Monday, 21 May 2012

Collateral Damage

Norman L. Geisler is a giant in the world of Christian apologetics.  He has taught at the university and graduate levels for more than 50 years, has spoken and debated all over the world, and is author or co-author of more than 70 books.

It is for this reason that I decided to read Geisler's recent book, "If God, Why Evil?".  As the back cover says, "The problem of evil is perhaps the most difficult question the Christian must face.  If God is all-good and all-powerful, why is there suffering in the world?  Can't God put an end to murder, rape, and starvation?  What about earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis?  Why couldn't a perfect God have made a perfect world?"

Among those who have given hearty endorsements to the book are Franklin Graham, Gary R. Habermas, Ravi Zacharias, and Lee Strobel.  For example, Strobel says, "This is classic Geisler--brilliant, incisive, succinct, convincing.  He's one of the great defenders of Christianity."

So, does "If God, Why Evil?" present "a new way" to think about the question, as the subtitle states?  I'll present my review in two parts; covering chapters 1 through 5 in this post, and 6 through 10 in the next.  The title, "Collateral Damage", will make sense once I am totally done. Let's jump right into it.

Chapter 1, "Three Views on Evil":

Geisler begins by saying that there are three basic answers to the overall problem...

"Pantheism affirms God and denies evil.
Atheism affirms evil and denies God.
Theism affirms both God and evil."

After dismissing pantheism, with little more than a wave of his hand (fine by me), Geisler comments, with nearly as much brevity, on atheism.  The thrust of his case here seems to be that, "we can't know something is unjust unless we know what is just.  But if there is a moral law demanding that we ought always to be just, this leads us right back to a Moral Lawgiver."  I've never found this to be a terribly convincing argument, and Geisler makes little attempt to defend it. As conscious beings, we can look around and see that some of our fellow creatures are experiencing great pain, for no apparent reason, and others great pleasure.  Why do we need a "moral lawgiver" to conclude that one situation is preferable to the other?

Geisler closes the chapter with a ridiculous illustration about a theist and an atheist walking in the woods.  They come across a glass ball, about eight feet in diameter, and agree that someone or something must have put it there.  But, "if we make the ball as big as the whole universe: would it still need a cause?".  I guess, in Geisler's mind, this is a real "gotcha" type moment.  But, of course, we know the glass ball was put there by "someone or something" because, hello, it's a glass ball!  Humans know how glass is made, and many of us have seen it in action.  Have scientists discovered something akin to a "Big Bang", for glass balls, suggesting that they might have come about through entirely natural means?  No, they haven't.  The whole argument is just silly.  Does Geisler really think that glass balls are perfectly synonymous with the universe?  It seems he does.

Chapter 2, "The Nature of Evil":

In this chapter Geisler attempts to argue against the idea that God "created evil".  After all, the Bible does say that God created all things.  His answer, basically, is to deny that evil is a "thing". So, much like a wound, evil exists only as a privation or corruption of something else (ie. a wound needs an arm to exist).  I do not intend to argue against this line of thought, but I do find it humorous to watch the way in which Geisler plays with words.  (He has to, in order to make his arguments work.)  For example, in trying to deny that Satan is "totally evil", he claims that "yes, he (Satan) is evil in a moral sense, but not in a metaphysical sense.  Just like fallen humans still have God's image, even so Satan has the remnants of good that God gave to him as a created angel."

Chapter 3, "The Origin of Evil":

If God is absolutely perfect, and God cannot create anything imperfect, than why is there evil? How can absolute good be the source of evil?  Geisler thinks the answer lies in free will.  Even a perfect creature is capable of evil, he says.  "Apart from the saints in heaven (who have it relatively), only God absolutely has the freedom not to choose evil.  The highest freedom is the freedom from evil, not the freedom of doing evil.  Here on earth, while we're still making our ultimate choice as to whether we'll do our will or God's will, we must have choice; otherwise we would be robots, puppets, or automatons."

But, what does Geisler mean exactly when he says that those in heaven have "relative" freedom? He doesn't explain it any further at this point.  Are those in heaven, "robots, puppets, or automatons"?  Surely Geisler doesn't think so.  And if this heavenly freedom is better, than the sort of freedom we have on earth, why did God not create it to start with?  Is God not capable of such a thing?  He is all-powerful, is he not?  After all, as Geisler himself says, "the highest freedom is the freedom from evil".  This will come up again, in chapter 6, so we'll re-visit the argument then.

According to Geisler, "God made evil possible by creating free creatures; they are responsible for making it actual."  To this I would simply respond, so what?  It's like saying that when I took my child to the home of a known rapist, for a little sleepover party, I only made the subsequent evil "possible".  After all, I'm not the one who made the rape "actual"; that part, of course, is completely the rapists fault.  Right?  So I guess I'm off the hook.  Hardly!  God is still responsible for making evil possible, even if we grant Geisler's entire argument.

