Questionable Motives

March 13, 2011

Why is suffering a fatal flaw for belief in a benevolent creator?

Most of us know of Epicurus’ succinct summation evil causes belief in a benevolent god:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

The slippery term in this paradox for believers is ‘evil’. I think we can reveal the same fatal paradox without the metaphysical baggage that accompanies such a term by replacing it with the word ‘suffering’. I am certainly not the first to do so and I think it tears away the comforting veil of ignorance that infuses belief in a benevolent god when we look at how the world actually and factually operates.

Life and death on this planet has come about as we know it by the process of evolution, a system Lord Tennyson accurately describes as “red in tooth and claw.” Suffering by sentient beings is simply part and parcel of this mindless, unguided, undirected, indifferent biological mechanism. This is a problem for those who would prefer to believe in a benevolent creator. As blogger and ex Anglican priest, Eric MacDonald so eloquently describes the problem evolution creates for the believer this way:

If this is a consciously designed process (evolution by design as held by many notable people such as Francis Collins and those allied to the same notion endorsed by the rc church and many other denominations), as Christians must maintain — for, from the Christian point of view, god’s first priority is the creation of human beings and their redemption — then all the suffering is an intentional part of god’s purposes. And this is simply intolerable. It cannot stand a moment’s moral reflection, and certainly the doctrine of double effect won’t change the mind of a reasonable person on this matter, for you cannot not intend suffering if you create by means of natural selection.

From an academically and scientifically honest standpoint, evolution is fact that is fatal to the argument that a creator god is benevolent.

So what’s a believer in a benevolent creator to do? In England, an imam with the audacity to suggest evolution is compatible with islam if the Koran is interpreted just so, one must apologize and retract such a statement if one wishes to avoid being killed as an apostate. In the US, one must contend with repeated attempts by the religiously misguided to keep creationism from being inserted into the science classroom, spending untold millions  of taxpayer dollars to continue this separation intact. The latest attack against science is in Tennessee. The one is Kentucky has just died… for this session. The one is Texas is still going strong as it works its way towards approved legislation. Florida tries every year and this one is no different. Louisiana has already passed it’s anti-evolution bill as if this will magically improve the state’s dismal showing in student science knowledge. And so on, and so on, and so on, even after creationism has been soundly defeated in every federal court case brought against its insertion into the public school science curriculum. (The latest was in Dover in 2005.) Religious beliefs about a creator – no matter under what recent title it tries on for public acceptance – have no scientific credibility nor validity. This is not a preference or belief by people who would prefer this not to be so: it’s a fact… and a fact that far too many religious people seem unable and unwilling to grasp. When such facts are contrary to what is believed to be true by those who respect faith-based beliefs, then obviously the facts must be wrong! There’s nothing like a legislative act to set the facts on the path to redemption.

Good grief.

The world, however – and  no matter where we look at it – continues to offer up the brutal fact that creationism is not only a fairytale but that its supposed benevolence is identical in all meaningful ways to that of a delusion. For example, the latest and devastating earthquakes in New Zealand and China and  Japan is accompanied by undeniable indiscriminate death and much human suffering.  Tsunamis add their additional effects. Plate tectonics and the accompanying geological and hydrological effects are just as mindless, unguided, undirected, and indifferent a physical mechanism as biological evolution is and the resulting human suffering just as obvious. The physical evidence for mindless cause and effect of these mechanisms is overwhelming. Where is the evidence for benevolence versus the suffering these mechanisms cause?

No where.

Let us now turn to the pious who feel some level of compassion and empathy for the suffering of their fellow creatures in the wake of these disasters. A.C. Grayling offers us this glimpse into the reasoning that is avoided by those who decide to offer up their prayers to some benevolent creator for these distant folk suffering from calamity. Following the same reasoning of Epicurus’s paradox, he wonders about why anyone would show fealty to such an obvious metaphysical monster some think of as a benevolent creator:

For if he is not competent to stop an earthquake or save its victims, he is definitely not competent to create a world. And if he is powerful enough to do both, but created a dangerous world that inflicts violent and agonizing sufferings arbitrarily on sentient creatures, then he is vile. Either way, what are people thinking who believe in such a being, and who go to church to praise and worship it? How, in the face of events which human kindness and concern registers as tragic and in need of help – help which human beings proceed to give to their fellows: no angels appear from the sky to do it – can they believe such an incoherent fiction as the idea of a deity? This is a perennial puzzle.

Indeed it is.

This desire by the pious to believe in a literal Santa Claus-ian benevolent creator is not just foolishly childish and comforting as only a delusion can be; it is a faith-based belief that incessantly gives god-sanctioned motivation to those who directly attack both evidence-based fact as apostasy and intellectually honest reason as some kind of evil plot to undermine god. That some continue to insist that we can accommodate religion and science – allow respect for what some believe is true as well for what IS true – is foolhardy as well as intentionally dishonest. It is foolhardy because it interferes with folk who think there is a legitimate choice to be made between accepting what is factually true and faith-based beliefs as some kind of equivalent source for knowledge in spite of no evidence for this to be the case (and much evidence in stark contrast to this case), and dishonest because for these same folk it reduces  what is true to be conditional on some collection of faith-based beliefs they have chosen to accept as true first. Yet faith-based beliefs add nothing honest to our understanding of the world nor any true appreciation for the dependent role we suffer for our lives on it and much disinformation and misrepresentation of how the world actually is and how it actually works and how we actually cause effects in it.

