Friday, September 28, 2012

Christianity and Suffering

In An Attempt to Explain Christianity to Atheists In a Manner That Might Not Freak Them Out, Marc explains Christianity as a response to the problem of suffering. According to Marc, it is impossible to talk about the "purpose of suffering" without appealing to the supernatural. Marc's Christian explanation is that suffering is the result of "sin", but he defines sin in an unusual manner: the word "sin" derives from the Hebrew word "chattah" (or "chatta") that he translates as "missing the mark"; Marc claims, "We live in a world that 'misses the mark' of perfection." God, however, is perfect; He does not miss the mark: "God must be the standard of Perfection from which all things derive their relative goodness." Because we cannot look to "secularism" (i.e. naturalism), we must look to a God that is necessarily a standard of perfection.

But God as a "standard of perfection" does not imply Christianity. Christianity is, at its core the "bizarre" (yes, Marc himself uses that word) notion that God/Jesus "became sin", became absolutely imperfect, and then by dying, destroyed sin, destroyed imperfection. But God, being outside of time, did not destroy sin in the time-bound world; the world where sin, and therefore suffering, must be outside time. God does not wish to force us to this world without suffering, but by instantiating Himself in the person of Jesus into the time-bound material world gives us the option to enter the world without suffering after death. Marc spins an interesting story, but it problems, both internal and external, render it entirely unconvincing to the atheist.

Some of the internal problems are apparent in Marc's responses to objections to his points. The most obvious is his treatment to the objection that if
God is the fullness of perfection, and that to say that our universe is sinful — or imperfect — is to say that our universe is lacking total union with God, why then, would Perfection allow our imperfection? If God is all-powerful, surely he could forever stop us from sinning, and thus from ever suffering? Is he so cruel as to allow us to suffer, children to die, etc.?
Marc answers with the free-will cliche:
We are allowed to sin — and thus to suffer — because God loves us. If we could not refuse him, the fullness of perfection, we would be puppets attached to his celestial fingers. We could not not love God. But love, to be love, must be freely given. Perfection is meaningless if we have not the choice of imperfection. We are granted, in love, the opportunity to sin.
This response must be counted at best as controversial, rather than as decisive. Furthermore, Marc sets up his answer a little tendentiously, reverting to a more superficial definition of suffering as simple pain, physical or emotional; He "allows us to suffer" and allows "children to die." But the objection is not why God created pain, but how a perfect God could create an imperfect world. To create is to resolve an imperfection: how could a perfect being create anything? Marc's answer is entirely unsatisfying.

This crucial flaw notwithstanding, Marc does not give us any reason to actually believe his story. He gives us a version of the Politician's Fallacy: we need an answer to the problem of suffering, this is an answer to the problem, therefore this is the correct answer to the problem. But why should we believe his answer? Even if we must need to look to supernatural teleological, why should Marc's "bizarre" and paradoxical story be the correct one? According to the title, Marc wants to explain Christianity to atheists, but succeeds only in describing an especially weird, counter-intuitive, narrative that we cannot distinguish from pure fiction. We atheists are made of sterner stuff, he won't freak us out, but he fails to explain Christianity in a way that makes us see it as anything but fiction.

This indistinguishable-from-fictional narrative also appears on a specifically Catholic blog. Marc makes no effort to connect this narrative with Catholicism. How do we get popes and priests from an imperfect world. Remember, atheists are not really concerned with the metaphysical issues about God; those have been largely settled... in our favor. Instead, we are mainly concerned with religious justifications of worldly authority. Nothing in Marc's essay connects with any church, much less the Catholic church.

Finally, Marc's basic premise, that religion starts out from the necessity of finding the "purpose of suffering" is tendentious and objectionable. First, Marc is assuming his premise: if we must find purpose, we must, by definition, be looking for a teleological cause, the cause in a conscious mind. Since at least some suffering does not come from human minds, there must be at least a non-human teleology underlying suffering. Marc simply assumes that anyone who has experienced pain will look to a teleological cause: "(If you don’t believe [suffering needs an answer], develop leukemia, have a close family member die, and then try being content with not having any answers, meaning, or purpose." But of course, many atheists have experienced pain and loss, and whatever discontent we might feel, many do not see the lack of teleological meaning or purpose relevant. We have an answer: In a natural, indifferent, world of only physical law, shit really does just happen. If that's an answer Marc doesn't like, well, when did our opinions about the truth matter as to its truthfulness. If you fall off a cliff, you may not like it that your body accelerates towards the center of the Earth at ~10m/s2, but you'll go splat at the bottom nonetheless. I don't need to find any purpose to suffering, so Marc's argument is a non-starter.

