Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Why Do Bad Things Happen....

To put it mildly, I'm no theologian. But I do find some theological debates interesting, such as the centuries-old debate over theodicy - "Why does God let bad things happen." This is really only a struggle if you believe three things: God is all-knowing, God is all-powerful, and God is all-loving. Take away any one of the three and you have an answer. But for those who insist that God is all-three, the debate cannot end as there can never be a satisfactory explanation.

Ross Douthat questions why people seem more willing to question God's benevolence in good times than in bad,
It's my impression - and it's only an impression, which is why I'd like to see someone do the necessary intellectual spadework to refute it or back it up - that this argument [that the existence of evil disproves God] has gained increasing currency even as our material conditions have dramatically improved; which is to say, the less suffering a particular population experiences, the more likely the suffering it does experience will be cited as evidence against the existence of a benevolent deity.
Douthat proposes as possible explanations increased levels of atheism associated with growth of scientific knowledge, "mass media and instantaneous communication" increasing people's exposure to tragedy, "the scale of inhumanity that modern technology makes possible", or something in human psychology that "makes suffering seem like more of an absolute injustice the less we actually experience it".

I think his best points are the first and last, although I can't endorse them as stated. If you speak of secularism as opposed to atheism, and relate it to the diminished authority and control of the church, it makes sense that scientific knowledge would lead to a secular understanding of tragedy, and make certain religious explanations of specific tragedies seem cartoonish. If you are a powerful church, capable of suppressing science and speaking to a medieval audience, "God brought this plague upon us to punish us for our sins" may resonate. Not so much when you're speaking to a scientifically literate audience - instead, you make God, or perhaps more accurately yourself, seem petty.

I suspect that the characteristic of the human psyche that comes into play emerges from the difference between a shared tragedy and an individual tragedy. When one out of three households loses a child below the age of five to injury or disease, that can be seen as the way of the world. When it's one in a thousand, it seems arbitrary and personal. The reaction of others to the tragedy changes as well, from recognizing the tragedy as something that could happen to anyone, to trying to rationalize the tragedy often by finding ways that the family brought it on themselves.

Daniel Larison seems to view God's benevolence as part of a quid pro quo:
If you are relying heavily on agriculture that depends on favourable weather and freedom from blights, as people for most of history did, and you are exposed to the ravages of famine or plague without the protections of extensive food surpluses or medical treatment, the irrationality of blasphemy and doubting God’s benevolence becomes much clearer.
That, of course, brings us back to the medieval audience - one that lacks the scientific knowledge to understand weather patterns, blight, food shortages, or to provide effective medical treatments to the ill. He seems to see faith as granting some form of herd immunity - God's benevolence ends when the level of "blasphemy and doubting" of His benevolence exceeds a certain threshold. But on the other side of the coin,
At the same time, enjoying plenitude and wealth allows those with the most advantages the luxury of worrying not so much about the suffering that they experience, since they tend to experience relatively little, and worrying a lot more about suffering elsewhere.
So if you're a dirt farmer with insufficient faith in God, you get hit with blight or famine. But if you're enjoying plenitude and wealth, your doubts - or even your taking it a giant step further and cursing God, don't affect your plenitude and wealth? This is an argument in favor of belief in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God?
With the exception of natural disasters, which are the things that you might think would cause more doubt than human cruelty, complaints against God for things that we do to each other are really quite bizarre. First of all, if you believe that God did not create man with a sinful nature, but that man turned away from God, it is difficult to believe that God can be blamed for what we do to one another.
As I previously indicated, if you don't view God as all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving, this isn't a problem. Within a theology that demands belief that God is all of the above, the argument that man turned away from God is not compelling, as God knew that would happen when He created man. Also, it's inherently unsatisfactory, for example, to argue that God would let a horrific tragedy befall on babies because mankind as a whole has turned away from God. It's similarly unsatisfactory to be suggesting that somebody enjoying plenitude and wealth, unvisited by personal tragedy, shares responsible for horrific tragedy half-way around the world by having "turned away from God" - one might ask, "Why is God's aim so bad?"

Larison continues,
“But why does God permit it?” someone always asks. The standard (and true) answer is that God permits it because He respects human freedom, up to and including the freedom to disobey, because neither obedience nor love would be of any value if it were not ultimately voluntary.
To me, this is satisfactory if you subtract love from the equation, and presume that in creating man God could not foresee the future - God becomes the master of an ant colony, and we're the ants he watches and judges. Forget to feed the ants, such that they fight and eat each other? "Bad ants." It also raises the question, when according to the Bible and Catholic teaching God has at times been highly interventionist in human affairs, God chooses at other times to sit back and watch.
Yet what these people seem to be terrified of most is the possibility that God really has allowed man such an extensive freedom, and that God is nothing like the caricatured martinet dictator that the sad New Atheists portray Him to be. Indeed, one gets the impression from many complaints against God for permitting suffering that they would very much welcome a deity who regimented and ordered their lives in order to provide maximal security and prosperity.
I have yet to meet an atheist who is terrified of God, let alone the notion that God has given man freedom. But perhaps more to the point, isn't it institutionalized religion that depicts God as a being who will regiment and order your life, providing maximal security and prosperity, if only you believe, defer, and follow the rules of the Church? What church teaches, "Your reward for belief in and worship of God is that you are free to do what you want and, whatever you do, what happens will happen"? (Calvanism?)
Even though God does intervene in history in dramatic, powerful and world-changing ways (see the Incarnation), what troubles the doubters is that God does not intervene more often.
There are other ways you can look at God's intervention, ranging from viewing the stories of interventions as fables created by man, to demonstration of God's will and authority over all of dominion. But if you take the latter approach, you are forced to ask yourself, "What are God's priorities"? It's neat that God intervened in the the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem to help accommodate a lack of consecrated olive oil, such that a mere day's supply lasted for eight days. But if interventions are to be limited in number, whether to choose between that or stopping the Holocaust.... Tough choices for a deity.
It’s as if they want to say, “Stop respecting my free will and just do something for me!” That this sounds exactly like the statement of a spoiled child is appropriate, because that is what it is.
Now we're coming full circle, back to the medieval farming village told that their crops have failed because they had too much doubt in God. They're told, "Pray to God, give to the Church, and God will smile upon you and bring you bounty. If you're wealthy, God wants you to be wealthy. If you're poor, God wants you to be poor. If you're king, God made you king. Accept your lot in life." But everything bad is attributed to "free will"? How convenient.
Then, in those moments of chastening and real trial that God permits or wills, the spoiled children whine even more when they are confronted with some small modicum of loving discipline.
"Loving discipline", like the Holocaust? Genocide in Rwanda? Conveniently, those horrors are placed exclusively in the hands of man as acts of "free will". I'm not sure what Larison sees as a manifestation of the actual hand of God, but his dividing line seems to be, "If it might otherwise make me question my faith, it's the work of man."

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