Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Answering Andy Rhodes on the Problem of Pain

On the Amazon page for a book by Hector Avalos about the "bad Jesus," an apparently sincere, and obviously thoughtful, reader posted a series of challenges to me.  His name is Andy Rhodes, a former Christian who says he is open to returning to Christianity, if his questions can be answered.  I will not pretend that I can answer them all to Andy's satisfaction or even, in some cases, to my own.  But frankly, it is not every day that I come across skeptics whose challenges are this strong and internally coherent.  So I'd like to give his arguments a shot.  (He gave me permission to post them here and reply, not that I always ask.)

Andy's first post (of six in this bunch) is about the "Problem of Pain" or divine hiddenness, along with the Christian record.  I've been known to duck and run from this former problem, but let's give it a bit of a shot now. 

I'll respond to Andy's comments one paragraph or so at a time. 

*  * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"My intention is not to have a nasty and antagonistic fight with you. I'm simply trying to understand these issues and express my frustration with what I consider to be quite insufficient answers that Christianity offers to explain and address life's problems and confusions.

"There's a lot to respond to in what you've written, but I think the best place to start is the natural world. When one talks about a compassionate and loving God, evidence must be provided for this and it must be encountered in the context of a brutal cosmos and Earth, largely inhospitable to humans and other animals. We suffer from disease, famine, tornadoes, earthquakes, etc.........all intricately designed by God. The universe is built on a structure of life-death and destruction-creation processes within a very impersonal and callous mechanism. The average human lifespan was 40 years or less before the 20th century, infant mortality rates were extremely high and most people suffered tremendously for much of the years they lived."

I will try to answer your questions.  But let me note from the start that doing so puts me in a somewhat false position.  I do not believe in Christianity because it has answered all the mysteries of life for me.   I believe in it because I think there is a great deal of powerful evidence in its favor, and because it sheds light on many mysteries. 

I don't expect to be able to understand everything.  Job didn't get all his questions answered, either.  Any universe that is completely explicable to human beings, has probably been invented by them. 

But I do believe there is strong evidence for the essential truths of Christianity -- the reality of God, His purpose in life, His work in history, prophesy, the divine nature of Jesus and transcendent goodness of his teachings, and his death for our sins and resurrection.  I think miracles happen, and have met numerous apparently honest people to whom they have happened.  And I think, and have argued, that truth within many great traditions turns the minds of those who seek God to Jesus Christ. 

C. S. Lewis granted (for instance, at the beginning of Problem of Pain) almost all of your a priori argument against Christianity in these two paragraphs, and so do I. 

I don't think the cosmos is "brutal," if you mean cruel, however.  That's overly anthropomorphic.  We live on this planet, and despite all the diseases and pests, its surface and atmosphere are fecund, beautiful, and full of life-giving provisions.  That there is no warm soil to plant carrots on Pluto is no concern of mine: God never promised me Pluto.  That doesn't make an icy world "brutal:" my own children's first instinct was to find the planets fascinating, and I still do. 

God didn't design famine, in my opinion.  What strikes me in reading ancient authors like Herodotus and Polybius, is how hard humanity has to work to make itself miserable.  Their historical works seem like an unending chronicle of wars, betrayals, and slavery.  Obviously there was more than enough food to go around: famine in most of the inhabited world requires concerted action by selfish people to create. 

Suffering is undeniable.  Infant mortality is horrifying.  (Apparently more so to Christians, who find even abortions heartbreaking.)  But it is striking that countries where suffering is greatest, tend to have the most believers.  It is in affluent countries where atheism grows rapidly. 

Why does God allow little children to die in such huge numbers?  Even at the hands of a Hitler, or of a cancer?  That is, indeed, the hardest question for a Christian to answer, especially one like myself, who agrees with you that death and disease occurred before human beings arrived on this planet.  It is not so easy to just say, "Eve ate the apple, that's why" -- if it ever was.  A lot of people found that one puzzling, anyway.  An apple?  Auschwitz?  A little disproportionate, maybe?

But we don't see the end of things.  I think of a shaman in South America who said he saw God take the spirits of children away.  If there is an eternity, all that we see that is horrifying, will pass, and a greater dawn will break that will put the Holocaust to shame as a taudry little episode in light of the glory of eternity. 

And not all on this earth is horrifying, either.  I watch animals, and simply do not see that birds in the trees are miserable, or seals following flounders, or our dog chasing squirrels to the trees.  (Nor that the squirrels are unhappy, or worry about their short lives).

A child gets sick.  I got sick as a child, many times.  In each case, I recovered.  Those incidents do not hurt me now: they are assimilated into my accepted and welcome past.  If Christianity is true, then for children who get that fever, or start vomitting, as I did, and then fall asleep -- I believe it will be the same for them.  I don't think they'll feel their lives were horrible, because they passed through an unpleasant door on the road to paradise.  I do not think they will feel the need to mourn: I guess they will laugh at death. 

"If there was a literal Adam and Eve, which seems impossible given the genetic science available today, their levels of obedience or sin could not significantly improve or diminish the level of death, suffering and predation intrinsic to nature. The idea that any amount of hope or love in the Bible could make up for this horrific context must be partial or complete wishful thinking and all this makes it even less likely that an afterlife could be consistently safe for anyone - it just doesn't jive with the world made by God the first time. Christian philosopher William Lane Craig has remarked that only 2 percent of the Earth's human population existed before Christ and so that's not as potentially negligent as God choosing to not reveal Himself in a salvific way to the human race for 100,000 years. Yet, if the estimates of total historical world population that I've seen in professional academic studies are correct, in that approximately 100 billion people have ever lived, then 2 billion people languished without revelatory assistance from God. That's still a very large number: 2 billion people."

I would question your assumption, here.  I think people around the world, including before the time of Christ, have enjoyed revelation from God.  And the Bible says that, too.  See my last book, How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test, for a number of examples. 

I believe that even if the story of Adam and Eve is meant as poetry or "myth," the first chapters of Genesis are among the most powerful and true pieces of writing in human literature.   Truth can be carried symbolically, and the amount of truth crammed into those few chapters is so great, I am inclined to see that itself as an argument for divine revelation -- the nature of men and women, our propensity to name and classify, our isolation and anxiety, the "Blame Game," the order of creation, the "fall" from a subsistence, family-oriented lifestyle to "civilization" that in its early stages brought so much misery and oppression -- just a few of the copious insights that these chapters reveal. 

But I also have no trouble imagining God calling a couple out from the crowd of early man and giving them special environmental responsibilities and awareness of Him.  Wilhelm Grimm and Win Corduan show that primitive peoples often were very aware of God, and often did have strong moral feelings.  Some of Genesis has, in my view, been verified scientifically.  Read In the Beginning, God, for instance. 

"God waited from 100,000-300,000 BCE until about 3,000 BCE to begin sharing anything substantial about himself/herself and this information was very slow to reach the rest of humanity, especially when one considers how many moral contradictions are contained in the Bible's teachings that prevented even remotely humanistic values to be understood consistently. Only during the past two hundred years has the Christian world begun to fundamentally shed the atrocious aspects of large parts of biblical faith, such as slavery, misogyny, seasonal/colonial warfare and theocracy - and this was largely because they were forced to do so by a increasingly humanistic worldview in Western society."

Some of this is simply false, a product (in my view) of Enlightenment propaganda.  I have demonstrated on this site that in fact, Christianity has long been at the forefront of improving conditions for slaves and of liberating them

And who says God did not speak to human beings during our first hundred millennia or so?  Genesis suggests that He did.  So do the stories of Abraham, Melchizadek, and Job.  So does anthropological data from around the world, as accumulated by Andrew Lang, Schmidt, James Legge, Don Richardson, Win Corduan, John Mbiti, and myself, among others.

Jesus' love was understood from the beginning, which is why Paul's love poem appears in I Corinthians, one of the most beautiful set of verses ever written.  It is also why Will Durant and Rodney Stark describe the amazing reforms the Gospel worked within Greco-Roman culture from the earliest years.   The idea that Christians waited for the Enlightenment (a bump on the rear of Christendom which turned malignant at times) is simply ridiculous, though I know that is a popular myth, and don't blame you for buying into it.

The Enlightenment was influenced by the Gospel, though not enough.  Christianity had been reforming the world for centuries before it began. 

Jesus owned no slaves.  His teaching was fundamentally inconsistent with treating a fellow human being as property.  Though he did not vocally oppose slavery, so far as we know, the logic of the Gospel, "There is now neither slave nor free," "Love your neighbor as yourself," changed history, and changed it dramatically -- though not instantly. 

Do you have any evidence that warfare was more severe in Christendom than anywhere outside it?  Read Polybius and other ancient historians.  It was endless and often cruel, though there were rules of war.  Enslaving defeated foes was almost always de rigeur, though burning down temples was considered immoral. 

Neither is theocracy taught or exemplified by Jesus, who held no political power.  Historian Donald Treadgold argues that Israel was the only free state in the region.  Berman's Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought is must-reading on the liberating character of the Torah.  And sociologist Robert Woodberry has shown that Protestant missions were a vital influence in the development of free institutions around the world. 

Again, when it comes to misogeny, my series on "How Jesus Liberates Women" on this site decimates the conventional assumptions.  I show that in fact, Christianity has liberated BILLIONS of women around the world.  And that began with Jesus, not with any "Enlightenment."  (As I noted already in Jesus and the Religions of Man, 2000, leaders of the Enlightenment were themselves often abusive towards women, as are many supporters of "abortion rights" today.  Bill Clinton was not an outlier, just a normal liar.) 

So I think your assumptions are not just wrong, they are the opposite of the truth.  Hundreds of comments have challenged my arguments on women, without denting them, because Jesus really has made the world a better place for women. 

"Surely, there were many sincere "seekers" in that incredibly long amount of time, but the message they may have heard could have repelled them - for very good and humane reasons. Meanwhile, people suffered not merely from ignorance about God's supposedly primary character attributes (love, justice, holiness, power), but also regarding the causes and solutions to disease, brutality, famine, poverty, social/ethnic/gender inequality, etc. How can this be fairly explained?"

