Archive for the ‘Theism’ Category

A neighbor of mine has become involved in the tea-party movement over the past few months. This is a fairly new thing for her. I’ve talked to her about god and politics on a few occasions. I have to say, she doesn’t do much to improve the image I have of the tea-party movement; quite the opposite – she comes across as sheltered, narrowminded, and short on facts.

The first time I asked her about why she supports the tea-party movement, it didn’t take long before she was almost yelling. This was certainly not due to any hostility on my part – in fact, I didn’t have a hostile tone and didn’t even respond, I honestly wanted to hear what she had to say so I was avoiding being confrontational. It was scary how quickly she was able to work herself into a frenzy about illegal immigrants, Obama, etc.

More recently, I was talking to her again about politics and religion. She’s gotten involved in a republican groups – which means she’s more surrounded by people who reinforce and polarize her opinions. I feel like she’s slipping into crazy territory, and is pretty hostile to anyone who thinks differently.

While talking to her, I told her that, while I didn’t completely disagree with ideas about fiscal responsibility (I’m more of an economic moderate, think that a national deficit and debt is bad), I didn’t really like the tea-party movement because of the other ideas floating around the movement. For example, one tea-party activist who won the Republican primary wants abortion outlawed even in cases of rape and incest. Another one thinks Denver’s bike program is tied to the UN, global-warming activists, and represents a threat to American liberty. I’ve seen the tea-party activists protesting in front of the capital, comparing Obama to Hitler and the USSR. I brought up the birthers (i.e. people who think that Obama wasn’t born in the United States – which would disqualify him as President of the United States). She immediately responded “why hasn’t he shown his birth certificate?” Oh, no, I thought – she even buys into the birther movement. I told her that he has, and that they’ve also shown the announcement in the Hawaiian newspaper about his birth. She seemed to suggest that maybe they faked it. As I would find out in discussions, this conspiratorial type of thinking came up frequently. Whenever some fact would contradict her viewpoint, she would immediately question whether it was some liberal plot to cover-up the truth. It’s a rather robust strategy – it allows her to disconnect from reality and believe almost anything she wants. Under this system, facts are no obstacal.

The Tea-Party in Colorado

I’ve looked up statistics on the tea-party movement in Colorado. 51% of Republicans in Colorado say they part of the tea-party movement. Two tea-party candidates won republican primaries recently. (Both of them barely squeezed by, but were considered long shots six months ago.) They’ve got some support from independents and something like 10% of democrats. Overall, the polls say that the tea-party has about 30% support in Colorado. This astounds me to think that 1/3rd of the state is positive towards the tea-party. This is actually much higher than in other states – their numbers are about 16% in the country as a whole.

Illegal Immigration

She talked about how Obama wanted amnesty for the illegal immigrants, but illegal immigrants are harming the US economy by going to hospitals and getting free medical care. She complained that whites would be a minority in the United States any day now, and we needed to kick-out the illegals. I can understand the argument about stopping illegal immigrants from coming across the border, and I can sort-of understand the argument about getting all the illegals out of the country (though, I’d question the cost of actually doing it). Personally, I think illegal immigrants are a mixed-bag. On one hand, they do provide cheap labor. Some republicans actually like illegal immigrants for exactly this reason – they see them as providing cheap labor which helps the US economy. On the other hand, poor people tend to consume more tax-based services than they pay in taxes (which would be the argument from fiscal responsibility, although I’m unsure if illegals consume as many public services as poor Americans). I’m just don’t believe it’s the crisis that conservatives think it is. I think conservatives are actually more concerned about the language and culture of illegals. They seem them as the “other” who are edging out the “better” white majority in the United States. They want to preserve the things they like – the English language, the white culture, the white majority – which is why, on this issue, the issue of “whites becoming a minority in the United States” is always a step or two behind the illegal immigration issue.

She claimed that whites would be a minority in the United States within ten years because mexicans and blacks have so many children. I told her that whites and blacks have about the same number of children – about 2 per female, and mexicans have about 3 children per woman. Of course, she didn’t believe me. So, we opened a browser and looked it up. I also said that whites in the United States would not drop below 50% within the next ten years – rather, it would be another 30-40 years. Again, she didn’t believe me, so we looked it up online. This was a familiar pattern – she had some hyperbolic belief about the state of the country which was entirely false, but it reinforced her beliefs and her anger.

She complained that Obama wants complete amnesty. (Actually, Obama talked about a “path to citizenship”, although Republicans have argued that it’s all part of a sneaky plan to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants.) So, I told her that her tea-party candidate had almost the same position on illegal immigration a year ago as Obama did. She said that her tea-party candidate hasn’t changed his position on illegal immigration – he’s always been fighting for sending the illegals back to Mexico. So, I looked it up online. Her initial response was that she said she probably wouldn’t believe what was written on the internet because “the media is liberal” and was, therefore, unfair to her candidate. I looked it up, and found a copy of her candidate’s website (one year ago) on the wayback machine. Her own tea-party candidate talked about a “path to citizenship” (same exact phrase as Obama used) for illegal immigrants who didn’t have a DUI or felony. At first, she didn’t believe it – questioning whether or not the wayback machine was accurately displaying the website. (Wow, I actually had to convince her that the screen-capture of *her own candidates website* was an accurate portrayal of her candidate’s position!) Her next response was to say that the “no felonies” part would immediately disqualify half the illegal immigrants. It seemed pretty unlikely to me that half the illegals were felons – but it would fit with her general tendency towards hyperbole that reinforced her own views.

