Suffer the Children

A while back I wrote an essay dealing with the accusation that Sam Harris makes that Christianity is narcissistic.  At that time, I said that I would post a future essay on the suffering of children and I am going to take a quick stab at it tonight.  Let us start by considering the Harris argument:

Any God who would allow children to suffer in this way and their parents to grieve in this way either can do nothing to help them or doesn’t care to.  He is,therefore, either impotent or evil . . . (Sam Harris debating William Lane Craig)

Now I must admit that when I listen to Dr. Harris in his amiable style make such obvious points, I begin to nod my head in agreement.  “Yes it’s obvious.  God is either impotent or evil. . . what other choice could there be?”  As I reflect on this obvious dichotomy, however, I begin to have some questions.

In Dr. Harris’ analysis, the parents of the children are simple entities who are devoted parents and solely concerned for the welfare of their children.  And to a certain extent this is certainly a valid simplification to make.  It is certainly true that the thoughts of most parents with a suffering child would be dominated by concern for that child’s safety.  But for the sake of a little realism, let us add a secondary concern to the parents that we are considering.  Let us imagine that they are conscientious Muslims who want to follow the Koran to the letter.

Now let us further imagine that these parents are among that fraction of the Islamic faith which believes that they are required to wage jihad against those who do not believe.  So, for the sake of this thought experiment, we are dealing with parents who have one desire and one belief:

  1. They believe that it is their duty to behead unbelievers.
  2. They desire Allah to heal their son of his terminal cancer.

So let us ask the question, what would these parents do if God granted their petition and miraculously healed their dying son of cancer?   Might it be possible that they would take this incredible miracle as vindication of their beliefs?  Might it not be possible that, out of gratitude for their son’s deliverance, they would make more and more earnest efforts to behead unbelievers?  What if Sam Harris was visiting their village in Pakistan and they felt that the timing of the miracle was a divine sign that such a prominent atheist should die for the glory of Allah?  Would Dr. Harris still be so enthusiastic for the miraculous delivery of Muslim children in response to the earnest prayers of their parents if this were the case?

Now, of course, in reality God is in a real pickle here.  What would these same people do if their son dies of cancer despite all their prayers?  Might they not conclude that they have not done enough for Allah and that they need to behead more unbelievers?

Given the above thought experiment, I think we can see that the simplistic dichotomy presented by Dr. Harris is not an adequate description of the situation.  If you consider real human beings in the real world, one can easily imagine a scenario where God might have the power to heal the child and the desire, but not be able to because the attitude of the parents is such that vindicating their beliefs with a miraculous deliverance causes more harm than it alleviates.

Arthur C. Clarke once said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  Because I believe in a rational God and live in a complex world, I have come to believe an analogous conclusion dealing with theology.  “The results of any sufficiently advanced thought process will be indistinguishable from gibberish.”  That is to say, I recognize that my thought processes could not hope to make sense of a straight-forward application of moral principles done by a sufficiently advanced mind with a vast amount more knowledge than I have.  Though this means that I must have faith to believe that God is in fact good, it seems an obvious conclusion given the limitations of my own mental capacity and knowledge.

About Robert V

Former atheist currently living in Toronto.
This entry was posted in Atheist Arguments, God's Purpose for Suffering and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Suffer the Children

  1. You are deploying a classic double-standard in safeguarding the supposed “good” nature of your deity. First of all, connecting natural disasters to morality is just flat-out idiotic however you choose to rationalize it. And your thought experiment in my submission bears little to no weight in justifying the terrible circumstances that these children and their parents nonetheless suffered. You’re whipping up a hypothetical scenario that doesn’t even apply to the situation. The premise of your experiment suggests that the annhiliation of children, in theory, is based on the “good” judgment of a supernatural deity whose mind you claim to know curiously well. This thought experiment is postulated under the conditions that these parents are fundamental Muslims and are capable of committing wicked atrocities in the name of Allah; so in order to prevent them from doing this, God decides in good measure to eradicate their children with terminal cancer to compel them to make the right propitiations and sacrifices. And for the sake of a little realism, is there not the possibility that allowing these children to die would motivate their parents to adhere more closely to their fundamental scripture to appease Allah?

