/cavewoman roots.  Please, please study a little anthropology prior to sending dreck like that to a Skeptical Parents’ Crossing.

Now, before I come off too strongly as an elitist bastard (which is a different carnival altogether,) I want to say that I appreciate the bloggers who sent in these posts with some original thought based on some original experience or research.  Thank you, and without further ado, I present the carnival!

So let us begin with this contribution from Detentionslip.org. We want to know why there are still schools whose administrators and teachers rely on corporal punishment.  It has not been proven to alter behavior.  It teaches fear, and not respect.  There is a difference.  Even the Catholic Church has come out against the practice. WTF is up with hitting kids?

So why then, do educators hit? We spoke with Dr. Kenneth Adams, Dean of the School of Education at Edinboro University of PA, and he told us:

“It appears that those who were on the receiving end of corporal punishment are more likely to endorse its use. Managing a school and leading change requires approaches that embrace actual research as opposed to seat of the pants ‘it was good enough for me’ philosophy. When I encounter someone who says that beatings actually helped make them the person they are today, I ask…’can you imagine how much better a person you would be if you weren’t beaten?'”

Let’s be clear, if you have to resort to hitting a child to correct their behavior – you aren’t capable of being a teacher / principal. The truth is, there are other school districts tougher than yours, with kids from worse families, where they are having better success than your school without hitting the kids. Join the good fight, and help end corporal punishment!

Miss Kim Dance Blog wonders why there is now so little play time involved with kindergarten and early childhood education. This damn “No Child Left Behind” is pushing schools away from teaching and into testing. Kids learn by playing.

When I walk in my son’s playschool class I am not worried about what he knows but rather can he share, take turns, interact with others, listen and follow directions, and is he getting to just play. When I saw this article I thought to myself…..this is something I want all parents to read and think about. I know from experience that all that “knowledge” that some parents drill into their children is just memorization. They will get it later anyway. I am not saying that you should not work with your preschooler if they show an interest. Great, if they want to read, write, count, then let them go for it.

When you read this next post, you should know that the acronym “CIO’ refers to “Cry it Out.”  It is a means of teaching kids how to sleep through the night. I include it because it discusses the issue of approaching a sleep-teaching technique by examining the evidence that has been studied in relation to CIO. If you are familiar with the jargon and acronyms, it is likely quite meaningful but I was lost in reading it because there were no definitions for the reader first coming into the controversy. I agree that Observational data is far from worthless, courtesy of Mainstream Parenting Resources.

I often come upon AP/NPers responding to stuff that I’ve written which is referenced online. Most of it is an embarrassing demonstration of their lack of reading comprehension (and indeed, it’s quite obvious this poster did not initially read the links provided), but this case refers to something slightly different which, I think, could use a bit of elaboration, as it reveals a bias and error of thought common in AP/NP philosophy.

Here’s a question that it worth answering. “Is our culture too overprotective of our children?Principled Discovery is frustrated by the lack of details in a news story of a child left in charge of siblings. A fire breaks out, and the reporter possibly rushes to judgment on whether or not the parents were in the wrong. There are questions left unanswered:

I’ll play that “reasonable person,” but there are too many other questions in my mind that would need to be answered before I could definitively say that this thirteen year old lacked the judgment and maturity to be put into this situation.

I wondered about including this one, because it is more about dogs as pets than it is about parenting. The story does include a subtext of teaching the daughter in the family the responsibility of owning a business. I am sharing it in this carnival because, well, I love dogs too. I am happy to see that there are families like the one at Cute Dogs and Puppy Pictures. Why I love my dog:

With our new dog, we were lucky because my daughter has a small neighborhood business of caring for pets. Because either my wife or myself is always reminding my daughter to walk or feed the dog or cat, this has become somewhat of a family enterprise.

It’s gotten so we often take in the dogs we dog sit. We are lucky with this kid’s business. Our daughter has gradually learned to take more responsibility, and we have had some really terrific dogs to care for. They each are very different in size and personality. Every one of the dogs is very friendly. In fact, it is through our daughter’s business that we got our new dog.

Shen-Li’s son is a picky eater, to the point that he was becoming undernourished. She and her mother-in-law were puzzled. Shen-Li tested out a pro-biotic food supplement to see how that works. Babylicious presents Fussy Eaters, probiotics and pediasure:

Ever since he was little, Gavin has been selective about food. That said, it wasn’t that he didn’t eat, he would only eat the foods that he liked. And if he liked it, he would eat a lot. If he didn’t like it, he wouldn’t go near it with a ten-foot pole. Thought frustrating at times, I have come to accept the fact that this is my retribution for all those times I was difficult with food as a child. For my MIL who has always been around children who love to eat, I guess this perturbs her far too much for her to accept it for what it is.

I would like to revisit the practice of spanking. Coincidental with revelations of the torture memos, the question of the efficacy of physical punishment is raised again. Is it more about hurting someone that makes you angry? With spanking, kids may stop what they are doing right now, but what do they learn in the long run? Are advocates of torture grownups who had been spanked as children? The Fat One in The Middle talks about Spanking, but not the good kind. (Caution, some may not want their kids to see the video in the post.)

When your child goes into the “real” world, they will not be allowed to hit the people they disagree with, nor will they have someone there to “whack” them when they make a mistake. The purpose of parenting is to raise children who can make decisions in a critical manner with rational thought.

Violence as a behavior modification system is neither rational nor ethical. I truly believe that people spank because it makes you feel good to hit something that pisses you off, bottom line.

I don’t have a recent post of my own regarding skeptical parenting. I will end the carnival with my own thoughts on raising children. As parents we need to remember that we don’t “own” them. We are responsible for taking care of them, for teaching them how to grow up to be independent adults (even if they have a disability that prevents them from being free of some sort of assisted-living arrangements.) We need them to be open to, yet wary of, the world.

There are a great many problems in the world that can be solved with proper parenting. We can teach them the difference between vengeance and justice, between forgiveness and surrender. We can teach them how to be responsible for their own actions while empathetic towards those who need help in life. We can teach them how to make their own decisions.

We may not agree with the choices they make as they become adults, either. Children of atheists can end up religious, and the opposite can also happen. It doesn’t mean that we have failed if our children leave our religion. What we can do is show them that we respect them, and then we have to be able to trust them.

