Posts Tagged ‘Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer’

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.

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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.

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The main body of my book, Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer, is a Socratic dialogue between two characters: a Christian proselytizer and a skeptic. The skeptic does not discuss atheism, but instead tentatively accepts—for argument’s sake—the Christian’s premises that there is a Creator of sorts, that this said-Creator has made some sort of communication effort with mankind, and that the fundamentalists are correct in their assessment that “one religion is from God, the rest are man-made.” The two characters then discuss non-Christian religions, and the skeptic gets the proselytizer to pinpoint the telltale signs of the human authorship of foreign faiths by three criteria: (a) they’re pieced together from pre-existing religions, (b) their holy laws are often based on irrational prejudices and erroneous conclusions about cause and effect, and (c) their stories contain inaccurate and earth-bound descriptions of the universe—stars that are tiny, a moon that shines its own light, a sun that orbits a flat and stationary earth, etc. With those premises established, the discussion then turns to examining Christianity by the same light held up to the non-Christian religions.

Using the Socratic Method means that the skeptic does not have to argue with the Christian, but instead the Christian is forced to defend himself against his own accusations: his own description of a religion created not by an Almighty Architect of the Universe, but by the flawed mind of man.

Yet although I’ve found the Socratic Method to be an effective way to discuss skepticism of organized religion, I have not found it be an effective way to discuss atheism. (For example, I’ve yet to discover a good way to use the theist’s own arguments against himself when it comes to topics such as evolution.)

To make up for this drawback, I expand upon the two characters’ discussions with numerous essay-length endnotes: essays that explore the way that the non-theistic perspective of our origins and our ethics can make sense out of life with a clarity and coherence unmatched by any variety of theism. This essay on the roots of morality is one of those endnotes—the first in a series that I plan on posting in the months ahead.

* * *

The Pre-Religion, and Pre-Human,

Roots of Morality

(Endnote #12 from Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer, pp. 213–216)

A common refrain from apologists for religion is that the existence of a Supreme and Just Being is the only possible explanation for human ethics. How else, they ask, could we have a conscience that values honesty, loyalty, kindness, and compassion; and condemns stealing, assault, rape, and murder? Blind natural selection, they say, couldn’t possibly produce anything akin to morality—for a world whose creatures came about by nothing more than a brutal struggle for survival would value little more than raw power.

Non-theists of course see things differently, yet even in the secular world it’s common to think of aggressive competition as the key component in natural selection. We tend to think of our tendencies for violence as something that’s part of our animal history, and that our cooperative and compassionate tendencies represent our humanity, or humanness—the side of us that has “risen above” our animal nature.

Yet victories in the struggle for survival and reproductive success can take many different forms, and caring and cooperation can sometimes be just as crucial as competition. Cooperative traits are widespread in just about all animals that live in social groups, as social animals need to work together in order to raise their young, warn each other of predators, and hunt their food and fight their enemies:

Wolves depend on teamwork to bring down large prey such as caribou or moose;

African wild dogs will carry fresh meat back for the “babysitters” who stayed at home with the cubs during the hunt;

Harris hawks live in groups with well-defined divisions of labor: certain hawks have the role of rearing and protecting the young, while others never visit the nest but do the hunting and share their food;

Dolphins will try to save companions trapped in tuna nets, and one or more dolphins will work together to help a sick or injured dolphin stay close to the surface to prevent it from drowning;

Vampire bats that have had a successful night on the town demonstrate an altruism of sorts by regurgitating blood for companions that have been less successful. (Reciprocal altruism, however, is the rule—for a bat that fails to share will in turn be denied when the tables are turned.)

In his book Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are, primatologist Frans De Waal’s extensive studies of apes reveal that even advanced forms of what may be called “ethics”—as demonstrated in acts of empathy, altruism, conflict resolution, notions of fairness, etc.—are not unique to humans.

Examples of ape altruism include caring for injured companions, cleaning each other’s wounds, slowing down and waiting for those who move slowly, and carrying fruit down from trees for elders who have lost their climbing abilities. An example of empathy for those outside their own species was caught on videotape (and is widely available on the web) when a gorilla named Binti Jua[1] rescued a three-year-old boy who had fallen into the primate exhibit at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo: she scooped him up, carried him to safety, cradled him in her lap, and gently patted him on the back until the zoo staff arrived. The media highlighted this as something remarkable and hailed Binti Jua as a hero, but De Waal notes that empathy of this sort among apes is an everyday occurrence (yet “newsworthy” only when the compassion is directed toward humans).

Conflict resolution is another trait that’s often overlooked in wildlife. Conflicts among social animals are inevitable as individuals compete for food, sex, and power—yet because they also depend on each other (raising their young, fighting enemies, etc.), self-interest demands a certain degree of what may be called peace-making skills (at least within one’s own community). De Waal writes that like married couples, animals need to maintain good relationships despite flare-ups, and that different animals do this in a variety of ways:[2]

Golden monkeys [reconcile] with hand-holding, chimpanzees with a kiss on the mouth, bonobos with sex, and tonkean macaques with clasping and lipsmacking. Each species follows its own protocol. Take something I’ve seen repeatedly during reconciliations among apes … after one individual has attacked and bitten another, he or she returns to inspect the inflicted injury. The aggressor knows exactly where to look. … This suggests an understanding of cause and effect along the lines of “If I have bitten you, you must now have a gash in the same spot.” It suggests that the ape takes another’s perspective, realizing the impact of its own behavior on somebody else.