When someone makes their infantile fiction my business, I will call it just that: an infantile fiction to comfort themselves in a largely hostile material universe entirely indifferent to human happiness. But it really isn't any of my business; what do I care what story you need to tell yourself to get up in the morning? Why do you need my validation or approval? Especially when I'm just not going to give it to you, regardless of the effort you've put in to make it appear logically consistent. What I am concerned about is religious people's demands for political, economic, and social privilege. If you're not at least trying to justify your privilege, I'm just not interested.


  1. I have an easier way to explain Christianity to atheists:

    Greek philosophy was concerned with understanding the world, our place in the world and with offering advice on dealing with the common problems life threw up.

    Christianity teaches the world is not as it should be, that we are a fallen species cast into a cursed world. The world can only improve through the grace of God and through obeying Gods revealed moral law. But Gods moral law is so ridiculously that it cannot be followed. This leads to guilt and self-loathing but that’s ok because God is also forgiving. Indeed for a small donation and token punishment you can confess your guilt to a catholic priest and feel better. And the cycle begins anew.

    Christianity therefore aims at creating dissatisfaction over the natural world and society. It's a very early form of advertising: Is something missing from your life? Can't you feel the calling of God? Don't you think you were meant for something more? What is the meaning of life? Is this all there is to life?

    Christianity is communitarian, striving for communities controlled by the local church and regional organizations. As such the state - Caesar - must be either subverted or neutered. It’s evangelical in a manner Greek philosophy never was – its very nature is to spread and control and smother and consume competing ideas.

    And that is all atheists really need to know about Christianity. Further details don’t really matter because Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle influenced the Roman Catholic Church (and Wittgenstein and Locke influenced the Anglican Church) more than the Christ myth.

  2. To hypothesise the existence of a deity-like being is one thing, but to attempt to characterise it's nature is no more than indulging in theological just-so stories.

    I've never been able to get my head around the notion that God is necessarily perfect. It's a Judeo-Christian-Islam thing, a left-over from Plato I suspect. It's a little far-fetched believing in the existence of perfect forms of everything, like rabbits or octagons. It's easier to just jump a step and believe in a perfect being who creates form.

    In other cultures, the gods were sometimes seen as inept and comical. So the perfection thing certainly isn't a philosophical given.

    And why on earth there must be a purpose to suffering, when we haven't even ascertained if there's a purpose to anything? It's just more mental masturbation. Your phrase 'infantile fiction' just about sums it up.

  3. There are many issues with Marc’s case.
    Here are 10 thoughts on it:

    1. Does suffering require an explanation? I doubt he could convincingly get past this point but granting that it does:

    2. Is “sin” a real thing? Granting that it is:

    3. What is so terrible about being imperfect? Why should imperfection = suffering?

    4. Assuming God exists. How is it known he is perfect? Much of the OT would seem to be at odds with that claim. Why must God be “necessarily” the standard of perfection?

    5. Assuming God is perfect, why should a “standard of perfection” be required from which all things must derive their goodness. Was there not good/bad before humanity was made aware of god’s existence. If so, against what standard were they judged to be good/bad.

    6. God/Jesus "became sin", became absolutely imperfect, and then by dying, destroyed sin, destroyed imperfection. But God, being outside of time, did not destroy sin in the time-bound world; the world where sin, and therefore suffering, must be outside time. Never heard Christianity described this way. I think Marc is in an extreme minority among his fellow Christians. Jesus is usually presented as a completely sinless, morally perfect scapegoat.

    7. God does not wish to force us to this world without suffering, but by instantiating Himself in the person of Jesus into the time-bound material world gives us the option to enter the world without suffering after death Strange, God seems to be completely at ease with forcing us into a world with suffering. Odd that he should be reticent to force into a paradise.

    8. On the perfect God creating an imperfect world, and the free will defence. A perfect omniscient, omnipotent God could not create a world with free will and conscious agents with sufficient capacity for compassion and empathy that they would never desire to create suffering. Also does nothing to touch non-human suffering, nature being red in tooth and claw etc.

    9. But love, to be love, must be freely given. Sadly, in the Christian narrative forgiveness does not follow this paradigm. Forgiveness is conditional.

    10. Perfection is meaningless if we have not the choice of imperfection. Gibberish. Being happy is meaningless if we have not the choice of unhappiness? Is God’s suffering-free, outside-of-time, celestial Disneyland required to include the option of eating dog-shit sandwiches just to make the icecream’s tastiness meaningful

    There really is nothing quite as awful as religious apologetics.


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