By R.N. Carmona
This will likely be as close as it gets to a personal post from me. I recently tested positive for COVID-19. At the moment, I do not know whether I am still positive. I will be getting another test on Wednesday. My hope is that I can go back to business as usual. I need to work; bills have to be paid. My focus here is a new argument yes, but it goes beyond that as we will see. Rather than the string of symptoms I have encountered, I want to focus on the mental aspects of my experience.
I have two lovely children that I have not been able to hug for almost six days now. I have not been able to kiss them. I have not been able to show any affection to anyone I love. I have not been able to receive any affection either. Because of this, I have been dealing with a lot of loneliness.
My father, who passed away in 2017, although no longer the voice of my conscience, is someone I think of often. I miss him dearly. His lessons still weigh on me and not a day goes by without me thinking whether he would be proud of the man I am today. One of the lessons that I consistently observe is to not get in the habit of letting myopia set in. In other words, yes, I tested positive and I am dealing with symptoms, on top of anxiety, loneliness, and grappling with questions about my mortality; however, other people have had it much worse. It is these people this argument has in mind.
I can easily imagine waking up last Thursday morning at 3am to the same cold sweat and terror I felt. Moreover, I can imagine the object of my terror turning out to be my experience. My mind was racing. I asked, what if I get pneumonia? What if I have to be intubated? What if there is an underlying issue that will pull the rug from under me? In all of this, I could not turn to a loved one. I needed a hug but could not get one. I needed someone to sit close to me and help me relax. Turning to a loved one at this time would put them at risk, so I had no such option.
Over the past few days, my symptoms have gotten progressively better. I am not a priori grateful. My gratitude is after the fact. I am grateful that I will probably have more days with my loved ones. I am seeing the light at the end. Soon I will be able to give my kids a warm embrace. I will be able to feel them in my arms again. My life has, for now, been prolonged and I can be a father to them. But the thought has occurred to me: what if my symptoms got progressively worse? I have not been able to show or receive affection for six days; six days could easily have been 15 to 30, or however long a hospital stay would have lasted.
Then it dawned on me. For many people, including Christians, this was their exact experience. They were isolated at home, probably hoping to be better within a few to several days; the Christians, no doubt, prayed to God for healing, to keep them company in their time of isolation and loneliness. For many of them, the prayers fell on deaf ears. Their symptoms got much worse, many developing life-threatening pneumonia. They were rushed to ICUs and intubated where they would spend more time away from their loved ones. The lucky ones, got back to their families. The Christians, thankful to God, were happy to be back with their families. But what of the people who had not embraced their loved ones for a month and never regained consciousness? What of the people who passed away? Where was God? Where was his comfort when they prayed? Where was his omnipotent power, fully capable of delivering them from a virus some of them did everything in their power to prevent? Why didn’t God answer?
I cannot imagine being my daughter, at an age where my affection can get annoying but also at an age where they are able to appreciate my love. I cannot imagine the fear they would feel seeing me stretchered out the door, to hear news that I had to be intubated, to have to wrestle with the idea that daddy won’t be coming home. They are at an age where losing a parent will be a lucid memory, an enduring pain, a massive loss. This would shape my daughter for the rest of their life. While I am grateful that they will likely not endure this pain, I think of the children who have. Good parents are not replaceable. I do not care if they are a Christian parent and while I am firm in my belief that they teach their children erred beliefs, I know that there are Christian parents who provide for their children, love them deeply, take care of their emotions, protect them, nurture them, and help them grow. I cannot imagine the pain of being orphaned in this way, especially when believing that God has all the power, mercy, and love to ensure that such suffering does not happen.
This is when one hears the old adage that sometimes God puts us through things so that we can better relate to people who go through similar experiences. I ask, how many people have to endure the same experience so that we can better relate to others? It was enough for me to deal with six days of this, to feel as though I was at the brink, to have more than enough time to contemplate my own fragility and mortality. It was enough to realize that others have had it worse and that for many, their story did not end the way they hoped; what’s worse is that the stories of their loved ones continue without them. For the many who survived the people we have lost, they have had to actually live through the devastation I had the privilege of merely worrying about.
We are on our own. If God existed, the extent of periods of isolation, loneliness, depression, anxiety, in addition to having horrible symptoms (in my case, losing most of my sense of smell, a fever, congestion, a loss of taste), would not be necessary to help us relate to others, i.e., soul-making theodicy. For human beings, the thoughts alone are horrifying enough. For a parent, to die too soon, to not see their children become adults, to not dance with their daughter at her Sweet 16, to not walk her down the aisle, to not attend their son’s next baseball game, and so on, the mere thoughts are terrifying enough. The thought of my absence in their life sends shivers down my spine. I do not need to experience the reality of it; I do not need to develop life-threatening symptoms and to settle on my life likely being over. More importantly, my children do not need to experience a reality in where I am dead. They do not need to see me in a suit, hands folded over my stomach, lifeless in an open casket that cost the people who survived me x amount of hundreds or thousands. They do not need to see me lowered into the ground.
Yet this was the reality many, including Christians, faced. Where was God? Where is God? The idea that God would create a social species to “test” them with periods of isolation, loneliness, anxiety, depression, and for some, suicidal thoughts, is puzzling. Especially when considering the damage these things do to people’s mental health, it is more perplexing still. Even if I granted the idea of sin, unrepentant sin is recompensed in Hell; whether eternal conscious torment or something else is for the theologians to argue over. A punishment for sin would not risk impairing someone mentally. What good is someone’s piety if they have lost their sanity?
I am not interested in formalizing this argument. I think the force of it is stronger rhetorically, written informally for readers to take in and think over. I think COVID-19, as Rieux in Camus’ The Plague conveyed about the Black Death, brings theism to its knees. A god that permits pandemics to take so many lives indiscriminately, leaving so many other lives in peril after such loss, either does not exist or is not the god theists so desperately want to exist. This is not about whether atheists/naturalists have an ontologically objective standard of evil because this argument does not focus on the existence of evil. This argument focuses on suffering, specifically mental health. If your beliefs are so biased that your first reaction is to change the topic or overlook the suffering of fellow human beings, including some of your own brethren, you may have to wonder whether you are a sociopath. Only a person with a severe lack of empathy will overlook what the last two years has looked like for our species as a whole. God is not powerful enough to replace a loving father or mother, to replace a son or a daughter.
Ultimately, I think this new angle on the Argument From Suffering is forceful and makes a powerful case against theism, but if it has not been clear, that has not really been my focus. My focus has been to humanize the experience of so many people throughout the pandemic, to get us to think about the severe pain some people are going through and have gone through over the past two years. A theist might respond that everyone will be reunited in the afterlife and while that may be comforting for some, that does nothing to change the reality some people are facing. The holidays just passed and a chair usually occupied by a loved one was empty. Somewhere in the world, a father enters his daughter’s room wishing he could kiss her goodnight and tuck her in. Elsewhere, a wife sleeps in a queen-sized bed hoping that the emptiness beside her is just a bad dream. I might be one of the lucky ones. Time will tell. But I am not taking this for granted and I am not taking it lightly. People have suffered a lot over the last two years. I mourn for them and I wish I could do more to bring them comfort.
The self-righteous will overlook this and find solace in the notion that atheism/naturalism offer no hope. At least with theism we can imagine life after death and seeing our loved ones again. In response to this, I maintain that this leads to one taking one’s short days for granted. One might as well procrastinate on affection, on spending quality time with loved ones if eternity is guaranteed. On naturalism, it is incumbent on us to be more mindful of how fleeting time is; one morning your daughter, just born, is being fed her first bottle and it feels like a blink before she’s in middle school. A defeater for this belief in an afterlife is that it allows some, if not most, believers to forgo finding ways to be there for people who are suffering; it is enough to give a person false hope and move on. A naturalist knows that more can be done and love in the present goes a longer way than a false promise in the future. If only I can sit in that empty chair next Thanksgiving and hope to remind a person of their deceased loved one; if only I can be there to wipe their tears away. People do not need the promise of comfort tomorrow; they need help today, a lot of them being suffocated by their pain at this very moment.
I’ll end with this. While your loved ones are here, hug them, let them know you love them, try to put into words why you value them so much. Belief in the afterlife is a lofty expectation that regrettably will not be met with a loftier disappointment. “Better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy.”
By R.N. Carmona
When one normally thinks of reincarnation, one has in mind a caricature, the spirit of a Jane Doe coming to inhabit a frog, unbeknownst to anyone, but arguably Jane Doe herself. This, however, is an oversimplification. While reincarnation is often considered an idea lauded by Eastern mystics, modern day science can be marshaled in to lend support to the idea of reincarnation, though in ways completely unexpected. For instance, one would usually hear the usual tripe: since matter and energy cannot be created nor destroyed, one’s consciousness must live on after death. The argument I want to offer is more intricate.
Firstly, I want to begin from the finitude of brain states, an extension from the limits of phenomenal experience. I do not disagree that there is accompanying phenomenal experience for any interaction between an object and our senses. I do disagree that what it is like for me to smell roses is peculiar and markedly different from your experience of smelling a rose. I happen to think our experiences are roughly equal. Whether you or I like the smell of roses or not involves more than just the phenomenal experience. In other words, there’s a lot of background noise that explains why you like the smell more than I do. Perhaps I associate the smell of roses with wakes and funerals rather than with candlelit dinners and weddings. The noise is not what I want to focus on.