Chapter 4, "The Persistence of Evil":

Geisler begins chapter 4 by stating "the argument from the persistence of evil" this way...

1. If God is all-good, He would destroy evil.
2. If God is all-powerful, He could destroy evil.
3. But evil is not destroyed.
4. Therefore, no such God exists.

After some equivocation re: the word "destroy", Geisler replaces it with the word "defeat".  At that point his question becomes, "Can God defeat evil without destroying freedom?".  Yes, Geisler says, because God will surely one day defeat evil.  "Because if God is all-good, He wants to defeat it, and if He is all-powerful, He is able to defeat it.  Therefore, evil will one day be defeated." In other words, "if Christianity is true, which I've already decided it is, this is the only viable option I am left with".  Of course, Geisler would never say it in quite those words.

Notice as well that he doesn't yet attempt to explain why God does not "defeat" evil right now. (We'll get to his views on that in the second half of the book.)  Instead he just makes a bold, question begging assertion, namely that God will defeat evil someday.  How does Geisler know this?  He doesn't, but it must be true because it's literally the only conclusion he can think of that is consistent with his Christian worldview.  In other words, he takes it on faith.

Chapter 5, "The Purpose of Evil":

Geisler begins chapter 5 by admitting that an "all-good" God must have a good purpose for all suffering.  "If He didn't, then he wouldn't be an all-good God."  I have to give Geisler credit for at least facing up to the logical conclusion, his ideology requires, in this respect.  Can he defend it?

Over the next several pages he tries to insist, in a variety of ways, that there simply must be a good purpose for all suffering.  There just has to be!  He gives reasons such as: a) that we don't know a good purpose for some evil does not mean there is no good purpose for it, b) it should not be expected that we know the purpose for everything, and c) an infinitely good mind knows a good purpose for everything.

This paragraph, in particular, jumped out at me, "Not only can no mortal assert with confidence that there can be no good purpose for some suffering (because we do not know it), but we can affirm with certainty that God does know the good purpose for all suffering and other evils.  Why? Because God is omniscient, and an all-knowing mind knows everything.  Further, God is omnibenevolent, and an all-good God has a good purpose for everything He does or permits. Hence we know for sure that there is a good purpose for all suffering--including the apparently unjust or innocent kinds--even if we do not know it."

This is circular logic in action folks.  Geisler might as well just say, "I know my worldview is correct, because my worldview is correct".  And notice how he employs words like "certainty" and "for sure".  There is nary a doubt in Geisler's mind, about what he is asserting, even though he has given virtually no good evidence for it.  He is also conflating the probable and the possible. Technically I agree that, "no mortal can assert with confidence that there can be no good purpose for some suffering", but the problem is we're not arguing about what's merely "possible" here.  The fact still remains that the atheist's view remains far more probable, than Geisler's view, given the evidence we have to work with.

So Geisler admits, in a somewhat roundabout way, that Christians simply don't know the reason for all suffering.  He is perfectly fine with this, because his Christian faith tells him that God knows the reason.  It's as simple as that.  Does he expect non-believers to find this rationale convincing?

Hey, here's a thought...maybe gratuitous suffering really is gratuitous.  Maybe, when toddlers suffer and die from cancer or starvation, it isn't part of a master plan.  Maybe it just sucks.  Full stop.  Maybe the simplest explanation (that there is no God overseeing it all) is the correct one. Geisler is not prepared to consider this option because he has already decided that there must be a reason.  It's the only possibility he is willing to even entertain.  I, Norman Geisler, am utterly convinced that Christianity is true; therefore, there is a reason for all suffering.

This brings me to the halfway point, of "If God, Why Evil?", so I'll pick it up right here next time for a discussion of chapters 6 through 10.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Some Thoughts On Tone

I've always been the sort of person who values substance over style. Whatever the cause, in my mind, there exists a fairly unambiguous demarcation between what someone says and how they say it.  I can nearly always separate these two elements, in order to consider them individually, and usually with very little (if any) conscious effort.

Early on in my marriage, this attribute tended to get me into trouble from time to time.  I remember saying to my wife, on at least a handful of occasions, "for right now, I want you to just listen to what I'm saying and ignore how I'm saying it".  This seemed to be a nearly impossible task for her.  At first, I found that exasperating; why couldn't she allow me to be a little rude sometimes, when I was angry, but still hear and respond to the actual words that were coming out of my mouth?!  Finally it clicked with me that, for her, the "how" WAS the greater issue.  She wasn't ready to hear the what because she couldn't get past the how.  In other words, my tone mattered a great deal; more than I had initially realized.  Over time, I came to view a careful and deliberate tone as, essentially, a prerequisite to any fruitful conversation.