The definition of reconciliation (a friendly reunion between opponents not long after a fight) is straightforward, but the emotions involved are hard to pinpoint. The least that occurs, but this is already truly remarkable, is that negative emotions, such as aggression and fear, are overcome in order to move to a positive interaction, such as a kiss. The bad feelings are reduced or left behind. We experience this transition from hostility to normalization as “forgiveness.” Forgiveness is sometimes touted as uniquely human, even uniquely Christian, but it may be a natural tendency for cooperative animals (150–151).

As for primate notions of fairness, De Waal proposes that this went through three stages of development. Stage 1 is the resentment we feel when we get less than others. To demonstrate that this emotion exists even in monkeys, De Waal and fellow investigator Sarah Brosnan conducted an experiment that started out by teaching capuchin monkeys to exchange pebbles for cucumbers, which they learned quickly and happily. Once De Waal and Brosnan introduced inequity by giving certain monkeys not cucumbers but the more desirable “pay” of grapes, the cucumber-receiving monkeys became irritated about being short-changed. They sulked and sometimes even hurled their cucumber slices away—the food that they had previously been so satisfied with had become a symbol of injustice, and accordingly had become repulsive.

The study was first published in Nature on 18 September 2003 under the title “Monkeys Reject Unequal Pay,” and De Waal notes that the article “struck a chord, perhaps because many people see themselves as cuke-eaters in a world with lots of grapes.” From Nature’s abstract:

A monkey willing to perform a task for a cucumber may refuse to do so if its partner is given a tasty grape. … In balking at this unequal pay, the monkey is surely being irrational, rejecting food that is on offer. But the negative emotion of “unfairness” and the refusal to accept inequitable situations has been a positive influence in the long-term in the development of human society, and the same evolutionary pressures seem to have prevailed in other primates as well.

From the New York Times coverage of the study (“Genetic Basis to Fairness, Study Hints,” 18 September 2003):

“It’s not fair!” is a common call from the playground, and, in subtler form, from more adult assemblies. It now seems that monkeys, too, have a sense of fairness, a conclusion suggesting that this feeling may be part of the genetically programmed social glue that holds primate societies together, monkeys as well as humans.

Stage 2 in the development of our notion of fairness starts with concerns about how others will react if we’re the ones who are getting the preferential treatment. De Waal notes that monkeys (which are a more distant relative to us than apes[3]) aren’t concerned about the reactions of others: the lucky grape-recipient capuchins could have shared their grapes with their disadvantaged neighbors, but never did—in fact, the grape-recipients would even cheerfully scoop up and eat the cucumbers that their disgruntled neighbors had thrown away. Apes, however, do occasionally demonstrate this type of empathy. When a bonobo named Panbanisha, for example, received highly-prized snacks such as raisins, other members of her colony noticed and moved close to her cage, clamoring for the same treats. Panbanisha reacted by calling for her caretaker to bring more snacks—but she wouldn’t accept the food when it arrived, and instead waved her arm in her friends’ direction. De Waal writes:

… what fascinates me is the connection with resentment. All one needs for the larger sense of fairness to develop is anticipation of the resentment of others. There are excellent reasons to avoid arousing bad feelings. Someone failing to share is excluded from feeding clusters. At worst, the one being envied risks being beaten up. Was this why Panbanisha avoided conspicuous consumption in front of her friends? If so, we are getting close to what may be the source of the fairness principle: conflict avoidance (p. 220).

Stage 3 is that general feeling that inequality is a bad thing, and equality is a good thing. There’s no reason to believe that any primate other than man has such thoughts, but the building blocks are shared with other primates, and thus are likely to date back to our common ancestor. The roots of our ethical behavior, in other words, predate not only Judaism and every other ancient religion, but humanity itself.

De Waal concludes that the raw emotion of the resentment we feel at being mistreated, combined with an awareness of how our actions affect others, is what creates moral principles:

This is the bottom-up approach: from emotion to a sense of fairness. It is quite the opposite of the view that fairness was an idea introduced by wise men (founding fathers, revolutionaries, philosophers) after a lifetime of pondering right, wrong, and our place in the cosmos. Top-down approaches (looking for an explanation by starting at the end product and working backward) are almost always wrong. They ask why we are the only ones to possess fairness, justice, politics, morality, and so on when the real question is what the building blocks are. What are the basic elements needed to construct fairness, justice, politics, morality, and so on? How did the larger phenomenon derive from simpler ones? As soon as one ponders this question, it is obvious that we share many building blocks with other species (p. 221).

