Reflections on the Problem of Suffering and the Moral Argument for God

So far as I can tell, there are four ways a religious narrative can explain the ‘Problem of Suffering.

  1. An Evil God. I believe that any sincere religious person should truly investigate the possibility of God being evil. “There is no true despair without hope” (Bane, The Dark Knight Rises). In this narrative, all the pain, disease and death are God’s goal. All the beauty is there just to lend subjective value to life and health so that death and disease can really give way to despair. The inverse of this doesn’t work: Life can be beautiful without pain. The fear of death cannot lead to despair without hope and value in life.
  2. A polytheism. Stephen Fry said he’s have “more truck” with a Classical Polytheism because the gods are admittedly “human in their appetites”. They were selfish and gave in to temptations and were vengeful and vindictive. But they never claimed not to be. Not only were they imperfect, but a world managed by a committee, each trying to fit their domain into the greater complex, would explain the imperfect universe we exist in.
  3. Freewill. This is limited in explanation. This can only explain the suffering caused by other people. But the argument goes: if we wish to forgo the suffering caused by other people we would have to forgo the freedom to choose to do others harm. It would be a limit to our freewill. This is problematic: give a man a gun and he can express his freewill; everyone else in the room cannot. We do not live in a world where freewill is equally exercised (if you believe it is exercised at all). We live in a world where freewill depends on force and being well equipped. Freewill is violated all the time, for the worse, and God does nothing to safeguard the well being of victims. Even nature―devoid of will―violated our will with force. We are not afforded freewill by a managing agent.
  4. The Fall. This is the most popular explanation. It is a prevalent narrative in Islam, Christianity and Judaism. It states that the first act of imperfection allowed all things to be imperfect. It doesn’t explain how the first act of imperfection could be allowed to happen, which is a problem. But it also doesn’t explain why biology is equipped with teeth and claws and defensive mechanisms. Why have teeth, if there is no such thing as death? What would we eat? Why would we eat it? Why would a wolf need claws? Why would a spider need venom? All of biology points towards death having always been an issue.

Nonreligious answers to the question of suffering are easy. Nature has “pitiless indifference”; it does not waver to preference or alter for moral reasons; the laws of entropy will not undo just because you are very sad someone is dead and neither will gravity switch off around you to lift you from a situation that scares you; the sun will not stop dead in the sky because you’re worried about your deadlines. The reason this is preferable is twofold: firstly, it’s demonstrably true, which is nice; secondly, it doesn’t posit that someone is behind all the pain and suffering. There’s no one to blame.

I have received criticism for this because the religious assume that I have no place to be making value or moral judgements. I call this position “religious nihilism”. I call it that because it assumes that all value and meaning is extrinsic; God imbues meaning to things, things do not have their own intrinsic value. Nietzsche called Christianity the “Ultimate Nihilism” (although his reasoning could extend to all monotheisms with an omnipotent God). The reasoning is the Christian (monotheist) must believe that this life doesn’t matter because it is already authored. The real purpose is in the unauthored bit: the “deathless death” (Heaven or Hell, or similar). My argument is slightly different. My argument is that many religious people claim to believe that nothing has any meaning, except with God. I don’t believe them.

I have never heard of a person deconverting and descending into hedonistic sociopathy because nothing means anything. I have heard of religious people doing it, and Peter Sutcliffe is a good example. But all the formerly-religious-now-atheist/agnostics I know, not one of them acts as if they believe “nothing has any meaning, except with God”. Nietzsche’s Madman is an example of what would happen if a person who sincerely believed this did deconvert. I do not believe religious people abstain from murder because they dear God’s wrath,  but because they understand on some human level that it is wrong.

The other reason I don’t believe them is because they don’t offer a mechanism by which this works. To the external observer, this meaning “seems to be that if we don’t devote ourselves to slavishly hitting this god’s Like Button, that we will burn in Hell, forever” (Steve Ruis) It’s a “meaning” and “value” demanded through fear and force. That doesn’t seem like value to me. If a religious nihilist (as defined here) were to wake up one day with the realisation that God is a narcissistic sociopath, demanding our worship in exchange for safety, and were to keep their belief in God (because they don’t believe in God for emotional reasons, so this emotional shock won’t alter their faith), then they too should see the world through nihilistic eyes. The mechanism by which God imbues things with value is a subjective one that can be dissolved.

This has big implications on the Moral Argument for God’s existence. The Moral Argument depends upon God being the only possible author to objective moral laws. But, having value imposed on something does not create objective value. The imposed values are merely the values of an individual and are no less subjective than any tyrannical imposition. It is also entirely subjective on our part to accept what God decrees; sure we can be ultimately punished with Heaven and Hell, but that only shows that we value our own wellbeing, not that we value things or acts inherently. The entire Moral Argument for God falls apart under one or two renditions of trial-by-4-year-old: Why? (Why?)