Well, if people rejected the Gospel for "good and humane reasons," God knows that.  I don't believe He will condemn anyone for the good that they do.  But a lot of people fool themselves about the facts, and anti-Christian lies have become a growth industry in West and East -- I am constantly battling old canards that have been proven false decades ago, including many above.  But you don't know that such old canards are false, because the lies are so popular. 

"I don't see what reason there is to thank God for salvation from this condition that we are born into, that God designed."

Then thank God for the sunrise.  Or for the amusing peal of a banana.  Or for Shakespeare.  Or for the loves of your life. 

Gratitude makes us mentally healthy.  And there is plenty of cause to give thanks.  My parents have taught me that, in their declining years.   

"The weakness and frailty of human moral character, emotional intelligence and general smarts are so generally consistent and universal that it makes no sense to blame this on human beings. The Bible teaches that we deserve everlasting torment (with or without fire, depending on ones' interpretation) for not being able to overcome the toxin of human sinful nature, even though we did nothing to invite it."

We did nothing?  Can I not be kinder to someone tomorrow, than I was yesterday?  Can I not make someone's day better?  Can I not teach a song, help a child enjoy Christmas, listen to someone in sorrow? 

Let us attend to what we know, not to places we have not been, in this world or the next, and people we have not met.  Let us base  our choices on known facts. 

I think we do choose.  And I think the Bible is heroic, and calls us to heroism, which is better than blaming fate or pretending we are mere machines manipulated by selfish genes.  Isn't it better to be called to be gods?  If we fail, or refuse to try, or to ask God's help -- I don't know what happens then.  But I think it is good that we are called to try, and warned against the devils inside of us.  "Repentance" is a glorious word, and it seems to correspond to something in the real world. 

"Adam and Eve, or whoever the first humans were, could not have imagined that all humans would suffer awfully outside the Garden and in Hell because of just one rebellious act on their part. These kinds of examples serve to illustrate the incredibly disproportionate punishment system in the Scripture. God is perfect and incapable of sin. We are full of sin. Therefore, the consequence we deserve is infinite. Even for just a finite lifetime, with so much confusing and contradictory information to block revelatory clarity, with so little of human history being attracted, intuited or dominated by a monotheistic view of God (out of thousands of mythologies and religions, only the Jews and Zoroastrians) - even though Romans 1 says that it's obvious in nature."

But you're wrong about that.  Awareness of God -- I refer you again to Lang, Schmidt, Corduan, and my own Jesus and the Religions of God -- is common, around the world, on every continent.  Even the Greeks and Romans were beginning to recognize God, one reason Christianity caught on so quickly. 

As for heaven and hell, again, I have not been to either place.  I like C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, but he hadn't been there, either.  I judge by what I have seen, especially in the Gospels.  And going by that, I have reason to believe that God is just, and that eternity will not prove the moral horror that you think the Bible describes. 

I can only think of one place in the gospels where anyone turns to God in humility and pleas for help, and is turned away in the end -- and that was not a criminal on a cross, but a character in a parable.   


Anonymous said...

Thanks, David, for taking the time to write all of that detail. I will consider it and reply later on.


Anonymous said...

Here are some thoughts in response. Two foundational points undergird much of what I said in various posts (including the other ones not quoted above):

1. The natural evils were intricately designed by God and this seriously challenges the idea of ominbenevolence, even though this topic receives a miniscule amount of attention in Christian apologetics. This may be the greatest problem in Christian theology.

2. Jesus is the God of the whole Bible and universe, so he is responsible for all actions and words by the Trinitarian God in each of the 66 books and the shape and characteristics of nature from quantum mechanics through planetary motion and background radiation left over from the Big Bang.

Anonymous said...

# 1
The natural evils that cause suffering to non-human animals (since 300+ million years go until now) and human animals (100,000-300,000 BCE until now) through no fault of their own point to a level of callousness and even cruelty in God that ought to shut down apologetics and the idea of omnibenevolence immediately. I can recognize many positive and good things in life and the Scriptures, but the negative and toxic aspects are quite strong (probably much stronger). I feel that in what you wrote you stand in common with virtually every other Christian that I've spoken with or read - you largely skip over the most incredibly huge barrier to honest faith, which is that the suffering of this world was thoroughly designed and intended. Certainly, humans can and often do make the commonly available pain and disorder much worse. But, that is tiny compared to the context of disease, famine, confusion, earthquakes, predation by other animals, terror, tornadoes, depression, and on and on. Please address this like the gigantic issue that it is. We shouldn't mix it together with redemption or human rebellion or something like that. It stands alone. God made the universe to function in a brutal manner. We live in a quite comfortable modern world (relatively), where medicine can cure or at least improve many systemically unhealthy conditions that had no solution before. Numerous technologies that took us more than 100,000 years to achieve form a fence of protection from the regular ailments that faced all humans before the last century or so. A loving God would explain germ theory in practical terms to people from the beginning, along with how to live in the world generally - here's an overview (you humans can explore the details) of how build a society, pursue science, run amusement parks, record rock n rock songs, do or do not embrace blood sports, practice contraception or ban it, etc. Nature is not clear about revealing much of any clear message except "this or that hurts" and "I'm hungry" and "I want to survive".

The Bible is often quite bewildering and morally contradictory, so much so that intelligent and apparently sincere believers have come up with very different viewpoints and sometimes fought each other to the death over them. The Thirty Years War and the slave trade are classic examples of this in which the Bible really did say multiple things that didn't go along with each other thus leaving certain people to follow their interpretation and finding biblical passages to support their positions. A comprehensively loving God wouldn't put sentient beings in a situation anything like this. At least not by any definition of love that we humans utilize. The Garden of Eden and New Heavens and New Earth partly prove this in that people could and can there experience full flourishing without severe pain or death - significantly including people who didn't elect to be there such as miscarried babies, infants, young children, the mentally handicapped perhaps the unevangelized as well. The difference is that in the New Heavens and New Earth there is no possibility of falling away into sin and hell. What is the point of this intermediate time? Why did God make such a fragile cosmos and human race so that all it required to collapse into awful disarray was a single rebellious decision? What kind of wisdom, intelligence, planning and care is that? To the claim that God is a wonderful father or mother - we would not refrain from condemning any human parent who would behave like Jehovah does in allowing and many times directly causing radical suffering to one human so that others can gain wisdom and perseverance.

Anonymous said...

The topic of what God allows, whether regarding children dying or when paralysis results from car accidents for middle aged women, must be kept in context of the violent world that he or she made that way on purpose. A Creator that designs smallpox and sharks and lightning is not trying to provide a safe place for kids to play or adults to live full lives. Given the life expectancy didn't reach over 40 years until the 20th century and a large portion of the human race didn't live past age 5, we've got to let go of these hyper-positive and modern glasses that we have a tendency to use when considering the inherent harshness of life on Earth.


# 2

Jesus is the God of the entire Bible, so all of the defenses used from a position of a gospel centered view must be brought into a more grounded focus, one that embraces the active divinity in all 66 books. When you say that Jesus was non-violent and didn't advocate for slavery, it's hard for me to square this with the God who commanded the Jews to eliminate men, women, children and non-human animals inhabiting the Promised Land and gave them specific instructions on how treat Hebrew slaves far better than non-Hebrew slaves (which he instructed specifically how to purchase). He also spoke a lot about Hell, a place so violent and prolonged in torture that even Nazi concentration camps and Spanish Inquisition dungeons would be outdone in the terror category. This is the God that very intricately formed the universe in which stars explode to create new life, plate tectonics elevate land masses on Earth and tigers rip to shreds a conscious and neurologically sensitive antelope because that's how carnivores (without exception) behave and survive. Jesus is responsible for what he has made, just as Sony must give account for the performance of their HDTVs. I recognize that humans have free will and it is quite limited. Most of what we do as homo sapiens is pre-programmed, like what governs the functioning of dolphins, lizards, flowers, cancer and helium. Given that humans are so weak and frail in morality and intelligence, I would like for Jesus to explain to us how it's fair and compassionate for the Father, Spirit and himself to require absolute perfection from us or else eternal torment. If a human lives beyond childhood - after decades of perplexities, failures, wonders, fears, dilemmas, losses, inadequacies, heights of success, absurdities (all of which were far worse before very recent modern times) - with comparatively little aid provided in understanding what it means, much less guiding them to an understandable choice between a loving God and everlasting life in banishment and devastation - in this context, often without being even partly or fully informed, a person is required to make the right choice with sincerity.


I don't think that pointing back to Abraham as an example of God communicating with humanity in pre-history is very helpful. One of the simple expectations of loving persons, according to definition held to by most humans that I know or know of, is that they will offer needed and especially basic knowledge, physical assistance and guidance to anyone that seems to require it. If given the opportunity, a being like this would explain to early humans at least the rudimentary parts of medicine, politics, entertainment, adventure, peacemaking, education, relationships, etc. They would not leave these creatures in a wasteland of silence. Libertarian extremes of an Ayn Randian streak don't come close to the austere level of neglect apparent here: the absence of support, sustenance and instruction that Jehovah demonstrated.

Anonymous said...

How can you say that God didn't design famine? Most of the planet is very inhospitable to human life and the remaining parts often require a vast amount of effort to get a small result. Famines with non-human animals in the wild happen repeatedly on individual and large scales. It's part of how the planet works - scarce resources that shift away and may or may not return in time to feed the already starving creatures. Human history is overwhelmingly loaded with sudden natural changes in environment that led to mass death having nothing to do with human choice. There are cases where humans misused limited food supplies and farming opportunities, but many more than that were beyond their capacity to understand and act upon effectively. Charles Mann provides a very detailed example of this in his book, "1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created". He documents how in the early modern period, Europeans, North and South Americans and the Chinese experienced appalling suffering because of crop failures, diseases to people and plants alike. The people remained fully oblivious as why it was occurring.