Once tendencies such as compassion and cooperation exist—even if they arose only to care for one’s kin and live peaceably within one’s own clan—they can branch out in any number of ways, such as having compassion for those outside our own communities. Religious founders take these innate tendencies and give them a formal structure by putting them in the mouths of their gods:

sometimes limiting God’s orders for compassion strictly to those within one’s own community (that is, brutality towards outsiders is permissible, and sometimes even a direct order);

sometimes expanding God’s directions for compassion to all humanity;

sometimes—as found in the Judeo-Christian Bible—an incongruent mix of both of the above;

sometimes, as is with Jainism, compassion is aimed at all living creatures, even—incredibly—mosquitoes:

All breathing, existing, living, sentient creatures should not be slain, nor treated with violence, nor abused, nor tormented, nor driven away. This is the pure, unchangeable, eternal law …

Akaranga Sutra, First Book,

Fourth Lecture (Righteousness), First Lesson: 1–2

De Waal’s take on morality and religion:

Once this sensibility [kindness aimed at family and potential reciprocators] had come into existence, its range expanded. At some point, sympathy for others became a goal in itself: the centerpiece of human morality and an essential aspect of religion. Thus, Christianity urges us to love our neighbor as ourselves, clothe the naked, feed the poor, and tend the sick. It is good to realize, though, that in stressing kindness, religions are enforcing what is already part of our humanity. They are not turning human behavior around, only underlining pre-existing capacities. How could it be otherwise? One cannot sow the seeds of morality on unwilling soil … (p. 181).

Modern religions are only a few thousand years old. It’s hard to imagine that human psychology was radically different before religions arose. It’s not that religion and culture don’t have a role to play, but the building blocks of morality clearly predate humanity. We recognize them in our primate relatives, with empathy being the most conspicuous in the bonobo and reciprocity in the chimpanzee. Moral rules tell us when and how to apply these tendencies, but the tendencies themselves have been in the works since time immemorial (p. 225).

(NOTE: I uploaded a three-part video series of me reading this post on my YouTube channel [http://www.youtube.com/user/ToddAllenGates]: see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6jTAV9BJg4.)

[1] Here’s a link to a YouTube video of Binti Jua and the fallen boy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gp7cZ0AWxfI

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all excerpts are taken from Frans De Waal’s Our Inner Ape.

[3] In everyday language, the words ape and monkey are often used interchangeably. Strictly speaking, however, apes—chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans—are not monkeys (the easiest way to tell the difference is that apes don’t have tails). As for the evolutionary line that leads to humans, our most recent common ancestor with monkeys goes back some 25 million years. With orangutans it goes back some 14 million years; with gorillas, 8 to 11 million years; and with chimps and bonobos, 5 to 7 million years. Chimps and bonobos and even gorillas, in other words, are much more closely related to humans than they’re related to monkeys. (Chimps and bonobos split from each other after they split from the human line, so both are equally close to us.)

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Much speculation has been made over whether Barack Obama’s Christianity is genuine or not, and it’s easy to understand both the care and the confusion. Most true-believing Christians want a leader guided by “God’s Word,” and many get uncomfortable when Obama does things like point out that making public policy out of Scripture could give the green light to slavery (Leviticus 25:44–46), make it mandatory to stone your children to death should they abandon the faith (Deuteronomy 13:6–10), and criminalize the sale of crabcake sandwiches (Leviticus 11:10–12).[1] Most nontheists, on the other hand, want a leader guided by logic and evidence alone, and many get uncomfortable when Obama calls himself a committed Christian, promises to expand the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives,[2] and has his Presidential inauguration ceremony include prayers given by the Christian evangelist Rick Warren.

So what to make of Obama’s faith? My own conclusion is that although there are valid reasons to believe that he might well be a Christian (as religious faith is a complex area with many shades of gray), as well as valid reasons to believe that he might not (that his public declarations about being Christian could be for political reasons only), the best answer may be that it might not matter (given Obama’s determination that when it comes to public policy, religious values must be translated “into universal, rather than religion-specific, values … subject to argument and amenable to reason”[3]).

Reasons to Believe That Obama Might Not Be a Christian

The one thing Obama has made clear is that he is not a fundamentalist. In his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, for example, he reveals (albeit via through the somewhat safe vehicle of describing his mother’s views) his skepticism of both (a) creationism and (b) Christianity’s claim of an exclusive path to salvation:

[My mother’s] experiences as a bookish, sensitive child growing up in small towns … reinforced [her] skepticism. Occasionally, for my benefit, she would recall the sanctimonious preachers who would dismiss three-quarters of the world’s people as ignorant heathens doomed to spend the afterlife in eternal damnation—and who in the same breath would insist that the earth and the heavens had been created in seven days, all geologic and astrophysical evidence to the contrary (p. 203).

Obama’s rejection of the idea that Christianity is “the only path” (i.e., his rejection of a literal interpretation of John 14:6’s alleged line from Jesus that “I am the way … no man comes to the Father but by me”) was reiterated in his July 2008 interview with Newsweek:

It is a precept of my Christian faith that my redemption comes through Christ, but I am also a big believer in the Golden Rule, which I think is an essential pillar not only of my faith but of my values and my ideals and my experience here on Earth. I’ve said this before, and I know this raises questions in the minds of some evangelicals. I do not believe that my mother, who never formally embraced Christianity as far as I know … I do not believe she went to hell.”[4]

Obama also addresses those who would like to make public policy conform to “God’s Word,” and points out that this could lead to laws that are both cruel and absurd:

But let’s even assume that we only had Christians [and no Hindus, Muslims, agnostics, etc.] within our borders. … Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is all right and eating shellfish is an abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith?[5]

Of course, someone can reject fundamentalism yet still be a Christian. But Obama’s critique of the Bible goes beyond mere skepticism of biblical literalism. In The Audacity of Hope, he drops not-so-subtle hints of his suspicion that the entire bible, as well as the so-called sacred scriptures from other organized religions, may well have originated from nowhere other than the human imagination. Note how Obama makes little distinction between the Bible, non-biblical holy texts, and folklore mythology:

In our household the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology. On Easter or Christmas Day my mother might drag me to church, just as she dragged me to the Buddhist temple, the Chinese New Year celebration, the Shinto shrine, and ancient Hawaiian burial sites. But I was made to understand that such religious samplings required no sustained commitment on my part … Religion was an expression of human culture, she would explain, not its well-spring, just one of the many ways—and not necessarily the best way—that man attempted to control the unknowable and understand the deeper truths about our lives.