I would like to ask readers to properly engage with challenges to their ideas they cannot properly account for and to jettison arguments they cannot defend. But experience tells me that isn’t going to happen. So, instead, I implore you to at least act as if you have read these criticisms instead of continuing to recite and recycle the same tired arguments. That is in keeping with the 9th Commandment.

17 thoughts on “Reflections on the Problem of Suffering and the Moral Argument for God”

  1. It is astonishing, i’ve discovered, how flippantly the theist dismisses the evil god hypothesis. There is noting but hand-waves, which speaks volumes. None seem prepared to actually engage the argument in any coherent, adult manner.

    1. I had to take the role of a theist in a class for my MSc. I think I was pretty damn convincing. We had to discuss a statement with regard to managing the environment: God will come back to save us, so don’t worry about it. I played the ‘how do you know God’s good is the same as your good’ card. It made me feel ill, but I think I did it well. But then I could feel his flippant I was being.

      1. I know the feeling. Penning the book I play the evangelical, offering all the arguments for existence. It takes a lot of willful ignorance to pull it off in a convincing manner. Fun, though.

  2. I would ask you about the problem of good. What is it? What makes humans commit acts of mercy and kindness? Often these are not rational or in the interest of survival. Where does blessing come from? Why do people commit their lives to creating?

    1. There is no problem of good. There is the judgement of good, but that serves no problem to a secular worldview.
      Dogs commit acts of good. Bees and ants work as a team. Monkeys have complex altruistic and justice-serving hierarchies and systems.
      But all is not good. “Nature is read in tooth and claw”.
      Game theory suggests that altruism does, in fact, aid survival. Such ideas also occur in planning and participation policy. The thing is, at the genetic level, there is no distinction between “kindness” that helps survival and “kindness” that is just kindness. So basic rules of thumb appear. “Kindness” is not distinct, in evolutionary psychology, from tribalism and racism.
      (I have no concept of what “blessing” is, so I’m not addressing that.)

        1. Every ethnos at virtually all points in history seeks the betterment of future generations. I believe we don’t see this in the animal kingdom. It’s not necessary to survival.
          Additionally, what if the tragedies you spoke of in your original comment, human suffering and such, what if they happened for the survival and betterment of future generations.
          Example? When I visited Yellowstone this summer, huge swaths of forest had been burned out. Totaled at first appearance. Yet, scientists and those in forestry advocated for this total burn as a necessary reset for the health of the land rather than putting out every forest fire.
          Does this question make more sense?.

        2. Basically, you want to know why we plan for the future is positive ways…
          Again, I want to preface my conversation with the fact this is not a universally true fact. I don’t know how theological answers deal with the fact it is not universally true that people have this future-aware ethic. However, secular views have many answers.
          The simple fact that we can envisage the future is clear advantage. My dog shows no awareness of delayed gratification or the future in general. Humans do. We know humans can conceive of the future. Therefore, I don’t see that there is any distinction between donating good behaviour to someone contemporaneous and to the future.
          Not only that, but future-aware ethics is an immensely powerful facet in terms of genetic memetics. A meme is something that creates an environment for its own replication, and genes are a very powerful crane for that exact behaviour.
          From an evolutionary stance, what happened to the future-unaware civilisations of Easter Island? They’re gone. Future-aware behaviour is selected for, from an evolutionary stance.

        3. Firstly, I would ask how aware you are of the debating technique called “The Gish Gallop” or, more formally, “spreading”.
          You’ve actually asked an array of questions. But your final thought focuses on the one question you suspect I haven’t answered fully, without recognising that I have addressed your other concerns. It is something worth guarding against, but it creates the appearance that you’re only interested in winning the conversation but not actually seeking truth.

          Secondly, although future-aware ethics may not benefit the survival of the individual, it does benefit the survival of the genes, and that is the meme; the individual is not.

      1. I definitely am not limited to the school of creationism. I’m too perplexed by time. What relevance does 10million years mean if one attempts to be consistent with the scriptural idea of omnipresence; that Ultimate Reality exists in the Eternal Now?
        What does history mean if time is circular? Or a ring wave that bounces out and returns?

    1. I’m not sure what you mean by faith. Here’s a long list of my own writings that touch on the question of faith and what is actually is.

      This is extensive. But if you’re going to ask me to do things without faith, you’ll need to be clear what you mean by faith (and what I mean when I criticise faith)

        1. The first two links are to “atheist enquiries”, where I used to author. I’ve been having problems with that site too. The remaining links should be fine.

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