You said, "But it is striking that countries where suffering is greatest, tend to have the most believers. It is in affluent countries where atheism grows rapidly." How does this stand up well for Christianity? One could initially say, among other things, that religion as an "opium" makes people feel better, satiates their minds with a grandiose explanation of why things are a certain way and this belief system spreads in uneducated and impoverished environments where hope and resources with which to improve conditions are intrinsically rare. Those who are illiterate and afflicted find themselves more attracted to religion, according to this model. Those two things could largely be two distractions from the truth that religion is too much trouble in comparison to whatever benefits it may provide. And a more critical stance toward religion, especially among many secular people who are living very well without it, could prove fruitful in finding out if it's actually true or even worth researching in-depth.

You said, "If there is an eternity, all that we see that is horrifying, will pass, and a greater dawn will break that will put the Holocaust to shame as a taudry little episode in light of the glory of eternity." I certainly hope that there is a positive afterlife that both holds us accountable proportionately and offers grace. But, to expect that a god that made this universe and may have revealed themselves in something like the Bible to be fair, loving and compassionate is quite a stretch. In religions such as Christianity, the total goodness of God is already assumed. I think that is backward. The composition of what God has made and how God has dealt with us should be the basis of our evaluation. Of course, we don't have the ability to control or officially judge God. But, the alternative is to simply acquiesce to what appears to me as bullying and manipulation by the Judeo-Christian deity. To surrender our wills in front of this divine power when there are so many ethical red flags blocking our honest appraisal of him as supremely admirable and good is to undercut a foundational aspect of what it means to be a true believer - sincerity.

Anonymous said...

He tells us that we aren't worthy of his presence because of our moral impurity that we were born with and our ancestors made one choice to condemn us and because we can't overcome this impossible situation we should fall on our knees and profusely thank God for saving pitiful creatures such as us. We're puny because God made us so excessively weak and dependent in comparison to the flawless behavior and pure motives expected of us and if we don't love and worship God totally - then we are failing. We must love God with our whole hearts or else see everlasting atrocity which is not love in the normative meaning but God says this is love so we are commanded to accept this stand-in definition or else hell is ours. The practice of contrasting a terrible experience to the infinite afterlife of outstanding happiness frequently serves, whether intentionally or not, to diminish the full experience of discomfort and agony that we feel in this lifetime, which quite real and possibly all we have. Plus, the Bible does put a lot of emphasis on valuing this life for its own sake and then adds a fixation with the world to come. We can debate theology and eschatology, but if there's a reasonably possible way to improve our quality of life then we should dedicate most of our energies in that direction. Unfortunately, among the many entanglements and derailments humans fall into, religion often embraces habits of attracting our capacities away from being fully present here and now. A reply might be that many Christians are very engaged in humanitarian causes, along with being spiritually centered and psychologically grounded. I know of believers this way too. But, I see a great waste and convulsion of mental activity toward speculations that take away from things that we know are for sure are happening, things which we can actually build some consensus upon and move forward as a society.

You said, "I believe that even if the story of Adam and Eve is meant as poetry or 'myth,' the first chapters of Genesis are among the most powerful and true pieces of writing in human literature. Truth can be carried symbolically.." One of the very destructive messages from that story is that humans are responsible for the ultimate predicament of life. This is crazy since we act in so much unison like all other species. As I've said above, we can and often do exacerbate our troubling conditions. But, these conditions are universal and inherited. These characteristics look essentially the same as for our cousins, the bonobos and chimpanzees, except that our version is more interwoven with depth and complexity. I believe that our volitional freedom has consequences that should be taken seriously but I don't think an immensely abstracted notion of individualism fits with how nature and human life works. Since most of what humans do is automatic to the biology of being what they are and the other aspects of their behavior falls into typically consistent patterns, it's more than fair to ascribe blame for 90%+ of human history on God. She or he may have not selected and forced every particular event to happen exactly in a specific way, but God did make creatures that follow a template, or really multiple interdependent templates (see personality tests such as the Myers-Briggs and Enneagram as examples). If God had wanted us to overcome immorality more often, she should have built into our make-up greater abilities. Instead, what God did was give bodies, wills, minds and consciences that could perform at a relatively amateurish level while requiring, on pain of everlasting death and alienation, a performance of absolute perfection as if from an all star professional playing the best game of their career.

Anonymous said...

To your comment about some of my statements being "Enlightenment propaganda", I have a lot to say and this is a start (much of it is from posts from our Amazon discussion):


Regarding the ethics of the biblical god and the effects of secularity on societal health, I attempted to address them on my WordPress blogs, "Disagreements I Have With Christianity" and "Persuade Me Politics". On one post at the former site, I describe books that influenced me as I gradually moved away from the faith. Here's an excerpt, as it applies to how the world has incrementally been becoming more peaceful overall during the past millennia in all categories of physical violence and how it correlates with modernity's process of expanding secularization in recent centuries (though there are several additional key factors that historians, psychologists, criminologists and sociologists say likely drove down violence statistics):


"The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined" by Steven Pinker (This remarkable book shows that, contrary to traditional Christian forecasts of inevitably high rates of violence in our "monstrously corrupt and sinful world", the planet has become far more peaceful than in any other time in history. The Bible's apocalyptic imagery doesn't seem as probable nowadays since things like warfare, rape, murder, legal and illegal slavery, bullying, lynchings, racism, sexism and animal abuse are all in radical decline. This process started when societies began to organize away from hunter-gatherer communities between 7,000-10,000 years ago into structured civilizations, but shifted to an accelerated level of reform during the 18th century's Age of Enlightenment. Though many modern Christian writers have argued that the reduction in violence has its roots in biblical values, the historical changes didn't occur during previous 1400 years of Judeo-Christian dominance over much of the world. Even today among Western nations and individual states within the U.S., those which are the most conservative and religious are the most violent and plagued with far greater social problems in categories like overall crime, infant mortality, environmental abuse, teen pregnancy, incarceration, life expectancy, poor educational systems, murder, healthcare efficiency, average worker to CEO pay ratio, paid maternity leave, obesity, income inequality and minimal worker's benefits. For example, on the Quality of Life Index for 2010, the United States - the most religious and conservative country in the developed world - ranked 33rd overall, 39th in health, 24th in education, 17th in wealth, 15th in democracy, 77th in peace, 38th in environment.)


I provide a lot of data to support the above claims on these posts from the political blog:

"Now - The Most Peaceful Time In World History"

"The more extremely conservative (or liberal) and religious a society is, the more dysfunctional it seems to become"

In connection with the "Bad Jesus" book by Hector Avalos, these posts on my blog about Christianity address parts and also engage aspects of your conversation thread above:

"Christ's Numerous Moral Failings"

"Martin Luther's Fierce Anti-Semitism And How The Bible Inspired His Cause"

Anonymous said...

Which Jesus do you base your admiration upon?

The 21st century domesticated version is often significantly out of step with what leading Christians asserted and emphasized for the vast majority of Church history. Modern Jesus followers usually don't think that old world barbarisms like seasonal/colonial warfare, misogyny, slavery, genocide and brutally disproportionate punishments for crimes are normative or moral. But, the Jesus as portrayed by the Bible as a whole did embrace these things, at least during long periods of time. And the most revered theologians of Christianity backed up this straight-forward interpretation until about 150 years ago. For example, according to a college history book that I own, about half of all pro-slavery tracts published in America were written by ministers of the gospel. Further, in Britain, it took more than 40 years to pass abolition partly due to a large segment of the opposition being Christian leaders and communities. In Hector Avalos' recent book that covers the Bible's influence on British and American slavery, he makes the case that the great British abolitionist, William Wilberforce, and those after him decided to stop arguing primarily from the Bible because it was so problematic - given that both testaments clearly endorsed the practice. Instead, they found it more effective to appeal to the newly formulated Enlightenment values of human rights and individual freedoms and then say that these are granted by God.

One possible reason as to why traditional Christian leaders today, as official representatives standing by "God's one holy book", do not take considerable responsibility for the toxic effects of these portions of the Bible is that they are viewing it from within the unique position of a modern, democratic, post-Enlightenment and individualistic society that expects each person to critically examine how to apply instructions from religion, philosophy and spirituality in appropriately different ways for each circumstance. However, because separation of church and state is a fairly recent concept historically, whenever Christians of past eras came into political, economic or military power, they often chose the apparently best model to follow in governance: the Old Testament patterns of theocratic authoritarianism and violent defense of national religious purity. Unfortunately, the Bible didn't provide clear enough tools with which to sort out the morally antiquated or irrelevant teachings within itself when Christians encountered complex problems and didn't have the "voice of God" present to tell them exactly how to proceed (assuming that God, if directly engaged in conversation, would have objected to these forms of political power in post-biblical times). Many Christian scholars of the past who are recognized by traditional believers to have had brilliant intelligence and mostly saintly character (especially in regard to the spiritual and theological quality of their writings), used the Bible to advocate and/or justify abhorrent conduct: Thomas Aquinas (misogyny), Martin Luther (murder of non-believers), John Calvin (murder of non-believers), Jonathan Edwards (slavery), George Whitefield (slavery) and numerous others. Were they ill-informed? Were they radically immature in their spirituality? It seems quite far-fetched to think these men were incapable of figuring out in their hearts or minds the very basic ethical components of "loving one's neighbor". Instead, the evidence reveals substantial (but not total) culpability first with the Scriptures themselves because of the virulent content found in many of its texts.

Anonymous said...

God in Jesus Christ ("on his own" during his human incarnation, at least apparently, or by means of his interdependent harmony with the Father and Holy Spirit), throughout the Old and New Testaments to varying degrees, commanded or supported these terrible things directly or indirectly (mostly directly): eternal hell based on a short earthly life, genocide, misogyny, slavery, polygamy, seasonal and colonial warfare, theocracy, capital punishments for moderate sins (such as a female lying about her virginity - which modern science has shown to be impossible to prove medically, or cursing one's parents, or working on the Sabbath, or not keeping a known dangerous bull locked up if the bull later kills a person - but if a slave is killed the owner only has to pay a fine, or being the victim of rape if one is an engaged woman and the rape occurs in a city), animal sacrifice, excessive judgment on the vast majority of humans who did not have biblical revelation until the last few hundred years, and many other things.

