Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Faith, God, Humanism, Morality, Religion, Truth

Collateral Damage

Yesterday, the discussion on this thread got into the subject of the problems of evil and suffering. One of the participants in the discussion suggested that the dilemma could be resolved if God had reasons for allowing evil and suffering to exist, even if we don’t know what those reasons are. On the surface, this is not necessarily a bad suggestion. For instance, we’re familiar with the idea of enduring suffering when there is a larger payoff at the end: surgery and chemotherapy to remove a life-threatening tumor, or even something as mundane as the pain we feel from exercise, knowing it makes us stronger in the long run. There are even cases where we inflict suffering on others for their own well-being, even though they may not be aware of the benefits, such as immunizations for young children.

So is it possible that God uses some of the bad moments in our lives to teach us important lessons and help us grow as individuals? Well, it’s possible that someone could learn how relatively unimportant possessions are if he lost his home in a natural disaster, or spent some time living in poverty. Those experiences could help him grow into a better person. Or perhaps someone could overcome a severe illness, and through that, learn that she wasn’t spending enough quality time with her loved ones. Now, none of those examples are miraculous in nature, so they don’t require God’s involvement to happen. Nevertheless, I can see why some religious people view things like this as an explanation for the evil and suffering that exist in the world.

Unfortunately, examples like the ones above are not the upper limit of the tragedies that can occur in life. If God is real, what is his role when a child dies? Before you say that God doesn’t cause things like that, but only allows them because he’s given man free will, I have two objections:

First of all, children don’t just die because some person kills them. Many children die each year from “acts of God,” like natural disasters, house fires, and illness. God could stop all of those deaths without infringing on anyone’s free will.

Secondly, if God intervened in the murder of a child, he would not be infringing on the free will of the murderer, only on the outcome. The murderer would still have the ability to decide to kill the child, and even to put the plan into action. But just as God supposedly stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac just before the knife made contact, God could similarly act whenever a child is in danger. No harm to free will.

So when children die, is God teaching us a lesson? Are we learning how to become better people for it? Studies have shown that parents have a shorter life expectancy when they suffer the loss of a child (not that we probably need a study to tell us that). They’re more susceptible to illness and depression as well.

But beyond that, let’s talk about the ethics of killing a child in order to “teach the parents a lesson.” We see this kind of rationale in movies, sometimes. How many gangster movies have you seen where someone threatens a character’s family in order to make them do something? Is it the protagonist or the villain that typically does the threatening in those movies? In Gladiator, when Maximus’s wife and child are killed, does he then rally support by trying to kill the wives and children of his enemies? It would be hard to like such a character. We instinctively know that targeting someone’s family, especially their children, is the lowest, vilest act a villain can perform.

So why would Christians be willing to attribute such actions to God? If you think about it, the Book of Job does just that. In the first chapter, Job has 7 sons and 3 daughters, who were apparently all quite close to one another. But when God and Satan make their wager about Job, all of Job’s children are killed. But hey, not to worry, Job gets 7 more sons and 3 more daughters at the end of the story! Happy ending!

Such a story should fill us with revulsion. Don’t harm my children to teach me a lesson — I’ll gladly remain ignorant of whatever education you’re passing out.

But maybe such a story made sense to the people living at that time. There have certainly been other cultures that didn’t seem to value human life (even that of their own children) in the way that we do today. But this is just another reason to see the story of Job as a man-made fable, and not a literal, God-sanctioned event.

Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and tortuous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistant that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.
— Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason

When I see throughout this book, called the Bible, a history of the grossest vices and a collection of the most paltry and contemptible tales and stories, I could not so dishonor my Creator by calling it by His name.
— Thomas Paine, Toward the Mystery

If we think about the level of evil and suffering that exists in our world, it makes the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God seem extremely improbable, if not impossible. And if he allows evil to occur in our world just so a few of us can “learn something” from the experience, then we can certainly cross out the “all-loving” quality. It’s possible that a God exists, but if he/she/it does, it’s not the version we find described in the Bible, so why bother hanging onto it? Yahweh and Jehovah belong in the ranks of mythology, along with Zeus and Thor.

78 thoughts on “Collateral Damage”

  1. I think many Christians have an outlook on suffering similar to the late Mother Teresa. She tended to dying patients by praying as they starved and withered away in horrendous pain that she refused to medicate away. Why? So that they may relate to the suffering of Jesus when he was flogged, pierced and nailed to a cross. The irony of it all? Christ cries “It is finished!” Seems like suffering would have been apart of the “it”.

    I’d love for someone to tell me it’s the will of God if one of my boys were to die. I’d flick them off and give them a growling “fuck you!” Seriously, do Christians really think they’re evangelizing by telling others that God “needed him (the deceased) more”? When I hear that I picture a grown man sucking his thumb in a corner in heaven, making toddler like demands. Oh, yes, where do I sign up for that kind of ‘salvation’?


  2. I hear you, Charity. You know, I think most Christians (at least those in Bible-belt regions) grow up never being exposed to non-Christians. So they take for granted that everyone around them is just like them: good, Christian folk. No need to worry about “them heathens,” because you never actually encounter any. So no need to worry about the bigger questions, either. Just trust that God has a plan.