Instead, I would like to focus on mental states themselves and argue that though there are potentially innumerable brain states, they are finite. Even if we capture every brain state of every organism in the universe, and include also the correlate states of organisms that are conscious though lacking a brain, the total number of mental states do not stretch infinitely. Furthermore, the combinations of brain states, right down to the size and function of my brain or your brain, in particular, are finite. To put it another way, let us say that there is a limitation in the communication between one’s prefrontal cortex and cerebellum. This may result in autism or schizophrenia (Watson, Thomas C et al. “Back to front: cerebellar connections and interactions with the prefrontal cortex.” Frontiers in systems neuroscience vol. 8 4. 4 Feb. 2014, doi:10.3389/fnsys.2014.00004). With these particular disorders, there are a number of hallmark behavioral traits. This gives some credence to the idea that brain states are fundamentally finite and do not, as it were, stretch on forever.
Unfortunately, we are no longer so taken by behaviorists and know that human beings are a lot more than simply a finite set of behaviors. We have our preferences, things we are repulsed by, idiosyncrasies, and personalities to speak of. Even then, I think that the combination of traits that make you you, no matter how multifarious, are finite. This implies that given a long enough time, some sentient being, whether homo sapien or something very similar to our own species, will come to believe in the same you you believe you are. This, to my mind, is how naturalism makes room for reincarnation.
Perhaps not in the next generation of life, or even in the next ten generations, but at some point, a sentient being will be born who believes, perhaps mistakenly, that they are me. To believe this, you need only believe that mental states, whether tied to a brain, or to intricate nervous systems, are finite. If such states are finite and the combination of such states and functions are finite, then there are only so many identities to go around. Given a long enough time, someone will come along and believe that they are exactly who Napoleon thought he was.
This, in fact, falls on the horns of a dilemma Buddhists have. Recall, Buddhists hold to the concept of anattā (no self). While I may have thrown around the word ‘identity’, this need not imply that I believe identity to be real and substantive. In fact, I think it is entirely illusory and that if we interact with enough people, we will find that we have more in common than we would like to admit. Some of us have delusions of grandeur; we have god and savior complexes, see ourselves as fixers, and believe that there is no problem we cannot solve. Others choose to mind their business, to not take on a deep personal investment in the struggles even loved ones go through, and instead choose to let the people around us work through their own problems. In one way or another, it is likely that my two brief sketches of identity resonate with my readers. Either you are one who suffers from delusions of grandeur and you base even your romantic relationships on this futile attempt to save everyone. Or, you are someone who has no deep personal investment in the problems even the people closest to you have; this isn’t to say you refuse to help when asked, but you prefer to let people find their own way. If one of the two people I have described describes aspects of you, then you are further to committing to the premise that mental states are finite and that therefore, identities are limited.
Buddhists have long struggled to reconcile the idea of reincarnation with anattā, but a resolution isn’t difficult to come by. Before offering a solution, I defer to Wildman:
In fact, the anattā (no-substantive self) doctrine of most forms of Indian Buddhism means that there is no jīva (soul) that persists from life to life through death and reincarnation, as there is in most forms of Hinduism. The consequences for samsāra and nirvana of this view are complicated, and perhaps mind boggling, and Buddhists have spent enormous effort in debate over them, both with Hindus and among themselves. So it is not surprising that many Buddhists do not hesitate to picture life and death in rather Hindu terms, as re-enfleshment of an enduring soul, despite their characteristic no-self doctrine. Many Buddhist intellectuals will not do this, however, and their more subtle approach is not registered at all when the word reincarnation is used as the comparative category to comprehend both Hindu and Buddhist versions of the implications of samsāra for living beings.Wildman, Wesley J. Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future For The Philosophy of Religion. State University of New York Press. Albany, NY. 2010. 133. Print.
My resolution is that while there is no self, no concrete identity, what persists are the illusions of a self or an identity brought about by the limited combinations of mental states humans experience. This is why so many of us come to have exactly the same ideas about ourselves, despite the fact that we are different people with vastly different past experiences. This is why mental and cognitive disorders feature an array of hallmark symptoms. To illustrate this even better, think of the way genes encode phenotypic features. Straight thumbs, for instance, are expressed with a capital S whereas hitchhiker thumbs are recessive alleles expressed with a lowercase s. This peculiarity, assuming you have it, does not belong to you. There are other people who have hitchhiker thumb and they have it because gene expression in their genomes have resulted in this phenotypic feature. Likewise, our mental states, the manner in which brain regions communicate with one another, and the way in which our particular neurons fire in our brains create the same illusions of a static identity, packaged with a linear life narrative that we can literally draw a straight line through from our first memories in childhood through today.
There is no substantive self that persists, a soul as it were. There is, however, a persistent illusion in all of us and I do not put it passed a being eons from now to think that s/he is exactly who I think I am. Furthermore, I do not discount the idea that s/he will feel, phenomenologically speaking, exactly as I do. There is this sense that I am. Whether or not identity is real, the illusion is powerful enough to lead me to believe I am unique and that there will never be another exactly like me. This is folly. So while there is no substantive soul in me or in my cat, there are a number of mental states, resulting from brain and nerve interactions, that make both of us feel like we are a unique individuals never to be replicated. I conclude that it is far likelier that since there are not infinite mental states to go around, there are not infinite illusions to go around either. What we refer to as the soul or identity has its boundaries and limits. There will be another you, so in that sense, even after death, should the universe persist, you will live again with no recollection of the you you are right now.
This may seem particularly discomforting for some readers. For others, they may think that this idea is not developed enough. I admit, the argument is very bare bones and could use more flesh. That, however, does not mean the argument is unsound. I happen to be convinced, first and foremost, that mental states and what we call identities do not stretch to infinity and that therefore, there are only so many yous to go around. As such, you will live again or be reborn. This is how naturalism makes room for something as mystical as reincarnation. The lesson is that naturalists should shun the habit of dismissing an idea because it is religious or prima facie supernatural. There might be a kernel of truth to the idea of reincarnation. That remains to be seen, but my argument is certainly a good place to start.
By R.N. Carmona
Isms abound and nuance is sorely needed. I think my readers ought to follow my lead and shed their isms. In place of these various isms, they should offer clear definitions of what they mean by these isms. I think definitions are more robust and are more capable of giving, especially detractors, an idea of what a label means in practice. I will now outline a few of my various isms and unpack them, so that people can start to see the absurdity of opposing some of them. In place of these labels, I will offer explanations for why I identity with these views.
Atheism is not merely an epistemic stance concerning belief in god, but a robust philosophical position that contains an analytic component. Analytic atheism is concerned with what is meant by theism and what is meant by God. Atheists, however, will not always agree with the answers provided by theists. A theist may respond to the first question and say that God is existence. An atheist might object by saying that such a definition is inconsistent with what theists commonly profess and that what they usually profess is much more elementary. God, for example, is man-like. He is pleased or displeased; given the latter, he is prone to anger. Furthermore, he purportedly has properties that cannot be attributed to mere existence: he is omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, timeless. The atheist could also respond by stating that defining God as existence is much too vague. The aim of a definition is description; this definition, however, fails to describe what is meant by God.
Analytic atheism also attempts to answer the question: what is atheism? To accomplish this, however, the normative component has to be consulted. The analytic component will provide theories of atheism or more simply, accounts of what atheism should be, therefore providing possible answers to the question of normative atheism. The analytic component is therefore, responsible for determining which account best captures what atheism is or alternatively, what an atheist is.
What an atheist is, is perhaps best defined by the approach s/he chooses. The approach chosen or a combination of these approaches might help us to arrive at a better definition of atheism. There’s fallibilism, deductive atheology, and inductive atheology. The latter two are encompassed by evidentialism. This position is arguably most familiar to modern atheists:
[A]theists have taken the view that whether or not a person is justified in having an attitude of belief towards the proposition, “God exists,” is a function of that person’s evidence. “Evidence” here is understood broadly to include a priori arguments, arguments to the best explanation, inductive and empirical reasons, as well as deductive and conceptual premises. An asymmetry exists between theism and atheism in that atheists have not offered faith as a justification for non-belief. That is, atheists have not presented non-evidentialist defenses for believing that there is no God.
McCormick, Matt. “Atheism”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ND. Web. 21 Dec 2014
A priori arguments fall in the purview of deductive atheology. Such atheists would argue that the traditional view of God is incoherent. Such a God is not possible on this view. The characteristics God purportedly has are contradictory either in and of themselves or when one attempts to reconcile them. Take for example J.L Mackie’s explication of the Omnipotence Paradox: “can an omnipotent being make things which he cannot subsequently control? Or, what is practically equivalent to this, can an omnipotent being make rules which then bind himself?” (Mackie, J. L. 1955. Evil and omnipotence. Mind 64 (254): 200-212. Available on web.). This is a more generalized version of the Omnipotence Paradox, which usually asks: can God create a stone he cannot lift? Therefore, the paradox can be viewed as an argument attempting to show that omnipotence is incoherent in and of itself. The argument attempts to accomplish this by dividing omnipotence into two components, which I call functional and physical. Functional omnipotence is the capacity to will anything whilst physical omnipotence is the capacity to do anything. Therefore, the argument attempts to show that it is possible that God could will something he cannot do, in Mackie’s case, will something that he cannot control or in the general case, will the existence of a stone so heavy that he cannot complete the particular task of lifting it.
Another route such an atheist takes is the attempt to show that any given attributes of God are irreconcilable.
