A Non-intervening God and The Problem of Suffering

Epicurus asked if God physically can stop suffering and whether He emotionally wants to. If God can stop suffering, clearly He doesn’t want to; if God wants to stop suffering, clearly He can’t. Else, if He can stop it and wants to, where is it coming from? But this problem removes particular definitions of God: an ambivalent, indifferent, petty or angry God is still permitted by this argument. Equally, this argument allows a loving but incompetent and weak God.

Prayson Daniel, a blogger I respect (although don’t think I have agreed with, ever), has tried to get around this problem by placing God’s concern outside of this world. Daniel argues that the best the Epicurean argument can do is demonstrate divine providence as absent here in our mortal realm. Or, to approximately translate On the Nature of Things (book 5, lines 195-199) which Daniel quotes for us (in Latin):

Upon the ways and conduct of the skies,

This to maintain by many a fact besides,

That in no wise the nature of all things

For us was fashioned by a power divine,

So great the faults it stands encumbered with.

(My emphasis. Also, Google helped with the translation)

Put simply, looking around, nature was not designed for us by anything wise.

In the comments section Daniel also tried to defend God, even in this narrative, as moral. He does this by explaining that God balances our actions with punishments. I want to use that a springboard to explain why God is still immoral and, as a politics-based aside, why punishing people doesn’t make you moral. I also want to explain why this argument‒that God doesn’t intervene with our reality‒is a conversation-ender, in the atheists favour.

Daniel’s argument of a non-intervening God that does not concern itself with the reality we live in does not tell us whether a God exists. All it says is that there is no sign of God in our human existence. It might not tell us no God exists, but it does tell us that we have no good reason to believe in Him. And that’s all the justification we need for atheism; God does not demonstrate Himself to us. When it comes to God’s existence, I can’t imagine what more you need: (according to this narrative) there cannot be evidence. Accordingly, there cannot be any justified claim of His existence. It’s just conjecture.

On God’s Morality and the Justice of Retribution

On the accusation of God’s immorality, there is a loophole. In the comments Daniel is challenged on how he feels about the morality of the God which permits rape and murder; suffering and pain; fear and death. And Daniel’s answer is that, even with His complete absence from our world, God is still moral if He punishes sinners in the aeons of the afterlife. I am not a vengeful person and I disagree.

There is no point in the suffering of the afterlife. There is no opportunity to change, no acceptance of apology and repentance, nothing to protect and no rehabilitation. Punishment in the afterlife is vengeful; it is retribution and it is nothing else. It cannot serve a purpose. Retribution is a fearful and human response to feeling wronged. The real benefits of our own justice system are to keep people safe from the actions of those who may harm us and to (hopefully) teach those people the problems with what they do on an emotional level (i.e. rehabilitation). So a person who takes retribution on sinners, without offering protection or rehabilitation is not behaving morally.

What is worse is that God, who knows everything, knows the mind and the will of a murderer or a rapist. Perhaps He knows it as a compulsion, or as a result to particularly abusive childhood; perhaps experience has had an unfortunate effect with specific genetics or brain development. But a sinner stand before God completely accounted for. As horrific as these crimes are, as much as‒in this world‒that criminal needs to be isolated from people and rehabilitated, in God’s domain they need to be fixed or allowed to die forever. They do not deserve aeons of punishment.

In this narrative, where God can see us but takes no stake in our wellbeing, what can be said for His morality? In an existence where God can see us suffer, see the rape and murder of people, and chooses not to intervene it is impossible to imagine why anyone would still call this Being moral. It could stop any murder or rape. But it doesn’t. The God decides that we should be left to our freewill and the whims of force. God allows a rapist to have their freewill because in terms of physical strength they are more powerful than the rape victim. What these people wanted, their wills, were in direct competition. And God just allows one person’s will (and body) to be violated while the other gets their way. How much solace do you take in knowing that God will burn the rapist later, but let it happen, and someone has to live with that? None, I hope.

So, can we still say a God exists?

We cannot save God from people accusing Him of being immoral, and just stating that He doesn’t intervene with this reality is only to reword Epicurus’ challenge that He doesn’t will to stop suffering. But what of existence? That was the initial question, and all this pontificating on whether He can be saved from the accusation of Being moral side tracks the issue. There is something fundamentally wrong with the reasoning that says ‘because the Epicurean paradox only shows that God doesn’t intervene with our reality‒and does not show He doesn’t exist‒it is reasonable to believe that He does exist’. When the reasoning is laid out like that I imagine the problem reveals itself; the assumption being made is that God exists until proven otherwise. It is a philosophical error, confused thinking, for anyone to use or allow that thinking. This argument makes excuses for why there is no evidence of God, and then assumes its okay to believe.

On the premise that God doesn’t intervene with or leave evidence in this reality, I concur. On the assumption that it is then okay for us, intellectually or philosophically speaking, to still believe in Him I disagree. The argument Daniel has put forward paints a picture of a God we simply have no reason to know about. The idea that a God exists remains conjecture.

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24 thoughts on “A Non-intervening God and The Problem of Suffering”

      1. When humans build inadequate structures in areas that are known for the ground to shake, under volcanoes, sandy hillside, or open fields without basements, they are responsible for their own suffering.

        When humans do not set aside grain in abundant harvests in case of famines or drought, they are responsible.

        A Creator designed bacteria for specific reasons same as the earth for floods, etc.

        If humans would have invested more time in discovering medicines and cures instead of killing each other, humans would probably understand more of how to control and harvest bacteria for their benefit, and for learning how to avoid harmful bacteria.

        In other words, when you consider human history, we are the masters of our own disasters.
        .

