Posts filed under ‘Critique of Religion’
I just finished another Great Book that could hardly be of a more different character than Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (see my last post), namely Don Quixote, the epoch-making novel written by the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes and published in two volumes in 1605 and 1615. Yet, in spite of their vast differences, they both share an interest in epistemology.
The story centers around a retired country gentleman who becomes obsessed with medieval stories of knightly adventures and chivalrous sentiments. Here is the first epistemological issue: He loves these stories so much that he permanently suspends all disbelief about them and actually considers them to have truly happened. The next step in his delusion is to believe that he, himself, could be a knight-errand and go on similar adventures as the ones he has read about.
The basic message is that books can be dangerous. They can mess with your common-sense perception of the world and make you see the world through the lens of what you have read about. Truth always rises above falsehood as oil above water, one of the fictional narrators says at one point, but certain books seem to have the ability to dunk the truth under—at least temporarily.
Accordingly, the deluded gentleman renames himself “Don Quixote,” puts on an old suit of armor, dedicates his life to the service of an unsuspecting farm girl that he once briefly glimpsed and now christens “Dulcinea del Toboso,” and sets out on his first adventure. As this should make clear, Don Quixote is a parody of books on chivalry, and it would be a mistake to take it too seriously. Nevertheless, epistemological questions and other serious issues keep coming up in the story.
One of them is the question to what degree our passions can distort our perception. The only joke on record that Immanuel Kant has ever made is, “The young man passionately in love with the lady of his choice sees in her no imperfection whatever. This condition of blindness generally clears up about three weeks after marriage.” Kant makes a distinction between our passions and emotions (see his Metaphysics of Morals). Emotions, he says, are an integral part of our personality, while passions come and go rather quickly and severely distort our perception. The unusual thing about Don Quixote is that his passion lasts as long as it does. Perhaps that is due to the fact that he has absolutely no contact with the object of his passion, having taken a girl that he had only briefly glimpsed and turned her in his imagination into a noble lady of incomparable grace and beauty.
A fascinating aspect of Don Quixote’s epistemology is that he never lacks an explanation that fits into his distorted view. In probably the most iconic scene of the book, he attacks windmills that he believes to be vicious giants. He drives his lance-point into the sail, but the wind whirls it around with such force that it shivers the lance to pieces, sweeping with it horse and rider, who goes rolling over on the plain, “in a sorry condition.”
His faithful squire Sancho comes to his aid and says, “God bless me! Did I not tell your worship to mind what you were about, for they were only windmills? and no one could have made any mistake about it but one who had something of the same kind in his head.”
“Hush, friend Sancho,” replies Don Quixote, “the fortunes of war more than any other are liable to frequent fluctuations; and moreover I think, and it is the truth, that that same sage Friston who carried off my study and books, has turned these giants into mills in order to rob me of the glory of vanquishing them, such is the enmity he bears me; but in the end his wicked arts will avail but little against my good sword.”
The problem with this kind of epistemology is that it can be easily turned against you. When Don Quixote asks Sancho to find his lady Dulcinea del Toboso for him, and Sancho is at a loss of what to do, he points at the first woman that comes their way and declares her to be the beauteous and elegant Dulcinea. Don Quixote says in astonishment that he only sees a coarse country wench with cataracts in her eyes and a foul smell in her mouth, but Sancho, feigning equal astonishment, declares that he sees the peerless Dulcinea. It surely must be those malignant magicians again, says Sancho, that always persecute Don Quixote and have now enchanted his perception to see his noble love as an ugly wench. Well, given the frequency with which Don Quixote himself had used this argument to support his beliefs, he cannot really argue against it now.
As fantastical as the story is, I think this still has an application for today. How many devoutly religious people are there who are too eager to believe anything that seems to fit their belief, only to become prey to some money-grabbing faith healer or other questionable people? Surely, whether we have religious beliefs like Kant or no religious beliefs like Hume, we can all use a large dose of their epistemological care not to buy into beliefs too quickly. Otherwise, the end result might be a Quixotian tangle. This, of course, also goes for other beliefs such as the many quick fixes that are sold in our capitalist society. The whole advertising industry has taken on Quixotian proportions.
