The New Atheism: Suffering and Morality

Hello everyone and welcome back to Deeper Waters, the blog where we dive into the ocean of truth! The ocean diving sometimes means dealing with sharks. Right now, we’re dealing with Victor Stenger in his book “The New Atheism: Taking A Stand For Science And Reason.” Unfortunately, this shark doesn’t have much of a bite. Tonight, we’ll see what he says on suffering and morality.

Stenger starts with the story of Bart Ehrman. (And you’ll notice whenever someone is referred to by the new atheists on the matter of biblical criticism, it is always Ehrman) Ehrman also wrote the book called “God’s Problem: How The Bible Fails To Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer.”

Now maybe it’s just me, but that has not been the most important question to me and I see that as a question that makes everything to be all about me. It’s saying “What I want to know about the universe is why do I have to suffer in it?” Why not seek the nature of the universe first or if there is a God behind the universe?

For Ehrman, it was really the problem of evil that led him away from his faith, and Ehrman himself would say this. It is a poignant question and very often, it is more emotionally driven than it is logically driven. Why is it that we are going through X suffering? We can think of no good reason and therefore we conclude that there is no good reason.

I will also add that while I believe Christians should give general reasons, it is the burden of proof of the objector on this one. They must show that there is no good reason. They must also deal with all the positive arguments for Christianity and the existence of God. I can say “I do not know the answer to that, but I do see this positive evidence for God’s existence and it overpowers what I see in evil.”

Ehrman points to God judging in Amos 3 and says that this is not the God of love. This is a fierce God who will punish his people for not worshiping Him. In his words, “God is a fierce animal who will rip His people to shreds for failing to worship Him.”

Well, yeah.

These were the people of the covenant. They had bound themselves to Him. This was compared to committing adultery on your spouse. It was the height of betrayal and for that, God abandons his people and leaves them to their other gods to save them, which they are incapable of.

God is a judge. He is never said to be one who sits up in Heaven and lets us get away with whatever we want to get away with. God is a serious judge because sin is a serious matter. If someone doesn’t realize that they don’t realize the holiness of the God Scripture tells of, the heinousness of sin, or both. These same people are thankful we have prison systems I’m sure to lock away criminals who would seek to harm us, but when it comes to our own personal sins, God better not judge!

To make a case on how the Bible treats the threats and promises of God, Stenger first cites Proverbs 11:19.

The truly righteous man attains life,
but he who pursues evil goes to his death.

He then cites Proverbs 12:21.

No harm befalls the righteous,
but the wicked have their fill of trouble.

Stenger then says we can scientifically test both of these and see that the good sometimes suffer while the wicked go through, therefore, the Bible is falsified by the data.

Stenger is a fundamentalist with the Bible.

Proverbs were not meant to be ironclad promises. None of the Jews interpreted them in such a way. They were general principles for how one was to live their life. It is better to live a life of good than a life of evil. If you seek God, you will be benefited by that. If you don’t, it is the way that leads to destruction. It might not be in this life, as Stenger expects, but it will be in the after-death.

Stenger brings up the free-will defense but also asks about natural evil. Why is there that kind of suffering? Once again, Stenger must make the case. He will chide the Christian when they plead ignorance and say “Therefore God”, but he will find it just fine to not know a reason for an evil and say “Therefore atheism.”

Natural evil I find to be a misnomer. Nature is not a moral agent. Still, why should I expect the world to be perfect? From what I see in Scripture, God created this world good, but he did not create it perfect. This is because he knew about the coming fall and created the world knowing what was coming and I would say as the battleground between good and evil to determine who would and who wouldn’t choose God.

A lot of natural evil is also the result of human evil. Consider the Haiti earthquake as an example. Similar earthquakes have hit similar cities and not done as much damage. This one did because of the poor living conditions due to the wickedness of the government keeping the people in poverty. With the tsunami, there were people who knew that it was coming in the area because they understood nature and could identify the signs. Some natural disasters are also essential. Earthquakes help replenish topsoil. Hurricanes held deal with carbon dioxide and bring nutrients to the surface for plants. An excellent look at the question of pain and why it is allowed can be found also in C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain.”

Stenger then looks at redemptive suffering and says that perhaps some suffering can be redemptive. Then says “Let us again adopt the scientific perspective and look at the data.” The first problem is, that’s not the scientific perspective. Philosophers look at the data. Mathematicians look at the data. Ethicists look at the data. Theologians look at the data. Historians look at the data. There is no scientific test you could do on suffering in this case.

Stenger then goes on to say “What was the redemptive value of the Crusades or the Black Plague or the Holocaust? What is the redemptive value of one child dying of leukemia or millions of children starving to death?” The implication is that first off, if you don’t know it, then there can’t be any redemptive meaning.

However, Stenger is making an error which he should realize. He spoke of this kind of suffering as redemptive suffering meaning he knows there are other kinds. Not all suffering is redemptive suffering. He is wanting to say that if this suffering is not redemptive suffering, then it is not just suffering, while he has admitted that there are other kinds of suffering.