    But I’m hopeful, as the ranks of the non-religious increase, that more and more people will start to think a bit deeper about the beliefs they cherish, but never really think much about.


  3. First as one of your guests wrote yesterday, we consider things evil those that are inimical to our well-being or to other sentient beings. In essence one could successfully[tongue in cheek] argue that evil exists just as an opinion. Second, the theist can end the conversation even before it begins by reminding the atheist that he, the atheist, has no belief in the existence of god and as such need not raise an issue about evil. That said, I think the argument that god allows some suffering for reasons not known to us doesn’t help in tackling the problem for we are right in asking why would a loving god not be interested in informing his creation why they suffer. The question one is bound to ask is if god created man in his image, how is it that he chose not to give us the ability to understand his designs or better still, what image is this of god that man was created with?


  4. Awesome post Nate my mate.

    This takes me to the story of Peter…

    “5 But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession,

    2 And kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

    3 But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land?

    4 Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.

    5 And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things.

    6 And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him.

    7 And it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what was done, came in.

    8 And Peter answered unto her, Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much? And she said, Yea, for so much.

    9 Then Peter said unto her, How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door, and shall carry thee out.

    10 Then fell she down straightway at his feet, and yielded up the ghost: and the young men came in, and found her dead, and, carrying her forth, buried her by her husband.

    Oh! I thought that Jesus came, died for our sins. I guess lying isn’t included in redemption.


  5. Excellent point, makagutu!

    After all, even in the example I gave of immunizing an infant, the baby may not understand what is happening, but we still try to comfort her and soothe her. We don’t just sit in the corner and watch the events unfold. If we could make the baby understand, we would.

    If God was able to talk directly to people in the past, why not continue to do so now? Why not help us understand what’s going on, help us find a path forward?


  6. I saw a bumper sticker recently which said, “24,000 children wil die of starvation today, why do you think God will answer your prayers?”


  7. Hi Nate, I tend to agree with you and commenters here that many christian responses to pain and suffering are insensitive and unappealing. Evil is evil, no denying it. I think of things like young children being trafficked into prostitution and abuse, civil wars in Africa and the Middle East, US drone strikes, the Indian ocean tsunami of a few years ago, etc, and they cause me grief. I don’t pretend to have an explanation, though I believe there must be one.

    But I also note that in saying “Evil is evil, no denying it.” I am making a statement about truth, right and wrong, which I don’t believe I could make if I didn’t believe in the christian God (or some similar God). The argument from suffering gains a large part of its its power from the christian morality that most of us here grew up with whether we were christians or not, and loses a lot of its force without it.

    Then there are the many other things that christian belief explains far better than non-belief is able to so far – how something came from nothing to create the universe, how it happened to be so amazingly and “finely-tuned” in its design, how an estimated 300 million christians worldwide claim to have received or observed a miraculous healing after prayer.

    I have been reading about the brain lately and neuroplasticity – the fact that our brains are more plastic than we might think, and our brains actually alter physically as we focus on things, form habits, etc, and our thinking changes – and I will be blogging on some of this soon. So if you focus on things like children starving, you will be training your brain to think atheistically, and if I focus on people being healed, I will be training my brain to think theistically – to some degree at least.

    So most christians have trained their brains to not think logically about suffering, as you point out when you say: “So no need to worry about the bigger questions, either. Just trust that God has a plan.” But you seem to be unaware that you may have done the same thing and have learnt not to worry about the bigger questions that your worldview struggles with.

    So if we want to be honest (as you and I both want to be), we have to recognise that we need to rise above that brain conditioning and try to consider both sides. I try to do that by admitting the force of the argument from evil and many other issues relating to the Bible and faith. I wonder whether you and your readers are willing to also enlarge their focus to avoid conditioning their thinking?


  8. Good points, unkleE. I can’t really throw any stones at that. I don’t completely agree on the morality thing — I think we atheists can have good reasons for thinking that causing suffering is wrong, but I do concede that it’s hard to prove those reasons.

    I also wonder if we sometimes are asking the right questions when it comes to “something coming from nothing.” Perhaps nothing, as we understand it, is actually impossible. I don’t know! And sometimes the fine-tuning argument, while worth considering, seems kind of like wondering how that puddle of water so perfectly matches the hole it’s in. If this universe were incapable of sustaining life, we wouldn’t be around to wonder about it. 🙂

    BUT, all that said, I do agree that we all tend to have blind spots that we don’t always want to get rid of. No world view answers every question. To me, I find the Christian god utterly unbelievable, as I said in my post. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no god, or that there’s no realm beyond this physical one.

    So, in a weird sort of way, I actually agree with much of your comment. Maybe that’s a miracle! 😉


  9. Nate,

    Out of curiosity and much ignorance, as I’m very new to this whole philosophical scene, how can you admit the possibility of god, while claiming atheism.

    Hope you don’t see this as an attack, I respect you immensely, I’m just confused on the terminology.