The next edition of Skeptical Parents’ Crossing will be at Babylicious. Submit your posts through the Blog Carnival Submission process. Please, mind the theme of the Carnival. Respect the host, okay? If it doesn’t relate to skeptical parenting, don’t submit it. Unless it is about dogs.

If you follow the creation-evolution debate, you’ve no doubt encountered the name Ken Ham.  He’s the CEO of Answers in Genesis, the multimillion dollar organization that built the Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky a few years back.  (The same museum I once visited, but did not enter, but still wrote about elsewhere.)  Back to Ham, I think ‘character’ is an appropriate word to describe him.  And his organization’s abbreviation is AiG.  Wait a minute! Isn’t that a large company brought down by unmasking fraud?

The Clergy Letter Project‘s periodic email newsletter relayed an account of how Ken Ham declared moral outrage over an encounter strikingly similar to activities he had been complicit with about a year ago.  Yes, I know it’s easy to point out hypocrisy in others.  So before I go any further, I will admit that there are plenty of times in my past that I’ve not “practiced what I’ve preached.”

Any way, this blogworthy item falls well within the definition of hypocrisy!

On his blog yesterday, Ham railed against the BBC for “ambushing” a member of his staff.  As you’ll see if you read the link, Ham claims that his astrophysicist Jason Lisle was surprised to find that a scheduled interview on the BBC was actually to be a debate with Genie Scott of the National Center for Science Education. (I’ve not been able to track down the segment.  I’m guessing that the debate was more like an interview of two people with opposing opinions. )  Anyway, on his blog,  Ham summarizes the situation as follows:

By the way—the BBC has not responded to our publicist who has challenged them concerning their deception. Then again, for those people who don’t believe in God and there is no absolute authority, not telling the truth and deception would not be ethically wrong—as they have no basis for right and wrong!


So far, this just sounds like typical spin.  What makes Ham’s complaints hypocritical is that he participated in a similar “ambush” a year ago.  Only it was the head of the Clergy Letter Project and Dean of Butler University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Michael Zimmerman who was ambushed.  He was scheduled to do an interview on a fundamentalist Christian radio show only to discover, upon going on the air, that Ken Ham was also on the line, ready to debate.  When asked why neither the host nor Ham had the courtesy to inform Dr. Zimmerman that he was to participate in a debate rather than in an interview, they told him they thought he wouldn’t have accepted their offer had he been told the truth.  The best part of there response (in Zimmerman’s own words) is:

When I questioned them about the deception, I was told that since the debate was to further God’s wishes, a minor deception of this sort was acceptable.

I wonder what else counts as a minor deception…

In the end, I think it’s important to keep in mind that the tactic of debates is one that works well for creationists when they rig the game.  And as soon as the tables are turned, they cry foul.

Much of this account was adapted from the Clergy Letter Project‘s periodic email update and was used by permission from Michael Zimmerman.

Wasting Stem Cells

It’s been too long since I’ve posted here, so I hope you’ll bear with my first post back being of the cupcake variety.  As a scientist who is also a religious Christian, you may be surprised to know that I approve of the president’s impending action to lift funding restrictions on human embryonic stem cells. (I actually used Bush-approved stem cells as a graduate student.)

While I’ve not had the time to post much about this issue in recent months, I have been reading others’ takes. Folks that find their way to this blog probably already know that The Washington Post with Newsweek have a nice blog/column about religion called On Faith.  Generally it gives good face time to science and religion topics. A piece likening stem cell ethics to organ transplantation caught my eye because I’ve thought about this connection before and wanted to read what an ‘expert’ would say about it. I’d recommend you check out the article by Susan Brooks Thistlewaite, and the counterpoint by Thomas J. Reese, but what I did a doubletake on was this image on the Post’s main page:


This type of tube is commonly used to store frozen cells, including stem cells. The tube pictured is thawed, because the red media is translucently clear and not a chunk of ice. I’m guessing the photographer wanted an illusion of pipetting into the vial. But in the picture, the scientist is actually pipetting into the cap. There is a good chance that the diagonal tube is a forceps (tweezers) holding the tube up, but with the cinematic techniques used so often on CSI and other science-enriched TV shows, I’m still putting my money on the theory that we’re supposed to think there’s pipet action going on.  And those precious stem cells are going to have to be thrown away once they touch a non-sterile surface!!!

Which is all to say, LOL.

On this blog, we’ve often discussed the evolution / intelligent design / creationism “debate”. Lately, I’ve been wondering if any of it really matters. I think society would benefit if as many people as possible had a strong grounding in science, especially biology, but there are a lot of people for whom this knowledge would have little or no meaning and a lot of people for whom the idea of evolution causes spiritual anguish. Should we have mandatory education in the theory of evolution? Who actually needs to understand the complicated subject of evolution, anyway?

I’m obviously playing devil’s (god’s?) advocate here but I think we should examine the reasons for and against teahing science, particularly evolution. While’re we’re at it, what about higher math, chemistry, physics, and history? Perhaps the time spent on these should be spent on everyday living topics such as how to balance a check book and how to preform first aid. As important as I think the sciences (and even history) are, these real-life subjects might have a greater positive effect on young people’s lives. We can always offer optional advanced courses, for those young people who are considering a career that requires additional education, right? I would worry that this system might result in a two-tiered society with educated and uneducated classes, but we already have that.

Thou shalt not kill
Image by danny.hammontree via Flickr

How to Reduce Abortions

This is important to me. I love babies. I love that I am going to be a grandfatther in June. I love children, both first decade and teen. I love women (as a general rule,) and think men are just great for the most part. In short, I am glad to be human and that our species should continue just as long as possible. So, I am not for murdering babies, but I am pro-choice and pro-life. Those two terms mean something different to me and most people who believe that the right to have abortions is a basic civil right than the political slogans imply. If you wish me to state a position based on the commonly understood meanings of the terms “Pro-Life and Pro-Choice,” then call me “Pro-Choice.”

But, and this is an important “but,” read what I have to say about it before insisting that I am in favor of murdering babies:

Women are going to have abortions. They are going to have them for reasons known often only to themselves and the people in whom they choose to confide. A law or constitutional amendment making abortions illegal is not going to stop that, no matter how draconian the penalties. I am not even going to run through the litany of reasons that women will choose not to carry abortions to term, suffice for the sake of this posting that no matter what the laws try to regulate, women will have abortions.

My goal, and I think that society’s goal, is for the women that have abortions to survive them without seriously endangering their own lives. And this is one of those areas in which science should and can guide ethical and moral decisions.