These are things that Jesus never challenged because, as the New Testament and history of orthodox theology repeatedly states, he was the God of the Old Testament. Even if a believer takes a more liberal viewpoint and downplays or denies the divinity of Jesus, the same basic argument remains in tact. This teacher from ancient Galilee supports in full the God and writings of the Old Testament. He innovates on the earlier scriptures, but doesn't contradict them. In fact, he says that he has come to fulfill the law, not abolish it.

See Matthew 5:17-19:

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven."

These kinds of primitive values must be cast aside or humanity will forever be lost in a method of problem-solving that far too readily chooses violence instead of the harder road of intelligent and compassionate understanding and the construction of better, more effective cultural values and social structures.


I think that many believers too easily and unsuccessfully explain away the fact that Christian history's greatest theologians interpreted the Bible often much like it reads and this meant that they supported inhumane activities and attitudes. They don't seem to be open to the possibility that the reason why 21st century believers avoid accepting the worst verses directly is because their modern sensibilities have made them more humanistic and therefore more comfortable with discarding or diminishing or de-emphasizing ideas and passages that theologians for 2000 years before did not? What makes contemporary Christians escape the charge of arrogance or ignorance due to such a quick side step over the lineage of Christ's Church that diligently studied the Scriptures and attempted to depend on the Holy Spirit to understand and apply the Word of God?

Anonymous said...

A reviewer on Amazon said, "Just because people didn't really believe or were not really willing to do what was right, does not mean that the ideas were not there."

The ideas *are* the problem. Those theologians and pastors were implementing particular ideas from the Bible that we now consider barbaric.

Today, sophisticated theologians try to give many nuanced and erudite explanations of why this or that text says something horrific. They claim it really isn't as bad as it seems when one has more education on the topic. A significant problem with this position is that God communicated the Scriptures to people who would pass down the writings to generation after generation, yet only 2000+ years later are leading Christian thinkers able to develop teachings and interpretations that apparently get around what the text (in context) actually says. Why would an intelligent and loving God provide such an ineffective and confusing revelation?


MORE TO COME.........................

BillT said...

To your question about of Adam and Eve's sin and the effect of it on all of humanity. Your tendency is to think that this isn't fair. That we shouldn't have to suffer for their mistake. I think that it's worth considering this: Would you have done any better? I'm quite sure I wouldn't have. Can you really say given the same opportunity that you wouldn't have reacted similarly? Adam stands in place of all humanity because in our human nature we can see the same issues that lead him to rejecting God. I think an honest self appraisal would bring you to that same conclusion.

Anonymous said...

Hi Andy,

Three quick comments:

(1) Newlines are cheap. Given how small and packed the comment text is, feel free to splurge a little.

(2) When you call God 'callous' and 'cruel', are you using your own metric or do you think that there is a contradiction between the Bible's definitions of how God should behave and how he is actually portrayed as behaving?

(3) Alternatively, do you think that the Bible's definitions of 'good living' are unliveable on their own terms?

Note when answering #2 and #3: "God / the Bible is bad because I don't like it" begs the question, in that it assumes your evaluation means something. If you can prove that your understanding of morality is reliable and true independent of the Scriptures, then the Scriptures themselves become irrelevant and arguing whether God is good or bad becomes a distraction, except insofar as you might claim "your God-belief is making you act badly based on this provably true external standard". If not, then either you need to prove that the Scriptures moral teaching is internally incoherent or you become subject to the Scriptures claim that your (and everyone's) moral judgement is corrupted.

Annoyingly, David's contention that people applying biblical morality leads to good things (say, for women) doesn't suffer this same problem. If you agree that the consequences he says are good are good, then you agree with the utility argument which provides evidence (but not proof) that the Bible's moral teaching is wise. If you disagree then you are back to the problem above where you first need to justify your moral standard before using it to evaluate.

Unless, of course, you can convince David that he perceives the Bible's moral teaching as bad, but my impression is that will be a hard sell. Christians tend to believe the Bible's teaching about the universal moral folly of man, which means that when they disagree with Scriptural morality the wise ones first question themselves.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bill T,

I'm not intending to put excessive blame on Adam and Eve. I have no doubt that I'm capable of making the same blunders as any of the early humans.

Regarding the Garden of Eden and human life afterward, my focus is on the vast disproportion between the crimes committed by humans and the gigantic punishments given in consequence by God (especially given that God made us quite morally, emotional and mentally weak when compared to the perfect ethical standard required and the overwhelmingly difficult environment that this Earth is for finite creature). The ultimate example of this to experience everlasting Hell for lack of cooperation with or rebellion against God during a finite lifetime. Many other illustrations of cosmic judicial inequity are found throughout the Scriptures, such as with the Torah requiring the death penalty for clearly non-capital offenses.

Anonymous said...

Hi Andrew W,

I don't mean this as an obnoxious slight, but as I used to work with an apologetics ministry, I've heard these arguments many, many times. I understand why Christians use them and these viewpoints make sense from within a framework of presupposing God's omnibenevolence and the Bible as true revelation from God. I think the former is undercut by the abundance of natural evils and the latter requires a radically larger amount of evidence and logical argumentation than Christian apologetics is able to provide. As Carl Sagan reiterated, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". The supernatural aspects of Scripture can be effectively explained away by a well rounded interdisciplinary academic critique, but I know that apologists will push back on every point there and that topic is not my primary aim. Instead, I want to keep talking about ethics because I think it's the most important issue in theology and religion in general. If Christianity was demonstrably shown to be true but the perfect goodness of God couldn't be defended in a thorough way, unlike the endless circular reasoning of typical biblical ethics, then I would still protest against God because he/she would be lying to us and thus practicing callous manipulation.

(1) When you mentioned newlines, you were referring to making my paragraphs shorter, right? If that's the case, I'll consider doing that in the future.

(2) You said, "When you call God 'callous' and 'cruel', are you using your own metric or do you think that there is a contradiction between the Bible's definitions of how God should behave and how he is actually portrayed as behaving?" My metric is based on a combination of modern humanism and the expectations that God set for himself in the Scriptures occasionally when he wasn't behaving barbarously and endorsing terrible behavior in particular humans.

To those people who say that a transcendent Christian god is necessary for objective morality, I have written a blog post to show that any god, especially the divine character from the Bible, who might have designed this universe, could not have any moral high ground or valid right to judge human beings. Nature is too full of destruction, waste and suffering (both for non-human animals and humans). The biblical narratives, though they contain many positive and insightful teachings/principles, are overly packed with inhumane actions by God and encouragements or commands for righteous humans to follow in her/his example.

I agree that many humanist ideas come from Christianity, but they also are based on Greco-Roman traditions and some general human intuitions. I think that the insights from Christianity and all other religions/philosophies/spiritualities belong to humanity as a whole. There is no reason to hold on to traditional religions as fully operating institutions, especially when it’s clear that society can and has maintained the benefits of humane principles without a religious foundation. Secularization of religious teachings are fine as long as they work (and it’s furthermore helpful for people acknowledge where the ideas came from originally). Modern thinking has discarded many destructive teachings from the Bible and this is a good thing.

Anonymous said...

(Continued to Andrew W)

Many conservative Christians have told me something like that “the whole notion of equal innate human rights is very difficult to justify without a high view of the sanctity of human life, which you certainly don’t get from materialism”. I partly agree in that it is hard to argue for transcendent ethics without supernaturalism. But, transcendent ethics might not be necessary, especially given that modern society is far more productive, healthy and peaceful than pre-modern Christian culture was. Today among Western nations and individual states within the U.S., those which are the most extremely conservative and religious are the most violent and plagued with far greater social problems related to murder, infant mortality, environmental abuse, teen pregnancy, economic mobility, incarceration, life expectancy, CEO to average worker pay, obesity, income inequality and minimal worker’s benefits. I believe that a moderate political, economic and moral position will work best. This can include a dynamic integration of the best insights from libertarianism, conservatism and liberalism.

The moral instinctual pattern in all known people groups does not clearly link itself to transcendent morality. Given the great variety (and many times contradictory nature) of moral systems and the fact that other types of apes and dozens of other species categories demonstrate compassionate tendencies outside their nuclear family along with behavior analogous to varying degrees to that of humanity regarding guilt, shame, pride, love, sorrow, depression, fear, dread, etc., a natural basis for morality is easily explainable apart from a transcendent source.

During various points in modern history, when people (including those of marginalized groups) have felt free and safe enough to speak their minds about what a fair and ideal world would look like, they have most often said that they desire a society that provides opportunities for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, much like that of the type of Enlightenment humanism (partly evolved from Christianity) that supports the philosophical foundations of the United States Constitution, Declaration of Human Rights, Geneva Conventions, Unitarian Universalism and United Nations. Why isn’t that enough? If the golden rule can be generally appreciated and the avoidance of severe pain and trouble be fixed as a utilitarian goal for society, and the results of this type of morality and sociology have been working so progressively well for the past 300 years, why go back to a traditional religious worldview?

Anonymous said...

(Continued to Andrew W)

(3) You said, "Alternatively, do you think that the Bible's definitions of 'good living' are unliveable on their own terms?" Yes. The standard is perfection. All it took was one horrible decision by Adam and Eve to ruin this and now all of us are suffering in separation from God and in anguish on this Earth because we're not able to do what we're not capable of doing - behave perfectly in thought, motive and action.

Obviously, there are good and pleasurable parts of life too, more more available to modern people as opposed to unfortunate ones living in the past 100,000+ years who rarely had decent education or health and most lived barely into their 30s - trying to survive in the very difficult world God placed them in. The challenges facing human and non-human creatures has always been many times larger than they could consistently match up with.

I'm not arguing for transcendent objective morality with a capital "O". If such a thing exists, I haven't found a solid basis for it. If God exists and is good, then whatever she says is good is good. However, the natural evils and incredibly weak justifications and explanations of this in Scripture lead me to believe that God must be at least partly evil.