        1. Droughts can last for years. Hurricanes can hit just about anywhere. Where a person is born is not their fault. Bacteria adapt and change and appear (seemingly from nowhere). Sometimes people need to live in dangerous areas just to have fertile land.

        2. A Creator created the earth and all living things. Humans need to find a way to plan for their future to adapt to changing conditions of the elements. and especially how to communicate and care for each other’s well being. How that is to come about is our human challenge and responsibility. Wars started by humans only add to our human suffering. Some people want to blame a god for all sufferings and misfortunes. Some people find wisdom and enact ways to help themselves and their communities.
          .
          Fear God ( which means believe that you will someday be judged ) and obey the ten commandments is a beginning road map for humans to find a way to live together and peacefully. Religious leaders need to communicate with each other to lead an effort to spread a common theme to reduce human suffering caused by humans failings to adapt to our earth. We all know that we are going to suffer and die someday.We all need to find the wisdom to make the best choices to avoid useless suffering during our time of living on earth. . .

        3. Are you suggesting that ignorance is a crime we should be punished for?
          Are you also suggesting that the ignorance of a parent that decides to stay in a flood-risk area is sufficient reason for the children to be punished?

          Are you also suggesting that people really have the choice to leave the place they live in and wander to a new area and start life anew?

        4. Parents are responsible for their children. Their children will be affected by the wise of foolish choices made by their parents.Blaming a god for any suffering will not resolve anything. Only humans acting alone or in concert as a community will effect any change.

        5. If you’re not going to answer my questions, and in turn not substantiate the claim that atheism is either a religion or faith-based then I request that you stop saying it.

    1. you’re going to have to define difference. Perspective is an awesome thing and from the perspective of someone on this planet, there is no detectable difference. If the current level of detection is the definition of difference, then there is no method for determining the aspects of such a deity.

      The short of the math comes down to the question of what is the difference between a deity that can’t be detected and one that does not exist? Such begs the question of what is the difference between an invisible giant purple frog that follows people everywhere but can’t be detected and one that doesn’t exist?

      A claim that cannot be supported by credible evidence is nothing but a lie that polite people don’t want to call a lie.

      1. It is a fraud that has been clothed in the name faith and religion and has been passed around for so long people take offence when they are told it is a delusion!

    2. … depends what you mean by exists. But I’m pretty sure your incorporeal dragon isn’t real…
      If you’re sensible in the claims you make based on evidence, then there is precisely no difference.

  1. I am humbled that you took time to explore the case I set forth, that Epicurean paradox should not be understood as an argument against existence of God(s), but against divinely providence in mankind’s world. I had to correct the misunderstanding because Epicurus and his followers Epicureans believed in gods but rejected that the gods design the universe and bother themselves with mankind’s affairs.

    Epicureans had their justification for their belief in gods. The idea that there is no society, not even the barbarians(these are us 🙂 assuming you are not Greek nor Roman), did not believe in deities. They believe in gods from sensus divinitatis imprinted by nature to every person in all societies on earth.

    I am not claiming that they are correct in their rejection of divine providence or their belief in gods on ground of sense of deities but that we ought to read them in their context and understand their properly argument. Whether we agree or disagree with them is another matter.

    Again, thank you so much for civility, and gentleness as you address my case. Here I found in you a beautiful mind at work. You rock!

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m flattered. I respect your writing a lot, you have the integrity to address to issues on a serious level.
      I thought it was important, however, to clarify that if you take the Epicurean argument to its conclusion, Epicurus paints a picture of a world that cannot have evidence for God in it.
      I appreciate that this is different, in a very significant way, from God not existing.

      1. Epicureans would disagree, as did David Hume, that their argument leads to a picture that cannot have evidence for God(s). God(s) for them is self-evident in what John Calvin latter called sensus divinitatis. This is natural imprint of knowledge of deities in mankind’s mind. This is the reason that each person in all societies throughout the history were awareness of deities. Atheism is thus for them contrary to nature.

        Unlike Stoic who gave arguments for their belief in God(s), Epicureans did not. Hume, and Kierkegaard borrowed this tradition a lot in the sense that they deny that there can be rationalistic evidence for God. God for them is self-evident in beauty and order.

        I do not claim that Epicureans, or Hume, were correct. I just wish for us to understand them first in their proper context before we interact with there arguments.

        Thank you so much, once again, for this discourse.

  2. The goal of life is not to avoid suffering.

    So this post is yet another example of an atheist setting a totally artificial standard with which to judge God.

    Jesus was so powerful because he demonstrated that God’s blessings are just as present in suffering as they are in good fortune.

    Buddha said the same thing by the way.

    1. I’m not talking about the purpose of life, I am talking about two thing:
      (1) Is God moral? (Answer: no)
      (2) Does the narrative provided give us reason to believe in God? (answer: no)

  3. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, he turned them loose into a new world – the one of natural disasters, disease, and human mistreatment. That is a world that he created. That is his punishment for their disobedience. It is his set up. Also, did he not create human beings? Did he not create the curiosity and free will in Adam and Eve that allowed them to disobey him? If he wanted perfect children, why did he not create perfect children? Is there some cosmic rule that has never been explained in which he must create creatures and a world that is fated to make mistakes and cause harm? Is he conducting some experiment? Why create a living thing that must kill to survive at all? He created everything and yet he holds us responsible? We play only according to his rules. His rules allow for harm – it is built in. Why must that even be so? In the Old Testament, those who obey God are promised to be rewarded and helped by Him, for he won’t completely turn his back on his children. If he is willing to be that compassionate, why can’t he extend that compassion even further and protect innocent, helpless children. Why can’t he intervene on the behalf of a child who is being sexually abused by her stepfather, when so far all other human beings are failing to save her?

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