I think this personal anecdote has application in the atheist movement.  Atheists, by their very nature, are content focused.  And this is perhaps especially true for those of us who used to be deeply committed to faith.  To reject a "personal relationship with Jesus", that you once heartily embraced, is to, in effect, de-emphasize your own emotional triggers (God loves me and has a special plan for my life, I know I'll see my grandmother in heaven someday etc.) in favor of a heavier emphasis on the rational and the empirical (the evidence doesn't support these conclusions, therefore I must reject them, and so on and so forth).

I believe that a lot Christians have the same problem, with many atheists, that my wife used to have with me during certain of our disagreements.  They can't hear what atheists are saying, because of how atheists are expressing themselves.  Now, some might take issue with my use of the word "can't" here.  Surely Christians are mentally capable of separating style from substance, aren't they?  Maybe such believers just don't want to consider what atheists are saying, so they use how something is being said as an excuse to dismiss it.  I happen to think this is exactly true, but it only further underscores my point.  My fellow atheist, do you want Christians to ruminate on the content of what you say, or would you rather they focus on (what they don't like about) your style?  You have to make up your mind.  If your goal is to reach across the divide, as mine is, than you need to pay close attention to tone.

Dan Savage's recent talk will serve to be a great illustration of my main premise.  I recently overheard some Christian friends of mine discussing his comments.  At first, I actually got a little excited about will they respond to Savage's contention that the Bible contains "bullshit", I wondered?  What specific evidence will they bring up, to counter this claim, and show the reliability of the Bible?  Or how about his suggestion that "we can learn to ignore" what the Bible says about homosexuality, just as we have done with the issue of slavery?  Notice that each of these thoughts is content focused.

But, as you've probably guessed by now, fully 100% of the interaction, between my Christian friends, focused on Savage's tone.  Not once did they so much as even bring up the potential merits, or lack thereof, of literally anything that he had to say.  They talked exclusively about how he said it.  To put this another way, Savage's tone distracted from his message. This is immensely frustrating to someone in my shoes.  When the believer can (justifiably) accuse their opponent of being rude or, in this case, even hypocritical it feels like nothing short of a checkmate to them.  It really does.  In the believer's mind they have "won" the argument right then and there. As Dr. Phil often says, perception is reality.  Their reality, in this case, was a "win" for team Christian (who stood by their convictions by walking out on Savage) and a "loss" for team atheist (who just proved, once again, how hateful and spiteful they are).

Friendly Atheist hit the nail on the head, "...when you're giving a talk about how gay people get treated like shit, don't use words like 'pansy-assed' to describe the reaction of the kids walking out on you - it just makes you look like a bully yourself, even if you're not."


I also agree completely, with people such as Greta Christina, who say that atheists have legitimate reasons to be angry.  There's no question about it.  But, as Christian speaker and author John C. Maxwell points out, "people don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care".  This may sound a little cheesy, and frankly it is, but it's also true.

Dan Savage made some valid points, that Christians ought to really think about, but sadly they're very unlikely to do so simply because he didn't choose his words carefully.

So, to the atheist, I would close by asking you to reflect on your personal goals.  Do you want Christians to consider the things that you say?  If so, you've got to keep your emotions in check. To not do so is to heavily reinforce the prominent "angry atheist" stereotype, in the mind of the Christian, which is a close cousin to the terribly misguided "deep down they know there's a God, and are just rebelling against him" line of thought.  It's akin to shooting yourself in the foot.

To the Christian, I would ask you to look beyond your gut reaction to controversial comments, like those made by Savage, to hear what is really being said.  It might be something worth taking seriously.  If you focus on the how, to the exclusion of the what, you are simply distracting yourself from deeper thought on the issues at hand.  And Savage is right about those.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

God's Communication Skills

In this post I'd like to further extend and defend an argument, that I barely touched on last time, regarding God's utter failure to communicate his will effectively to mankind.  Simply put, if God does exist, he has horrible communication skills.  As such he is culpable, at least in part, for the atrocities, and otherwise unfortunate misapplications, of his supposedly perfect word.

Robert G. Ingersoll said, "Every (Christian) sect is a certificate that God has not plainly revealed His will to man.  To each reader the Bible conveys a different meaning.  About the meaning of this book, called a revelation, there have been ages of war and centuries of sword and flame.  If written by an infinite God, He must have known that these results must follow...".

Now wait just a minute, you might say, God is not to blame when people fail to understand the Bible "correctly".  The atrocities, referenced above, were committed by fallen, sinful, humans; it's not God's fault!  Well, first off, what proof do you have for the biased assumption (held by most modern day Christians) that believers, of previous eras, were misunderstanding the Bible?  Had you or I lived when they did, odds are that we would have interpreted relevant verses in precisely the same manner.  We are all products of the culture we were born into, whether we like it or not. As Voltaire once famously observed, "Every man is a creature of the age in which he lives, and few are able to raise themselves above the ideas of the time."  To disagree with Voltaire on this point, is to either: a) hold an overly high opinion of yourself, or b) engage in a variation of chronological snobbery.