The scriptural claim that all of our moral judgement is corrupted is insightful in that it points out that we are all fallible, but it can be an underhanded doctrine if it's being used to create the need for a savior - and that is the case. Grandiose salesmanship of the deceitful kind - create a problem in the minds of one's audience and then offer oneself as the savior of a problem that either never existed or that only this one person knows how to fix. The natural world and modern scientific traditions make it clear that death and suffering are built into basic operative structure of the cosmos. The "corruption" in humans can be understood as a more complex version of and tension between the notoriously violent temperament in chimpanzees and relative peacefulness of bonobos - our two closest relatives. I have not found any evidence or reasonable philosophical justification for the doctrine of original sin or that a Fall of Humankind ever occurred. How do we know that there actually anything to saved from? What is the problem? I know that we don't want to experience horrendous suffering caused by human and non-human sources. We also want to live in a world where people get along, encourage each other to flourish in using all of their capacities and live in a state of joy. Like the biblical vision of the Garden of Eden and New Heavens and New Earth. But, where is there any factual reference for this existing or even being possible? I'm sincerely asking. I've asked many Christian lay people, pastors and academics about this question over more than a decade and never got anything close to a substantial answer. I think this is because Christians are not used to having to address this category of skepticism. The work of Darwin and the rest of modern science are bringing the natural evils to the forefront step by step. Even magazines like Christianity Today have had to face the possibility that a real Adam and Eve never existed:

Anonymous said...

(Continued to Andrew W)

You mentioned "David's contention that people applying biblical morality leads to good things." As I've said several times here, on my blog and the Amazon discussion, I completely agree that many positive aspects are contained in the Bible and have led to many positive changes in the world. I argue that the good there doesn't outweigh the toxic elements in the Bible and it's applications. Plus, modern secular humanism has taken many religious ideas and improved their effectiveness, often because the distractions and convolution of the mythology and doctrines (whether true or not) were stripped away. Again, I can point to statistic after statistic to show that America's extreme religious, economic and political conservatism is damaging this country and the world at large. It's no accident that the gigantic humanitarian movements that gained momentum during the Enlightenment accomplished much more in the past 300 years than in the 1700 years before since Christianity had begun. The examples that David's gives on the blog page he linked to are indeed noteworthy, but much too small to compare with modern humanitarian progress and cultural transformation. The decrease in all areas of physical violence that radically picked up during the Enlightenment says a lot as well (even with the large outliers of the Napoleonic Wars, WWI and WWII).

To say the "Bible's moral teaching is wise", one would have to define what the Bible teaches on morality. As would be expected for loyal adherents to the faith, Christian theologians have repeatedly ignored, adapted or explained away what many modern people label as the dark aspects of biblical morality. But, if a person is going to be comprehensively honest, then they must take into account the fact that so many famous theologians thought that a long list of inhumane behavior practiced, taught, modeled or analogized in the Bible was normative. They were highly educated people and read the texts in an straightforward manner. Like I mentioned above, here are a few of many examples: Thomas Aquinas (misogyny), Martin Luther (murder of non-believers), John Calvin (murder of non-believers), Jonathan Edwards (slavery), George Whitefield (slavery).

I have no problem with your statement that "the wise ones first question themselves". I've tried to do this all of my life. I left Christianity very slowly, while dialoguing with pastors, friends, family and apologists at each step. I still talk with my conservative Christian friends and am open to being wrong. I did not want to leave the faith. It's been quite a painful journey for me, but I went in the direction that my conscience took me. I lost my community through my deconversion and experience discomfort with family and friends. Ultimately, my Christian friends and family generally understand my frustrations and objections though they disagree with my viewpoint, of course. I'm fortunate to have had positive dialogues with these people instead of conflict over our religious differences. I still pray and express my frustrations to God. I try to love or like God the best that I can. I ask God to reveal her/his goodness. However, since I left Christianity in 2006, I've moved further away each year from the tradition because I've discovered more and more problems with the doctrines and found the Bible less and less plausible as a historical record of supernatural events.

David B Marshall said...

Andy: I don't know how much time I'll have to deal with all your arguments in the next couple days. But let me start by pointing out that it simply isn't true that there has been suffering on Planet Earth for 300 million years.

Suffering requires a high level of consciousness. Leaves do not suffer when they fall from the tree -- that's anthropomorphic sentimentality. Nor do trilobytes or oysters.

Genuine suffering is probably only possible for creatures with very large brains. Probably no creature until a few million years ago had the capacity for genuine suffering. We should not mistake the writhing of a worm on the pavement for how we would feel if we were so writhing -- again, that's sentimentality, not reality.

Here's a good article on this subject. Maybe it will help you:

David B Marshall said...

"One of the simple expectations of loving persons, according to definition held to by most humans that I know or know of, is that they will offer needed and especially basic knowledge, physical assistance and guidance to anyone that seems to require it. If given the opportunity, a being like this would explain to early humans at least the rudimentary parts of medicine, politics, entertainment, adventure, peacemaking, education, relationships, etc. They would not leave these creatures in a wasteland of silence."

I am not very sympathetic to those sorts of arguments, of which for example Richard Carrier makes too much use. I am rather glad that God did NOT spell everything out for us at the beginning, and let us figure and struggle for ourselves. Adventure was not something early man lacked: that's more a struggle for us. I think the Bible does teach us relationships, and if Christians, and some atheists I know, listened more to Jesus & St. Paul, our lives would be a heck of a lot better for it. But I'm happy God allows us to experiment and think for ourselves -- what a bore Star Trek would be if all the planets were fully mapped out beforehand.

Anonymous said...


Those last two posts from you are frustrating to me.

What you said there doesn't address what I actually wrote. My views have there been caricatured or distorted. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt that you didn't do that intentionally.

It seems like your just giving me generic answers like we're on an assembly line or automated phone service and I can press #1 for "problem of evil", #2 for "slavery in the bible", etc.

The first reptiles came into existence 350 millions years ago. They certainly felt and feel pain. Studies have shown that fish experience pain. Mammals arrived 200 million years ago.

Being an apologist who discusses this kind of thing a lot, you've got to at least know the overall timeline of natural history. So, why would you so recklessly say something like this?:

"Suffering requires a high level of consciousness. Leaves do not suffer when they fall from the tree -- that's anthropomorphic sentimentality. Nor do trilobytes or oysters."

You said, "Probably no creature until a few million years ago had the capacity for genuine suffering. We should not mistake the writhing of a worm on the pavement for how we would feel if we were so writhing -- again, that's sentimentality, not reality." Making extreme and unrelated contrasts like this doesn't help. The last 300 million years are full of sentient beings that aren't even close to worms in levels of intelligence and psychological/emotional/neurological sensitivity. The fact that you even used this as an argument is insulting. Who, other than possibly some obscure pagan mystics, are claiming that worms experience pain or suffering? Don't you think that's an unfair tactic to use? - to bring up an extreme example that everyone will reject and say that it was my argument when I actually said nothing like that.

And you included the phrase, "anthropomorphic sentimentality". I don't think a loving God would be okay with dismissing as ethically irrelevant the actual feelings of pain in millions of sentient species during the past 300+ million years. It's like you're looking for a quick way out of the dilemma. William Lane Craig tries to the do same thing a lot. You may know that a few years ago he said that only the higher apes experience suffering because they're the only species with a pre-frontal cortex. When numerous scientists heard about this, they immediately started pointing to recent studies and many past years of science textbooks that clearly present the much larger field of species that have a pre-frontal cortex. These same academics explain that the standard pre-frontal cortex configuration found in these "higher animals" is not required for an animal to feel both pain and suffering (they don't the need to separate these two categories in the ways many Christian apologists try to do). Studies have shown that behaviors from a very wide range of "lower animals" fit in with the generally analogous patterns aligned with the great apes.

I never said anything like we would be better off without challenges. Part of my argument either above and on Amazon was that in the Garden of Eden and New Heavens and New Earth an environment exists without sin, severe pain or death and yet humans have the full opportunity there to thrive and reach our full potential. The biblical message is always that sin benefits no one. Remaining in healthy relationships with God, other people and nature is always radically superior to any kind of situation requiring salvation from sinful choices.

Anonymous said...

(Continued to David)

I'm referring to some very serious challenges to Christianity and you're skimming over them. I've studied apologetics for 20 years and it's shocking to me how many theologians and apologists do the same as you're doing. I promise you that by not spending a very large amount of philosophical and theological effort on natural evils as they're potentially related to God's goodness, a significant opportunity to help influence many more people toward the Church is being missed. The average person in this category will not articulate these problems in the same way that I'm doing, but it's the foundation undergirding all forms of the problem of evil (which has historically been truncated within a discussion of human freedom).

You said, "I think the Bible does teach us relationships, and if Christians, and some atheists I know, listened more to Jesus & St. Paul, our lives would be a heck of a lot better for it. But I'm happy God allows us to experiment and think for ourselves -- what a bore Star Trek would be if all the planets were fully mapped out beforehand." Again, this is not a response to what I wrote. I never challenged the positive parts of the Bible. What I said was that 100,000-300,000 years of no clear revelation from God to humans when they're suffering tremendously in ignorance - that's a massive ethical problem for the concept of God's goodness. Further, when the Bible was revealed, it was so confusing that theologians very often deeply disagreed with each other and many inhumane things were done by direct application of various biblical words, themes and concepts.

You said, "I am rather glad that God did NOT spell everything out for us at the beginning, and let us figure and struggle for ourselves." This also shows you didn't see how I already answered that.

I really would like to hear your thoughts on this issues, but please deal directly with what I'm saying.

The reason I posted so much at once in recent days is because the way you responded to my (Amazon post) paragraphs you originally quoted above ignored the fact that I'd already addressed much of your counter-points elsewhere on the Amazon discussion. I know we all have limited time to have these discussions, but at least give me the benefit of the doubt and read the conversation threads at least superficially.

Thanks for considering this. I'll check out the link you shared.

Anonymous said...

(Continued to David)


Anonymous said...

(Continued to David)

My view on Christianity as a whole is that the good and positivity it offers is far outweighed by the bad and toxicity, so it ought to be freely abandoned as an operating religion and belief system. Honest and healthy people will always recognize Christianity's place in the history of ideas, cultures and spiritualities, but the benefits of keeping it running are just not anywhere near large enough to overcome the damage it causes because of its doctrines.