There are still other epistemological issues in the book. Let me just briefly mention one more before bringing this post to a close. As I said above, the book was published in two volumes with an interval of ten years between the two. Now in the second book, Don Quixote is actually told that a book has been written about his previous adventures. The characters talk about this first book, and Don Quixote questions the veracity of some of its parts. To complicate matters, the second book is narrated by more than one fictional author, and the fictional compiler sometimes adds that he believes a certain story he includes to be apocryphal. Thus, it is not only Don Quixote’s perception that is unreliable, but we, the reader, are forced to question to what degree the stories about Don Quixote himself are reliable.
This additional epistemological element was probably inspired by the fact that, between the publication of the two volumes by Cervantes, an anonymous author had published his own Part Two of Don Quixote.
But enough said. Don Quixote is a very long book, and perhaps it is only my boredom with the repeated parody that makes me turn it into a philosophical work.
As mentioned in my last post, I recently read William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience. It is certainly a worthwhile read, even if only for the many testimonies that James gathered for his work. I should add, however, that a large proportion of these testimonies comes from a Christian background, so the Varieties do not have quite as much variety as one might hope of such a work. Still, it should be praised for taking religious experiences seriously and not dismissing them out of hand only because they are religious.
Now on to the problems. James’ pragmatic approach to religious experience, which essentially says that one ought to judge the value of religious experiences solely by their fruit, raises many questions. As Richard Rorty has pointed out, it is not quite clear in James whether or not the actual existence of God/gods is relevant. At times, James talks as if it were of no consequence whatsoever whether or not there really is a spiritual realm beyond our perception. At other times, he seems to say that it matters a great deal.
For example, he says, “Abstractly, it would seem illogical to try to measure the worth of a religion’s fruits in merely human terms of value. How can you measure their worth without considering whether the God really exists who is supposed to inspire them? If he really exists, then all the conduct instituted by men to meet his wants must necessarily be a reasonable fruit of his religion—it would be unreasonable only in case he did not exist. If, for instance, you were to condemn a religion of human or animal sacrifices by virtue of your subjective sentiments, and if all the while a deity were really there demanding such sacrifices, you would be making a theoretical mistake by tacitly assuming that the deity must be non-existent; you would be setting up a theology of your own as much as if you were a scholastic philosopher.”
This is an important point. For instance, the Aztecs (in what is now Mexico) believed that the shedding of human blood and the sacrificing of human life were necessary to keep the cosmos running. Without continuous human sacrifice, the present age would come to an end. Now, as James rightly pointed out, it matters a great deal whether or not this belief is actually true. If it is true, then human sacrifices are necessary. Perhaps we might still consider it an evil, but a necessary evil. As the many wars even in our own time show, we are quite willing to sacrifice human life if we think it necessary for the protection or continuation of our society. And, since we tend to sanction and even sanctify whatever we deem necessary, we might even consider human sacrifice a noble institution. (For anyone who has a hard time imaging how people could ever consider human sacrifice a noble institution, I recommend the novel Aztec by Gary Jennings.)
Now in our modern democracies we tend to say, “You can have any religious belief whatsoever, but you still have to keep the law. If your religion induces you to act against the law, you will be punished like everyone else.” But such a separation between belief and practice is not completely honest. If the Aztec belief is true that human sacrifices are necessary to keep the cosmos running, then, to any morally-minded person, this cosmic reality ought to take precedence over any petty national laws. If the belief is true, it becomes a moral imperative to disobey the law and keep sacrificing humans.
Or, to use a more relevant example for us, take the belief in the existence of an immortal soul. If, as some firmly believe, an immortal soul is created at the moment of conception—or, alternatively, if a pre-existing soul unites itself with the human cells at the moment of conception—then we cannot simply consider the fertilized human egg a fertilized human egg. If this belief is true, then taking the morning-after pill would amount to separating a soul from its body. Our common word for that is murder. And if you truly believe that every woman who takes a morning-after pill is a murderess—and probably a mass-murderess at that—you might feel morally driven to take extreme measures to prevent such murder from taking place. Most people would not consider it morally reprehensible to kill a mass-murderer who is about to kill further victims, if his death is the only way to prevent more crimes. Granted, killing pregnant women would be of little point, since you would kill the baby with her, but targeting abortion clinics or the manufacturers or sellers of morning-after pills would be morally justifiable or even obligatory.