In sum, my mother viewed religion through the eyes of the anthropologist that she would become; it was a phenomenon to be treated with a suitable respect, but with a suitable detachment as well (p. 204).

Now, if Obama were writing from the position of a philosopher or a mythologist or anyone other than a politician, I would think that the cumulative effect of his four following observations:

(1) that organized religions are regional phenomena (the Arabs, Indians, Greeks, Africans, Chinese, Japanese, etc. all have their own versions of Divine Directions)

(2) that it seems dubious to suppose that one culture’s religion really came from Divinity, and inhabitants from elsewhere are just out of luck—eternally out of luck in the worst way—for being born in the wrong place (as implied by Obama’s remark about “the sanctimonious preachers who would dismiss three-quarters of the world’s people as ignorant heathens doomed to spend the afterlife in eternal damnation”)

(3) that unlike what one would expect from something inspired by an Omniscient Creator of the Cosmos, the Bible contains only primitive guesswork about the universe’s history (as implied by Obama’s remark about preachers who “would insist that the earth and the heavens had been created in seven days, all geologic and astrophysical evidence to the contrary”)

(4) that the Bible includes:

(a) injustices (Leviticus 25: 44–46—slaves are property and it’s okay to own them, as long as they’re not your fellow Israelites)

(b) cruelties (Deuteronomy 13:6–10—if your siblings or wife or children choose another religion, show them no pity as you stone them to death)

(c) absurdities (Leviticus 11: 10–12: eating sea creatures without fins and scales [e.g. crabs and lobsters] is “an abomination”)

—would lead to the conclusion that there’s nothing “divine” about the Bible: that it belongs in the same category as all of man’s other works of imagination. Or as Obama himself put it when describing his mother’s dismissal of organized religions:

Religion was an expression of human culture, she would explain, not its well-spring, just one of the many ways—and not necessarily the best way—that man attempted to control the unknowable.

But although I would argue that this is the rational conclusion from a philosophical perspective, I will also argue that this is not the rational conclusion from a political perspective. For although philosophy, in its safe abstract world, may have the admirable goal of non-contradictory thinking, politics strives for the arguably higher goal of coming up with compromises that allow real world people with diametrically-opposed beliefs and interests to co-exist with as little conflict as possible.

Am I saying that even though there’s no rational reason to be a theist, nontheist politicians need to pretend to be theists—and Christian theists in particular—because politicians need votes, and we all know that most of America’s voters are Christians who won’t vote for non-Christians? Well, yes, I am … although it’s just a bit more complex than that, so before anyone labels my position as simply that of a cynical defeatist, allow me to present my defense of the time-honored and beneficial tradition of political double-talk and hypocrisy (or to cast it in a more positive light, the tradition of “political compromise”).

Look, for example, at the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on homosexuals. From the philosophical point of view, it’s contradictory if not incoherent: if gays are really that detrimental to the military, they shouldn’t be allowed to serve at all, even if they can be discreet about their sexual orientation. Conversely, if being gay really has no bearing on a person’s military abilities, homosexuals should be allowed to serve under the exact same conditions as heterosexuals. But politically, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” solution was a great breakthrough: it allowed parties with nearly irreconcilable differences to come to an agreement that satisfied at least some of the major concerns on both sides (the military got to keep its prohibition of open homosexual activity, and gay military personnel became legally protected from witch hunts and the accompanying dishonorable discharges).

Or look at America’s “clean needles” programs, in which addicts who are using illegal injection drugs can legally exchange their used syringes for clean ones. Philosophically (at least in the abstract sense of the word), this is nonsensical: we’re taking the contradictory stance that people will be prosecuted for using illegal substances such as heroin, but if they walk into these clinics with used needles—clear evidence of abuse—we’ll not only turn a blind eye, but we’ll give them shiny new needles to shoot up with (which they’d better not be caught using!). Philosophically illogical or not, however, this hypocrisy comes with the societal benefit of reducing the transmission of AIDS: a goal worthier than legal consistency.

Or let’s take the tension between China and the United States back in April 2001 when the pilot of a Chinese fighter plane died after colliding with an American surveillance plane (the plane was flying off the coast of China in an area that China claimed as Chinese territory, and America claimed as international). China said that until America made a formal apology for its crime, the twenty-four members of the surveillance plane would remain captive in Chinese custody. America, in turn, insisted that its surveillance plane was flying in international airspace, that the collision was the Chinese pilot’s fault for flying too close, and that China was the one who was now committing a crime by illegally imprisoning the American crew. Neither side wanted to back down and thus appear weak before their respective countries, but the problem was resolved peacefully thanks to linguistic ambiguity. America’s official statement expressed “regret” about the pilot’s loss of life, China translated “regret” as an apology, America in turn made no comment about the Chinese translation, and the twenty-four American crew members were released.