You mentioned how Jesus liberates women. I can agree that his treatment of women was more humane that found in the Torah. But, he wrote the Torah! I don't mean to yell, but I'm so tired of hearing Jesus separated from the rest of the Bible and nature, which he is fully responsible for. Whatever seeds of better treatment regarding women can be found in the Gospels, very little of it in comparison was enacted until the the Enlightenment. Throughout the women's movements in recent centuries, much of the opposition has come from conservatives and orthodox Christians. The same is true of slavery. I have a college textbook on American history and it says that half of pro-slavery tracts before the Civil War were written by pastors. Are all of those theologically educated and likely sincerely believers in error? That claim would seem to be a stretch when Christian theologians before the last few centuries largely didn't have a problem with the more brutal Scriptural precedents.

Regardless of what Avalos says in his other book on slavery regarding abolitionists eventually using secular arguments by necessity (and not just because the courts were becoming more secular in the late 1700s than in England's more overtly theocratic past), I think it makes sense even just conceptually for William Wilberforce and other activists toward eliminating slavery to argue for their cause on the basis of human rights and other secular arguments. Or from generally deistic or theistic arguments without getting too involved with the Bible. Those 66 books just aren't clear enough. One major reason that it took Wilberforce 46 years to convince his countrymen to complete the abolition process in the British Empire was because a huge part of the clergy, government leadership and general public argued and believed it was obvious that slavery and racial inequality were natural, culturally normative and biblical. Along with their Christian ancestors for hundreds of years that created and sustained New World colonial slavery with biblical justifications, the conservatives in Britain and America were among the main forces that resisted 18th and 19th century abolition laws. Within Wilberforce's long efforts, it took 20 years (1787-1807) to get the slave trade legally ended and another 26 years (1807-1833) to make slavery itself illegal. Why would God provide such a misleading revelation? Or, in this case, is it more accurate to say that modern Christians developed a more heightened humanitarian sensibility because of the rise of modern humanism?

Anonymous said...

(Continued to David)

I'm an ex-Christian who certainly did not want to leave the faith. My father, mother and sister are all seminary trained pastors and I used to work for two leading evangelical apologetics ministries. But, I felt that I had to quit church and Christianity because of the inhumanity of the doctrines. It started around 15 years ago with what I saw as the insanity of the cross of Christ. What was the point of the atonement system that required blood? Isn't this some really sick stuff? Killing non-human animals and eventually one pure blood human? Is this not barbaric and disgusting and actually unnecessary and baffling as to why God set-up a system like this? Why would God create a world and human race that were both so easily breakable that just one bit of hard pressure in temptation fractured the whole thing and so we have to all profusely thank God for what seems to be a rescue out of poor design and planning on her/his part? Let's remember that Jesus, along with the Father and Holy Spirit, created Hell by choice. They didn't have to make such a brutal physical world and horrific afterlife. I would return to the faith if these things could be even half-way resolved. I consider myself a theist-in-protest. I don't see how an observant and sincere person can avoid admitting that God must be at least partly evil when one studies nature and Scripture.

I don't see why any of the apparent barbarisms in the Bible involving commands or teachings by God would necessarily shock or deter anyone who honestly accepts how mind-blowingly callous and cruel the physical world is. Beyond that, just one biblical story should effectively end the discussion - the Flood. I don't know of any evidence that this happened, but the character of God revealed there is ghastly in the extreme: drowning all living things like babies and adults and deer and elephants! Sentient beings suffering horribly because of people that God says are irredeemable. For what? The DNA wasn't changed. The sinful condition inherited from Adam and Eve was the same in the post-Flood era. As soon as the Flood ended, the human race went on just as before, carrying out their design. Yes, they had free will, but it was quite limited by their biology.

I think that Christianity probably has done more good and progressed society more successfully than any other religion. However, the Jews and early church borrowed and found inspiration in the surrounding environment, just as Christianity has done in the past two thousand years. The faith was not invented out of thin air. So, when modern Western secularism (in general, and even pure atheism) looks at its own history and origin, it can choose to be humble and sincere in admitting that it has been very influenced by the Bible and often secularized religious concepts and teachings (the New Atheists don't give anywhere near enough credit to Christianity on this point). Of course, the Greco-Roman traditions, along with Christianity, obviously had a big impact on all Western history especially including the Renaissance which pushed forward the Age of Reason and Enlightenment thus building the foundation of modern Western secular thought.

Anonymous said...

(Continued to David)

I think it's important to compare someone like David Bentley Hart, who wrote "Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies", with a person such as Steven Pinker, who wrote "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined". The former provides a detailed history on the contributions of Christianity to Western culture. Generally, I don't dispute this, though I might challenge certain details and emphases (like how he praises the Christendom of the Middle Ages for its replacement of slavery with serfdom, when it's really "slavery-lite"). The latter author and book show through a massive amount of interdisciplinary data how the decline of violence began when state societies appeared with ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, etc., sloped downward gradually to this day, with a much faster drop starting in the late 1600s - for what eventually became a trend in all categories of physical violence. Why couldn't Christianity achieve anything like this in the 1400 years that it dominated the Western world? Creating hospitals, helping the poor, advocating to ban infanticide, etc, are all great things, but nowhere near the comprehensive and potent movements that commenced in the Enlightenment.

Humanists and those with strong leanings toward humanism, from Christian and non-Christian backgrounds, studied the Bible and other sources during this time period, cherry-picked the positive aspects and used this information to further their causes to improve levels of freedom, justice and quality of life. It wasn't that Christianity didn't do those things before to a significant extent. The problem was that the Scriptures presented such contradictory and muddled messages and principles, many times to a point where people could legitimately see completely opposite views in the text (which often could easily justify inhumane practices). Secularism and humanism sifted through the ancient resources and tried to keep what was helpful for us living today. It's definitely an imperfect process, but it's an attempt that has brought out many positive things unknown in the world before modernity. Was it just a coincidence that modern humanism and secularism arose at the time when the biggest humanistic and democratizing changes in history occurred? Surely, they drew upon aspects of Christianity (along with ancient Greece and Rome), but they would have to do this since that was the dominant world view at the time. They evolved away from that foundation in many ways and began to critique and replace elements of the old world view and cultural practices. To debate whether that was a good or bad thing and to what degree, we need some kind of agreed upon rubric of what humane behavior and healthy societies look like and reliable data from sociology, economics, history, etc., with which to compare the social effects, at least in correlation, of various philosophies and habits.

Anonymous said...

I provide a lot of the evidence with many charts from Pinker's book on my blog post, called, "Now - The Most Peaceful Time In Human History" at Persuade Me Politics on WordPress. Here is a long quote from the post that summarizes the data:

"This remarkable text evaluates and combines the work of dozens of historians to show that, contrary to popular opinion on the left and right, the planet has become far more peaceful than in any other time in history. Terrible things like the following are in radical decline (or in some cases have been eliminated): warfare, rape, murder, judicial torture, child abuse, legal and illegal slavery, use of the death penalty, robbery, infanticide, bullying, lynchings, corporal punishment, misogyny, theft, domestic abuse, racism, blood sports, religious persecution, burglary, debtors' prisons, sexism, abortion, dueling, property crime, witchhunts and animal abuse. This process started when societies began to organize away from hunter-gatherer communities between 7,000-10,000 years ago into structured civilizations, but shifted to an accelerated level of reform during the 18th century's Age of Enlightenment and afterward. By absolute numbers and percentage of population, the trend is downward in violent behavior....Whether intentionally or not, the media often makes the global situation look like everything is getting worse or at least not significantly improving. That's just not the case when it comes to acts of violence. There still is plenty of harm being done by humans to one another, but thankfully it's far less prevalent overall than in 1965 or 1805 or 1585. Through a very large range of historical narratives, archaeological evidence and statistics, the human condition generally reveals itself as more barbarous the further backward one looks. On a recent note, the U.S. crime rate now is half of what it was in the early 1990s. This includes places known to be more dangerous like Baltimore, Washington D.C, New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia. Between 1973 and 2008, rape decreased by 80% and murder became 40% less common. According to the FBI, from 2001-2010, the crime rates went down in categories of violent crime (20%), forcible rape (13.8%), robbery (19.7%), aggravated assault (20.8%) and motor vehicle theft (44.5%)....When using percentage of population as a guide to study the scale of war related deaths, the worst atrocities of the 20th century don't top the historical list. Just 4 horrific events of the 1900s make it into the top 20. Only 1 makes the top 10, as WWII ranks 9th. Archaeological studies from 21 prehistoric sites of eras as far back as 16,000 years ago show on average a very high 15% violent death rate because of trauma evidence in the skeletal remains. Examinations of 8 hunter-gatherer societies demonstrated a level of about 13%, whereas in 10 studies of hunter-horticulturalists and other tribal peoples the rate was almost 30%. The Middle Ages hovered under 10% and gradually lessened. The 20th century, even with all of its devastation and human suffering, had a rate of a much smaller 3%. The 21st century is astronomically low in comparison, 0.03%. That's 500 times less than typical prehistoric levels of brutality and nearly 1000 times below the average rate for hunter-horticulturalists and other tribal groups. Contrast modern levels of carnage to that of the American Wild West, where the percentages ranged up to 30% or higher in each town. England, for another example, now has a murder rate that is 35 times less than in the Middle Ages."

I read a very angry and spiteful review by Hart of Pinker's book, in which he, just like philosopher John Gray, intensely attacked Pinker and his book on its leaning toward secular humanism in its philosophy, yet provided almost no data to refute a nearly 700 page book, with over 100 charts, another 100 pages of footnotes and indexes, based on a huge amount of collected research from dozens of top scholars in history, anthropology, criminology, psychology, etc.

Anonymous said...

(Continued to David)

On that same site for politics, I have an article called "Extreme Political Or Religious Views Create Dysfunctional Societies". Since the early 2000s, I've researched the social effects of various philosophies and religions and found that the data generally revealed more and more problems as the perspectives pushed further away from moderation. This may be an obvious point to some, but there are clearly many in America and elsewhere who aren't focused on the fact that their worldview is considered fringe by other people, even if the statistics show that their philosophy is correlating with or causing a lot of problems. In dozens of studies that I looked at over the years from academia and government sources, I discovered repeatedly that among Western nations and individual states within the U.S., those which are the most conservative and religious are the most violent and plagued with far greater social problems in categories like overall crime, infant mortality, environmental abuse, teen pregnancy, incarceration, economic mobility, life expectancy, poor educational systems, murder, paid vacation and holiday pay, healthcare efficiency, average worker to CEO pay ratio, guaranteed paid maternity leave, obesity, income inequality and minimal worker's benefits. For example, on the Quality of Life Index for 2010, the United States - the most religious and conservative country in the developed world - ranked 33rd overall, 39th in health, 24th in education, 17th in wealth, 15th in democracy, 77th in peace, 38th in environment.