So, by making laws prohibiting such actions, governments are taking a clear stance on the truth or falsehood of certain religious beliefs. By telling the believers in Aztec theology and those who believe in the existence of an immortal soul, “You are not allowed to act out the logical conclusions of your beliefs,” governments are making the clear statement that those beliefs are not true. If they granted that these beliefs might be true, they would make appropriate allowances in the law—just in case Aztec believers really are saving the cosmos through human sacrifices and believers in an immortal soul really are preventing mass-murder.
Like James says, “To this extent, to the extent of disbelieving peremptorily in certain types of deity, I frankly confess that we must be theologians. If disbeliefs can be said to constitute a theology, then the prejudices, instincts, and common sense which I chose as our guides make theological partisans of us whenever they make certain beliefs abhorrent.”
But then, how do we decide which beliefs we reject outright and which beliefs we tolerate as possibly true? Only those who fit our own moral framework? But where does our moral framework come from? Our moral framework is to a large extent determined by the kind of presuppositions we have about the world. How can we judge religious claims by their fruit if tastes vary so significantly between different people? In that case, we are using a kind of reasoning that my two-year old daughter is fond of using at the moment, “I like bananas because … I like bananas.” My daughter has picked up from us older ones that she ought to, if possible, give a rational justification for her opinions, but in many cases the only rationale she is able to give is her own preference.
Does, then, the Jamesean maxim “Judge a religion by its fruit” simply boil down to “Judge a religion by whatever suits your taste?”
Well, in some passages James comes very close to saying so: “But such common-sense prejudices and instincts are themselves the fruit of an empirical evolution. Nothing is more striking than the secular alteration that goes on in the moral and religious tone of men, as their insight into nature and their social arrangements progressively develop. After an interval of a few generations the mental climate proves unfavorable to notions of the deity which at an earlier date were perfectly satisfactory: the older gods have fallen below the common secular level, and can no longer be believed in. Today a deity who should require bleeding sacrifices to placate him would be too sanguinary to be taken seriously. Even if powerful historical credentials were put forward in his favor, we would not look at them. Once, on the contrary, his cruel appetites were of themselves credentials. They positively recommended him to men’s imaginations in ages when such coarse signs of power were respected and no others could be understood. Such deities then were worshiped because such fruits were relished.”
To summarize: Sometimes it matters a great deal whether a religious belief is objectively true or not, because the belief determines whether certain actions are considered right or wrong. Judging religious beliefs merely by their fruit is insufficient, since people’s tastes change significantly throughout the ages. One might say, “Well, then, let’s not judge religious beliefs at all.” But that is not an option either, because we need to make laws to govern civilization, and some of those laws prohibit what would be the logical consequences of certain beliefs.
Would anyone like to contradict my conclusion? Did I misunderstand James?
And speaking of life, I am often struck by how lively discussions become when religious questions come up. I’m part of a book reading group, and I’d say there is definitely above-average participation whenever religious questions come up. That, in itself, is worthwhile to consider.
One person in the early 20th century who thought a lot about the important role religion played in exciting and driving us was William James.
James was born in 1842 and is “the quintessential Yankee philosopher,” as Daniel Robinson has called him. He was the oldest of four children and the grandson of a multimillionaire. After his studies at Harvard, he spent six years completing studies for a medical degree. A trip to Germany, where he listened to a few lectures, aroused his interest in psychology and the way we process our sensory input. After completing his medical training, James joined the faculty at Harvard and eventually started giving lectures on psychology, particularly physiological psychology.
Through it all, James experienced periods of depression and anxiety, and he used himself as the subject for his psychological investigations. He also read ferociously, which he considered a pretty helpful therapy for his inner turmoil. The result of his deep thinking about psychology was his massive work The Principles of Psychology, which is still considered by many the magnum opus of academic psychology.
Predictably, his philosophy emphasizes human psychology. He was against the kind of grand philosophical systems such as Hegel’s idealism and rather stressed a kind of American version of Nietzsche’s perspectivalism. That is, he stressed that thoughts and philosophies do not exist apart from individuals thinking those thoughts and coming up with those philosophies. Hence, in evaluating their philosophies, one should also look at the psychological motivations that drive them. Thoughts do not come in independent pieces but arise in an organic way out of the whole person.