Prior to Roe V. Wade, there were abortions in the United States. Many people will be shocked, I am sure, but it is true. However, the means and methods of these abortions were variable based on the economic class of the women who had them, and also varied greatly based on other circumstance of the carrier’s social context. Abortions were performed in secret, by practitioners who didn’t have proper facilities to deal with emergencies. Abortions were performed in places that did not meet hospital or clinic standards of cleanliness. Abortionists were often not specifically trained on how to do them safely.

This placed the life of the carrier in great danger for post-procedure infections, and women died. Women were unintentionally sterilized by abortionists who were poorly trained. It was a horrifying situation for women who didn’t have access to clinics, but they would make that decision anyway, aware of the risks.

It is important that law reflect human needs, or it will have unintended consequences (this is where it gets tricky.) There has to be a way to create a hierarchy of needs that is both ethical and moral and in ways that do the greatest good for the whole of society; and in abortion law there needs to be a recognition that no matter what the courts or the legislature decides, women will make the decision to end pregnancies. Law needs to recognize this, and protect the lives and health of the women who make this choice.

In Peru, Abortion is Illegal

Peruvian abortions are performed, despite the law. It hasn’t stopped abortion, it has made it much more dangerous for the women who make this decision. (Canadian Medical Association Journal (2009, February 3). Peru Study Shows Restrictive Law Fails To Limit Number Of Abortions. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 3, 2009, from Peru Study Shows Restrictive Laws Fail To Limit Number of Abortions.)

Clandestine induced abortion is a significant public health issue in many countries where access to abortion is severely legally restricted. Abortions are often available only in cases of rape or incest or when a pregnancy threatens the health or life of the woman, causing many women to pursue clandestine abortions, which are often unsafe. Forty percent of women live in countries where abortions are legally restricted.

As comprehensive official statistics are lacking, this study provides valuable public health data.

The researchers conducted a population-based survey of almost 8000 women aged 18-29 years in 20 Peruvian cities. They found that 11.6% of women reported having abortions and 7.5% of sexually experienced 18-year-olds – the youngest age surveyed – reported having had abortions.

The political faction which calls themselves “Pro-Life” seems deliberately blinded to this aspect of the abortion issue. I honestly feel their pain and struggle because I don’t like abortions. I would love to see an ideal society in which every baby was lovingly conceived and carried to term into a welcoming social family structure. It ain’t so, though, despite my wishes. I am also not able to make such a blanket statement that all abortion is immoral and must be proscribed by law. Human pregnancy is a dangerous period in a woman’s life even under the best of circumstances, and far too often the worst of circumstances make a choice necessary. When the choice is made, it can only be made by the woman who is carrying the baby with the counsel she chooses.

August Berkshire points out why such a blanket statement that “Abortion is Murder” is ethically impossible:

Beginning with some premises (#1-6) that few Religious Right anti-choice people would disagree with, we follow with a scientific fact (#7), leading to a couple surprising conclusions (#8-9).

  1. God is all-powerful.
  2. God is all-good.
  3. Everything God does is good.
  4. God wants humans to be good.
  5. If humans imitate God, who is all-good, then humans will be good.
  6. God created the human reproductive system.
  7. At least 25% of fertilized human eggs are spontaneously aborted.
  8. This makes God the world’s biggest abortionist.
  9. Humans should have more abortions.

(January 22, 2009 marks the 36th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade legalizing abortion.)

While there may be a bit of snarkiness in this, the point is that one would almost have to consider miscarriage and nature-induced abortions to be suicide by the fetus. I don’t think that we can consider that. Death during pregnancy is far too common, and modern medicine can’t prevent all of these. If failure to prevent a crime is as morally wrong as committing the crime, then there is a serious ethical dilemma.

The far better approach to the issue is to reduce the frequency of abortions by making the incidence of unwanted pregnancy a rare thing. And how do we do this? Sensible birth control policies.

I have a daughter who is about to be 17. She recently found herself in a situation in which a boy tried to take advantage of her using alcohol. She escaped the situation, although she is fuzzy about the details when discussing them with me (she has confided more deeply about it with her mother.) If she had been penetrated sexually, it would have been rape. If she had conceived a child for lack of contraception, it would have been cause for an abortion.

Finally, I went to a Catholic High School for my senior year. There was a much sex among my schoolmates as their had been at the public school at which I had been a student the years prior. We had just as many, if not more, pregnant teens at the Catholic School as we had in the public school. Merely teaching kids that premarital sex is “bad, mkay” doesn’t prevent them from having sex. Access to solid, reliable information about sex and how to prevent pregnancy is important not just for your kids and my kids, it is important for society in order to make abortion “Safe, legal and rare.”

Consider the choices honestly. The “War on Drugs” and the “War on Poverty” and the “War on Terrorism” have been ineffective societal attempts to reduce the incidence of negative social functions. Laws in the United States against abortion would be just as ineffective as they were before Roe v Wade, and just as ineffective as they are in Peru. The added danger to women’s lives would cause far more death and mutilation to women than lives of fetuses a “War on Abortion” would do.

Safe, legal and rare. It’s the humane and sensible path.

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Cross-posted from Tangled Up in Blue Guy.

Reconciling Science and Religion

I think that in this year when Charles Darwin will get a hunk of press for the dual celebrations of the bicentennial of his birth and the sesquicentennial of the first edition of his book, the question of the conflicts between science and religion will be discussed by a great many thinkers and writers, including me.

In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennet explained that while Darwin’s  theory of natural selection was not completely original his approach to the question of the role of science in explaining origins was the beginning of referring to our origins without pulling in the need for a Creator.  He was not original even to that, but he layed out a process that completely explains the diversity of all life with no appeal to the supernatural.

Dennet is correct in stating that there had now been a gauntlet laid at the feet of religion in 1859, which had heretofore rained supreme in explaining the existence of the human race.  The prior assumption, untestable yet undefeatable had been that we were in fact a “special creation.”

lion and lamb

lion and lamb

And here is where the real conflict lies, I think.  In early catechism I had been taught that God the Father had existed in eternity (with or without  Logos, I am still unclear on this,) and created the universe because he was lonely for companionship and need us for our love and worship.  Adam and Eve, having been given free will and a warning, sinned at their first opportunity naively thinking that they could have the same knowledge as God.  In His anger, God declared that they would forever bear the burden of their sin unto all generations.  He also cursed the animals, who had until this time never known death nor suffering.  The lions had been laying peaceably with the lambs, the foxes with the rabbits and the parasites with the hosts.  It was always win-win for the animals, if not for the plants.