I believe that extreme liberal viewpoints would develop equally disturbing problems in other forms. But America is far from liberal when compared to the history of economics, political science and the international community today. In fact, though far-left groups were very influential in the 20th century, their attraction has largely shrunk. As I note on my post:

"Several generations of mainstream Americans have considered socialism inherently destined to fail in any context, yet today every nation in the world maintains in widely varying degrees an economic system of integrated socialism and capitalism. This includes the five remaining communist countries originally and deeply influenced by Russia, a society that has made many adjustments in recent decades so capitalism might continue to grow: Vietnam, China, Laos, Cuba and North Korea. The fact that America and Britain (often the most conservative and religious European country) rank so poorly regarding social ills ought to inspire self-reflection in the face of the empty American proverbs proclaiming that socialism and secularism are automatic and regular destroyers of human quality of life."

My point here is that extreme conservatism is more of a threat in Western, if not global, society today. I think that a dynamic combination of capitalism and socialism is the best way to go.

Anonymous said...

(Continued to David)

I said in one of my earlier posts that I don't challenge the many reforms of Christian history that David Bentley Hart describes in his book. I'm arguing that those reforms were small in comparison to the monumental changes that began to occur in the 1700s. Conservative Christians, to a large degree, opposed these reforms. You can point to exceptions like Wilberforce, a voice of a minority viewpoint (that gradually became more mainstream), but he was extremely resisted. Consider that this same general group of people also stood against much of what labor unions accomplished for worker conditions and rights in the late 1800s and early 1900s. There were Unitarians and liberal Christians like the Quakers who were part of the abolitionist movement as well.

You remarked that it "was the Enlightenment that borrowed from Christianity" and I don't disagree, except that I would add the Greco-Roman traditions as influences. Any new movement has to draw on its own culture for material, whether outside sources are included or not, because one cannot invent a system out of nothing. The issue is whether humanism took society further in a better direction than Christianity was able to. Did the Enlightenment ideas push forward an improved quality of life for more people? I think that the factually based answer is yes. If you look at the charts from Pinker's book and elsewhere that are on my blog post about declining violence, it's clear to see that the change in humanitarian behavior and values is radical, beginning about 300 years ago. Christianity didn't pull off anything close to that. Christianity borrowed from it's ancestors and neighbors and progressed. Humanism and secularism have done the same but much faster and more comprehensively.

We can keep in mind that Wilberforce, during his zeal for social reform, did something very similar to conservative Christians have done throughout American history: block legitimate social programs or reforms that help people simply because their particular moral and social concerns told them it had to be done. He pushed for his legislation called the "Society for the Suppression of Vice", which sought to control many allegedly immoral activities that we now would say should be left to the individual to choose. In our country, many, if not most, conservative Christians have been on the wrong side of history many times. Here are some of them, as provided by Amanda Marcotte, writing for Salon: women's sufferage, evolution, pain relief for childbirth, segregation, animosity toward Roman Catholics, prohibition, slavery, mandating school prayer and contraception. To that I'll add - sex education.

I don't know how you can have such a positive view of orthodox Christianity regarding slavery. To say that Christians opposed slavery when it's overwhelmingly clear that a lot, if not most, of American (Northern and Southern) and British Christians did support slavery in the 1600s to late 1700s or early 1800s and when both positions can be easily argued from the Bible - this doesn't clarify things.

The Southern Baptist Convention was founded in opposition to anti-slavery sentiments in Northern believers. And it's well established that racial inequality and slavery were defended as normative and divinely approved with tenacious effort from a scriptural basis by the Confederacy States of America and many, if not most, theologians and churches of the South in the 1800s.

Theologian Thomas Aquinas tried to defend certain forms of slavery while the Catholic Church as a whole has a long history of supporting this tradition and even owning slaves.

Like I discussed before, Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield owned slaves, the latter being very instrumental in relegalizing slavery in Georgia during the early 1700s.

Anonymous said...

(Continued to David)

I don't dispute the many positive aspects of the Bible. I am, however, trying to get Christians of today to be honest about the effects the Scriptures had when read in something like a straight-forward manner by intelligent and sincere believers during past centuries. Trying to defend anything like modern rights for women or abolishing the slave trade is both partly supported and severely contradicted by so much of the Bible that even the most sophisticated theologians appear to many outside observers to be spinning intellectual acrobatics. Only so much of it can be explained away when there is such a heavy load of barbarism throughout the texts. Again, when supposed love and concern from the Christian God is presented within the context of horrendous suffering intrinsic to the design of the natural world for non-human animals and humans, this divine outreach is not impressive. Saving people and not saving non-human animals at all from conditions that God placed us in doesn't illustrate grand care. Instead, it shows callousness and even trickery, manipulation and possibly misanthropy at an alarming level. I wish this wasn't the case, but I don't see how a sincere observer can conclude otherwise. They ought to say that the Scriptures and nature demonstrate that God's character must be a convoluted mix of good and evil (not necessarily 50/50), based on a common sense modern definition of humane conduct.

Consider Wikipedia's note on the Patristic era and slavery as an example of quite diverse interpretations on a basically obvious moral question (but not so obvious because the Bible is not clear on the subject):

"Several prominent early church fathers advocated slavery, either directly or indirectly. Augustine of Hippo, who renounced his former Manicheanism, argued that slavery was part of the mechanism to preserve the natural order of things. John Chrysostom, while he described slavery as the fruit of covetousness, of extravagance, of insatiable greediness in his Epist. ad Ephes, also argued that slaves should be resigned to their fate, as by obeying his master he is obeying God. Saint Patrick (415-493), himself a former slave, argued for the abolition of slavery, as had Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-394), and Acacius of Amida (400-425). Origen (c. 185-254) favored the Jewish practice of freeing slaves after six years. Saint Eligius (588-650) used his vast wealth to purchase British and Saxon slaves in groups of 50 and 100 in order to set them free."

Other than the college textbook that I mentioned, consider these quotes from "Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840" by Larry E. Tise, history professor at East Carolina University:

"The antebellum period was the golden age of the religious press, when the nation was flooded with tracts, books, and newspapers issued from clergymen's pens. In the lead of those who used and perfected the religious press to dispense new, editorial opinion, and social philosophy stood proslavery clergymen." (page 166)

"Proslavery clergymen were also widely published authors. About 74 percent of them published books, tracts, or pamphlets other than or in addition to one piece of proslavery literature...Those clergymen who were the most prolific writers doubled as the most fruitful authors of formal defenses, writers of eight items or more produced 39 percent of all formal defenses [they wrote other forms of literature]...major theological, religious and and political topics...Those clergymen who defended slavery possessed the prejudices and aspiration of most other Americans. An overwhelming number of the ministers were slaveholders and plantation owners with aspirations to expand their agricultural interests and income." (page 170)

Google Books has a fairly in-depth preview of the book with many pages available to read.

Anonymous said...

(Continued to David)

In a chart on page 172, the author provides info from "U.S. Census manuscript slaveholding schedules and other biographical data". It shows that among 78 formal defense of slavery tracts composed by clergy, 20 came from the South, 33 from the outside the South and 25 were from unknown locations. For 119 proslavery writings, 26 were composed by Southerners, 55 from outside the South and 38 were from unknown locations. Regarding 158 proslavery and war sermons, 41 came from the South, 58 from outside the South and 59 were from unknown locations.

The fact that the majority of the writings mentioned above were not found to have come from the South helps to demonstrate the widespread proslavery sentiment among clergy and the general populace in the 1700-1800s. The official description of this book makes this a central point:

"Probing at the very core of the American political consciousness from the colonial period through the early republic, this thorough and unprecedented study by Larry E. Tise suggests that American proslavery thought, far from being an invention of the slave-holding South, had its origins in the crucible of conservative New England. Proslavery rhetoric, Tise shows, came late to the South, where the heritage of Jefferson's ideals was strongest and where, as late as the 1830s, most slaveowners would have agreed that slavery was an evil to be removed as soon as possible. When the rhetoric did come, it was often in the portmanteau of ministers who moved south from New England, and it arrived as part of a full-blown ideology. When the South finally did embrace proslavery, the region was placed not at the periphery of American thought but in its mainstream."

Tise says that there were very few proslavery tracts printed until shortly before the American Revolution. Up until then, virtually everyone accepted slavery as normative:

"Thus, the paucity of early American proslavery literature resulted neither from the absence of proslavery notions nor from any indisposition toward upholding slavery. What was missing was the need to defend an institution that nearly everyone took for granted....Lacking any widespread opposition to slavery, its defense was usually sporadic and local. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, published defenses almost always appeared in direct response to specific antislavery tracts and for all practical purposes ended the debate. Not until the decade before the American Revolution did anything like an extended intercolonial and international debate on slavery get under way." (page 16)

"The forces that gave rise to nascent antislavery did not become apparent until the last third of the eighteenth century when events and ideas associated with the American Revolution began to challenge the future of slavery on a massive scale." (page 15)

And there we have it. Ideas of the American Revolution. Ones that drew from Christianity to be sure, but possibly even more so from Enlightenment values and concepts. Why did post-Columbus slavery not get a resistance of any substantial size before the peak of the Enlightenment?

David B Marshall said...

Andy: I think you're mistaken on many issues, here, and in some cases arguing against an overly simplistic interpretation of Christian thought. I also think you would benefit, frankly, from reading some of my books, or books I recommend here:

I do appreciate the serious tone of your objections, however, to the extent I have been able to read them, so far.

Which implies, of course, that I have simply not had time to read much of what you've written here, yet, still less respond to it. Let me suggest that you begin by reading some of the material I refer to there -- the Woodberry article you can find on-line, and I also recommend a key chapter in my How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test, which I think you'll find interesting anyway.