The combination of omnipotence and omniscience have received a great deal of attention. To possess all knowledge, for instance, would include knowing all of the particular ways in which one will exercise one’s power, or all of the decisions that one will make, or all of the decisions that one has made in the past. But knowing any of those entails that the known proposition is true. So does God have the power to act in some fashion that he has not foreseen, or differently than he already has without compromising his omniscience? It has also been argued that God cannot be both unsurpassably good and free.McCormick, Ibid.
Another route available to such an atheist is to argue that we have not been offered an adequate concept of god (see Smart, J.J.C. “Atheism and Agnosticism”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 9 Mar 2004. Web. 21 Dec 2014.). Concepts of god are often relative to this or that religion or subjective to this or that individual. Such concepts often do not agree with one another.
Perhaps the final route such an atheist can take is to argue that the failure of theistic arguments entails atheism. In other words, since arguments for God fail, it is reasonable to hold that god does not exist. Such an atheist, for example, will argue that since the Kalam Cosmological Argument fails to prove that God created the universe, we should believe that such an agent did not create the universe. Alternatively, she will argue that since the Ontological Argument fails to show the existence of a necessary being, this being is instead impossible. Whether or not these arguments hold are of no interest at the time. This is, however, how such an atheist will proceed.
An atheist operating under inductive atheology has several possible approaches. Whether or not one can prove a negative is too tangential a topic to cover here, but assuming it’s possible, one could offer Michael Martin’s argument:
P1 [A]ll the available evidence used to support the view that X exists is shown to be inadequate; and
P2 X is the sort of entity that, if X exists, then there is a presumption that would be evidence adequate to support the view that X exists; and
P3 this presumption has not been defeated although serious efforts have been made to do so; and
P4 the area where evidence would appear, if there were any, has been comprehensively examined; and
P5 there are no acceptable beneficial reasons to believe that X exists.Martin, Michael, 1990. Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.
What makes this argument inductive is P3 and P4. P3 and P4 hold hitherto and thus, there is the tacit assumption that they will hold going forward. In other words, that the future will resemble the past.
Naturalism is another argument available to an atheist operating under inductive atheology. This is, in fact, the prevalent approach among modern day atheists. Atheists may disagree on the details and therefore, espouse different sorts of naturalism. However, the more prominent forms are metaphysical and methodological. Methodological naturalism has two primary forms: constructive and deflationary. Deflationary is based on–not exclusively–the Natural Ontological Attitude (NOA). Arthur Fine describes it as follows:
I certainly trust the evidence of my senses, on the whole with regard to the existence and features of everyday objects. And I have similar confidence in the “cheek, double-check, check, tripe-check” of scientific investigation…So if scientists tell me that there really are molecules and atoms, and…who knows maybe even quarks, then so be it. I trust them and, thus, must accept that there really are such things with their attendant properties and relations.Arthur Fine as quoted in Ritchie, Jack. Understanding Naturalism. Stocksfield, England: Acumen, 2008. 97. Print.
NOA is an alternative to scientific realism and anti-realism. “Both realism and anti-realism add an unwanted philosophical gloss to science” (Ibid.). Therefore, the position neither agrees with scientific realism nor anti-realism. At first glance, NOA may sound exactly like scientific realism, but there are key differences that should be considered (e.g. the correspondence theory of truth doesn’t factor into Fine’s NOA). Constructive naturalism differs from NOA because it “involves commitment to a definite method for resolving ontological matters” (Ibid.).Such a naturalist may make use of, for example, Quine’s Naturalized Epistemology.
Metaphysical naturalism absorbs methodological naturalism. The view could be defined as follows:
Metaphysical naturalism seeks to explain every feature of our reality through only natural entities and causes, without the need of god(s) or the supernatural in any part of one’s worldview and life philosophy. In other words, a “big picture” explanation of reality can be reached without any appeal to religion, making religions such as Christianity unnecessary and extraneous to answering the big questions in life.Ferguson, Matthew. “Thinking about the ‘Metaphysics’ in Metaphysical Naturalism”. Civitas Humana. 26 Apr 2014. Web. 21 Dec 2014.
Metaphysical naturalism is a robust worldview that often requires lengthy elucidation. This has been done by, for example, Richard Carrier who states:
[I]f you want to know what we believe on almost any subject, you need merely read authoritative works on science and history–which means, first, college-level textbooks of good quality and, second, all the other literature on which their contents are based. The vast bulk of what you find there we believe in. The evidence and reason for those beliefs is presented in such works and need not be repeated…Carrier, Richard. Sense and Goodness without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism. Bloomington, Ind.: Authorhouse, 2005. 67. Print.
Where such authorities are silent, metaphysical naturalism is capable of providing possible answers. Take, for instance, consciousness. Metaphysical naturalism can offer cogent explanations within the physicalist framework. For instance, with respect to consciousness, some naturalists have offered some version of supervenience. On fallibilism, an atheist can argue that a theist has come to a given conclusion because he hasn’t considered all the relevant evidence (McCormick, Ibid.). In fact, part of this attitude plays a role in discussions between theists and atheists. Theists, generally speaking, make it quite obvious that they are not aware of all of the relevant evidence. William Lane Craig, for example, employs a perfunctory or selective grasp of cosmology in order to support his KCA. It is reasonable to conclude that if he were aware of all of the evidence or if he did not omit counter-evidence, his conclusion would be different. Unfortunately, this might be too generous. Craig has been made aware of the evidence and regardless of the fact, he still chooses to endorse the KCA. So in some cases, it is not just that a theist’s knowledge is fallible, but it is that they disregard the fact and do not care to correct it. Even worse, apologists are in the habit of omitting evidence to the contrary.
Lastly, the definition “lack of belief in gods” is inadequate because it alludes to everyday beliefs. It is correct to say I lack or do not have the belief that Jesus died for my sins and resurrected three days later, and then ascended to the right hand of the Father where he now intercedes on my behalf. Religious beliefs of this sort are not properly epistemic beliefs, which are “the attitude[s] we have, roughly, whenever we take something to be the case or regard it as true” (Schwitzgebel, Eric. “Belief”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2019. Web.). Atheists, therefore, have the epistemic belief that the available evidence makes it much more probable than not that there are no gods or spiritual entities whatsoever. Naturalism, whether some of us like it or not, is a framework that has imposed itself on us. Even in cases where we assume supernatural or paranormal explanations, thorough investigation renders a much more mundane explanation. For some people, it is difficult to accept that the world is not fantastical. Severed limbs do not regenerate in the name of Jesus, people do not rise from the dead when a spell is invoked, and our ancestors do not protect us from physical harm. Thorough investigations only yield naturalistic, reproducible explanations. So when someone proclaims a belief that does not speak to knowledge or truth, but rather, faith, I can definitely say I do not share or that I lack that belief. Now when speaking of properly epistemic beliefs, I have the attitude that atheism is the case; atheism is true in that the various claims of religion do not hold up to scrutiny and that moreover, gods are entirely absent in the scope of all of our explanations. In other words, star formation, planet formation, the arrangement of the earliest, simplest metabolisms, the evolution of species, and ultimately, every model of the universe’s origin do not require a god in order to make sense.
When atheism is spelled out in this much detail, detractors are given no room to disingenuously offer a definition they prefer, one that allows them to malign atheists and misrepresent what they stand for. The label of atheism is futile. The definition or perhaps better said, the practice clearly spells out what it is that I stand for. The same applies to naturalism. The label no longer applies. Instead, I prefer to make explicit what I mean by it. Kai Nielsen explains the intimate connection between atheism and naturalism best:
Religions, whether theisms or not, are belief-systems (though this is not all they are) which involve belief in spiritual realities. Even Buddhism, which has neither God nor worship, has a belief in what Buddhists take to be spiritual realities and this is incompatible with naturalism as is theism as well, which, at least as usually understood, is a form of supernaturalism. Naturalism, where consistent, is an atheism.Nielsen, Kai. Naturalism and Religion. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2001. 30. Print.
The Fourth Wave may be the most powerful wave yet, but a glaring issue limits its power: there are people who not only misunderstand feminism, but also either stand against feminism or misrepresent feminism. The former and the latter are more related than one realizes. Those who misrepresent feminism are very often responsible for those who stand against it. Some Christians and Muslims believe that women are inferior to men and will therefore oppose feminism by default, but there are anti-feminists who do not have religious reasons for opposing feminism. Their reasons are based on the misunderstandings of self-proclaimed feminists.
To set feminism straight, a return to the basics is required. Once the different schools of feminism are made explicit, misunderstanding should be quelled. Misunderstanding occurs due to oversimplification of the thought of one school or another. I agree with Richard Carrier, who stated that, “Feminism is often badly understood by people who don’t study it well or don’t read widely among contemporary feminist authors” (Carrier, Richard. “A Primer on Fourth Wave Feminism”. Freethought Blogs. 5 Apr 2015. Web. 8 Apr 2015.). A successful movement, of course, has to move against some form of oppression or move toward some end, but it also has to stop and gather its fugitives. It, in other words, should not exclude people who want to identify with it. However, it should be responsible for ensuring that its members understand the movement. It is responsible for its reputation and since the reputation of the movement is based on its members, cohesion and continuity are a must. We are in a digital age in where people listen to someone on a YouTube channel or a blogger in the blogosphere. It is a readily accessible form of media. It is often short and sweet when compared to a book, so the more learned and educated in a movement have to stop to protect the movement from misunderstanding and mischaracterization. To do this, one must gather the fugitives, and to accomplish this, they have to be shown where they have gone wrong. They need to be corrected. Often what is needed is a return to the basics.