Now, I could summarize this exchange as:

AMERICA: We don’t apologize because we did no wrong, but we regret the loss of the pilot’s life.

CHINA: Glad to hear that you’ve confessed your guilt!

AMERICA: Ahh, whatever.

—and say that it makes zero sense in the world of pure logic. But in the real life world of politics, it makes 100% sense, in that it may well have been a literal life-saver.

Many will point out that this “the end justifies the means” approach is dangerous, as it can serve to rationalize all sorts of ethical horrors in the name of political expediency. That’s true enough … but the opposite mantra of “the means can never be justified by the ends” is equally dangerous—each situation needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis and weighed for all pros and cons.

As for looking at the “ends” vs. the “means” when it comes to winning a presidential election, note that the characteristics we want from a president pull us in opposite directions (at least from my biased nontheistic viewpoint). On the one hand, we want a politician who is as intelligent and rational as possible—and from my perspective (which I prefer to call “biased” rather than “smug,” although one could argue that both apply), this means someone who doesn’t believe that an ancient text full of contradictions and scientific errors and ethnocentric absurdities could possibly be the work of an Omniscient and Omnipotent Creator. On the other hand, we want a person who will actually get elected, and once elected, will lead effectively. And in a predominantly Christian nation, this means (at least according to poll after poll after poll[6]) that a presidential candidate must at least claim to be Christian (and preferably mainstream Christian[7]). So for nontheists who would like to see fellow nontheists in office, electing a closet nontheist may be the best bet compromise.

TANGENTIAL NOTE: even though I believe that being a theist includes a certain degree of being guided by delusion and wishful thinking, one thing that continually surprises me about people is how good we are at compartmentalizing our beliefs. So if being a theist could reliably be equated with a lack of rational thought in other areas as well, then I would think it’s important to have a nontheist in office … but I have to admit that I haven’t found this to be the case. Thanks to compartmentalization, theists can just tuck that irrational part of their thought process into a small area (perhaps dragging it out on selective Sunday mornings), and then be completely rational in every other aspect of life. And being an atheist is certainly no guarantee that someone is rational in other aspects of life, or is even an atheist for rational reasons. So as long as I see that candidates have sufficient respect for the separation between church and state, their religious beliefs play little role in my decision of whom to support.

Back on track—let’s say, just for argument’s sake, that Obama’s professed Christianity really is for political reasons only. If so, why does he have to be so supportive of faith: repeatedly using religious imagery (he refers to helping others as “the Lord’s work”), promising millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to churches for his “President’s Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships” program,” and giving Rick Warren—the Christian evangelist who equates homosexuality with bestiality and incest—such a prominent role at the presidential swearing-in ceremony?

My own conclusion is that these displays of religiosity simply make good political sense when it comes to being the leader of Christian-dominated nation. But even though I’m an atheist, I don’t think of Obama as “pandering” or “selling out.” Rather, I actually admire the way he doesn’t alienate the Christian masses, and at the same time manages to harness their faith in ways that I see as mostly positive.

In the below excerpt from Obama’s website (www.barackobama.com), note that when he talks about the “Lord’s work” he puts it in terms not of spreading the message that salvation comes from Christ alone, but about things like ensuring benefits for veterans, rebuilding communities destroyed by natural disasters, and working to prevent ex-prisoners from returning to crime. And when he talks about his “President’s Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships” program, note that he spells out the terms in which separation between church and state can be maintained:

I came to see my faith as being both a personal commitment to Christ and a commitment to my community; that while I could sit in church and pray all I want, I wouldn’t be fulfilling God’s will unless I went out and did the Lord’s work.

There are millions of Americans who share a similar view of their faith, who feel they have an obligation to help others. And they’re making a difference in communities all across this country—through initiatives like Ready4Work, which is helping ensure that ex-offenders don’t return to a life of crime; or Catholic Charities, which is feeding the hungry and making sure we don’t have homeless veterans sleeping on the streets of Chicago; or the good work that’s being done by a coalition of religious groups to rebuild New Orleans.

You see, while these groups are often made up of folks who’ve come together around a common faith, they’re usually working to help people of all faiths or of no faith at all. And they’re particularly well-placed to offer help. As I’ve said many times, I believe that change comes not from the top-down, but from the bottom-up, and few are closer to the people than our churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques.

That’s why Washington needs to draw on them. The fact is, the challenges we face today—from saving our planet to ending poverty—are simply too big for government to solve alone. We need all hands on deck.

I’m not saying that faith-based groups are an alternative to government or secular nonprofits. And I’m not saying that they’re somehow better at lifting people up. What I’m saying is that we all have to work together—Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim; believer and non-believer alike—to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Now, I know there are some who bristle at the notion that faith has a place in the public square … make no mistake, as someone who used to teach constitutional law, I believe deeply in the separation of church and state, but I don’t believe this partnership will endanger that ideaso long as we follow a few basic principles. First, if you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people you help and you can’t discriminate against themor against the people you hireon the basis of their religion. Second, federal dollars that go directly to churches, temples, and mosques can only be used on secular programs. [8]

As for Obama asking Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation, well, I can understand why many people, particularly gay rights activists,[9] are offended by that. But Rick Warren is complex in his own right, because Warren is one who also believes, like Obama, in channeling the church’s energies to help solve secular problems. Even though Warren adopts the church’s traditional stance on homosexuality and abortion, he often makes these issues take a back seat to social action projects like expanding educational opportunities for the poor, helping to reduce international poverty and disease, and working to stop the spread of AIDS and global warming.

