Friday, February 19, 2010

50 blogs on disbelief - Benevolence

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p. 16 Nicholas Everitt “How Benevolent is God? An Argument from Suffering to Atheism”

This is an excellent essay. If everyone came to this discussion with the same level of intellectual honesty that Nicholas does, we could wrap this situation up toot sweet. He carefully frames his words and uses qualifiers like “so defined” when necessary. This makes it clear that his statements are directed to a particular definition of God, as he calls it, the “standard” one, the one used in these essays. At the end of the essay, he talks about his own life and how he became atheist. This is also an admirable reflection on his personal thoughts.

The bulk of the essay itself is another discussion on the problem of evil, but breaks it down better than any I have read so far. For some, there may be too much logic and it may seem petty, but it leads to a conclusion that makes it worth sticking with it. I have covered what the problem of evil is already, so let’s jump to his discussion.

He looks at how it is defended, first with the “greater good” argument. This says that evil has to exist as a counter balance or we couldn’t have good. In other words, “I don’t know why God sent that tsunami, but he must have a reason, because I know he is good.” Further explanations break off into, “we just don’t know what the reasons are”, and “we are limited beings, we can’t know” or “God is revealing himself to us over time, we will eventually know”. Mr. Everitt pretty well rejects these.

Nicholas acknowledges that it is a tribute to a good sense of morality that people don’t attempt to explain evil. If you followed the recent comments by Pat Robertson about the earthquake in Haiti being God’s retribution for some evil done by people 200 years ago, and the reaction by most religious people that it was crazy talk, you get the sense that most people understand that God is not an angry man in the sky sending down fire bolts.

Here’s Jon Stewart, an atheist of Jewish descent, sorting that out:
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The other argument is “free will”. We are free to exercise our sense of good, but we often abuse that and create evil. Of course in practice, one person exercising their free will often harms a perfectly innocent person. Nor does this speak to natural disasters that inflict evil consequences on good and bad alike. There really is very little counter balancing going on here.

So he makes his argument very well, that the existence of suffering “therefore remains a compelling reason for denying the existence of a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.” I did not get the sense that he had considered alternative definitions of God. I still have some essays to work through, but I hope to get to that soon. One other important comment gets slipped in at the end of this essay. It is a significant statement and the basis of much of the debate about morality and universal laws. It comes at the end of the discussion of suffering in nature, something that appears to be natural and inevitable, but as he points out:

“At least in the case of humans, the flourishing of some does not require the suffering of others, even if in practice the two go hand in hand.”

With increased pressures of population and increases in consequences of the creation of our own creature comforts, we have to deal the NYMBY phenomenon every day (Not In My BackYard). Early tribes just moved further up river after they had polluted one area. We can’t do that anymore. Domesticating wild boar in a few places in Europe and Asia might have made sense at one time, but now my simple choice of bacon or no bacon at Perkins has world-wide ramifications.

A lion has to kill to survive. I don’t. That may be debatable. How we will handle that debate will determine our future.

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