March 6, 2011

What’s the problem with science/religious compatability?

I have been described as a bitter individual who thinks that there is only one way to view this world. You scream, verify, prove, facts, figures. Wow. You (sic) view is coloured by extremists who think their religions are right and you try just as hard to scream that your way is the only logical way. Well, I suspect it would not be wise to ask this person for a character reference any time soon.

Of course, I don’t see my views this way. I try to explain that it’s important that we – not just I – respect what’s true, what’s knowable, and hold great esteem for the method of inquiry that allows us to find these answers, that provides us with a foundation upon which to build not only practical technologies that work but a way of inquiring into every nook and cranny of the universe… including ourselves… on an equal footing independent of our perspectives and world views. I’m sorry if I screamed that too loudly, but let me reiterate: I respect what’s true and I don’t think that is an extremist position at all.

What never fails to amaze me is how people who hold their faith-based preferences to be equivalent with what’s probably true, probably accurate, probably correct see themselves and their attitude somehow removed from the ongoing problems resulting from this widespread generous allowance to respect faith-based beliefs, and assume that anyone who disagrees (and provides good evidence for that disagreement) is some kind of fundamentalist or extremist. I take issue with that absurd caricature and I do point out the effects such allowances have in the public domain of the real world and at the expense of real people. That – apparently – makes me not only strident but militantly so. How is it that respecting what is true and holding others to that same standard is so often considered unreasonable if it interferes with the preference for equivalency of faith-based beliefs to what is actually true? Well, I think the answer goes back to the assumption that faith-based beliefs are magically superior to human knowledge as long as it places god at the top of some knowledge hierarchy. In a nutshell, this is the heart of the probelm of asserting compatibility between science and religion.

An excellent example is how someone with knowledge is held in contempt for enunciating that knowledge and whose life is actually threatened by those who assume a faith-based belief is not just equivalent but superior to what the method of science reveals. God’s truth – whatever the hell that means – is superior in this belief system to what the human mind can understand is true based on honest inquiry, verification, and its practical validity. Surely this cannot be the case here at home in technologically advanced society that relies on this science for its functioning infrastructure, can it?

It can. And does.

What does this respect for faith-based beliefs look like in a secular western democracy? The examples are many – legion, in fact – but I shall select merely one.

From The Independent with bold added:

A prominent British imam has been forced to retract his claims that Islam is compatible with Darwin’s theory of evolution after receiving death threats from fundamentalists.

Dr Usama Hasan, a physics lecturer at Middlesex University and a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, was intending yesterday to return to Masjid al-Tawhid, a mosque in Leyton, East London, for the first time since he delivered a lecture there entitled “Islam and the theory of evolution”.

But according to his sister, police advised him not to attend after becoming concerned for his safety. Instead his father, Suhaib, head of the mosque’s committee of trustees, posted a notice on his behalf expressing regret over his comments. “I seek Allah’s forgiveness for my mistakes and apologise for any offence caused,” the statement read.

And what offence did Dr Hasan commit? What exactly was this mistake?

Masjid Tawhid is a prominent mosque which also runs one of the country’s largest sharia courts, the Islamic Sharia Council. In January, Dr Hasan delivered a lecture there detailing why he felt the theory of evolution and Islam were compatible – a position that is not unusual among many Islamic scholars with scientific backgrounds.

Really? This was the offense, the mistake, reiterating this knowledge. But the good news is that this statement of knowledge is not unusual with Islamic scholars who apparently are qualified to judge science, we are assured. Phew. What a relief that this scientific knowledge meets with religious approval. Compatibilists everywhere must be breathing easier, right? Not so fast…

Most Islamic scholars have little problem with evolution as long as Muslims accept the supremacy of God in the process. But in recent years a small number of orthodox scholars, mainly from Saudi Arabia – where many clerics still preach that the Sun revolves around the Earth – have ruled against evolution, declaring that belief in the concept goes against the Koran’s statement that Adam and Eve were the first humans.

These are folk qualified to judge, eh? And compatiblists are seemingly okay with this.

Ah yes, we can’t have knowledge – the ‘good’ kind, that is – without getting the order right: god-approved knowledge first, meaning whatever knowledge doesn’t compete with faith-based beliefs about that god, and all scientific knowledge second. And therein lies the explanation why science and religion are incompatible methods of inquiry:

What’s true, accurate, and correct is a secondary consideration in this compatiblist mind set. And that’s what makes faith-based beliefs that science and religion are compatible a bald-faced lie: we either respect what’s true and knowable first, or we respect what we believe must be true for our faith-based beliefs and preferences to remain unchallenged and supreme. Faith in the latter is a virtue but a failure in the former. These two positions are simply not compatible because of this and those who would like to pretend that they are are not only deluded but continue to grant intellectual respectability to those whose faith-based beliefs contrast honest knowledge. These are the people who need to be taken to task for this capitulation of intellectual integrity to respect that which deserves none: faith-based beliefs.

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