Fugitives are the people anti-feminists get these ideas from, young girls who are themselves anti-feminists or who identify a feminists and confess to things that are not at all in keeping with the movement: that feminists hate men; that feminists want to exclude them; that feminists seek female dominance and perhaps a matriarchy; that feminists are looking to devalue masculine attributes; that feminists ignore the effects the patriarchy has on men and that they, in fact, ignore men’s issues across the board. These ideas are not true to feminism, but there’s still the question as to why people think they are. Mackay has a succinct summary of feminism and not surprisingly, she alludes to common misconceptions:
Feminism is one of the oldest and most powerful social movements in history; it is a revolutionary movement, and that means change. There is so much wrong with the present system that we can’t just tinker round the edges, we need to start again; our end point cannot be equality in an unequal world. This is also the reason why feminism is not struggling to simply reverse the present power relationship and put women in charge instead of men (though this is a common myth about feminist politics). Feminism is about change, not a changing of the guard.Mackay, Finn. “Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement”. Times Higher Education. 19 Feb 2015. Web. 8 Apr 2015.
What kind of change is the label of feminism about? Feminism concerns securing equality for women. Women should have the same opportunities men have. Women should have the same rights men have. Women should be respected in their careers the way men are; they should be paid equally. There should be no sex-based differences in academia, the workplace, at home, or anywhere else. When this is spelled out, it is an uncontroversial perspective. There should be no reason for anyone to oppose the affirmation that women should be equal to men.
IV. Black Lives Matter
Likewise, there should be no opposition at all when I say that Black people and minorities, more generally, should be equal to Whites. There is nothing wrong with saying that if a Black man commits a crime or fails to comply with police, he should not be gunned down. White men have committed crimes on a much larger scale and were escorted away in handcuffs. White men do not have to worry about police officers kneeling on their necks or shooting 41 rounds at them. Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 people, including 19 children, in an act of domestic terrorism, and he walked away with his life (Gumbel, Andrew. “Oklahoma City bombing: 20 years later, key questions remain unanswered”. Guardian. 13 Apr 2015. Web.). That is because he was given the right to a fair trail. In this country, a Black man selling loose cigarettes on a corner can be the victim of extrajudicial execution. There is nothing controversial about saying that even the life of an accused Black criminal matters. Innocent until proven guilty applies to Black people or at least, it should apply to Black people.
The same applies to Asian Americans, who have recently become the target of hate crimes across the country. Implicit here is that I am opposed to anyone who endorses stereotypes about ethnic groups. So when the former President joked about the “Kung Flu” and blamed China repeatedly for the COVID-19 outbreak, that was one of the many reasons I opposed him, his administration, and his supporters. It is absurd to me that right-wingers in America are roundly opposed to racial equality. They are also opposed to women securing equality. There is a sense in which my political opponents are wholly aware of what these labels mean and yet, they routinely choose to ignore the definitions, no matter how clearly they are explained. It is not any lack of clarity or sense on my part, but rather an obstinate decision to oppose progress of this sort at every turn. Political affiliation should not keep anyone from accepting my definitions or identifying with them. If your political party prohibits you from even seeing the need for racial equality, abandon the party or admit to having abandoned your moral integrity. There are no two ways about it.
In the past, I have used this term and I have done so to differentiate myself from Democrats. I am not a Centrist, a sycophant who condones incompetence and corruption on both sides while pretending that they are both exemplary. Neither political party in the United States is morally admirable. While it is the case that Democrats are marginally better, there is still a lot that they get wrong, hence my anti-Democratic, anti-Capitalist stances. I do not support the American idea of Democracy because, like Mbembe, I recognize that it has a nocturnal body: colonialism and every human rights violation that has followed from it from slavery to the Jim Crow era to mass incarceration of Blacks after a fabricated crack-cocaine epidemic. The United States is a hegemony, a pseudo-Empire precisely because it destabilizes entire regions by rightfully overthrowing despots and making the critical mistake of leaving a power vacuum in their place. Terrorist factions are just a small part of this country reaping what it sowed, but I digress.
Proponents of Capitalism are enamored with the idea of Capitalism. They, however, ignore the reality of it. Inequality the world over is perpetuated by Western ideas and interference. In the year that COVID-19 has wreaked havoc in the United States, workers have lost over $3.7 trillion to date while the wealth of top billionaires has increased by $3.9 trillion. This can be seen as one of the largest redistributions of wealth in history (see here and here). A lot more can be said about Capitalism, perhaps in a separate post for another day. The point I am making now is that the labels of Black Lives Matter, feminist, anti-Capitalist, and the like do not necessarily pertain to Far Left politics. Once these labels are made explicit, in that one makes clear what they mean in practice, it should strike anyone as absurd to be diametrically opposed to these positions.
That leaves open the question as to why people on the right see these positions as fundamentally opposed to their brand of politics. Again, if your political party imposes these discriminatory and even racist views on you, it is good sign that you should renounce it. There are ways to be fiscally conservative, a proponent of small government, and so on without subscribing to views that promote racial, gender, and wealth inequality. I fail to see how what I have had outlined is unclear or nonsensical. The isms, once unpacked, should not be as controversial. This is why I prefer stating my positions clearly, so that there is no room for misconstruing, misrepresenting, straw manning, and so on. There is, in my book, a difference between an opponent and an enemy. The enmity I reserve for my enemies has everything to do with the fact that they think their ignorance is better than my knowledge, their apathy superior to my empathy, their desire to oppress groups they dislike equal to my desire for equality. Opponents, by contrast, can have their minds changed. The omission of relevant facts is not the same as ignorance. My enemies intend to ignore that which disagrees with or defeats their views and more importantly, they intend to cause harm to people like myself, so they do so by weaponizing their right to vote to further marginalized groups they want to harm. Then they pretend to be innocent because they are not drawing a firearm. They might as well. Voting for a candidate that does not care about the plights of minorities, women, non-Christians, etc. is a deliberate attempt to harm these groups. You are not innocent.
Ultimately, labels in and of themselves are futile. We should do away with labels and instead flesh out what we stand for. This leaves little room for error and leaves our enemies fully exposed. This is not to say that people cannot disagree with atheism and naturalism, for instance. They are more than welcome to. What this does mean is that they cannot make the vacuous claim that I suppress God in my unrighteousness or that I hate God or that I choose to not believe because I prefer to indulge sinful concupiscence. These are comfortable things Christians say to avoid the fact that people have good reasons for not believing in God. My robust descriptions of atheism and naturalism leave no room for speculation of the sort. It gives them no space at all to go with a definition that allows them to slander people like myself. Labels do not accomplish this. Fuller descriptions of what is meant by a label go much further. Let us abandon our labels and instead, describe in greater detail what we stand for.
By R.N. Carmona
In the beginning this world was only brahman, and it knew only itself (ātman), thinking: ‘I am brahman.’ As a result, it became the Whole. Among the gods, likewise, whosoever realized this, only they became the Whole. It was the same also among the seers and among humans. Upon seeing this very point, the seer Vāmadeva proclaimed: ‘I was Manu, and I was the sun.’ This is true even now. If man knows ‘I am brahman‘ in this way, he becomes this whole world. Not even the gods are able to prevent it, for he becomes their very self (ātman). So when a man venerates another deity, thinking, ‘He is one, and I am another’, he does not understand.Olivelle, Patrick. Upaniṣads: A new translation. New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 1996. 15. Print
This passage from the Bṛadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad coincides with the earliest ideas of ātman (the self). The Upaniṣads, unlike the Vedas, explore ātman in greater detail. The “Ṛgveda (c.1200 B.C.E.), the earliest textual source from ancient India, ātman had already a wide range of lexical meanings, including ‘breath’, ‘spirit’, and ‘body’” (Black, Brian. “Upanishads”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.). Interestingly, the Upaniṣads, taken together, do not yield the same interpretation of the self, so there is a sense in which the concept of ātman anticipated a view in modern philosophy of mind. We will circle back around to that later. Of importance now is laying out a brief overview of the ātman in Hinduism. Then, we will turn to the Buddhist interpretation of the idea, anattā, which has interesting parallels to modern views of mind.
The Vedic idea of ātman never fell out of fashion as is made apparent in Uddālaka’s teachings. His idea of ātman is pretty much identical: it is the life force within all living things, the very essence creating a bridge between the parts and the whole. This is in keeping with Advaita Vedānta in where the “experiencing self (jīva) and the transcendental self of the Universe (ātman) are in reality identical (both are Brahman), though the individual self seems different as space within a container seems different from space as such” (Menon, Sangeetha. “Vedanta, Advaita”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.). Yājñavalkya offers a different interpretation, equating the self with consciousness rather than a life force. He ” characterizes the self as that which has mastery over the otherwise distinct psycho-physical capacities. He goes on to explain that we know the existence of the self through actions of the self, through what the self does, not through our senses—that the self, as consciousness, cannot be an object of consciousness” (Black, Ibid.). Despite differences from Uddālaka’s interpretation, Yājñavalkya still adheres to Advaita Vedānta. The Advaita school of Vedānta yields a concept of God that accords with panentheism.