It occured to me just how powerful the whole “liberal media” game was for conservatives – it enabled them to ignore anything they didn’t want to read or believe. It justified not listening to the “biased” otherside. Instead, they could justify getting their news exclusively from conservative sources. Those conservative sources could either avoid talking about negative facts about “their guys”, softpedal them, or twist-around the situation into something that it wasn’t. It allowed the conservative media to keep people in their own pocket. Of course, she claims that she reads outside of conservative news sources, but given her immediate hostility to believing anything said about her candidate on the web, I’d have to think that – even if she does read other sources – it’s from the perspective of “I can ignore anything they say, because those guys are probably liars anyway”. Even some famous conservatives have stated that the whole “liberal media” idea is exaggerated and inaccurate, but that it’s a really useful tool for conservatives:

“I admit it — the liberal media were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures.”
– William Kristol


Being very anti-tax, she had some libertarian leanings towards the free market taking care of everything. I don’t care much for libertarianism. I think economics and business are more complex than libertarians believe it is. Despite the libertarian mantra about the market taking care of itself, there are far too many ways for businesses to swindle money from customers, and too many externalities that fall outside businesses’ bottom line. For example, businesses have no incentive to lower the pollution put out by cars – air is a “shared resource” and it’s not something that they have a direct interest in preserving, and neither do their customers except from the standpoint of “social responsibility”. There’s an enormous amount of money-swindles that can be done on Wall Street – everything from pump-and-dump of stocks, to buying insurance on mortgage-backed securities that were designed to fail (and earning hundreds of millions of dollars doing it), to hedge-fund managers giving out fake reports (or no reports at all – “trust us”), or in the case of Standard Oil, lower the selling price of oil to drive out competition and gain a monopoly.

So, of course, I always have to ask the libertarian-minded person: “Do you think ponzi schemes should be illegal?” By libertarian thought, the market will adjust – i.e. once people get burned by ponzi-schemes, they’ll learn to avoid them, so the market will fix the problem. This seems terribly naive. Not only will it mean that people have to get duped before people learn (and sometimes experience is the worst way to learn a lesson), but there’s a million ways to swindle people. Do people in society need to learn all the millions of ways they can be swindled in order to avoid them? That’s putting quite a burden on the public. Furthermore, there’s always cases where people might get involved in stuff that they don’t realize is a ponzi-scheme. It’s like saying that all “medicines” should be legal (regardless of whether they’re effective or tested), and society will figure out from experience which medicines work. Nevermind that people can be notoriously bad at sorting out effective and ineffective medicine, thanks to things like confirmation bias and the placebo effect. According to libertarians, medicines that don’t work or are harmful will eventually get eliminated from the market. Now, we’re expecting everyone in society to become experts on finance and medicine in order to protect themselves against a million swindlers? The libertarian position is bad because it forces people to learn through experience – which can be the worst, slowest, most painful way to learn something. And, the whole time that learning process is occurring, swindlers are getting rich selling sham treatments for cancer or foisting ponzi-schemes on the public. It’s really a market where liars, con-men, and monopolists can earn a fortune.

In a lot of ways, I think the libertarian take on the free market is like someone who thinks the body can always heal itself. Sure, the free market can do quite a bit, and the body can heal itself quite well, but libertarians look at any kind of interference in the market as a distortion from the “perfect” solution coming from the market. This seems as absurd as someone who says that the body can always heal itself, therefore, antibiotics, medicine, and surgery are distortions of the body’s perfect healing system. There’s some truth to the core belief, but things go wrong when it’s seen as the perfect system and interventions are seen as distortions of perfection.

She couldn’t really give me an answer to the question of whether or not ponzi-schemes should be illegal. I’m assuming her mind was caught between the obvious fact that ponzi-schemes are a scam to enrich con-men (and should be illegal), and the libertarian belief that the market sorts everything out (and therefore, it’s okay for them to be legal).

God and Morality

At some point, the topic of Gene Simmons’ reality show came up. She talked about what a great businessman he was. I said that I didn’t like him because he came-off as being rather amoral – that he goes after what he wants and doesn’t much care much about people in the way. She responded with a “isn’t that the American way”? I wasn’t entirely sure if she was endorsing what he was doing, or what exactly she was saying. It wouldn’t surprise me if she was endorsing ambitious, amoral business practices. She then accused me of being amoral. Huh? I said that being atheist and amoral are not the same thing. She had a hard time believing that. (Oh great, I thought. This is pretty typical Christian-type thinking: that anyone who’s an atheist must be amoral.) She said that if I don’t believe in God, that I have no reason to be moral. “Sure I do. It’s just that if you always grew up believing that you’re supposed to be good because God says so, you start to believe that God is the only reason people should be good. If you didn’t believe in God, you’d start to think more deeply about it and realize that there are reasons other than God to be moral.” She said that God was the source of all morality, and therefore, by definition, anyone who doesn’t believe in God is amoral. This struck me as an odd argument – it doesn’t matter how I act, or how I think people should be treated. I am amoral simply because I don’t believe in God? I asked her: “Buddhists don’t believe in God. Do you think that Buddhists are amoral?” Yes, she responded. I just shook my head. It just all sounded so sheltered and narrow minded. It was like she couldn’t wrap her head around the idea that her belief system – which revolved around Christianity and conservative America – wasn’t the perfect one, and anyone who thought differently was deficient in some major way.

I told her that the fact that I don’t believe in Christianity doesn’t make me morally deficient, and my atheism was not some sort of decadent rebellion against God. There were plenty of good reasons to question Christianity. I said that God kills all the first born in Egypt, even the slaves. I said that the Old Testament teaches that rapists have to marry the woman they rape.

If a man is caught in the act of raping a young woman who is not engaged, he must pay fifty pieces of silver to her father. Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her, and he will never be allowed to divorce her. (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)

How could “God”, the creator of morality, teach that women who are raped have to marry their rapist? “Those were different times with a different culture” she responded. I responded that those Old Testament laws are the creations of someone in a bronze-age mindset, and not the teachings of some perfectly moral deity. (Besides, how incredibly morally relativist can you get when you say that those laws are okay because “it was a different culture”? Funny how theists always throw the “moral relativist” stone at unbelievers.)

She said that atheism was a terribly depressing belief – it’s a belief that everyone ceases to exist when they die. She knew that she was going to heaven with her family. I said that Christianity is depressing because it says that some people will be tortured in hell for eternity, to which she replied, “Not me and my family”. That seemed like an incredibly self-centered response – it doesn’t matter if people suffer in hell for eternity, because it won’t be her or her family – therefore, it isn’t that important. Her attitude reminded me of this conversation from a sitcom:

Elaine: Oh. So, you’re pretty religious?
Puddy: That’s right.
Elaine: So is it a problem that I’m not really religious?
Puddy: Not for me.
Elaine: Why not?
Puddy: I’m not the one going to hell.