Theistic evolution, at least as practiced and preached by Ken Miller, needs to have an interventionist God or else it sinks into the quandary of deism and pantheism.  With deism and pantheism, there is no original sin and then from that there is no need for the grace of Jesus’ salvation.  So, the way Miller understands God is as a tinkerer with evolution, a non-“Designer” who nevertheless placed careful modifications to evolution at the level of quantum mechanics so that evolution would still work and lead to the ascent of Man.  We would, God knew, eventually arise to fill our ecological “niche.”

So this is good for Miller, but where does it leave the possibility for reconciliation between religion and science?  It creates a new level of Creationism, in effect.  While Miller, as a crack biologist would bristle at being lumped with Creationism, it is a shoe that fits even it is not a color of his choosing.

Miller carefully avoids all of the fallacies and faults of Intelligent Design, but at the end his finely-tuned universe and his interventionist evolution both point back to his God, the Inventor.

So, I honestly think that there is a quandary for practicing scientists in evolutionary biology who are also religious (whether Christian or some other religion.)

The inspiration for Darwin’s theory of natural selection is largely based on Darwin’s reading of Malthus’ discussion of economics and scarcity.  There is only room for so much life.  Those forms of life which successfully proceed to the next generations succeed long enough to face extinction, in the meantime branching out into populations with common ancestors who may or may not survive.

Natural selection depends on extinction, starvation and suffering.  It is an unpleasant fact.  New species can’t move in if the old ones don’t “move out.” And so nature has ways of dealing with overpopulation; hunger, the need to replicate and the need to survive better than your competitors for the limited resources.

All of this was taking place long before man, and long before Man could have committed the First Sin for which we all need redemption.  The 19th-century scientists who realized this argued that the fossils they were finding represented a separate epoch of Creation, and that it wasn’t until 6000 years ago that God embarked on his final creation; the one that included Us.

With the concept of Theistic Evolution, one would need to accept that the tender, minute touches of intervention are placed by the same being who saw the need to create a cruel world.   It is a world of beauty, yes, but perhaps beauty is all the more precious to us because we know that in large part we will all die and so will all of our fellow life.

This solves one of Epicurus’ riddles, doesn’t it?

“Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?”

There is, for the theistic evolutionist, evil in the world because life demands it. Augustine answered to Epicurus by saying that Epicurus had ignored the benefits of suffering in the world.  Indeed, Augustine’s answer is crucial to Catholic theology; it is the idea that one must die in some symbolic way (perhaps to materialism,) in order to be “reborn in Christ.”  That’s not the precise wording of Augustine, but it was the thrust of several of the youth “Teens Encounter Christ” retreats I joined when I was in my teens.  It’s also illustrative of the myth of Jesus’ death and reincarnation.  He died to give us the chance for new life in him.  Rather than dying cruelly to be reborn, we only need to accept his sacrifice; like the grain of wheat that must “die” and be buried in order to give life to a new wheat stalk. (John 12:24.)

I have been reading a new article by Jerry Coyne in The New Republic, which is a dual book review.  In the best tradition of literary criticism Coyne does far more than give a thumbs up or thumbs down of the books he has read.  He is also approaching his understanding of the concepts of the books.  In this case he reviews these books (c -and p because I am getting exhausted and don’t want to create footnotes:)

Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution
By Karl W. Giberson
(HarperOne, 248 pp., $24.95)

Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul
By Kenneth R. Miller
(Viking, 244 pp., $25.95)

Coyne says that both books miss the mark on Science-Religion and  looks to Gould for help, but even the Non-Overlapping Magisteria are not helpful becaue the NOMA only says that each science and religion should ignore each other.

As Alden said in response to Anastasia’s post , “..because, for Theists, there are no purely secular events.”  Perhaps for theists, there can be no secular science.

The observable world makes so much more sense without using God as any explanation.  Coyne relates the story of Napoleon and LaPlace:

Scientists do indeed rely on materialistic explanations of nature, but it is important to understand that this is not an a priori philosophical commitment. It is, rather, the best research strategy that has evolved from our long-standing experience with nature. There was a time when God was a part of science. Newton thought that his research on physics helped clarify God’s celestial plan. So did Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who devised our current scheme for organizing species. But over centuries of research we have learned that the idea “God did it” has never advanced our understanding of nature an iota, and that is why we abandoned it. In the early 1800s, the French mathematician Laplace presented Napoleon with a copy of his great five-volume work on the solar system, the Mechanique Celeste. Aware that the books contained no mention of God, Napoleon taunted him, “Monsieur Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.” Laplace answered, famously and brusquely: “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothese-la,” “I have had no need of that hypothesis.” And scientists have not needed it since.

Certain dispensers of modernism would do well to remember that science does not exist to displace the need for an active creator.  It just happens to work out that way.

This is, after all, a finely-tuned universe.

I. B: The Divine Is Not All-Powerful

This is an idea that we find in polytheistic religions, and hear from certain New Agers and certain Deists. It’s rare to find Jews or Christians or Muslims defending this theory, so I was a bit surprised when I discovered that this idea is the basis for Rabbi Harold Kushner’s famous book When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

On the one hand, Kushner sounds like a true skeptic when he writes that although the idea that God punishes the wicked and rewards the good has long been Western religion’s stance, it just doesn’t fit the facts-we know too much about the world today to believe that God always protects the innocent. Kushner writes that no one, for example, can still believe that earthquakes and tsunamis are guided by a “conscience” that tells them which neighborhoods to destroy and which to spare, or believe that only the wicked went into the ovens of Auschwitz (except, I would add, possibly those who believe that such victims were being punished for really bad karma).

But on the other hand, Kushner still believes in a God that’s the Creator of the Universe-so to reconcile God with meaningless suffering, Kushner lays out his argument for why God must not be All-Mighty. Kushner in fact uses God’s whirlwind speech (of all sections!) to make his case that running the universe is such a difficult job, even God doesn’t have complete control:

… God answers Job out of the whirlwind … [but God] doesn’t talk about Job’s case at all, neither to detail Job’s sins nor to explain his suffering. Instead, He says to Job, in effect, “What do you know about how to run a world?” … I take [God’s] lines to mean “if you think that it is so easy to keep the world straight and true, to keep unfair things from happening to people, you try it.”

