Friday, July 9, 2010

Review of "The Reason for God" Chapter 2 on Suffering

Keller dismisses the idea that pointless suffering is evidence against God by giving the standard Christian reply that we don't know the suffering to be pointless. God has His ways, and we are not privy to all of them. In the end, we just don't know. I reply that there may be good reasons for all the suffering in the world, but there also may not be. I think that line of reasoning ends in a stalemate.

He also brings up the point that often good comes from suffering. I agree with this statement. In fact, some pain seems necessary for learning, growth, and safety. For example, if children felt no pain when they touched hot objects, they might touch them long enough to be severely burned. We empathize with others more deeply when we have experienced similar suffering, such as the loss of a loved one. There is no doubt that suffering and pain are an integral part of the human experience and that good comes from them.

However, what about suffering and pain caused by God that is not for the inflicted one's greater good? Looking at the Bible we see a prime example: Job. He appears to have been physically tormented, grief stricken, poverty stricken, and reviled by friends all so God could win a bet with Satan. I suppose this gets justified by saying that it was all for the purpose of glorifying God. It wasn't really for Job's benefit as he was already a righteous man. I can't see how Satan would benefit, he seems incorrigible to me. Certainly God has no need to prove himself to Satan or any of us. There is a way in which Job feels like an object to be used by God rather than someone in relationship with God. (Of course, the example of Job assumes a literal reading, which may or may not be the case. Either way, there are other examples in scripture where the reason for suffering is given, though it is not one most of us would deem to be good, if given by the person next door). It's not always the case that we are in the dark about the reasons and motivations of God for causing or allowing suffering.

Next, Keller turns the tables and states that suffering may in fact be evidence for God. This is because declaring something to be evil or wrong assumes there is some objective moral standard upon which to base the judgement. There is a sense in which atheists try to have their cake and eat it too when they deny the existence of God based on evil in the world, making moral judgements based on objective standards which would not exist if there is no God. However, there are those who believe moral standards do exist apart from God, and disagree with Keller's assertion that moral behavior couldn't have evolved. They point to behavior in primates which indicates a sense of fair play, compassion, empathy, and care giving.

Next, Keller addresses the suffering of Jesus at the cross. He points to that moment to affirm his belief that whatever the state of the world, God loves us and suffered for us. Even though Keller doesn't pretend to have all the answers to the suffering in life, he views it all through the eyes of one who knows he is loved and is confident that his best interests are within the heart of God. He also takes heart in the resurrection, calling it a "restoration" of all things. He says it gives us hope, healing all things, and an "infinitely more glorious world" than our present one. For believers, these messages are comforting and one can rest in them, leaving the question of suffering for a chat with God "when we all get to heaven." However, for those who do not believe these things, the matter of suffering still looms large.


  1. Hi "DoOrDoNot" - (There is no Try!),

    Just a quick comment about standards in a world without God. You wrote, "There is a sense in which atheists try to have their cake and eat it too when they deny the existence of God based on evil in the world, making moral judgements based on objective standards which would not exist if there is no God. However, there are those who believe moral standards do exist apart from God, and disagree with Keller's assertion that moral behavior couldn't have evolved."

    I notice that you did not include the word "objective" when you said some believe moral standards exist apart from God. Do you think those who believe in such "non-God" standards would include it? Would they be justified in doing so? Finally, does the source of a moral standard impact the level of obligation one has to follow it?

  2. I just spent a great deal of time writing a response and there was an error processing it. It's an objective fact that I'm too tired to rewrite it tonight, so I'll recompose tomorrow. Thanks for the post, Jeff.

  3. Jeff,
    I'll try again. I couldn't resist the HT to Yoda in my screen name. It's much more fun than using my first name, which I used to do. There just got to be too many of us in the blogosphere.

    On to your questions. Most atheists I interact with don't claim moral objectivism. They seem to describe a subjective approach based on the consequences of their actions (consequentialism, utilitarianism). However, this article makes the case that atheists should adopt moral objectivism as their ethical system. I need to think about it some more, but it was actually compelling to me. The author said that our human needs are objective (he cites Maslow's hierarchy of needs) as well as the values which correspond to them. He said we will meet those needs in somewhat different ways based on context, but that is actually objective because it is based on reality outside ourselves. He said that to blindly obey context-free commands (such as the 10 commandments) is not objective, it is dogmatic (divine command theory rears its ugly head). He says, interestingly, that we have a moral obligation to be rationale when determining how to meet needs. He makes a good case that he is justified in claiming objective morals, without God.

    Regarding level of obligation, I think what changes is to what or to whom you are obligated, not the level. Instead of being obligated to God, we become obligated to ourselves. I suppose also to the law, where there are societal laws and consequences outside ourselves as well as to others, where there are needs outside ourselves and consequences there. I could be persuaded differently on this point. I'll write more later, I need to get to work now. There's another link I'd like to discuss.