Prajāpati also equates ātman with consciousness, but crucially, he also conflates it with the material body. Prajāpati, therefore, presents a strain of another school in Vedānta, namely Dvaita, which is dualistic. In a sense, it is a dualism of mind and body or consciousness and the material, but more importantly, it is a dualism of jīva and the Brahman, e.g., humankind and God. Given Prajāpati’s distinction, we see the beginnings of monotheism or henotheism, and the much later bhakti tradition in Hinduism in where a devotee of a given god is to unite their soul to this god by way of their love and devotion. Though there are other interpretations of ātman and Brahman in Hinduism, Advaita and Dvaita suffice for our purposes.
In Buddhism, there is no ātman. We are, therefore, introduced to the concept of anattā or non-self. There is no static, immutable, essential soul or consciousness. This is crucial for Buddhist teachings regarding suffering (dukkha) and detachment because if one does not have the idea of an essential self, one is less likely to pity himself over others, to regard his own suffering as having higher priority than that of other beings. Coseru elaborates:
The centrality of the not-self doctrine in Buddhist thought is explained on the basis of its pragmatic role in guiding the adept on the path to enlightenment. Furthermore, the not-self doctrine provides a justification for treating endurance, independence, and self-subsistence as neither desirable nor attainable, but rather as what they are: mistaken notions resulting from the habitual tendency to construct an identity from a stream of physical and subjective phenomena.Coseru, Christian. “Mind in Indian Buddhist Philosophy”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2012. Web.
As Coseru also points out, there is a sense in which the Buddhist idea of anattā anticipated Hume who thought that there was no self to apprehend within our perceptions. Along with anattā, Buddhists present “a fluid account of experience as an ever-changing stream of psycho-physical events. This dynamic model of human existence comprises the five classes of phenomena the Buddha referred to as the “aggregates of grasping” (upādāna-skandha), on account of our tendency to grasp after and identify with them” (Ibid.). This is opposed to our idea of a fixed self or consciousness experiencing life in a Cartesian theater.
When considering the Hindu idea of ātman and the Buddhist response of anattā, we can start to see how we could have avoided all of Descartes’ mistakes in the philosophy of mind had we been more studied on Eastern religions or other religions aside from Christianity. Christianity, akin to Dvaita, creates a dualism between God and man. There is never a sense, per Christian theology, in where man and God are identical or one. There is no sense in which man’s consciousness and God’s are identical either. Descartes took this a step further, dualizing the physical body and the mental soul. Hindus adhering to Dvaita Vedānta had already committed this error and the Buddhist idea of anattā, aside from reducing consciousness to the physical domain, suggested that there is no-self to speak of and more importantly, that there is no phenomenal consciousness to capture. It is an illusion.
Interestingly, the non-duality of Advaita Vedanta (monism), can be seen as paraphrasing anattā in that ideas of the self are illusory, a part of the Brahman dream (maya). This leads to the idea of mokṣa, the notion that we can free ourselves from the cycle of death and rebirth. For Hindus adhering to Advaita Vedānta, mokṣa is attained when one accepts the self as being one with Brahman. For Buddhists, Nirvana is the emptying of ideas of self and ultimately realizing that there is no self; this is how one comes to free oneself from the cycle of death and rebirth. Under both interpretations, there is a sense in which there is no self. On the one hand, any self that is at variance with the Brahman is illusory, a product of the maya while on the other, there is simply no self and any erroneous ideas we get about the self proceed from the ego. The ego is the engine through which false narratives of the self are created.
Further exploration of the self and ego delve too far into the philosophy of mind, but brief comments are in order. The Churchlands and Dennett adhere to anattā if ātman is defined as phenomenal consciousness. Ramsey states:
Dennett challenges not just our conception of pain, but all of our different notions of qualitative states. His argument focuses on the apparently essential features of qualia, including their inherent subjectivity and their private nature. Dennett discusses several cases—both actual and imaginary—to expose ways in which these ordinary intuitions about qualia pull apart. In so doing, Dennett suggests our qualia concepts are fundamentally confused and fail to correspond with the actual inner workings of our cognitive system.Ramsey, William. “Eliminative Materialism”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2019. Web.
It can be argued, therefore, that if the history of philosophy of religion had been different, then the history of philosophy of mind would have proceeded differently. In other words, the missteps philosophers have taken throughout the history of philosophy of mind likely would not have happened. Of course, we would be dealing with a set of different mistakes, but some of these mistakes would not prevail till this day due to the obstinacy of apologists who do not want to relinquish the idea of Cartesian dualism. A thorough understanding of ātman and anattā would have at least disabused us of the idea of a theater of consciousness or a fixed self, and related ideas like qualia, which as Dennett points out, are problematic. See my recent “Nonphysicalism in The Philosophy of Mind and Its Shortcomings” for a discussion on why the ideas of qualia and phenomenal consciousness are untenable.
On the philosophy of religion front, the concepts of ātman and anattā are fertile ground for discussions within the cosmotheological and ontotheological traditions (see Wildman, Wesley J. Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future For The Philosophy of Religion. State University of New York Press. Albany, NY. 2010. 248-261. Print. for an overview of these traditions in the philosophy of religion). As stated earlier, we now move away from mono or henotheistic frameworks and consider, for example whether panentheism best explains features of the universe, on the one hand, and features of being on the other. For one, consider the idea that we are star stuff. We are comprised of the same matter and energy that pervades the rest of the universe. In that sense, then, we are not distinct and all things in the universe recede back to the Big Bang singularity. Perhaps our ideas of essentialist distinction are illusory, a dream-like story we continue to tell ourselves. In light of this, there is either no self or the self reduces to the universe. Given the recent resurgence of panpsychism, some have argued that the universe is very much like a supermassive brain (see Ratner, Paul. “The universe works like a huge human brain, discover scientists”. Big Think. 19 Nov 2020). In any case, a closer look at Hinduism and Buddhism will take us in non-monotheistic directions that may prove fruitful in ongoing discussions in the philosophy of religion and of mind.
Ultimately, we begin to see why it is of the utmost importance to break up the Christian monopoly in philosophy of religion, so to speak. We can see how the winding history of ātman and anattā anticipate certain strains in the philosophy of mind while also providing new, fertile ground in the philosophy of religion. In Advaita Vedānta, there is just one self, the Brahman. Every other idea of self is illusory. This has some staggering implications for ongoing discussions about identity as well. In Buddhism, given anattā, we see that the “I Am that I Am” uttered by Yahweh is ultimately an error of the ego, overinflated and now extended into the idea of God. Furthermore, this supports the idea that the jealous, vindictive, tribalist gods so often prone to favoritism, unironically, of the people who happen to worship them, are created in our image. Anattā suggests that gods like Yahweh, Allah, and those pertaining to the various mono and henotheisms around the world are extensions of the ego imposing false ideas of the self. Most philosophers of religion, concerned not only with the nature of but also with the identity of God, seldom wrestle with the idea that perhaps there is no universal ātman, e.g., there is no God. This has some resonating implications all its own. The purpose here has been to move the philosophy of religion in yet another fruitful direction; while I can begin to exhaust possibilities, it is important for me not to create a self-induced echo chamber, especially given that my interest is to encourage philosophers of religion to travel down these newly paved roads. Anattā has far reaching implications for free will, ethics, identity, existentialism, and other areas of philosophy as well. In any case, it should be clear why Christianity’s iron grip on the philosophy of religion needs to be loosened.
By R.N. Carmona
In the last entry in this series, we saw how Buddhism can handle the Problem of Evil. Traditionally, the problem exposed a contradiction between the idea of a perfectly good deity and the abundance of evil and suffering in the world. Buddhism solves this contradiction by eliminating the former variable from the equation, leaving only evil and suffering. With no deus ex machina to rescue us, the issue stands before us, waiting to be resolved by humanity, perhaps by way of adhering to principles similar to the Eightfold Path of Buddhism. What is notable about the Buddhist solution to the problem is that it makes it our problem and makes us responsible for doing something about the evil and suffering in our world; it places the burden on us to lift the world out of degeneracy.
Zoroastrianism, on the other hand, has a solution similar to the ones offered by Christians and Muslims. The key difference is that Zoroastrian theology better explains the origin and persistence of evil and suffering. On Christianity, God is perfect in every way. He is perfectly good and there is no evil in him. In addition to this, he is omniscient, omnipotent, and sovereign. Satan does not come close to matching God’s power and more importantly, he could not have produced degenerated conditions prior to the Fall of Adam. Plantinga argues, on the one hand, that Adam is to blame for why humans are capable of evil (Beebe, James R. “Logical Problem of Evil”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. ND. Web.). On the other hand, he blames cosmic and natural evils on the volition of evil, immaterial entities; he adds that God could not create a world with a better balance of good and evil, an allusion to Leibniz’s idea of a best possible world (Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom and Evil. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. 58. Print.). The notion that something is not within God’s power contradicts the belief that he is omnipotent. Furthermore, that fallen angels, beings contingent not only on God’s creative power but also on his immutable and incorruptible nature, were even capable of falling into depravity is dubious. Plantinga’s solutions, like other solutions offered by Christian apologists, compounds the problem.