Still, many secular people (and religious liberals) feel that Warren’s inflammatory words on homosexuality—as well as his support for Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in his home state of California—overshadow all positive aspects of his social activism. But as I see it, what’s a pastor to do: say the Bible is wrong? After all, Warren’s anti-gay sentiments are all right there in the Good Book: Leviticus 20:11–17 describes homosexuality, incest, and bestiality alike as “abominations.” Warren’s condemnations are actually rather mild, in that he doesn’t follow through with the Bible’s instructions that all those who commit such offenses—including adulterers (Leviticus 20:10)—should be put to death.

In the USA Today article “Obama defends inaugural invitation to Warren,” Obama’s response to protesters includes some fuzzy language—that our “noisy and opinionated” diversity is “part of the magic of this country”—that doesn’t quite succeed, at least for me, in downplaying the fact that Warren’s influence in getting Proposition 8 passed has contributed to depriving the gay community of its rights:

“During the course of the entire inaugural festivities, there are going to be a wide range of viewpoints that are presented,” said Obama … “And that’s how it should be because that’s what America is about. That’s part of the magic of this country — that we are diverse and noisy and opinionated.”

Yet Obama also has also taken measures to counteract perceptions that inviting Rick Warren means that Obama is endorsing Warren’s biblical-based bigotry. For one, Obama has requested that his ceremony’s closing prayers will be led by Joseph Lowery, a minister who has spoken out in favor of gay clergy. The USA Today article includes the following observations from Eddie Glaude, a professor of religion at Princeton University:

By choosing Warren and Lowery as the religious bookends to the inaugural ceremony, “he’s reaching across a wide swath of the American religious community,” Glaude says. “[It’s] a sign of how shrewd he is.”

Second, Obama also specifies that he remains a “fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans.” He adds, however, that his and Warren’s clash in the area of gay rights doesn’t eliminate all common ground:

We’re not going to agree on every single issue, but what we have to do is be able to create an atmosphere … where we can disagree without being disagreeable and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans.[10]

The advantages of inviting Warren are clear: he is arguably the most influential evangelist in the country at the moment (his book The Purpose Driven Life is one of the best-selling non-fiction books of all time, selling over 20 million copies), and having him deliver the inaugural invocation strengthens Obama’s support from Warren’s millions of Christian fans (helping to lessen the impact from the attacks Obama has received from other influential evangelists, such as James Dobson[11]). The disadvantages are also being made clear from the numerous protests from those insulted by the perceived legitimacy bestowed upon Warren’s anti-gay sentiments, but I’d like to think that Obama’s outspoken defense of gay rights, as well as the ceremony’s inclusion of Joseph Lowery, succeeds in taking at least some of the sting away from that insult.

Given that politicians will be criticized for whatever stance they take when it comes to mixing religion and politics, Obama admits the temptation for politicians to try to shy away from the subject of religion altogether (the following excerpts are all from The Audacity of Hope):

Those of us in public office may try to avoid the conversation about religious values altogether, fearful of offending anyone and claiming that—regardless of our personal beliefs—constitutional principles tie our hands on issues like abortion or school prayer (p. 213).

—and indirectly (that is, by mentioning the views of “some on the left”), Obama even acknowledges the danger of mixing political power with something as “inherently irrational and intolerant” as religion:

Some on the left (although not those in public office) go further [than simply avoiding religion], dismissing religion in the public square as inherently irrational, intolerant, and therefore dangerous … (p. 213).

But Obama also points out the greater danger—the “bad politics”—of a politician taking such a secular approach that s/he appears to neglect the religious concerns of the devout. For one, he writes, this leaves a dangerous vacuum:

… over the long haul, I think we make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in the lives of the American people, and so avoid joining a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy.

To begin with, it’s bad politics. There are a whole lot of religious people in America … According to the most recent surveys, 95% of Americans believe in God, more than two-thirds belong to a church … and substantially more people believe in angels than believe in evolution … When we abandon the field of religious discourse … when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, rather than in the positive sense of what it tells us about our obligations toward one another; when we shy away from religious venues and religious broadcasts … others will fill the vacuum. And those who do are likely to be those with the most insular views of faith, or who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends (pp. 213, 214, 198).

As an example of a negative political repercussion of ignoring the concerns of the faithful, Obama recaps the history of how the Republican Party started taking advantage of this vacuum in the 1980s, and “harvested the crop” of alienated Christians:

By the time the sixties rolled around, many mainstream Protestant and Catholic leaders had concluded that if American’s religious institutions were to survive, they would have to make themselves “relevant” to changing times—by accommodating church doctrine to science … Academics, journalists, and purveyors of popular culture … failed to appreciate the continuing role that all manner of religious expression played in communities across the country.

What happened? … Pushed out of sight but still throbbing with vitality throughout the heartland and the Bible Belt, a parallel universe emerged, a world not only of revivals and thriving ministries but also of Christian television, radio, universities, publishers, and entertainment, all of which allowed the devout to ignore the popular culture as surely as they were being ignored.