That is why he interpreted the European divide between empiricists/positivists on the one hand and German idealists/rationalist on the other hand in a psychological way. He talked of the “tender-minded” and the “tough-minded.” The tender-minded are the German idealists and rationalists. Now I know this might sound confusing, since the word “rationalist” does not exactly call up a picture of “tenderness.” But, in fact, rationalists in the philosophical sense are tender-minded in that they have an emotional need for an overarching, rational system that gives hope and meaning to an otherwise (ultimately) meaningless existence.
The tender-minded are the religious and quasi-religious, the Platonists and Kantians and Hegelians, the system builders who become depressed if they do not have a definite cosmic worldview in which they can place the particulars of their everyday life. They need a sense of the spiritual, of the transcendent. They need inspiration and hope, even at the price of their intellectual conscience. As Darren Staloff has remarked: “They are idealistic and optimistic and stress the idea of free will.” In a word, the tender-minded want meaning—or, as James put it, principles.
Now don’t get me wrong. James did not deride the tender-minded. In fact, he thought he had a large tender-minded side to him as well. Hence his struggles with depression in the face of a lacking optimistic teleology.
The tough-minded, in contrast, are the empiricists and positivists (not to be confused with optimists!), the critics of religion and what they perceive to be false promises. They are pessimistic, pluralistic and skeptical. They, above all else, don’t want to be lured into any kind of slumber in which one fails to face up to the physical world. They always strive for objectivity and want to reserve judgment. Consequently, they are often not only irreligious themselves but tend to be insensitive toward more tender-minded people. They constantly step on other people’s toes, give offence, and have the tendency to talk as if all tender-minded people did not have a mind at all. To the tender-minded, they actually seem rather narrow-minded, obsessing over meaningless details while dismissing the big, more emotionally laden questions of life. In a word, the tough-minded want facts, facts, facts, and nothing but facts!
James thought that most people are somewhere in between tender-mindedness and tough-mindedness, and he stressed that this was an extremely simplified way of caricaturing the European empiricists/rationalists divide. Nevertheless, he considered it a helpful way of approaching the divide in a more psychological way—a way that, he hoped, would not deepen the divide but actually bring the two sides together.
“Facts are good, of course–give us lots of facts. Principles are good–give us plenty of principles.” That’s the pragmatic approach.
But that’s only the starting point for James’ Pragmatism. For further thoughts, you might want to read his Pragmatism for yourself, if you haven’t already done so.
The basic plot of the tale takes place in ancient Babylon, where a virtuous citizen by the name of Zadig rises in the esteem of the king but is betrayed by envious neighbors. Consequently, he falls out of favor with the king and becomes a wanderer in the Middle East, enduring injustice, ingratitude and all manner of suffering. After a while, a civil war breaks out in Babylon, which gives Zadig the opportunity to return and conquer his enemies. In the end, Zadig is king and rules with justice.
That’s the basic plot. But there are several philosophical questions raised by the experiences of Zadig, some of them implicit in the storyline and others explicitly asked by various characters.
When I wrote about Voltaire’s Micromegas, I quoted Professor Kors. Let me quote him again now to list the questions he sees in the text:
- What are the ethics (not the form) of good government? What matters under any form of government are the morals, civic virtues, and compassion of whoever rules and the ruler’s capacity to remain above flattery.
- Why does so much human injustice exist in the world?
- What might be remedies of human injustice?
- What is the role of chance in human justice?
- Why does chance seem so opposed to divine providence?
- Can one look at the human condition and find divine justice?
As is typical of Voltaire, he raises these questions without giving a definite answer to any of them. Rather, he shows the dilemmas of our human condition and thus creates empathy in the reader. Voltaire is foremost a humanist, not a system builder or even at all a systematic thinker.
Although justice triumphs in the end, much of Zadig is dominated by injustice, and it raises the old question of Plato’s Republic: What is justice? What would justice look like? How can we achieve a just society? Is it possible to achieve justice on earth or is injustice so deeply engrained in us that all we can do is to create a few safeguards against the inevitable abuse of power? Should we have an optimistic or a pessimistic view on human nature? Should we go with Hobbes or with Rousseau? And finally, how are we to reconcile God’s justice and providence with the obvious injustice within human civilization?