She seemed to flip-flop on the issue of who goes to heaven. At times, she would say that only Christians go to heaven. I responded that a perfect God would not create the system of Christianity. There were too many people who never heard of Christianity within their lifetimes. The God she believes in would not create a system where most of humanity would never hear of Christianity within their lifetime if God wants to save people. I pointed out the tragedy of the millions of Americans who (before Columbus) lived and died without hearing about Christianity – even though Jesus had already died on the cross, and therefore, could theoretically be saved. God had the power to bring Christianity to America, and mankind did not. The whole system, especially the part about people not knowing which religion is the true religion (and therefore, being condemned to hell for making the wrong decision) was just a bad system. No one makes a completely informed decision about which religion they follow, and therefore, it’s unfair that they should be punished/rewarded eternally for their decision. Chosing to follow Christianity is not synonymous with wanting to obey God. And chosing not to follow Christianity is not synonymous with not wanting to obey God. Therefore, the whole system is bad, and wouldn’t have been created by God. She argued “that life isn’t fair, and religion isn’t logical. You can’t use logical arguments to think about religion. Religion is faith. It wouldn’t be faith if you could figure it out.” I said again that faith isn’t a system that God would create – it’s really just saying that everyone has to make an uninformed decision, and then eternally punishing/rewarding them for their decision.

She responded by saying that God makes the rules, we don’t. This also seemed like a pretty bad argument. Essentially, she was arguing that “might makes right”. God, even if his system is dictatorial and unfair, is the one “in charge”, so we’d all just better get used to it. It sounded a awful lot like arguments for the monarchy — it doesn’t much matter if the king is fair or kind or just, we’d all just better decide to fall in line behind what he wants because he’s got the army on his side.

I will say that “faith” and “religion isn’t logical” is a pretty good way for religious believers to avoid criticism of their religion. It allows them to bulletproof their belief against things like logic and reason; a system of thought that allows them to avoid ever having to change their own minds, and can be used to reinforce any belief system (whether it’s Christianity, Islam, Scientology, or whatever). Any argument that let’s people reinforce any belief system that they already have is probably a pretty crappy argument.

More recently, she sent me an article about how the tea-party is taking over, the democrats are divided and in disarray, and Obama’s approval numbers have been falling like a rock this summer. I pointed out the flawed numbers used to legitimize the argument. In reality, Obama’s numbers have barely moved this summer (in fact, her article links to poll numbers that contradict its own argument). (And here’s another article saying the same while pointing out Obama’s numbers compare favorably to Reagan, Carter, and Clinton.), which promoted her to respond that she has a right to her own opinion. What an odd response – that pointing out factual errors in an article somehow amounted “depriving her of the right to her own opinion”. Although, I suppose in some sense, facts do deprive people of their own ignorant opinions. But, it seems like conservatives have found a solution to that “problem”.

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We’re all familiar with the problem of “natural evil” and the problems it poses for a benevolent creator god. We all know about earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and so on. But, I recently heard about a bizarre natural disaster that happened back in 1986.

Lake Nyos is located in central Africa. A pocket of magma leaks CO2 into the lake, causing it to build-up over time. Occasionally, there is a chain reaction that causes the CO2 to suddenly burst out of the lake. The CO2, which was colder and heavier than normal air, flows into the surrounding area, suffocating and killing life.

From the BBC:

It is thought that recent high rainfall had displaced the CO2-rich water at the bottom, releasing a massive bubble of carbon dioxide gas from the lake in a natural phenomenon now referred to as “lake overturn”.

The heavy gas then sank to the ground and rolled in a cloud several tens of metres deep across the surrounding countryside.

The gas killed all living things within a 15-mile (25km) radius of the lake


On August 21, 1986, a limnic eruption occurred at Lake Nyos which triggered the sudden release of about 1.6 million tonnes of CO2; this cloud rose at nearly 100 kilometres (62 mi) per hour. The gas spilled over the northern lip of the lake into a valley running roughly east-west from Cha to Subum, and then rushed down two valleys branching off it to the north, displacing all the air and suffocating some 1,700 people within 20 kilometres (12 mi) of the lake, mostly rural villagers, as well as 3,500 livestock.

This type of event happens periodically to the lake, and people living around the area had myths about evil spirits who periodically came out of the lake and killed people. (An interesting pre-scientific explanation for the events.) When you think about the details, it makes sense why non-scientific people would interpret it as evil spirits – there would be the sound of gas suddenly erupting from the lake, cold smelly air would flow into the countryside, the CO2 would extinguish flames (including lamps or candles), people would become weak, unconscious, and many people and animals would die. It all sounds very creepy.

Since that time, scientists have placed pipes into the lake to degas it, preventing this tragedy from happening again. (Yay science!) But, there are other lakes in Africa which have this same problem.

Related Links:
Wired: Aug. 21, 1986: Volcanic Lake Explodes, Killing Thousands
BBC: 1986: Hundreds gassed in Cameroon lake disaster

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There’s a article up on NewScientist about the Discovery Institute’s new attack on evolution / materialism. They’re apparently going to push the “the mind can’t be explained as a product of the brain” idea to advocate dualism:

“YOU cannot overestimate,” thundered psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz, “how threatened the scientific establishment is by the fact that it now looks like the materialist paradigm is genuinely breaking down. You’re gonna hear a lot in the next calendar year about… how Darwin’s explanation of how human intelligence arose is the only scientific way of doing it… I’m asking us as a world community to go out there and tell the scientific establishment, enough is enough! Materialism needs to start fading away and non-materialist causation needs to be understood as part of natural reality.”

Schwartz and Beauregard are part of a growing “non-material neuroscience” movement. They are attempting to resurrect Cartesian dualism – the idea that brain and mind are two fundamentally different kinds of things, material and immaterial – in the hope that it will make room in science both for supernatural forces and for a soul. The two have signed the “Scientific dissent from Darwinism” petition, spearheaded by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, headquarters of the intelligent design movement… According to proponents of ID, the “hard problem” of consciousness – how our subjective experiences arise from the objective world of neurons – is the Achilles heel not just of Darwinism but of scientific materialism.