Let me suggest that the author of the Book of Job takes the position which neither Job nor his friends take. He believes in God’s goodness and in Job’s goodness, and is prepared to give up his belief in … [the] proposition that God is all-powerful. Bad things do happen to good people in this world, but it is not God who wills it. God would like people to get what they deserve in life, but He cannot always arrange it. Forced to choose between a good God who is not totally powerful, or a powerful God who is not totally good, the author of the Book of Job chooses to believe in God’s goodness.

Kushner uses God’s speech in Job 41 about His battle with the sea serpent Leviathan as evidence of the difficulty that God has in controlling evil. Kushner writes:

With great effort, God is able to catch [the serpent] in a net and pin him with fishhooks, but it is not easy. If the sea serpent is a symbol of chaos and evil, of all the uncontrollable things in the world (as it traditionally is in ancient mythology), the author may be saying there too that even God has a hard time keeping chaos in check and limiting the damage that evil can do.

Kushner’s hypothesis is that perhaps God didn’t quite finish at closing time on the figurative sixth day of creation: that the process of replacing chaos with order is not yet fully complete. So rather than believe in an Omnipotent God who sends diseases and withholds miraculous cures, Kushner believes in a God whose powers are limited but whose love and concern is boundless-a God who is our source for strength and courage in the face of suffering:

… if we can bring ourselves to acknowledge that there are some things God does not control, many good things become possible. … If God is a God of justice and not of power, then He can still be on our side when bad things happen to us. … Our misfortunes are none of His doing, and so we can turn to Him for help. Our question will not be Job’s question “God, why are You doing this to me?” but rather “God, see what is happening to me. Can You help me?” We will turn to God, not to be judged or forgiven, not to be rewarded or punished, but to be strengthened and comforted.

I don’t know why one person gets sick, and another does not, but … I cannot believe that God “sends” illness to a specific person for a specific reason. I don’t believe in a God who has a weekly quota of malignant tumors to distribute, and consults His computer to find out who deserves one most or who could handle it best. … I don’t believe that God causes mental retardation in children, or chooses who should suffer from muscular dystrophy. The God I believe in does not send us the problem; He gives us the strength to cope with the problem.[1]

Now, I can understand why Kushner’s approach has a certain appeal to it, as it places God firmly on the side of the “good”: concerned, comforting, and loving. For the following three reasons, however, I find that his philosophy doesn’t hold up to scrutiny:

(1) Kushner’s interpretation of a “struggling God” is nowhere in the text. I’m baffled by his interpretation that God is saying the Leviathan is difficult for Him to control-in Job 41:5 God even specifies that compared to His Own Terrifying Almightiness, the fearsome sea serpent is nothing more than a pet bird that one gives little girls to play with.

(2) Kushner paints an incoherent portrait of our said-Creator’s powers: mighty enough to control the orbit of the forty-million-degree stars that He molded with His own Hands, yet too weak to prevent tragedies that stem from the likes of preschoolers playing with matches.

(3) Suffering is not just something that occurs occasionally (as with earthquakes and birth defects): it’s a built-in part of nature. Predators’ very survival depends on the violent process of catching and devouring their prey alive-and failure to catch prey means the predators themselves suffer an agonizing death by starvation. It doesn’t seem coherent to say that “Divinity would like this stopped but can’t manage it” when suffering is an integral part of the natural world’s design.

I. C: The Divine Is Not All-Good

Believers in dualistic and polytheistic religions have an easier time reconciling their supernatural beliefs with the reality of suffering than do their monotheistic counterparts. The dualistic Zoroastrianism, for example, tells us that the “good God” (Ormazd) would stop evil if He only could:

The Zoroastrians do not have the theological problem of evil in the world which most monotheistic religions have to struggle with, namely, why does God allow suffering. The Zoroastrian answer is, he does not. All that is horrible in man and the world, both physical and moral evil, is the work of [the evil god] Ahriman. Evil is a fact which God [that is, the good god Ormazd cannot at present control, but one day he will be victorious. History is the scene of the battle between the two forces.

John Hinnells, Persian Mythology (p. 56)

Followers of polytheistic religions-the Aztecs, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Vikings, etc.-likewise had no problem explaining the existence of suffering. For not only were their gods and goddesses alleged to have limited powers, these celestial beings were also believed to have limited degrees of goodness-some of the crueler ones even went out of their way to hurt us on purpose.

But although dualistic and polytheistic religions don’t share the same philosophical difficulties with the problem of suffering as do monotheistic religions, the overall general weakness they do share is that they offer no credible reasons to believe that their tales stem from anywhere other than the fertile human imagination.

. . .


That the natural world is indifferent to creature suffering is the only explanation, I propose, that can coherently explain a wide set of observations.

Suffering that people bring upon themselves

– this needs no presence of an active and punitive Creator to explain things: the reckless spender causes his own bankruptcy; the thief is punished by the community he has offended; and so on.

Suffering that people bring upon innocent people

– this is easily explained in an indifferent universe. Cooperation and compassion have their place in the struggle for survival and reproductive success (as discussed in my January 20 post on “The Pre-Religion, and Pre-Human, Roots of Morality,”), but so does aggression and even cruelty. A community’s self-interest will result in laws designed to minimize community-destroying tendencies-creating rewards for good behavior, and punishments for bad-but these measures are unlikely to be able to eliminate destructive tendencies altogether. (And any government strong enough to completely stop people from hurting one another would probably have to squash all freedom, and thus end up substituting abuse from individual citizens for abuse from an all-controlling government: a cure worse than the disease.)

Suffering inherent in nature

– this too involves no complex rationalizations. Evolution’s driving force of favoring whatever best survives and reproduces can explain a wide range of creature suffering, from viruses to the lion’s fangs to the Ichneumonidae wasp’s macabre mothering (the wasp lays her egg inside a caterpillar so that her larva can slowly eat the caterpillar alive).

Natural disasters, too, cause no mysteries. When it comes to earthquakes, for example, there’s no struggle with wondering what a quake-ravished village did to so anger the unfathomable gods: everything is comprehensible from the premise that earthquakes are an inevitable aspect of living on a planet with a core hot enough to keep its crust of giant plates slowly shifting.

. . .