[Yet social upheavals such as] the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, the increasing assertiveness of gays and lesbians, … Roe v. Wade, dismantling segregation, eliminating prayer in schools … seemed a direct challenge to the church’s teaching about marriage, sexuality, and the proper roles of men and women. Feeling mocked and under attack, conservative Christians found it no longer possible to insulate themselves from the country’s broader political and cultural trends. … it was the Republican Party, with its increasing emphasis on tradition, order, and “family values,” that was best positioned to harvest this crop of politically awakened evangelicals and mobilize them against the liberal orthodoxy.

The story of how Ronald Reagan, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, and finally Karl Rove and George W. Bush mobilized this army of Christian foot soldiers need not be repeated here (pp. 199 – 201).

Back once again to Rick Warren: by welcoming, rather than excluding, such an influential evangelist to be at least a symbolic part of his presidency, Obama is increasing the likelihood that the Christian masses will not feel alienated, and will be less likely to be “harvested” by ultra right-wing fundamentalists with “the most insular [i.e., the most narrow-minded] views of faith”: fundamentalists—such as Dobson[12]—that make Warren look tame in comparison.

So, it may well be that Obama’s position on religion is that of the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca, who said: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”

On the other hand …

Reasons to Believe that Obama Might Be a Christian

My experience with several years of interviewing Christians[13] is that faith—even among Christians in the exact same sect—is maddeningly complex, non-uniform, and comes in many shades of gray. For although it’s common for fundamentalist Christians to claim that their faith casts away all doubt—that faith overrides even the most solid contradictory evidence—many non-fundamentalists see doubt as something they can allow space for while maintaining their Christianity. In The Audacity of Hope‘s chapter on “Faith,” for example, Obama specifically writes, “faith doesn’t mean that you don’t have doubts” (p. 207). He ends the chapter with ruminations on exactly how he should have responded to his young daughter’s question about death, admitting his doubts about the answers offered by his religion:

I wonder whether I should have told her the truth, that I wasn’t sure what happens when we die, any more than I was sure of where the soul resides or what existed before the Big Bang (p. 226).

In a Newsweek interview, Obama goes as far as admitting that his religious views might be wrong in every way:

I’m on my own faith journey and I’m searching. I leave open the possibility that I’m entirely wrong.[14]

The fact that Obama makes repeated mention of his doubts is one of the reasons I don’t rule out the possibility that he might indeed be sincere when he calls himself a Christian: it seems that he’d be less likely to dwell on such doubts if his Christianity were strictly political. Could it be a part of his calculated act? I suppose it could … that’s why I’m calling this section “reasons to believe that Obama might be a Christian.” More importantly, however, is my next section, which present my reasons for why I believe it might not matter.

Reasons to Believe that Obama’s Christianity (or lack of) Might Not Matter

Obama’s solution to balancing the demands of the religious world with the secular is that the religiously-motivated can cite their faith as the source of their morals, but those values must be translated “into universal, rather than religion-specific, values” (again, the following excerpts are all from The Audacity of Hope):

What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy demands is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason. If I am opposed to abortion for religious reasons and seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or invoke God’s will and expect that argument to carry the day. If I want others to listen to me, then I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

For those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do, such rules of engagement may seem just one more example of the tyranny of the secular and material worlds over the sacred and eternal. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice (p. 219).

Obama also cites positive ways that religion can be used in conjunction with politics, at least when religion is restricted to using its imagery as a vehicle for understanding morality:

Scrub language of all religious content and we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice. Imagine Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address without reference to “the judgments of the Lord,” or King’s “I Have a Dream” speech without reference to “all of God’s children.” Their summoning of a higher truth helped inspire what had seemed impossible and move the nation to embrace a common destiny (p. 214).[15]

But when it comes to looking for Scripture to provide specifics, Obama notes that no one can hear “God’s voice” when it speaks in someone else’s head, so “the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that are possible for all of us to know”:

The story of Abraham and Isaac offers a simple but powerful example. According to the Bible, Abraham is ordered by God to offer up his “only son, Isaac, whom you love,” as a burnt offering. Without argument, Abraham takes Isaac to the mountaintop, binds him to an altar, and raises his knife, prepared to act as God has commanded.

Of course, we know the happy ending—God sends down an angel to intercede at the very last minute. Abraham has passed God’s test of devotion. He becomes a model of fidelity to God, and his great faith is rewarded through future generations. And yet it is fair to say that if any of us saw a 21st century Abraham raising the knife on the roof of his apartment building, we would call the police; we would wrestle him down; even if we saw him lower the knife at the last minute, we would expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away and charge Abraham with child abuse. We would do so because God doesn’t reveal Himself or His angels to all of us in a single moment. We do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that are possible for all of us to know, understanding that a part of what we know to be true—as individuals or communities of faith—will be true for us alone (p. 220).