This is more an attack on materialism than it is evolution. But, the Discovery Institute’s charter isn’t against evolution, exactly – it’s against the idea non-supernatural explanations. I especially liked, “I’m asking us as a world community to go out there and tell the scientific establishment, enough is enough!” – uh, yeah. Everyone who knows virtually nothing about the brain needs to get out there and tell the experts what to believe. Up next: I’m asking the world community to go out there and tell the chemists that their periodic table is a load of crap!

And the two neuroscientists who they’ve enlisted in this fight follow a familiar pattern: people with degrees (i.e. credibility) saying incredibly stupid things – like Egnor’s ridiculous claim that if naturalistic evolution was true, then brain cancer should result in evolving a better brain:

Cancer is a test of Darwin’s theory. Cancer is real biological evolution by random mutation and natural selection, writ fast… Perhaps Dr. Novella has data that show real evolutionary improvements in the brain caused by brain tumors. If he has, he should show us… I’ve never seen cancer make a brain better.

Read the full NewScientist article here.

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How ridiculous. Apparently, the way to defend religion is to create laws to jail anyone who speaks against your it – thereby preventing any of the ‘common people’ from hearing arguments against the existence of God.

Richard Dawkins’ best-selling atheist manifesto The God Delusion was at the centre of a growing row over religious tolerance yesterday after the Turkish publishers of his book were threatened with legal action by prosecutors who accuse it of ‘insulting believers’.

Erol Karaaslan, the founder of the small publishing house Kuzey Publications, could face between six months and a year in jail for “inciting hatred and enmity” if Istanbul prosecutors decide to press charges over the book, which has sold 6000 copies in Turkey since it was published this summer.

“It aims to explain atheism from the perspective of Christianity”, one amateur reviewer wrote, “and I don’t think that’s of much use in a Muslim country, because Muslims are already aware of the contradictions and oddities of Christianity as it is.” Another writing on a popular blogging website was more direct: “If I were God, I’d give Dawkins a good smacking” they wrote. (Link)

I haven’t read Dawkin’s book, but I have a feeling Dawkins isn’t purely arguing against Christianity, but also against theism in general. By the way, way can’t the person who wrote “Muslims are already aware of the contradictions and oddities of Christianity as it is” be prosecuted for insulting Christian beliefs? Wait don’t tell me — because the laws are written to sound like they protect all religions (‘insulting believers’, “inciting hatred and enmity”), but they are never applied to anyone unless they insult Islam?

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Objection #1 “Since Evil and Suffering Exist, a Loving God Cannot” (continued)

“Christians believe in five things”, I said. “First, God exists. Second, God is all-good. Third, God is all-powerful. Fourth, God is all-wise. And, fifth, evil exists. Now, how can all of those statements be true at the same time?”

Attribute #1: God is All-Powerful

“Now, the classic defense of God against the problem of evil is that it’s not logically possible to have free will and no possibility of moral evil. In other words, once God chose to create human beings with free will, then it was up to them, rather than to God, as to whether there was sin or not. That’s what free will means. Built into the situation of God deciding to create human beings is the chance of evil and, consequently, the suffering that results.”

“Then God is the creator of evil.”

“No, he create the possibility of evil; people actualized that potentiality. The source of evil is not God’s power but mankind’s freedom. Even an all-powerful God could not have created a world in which people had genuine freedom and yet there was no potentiality for sin”

Stobel’s “arguments” against Kreeft: “Then God is the creator of evil.” and later, “Then why didn’t God create a world without human freedom?” are pretty pithy. They’re perfectly setup for getting knocked down.

“Rabbi Harold Kushner reaches a different conclusion in his bestseller When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” I pointed out. “He says God isn’t all-powerful after all — that he would like to help, but he just isn’t capable of solving all the problems in the world He said, ‘Even God has a hard time keeping chaos in check'”

Kreeft raised an eyebrow. “For a rabbi, that’s hard to understand, because the distinctly Jewish notion of God is the opposite of that,” he said. “Surprisingly — against the evidence, it seems — the Jews insisted that there is a God who is all-powerful and nevertheless all good.”

“You don’t think much of Kushner’s God,” I said, more as a statement than a question.

Frankly, that God is hardly worth believing in. Do I have a big brother who’s doing what he can but it’s not very much? Well, who cares?” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “Practically speaking, that’s the same as atheism. Rely on yourself first and then maybe God, maybe not.”

“No, the evidence is that God is all-powerful.”

The evidence? What evidence? Kreeft doesn’t provide any evidence that God is all-powerful. He complains that Kushner’s God isn’t worth believing in — okay, but how does that change anything. If God were truly weak, people like Kreeft would be inventing new, more powerful versions of God that “are worth believing in”. He says that “the evidence is that God is all-powerful”, but fails to deliver anything substantiating that point. Further, the very idea that God is “all-powerful” seemed a bit unfounded to me even when I was a Christian. Sure, the God of the Bible is described as powerful – more powerful than anyone else, but the modern Christian idea of an omnimax God (omnipotent, omniscient) seemed unsubstantiated. The whole Biblical story of Lucifer and the angels rebelling against God and a war in heaven seems bizarre is you assume God is all-powerful. If God were all-powerful, Lucifer and the angel’s had no chance of success. On the other hand, if you say God is just “really powerful”, the story makes sense. Further, the description of God in the early Old Testament seems very limited. He seems to discover Adam and Eve’s sin only after He comes down from heaven. He comes down to look at the Tower of Babel. He tells Abraham that he won’t destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if Abraham can find 10 good men (doesn’t God already know if there are ten good men)? There are all kinds of stories in the Old Testament where God does miracles to prove he is more powerful than the gods of other tribes. The God of the Old Testament just seems like a powerful Greek god. How Christians turned him into an omnimax God, I simply don’t know. Perhaps it hinges on the psychological comfort that comes from believing your God is an omnimax God – which is Kreeft’s argument: it’s more psychologically agreeable to believe in an omnimax God, therefore, you should believe it’s true.

The point to remember is that creating a world where there’s free will and no possibility of sin is a contradiction — and that opens the door to people choosing evil over God, with suffering being the result. The overwhelming majority of the pain in the world is caused by our choices to kill, to slander, to be selfish, to stray sexually, to break our promises, to be reckless.”

