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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.

. . .

II. THE NATURALISTIC EXPLANATION FOR SUFFERING: THAT THE NATURAL WORLD IS INDIFFERENT

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

etc.

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

etc.

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. THE SUPERNATURAL EXPLANATIONS

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. THE SUPERNATURAL EXPLANATIONS FOR SUFFERING
I.A. In the “Big Picture,” everything is for the best

I.A.1 – SUFFERING IS PUNISHMENT FOR WRONG-DOING

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.

I.A.2 – SUFFERING BENEFITS US

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.)

I.A.3 – SUFFERING MUST EXIST FOR THE GREATER GOOD OF FREE WILL

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.

I.A.4 – IT’S BEYOND OUR UNDERSTANDING

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.

I.A.5 – THE PERCEIVED WORLD IS JUST AN ILLUSION, HENCE SUFFERING, TOO, IS JUST AN ILLUSION

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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PRE-FACE

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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