Where Christian theology fails, Zoroastrian theology succeeds. On Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda or Ohrmazd is perfect in every way: he is omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly benevolent, immutable, incorruptible, and timeless. He created a material realm (getig) because he foresaw a future in where Angra Mainyu (Ahriman) would be defeated. Since life cannot coexist with non-life, light cannot coexist with darkness, and creation cannot coexist with privation, Ahura Mazda created the world for purposes of luring Angra Mainyu into it and defeating him. Angra Mainyu, unlike Satan, can corrupt creation. On Zoroastrianism, therefore, the viruses, diseases, parasites, and predators we wonder about given the assumption that there exists a perfectly good god are explained by an equally powerful evil god that can corrupt the substances of creation. Clark explains:
As far as their own natures are concerned, Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd) and Angra Mainyu are completely opposite to the extent that whereas it is appropriate to say that the former has life, it is more correct to say that the latter has “non-life” and that his “creations” are in fact “anti-creations” or deprivative incursions into the Ahuric. Thus although we can characterize Zoroastrianism as a dualism of sorts, this must be qualified since we cannot say that the religion recognizes two gods in Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu precisely because of the radical distinction of their natures. This distinction is confirmed textually. The term for “Lord,” for example, is never applied to Ahriman (Angra Mainyu) in the Pahlavi books, and both the Avestan and Pahlavi languages have curious double vocabularies in which certain terms are inherently Ahuric and others inherently Ahrimanic. Even seemingly neutral terms like “leg” and “hand” have different words in Avestan, depending on whether they are used with reference to Ahuric or Ahrimanic entities.Clark, Peter. Zoroastrianism: An Introduction to an Ancient Faith. Chicago: Sussex Academic Press, 1998. 85. Print
The longstanding Theism-atheism debate in the philosophy of religion has inadvertently stumbled upon this solution already. While Buddhism removes God from the equation, Zoroastrianism adds an evil god to solve the problem of evil and suffering. It would be interesting to note the similarity between Zoroastrian theology and Aquinas’ explanation of evil. Aquinas was probably familiar with Zoroastrian theology and subsumed their explanation of evil into his philosophy because in light of Christian theology, Aquinas’ musings are incoherent. Floyd states that “evil has no actuality in its own right. It would be a mistake, then, to speak of evil as an actual “thing,” if by “thing” we mean an existing being or quality. For evil is a deprivation of what is actual, like blindness or sickness. For this reason, Aquinas says that something is evil “inasmuch as it is deprived of some particular good that pertains to its due or proper perfection” (QDM 1.1 ad 1; ST Ia 48.2 passim)” (Floyd, Shawn. “Aquinas: Moral Philosophy”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.). Alternatively, since Aquinas followed Augustine’s lead here, perhaps Augustine was familiar with Zoroastrian theology and incorporated their explanation of evil into his writings.
What’s more is that the evil god challenge has already been raised and though it was not Law’s intention to argue that this evil god explains evil ontologically, intending instead to pose a new challenge for Theism, Law’s evil god is not far from Angra Mainyu. Law states:
Consider a different hypothesis. Suppose the universe has a creator. Suppose also that this being is omnipotent and omniscient. But suppose he is not maximally good. Rather, imagine that he is maximally evil. His depravity is without limit. His cruelty knows no bounds. There is no other god or gods – just this supremely wicked being. Call this the evil-god hypothesis.Law, Stephen. The evil-god challenge. Religious Studies, 2010 46(3), 353-373. doi:10.1017/S0034412509990369
The key difference is that Law replaces the Judeo-Christian concept of god with a maximally evil being. His concept is more in keeping with monotheism rather than the henotheism present in Zoroastrian theology. Briefly, henotheism entails the worship of one god while not denying that there are other gods or the worship of one god that can manifest itself in other forms or as other gods, e.g., Hinduism. Though Zoroastrians do not address Angra Mainyu as a god, he is not a being created by Ahura Mazda. Furthermore, Spenta Mainyu and Angra Mainyu are recognized as “twin spirits,” co-eternal, and both existing outside of time. Spenta Mainyu, the holy spirit of Ahura Mazda, is hypostatically connected to Ahura Mazda. Clark elaborates:
Just as the good spirit of Ahura Mazda, Spenta Mainyu, and the hostile spirit, Angra Mainyu, are independent of each other, having no connection either conceptually or in any fundamental or primal sense (in that they share no common origin), so evil and good in this world are also completely separate to the degree that one is not only the ideological but also physical antithesis of the other. All that is good, that which we call Ahuric, is a positive quality emanating from the Wise Lord whereas all that is bad is the result of Ahriman’s intrusion into the Ahuric domain, and is in fact a deprivation of the good, a destructive incursion into the created order. That is why the Ahrimanic is sometimes referred to only by what it is not — hence the term ajyati, “not-life” (Ibid., 126).
The maximally great being of Christian Theists and the maximally evil being posited by Law are already present in Zoroastrian theology. Humans are actors on a stage set from eternity; Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu have been at variance for all of eternity and we are either ashavans living by Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds or we are drugvants leading a life of hostility, deceit, violence, and so on. Any feature of the universe that we qualify as evil or, at the very least, irreconcilable with a perfectly good being, from asteroid impacts to malignant Narcissists, reduces to the Zoroastrian hostile spirit and his capacity to manipulate creative substance so that it succumbs to degeneracy. On Zoroastrianism, therefore, the abundance of evil and suffering we experience in the world, including features of the animal kingdom that do not square with the existence of a perfectly benevolent being, stem from an intrusive, equally powerful evil god whose greatest weapon is death. From a naturalistic, evolutionary perspective, if the Ahuric design was simply for species to acquire adaptive traits enabling them to survive in perpetuity, Angra Mainyu manipulated evolutionary purposes to introduce death and extinction, or simply, “non-life.”
Interestingly, there is a way for a naturalist to subsume the Zoroastrian solution to the Problem of Evil. If we set aside all reification of evil and good, along with any ideas of omni-beings whether good or evil, what Zoroastrianism predicts is that people living by Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds will rid the physical realm of evil once and for all. Just as we learned through Buddhism, while we are ultimately not powerful enough to address all aspects of so-called degeneracy, in that we cannot, for instance, remove entropy from the universe or return it to its original state of perfect symmetry, we can rid the world of exploitation, corruption, deceit, and all manner of malice; with enough scientific and technological advancement, we may be able to achieve versions of functional immorality, thereby curbing death (see Reedy, Christiana. “An End to Aging: Can Science Allow Humans to To Become Immortal?”. Futurism. 3 Mar 2017. Web.). The naturalistic Zoroastrian prescription for a solution to the Problem of Evil is similar to the Buddhist’s: Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds, which are similar in many respects to Buddhism’s Eightfold Path. What’s more is that according to Zoroastrian mythology, Ahura Mazda created us to be the impetus of his victory over Angra Mainyu. On a naturalistic reading, then, the eradication of evil and the regeneration of our civilization and planet requires us to become ashavans, following after asha (truth) and following an ethical code that would draw us to the incorruptible light of Ahura Mazda. Essentially, there is no distinction between how Ahura Mazda is described and an ashavan, once again implying that we are to reappropriate the moral powers we mistakenly surrendered to the prevailing idea of God.
Ultimately, Zoroastrianism offers a unique solution to the problem of evil, one that its theology was able to anticipate in today’s Theism-atheism debate in the philosophy of religion, so to speak. For anyone looking to maintain belief in a perfectly good deity, it appears reasonable to recognize that there is an equally, or at least, comparably powerful evil deity through whom we can explain evil and suffering. Aquinas, following Augustine, appears to have been familiar enough with Zoroastrianism; otherwise, it will be hard to explain why his rationalizations of evil sound suspiciously similar. The problem is that I do not think Augustine and Aquinas’ ideas cohere with Christian theology; the notion of deprivation or “non-life” makes a lot more sense given the Zoroastrian belief in the “twin spirits.” Christians have long recognized the appeal of this solution, augmenting Satan’s power to the point of near-omnipotence. On some accounts, he can read minds or predict the future. Martin Luther King Jr., communicating a line of Christian thinking, conveyed the idea of “demonic imitation” in where religions like Zoroastrianism, along with its belief in saoshyants born of virgins, were meant to deceive people and lure them away from Christianity (Jr. King, Martin Luther. “The Influence of the Mystery Religions on Christianity”. Stanford University. 29 Nov 1949. Web.). Christianity does not bestow this level of power on its greatest evil. Zoroastrianism, on the other hand, does acknowledge that Angra Mainyu is maximally evil. Zoroastrianism’s solution is provocative though it entails henotheism or even polytheism. Either way, it is a welcome retreat from the Christian monopoly, a viable way to get out from under Christianity’s long shadow in the philosophy of religion.
By R.N. Carmona
The Problem of Evil, as normally construed, needs to be reframed in order to be discussed more generally in the philosophy of religion. When one thinks of the problem, one thinks about the incongruity between the evil and suffering we observe in the world and the idea of a perfectly benevolent deity. In issues of dissonance, the simplest solution is to identify which one of your beliefs is causing the issue. While it is possible that both conflicting beliefs can be wrong, sometimes it is that one is the case while the other is not. Christians might not allow for the radical solution I am going to offer by way of Buddhism, but it is a viable solution nonetheless. Buddhism is a godless religion and as such, one accomplishes reframing the problem by removing one of the elements causing tension. In this particular case, we simply remove the belief in a perfectly good god. What we are then left with is the fact that evil and suffering abound in our world, which is a problem all its own.