As I mentioned in some recent posts, the German philosopher Leibniz believed that this was the best of all possible worlds. Now he did not in fact believe that this was a perfect world, as only God is perfect. But he did believe that this was the best of all possible worlds. Thus, while individual imperfection exists, ultimately evil does not exist. In the words of Alexander Pope, all discord is but harmony not understood, all partial evil is universal good: “And, spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite / One truth is clear, whatever is, is right.”
Whatever is, is right. That’s the final conclusion of the Leibnizian view.
In contrast, the Apostle Paul and other early Christians did actually think that the world was once perfect and will one day be perfect again. We now live in an interim period. This view is also pictured quite clearly in Milton’s great poems Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. To summarize the picture we find there:
1. The world was once perfect.
2. We lost our perfection.
3. Jesus came to restore our perfection.
4. We’re now preparing for the completion of that perfection (which, for Paul, was very soon to come, probably in his own lifetime).
The firm belief that there can be a perfect world, in fact, that there once was and again will be a perfect world (or that, if not the world at large, at least humans were once in a state of perfection), seems to be at the heart of Pauline doctrine, Milton’s poetry, and many other Christian writers. Without it, some of their assertions make little sense. Why else did Jesus come, Paul and Milton reasoned, except to rescue us from our state of imperfection?
Hence it is reasonable for a Christian who takes Paradise Lost literally to allow the question, What does such a perfect world look like? If you believe so firmly in it, you should have a good idea what exactly it is you believe in. Unless it’s only a meaningless phrase. Do those of us who have a Christian background really know what we mean when we talk about a perfect world?
Some Christians are quick to respond. “Well,” they say, “it means that there’s no pain and no death and no discord. God will wipe every tear from our eye. We’ll just be happy forever.”
In 2004 or 2005 (I don’t quite remember when exactly), I sat down and tried to picture a world like that, and in 2009 I posted some of the resulting writings. Here are the respective posts:
I should add, however, that Leibniz, Pope, Rousseau and others would criticize my endeavor to picture a world like that from the start, it being mere “erring reason”. Nevertheless, I think it’s a valid question to ask: If we did take the account in Genesis absolutely literally—as, I think, the Apostle Paul as well as Milton did—what would this supposed perfect world prior to the Fall have looked like? Is such a world at all conceivable? And is a future perfect world conceivable that bears any resemblance to our present world? My conclusion was that I cannot possibly picture a world remotely like ours without pain, discord, and death.
The reason I was thinking about this question several years back was due to my Christian background. I grew up among Young-Earth Creationists who completely denied Evolution and, for the most part, even the scientifically accepted age of the earth. If the earth was not six thousand years old, then surely not much older than twenty thousand years or so. In my twenties, then, I actually read Darwin and other authors, and I came to reject my Young-Earth Creationism. And it was in this context that I had to rethink my conception of the Fall.
Prior to then, I had shared what I take to be (as mentioned above) the Apostle Paul’s view: The earth was once literally perfect, free from pain and death and discord; the Fall brought imperfection; Jesus came to make the necessary sacrifice to satisfy God’s justice for our disobedience; and now we are waiting for Jesus’ return to once again turn this imperfect world into a place of perfection. But now that I came to believe in non-human animals having preceded the rise of homo sapiens sapiens by many million years, this concept no longer held water. Hence I asked myself: How does the Fall fit into that? What would perfection in this world mean? Is the idea of perfection in the sense of “no death, no pain, no discord” at all conceivable in a world remotely like ours?
The three posts about no pain, no discord, and no death were a little excerpt of my inner thoughts at that time. A young man waking up from the slumber of his naïve Creationism to wrestle with some questions about the real world. If anything seems immature in those posts, perhaps it can be excused on that account.
Leibniz vs. Voltaire: Can an Omnipotent, All-Benevolent God be Reconciled with this World of Suffering?
A few days ago, I wrote a post about the German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, but one important point I did not mention is his theodicy. Leibniz firmly believed that this world of ours was “the best of all possible worlds,” because an all-powerful, all-benevolent God would never create the second or third best possible world. He would choose the best of all possible worlds.