  10. Again, why I enjoy this blog. I appreciated the points you made in our discussion, and this post. Always more to learn about how I think and talk about my beliefs.

    Really good points. Thanks for the thoughts.


  11. I’m not sure unkleE’s present and past claims of morality being the child of Christianity are proven by history. Christianity has to be accountable for much of the evil that has occured since its inception. The crusades, inquisitions, etc In the name of love and mercy , a reign of terror and cruelty has been the norm for Christians for centuries. A man could without remorse, burn a fellow man at the stake for a mere technical difference in theology.

    unkleE says we should rise above the brain conditioning and try to consider both sides. I can’t understand a side that condones or looks past the atrocities of the Bible. Christians including my dear Mother view the atrocities of the bible as unexplainable. God’s ways are not always understood by us. We will receive the answers when we get to heaven.

    There can never be an answer that I would understand.


  12. I wonder whether you and your readers are willing to also enlarge their focus to avoid conditioning their thinking?

    As one of Nate’s readers, I would absolutely like to avoid conditioning my thinking. I would love to strip away all of my biases and think about the big questions as objectively as I possibly can. Honestly, I think I spend way more time pondering the big questions then all of the people I encounter on a day-to-day basis. Most people are content to worry about commonplace things while I struggle endlessly trying to cram as much relevant information into my head as possible. I am dying to know whether there is a God or not. It wouldn’t matter if it loved us or had powers, I’d just like to know if one (or more) exists.


  13. Thanks Josh!

    Great question, and I don’t view it as an attack at all! Thanks for the compliment too, by the way — I can assure you the respect is mutual. 🙂

    Some people view religious beliefs along these extremes (there are others, but this is just to keep it simple): theism, agnosticism, and atheism. Where theism is belief in God, atheism is stating that there’s no such thing as god, and agnosticism as a middle position.

    But as I understand it, the definitions for atheism and agnosticism are bit different. Atheism deals with belief; whereas agnosticism deals with knowledge. So someone that’s a true agnostic would be a person that doesn’t know if god exists and thinks that whether or not god exists is unknowable. An atheist is just someone who doesn’t believe in any of the various god claims, not necessarily someone who maintains that no gods exist. Does that distinction make sense?

    So because “atheist” and “agnostic” deal with two different things, you can combine them to get some subtle differences in belief. Like Nan said, I consider myself an agnostic atheist. So, while I don’t believe in any of the gods that the various world religions put forward, I acknowledge that a god could exist. I don’t think it’s possible to have a high enough level of knowledge to say with certainty that there’s no such thing as a god. I just don’t know for sure, even though I don’t actively believe in one.

    Similarly, there are some agnostic theists in the world. People who believe in a god, but have enough doubts and unanswered questions to know they could be mistaken.

    In my experience few people meet the definitions of a strict agnostic or hard-line atheist.

    Did any of that make sense? 🙂


  14. I empathize with you 100% Dave. I honestly leap for joy when I find errors in my reasoning. If I go oo long without being proven wrong, I get depressed, I know it must be because I’m not seeking hard enough. Welcome to those who truly seek.


  15. @unklee
    ”Then there are the many other things that christian belief explains far better than non-belief is able to so far – how something came from nothing to create the universe, how it happened to be so amazingly and “finely-tuned” in its design, how an estimated 300 million christians worldwide claim to have received or observed a miraculous healing after prayer.”

    What an absolute load of moronic drivel that clearly demonstrates you have no grasp whatsoever of the reality of what you are talking about.
    “The fine-tuning argument and other recent intelligent design arguments are modern versions of God-of-the-gaps reasoning, where a God is deemed necessary whenever science has not fully explained some phenomenon”.

    Christian belief is based solely on the erroneous claims concerning a man-god found within the covers of a collection of ancient scrolls that aren’t worth the vellum they were likely written on.

    There is NO evidence to support any miracle claim.

    You have a habit of stringing together a seemingly cogent reply buy in reality it is nothing but polemic. You are a dreadful excuse for a Christian as you are as hypocritical as you are blatantly ignorant and devious in your cherry picking and you have adopted this pose since you began leaving you pseudo intelligent comments.

    You have to demonstrate the divinity of your man-god before ANY claim you make is even given as much as a sniff, otherwise you are just a fraud.


  16. kcchief1, you write I’m not sure unkleE’s present and past claims of morality being the child of Christianity are proven by history.

    Really? You’re really not sure history can provide compelling evidence of morality preceding christianity?

    Obviously, you’re not aware at all of, say, Greek philosophy by such little known authors as Plato and Aristotle? Really? Really?

    Come on. Of course you can be sure. Even a cursory glance at any pre-christian history shows evidence of human morality. This claim of deriving morality from christianity or belief in its tenets is one of the most stupid claims I’ve ever encountered, save the claim that fire derived from christianity.


  17. We’ve even got the Code of Hammurabi and the Code of Ur-Nammu as examples that predate Judaism.

    Of course, kc knows all this — I think he was just being polite in his phrasing. And thanks to both of you for pointing out those problems, because I completely overlooked them in my comment.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s