There are very specific passages, in the Old Testament, that have been used by Christians over the centuries to...advocate a theocracy, condemn homosexuality, ban interracial marriage, repress scientific investigation, justify racism, justify slavery, justify polygamy, prohibit masturbation, prohibit contraception, deny (life saving) blood transfusions, suppress women, suppress religious freedom and speech, kill "witches", murder heretics, and so on and so on and so on.

And let us not forget that the Bible is also partly (if not mostly) to blame for the longstanding land conflicts in the Middle East.  (How many have died as a result of this alone?)  Don't even get me started on the religious wars.

Does the New Testament fare any better?  Not really...

"There are harsh demands when it comes to conditions allowable for divorce, which say nothing about divorcing a spouse for verbal and/or physical abuse.  There are harsh sayings about hating one's parents that cultists have used in brainwashing their young converts, since they seek to separate rebellious youths from parental oversight.  There are guilt producing texts like the unforgivable sin of blasphemy, which has forced many believers to wonder if they had committed this prior to converting.  Expressed in the NT we find racism, and even anti-Semitism...We find the virtues of faith to be more important in the NT too, which has led many believers into some bizarre fatal doomsday cults.  We find texts on prayer that have led Christians to pray in faith to be healed rather than go to the hospital.  Many children have died because their parents refused to take them to a doctor for easily treatable medical problems.  We find texts that offer sexually repressing advice--including what many Christians see as the denigration of homosexuality.  We find chauvinistic passages that tell us women are to be silent in the churches, and that they should submit to and obey their husbands.  We find disturbing passages that slaves are supposed to obey their masters, which helped sustain the status quo.  Then there's the church's ultimate threat of hell in the lake of fire...Even if Christians reinterpret such passages to mean something other than what they appear to say, God is still proven to be one of the worst communicators in history.  All of this could have been prevented and clarified right from the start, and to the benefit of countless people, by even an average communicator, much less one with the alleged talents of a god."  (John Loftus, from "The Christian Delusion".  I have removed verse references to shorten the quote.)

Caltech cosmologist and physicist Sean Carroll recently made a very similar point, to the one I am making here, in this debate.  I like the way he put it...

..."a lot of people talk about the problem of evil, my favorite problem is 'the problem of instructions'.  I am personally a textbook author, I have read reviews of my textbook.  But if I were God my textbook would be perfect.  If God existed, the one thing, if there were an omnipotent being that cared  about us here on earth, I would expect clear instructions.  I would expect a book that I knew exactly what it said, it was clear that it was right, and I would be able to follow it.  If God did not exist, I would expect all sorts of different books, they would contradict each other, some of them would be brilliant in parts, they would be silly in other parts, they would be uplifting in parts, they would be very depressing in other parts.  They would be edited collections, they would be personal memoirs, and they would all disagree with each other. Which of these two theories fits the data?"

Look...I get it.  I really do.  Christians desperately want to place the blame on human beings, not on God.  To do the latter is very uncomfortable, for the believer, to say the least.  And actually, in a weird sort of way, I agree completely that humans are to blame for all of these things.  But only because I think it quite likely that God doesn't exist in the first place!  What I am saying is if Yahweh does exist, then he necessarily bears some of the blame since he has been (and continues to be) a terrible communicator.  And what about the Holy Spirit?  Why has he never stepped in to clear things up?  As I've asserted numerous times over, even in the relatively short life of this blog, the Bible is not the "word of God".  The evidence for this conclusion is nothing short of overwhelming.

I'll give Loftus the last word...

"One would think with very good reasons that an omniscient God...would be the best communicator in all of history.  One would expect he would express his will in a crystal clear fashion with an eye on how believers might misunderstand it.  Or, he would have created us so that we could understand what is being communicated.  Even if not, one would expect that the Holy Spirit would do his job better.  That God did not do this strongly disconfirms the hypothesis that the Bible was inspired by him.  Today's Christians say the churches of the past that committed atrocities were wrong.  And that's correct.  They were wrong.  But not for the reasons stated.  They claim the Christians of the past were wrong because they misinterpreted the Bible. The truth is that they were wrong to believe the Bible in the first place.  They were wrong just like Christians of today are wrong, and just like the Christians of the future will be, too.  My contention is that there is not a single statement in the Bible that reveals a divine mind behind the human authors.  Everything in it can be more credibly explained by the hypothesis that it's just the musings of an ancient, superstitious, barbaric people--period."