What does Buddhism have to say about evil and suffering? What answers might it give us to start mitigating an issue that affects us all? I think that Buddhism will accomplish something in the philosophy of religion that Christianity has not. Not only will it solve the Problem of Evil, but it will redistribute it, as it were, into the real world where it belongs. This is not to say that Christians do nothing to address evil and suffering, but every hour spent on batting around the tired literature surrounding the Problem of Evil is time not spent addressing the actual problem. As we will see later in this series, beliefs about a god serving as deus ex machina and renewing this degenerated existence predate Christianity and Islam. In other words, people have had similar beliefs for thousands of years, convinced that the restoration of the Earth and humankind to a state without blemish would certainly happen within their lifetimes. Thousands of years have gone by and we are still plagued by many of the same issues that they encountered. The solutions that Buddhism will offer will place the responsibility of solving the problem of evil and suffering squarely on our shoulders. There is no god out there waiting for the opportune time to regenerate all of existence. Buddhism makes the problem our problem and takes it out of the hands of philosophers that prefer argument to action.
Buddhism’s Definition of Evil and Suffering
In Buddhism, suffering is the subject of the Four Noble Truths:
- Dukha: There is suffering because we experience a great deal of disappointment in life. Illness and injury are obvious causes of suffering, but even when we do not find our leg in a cast or have to deal with the death of a loved one, we still lack fulfillment and desire more than we currently have. In the Western sense of thinking, we seldom stop to count our blessings.
- Samudāya: Suffering is rooted in craving (tanhā). Greed, ignorance, and hatred, generally speaking, define our addictions.
- Nirodha: To cease suffering, one need only detach oneself from addictions. Detachment is a concept ripe for philosophical exploration, aside from the subject matter currently in focus.
- Magga: The way through which we can end both our own suffering and the suffering of others. This is inhered in the Eightfold Path.
The Eightfold Path to end suffering is as follows:
- Right Understanding – Sammā ditthi: To live by the Buddha’s teachings, not in the Western, submissive sense, but approaching even his teachings with skepticism and discretion
- Right Intention – Sammā san̄kappa: To learn to assess one’s motives and intentions and being sure to see things clearly, without prejudices and assumptions
- Right Speech – Sammā vācā: To speak the truth and to shun destructive lying. This would also require one to avoid gossiping, slandering, and insulting others
- Right Action – Sammā kammanta: To live in harmony with all living things; this entails a commitment to not cause harm, especially killing
- Right Livelihood – Sammā ājīva: To earn a living without exploiting other people or causing harm. This would entail not selling potentially harmful paraphernalia or products
- Right Effort – Sammā vāyāma: To maintain positive states of mind. This involves keeping oneself from thinking in terms of violence, revenge, and so on
- Right Mindfulness – Sammā sati: To be keenly aware of your thoughts, emotions, and any of the body’s corresponding sensations as it pertains to destructive emotions like anger but also positive feelings like pleasure
- Right Concentration – Sammā samādhi: To cultivate the focus necessary to make this deeper awareness of oneself possible
Of interest is Buddhism’s non-duality; Buddhists do not think of evil and suffering the way most of us do in the West. For us, when we think of evil, we think of the psychopathic serial killer. When we think of suffering, we imagine perhaps a homeless person or someone who is terminally ill laying in a hospital bed. We do not realize that the same sources give rise to both evil and suffering. This is not to merely state that an evil person causes the suffering of another person. That is stating the obvious. Rather, it is to say that greed (the rooster), ignorance (the pig), and hatred (the snake) give rise to evil and suffering within the same individual. The same reasons leading a person to be characterized as evil also result in his own suffering. As Kyokai states: “Greed rises from wrong ideas of satisfaction; anger rises from wrong ideas concerning the state of one’s affairs and surroundings; foolishness rises from the inability to judge what correct conduct is” (Kyokai, Bukkyo Dendo. The Teaching of Buddha. 162. Print). Mark Epstein elaborates:
When we refuse to acknowledge the presence of unwanted feelings, we are as bound to them as when we give ourselves over to them indignantly and self-righteously. Religion has traditionally counseled believers to withdraw from aggressive, erotic, or egotistical states of mind, replacing them with the “purer” states of devotion, humility, and piety. Psychoanalysis has encouraged its adherents to be less fearful of these emotions, to understand their roots and recover the energy that has been lost through the failure to accept primitive urges or longings. Buddhism, alone among the world’s religions, has taken a characteristically middle path, recognizing the need to be free from destructive emotions while at the same time seeing that such freedom comes through nonjudgmental awareness of just those emotions we seek freedom from.Epstein, Mark. Thoughts Without A Thinker: Psychotherapy From A Buddhist Perspective. New York: Perseus Books Group, 1995. 24. Print
Buddhism, therefore, does not relocate evil in others. Unlike other religions, it does not paint the worst of men as monsters or as influenced or even possessed by evil entities. Buddhism, first and foremost, identifies a propensity for evil in you. It also identifies the source of suffering in you. This is a good start because it allows us, in the main, to keep ourselves from slipping into behavioral patterns that result in suffering or evil. Of course, the larger issues are still unanswered. There is a great deal of suffering to address, not only in humans, but in animals as well. Buddhism should offer a way to address the wider evil and suffering in the world: political corruption, poverty, genocide, war, and so on. This is, after all, what people have looked to gods to address, so we are left with a staggeringly massive problem once we remove a perfectly good god from equation; evil and suffering are suddenly the literal weight of the world on our shoulders. It is likely that because these issues are so intimidating and have a way of making us feel insignificant and small, we find solace in the idea that something greater and more powerful than ourselves will eventually rescue us. Like children, who make a mess of their rooms knowing their parents will clean up after them, we have made a mess of our planet and look to a celestial father figure to bail us out. It is time now to reckon with the fact that we are adults; we are on our own and this is entirely our problem to fix.
Predictably, then, if Buddhism identifies evil and suffering in us, then it also identifies the solution in us. This is Buddhism’s greatest insight with respect to evil and suffering. Epstein states:
Yet, one of the most compelling things about the Buddhist view of suffering is the notion, inherent in the Wheel of Life image, that the causes of suffering are also the means of release; that is, the sufferer’s perspective determines whether a given realm is a vehicle for awakening or for bondage. Conditioned by the forces of attachment, aversion, and delusion, our faulty perceptions of the realms—not the realms themselves—cause suffering.Ibid., 16
Briefly, the Wheel of Life is comprised of the Six Realms of Saṃsāra. Below is an image to help visualize what is inhered in each realm:
Prior to assuming a panoramic view, Buddhism’s view on animals is crucial. Recall stages three thru five of the Eightfold Path: Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood. These stages concern Buddhist ethical conduct (śīla). One of Buddhism’s precepts is ahiṃsā (non-violence). Bronwyn Finnigan, Senior Lecturer in the School of Philosophy at the Australian National University, outlines several arguments that extends ahiṃsā to animals. He states: “Since killing and harming animals causes suffering, and since suffering is intrinsically bad and should be prevented, it follows that one should not kill or harm animals” (Finnigan, Bronwyn. Buddhism and the moral status of animals. ABC Religions and Ethics. 21 Nov 2018. Web.). He also remarks: “I do not desire to suffer. If I were killed that would cause me to suffer. Animals are like me in not desiring to suffer. Killing animals causes them to suffer. So, I should not kill animals“; “Psychological states exist but no selves who own those states. If suffering should be removed, given some interest, then all sufferings should be removed, given some interest. Killing and harming animals causes them to suffer. Animals have an interest not to suffer. So, we should not kill or harm animals“; “Not killing or harming animals is a way to cultivate compassion. One should be compassionate. So, one should not kill or harm animals” (Ibid.). One of Finnigan’s four arguments must resonate with everyone. As a neo-Kantian, his second argument is the most compelling. In other words, since animals are like me, in that there is nothing that makes me special or superior to them as Western religions posit, they do not desire to suffer. It follows, therefore, that I should not harm or kill animals. Pursuing animal rights is too tangential for our current purposes, but Christine Korsgaard has an excellent take on this issue (Korsgaard, Christine M. 2011. “Interacting with Animals: A Kantian Account.” In The Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics, ed. Tom L. Beauchamp and R. G. Frey, 91-118. Oxford: Oxford University Press.).
Now, to assume a bird’s-eye view. What are we to do about all the suffering and evil in the world? If we set aside the historical missteps some Buddhists have taken, e.g. the manner in which some have embraced violence, and try to imagine, instead of a Judeo-Christian-Islamic world, a Buddhist world, would the Eightfold Path solve the real problem of suffering and evil? If we all acquired a deep awareness of our cravings and subsequent addictions; if we all agreed to stop harming and killing others; if we all agreed to stop insulting one another and gossiping; if we all designed to meditate and unravel latent traumas; if we all studied the teachings of Buddha, building upon his initial ideas, do we now find ourselves in a better world? The greatest conceivable human being can be anyone of us, but, to my mind, there is no greater modern exemplary than the Dalai Lama. Boris-Dunchunstang recalls his story:
It was during the early morning hours of February 4, 1997, when three monks who were sleeping a few hundred yards from my living quarters were stabbed to death. They were cut up in a fashion that resembled an exorcism. One of the monks was my dearest friend and confidant, seventy-year-old Lobsang Gyatso. He was found dead in bed. Two younger monks, Ngawang Lodoe and my Chinese-language interpreter, Lobsang Ngawan, had been stabbed fifteen to twenty times, leaving the walls of the small monks’ chamber splattered with blood. I suspect there could have been five to eight attackers. The murderers were sending a very clear message to me.Boris-Dunchunstang, Eileen R. Finding Forgiveness. New York: McGraw Hill, 2006. 60-61. Print.