Kreeft skips over the point that natural evil exists, and causes vast numbers of deaths: “Smallpox was responsible for an estimated 300–500 million deaths in the 20th century.” – and that’s despite the fact that smallpox was eradicated in the 1970s, thanks to a global vaccination campaign. Malaria “kills between one and three million people [per year]“, which probably works out to around 50-150 million deaths in the 20th century (depending on population growth). Tuberculosis and cholera used to kill large numbers of people (TB continues to kill, although only “1.6 million” per year). Those are not deaths due to man’s “sinfulness” or free will. Whether or not naturally caused deaths are more common than human-caused deaths (as Kreeft argues) is somewhat irrelevant. To argue that we should ignore naturally-caused deaths because they are much less common than human-caused deaths is a little bit like saying that we should ignore the crimes of a mass murderer because those deaths are dwarfed by the deaths in World War 2. God allows massive death tolls from natural phenomena which humans have no control over. These deaths are not caused because God wants to permit human free-will.

Even further, when Kreeft says, “[t]he overwhelming majority of the pain in the world is caused by our choices”, I question that assertion. Going back to deaths, when we add up the death tolls from the major wars and oppressions of the 20th century World War 1 (15 million), World War 2 (55 million), Russian Civil War (9 million), USSR under Stalin (20 million), Famine under Mao (40 million), we’re still only at 139 million deaths. Based on homicide statistics, the global homicide numbers are probably around 300,000 – 400,000 per year (which probably works out to around 20 million in the 20th century – depending on population growth). Obviously, the numbers would be higher with more through accounting, but the human-caused deaths (around 159 million) of those major sources of homicide are dwarfed by the deaths caused by one single disease: smallpox – which caused between 300-500 million deaths in the first 75 years of the 20th century. Despite Kreeft’s assertion that “overwhelming majority of the pain in the world is caused by our choices”, a significant and most likely the majority of deaths in the 20th century have been due to natural forces which humans don’t control.

Attribute #2: God is All-Knowing

Kreeft makes an argument that (like the Bear earlier argument), God is way smarter than we are, can foresee long-term good from short-term evil, and so we should trust Him. He doesn’t actually argue that God is “All-Knowing”, and doesn’t acknowledge the difference between ‘all-knowing’ and ‘really smart’.

Attribute #3: God Is All-Good

“Good is a notoriously tricky word,” Kreeft began, “because even in human affairs there’s such a wide range of meaning. But the difference, once again, between us and God is certainly greater than the difference between us and animals,

“Granted,” I said. “But if I sat there and did nothing while my child got ran over by a truck, I wouldn’t be good in any sense of the word. I’d be an evil father if I did that. And God does the equivalent of that. He sits by and refuses to perform miracles to take us out of danger even greater than being hit by a truck. So why isn’t he bad?”

Kreeft nodded, “It looks like he is,” he said. “But the fact that God deliberately allows certain things, which if we allowed them would turn us into monsters, doesn’t necessarily count against God.”

“I remember when one of my daughters was about four or five years old and she was trying to thread a needle in Brownies. It was very difficult for her. Every time she tried, she hit herself in the finger and a couple of times she bled. I was watching her, but she didn’t see me. She just kept trying and trying.

My first instinct was to go and do it for her, since I saw a drop of blood. But wisely I held back, because I said to myself, ‘She can do it.’ After about five minutes, she finally did it. I came out of hiding and she said, “Daddy, daddy – look what I did! Look what I did!’ She was so proud she had threaded the needle that she had forgotten all about the pain.

“That time the pain was a good thing for her. I was wise enough to have foreseen it was good for her. Now, certainly God is much wiser than I was with my daughter … Therefore, he’s not being evil by allowing that pain to exist. Dentists, athletic trainers, teachers, parents – they all know that sometimes to be good is not to be kind.

“Let’s face it: we learn from the mistakes we make and the suffering they bring. The universe is a soul-making machine, and part of that process is learning, maturing, and growing through difficult and challenging and painful experiences. The point of our lives in this world isn’t comfort, but training and preparation for eternity. Scripture tells us that even Jesus ‘learned obedience through suffering’ — and if that was true for him, why wouldn’t it be even more true for us?” (p.56-57)

I understand that some struggle and some pain can be a useful thing, and that it might “build character”. However, there is a difference between a girl pricking her finger and the kinds of evil that exists in the world (genocide, death of a child, rape, etc). Kreeft’s argument is that there’s really just one class of pain that exists in the world – beneficial, character-building pain. I say that there is more than one type of pain in the world. Sometimes pain is soul crushing and non-constructive. Kreeft would argue that I’m simply not wise enough (as God is) to see that all pain falls into his one simple classification.

Few few pages earlier, he was arguing that suffering exists because humans disobey God. Now, he’s arguing that suffering is constructive. I’m unsure how he puts these two explanations together, but it seems to me that he has only two choices:

(A) All suffering (i.e. naturally-caused suffering and human-caused suffering) is constructive. Human-caused suffering is because of disobedience to God (although it’s still constructive for the victim).
(B) All naturally-caused suffering is constructive. Human-caused suffering can be either constructive or non-constructive. God allows non-constructive suffering to exist in order to protect free-will.

There’s problems with both of these positions. First of all, both positions assert that all naturally-caused suffering is constructive. But if we assume that all natural-evil has a constructive purpose, then does our efforts to stop natural suffering — by creating vaccines, cures, evacuating people from floods, etc — actually cause humans to avoid short-term harm and miss out on more important long-term benefits. Is Jonah Salk, who found the cure for polio, actually guilty of harming our long-term character building? This whole framework of thinking seems upside down: people who cure diseases or find ways to improve the human condition are actually harming it in the long-term by removing those “character building” experiences such as death, debilitating disease, and genocide.