Then I'll try to respond substantively and in detail before too long. Right now, I have a book, student applications, classes, Christmas, AND a return to the US all in the works.

Also let me wish you a Merry Christmas.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I look forwarding to dialoguing with you more in the future.

David B Marshall said...

Andy: Let me begin by responding briefly to one of your posts above -- a little randomly, since it's in the middle not beginning or end -- and then perhaps I'll take on one of your posts about the effect of Christianity in a separate post.

"You said, 'I think the Bible does teach us relationships, and if Christians, and some atheists I know, listened more to Jesus & St. Paul, our lives would be a heck of a lot better for it. But I'm happy God allows us to experiment and think for ourselves -- what a bore Star Trek would be if all the planets were fully mapped out beforehand.' Again, this is not a response to what I wrote. I never challenged the positive parts of the Bible. What I said was that 100,000-300,000 years of no clear revelation from God to humans when they're suffering tremendously in ignorance - that's a massive ethical problem for the concept of God's goodness."

But I answered that. I pointed out that you have no reason to assume there was "no clear revelation." The Bible certainly gives no reason for that assumption -- God spoke to Adam, to Noah, to Job, to Melchizadek, not one of them Jews. Neither does anthropology.

Read the Win Corduan book I recommended. It seems, rather, than God often revealed Himself to primitive man.

"The reason I posted so much at once in recent days is because the way you responded to my (Amazon post) paragraphs you originally quoted above ignored the fact that I'd already addressed much of your counter-points elsewhere on the Amazon discussion. I know we all have limited time to have these discussions, but at least give me the benefit of the doubt and read the conversation threads at least superficially."

Sorry. We both seem to be having that problem.

David B Marshall said...

Andy: I've just answered some of your later posts, on the Christian role in reformr, in a tentative way:

Anonymous said...

I've read much of what you've linked to and referenced (not your book yet, though). If you have time, I'd like to hear feedback on the other aspects that I wrote about. I will continue to think about what you've said and respond bit by bit.

I live in Atlanta, so if your U.S. trip includes that city, I can meet you for lunch or coffee if you'd like.

Anonymous said...

One point that we could talk about is animal suffering. You emphasized the lack of consciousness in less complex forms of life. I said 300+ million years of sentient beings have tremendously suffered. You said that 2 million or so is more likely, given the kinds of brains required. I explained, "The first reptiles came into existence 350 millions years ago. They certainly felt and feel pain. Studies have shown that fish experience pain. Mammals arrived 200 million years ago."

When discussing the travails of cats, horses, dolphins, dogs or even mice, virtually all people today reject an extreme Cartesian viewpoint leading to interpreting apparent animal pain as being largely mechanical. So, don't you think your timeline needs to be altered by several hundred million years?

This page is helpful regarding a detailed list of when various animals appeared in Earth's biological development:

Here are some specific examples, shown on that page or the two links to natural history charts that I included on an earlier post above:

Early large sharks - 350 mya

First small lizards in diapsid family (the category that in time would include crocodiles, lizards, snakes, tuatara, birds and non-avian dinosaurs) 305 mya

Synapsids (referred to as mammal-like reptiles, stem mammals or proto-mammals) 320 mya

Dimetrodons (type of synapsid, weighed as much as 550 pounds) 280 mya

Therapsids (type of synapsid, loosely similar in size to a dog) 275 mya

Ichthyopterygians (creatures similar to dolphins) - 245 mya

Turtles - 220 mya

Early dinosaurs - 200 mya

Birds - 160 mya

Monotremes (examples - platypuses, spiny anteaters) - 115 mya

Rodents - 66 mya

Earliest primates - 60 mya

Whales - 55 mya

Modern mammal groups - 35 mya

Marsupials - 33 mya

Pigs and cats - 30 mya

Deer - 25 mya

Bears, hyenas, giraffes - 20 mya

Anonymous said...

Also, your other blog post ("In Defense of "Christian" Civilization") that you created to further our discussion has my last name as "Groves". It's a not a big deal, of course, but it's "Rhodes". :-)

David B Marshall said...

Sorry for the name change. I've corrected that.

When you say certain reptiles were "similar to a dog" or a dolphin, you seem to be referring to their shapes and life-styles, not to their brain size or mental capacity.

I distinguish between "pain" and "suffering." My friend Paul Brand, a leading research physician who tried to create pain substitutes for people who lacked the sense of pain, distinguished three different kinds of pain. Probably only the highest level can be morally-significant.

I don't know at what point in the time-line that morally-significant suffering would begin. I'm inclined to admit that there is a real problem, but I also think it is often exaggerated through anthropomorphic sympathy. Most animals I see in the wild do not appear to be full of existential angst: possibly the worst is what we humans do to domesticated animals on farms, though even that doesn't seem to put pigs off their feed, as in Babe. I know that's not a very full answer.

David B Marshall said...

Oh, and thanks for the invitation. Next time I make it down to Atlanta, that'd be great.

Anonymous said...

I know about Paul Brand. Twenty years ago, I read the book that he co-wrote with Philip Yancey on the problem of pain. Very interesting, especially regarding his work with leprosy patients. I read lots books by Yancey back then. He's a good writer.

Dave said...

What is omnibenevolence, and where did you hear that word? Why should a term not used for the first sixteen centuries of Christian theology end up being the one on which the whole system stands or falls?

At any rate, until someone explains why God ought to deal with evil by stopping it as soon as it shows up (as opposed to, say, a wheat-and-tares type solution of the sort described by Jesus), I'm not convinced that the problem of evil has bite.

Another point worth noting is that the problem of evil as it is usually presented has two key assumptions that, together with our background information about the history of the universe, just don't make sense on naturalism. The assumptions are that some entities suffer, and that some of those suffering entities are morally significant. Both consciousness and moral significance stick out like sore thumbs in a universe supposedly consisting solely of fields and their excitations. So it seems to me that the evidence called upon by the problem of evil is a subset of the evidence available to what could broadly be called the anthropological argument for the existence of God. Which means that, at best, the argument from evil can be used to partially mitigate the strength of one class of arguments for God's existence.

You speak of evils in nature. At every stage, however, you have to assume that God was the only one working the field. But that's not the picture the Bible paints. The Bible speaks of an enemy who sowed tares into God's good creation. The findings of modern science force us to see this antagonism as a progressive, long-term struggle between the two, as opposed to a single decisive incident, but it seems to me that the main point - that forces who seek only to kill, steal, and destroy are at work in nature, and have been nearly from the beginning - is still defensible. So yes, God's good creation is groaning, and has been almost from the beginning. But if you'll allow me, I'd like to point out the big picture.

It is a historical, scientific fact that life did not merely weather the worst catastrophes, but that the catastrophes often seem to have paved the way for higher life forms. More than a billion years ago, a toxic waste product released by certain photosynthetic bacteria reached critical levels in the atmosphere, causing most life on earth to die. The name of that toxin? Oxygen gas. Without it, mobile life forms like us would be impossible. As would the march of technology - no oxygen means no fire, no fire means no steel or electricity.

And so life marched onward. The Cambrian explosion may well have been triggered by the evolution of carnivorous animals. Mass extinctions have always paved the way for greater beauty and diversity. As large as the dinosaurs were, they would have been rather boring compared to, say, an elephant.

Bearing this in mind, consider the possible spiritual significance of this pattern. Each time the dark forces found a new breed of weed, the forces of light turned it into three new breeds of flower. Like a master martial artist, God has used the momentum of the rebellious powers to further His own goals time and time again. And the cross - the death that shattered the scythe of the reaper - the gratuitous evil through which God poured out His grace - makes perfect sense as the latest point in the trend.

So I don't really see what the big deal about natural evil is. The notion of "omnibenevolence" has never been a part of historical Christian theology, there's no reason to think that the God of the Bible wouldn't take a "wheat-and-tares" approach to dealing with evil, the evidential power of the problem of evil is less than the evidential power of one class of arguments for God's existence, and the story revealed to us by modern science seems to resonate with the story of the cross in unexpected ways. All in all, the problem of evil doesn't seem that intellectually compelling to me.

Unknown said...

Hi Mr. Marshall. I was reading your post and was especially interested in the part about Adam and Eve. I was wondering something: If God created Adam & Eve perfect, then why wouldn’t they have acted perfectly when they were tempted? Yes, I know about free will and all that. If they were perfect, though, then they would have resisted the temptations from the serpent and freely chosen to obey God. Instead, they disobeyed God. To say they were perfect but freely chose to act imperfectly, then, makes perfection and imperfection functionally indistinguishable. The only explanation to the problem that I can see is that Adam and Eve were never perfect, otherwise they wouldn’t have disobeyed and eaten the fruit. Sure, they COULD disobey, but if they were truly perfect they WOULDN’T disobey. So why did they?

Basically what I’m saying is that if they were created perfect, then they would have freely chosen to obey God’s commands. They did not. They were therefore, in my opinion, not perfect, nor were they ever perfect.


David B Marshall said...

Hi, Dave. That question has been answered, for instance by C. S. Lewis, who said that the better a creature is, the further it can go wrong if it chooses sin. Choice is implicit in the freedom God gives his creatures. It is meaningless to say someone is free if he can't choose. So I think the word "perfection" itself is the problem, like the word "omnipotent" in the silly question, "Can God make a rock so big He can't lift it?"

If you want to drop the word, that's fine with me. It's meaningless in that context.

Personally, though, I think the story in the first chapters of Genesis is a kind of parable or myth, designed to teach us truths, not to relate the actual origins of the human race. It certainly does teach a lot of truth.

Unknown said...

I'm not sure how to interpret your response. I think we're talking past each other.

I acknowledge that Adam and Eve had free will to choose to do whatever they wanted. However, what I'm saying is that Adam and Eve were never perfect, because if they were, then they wouldn't have ever chosen to disobey God. Sure they would have had the CHOICE to, but if they were perfect, then they would have chosen correctly. They did not. I fully agree that according to Christian theology they would have had the freedom to choose as they did, but if they were perfect then they would have made the RIGHT choice. So why didn't they?

That's all I'm saying.