The advantage of supernatural-free examinations of the “whys” of suffering–looking at nature-based suffering from the viewpoint of natural science, and human-caused suffering from the viewpoint of the social sciences (sociology and psychology and the like)–is that the sciences not only stand a better chance of coherently explaining disasters and other causes of human misery, they can also better help minimize future occurrences.

(“The Problem of Suffering: the Seven Supernatural Answers vs. the One Naturalistic” is an adaptation of endnote #32 from Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer, pp. 238-246.)

[1] Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. In order of appearance, quotes from pp. 36, 43, 42-43, 45, 44, 60, and 127.

When it comes to reconciling the existence of suffering with the belief that the world was purposefully created by some sort of intelligent Higher Power, the explanations we hear from theists generally fall into one of the following three categories:

the Divine must not be All-Powerful (and thus might want to prevent suffering, but lacks the clout),

the Divine must not be All-Good (and either doesn’t care about creature suffering, or perhaps inflicts it maliciously),

—and the most prevalent explanation (at least among the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam):

the Divine—specifically, “God”—is indeed All-Powerful and All-Good, and everything really is for the best “in the big picture” (one that humans often fail to grasp).

Given that the last explanation is not only the most popular but also the most puzzling, I researched apologetic literature for the fine details on exactly how theists defend their belief that suffering fits in with “greater” Divine Plan. To date, every answer I’ve come across fits into at least one of the five following sub-categories:

(1) Suffering is punishment for wrong-doing (this encompasses the Western notion of punishment for personal sins and “original sin,” as well as the Eastern notion of karma—that punishment is for sins in this life or past lives)

(2) Suffering is sent for our benefit (even when it’s not punishment for wrong-doing)

(3) Suffering must exist for Greater Good of Free Will (depending on the theist, belief in a rival demonic god can fit into this explanation)

(4) The manner in which “everything is for the best” is simply beyond the comprehension of the finite mind of man

(5) Suffering is just an illusion

In contrast with the multiple explanations I found from theists, non-theists generally have only one answer: the natural world is indifferent to creature suffering.

Before I go into my examination of which of these explanations is the most likely to be true (or possible combination of explanations[1]), I first need to explain my use of the word truth. For this task I will borrow the wording from Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time, in which Hawking writes that before any theory can be considered “good”—that is, a candidate for “truth”—it must pass two tests:

(1) it must accurately describe a large class of observations, and

(2) it must make predictions that agree with future observations.[2]

This leads to one last need to define my terms: what do I mean by “a large class of observations” as it relates to suffering? My proposal is that a viable explanation for suffering must be able to describe and predict suffering in the following three categories:

Suffering that people bring upon themselves

the spendthrift who ends up bankrupt and homeless

the thief who gets caught and suffers in prison

the drunk driver who kills himself in a car crash


Suffering that people bring upon innocent people

the kindergarten class mowed down by a gunman

millenniums of slavery

millions of civilians crippled and slaughtered by warfare


Suffering inherent in nature

the suffering that comes with old age as the body breaks down

nature’s prey/predator setup: that survival requires life to feed upon life

disease: malaria, leprosy, birth defects, etc.

natural disasters: earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, etc.

So my outline for reviewing the eight explanations for suffering will be the following:


I. A: In the “Big Picture,” everything is for the best because …

A.1 – suffering is punishment for wrong-doing

A.2 – suffering benefits us

A.3 – suffering must exist for the greater good of Free Will

A.4 – it’s beyond our understanding

A.5 – the perceived world is just an illusion, hence suffering, too, is just an illusion

I. B: The Divine is not All-Powerful

I. C: The Divine is not All-Good

II. THE NATURALISTIC EXPLANATION: the natural world is indifferent to creature suffering

—and the question I ask is “Which explanation (or combination of explanations) can most accurately describe and predict a wide set of observations?”

. . .

I.A. In the “Big Picture,” everything is for the best


The most straightforward interpretation of this explanation is that only the guilty suffer. An example of this type of thought can be found in Leviticus 26:

If you obey all of my commandments, I will give you regular rain, and the land will yield bumper crops, and the trees will be loaded with fruit long after the normal time! … You will chase your enemies; they will die beneath your swords …

But if you will not listen to me or obey me, but reject my laws, this is what I will do to you: I will punish you with sudden terrors and panic, and with tuberculosis and burning fever; and your eyes shall be consumed and your life shall ebb away … Your strength shall be spent in vain; for your land shall not yield its crops, nor your trees their fruit. … you will flee before your attackers; those who hate you will rule you …

Leviticus 26:3–5, 7, 14–16, 20, 17, TLB

One of the weaknesses of this explanation, however, is its failure to make sense out of why so many wrongdoers escape punishment. This point is noted in the bible itself by the character named Job:

Ask anyone who has been around and he can tell you the truth, that the evil man is usually spared in the day of calamity, and allowed to escape.

Job 21:29–30, TLB

Another problem with this “pain is always deserved!” theory is that it requires believers to justify the suffering of animals and of people too young to have committed conscious wrongdoings. Challenges include trying to figure out what guilt of the gazelle could have sentenced it to the terror of being torn apart by a pack of hyenas, and just what crimes have been committed by the over million infants and toddlers every year that bring on their punishment of death-by-diarrhea dehydration.

The fact that the innocent are just as likely to suffer as the guilty is another point made in the Book of Job:

Innocent or evil, it is all the same to [God], for he destroys both kinds. He will laugh when calamity crushes the innocent …

Job 9:22–23, TLB

To address these weakness, Jewish and Christian theologians who embrace the pain-is-punishment theory supplement it by explaining that “original sin”—Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden—brought about God’s wrath not only upon themselves, but corrupted the whole planet, causing us to live in what may be called a “fallen world.”[3] That is, the Garden of Eden had been a paradise: no natural disasters, no disease, no death, and all creatures were vegetarian. But once Adam and Eve took a bite of fruit from the forbidden tree, well, that’s the root cause of why mosquito saliva carries malaria, and why polar bears devour baby seals, and why the earth’s crust is made up of giant plates that move and sometime collide into one another.

Two questions I leave for theists to debate among themselves:

(1)Does the Bible even say this? Many defenders of this explanation will cite Genesis 3:17 as their source: that God “cursed the ground” in reaction to human’s disobedience. And because the ground is “cursed,” well, that explains natural disasters, disease, and why life’s creatures survive by feeding upon one another. Yet this interpretation is hardly supported by the text, for everything about this “cursed ground” in Genesis 3 is associated only with the difficulties of food gathering:

Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.

