Monday, August 27, 2018

A Facebook Discussion Regarding God and Human Suffering

Glen BrownSome people say “to believe that God exists is to believe that one stands in some relation to God’s existence, such that God’s existence is itself the reason for one’s belief”; these non-theists choose not to make a leap from reason and/or bewilderment to an invocation of the supernatural when confronted with the injustice of predatory, egregious acts. And though non-theists do not have a belief in God's existence, most of them have moral and ethical convictions, nonetheless. They know where the notion of right and wrong comes from. When they find out about an institution that is complicit with heinous crimes against innocent children, they want moral and legal justice and not more prayers, penance and fasting.   

"…I absolutely renounce all higher harmony. It is not worth one little tear of even that one tormented child who beat her chest with her little fist and prayed to ‘dear God’ in a stinking outhouse with her unredeemed tears! It's not worth it, because her tears remain unredeemed. They must be redeemed, otherwise there can be no harmony. But how, how will you redeem them? Is it possible? Can they be redeemed by being avenged? But what do I care if the tormentors are in hell? What can hell set right here, if these ones have already been tormented? And where is the harmony, if there is hell? …And if the sufferings of children goes to make up the sum of suffering needed to buy truth, then I assert beforehand that the whole truth is not worth such a price…” (Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990. p. 245).

Richard Angelo Sasso: The vast majority deists/theists are rabidly furious about the sexual abuse of children. None of us condone it. The Pope is constrained by his leadership of an institution that he cannot control in its entirety. He cannot simply pull it all down in a flare of fury.

A long-held Christian belief is that unearned suffering is redemptive. Dostoevsky believed that himself. The character articulating those thoughts you quote is meant to illustrate the meaninglessly of a life without a deity.

“Without God all things are permissible,” Fyodor wrote elsewhere. Without a deity, any attempt to establish “moral and legal justice” at best simply depends on a human institution or at worst trusts a human intuition.

I do not know if there is God, especially the CHRISTIAN one. But a world without him is no better than with him and perhaps a great deal worse. Suffering for its own sake seems even more pointless.

Glen Brown: I always thought it interesting that Ivan’s argument in Rebellion and the Grand Inquisitor was stronger than his brother’s.

Richard Angelo Sasso: Sort of like Milton’s Lucifer/Satan.

Glen Brown: Yes, Paradise Lost. Though it is not about the Problem of Evil.

Richard Angelo Sasso: I made an in depth investigation of this in my younger years and I’ve been pretty sure there’s a higher power and he/she/it probably wants as little to do with organized religion as possible.

Glen Brown: Dostoevsky's Christian Orthodox is evident in Crime & Punishment, especially at the end of the novel.

Richard Angelo Sasso:  He was a tortured soul. As was Tolstoy.

Glen Brown: It seems to me that Dostoevsky’s main character, Ivan, chooses to search for answers to inexplicable moral questions. He cannot accept the notion that suffering in the world is justified because it promotes the ultimate state of happiness or, in other words, suffering as our means of enlightenment. His questions in The Brothers Karamazov are both explicitly expressed or implied. Such questions might be what kind of moral philosophy (or Divine Justice) condemns every child to inherit the sin of an assumed ancestor? If God wanted to forgive sins, why not just forgive them? Why such needless suffering of innocent children to reveal knowledge of good and evil? How does innocent suffering serve the moral improvement of mankind? If such suffering prevails here on earth, do we have reason to suppose that goodness predominates elsewhere? Isn't Divine Justice (or Divine Evil for that matter) disproportionate to any evil on earth anyway?

Richard Angelo Sasso: Human suffering remains the single challenge to theology.

Glen Brown: Yes, human suffering personified by the syllogism of the "Problem of Evil" has been considered the most powerful objection to traditional mono-theism. It is an argument against a "benevolent" and "omnipotent" creator.

Elie Wiesel would have also understood Dostoevsky’s fictional character’s objections to indifferent suffering. Wiesel attested during WWII, just like the children of Palestine, Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia, and America can today… what needless suffering truly is. Wiesel also realized that people who have a belief in God believe it is something to preserve and one that must not be challenged, even though it is in conflict with the ideals of truth seeking, moral reasoning and logic, and a belief in God’s superior compassion and power.

Richard Angelo Sasso: Yes, but the reverse argument is equally troubling: Must everything be perfect in this life for there to be a God? What would the acceptable threshold be? A head cold? A flat tire? A bad case of gout? And is the suffering we visit on one another through free will a count against a God?

Glen Brown: "Must everything be perfect in this life for there to be a God?": Yes, if God is omnipotent and benevolent, there would be no suffering, innocent children for an imaginary sin. "And is the suffering we visit on one another through free will a count against a God?": Yes, if God is omnipotent and benevolent, evil would not exist.

Richard Angelo Sasso: And would we even recognize such a world? There are ways of thinking of a good and powerful God that do not entail absolutist visions.

Glen Brown: Is it logical for us to believe that a God created the entire vast universe and then created man and woman on earth and gave them free will, but its chief concern is whether we worship it or not because our sins have some sort of cosmic significance in this vast universe that contains billions of galaxies, each galaxy with billions of stars, and each star perhaps with a planetary system and other possible life forms? Does that seem logical? Once again, if God wanted to test mankind in order to forgive their sins, why not just forgive them?

Glen Brown: Richard, I always enjoy our conversations. Right now, I am going to prepare for my General Ethics class.

Richard Angelo Sasso: I’ve drifted toward a pantheist vision of a deity that is not separate from creation, but one with it. I’ve long attended a Unitarian-Universalist church that sees worship as spiritual communion between people and a higher power. And there is no hell.

Suffering is no easier for the non-believer than the believer. If I cannot answer why God allows suffering, the atheist can see no comfort beyond what we can extend to one another.

Of course, the Buddha had some fairly clear thoughts on the nature of sufferings and the way away from them.


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