Next is the question of human-caused suffering. If we say that all human-caused suffering is constructive, then we reach some bizarre conclusions. It means all crimes committed by humans against humans are actually constructive. Charles Manson and the Columbine killers were unintentionally improving the world through their violence. If we were “wiser” we would know to let our children play in the streets and be sexually abused. In fact, we’re doing a great disservice to our communities by not letting all the murderers and rapists out of prison. Sure, there’s short-term suffering, but the long-term gain will be beneficial and character-building, right? If we want to used the “suffering is always constructive” excuse, that’s the logical conclusion. Afterall, God didn’t strike-down criminals to prevent them from committing their crimes, meaning that he must’ve been “wise enough” to foresee the long-term benefits their crimes would produce, right? It seems like Kreeft want to argue that all suffering is constructive when you’re the victim, but if you’re the perpetrator, then the suffering you inflict is bad and worthy of punishment. From the standpoint of psychology, you can understand why he would want to hold that position: it condemns the criminal, but also provides an “answer” to the problem of evil and comforts the victim. Unfortunately, it’s also illogical. This position is completely upside down: it says that evil is good and good is evil. It says that rapists and murderers are improving society (even if their motives are bad), and our scientists, doctors, and other people who work to improve the human condition are actually guilty of favoring short-term pleasure at the expense of the more-important long-term benefits of suffering.

But what about the other position: that some human-caused suffering is non-constructive, but God permits it for the benefit of free-will? This also has problems. For one thing, God kills people in the Old Testament for their evil. He kills the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah for their evil. He kills all the people in the pre-flood world for their evil. He kills a man in the Old Testament for accidentally touching the Ark of the Covenant. This idea of allowing evil in order to “preserve free will” simply doesn’t hold up. If the Bible is true and if God is really angry, he’ll kill people. I guess Hitler and Stalin didn’t *quite* reach the level of evil required to kill them. Second, it’s possible to allow free will and prevent (or mitigate) suffering of the victim. For example, an old friend of mine lost her brother-in-law when a drunk driver ran-into their car (where the sister and brother-in-law were). Now, it was possible for God to guide that couple (who were Christians, by the way) away from the accident location – perhaps delaying them a little bit, or making them slightly earlier so that they weren’t hit by the drunk driver. God could’ve caused the drunk driver to run off the road earlier. God could’ve saved the brother-in-law from death. There’s plenty of possibilities here. The only option that would’ve actually conflicted with free-will is if God literally prevented the drunk driver from making the decision to drive his car in the first place.

Further, there’s thought experiments that show how wishy-washy this double-explanation is. Assume a mudslide crushes a village (natural evil), Kreeft would declare that God allowed it to happen for some constructive long-term good. But, if it’s later revealed that a group of evil men deliberately triggered the mudslide, it suddenly get redefined as “God allowed it to happen to preserve free will” and the “constructiveness” of the event is thrown out the window? It just goes to show how quickly these types of explanations can be dropped into place and retracted.

So neither position is a very good position.

Further, if suffering exists for constructive purposes, then why was the “Garden of Eden” supposed to be a world without suffering and death? Are we supposed to believe that God planned for the Garden of Eden to be a place where no character-building could take place? Is heaven a place where evil and suffering is added so that people can build some character?

“Suppose we didn’t have any suffering at all,” he added. “Suppose we had drugs for every pain, free entertainment, free love — everything but pain. No Shakespeare, no Beethoven, no Boston Red Sox, no death — no meaning. Impossibly spoiled little brats — that’s what we’d become.”

And, apparently, that’s what God’s plan was when he created the Garden of Eden. Actually, what Kreeft is doing here is creating a false dichotomy. He says that either the world has all the pain and suffering of our world, or it’s completely devoid of any suffering. As I stated earlier, I understand the usefulness of some pain and suffering. Kreeft never considers the possibility of a world with less suffering. When I look around, I see a mixture of constructive and non-constructive suffering. Why isn’t there less non-constructive suffering?

“If you don’t [believe that], then pretend you’re God and try to create a better world in your imagination. Try to create a utopia. But you have to think through the consequences of everything you try to improve. Every time you use force to prevent evil, you take away freedom. To prevent all evil, you must remove all freedom and reduce people to puppets, which means they would then lack the ability to freely choose to love.” (p.58)

So, if you created a world just like this one, but removed, say, smallpox, then you would diminish human freedom? If you were God and you caused Hitler to have a fatal blood-clot in 1939, you’d diminish human freedom? How ridiculous. I agree that it would be impossible to remove all suffering in a world with human freedom, but you could have a radically better world without diminishing free-will at all. Further, if you were to ask most Christians “is there evil in heaven?”, they would immediately say, “no!” But, according to Kreeft’s argument, it’s impossible to have a world with no evil unless you take away free will. So, apparently, heaven will either have evil and free will, or no evil and no free-will.

Clue by clue, Kreeft was shedding more and more light on the mystery of suffering. But each new insight seemed to spawn more questions.

“Evil people get away with hurting others all the time. Certainly God can’t consider that fair,” I said. “How can he stand there and watch that happen? Why doesn’t he intervene and deal with all the evil in the world?”

“People aren’t getting away with it,” Kreeft insisted. “Justice delayed is not necessarily justice denied. There will come a day when God will settle accounts and people will be help responsible for the evil they’ve perpetrated and the suffering they’ve caused. Criticizing God for not doing it right now is like reading half a novel and criticizing the author for not resolving the plot. (p.58)

So, Kreeft is saying that they’ll all get punished in the afterlife. As a non-believer, I don’t believe that to be true, although Christians reading this book would consider it to be. One of the problems with the “they’ll get punished in the afterlife” argument is that it delays things so long while suffering continues to occur. It’s a bit like God standing there quietly writing down a list of everyone’s sins, without punishing them – not yet anyway. Then, in the afterlife, giving them a massive, eternity-long ass-whooping. Imagine if you did that to your pet: every time your dog pooped in the living room you didn’t punish him, but instead wrote down the infraction; every time your dog bit someone, you stood there quietly and wrote down the event without punishing him. Your dog has become an intolerable little creature because you never punish him. Then, when your dog is old, you bring out that little book and punish him for everything he has done wrong in the last decade. You yell at him and spank him for several weeks or months in a row. That’s what Kreeft’s argument is. So, human beings become mean and evil because they were never punished (like your dog), and now God is going to do an eternity-long ass-whopping that is supposed to make everything better.

“But in the meantime, doesn’t the sheer amount of suffering in the world bother you?” I asked. “Couldn’t God curtail at least some of the more horrific evil”

Kreeft was sympathetic to the problem, but wasn’t buying that solution. “That’s like saying it’s reasonable to believe in God if six Jews die in a Holocaust, but not seven. Or sixty thousand but not sixty thousand and one, or 5,999,999, but not six million,” he said. “When you translate the general statement ‘so much’ into particular examples like that, it shows how absurd it is. There can’t be a dividing line.