Genesis 3:17–19, NRSV

—or in other words, Genesis 3:17–19 serves the role of an explanatory myth, explaining why humans’ daily task of feeding themselves can be such a daily hardship. To extrapolate the likes of toddlers with tumors from these few words strikes me as a rationalization stretched beyond the breaking point of believability.

Besides, if the biblical answer to questions like “Why does God permit genocide?” and “Why are there earthquakes?” was as simple as “God cursed the ground: we live in a fallen world,” it seems that the character called God would be a bit clearer on this, and that this stance would be stated consistently throughout the Bible (for example, God certainly could have explained this to Job when He spoke from the whirlwind). But as we continue on, we’ll see that the Bible offers a variety of explanations for suffering (from “you deserve it” to “it’s for your own good” to “Don’t ask!”).

(2)For those theists who think Adam and Eve’s first offense against God’s “Don’t touch!” rule can indeed explain everything from tapeworms to tsunamis, this leads to the question of whether this explanation should fit under the category of “In the Big Picture, everything is for the best,” or the “God is not All-Good.”

The idea of the Law of Karma (originating in Hinduism, and incorporated by most of the subsequent Eastern religions, such as Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism) offers what I feel is something of an improvement on the pain-is-always-punishment explanation: rather than saying that God’s fury over the theft committed by the naïve newborns Adam and Eve led to a punishment felt by every living creature, even kittens (which seems a tad over-reactive), karma tells us that people are punished only for their own misbehavior—but the catch is that the misdeeds could have happened in this life or a past life.

If [suffering] is insurmountable, then reflect on the fact that this trouble is due to your own actions in this, or a previous, life. Understanding that suffering comes from karma will bring some peace as it reveals that life is not unjust. Otherwise sorrow and pain might seem to be meaningless.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama,

How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life (pp. 131–132)

So when it comes to, say, infants born with birth defects so severe that they suffer painful deaths in early childhood (those born with holes in their stomachs or hearts, or with bulging skulls because of too much fluid in the brain, or the horribly deformed “Harlequin babies”), the Law of Karma tells us that these suffering babies are not victims of life’s arbitrary cruelty. Rather, these infants must have been sadistic prison guards or murderers (etc.) in past lives, and their pain-filled reincarnations are simply their deserved karmic punishment.

Now, explanations such as:

“babies get cancer because we live in a fallen world” and

“the so-called victims of Hiroshima and Auschwitz were just getting payback for sins committed in a prior life”

—are difficult to “prove wrong,” as they have the convenient aspect of citing root causes that are unobservable. But the unobservable aspects put these explanations in the same category as explanations like “evil and invisible space aliens are the root of all suffering” and “suffering exists because the Invisible Pink Unicorn wills it so!” We can’t prove that these are wrong either, but that’s hardly a reason to accept these types of zero-evidence-based explanations as correct (or even worth considering as “possibly correct”).

My feeling is that this “pain is punishment” hypothesis—whether explained by the claims of Karma, the story of Adam and Eve, or any other mythological tale of divine retribution—is the least satisfying out of all the religious explanations for suffering: it explains only a limited number of observations for those who bring pain upon themselves, and requires a tortuous stretch of the imagination when attempting to explain every other situation. But it’s only one of the seven supernatural explanations for suffering, so let’s move on.


Certain biblical passages tell us that pain should not be considered punishment, but a gift from God sent to improve our character:

Young man, do not resent it when God chastens and corrects you, for his punishment is proof of his love. Just as a father punishes a son he delights in to make him better, so the Lord corrects you.

Proverbs 3:11–12, TLB

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

James 1:2-4, NRSV

In the Book of Job, one of Job’s “friends” (so to speak) also depicts suffering as divinely-prescribed therapy:

By means of … suffering, [God] rescues those who suffer. For he gets their attention through adversity.

Job 36:15, NLT

… it was to prevent you from getting into a life of evil that God sent this suffering.

Job 36:21, NLT

On the one hand, the suffering-benefits-us explanation is arguably better than the pain-is-always-punishment explanation, as it can make sense out of select instances of suffering in all three categories:

Suffering that people bring upon themselves

The alcoholic whose loss of job and family leads to a life turnaround: a sober and healthy lifestyle, and regaining all that had been lost.

Suffering that people bring upon innocent people

Victims who mature as a result of suffering, increasing their courage, compassion, empathy, and patience.

Suffering inherent in nature

Pain is often a beneficial signal of danger: it motivates us to get off that hot stove, and to work hard to satisfy our pangs of hunger and thirst. And suffering today can make us stronger tomorrow: just as our muscles grow stronger when they repair themselves after the strains of a vigorous workout, our characters can grow stronger when tested through vigorous strains of adversity.

—or in other words, there’s some truth behind the cliché “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Yet even that cliché contains the caveat “whatever doesn’t kill you.” What is the benefit, however, when this alleged gift from God does kill you? Or as the Rabbi Kushner put it when trying to figure out why God lets small children fall out of open windows:

It can’t be to teach a child a lesson about exploring new areas. By the time the lesson is over, the child is dead.

When Bad Things Happen to Good People (p. 24)

The suffering-benefits-us explanation is all the more difficult to make sense of when applied to mass tragedies: the hundreds of thousands of innocent Rwandans hacked to death with machetes during their civil war, the millions who perished in Nazi concentration camps, the millions of children who continue to die every year from disease and famine, and so on. When I pursue this point with theists who offer the “suffering benefits us” explanation, I’ve found that most take one of two approaches:

some admit that the “suffering benefits us” explanation can’t be applied across the board—that pain is sometimes best explained by other reasons (we live in a fallen world, it’s a side consequence of Free Will, it’s all beyond our comprehension, etc.);

some will insist that even mass tragedies are hidden blessings from God, as the survivors learn vital lessons. As for the stricken, they’re no doubt enjoying a blissful eternity in heaven. (And although believers tend not to do so, if the wish-filled and evidence-starved premise of “heaven” is truly accepted 100%, one might even celebrate disasters that claim the lives of millions.)


This explanation has it that in order to make ethical behavior meaningful, God had to give man the Free Will to accept Him or reject Him. And allowing people to be free means that in addition to giving humans the capacity for compassion, God also gave us the capacity for destructiveness—toward ourselves and others. Thus this approach encompasses the pain-is-punishment explanation and expands upon it: suffering results not only because we can choose to hurt ourselves, but we can also choose to hurt others.