Shortly after reading Leibniz, I also re-read Voltaire’s philosophical novella Candide. One of the characters in the story is Doctor Pangloss, who is a Leibnizian philosopher that keeps preaching the doctrine of the “best of all possible worlds” even in the face of the most outrageous suffering. Through his sometimes quite funny parody, Voltaire sharply criticizes Leibniz. If this is the best possible world, he wants to know, then what do the other worlds look like?
Another thinker who criticized theodicy was Immanuel Kant. He thought that all philosophical attempts at a theodicy had failed, and I tend to agree with him. The only theodicy that I find at all tenable is not a philosophical one but simply the cross of Christ. This is a cautious Christian approach to suffering, admitting that ultimately we do not understand it. We might never know why God lets us suffer so much, but we know one thing: If there was any way around it, God Himself would not have come to suffer. Since He did, since He suffered indescribably and even died, the picture has changed. He has taken His own medicine, so to speak, and therefore we can trust Him.
The cross of Christ is thus the only credible theodicy. One cannot argue with a martyr. And if God Himself is a martyr, well, then there is no arguing with Him, is there?
Of course, you actually have to believe in the incarnation of Christ to be convinced by this. But it shows how someone who believes in God can find in the picture of the suffering God a solution to the problem of theodicy—not a solution that answers all intellectual questions, but one that satisfies on a more emotional level. And I would suggest that the main problem people have with theodicy is an emotional one, not a purely intellectual one.
Beyond this picture of the suffering God, a traditional theodicy has been the story of the Fall. In that view, the world was utterly perfect until we humans messed it up. It’s all our fault, including earthquakes and diseases and itching noses. God, in his infinite grace, is in the process of restoring the world, and he paid the ultimate price for it. So what are we complaining about?
Nowadays, this line of thinking can only be maintained by Young-Earth Creationists, that is, by people who believe that God created the world a few thousand years ago and that all modern scientific views on the age of the earth and of life on earth are completely wrong. Even most Intelligent-Design (ID) advocates affirm that the earth was formed about 4.6 billion years ago, that during the Cambrian period more than 500 million years ago invertebrates spread widely in the oceans, trilobites became common, and the first mollusks appeared. ID advocates generally embrace the earth’s history as now understood, from the Precambrian to the Cenozoic, including dinosaurs and all. Consequently, they also believe that death, pain, and discord existed in the world long before humans came into existence.
This, so to speak, throws the ball of the problem back in God’s court. We are not to blame for the basic fact of suffering after all. “Why, God, did you create a world of discord, pain, and death—not just for us humans, but long before we ever appeared on the scene?” This is the new question of theodicy that modern science has pressed on the theist.
The traditional answer that this earth is a kind of training ground for better things to come is hard to believe in light of earth’s long and long-suffering history. If one were to hunt for answers to theodicy in the Book of Revelation, for instance, this is one of the answers you would get (in addition to the more important “answer” of the Lamb of God, the suffering divinity nailed to a cross, which is probably the most central aspect of Revelation).
In Revelation 8 and 9, there are seven angels blowing seven trumpets, and at each blast of a trumpet a horrible disaster befalls the earth: natural catastrophes, pollution of oceans, shipwrecks, contamination of drinking water, harmful changes in the atmosphere, demonic attacks, yes, even Satan himself wreaking destruction. And then it says in chapter 9,20-21: “The rest of humankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshipping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk. And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their fornication or their thefts.”
Now I want to stress that Revelation was an “occasional” letter, meaning it was written for a specific occasion of real people that the author believed were either undergoing terrible suffering or were about to undergo terrible suffering. It is not a philosophical treatise or an intellectual answer to the problems of theodicy. But were one to approach the text in this way, it would suggest that people suffer because God wants to warn them of even greater suffering to come. It is His way of pouring cold water on the heads of sinners and waking them from their spiritual slumber.
Proclaiming this pain-stricken earth to be God’s training ground for eternity, however, has mostly failed to bring the skeptic to his knees. Instead, it has caused outrage or at least a lively discussion on why such an idea is problematic.