  4. Jeff,
    Here is another post that I'm having to redo, because one of my sons hit some key on the keyboard and erased it all!

    This post of mine brings up related issues.
    One blogger, DagoodS, makes an interesting point here where he accuses Christianity of subjective morality given the way commands in scripture contradict themselves. Additionally, he points to the fact that Christians freely choose which scriptures to follow and which to ignore. Of course, the poor practice of religion should not be confused with the teachings of teh religion itself. However, he makes a good point that we humans hae a tendency to understand scripture in light of our own morality instead of the other way around (for example, the way we interpret slavery or women's roles in the Bible).

    He highlights the problem of morality in the Bible by using the example of genocide in the OT. If we condone it, we are likely subscribing to divine command theory, in which behaviors are right only because God commanded them and not due to any objective moral code. Thus, we cannot rely on ourselves to rationally conclude whether anything is right or wrong, we must depend on God's commands, which may vary and contradict themselves, with no justification that we can discern.

  5. Hi "DoOrDoNot",

    I read the article by Francois Tremblay that you provided the link for. If I understand him correctly, his claim is that moral standards, by being built on the objective needs of human beings, are thereby objective themselves. Just as it is an objective fact that humans need food, so they need stability, to be part of a community, and a host of other things that are promoted by certain moral choices. A moral choice becomes objectively good or bad based whether it meets these objective needs.

    However, I think this reasoning may lead to places the author wouldn't want to go. For example, a person's need for good relations with others as a prerequisite for his own wellbeing might not extend beyond his own immediate circle or group. Suppose the wellbeing of one's group is enhanced by the suppression or exploitation of another group - as when forced labor of one promotes good health and leisure in the other. Such suppression might hold up for a long time and be beyond the concern of an individual in the suppressing group. The "objective moral standard" arising from his own needs would not be violated because those needs would be met. Even if the situation was such that it could turn unstable in the distant future, it need not be the individual's concern if he perceives he will be dead by that time. So here we have an "objective moral standard" that allows slavery - justifiable for all who have the power to implement it.

    I also have a problem, when considering an atheist worldview, with claims that life and wellbeing must be promoted. Now it is true that most living things have a desire to keep living. But if the atheist worldview is accurate, that desire is the result of an accident of history - the unintended side effect of a process that was not trying to produce anything. We humans who are the results of that accident might not all agree that the accident was a good thing or, even if it was somewhat good, that it resulted in an outcome to which we are obligated. The atheist complaint against God is that life is not as good as it ought to be. Perhaps it is also not good enough to require our obligation.

    It is true that I have many issues with the standard Christian narrative. But I do think that moral standards that are not ultimately rooted in a creator who decides what we should be can go no deeper than a person's individual decision to promote or obstruct consequences of "the grand accident." We can argue about how to reach the mind of God. But can we really claim that, given the total absence of that mind, we have some obligation to promote the continuance of things started without purpose?


  6. Jeff,
    I was discussing Tremblay's article about moral objectivism with my hubby, looking at how it had been applied to politics and economics. He's a big Ayn Rand fan(because of her political views and books) who was a moral objectivist. She was an atheist and led a fairly hedonistic lifestyle. It's interesting because you mention the example of enslaving others. She lived under communism and reacted against it, stating that compelling anyone to help anyone else was the equivalent of slavery. She strongly valued autonomy and free choice and applied this to economics. She opposed government social welfare programs, stating that her rights were being violated by compelling her to contribute to others. It's always interesting to see how ideas get applied.

    I do think you've hit upon an important point, which is what moral objectivists do when needs of individuals conflict with each other. I would be interested in knowing how Tremblay would respond to you.

    I do think your problem with atheism is a serious one. What really undergirds their morally philosophy? I suppose they could really say no more than what you alluded to: the survival instinct which has evolved as part of a purposeless process. This really is one thing that keeps me on the side of theism. So, are you basically saying that the fact that we all seem to have an innate sense of justice, fairness, right/wrong is an indication that these things were created as part of us by God to help us behave the way we ought? Do you believe it seems impossible that morality would have evolved on its own, that it can't be an emergent property of the brain? I'd be interested in your answers, because I think about these things. I wonder about the fact that some higher animals display behavior we might traditionally call moral (apes helping injured birds, apes throwing tantrums when another ape got more of a treat than they did, etc). Could that be an indication that morality can evolve?

    I'm struggling to answer your last question, which was very well worded, by the way. In fact, you always write very well. Now, back to my thoughts. So, let me push your question back further. What if atheism is true and we have no moral obligation to keep ourselves or others alive? What then? What do you see as the final conclusion and what would your objection be? Why is obligation necessary for you? It would clarify my thinking and help me address your question better if you have time to respond.