“It’s true that there are some instances where quantity does become quality. For example, boiling water: once a temperature of 212 degrees is reached, you get a new state – gas – and gas laws rather than liquid laws apply. But suffering isn’t like that. At what point does suffering disprove the existence of God?”(p.59)

Kreeft is right in saying that you can’t put defined cutoff points on those numbers, but his argument seems to be an intellectual diversion to obscure the fact that the problem still exists. His argument’s setup is to say that “it’s reasonable to believe in God if X people die, but not if X+1 people die”. He also uses the weasel word “prove”, which is a definite rhetorical setup. No one would claim that there is a defined yes/no cutoff that hinges on a single additional death. Let’s take the 2003 Iraq war as an example: imagine we step back in time to 2002 and ask the question, “Do you agree that it’s a good idea to go to war with Iraq?” Now, Americans are generally happier if fewer Iraqis and American soldiers die in that war. They are more likely to support it if it involves fewer deaths, and more likely to oppose it if there are larger numbers of deaths. There is no definite cutoff point where we can say “it’s a good idea to go to war if X people die, but not if X+1 people die”. Most Americans would be happy with the outcome if zero people died in that war. However, if 10 million people died in that war, the vast majority of Americans would oppose the war. That doesn’t mean there’s a definite point where “support the war” is reasonable when there are X deaths, but unreasonable if there are X+1 deaths. It’s philosophical slight of hand that Kreeft employs here. His argument (if true) would support the bizarre assertion that 1 death is no different than 100 million deaths.

“One purpose of suffering in history has been that it leads to repentance,” he said. “Only after suffering, only after disaster, did Old Testament Israel, do nations, do individual people turn back to God … And, of course, repentance leads to something wonderful — to blessedness, since God is the source of all joy and all life.” (p.60)

The “suffering leads to repentance” game is so overplayed. When the tsunami hit Southeast Asia in 2004, Muslim clerics argued that it was because the people there needed to be more devout, that God was punishing them and they needed to turn to Allah. It’s used by all kinds of religious leaders to promote their own particular brand of religion. Further, I’ve known good Christian people who have died from random things. One guy I went to college with was working with inner-city kids when he got pancreatic cancer and died at in his mid-twenties – leaving behind a widow. I fail to see how he would’ve been more in need of repentance than the average man on the street. Further, the fact that he died means that he didn’t really have much chance to reap the benefits of that so-called constructive suffering. The fact of the matter is that all kinds of people all over the world suffer. To say that suffering is to bring repentance – well, repentance to whom? The majority of people don’t believe in the Christian God. Assuming they repent, they will be repenting to false gods.

“But good people suffer just as much — or sometimes more — than the bad,” I pointed out. “That’s what’s so striking about the title of Kushner’s book: When Bad Things Happen to Good People. How is that fair?”

“Well, the answer to that is that there are no good people, Kreeft replied. (p.60)

(Roll eyes) The “there are no good people” argument is always a cop-out. It’s basically a “you suck and you deserve everything bad that happens to you” argument, and it conveniently ignores the “God’s love” part of Christianity. Funny, I don’t know why Kreeft didn’t start out with that argument in the beginning and be done with it. There’s simply no reason to talk about constructive suffering if everyone deserves to suffer.

It seems like Kreeft has just started taking pot-shots at the problem of evil. He’s throwing out arguments left and right, hoping that the reader will accept at least a few of them, even if they dismiss the majority of them.

[Mother] Teresa said, ‘In light of heaven, the worst suffering on earth, a life full of the most atrocious tortures on earth, will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient hotel’ (p.65)

Kreeft is trying to minimize the importance or significance of anything that happens in life – because eternity is so much bigger. I don’t really see that as an answer. Even ignoring the fact that I don’t believe there will be a heaven (and, coincidentally, the diary of Mother Teresa revealed years after Strobel’s book was published that she had deep doubts herself), I think it’s wrong to try to diminish and minimize our experiences. That African woman pointed out by Templeton? Bah, her life was but a blink of an eye – that seems to be Kreeft’s argument here.

In fact, it’s significant that most objections to the existence of God from the problem of suffering come from outside observers who are quite comfortable, whereas those who actually suffer are, as often as not, made into stronger believers by their suffering. (p.67)

Kreeft seems to be looking for a way to dismiss most people’s opinions regarding the problem of evil. I happen to think there are psychological reasons people cling to religion in times of uncertainty and suffering. What they aren’t doing is thinking about the situation from the standpoint of rationality. Besides, that argument conflict with a sentiment stated eight pages earlier, on page 59:

“I suppose a person could say, ‘If I’m having the pain, then that’s too much suffering in the world!'”

So: if you’re comfortable, then your ideas about “too much suffering in the world” are discredited, and if you are suffering then your ideas about “too much suffering in the world” are discredited.

Kreeft goes into a section about how God suffers with us – how Jesus suffered and died, and how God is “with us” during our suffering:

[H]ow could you not love this being who went the extra mile, who practiced more than he preached, who entered into our world, who suffered our pains, who offers himself to us in the midst of our sorrows? What more could he do? (p.63)

What more could he do? Is he joking? Did he completely miss the obvious answer: stop the suffering? This goes on for several pages, but it’s not really an answer. He goes on:

If your friend is sick and dying, the most important thing he wants is not an explanation; he wants you to sit with him. He’s terrified of being alone more than anything else. So God has not left us alone. (p.71-72)

It’s essentially saying that the parent who has a sick child just wants the doctor to hang around and comfort them. No, actually, the parents don’t want that. They want the doctor to do something. A suffering person accepts companionship because it’s the best thing that can be done. We can’t heal their cancer. We can’t bring their child back from the grave. They know we can’t do that. God can, so the whole comparison breaks down. Further, remember when Kreeft attacked Kushner’s God of limited-power:

Frankly, that God is hardly worth believing in. Do I have a big brother who’s doing what he can but it’s not very much? Well, who cares?” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “Practically speaking, that’s the same as atheism. Rely on yourself first and then maybe God, maybe not.”