Defenders of this explanation will often point out that God could have created a world free of suffering by withholding Free Will, but that such a world would have been meaningless: something akin to a world of pre-programmed robots. The only way to obtain the tremendous value of having people who could genuinely love each other and do good deeds was to also permit them to reject that path. (This explanation, at least according to some theists, also explains the existence of Satan: angels too have the choice to love or hate God.)

So if we apply this theory to trying to explain why, for example, God didn’t stop the gunman Thomas Hamilton from firing 109 rounds into a kindergarten classroom and splattering the walls with the blood of its sixteen children (Scotland, March 1996), the “suffering must exist for the Greater Good of Free Will” explanation has it that interference from God would have inhibited Hamilton’s Free Will, the higher priority.[4]

Yet even if one does accept this reason for why God allows humans to behave inhumanly toward one another, the theory doesn’t hold up well when applied to suffering that has nothing to do with human Free Will, such as natural disasters. It would be difficult to make the case that human Free Will played a role, for example, in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that struck eleven countries, killing over 225,000. Similarly, much of the suffering of animals in the wild—famine, disease, the whole predator versus prey set-up—exists independently of human behavior or misbehavior. It seems unlikely that anyone could make a convincing argument that “human freedom to turn away from God” is the reason that infant sandtiger sharks will devour their siblings while still in utero.

When I pursued this point with those who offer the “Free Will” explanation for suffering, I once again found that theists tended to expand their explanation with supplements: we live in an evil and fallen world, Satan rules the earth for the time being, God’s kingdom will soon return, suffering is sometimes beneficial, that the infinite mind of God cannot be comprehended by the finite mind of man, etc.


According to some interpretations, this is the message of the Book of Job: that we’re just too finite to understand the Infinite Mind of the Divine:

Then the Lord answered Job from the whirlwind: … “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much. … Who decreed the boundaries of the seas when they gushed from the depths? … Have you ever once commanded the morning to appear, and caused the dawn to rise in the east? … Has the location of the gates of Death been revealed to you? Do you realize the extent of the earth? Tell me about it if you know!

“Where does the light come from, and how do you get there? Or tell me about the darkness. Where does it come from? Can you find its boundaries, or go to its source?

“Can you hold back the stars? … Can you ensure the proper sequence of the seasons, or guide the constellation of the Bear with her satellites across the heavens? Do you know the laws of the universe and how the heavens influence the earth?”

Job 38:1, 4, 8, 12, 17–20, 31–33, TLB

One theist I spoke with admitted that although explaining the suffering of the innocent was beyond her, she nonetheless found comfort in the belief that suffering in this life will somehow make sense in the next life—that we are being prepared for a “glory beyond all measure,” as described in 2 Corinthians:

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

2 Corinthians 4:16–18, NRSV

The most convenient aspect of the “we’re too finite to understand” argument is that it doesn’t have to explain anything: theists can admit that they simply don’t understand how suffering could possibly exist if God is All-Good and All-Powerful, yet still accept this explanation. But my feeling is that saying “We can’t understand!” doesn’t quite qualify as an explanation for suffering—it only says “I hope that suffering will make sense in the next life.”

For those who point to God’s whirlwind speech at the end of the Book of Job and claim that God (or at least, the Judeo-Christian version of God) is the one who’s telling us that suffering is beyond human understanding, my reply is that of the following two explanations:

(a) even though an Almighty Being created the whole universe and then wrote us a nearly 2,000-page book to fill us in on some of the details, He omitted a coherent explanation for why suffering was part of His Program because, our intense interest notwithstanding, we just wouldn’t understand;

(b) the human who authored the whirlwind speech couldn’t figure out a coherent explanation for suffering, and concluded that “God says He won’t explain it to us!”

—the latter is more plausible.


A crudely brief summary of this Eastern perspective is that we are all at One with Divinity—like small drops of water in a mighty ocean—and if we could just free ourselves from our delusion of individual existence (through meditation and prayer and the like), our suffering would cease.

My own delusion of individual existence firmly in place, I suppose I’m a poor candidate to even comment on this belief. Yet I can’t help feeling that this explanation attempts to make sense of human suffering only. Can the “delusion of individual existence” make sense out of the terror and agony that an antelope must feel when being caught and devoured alive by a cheetah? Can this delusion of individuality explain the suffering of an injured cheetah that can no longer catch prey and slowly starves to death?

Or maybe because the entire perceived world is just an illusion anyway, animals in the wild are not actually suffering—our own lack of enlightenment just leads us to think they are.

Or … maybe this explanation is yet another example of human guesswork—one that relies on a theoretical solution that’s impossible to disprove, yet offers no compelling reason to accept.

I. B: The Divine Is Not All-Powerful

To be continued in Part 2.

(“The Problem of Suffering: the Seven Supernatural Answers vs. the One Naturalistic” is an adaptation of endnote #32 from Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer, pp. 238-246.)

[1] The first four theistic explanations are not mutually exclusive to one another: theists can argue that God sometimes sends suffering for punishment, but other times for the benefit of character-building, and other times it’s just a Free Will thing, and sometimes we simply don’t know why God sends suffering, but just have to trust that there’s some reason for it. Similarly, the first two explanations could also simultaneously be true: that the gods are neither all-powerful nor all-good.

[2] Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, p. 9.

[3] Tales that trace the existence of suffering back to divine retribution and inherited punishment can be found in other religions as well. In endnote 28 of Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer I discuss the “origin of evil” myths of the ancient Greeks (that Zeus punished mankind for accepting Prometheus’s stolen gift of fire by creating Pandora, the woman who unleashed misery upon the world by opening the forbidden box), North America’s Blackfoot Indians (it’s the fault of Feather-woman for not heeding the instructions of the Morning Star god she married), and the Japanese (it’s the Japanese goddess Izanami-no-mikoto’s fault, because when she and her god-husband were first making love and giving birth to existence, she cried out in joy before he did—and it’s not proper for the woman to speak first). All share the common trait of blaming women!

[4] God’s apparent “hands-off” approach to restricting the freedom of violent criminals, of course, will sometimes result in a significant restriction of the Free Will of innocent victims. But once again, as long as the premises of heaven and hell are accepted, one can be comforted that all wrongs will someday be righted.