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:
- They believe that it is their duty to behead unbelievers.
- 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.