  7. Hi, I'm back. Sorry for the delay. Last time you asked some important questions, which I'd like to comment on. But I'm going to have to split them between two posts because it turns out they exceed the size your blog will accept.

    The reason I mentioned the issue of moral obligation in my previous post was because it identified a kind of paradox in atheist thinking. Although they claim mankind is the result of a purposeless process, many atheists still become angry when other people make choices that don't promote general human wellbeing -- as if everyone was obligated to preserve what the purposeless process began. Of course, as you rightly pointed out, this doesn't mean atheism is false. What it does mean is that some very important concepts in human life have no foundation. For example, there is really no such thing as a right to life, a right to liberty, or a right to equality. In fact, there are no human rights of any kind. Instead, there are large numbers of individuals who like these concepts and try to promote them.

    But there is something else about atheism that doesn't sit well with me. The idea that a purposeless and amoral process can create things that have morals seems counterintuitive. At the very least, it is not self-evident. As you mentioned earlier, many would say that moral capacity is an indication of something given to us by God. What would it take to determine that a purposeless process gave it instead?

    (Continued in next comment...)

  8. Bear with me for a moment while I engage in a little thought experiment.

    If I were to ask you, "Can process X build object Y?", you would rightly tell me such a question was unanswerable until we knew more about "X" and "Y". Suppose I then said, "Object Y is a desktop computer." Would this make the question answerable? No, because we'd still lack knowledge of the capabilities of process X.

    Now suppose we knew that process X could build a disk drive. Would this mean it could build a computer? Not necessarily because a computer is more than a disk drive.

    What if process X could build a disk drive and a monitor? Could it build a computer? Answer: unknown.

    If it could build all of the above and also a circuit board, could it now build a computer? Answer: unknown.

    What if it could also build wires? CD burners? Power supplies? Could it then build a computer? Answer: unknown.

    You get the picture. In each case, the answer remains unknown not only because a computer contains many more parts than process X is known to be able to build, but because we also know nothing about process X's ability to combine the things it can build in such a way as to make a working computer.

    What if we go ahead and hypothesize that process X can build a computer? After all, it is able to build many of the parts a computer needs. We'll accept the hypothesis until new information forces a re-evaluation. How does this acceptance impact our original question? Does it mean process X can build a computer? No. It means only that we will say it can in the absence of knowing otherwise. We're taking the things we know about process X and extrapolating past the things we don't know so as to have an answer to the question.

    How is the situation changed if I now say process X is "random mutation and natural selection over time" and object Y is "a physical structure which can experience moral sensibility"? For one thing, I think we know far less about our new process X's ability and our new object Y's requirements than we knew in our thought experiment. For example, do we know enough about the physical requirements of moral sensibility to be able to list the things mutation and selection must provide to make it a reality? Do we know that mutation and selection can provide them? What do we have to extrapolate past?

    In my view, confidence in the ability of ill-defined processes to produce poorly understood results is one of the foundation stones of atheist belief that intelligence and purpose are not necessary to create things like moral sensibility. Personally, I don't see how this confidence is justified. It has never been demonstrated that random mutation and natural selection or any other undirected purposeless process can give moral sensibility to anything - ape, human, or whatever. The presence of moral sensibility in these creatures is an indication only that something put it there - not that the something was unintelligent or purposeless. Do apes have moral awareness? Even if they do, in the absence of confidence that purposeless processes were able to provide it, I don't see how this helps the atheist position.

    Oh well. I guess that's enough for now. Sorry if this post got a little long-winded. You asked some important questions and I wanted to give them some of the thought they deserved. Given my doubts on other issues, I am somewhat uncomfortable playing the role of "God's apologist". But I also don't like to see the atheist position given more credit than it deserves -- something I think happens a lot these days.


  9. You do a nice job of highlighting the problems I found with this book in general in this post.

    "Keller dismisses the idea that pointless suffering is evidence against God by giving the standard Christian reply that we don't know the suffering to be pointless."

    It seems Keller is experienced and comfortable speaking to people outside the evangelical bubble, so he is able to write about these issues in an understanding way. But ultimately he is couching the same old answers in this softer language. It came across to me as more of the, "Try it, experience, and you will find what I have found to be true.

    I much prefer your conclusion in the first paragraph: "there may be good reasons for all the suffering in the world, but there also may not be. I think that line of reasoning ends in a stalemate."

  10. So, atimetorend, you have read the book as well. Was there anything you found compelling in his book? I am just now getting to the second half of his book where he discusses evidence for God. I've now written a brief review of ch 8 on the clues of God (teleological arguments for God) and will do so soon on ch 9, the Knowledge of God (morality). Those are probably the 2 chapters that cover the arguments I find most compelling for the existence of God.