From my own atheistic perspective, the idea that religious values should be translated into what we might call “humanistic values” simply means that those “humanistic values” are traveling full circle. That is, from the nontheistic viewpoint, morals pre-date man’s creation of religion, and even pre-date humanity itself. Although natural selection certainly involves no small amount of violent competition, the struggle for survival also demands a degree of compassion and cooperation (cooperative traits are widespread in just about all animals that live in social groups: social animals need to band together to raise their young, warn each other of predators, and hunt their food and fight their enemies). Religious founders take innate tendencies such as care & cooperation and give them a formal structure by putting them in the mouths of their gods, but religion is only underlining pre-existing capacities.[16] (Religion underlines, of course, not only natural selection’s peace-enhancing traits like “be good to your kin” [e.g. the Ten Commandments’ prohibition on murder, at least within the community], but also its violent traits, such as the ability to be utterly ruthless with outsiders [e.g. the alleged instructions from the alleged Jehovah to go into the Promised Land and murder every man, woman, and child].)

So from the strictly logical perspective, using religion as a source for morals is like going through an unnecessary middleman, and one that comes with negative baggage as well (particularly when it comes to gay rights, stem cell research, science in the classroom, fighting “God’s wars,” etc.). But from a political perspective, we neglect the concerns of the devout at our peril—at the cost of having zero influence.

So I for one am happy to have a president who has managed not to alienate most of our religious fellow Americans, yet who has also laid out strong arguments for why scripture cannot dictate public policy, and who has even managed to project some well-placed hints of religious skepticism along the way. And to all this I say, “Amen!”

[1] These remarks are from page 218 of Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, and included in his June 2006 “Call to Renewal” Keynote Address. In response, the evangelical leader James Dobson accused Obama of “deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to fit his own world view, his own confused theology” (“James Dobson Says Obama ‘Distorting’ Bible,” NPR.org, 25-Jun-2008).

[2] Obama’s updated office will be called the “President’s Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.”

[3] Obama, The Audacity of Hope, p. 219.

[4] Lisa Miller and Richard Wolffe, “Finding His Faith.” Newsweek, 21-Jul-2008.

[5] Obama, The Audacity of Hope, p. 218.

[6] Austin Cline, “Gallup Polls & Other Surveys on American Attitudes Towards Atheists: Over 40 Years of Research Show Atheists Are Despised, Distrusted.” (http://atheism.about.com/od/atheistbigotryprejudice/a/AtheistSurveys.htm)

Pulsar Research & Consulting, “TIME Poll: Survey on Faith and the Presidential Election,” May 10-13, 2007 (www.pulsarresearch.com/PDF/TIME_Report.pdf)

[7] James Joyner, “Black President More Likely than Mormon or Atheist” (a 20-Feb-2007 article that draws on polls taken by Gallup) http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/archives/black_president_more_likely_than_mormon_or_atheist_/

[8] “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.” (http://www.barackobama.com/2008/07/01/remarks_of_senator_barack_obam_86.php)

[9] Not all gay activists are offended—see footnote 12 for comments of support for Rick Warren by Jonathan Rauch, author of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America.

[10] Mimi Hall, “Obama defends inaugural invitation to Warren.” USA Today, 23-Dec-2008.

[11] In addition to Dobson’s accusation that Obama “deliberately distorts the Bible” (NPR.org, 25-Jun-2008), Dobson also released an attack called Letter from 2012 in Obama’s America—a hypothetical letter from a Christian in the year 2012. The letter describes a nightmarish America after four years of Obama’s rule: the removal of obscenity laws results in television broadcasts of explicit sex acts 24 hours a day, al-Qaida takes over Iraq, and terrorist bombs kill thousands in U.S. cities. And to top it off, homosexual marriages become the norm in all 50 states, and the Boy Scouts have disbanded rather than obey a decision forcing them to allow homosexual scoutmasters.

[12] Just as I was getting ready to submit this post to “Clashing Culture,” I came across an excellent analysis comparing Dobson and Warren in a blog from Jonathan Rauch (author of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America). I’m too lazy to work Rauch’s observations properly into this post, but his commentary (http://www.indegayforum.org/blog/show/31681.html) is too good for me to leave it out altogether:

[Dobson’s Letter from 2012 in Obama’s America is] long and hysterical—another sign of how beleaguered the hard-core Christian Right is feeling. Still more revealing, I count 18 paragraphs on homosexuality and gay marriage, versus four on abortion (aka, from a pro-life point of view, murder of babies). I found no instances of the word “divorce.” “Adultery”? You gotta be kidding.

This is the kind of anti-gay obsessiveness and upside-down prioritizing that Rick Warren and others of his ilk and generation are moving away from. The more I think about Obama’s choice of Warren to lead the inaugural prayer, the more I like it. Culturally, the moment is right to reach out to reachable evangelicals and marginalize the hysterics and obsessives who have all but monopolized their movement. The cultural left doesn’t understand the difference between Warren and Dobson, but evangelicals sure will. And they’ll know Obama and Warren are publicly declaring Dobsonism obsolete.”

It’s also worth reading Rauch’s prior blog post, called “James Dobson He Ain’t”—http://www.indegayforum.org/blog/show/31676.html.

[13] The interviews were for my book, Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer (a dialogue between a Christian apologist and a Socratic skeptic).

[14] Lisa Miller and Richard Wolffe, “Finding His Faith.” Newsweek, 21-Jul-2008.

[15] Just for balance, I would have also liked for Obama to mention how this phenomenon can also occur outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and cite how Gandhi’s political use of Hinduism was key in India’s incredible and unprecedented non-violent defeat of the militarily-superior Great Britain.

[16] I explore this subject further in “The Roots of Morality,” endnote 12 of Dialogue with a Christian Proselytizer (p. 213).

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