Some of these kinds are free-will suffering. Evil people are doing evil things. We have enough resources right now to end world hunger for instance. Often, it’s evil governments that keep people from getting the food that they need and greedy people elsewhere not distributing as they ought. (I am not speaking in government-forced distribution but generous giving for the sake of giving)

We can also say that any time someone commits an evil act, the evil act itself is never justified. Sinners are justified. Sin never is. However, the evil act itself can be allowed because there is a greater good to come about by that evil. It is not a greater good for God, but for his creation. God cannot be improved in any way. It could bring Him glory, but that is not so He will be better, but also so His creation will see Him as He is.

Stenger also tells about the solution in the Bible is ultimately that God will judge the world and make everything right. Of course, Stenger raises the question here of if Jesus even existed. However, when it comes time to reply, he asks what a scientist is to make of all of this.

Once again, Stenger does not want us to think he is an advocate of scientism, but when he keeps saying this kind of statement over and over, one cannot help but think that he is. A scientist is not an ethicist or a theologian or a literary critic. He can be all of those in some form, but it is not insofar as a scientist, but it is rather in being human.

Stenger says that actually the good suffer sometimes and the wicked don’t and therefore the Bible is falsified. He also says the predictions of the Second Coming are wrong. There is no interaction with different perspectives on interpreting the passages. Nothing about a preterist or futurist response to these passages. It is just assumed without any examination of contrary material.

Stenger goes on to discuss how other religions answer the question, but that is not relevant to our purposes here. (And isn’t it again interesting that while the New Atheists keep saying that Islam is the biggest threat, they spend most of their time pointing their guns at Christians)

Stenger then moves on to morality itself and says “First, it is a tautology to say God is good and defines for us what is good and bad.”

This is a view some hold, but it is not my view. My view is I start with Aristotle and say that the good is that which is desirable for its own sake. Everything desires its own perfection. The ultimate good then is the ultimate perfection and the ultimate perfection is found in God who is goodness in essence. (See my series on the goodness of God in the Summa Theologica) Again, Stenger does not interact with different positions on the matter. He just assumes one.

Second, he tells us that there aren’t any moral principles that are not also embraced by atheists and agnostics. By and large, I would agree with this and wonder “Who claimed otherwise?” In fact, Scripture itself says otherwise as Scripture speaks of the law written on our hearts and that we all know the first principles of right and wrong. This is a position held strongly in Christianity throughout the ages. Stenger is unaware of this. He does not understand the Natural Law tradition and thinks that he has raised an objection. In fact, I would say he has given evidence of my view. There is a morality that transcends us all so much that we all know it. We all know moral truths.

If there are moral truths, then where do these truths reside? Truth is a relationship between the intellect and reality when the intellect has grasped reality as it is. It is saying that there really are moral facts that exist independently of us. We can know them. What is the basis for these facts however? If we create them, they do not transcend us and we can change them. If we do not, then we submit to them and they come from a source beyond us.

Stenger does not understand the debate. His third problem is that despite doctrinal differences, religions all seem to agree on some moral principles. Well of course they do! Morality is not considered under special revelation. You do not need special revelation to know it’s wrong to torture babies for fun. That is general revelation so all religions should have that.

Stenger tells us that the Bible tells us to love our neighbor, but does not point out how one’s neighbor refers to one’s own tribe only supposedly. Where does he get this? There’s no source, but it’s quite likely he’s reading the same article that Richard Dawkins referred to in The God Delusion.

No reference of course is given to the Good Samaritan where Jesus clearly indicated that it is beyond one’s tribe that one is to love. The neighbor was the one that a good Jew at the time would have despised the most. It’s just another example of the limited study of Stenger.

So what’s Stenger’s source for morality? Evolution.

But what is evolution? We are often told that evolution in the atheistic sense is purposeless, in that it only brings about the survival of the fittest without having an end goal in mind, but how can we say that society is progressing through evolution then? Evolution cannot be about progress as that implies progress towards a goal. It is simply change. It would be the same way with morality. Moral principles may change, but how can they become better or worse without the standard?

When we hear from atheists that society is evolving, we understand it to mean that morally we are becoming better and better. We are progressing. Progressing towards what? Where is the ultimate perfection? Is it better for us to love one another, but at the same time for the animals to kill one another? We may say it will result in dysfunctional societies, but that implies also a right way for society to function. What is the basis for such a way?

The problems are manifold. Evolution can explain how we act and some reasons for why we act that way. It cannot tell us however if we are acting the right way. It cannot answer the question of truth because moral claims are about truths of the universe as a whole. It is saying that this is a moral universe and in this universe are moral truths. If you come about them through evolution, fine. However, just saying evolution does not explain the existence of the truths but only the discovery of the truths.

If someone wishes to state the goal, they will need to demonstrate how an amoral universe can have moral truths in it, these truths can be eternal and unchanging, and at the same time reside ultimately in something that is not eternal and unchanging. If the good is constantly changing, we are progressing perhaps, but only towards different targets. There is nothing good in itself. It is just the direction we are going at the time.

We shall continue tomorrow.

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