The first problem is that it completely ignores non-human suffering. Is the deer expected to repent of its sins when chased by a lion? And is a torn deer supposed to serve as a warning to its comrades that eternal torment is awaiting the unbelieving deer soul? Hardly. No verse in the Bible promises eternal life to animals. Why then, from a purely theological perspective, do they need to suffer? Evolution does provide a sensible biological answer here, but not Revelation.
Second, there are ethical limitations on how much suffering one can inflict for a future good. If I see a group of people approaching a mine field and find myself in the position to warn them, am I justified to issue my warning by mowing down half of them with a machine gun and maiming the rest? Is there any court in the world that would sanction my action? And what are the many diseases, epidemics, earthquakes, floods, and storms but a constant killing and maiming of earthly life?
Third, suffering as a way of steering people away from future suffering only makes sense when they know the good that will come of it. Unless you tell a child that a vaccination will prevent disease, it is hardly going to turn its naked shoulder to the pointy needle. Granted, you sometimes have to force someone into their own good, such as with a baby or a mentally handicapped person. But with them you are not aiming at voluntary submission, which is what Revelation is aiming at.
To take a different example, every soldier-to-be knows the purpose of recruit training. He can therefore interpret its hardships in the right light, knowing that they are necessary for his successful career as a soldier. Applying this to humanity as a whole, one can imagine all people being born in another sphere where God instructs them about His purpose for their eternal lives, before sending them to this earth as a temporary training ground. If this were the case, life on earth would still be a test so hard as to border on cruelty, but at least people knew what they were in for. As it is, however, we are born on this earth and know no other. Different people say different things about the purpose of our planet. There is little agreement on whether this is a boot camp for something better or as good as it gets. And as long as there is still any disagreement on why we are here, Revelation’s take on suffering falls flat.
Forth and last, Revelation itself admits that the whole scheme simply does not work. A minority starts believing in God because of their suffering, yes. But only a minority. For many people, it was not only the Jews and gypsies who died in the Holocaust, but God, too.
Let me reiterate that a more cautious Christian approach to suffering is to admit that ultimately we do not understand it. But in the cross of Christ a believer can see a God who has taken His own medicine and is therefore trustworthy. This can be a comfort to believers, but probably is not something that would convince a skeptic.
Either way, I am with Voltaire not to gloss over the suffering in this world. It is real, and as human beings we all sit in the same boat—on the same Titanic, one could say. Let me close this all-too long post therefore with an excerpt from a poem that Voltaire wrote after the disastrous Lisbon earthquake, an earthquake that, one can argue, had a huge impact on European discussions of theodicy:
Horror on horrors, griefs on griefs must show,
That man’s the victim of unceasing woe,
And lamentations which inspire my strain,
Prove that philosophy is false and vain,
Approach in crowds and meditate awhile
You shattered walls, and view each ruined pile,
Women and children heaped up mountain high,
Limbs crushed which under ponderous marble lie;
Wretches unnumbered in the pangs of death,
Who mangled, torn, and panting for their breath,
Buried beneath their sinking roofs expire,
And end their wretched lives in torments dire,
Say, when you hear their piteous, half-formed cries,
Or from their ashes see the smoke arise,
Say, will you then eternal laws maintain,
Which God to cruelties like these constrain? …
But when like us Fate’s rigors you have felt,
Become humane, like us you’ll learn to melt,
When the earth gapes my body to entomb,
I justly may complain of such a doom.
- Translated by Tobias Smollett (1721-1771)
About a month ago, I had a post on 22 Amazing Facts about the Human Body. Now a professional biologist let me know that the first of those facts is actually wrong. If you put all the human cells in the human body in a row, they would not only reach from Paris to Rome. To quote the said biologist, “assuming a cell size of 20 micrometer on average with an estimated ten trillion cells in the human body (nobody knows for sure since we have not counted) the number should be 200,000 km or the equivalent to going around the Earth five times.”
Now I had gotten my information from the Dorling Kindersley Illustrated FactoPedia. I thought this was a reliable source, but the biologist said Dorling Kindersley (DK) is not always very reliable.
It so happened that during my lunch break today I was perusing DK’s A Young Person’s Guide to Philosophy, and I have to admit that some of the information in there is more than misleading. About the radical Florentine end-times preacher Savonarola the book says:
“DEATH OF SAVONAROLA, FLORENCE
In the past it was dangerous to question God’s existence. The 15th-century Italian philosopher Savonarola was burned at the stake for his unconventional views.”