    What about devout Christians in New Orleans who were victimized by Hurricane Katrina? According to the logic of your experiment, God “could” have decided to spare them but decided that their destruction and displacement was ultimately necessary because they would otherwise have gone on to commit wicked acts. Or what about the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010 killing thousands of people? The source of potential evil located here must have been especially powerful in this case.

    • Doulton,

      I think you must be a lawyer of some kind. Sorry to start out my reply with such a vicious ad hominem, but I have to call them as I see them.

      What makes me think that you are a lawyer? Because I am beginning to see a pattern in your responses. I make a very specific argument about a very specific statement made by some atheist. I provide a link and a quotation. You take my argument and generalize it as though I was proposing some general theory or principle and you then proceed to knock down that hypothetical general theory or principle. You did this with the comment you made on my Sam Harris narcissism essay and you are doing it here.

      Now to me this seems like it could only be an intentional tactic. Is it really possible to imagine that the couple of paragraphs I wrote to respond to Sam Harris’ argument that “God is either impotent or evil” is a general treatise on divine morality? No. I make this explicitly clear at the end of this essay wherein I explicitly state that faith is required to believe that God is good.

      In this essay I was not proposing a general theory of the morality of divine action in the natural world. I do not mention natural disasters at all. Instead, I was demonstrating that Sam Harris’ argument was fallacious. Specifically, Dr. Harris is employing the fallacy of the false dichotomy. He says that God is either evil or impotent and my few paragraphs were specifically written to point out this false dichotomy in one specific case. Are there other possibilities beyond even the third that I have pointed out? Yes and a full exploration of these would take several hundred pages and such a book would constitute a more general theory on the morality of divine action in the natural world. Maybe I will even write this book some day, though it is difficult to imagine that I will ever have the time.

      Since I don’t have the time to write this book, I will point out a couple additional ways to interpret the evidence we see around us. As it stands right now, we have three. Looking at the world around us, we could conclude:

      1. God is impotent to alleviate the suffering of children. If this is correct, atheism is correct because God by definition cannot be impotent.
      2. God does not want to alleviate the suffering of children and therefore is evil.
      3. God does not alleviate the suffering of a child because his action might increase the evil of the parents. (The possibility I pointed out in this essay.)
      4. God does not save a child from a natural disaster because that child would become a monster.
      5. God does not save a child from a disease because those who experience that tragedy become more caring people.

      As an example of number 4, let us consider Adolf Hitler. If divine judgment is proportional to acts committed, then it would surely have benefited the human being who is often used as the epitome of evil for him to have died before committing his worst atrocities?

      As an example of number 5, I submit the case of a woman I know. This woman was extremely callous on the issue of abortion. “Who cares if a woman kills her unborn child? That is her right.” Now I am pro choice as I pointed out in my essay on abortion, but I think that such an attitude is toxic. After a woman I know experienced a number of miscarriages, she began to see that every life is precious and it made her a better mother and a much more kind and sensitive person.

      So Sam Harris simple dichotomy has at least 5 possibilities in any specific case and there are undoubtedly others. His argument is fallacious and that was the point of my essay.

      Now, as a more general argument I would argue that the suffering of the world is necessary if God is not to infantilize all of humanity. Christopher Hitchens used to argue that a divine authority that never “went away” would make heaven a “celestial North Korea”. I actually agree with him and I would argue that in order to dignify and elevate man, there are some spheres where God has strictly limited his own action. He has, in effect, said, “I will not interfere in this situation unless I am specifically asked to do so.” If I was to make a general case as to why God allows suffering in the world, it would follow this general line of reasoning.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments,

  2. Pingback: The Personal Incredulity Argument | A Thoughtful Christian

  3. Pingback: Explaining the Ocean of Suffering | A Thoughtful Christian

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