Now, Kreeft has come around and said that God doesn’t need to do things that require him to be all powerful. According to Kreeft: God suffers with us, and is there next to us. Isn’t that pretty much the God that Kushner believes in, the one that Kreeft dismissed as being too wimpy to believe in? Now, Kreeft suddenly thinks that hanging out and not using his power is the most important thing God can do.

Now, at the end of the chapter, we find out that a man named Marc sat through this interview Strobel had with Kreeft:

“What Kreeft said — it’s true. I know it. I’ve lived it.”

Several years earlier, Marc had been shoveling snow on his driveway when his wife said she was going to move the car and asked him to watch their young daughter. As the car backed out, they were suddenly thrust into the worst nightmare that parents can imagine: their toddler was crushed beneath the wheel.

Like the African woman, Marc has known what it’s like to hold a dying child in his arms. While I wasn’t able to talk with that grieving mother, I could converse with him.

So deep was Marc’s initial despair that he had to ask God to help him breathe, to help him eat, to help him function at the most fundamental level. Otherwise, he was paralyzed by the emotional pain. But he increasingly felt God’s presence, his grace, his warmth, his comfort, and very slowly, over time, his wounds began to heal.

Having experienced God at his point of greatest need, Marc would emerge from this crucible a changed person, abandoning his career in business to attend seminary. Through his suffering — though he never would have chosen it, though it was horribly painful, though it was life-shattering at the time — Marc has been transformed into someone who would devote the rest of his life to bringing God’s compassion to others who are alone in their desperation.

Sometimes skeptics scoff at the Bible saying that God can cause good to emerge from our pain if we run towards him instead of away from him.” Marc said. “But I’ve watched it happen in my own life.” (p.72-73)

Actually, skeptics would not scoff at the idea of good things emerging from suffering. While I feel bad for Marc, I don’t think his story offers anything to confirm the existence of God. I think that people in horrible situations have a variety of psychological pressures going on in their heads – particularly in Marc’s case when he could very legitimately hold himself accountable for his daughter’s death. Some people may rely on “God” or religion to get through their pain. That’s essentially the appeal of religious belief – to provide comfort. This is the reason some religious and cult groups target victims of tragedy – for example, when Scientologists sent “grief counselors” to New York after 9/11. They know grieving people are easily drawn in to the soothing words of religion. The other force is the desire for explanation, for understanding of the situation under the assumption that a benevolent deity exists. The answers aren’t forthcoming, and people who choose a rational explanation over their desire for emotional comfort end up being atheists and agnostics. People who chose emotional comfort first end up becoming “strong in their faith”. People who are suffering are also most likely to value emotional comfort over rational explanations, so I’m not surprised so many of them cling to religion. In Marc’s case, he needs for something good to come out of this tragedy. The only other option for Marc is that his daughter’s death is an unmitigated tragedy, and he is responsible — something that is far to painful to even contemplate. As far as the question of God’s existence, I can’t help but read Marc’s story and think that a benevolent God would chose the least harmful way to get Marc into the ministry (assuming that was His purpose). I couldn’t help but think, “Gee, getting Marc into the seminary only cost him the death of his daughter. Isn’t there a way to accomplish that goal without ending someone’s life?”

In the end, I’m not impressed with Strobel’s answers. He argues that God permits suffering because of the greater good it brings to people. Even further, since the earth has famines, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, malaria, smallpox, and so on – and all of those things are directly part of “God’s creation”, then God not only permits suffering, but designed a planet to produce it. All of this means that scientists who work to find cures for disease must be working against God’s plan? Are they doing the devil’s work?

The pattern of suffering seems pretty random to me, and seems to indicate that God either doesn’t exist or doesn’t care. Humans didn’t know even basic things for a long time: like how washing one’s hands could reduce the transfer of disease in medieval hospitals. Was God looking down shaking his head at the millions of people who died in medieval hospitals because doctors continually transfered diseases between patients? Couldn’t he have said something, like tell someone? That wouldn’t even require that he use his divine powers, it only requires that he open his mouth.

And what about genetic disorders, like Huntington’s disease, which causes people to progressively lose brain functions over years, beginning in their 40s if they’re are unlucky enough to inherit a particular allele from one of their parents. Meanwhile, by that time, you’ve already given birth to your children and passed on the gene to 50% of them. A ticking timebomb in their cells which won’t be discovered until after they have children. Why would God allow entire family lineages to suffer from such a horrible disease?

But, if God allows it to exist, then it must exist for a purpose. And if it exists for a divine purpose, then woe to anyone who eliminates this terrible disease.

Next: The non-believers review of “The Case for Faith”, Objection #2 >

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Traumatic Insemination

I recently received a few insect bites on my arms. I think they happened while I was sleeping. It’s a little late in the year for mosquitoes, and someone suggested that maybe my bed had bedbugs. After reading a little bit, I don’t really think I have bedbugs, but I did discover something rather nasty about them.

Theists like to claim that everything (and especially biological life) is the product of a benevolent diety. There’s already the examples of mosquitos, malaria, viruses, etc that throws into question just how benevolent this supposed Creator is. (Although, they’ll say everything bad in the biological world is the result of “the Fall” of man. Apparently, “the Fall” is a creative force in itself, capable of transforming, redesigning, and adding new features to creatures like magic. Hey – anything to avoid making the Creator responsible.) Well, bedbugs – other than the fact that they live in your bedroom and come out at night to suck your blood like ticks – have another disturbing feature: “trumatic insemination”. What’s that? Here’s what wikipedia says about it:

Traumatic insemination is the mating practice of a few species of insects wherein the male pierces the female’s abdomen with his genitals and injects his sperm through the wound into her abdominal cavity. The most widely recorded example is that of Cimex lectularius, the bed bug.

The practice of traumatic insemination is believed to be advantageous to the reproductive success of the male while at the same time imposing a cost on females which results in reduced lifespan and reproductive output. The successive woundings each require energy to heal, leaving less energy available for other activities. Also, the wounds provide a possible point of infection, further reducing female lifespan.

So – the male punctures the female’s abdomen and inserts his sperm. Nice. I know if I were a benevolent diety creating a perfect world back in 4004 B.C., I’d include traumatic insemination. But, seriously, how could anyone who’s not twisted even think of “designing” a reproductive method that involves the male physically puncturing the abdomen of the female? Sounds like something H.R.Geiger or Trent Reznor would think up.

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