Savonarola a philosopher? And someone who questioned God’s existence? He questioned the Pope, all right, calling him antichrist and other less endearing terms, and he thought that the Renaissance humanists compromised the Christian faith, but if there has been any person in history who had absolutely no doubt about God’s existence, Savonarola is high on the list of candidates.
There is a “warfare thesis” of science and religion that says that the two are fundamentally at war with each other. Sam Harris comes to mind as a quite vocal proponent of this thesis.
While I don’t want to dismiss the arguments of such people out of hand, it seems to me that the testimony of history is against them. The relationship of science and religion is a much more complex one. Has there been conflict? Yes, of course, just as there has been conflict within religion itself – and within science.
But science and religion have also nourished each other. The belief in a Creator gave many people the necessary drive to find uniform principles behind seemingly non-uniform events in the universe, and the resulting scientific discoveries have challenged them to rethink some of their religious understandings.
Religious motives have led to science, and science has reshaped religion.
The word heretic literally means “someone who chooses”—that is, someone who chooses to embrace a belief contrary to the norm.
In that sense, everyone today is a heretic, even the most orthodox of Catholics. Because we now live in a world where there is no religious norm anymore. We all have to choose. Even if we choose to stick to the religion of our upbringing or submit ourselves to an authority like the Pope, we do so knowing that there are other options out there.
We are all heretics, even the Pope himself. The days of orthodoxy are over.
The USA is secular because it is religious and it is religious because it is secular. The two feed on each other. The different conflicting religious groups from the 17th through the 19th century created gradually (in some parts of America very gradually!) a secular framework so that each group could exercise its convictions freely. And it was precisely this “free market” of religion that gave it a huge boost, making the 20th century arguably the most religious in American history.
Europe has been very different in this regard, as Ben Dupre writes in his book 50 Big Ideas You Really Need to Know:
“European countries are both less religious and less secular than the USA. This reality is not often fully acknowledged within Europe itself, however. Modern, self-styled ‘secular’ Europeans typically look uncomprehendingly to the east, where they see the dangerous fundamentalism of Asia; and superciliously to the west, where they detect the bland fervour of American religiosity. With zealots on each side, the temptation from the superior middle ground is to see secularism as the crowning achievement of European, rather than Western, civilization. But the picture is misleading.
The European self-image is based on a semi-mythical narrative of secularization that had its origins in the Renaissance, when man first usurped God’s place at the centre of the stage of human interest and when distinctively scientific explanations of man’s place in the world began to displace theologically inspired accounts. This process reached its crisis, according to the usual story, in the religious wars that reached their bloody climax in the 17th century. At this time the destructive sectarian passions released by the Protestant Reformation were eventually calmed by a secular transformation that was inspired by the Enlightenment thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke and swept along the tide of scientific progress.
The cumulative effect of these processes was that political theology based on divine revelation was replaced by political philosophy based on human reason; and that religion was removed to its own protected and private sphere, while an open and liberal public sphere was created in which freedom of expression and toleration of difference prevailed. And it was, furthermore, on this rich secular compost that democracy blossomed and thrived.
Unfortunately, this comforting tale, cherished as both the genealogy and the justification of modern European secular identity, is flawed in crucial respects. With the notable exception of France (where the revolution saw secularism, or laïcité, paid for in the blood of its citizens), no European country has been entirely or consistently secular. Indeed, the immediate product of the 17th-century religious wars was not a Europe of modern secular states but a patchwork of confessional, territorial ones; the only freedom (if any) generally allowed to religious minorities who found themselves in the wrong confessional territory was the ‘freedom’ to go elsewhere.
Much of this situation has persisted to this day. The United Kingdom, for example, has an established church, as do the Lutheran countries of Scandinavia, while other nations, such as Poland, Ireland and Italy, remain essentially Catholic. Where strict secularism has prevailed for a time, as for instance in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, there has often been violence, repression, intolerance and profoundly illiberal government. There is no clearer indication of the equivocal nature of European secularism than the fact that in the last decade of the 20th century the Balkans could be ravaged by wars that were motivated as much by religious differences as ethnic ones.”