The Dalai Lama’s response to this tragedy is not what one would expect. He did not seek retribution or vengeance. He analyzed his initial shock and ensuing anger, and ultimately resolved to forgive the assailants. “Forgiveness is about healing suffering for ourselves and others. Until we develop compassion within ourselves and a concern about the welfare of others, we cannot truly forgive” (Ibid., 63). Massive problems like evil and suffering, and everything they entail, require an even greater solution. This, for much of Western civilization, we have imagined to be God. The solution, however, stares back at us every time we look in the mirror.
Buddhism’s solution to the Problem of Evil is to remove gods from the equation and reestablish humanity as both the cause and end of its own suffering. Mbembe, speaking of larger structural forces, invokes the ancient Greek idea that is inherent in the Buddhist definition of suffering:
The vast movement of repopulation of the world inaugurated at the edge of modern times ended in a massive “taking of lands” (colonization) on a scale and using technologies never before seen in the history of humanity. Far from leading democracy’s spread across the planet, the race for new lands opened onto a new law (nomos) of the Earth, the main characteristics of which was to establish war and race as history’s two privileged sacraments. The sacramentalization of war and race in the blast furnace of colonialism made it at once modernity’s antidote and poison, its twofold pharmakon.Mbembe, Achille. Necro-Politics. London: Duke University Press, 2019. 6 Print.
Humanity’s overall addiction can be summed up in the idea of pharmakon. Freud recognized that inherent in desire is dissatisfaction. This is most obvious in destructive addictions like drug and alcohol addiction. When a person gets their fix, they are on cloud nine, immensely satisfied, but the use of narcotics already implies abuse. The fix results in withdrawal and then withdrawal leads to further craving. This applies to money, the things money can buy, sex, power, influence, and so on. Not content with a few thousand followers, the social media influencer desires hundreds of thousands and then millions. There is always this idea in us that there are more steps on the ladder, higher plateaus to reach. Our suffering is already entailed in the deep disappointment we will feel when we fail to reach a goal. When you add layers to one’s ambition involving exploitation, violence, greed, corruption, hatred, and so on, one starts to see how most of the world’s suffering is due to craving becoming addiction and addiction becoming a disregard for the people one knowingly harms and an ignorance of anyone who suffers collateral damage. The Western addiction of colonialism, in America, followed by the institution of its twisted idea of Democracy, is the pharmakon at the root of suffering the world over. America is precisely like The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, difference being that the suffering of one chid is compounded as the suffering of many children.
It is more probable that the suffering and evil we see in the world is because half of the world population persists under the delusion that the world is supposed to be degenerate. This is par for the course, all a prelude for the second advent of Christ, for instance. While that has not stopped Christians in the West from taking action against suffering and evil in the world, they all believe that there is no ultimate solution that humans, on their own, can implement. They continue to believe that the world will remain in a degenerate state despite our collective efforts. Buddhism does better in this respect, returning all power to humanity, and imbuing us, once again, with the god-like power we continue to identify in our own species. We are the source of our own suffering. Specifically, our lack of self-awareness and our lack of compassion for other people has us in this predicament. What’s worse is that now there are forces much larger than any one person at play and it is required for us to topple these idols before we can renew human civilization: American Democracy, racism, colonialism, Capitalism, and all the greed, corruption, and human rights abuses that flow from them. These are evils that we ourselves have cultivated and evils that perpetuate a bulk of the world’s suffering.
What that leaves, then, is disease, natural disasters, and all manner of suffering that is outside of our control. Inherent in Buddhism, as the Dalai Lama identified, is that these things will happen and they will pass. People we love will die of disease or in a natural disaster. There is no finger to point in this case, no one we can blame. But as it is with anger, jealousy, pleasure, and so on, we have to develop a deeper awareness of our mourning and find a way to work through it. Buddhism has a larger, less naturalistic framework, that is capable of addressing existential crises like the loss of a loved one, e.g. the cycle of death and rebirth (saṃsāra).
Ultimately, Buddhism offers much in the way of a solution for the Problem of Evil. To reiterate, it relieves the cause of tension, namely the belief in a perfectly good deus ex machina that will eventually restore the Earth from its current degeneracy. Buddhism then identifies the true source of evil and suffering, which also happens to be the solution to our suffering; humankind, in other words, is like the notion of pharmakon, both its own poison and antidote. In recognition of this truth, Buddhism then offers us a path to release our cravings and end our own suffering: wisdom (pāli), ethics (śīla), and meditation (bhāvanā). Most importantly, Buddhism gives us the potential to finally stop arguing about the Problem of Evil in the philosophy of religion and turn our attention to the actual problem of evil and suffering in our world. The restoration of our degenerate world rests on our shoulders. Aside from solving a longstanding problem in the philosophy of religion, Buddhism provides a prescription to solve the problem at large. This is the kind of solution we should all get behind.
By R.N. Carmona
You don’t get to advertise all the good that your religion does without first scrupulously subtracting all the harm it does and considering seriously the question of whether some other religion, or no religion at all, does better.Dennett, Daniel. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York: Viking, 2006. 56. Print
Philosophy of religion needs an overhaul. Put another way, the discipline does not need a soft reboot. It is in dire need of a more diverse, inclusive hard reboot; let us blow up the entire universe and start over. The Christian setting and background that has informed the discipline hitherto, along with its White, predominantly male heroes, all but guarantee that the field is destined to go stale. I can go into specifics, showing how Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism is a paraphrase of C.S. Lewis’ Argument Against Naturalism, despite the former being more robust given that it uses the language of modern analytic philosophy. I can point out that Joshua Rasmussen’s Argument From Arbitrary Limits is nothing more than a rehash of the dead horse that is the Argument From Contingency, which has many iterations, none more cogent or persuasive than the other. There is also the issue that the argument makes use of Plantinga’s idea of a maximal being, which makes the argument more vulnerable than its predecessors. I will revisit Rasmussen’s argument in a separate post that is not tied to this current series.
The questions in the reader’s mind are, what’s the point? What would motivate anyone to seek a revamping of the philosophy of religion? The answer is bipartite and the first part of my answer is crucial to understanding the second half of it, which inheres why I am calling for a reformation of the entire field. In recent discussions about philosophy of religion and apologetics, even Christians were hard pressed to demarcate one from the other, with some biting the bullet and settling on the fact that they are virtually the same project. That is my initial problem. I will now reproduce a section from my recent book The Definitive Case Against Christianity: Life After The Death Of God, in hopes that this becomes a lot clearer.
Philosophy, long considered the handmaiden of theology, continues to confront the following problems:
- The philosophy of religion is Christian-centric, as is made painfully obvious by the myriad discussions about the elements of Christianity: the attributes of God; arguments for God, e.g., the Kalam Cosmological Argument, the Moral Argument, the Ontological Argument, etc.; the Problem of Evil.
- Related to the first issue, there is no proper demarcation between philosophy, generally speaking, and apologetics. Moreover, there is no proper demarcation between philosophy of religion and apologetics.
- The works of atheists mostly play according to the apologist’s rules in that Mackie, Martin, Nielsen, Ayer, and so many others have written refutations of popular apologetic arguments. Many atheist philosophers have largely overlooked the first two issues. I will therefore endeavor to right the ship.
In order to solve the first problem, the second problem needs to be solved first. Draper already identifies a glaring issue, what he dubs the paradox of apologetics. What Draper strongly implies is that the enterprise of apologetics is inherently circular. Draper also describes the philosophy of religion as “too partisan…,too narrow in its focus, and too often evaluated using criteria that are theological or religious instead of philosophical,” while adding that “the only viable forms of theism are Muslim, Christian, or Jewish” (Draper, Paul, and Ryan Nichols. “Diagnosing Bias in Philosophy of Religion.” The Monist, vol. 96, no. 3, 2013, pp. 420–446. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42751260. Accessed 24 Nov. 2020.). Furthermore, he notes that philosophers of religion are dismissive of pantheism, deism, and ietsism. Wildman notes that young philosophers of religion hoping to land a job wonder if they should “stop talking about philosophy of religion in order to avoid being misunderstood as covert theological apologists on behalf of a particular religious tradition” (Wildman, Wesley J. Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future For The Philosophy of Religion. State University of New York Press. Albany, NY. 2010. xiii. Print.) For the Christian apologist, Christianity must be true, God must exist, and Jesus must have died and resurrected three days later. These biases are impossible for an apologist to disavow because doing so would result in losing his status and identity as a Christian. Keith Reich also identifies the circular reasoning of religious apologists:
Because of all of this language of logic, research, fact seeking, etc., it can seem as if apologetics and scholarship are the same thing. Yet, they are fundamentally different and the method of apologetics is fundamentally flawed in my mind. The problem with the apologetic method is its starting point. Apologetics starts with the conclusion. The conclusion is firmly fixed before any research begins. Therefore, for the apologist, the conclusion is the starting point which must then be “defended” through research.Reich, Keith. “Scholarship vs. Apologetics”. Know Thyself Blogs. 4 Nov 2015. Web.
Draper adds that religious people, as well as Christian philosophers of religion, have an attachment to God the Father and a deeply rooted conviction that he exists and loves them. Being confronted by arguments concluding that their father figure does not exist prompts negative emotions and inhibits their capacity to weigh the counter-evidence in an impartial manner. This also results in unchecked confirmation bias, which readily explains the issue of circular reasoning among Christian philosophers.
Philosophers, on the other hand, do not proceed from immutable biases of this sort. While it is true that philosophy, like science, is concerned with truth and even with investigating the nature of so-called ultimate reality, philosophy does so using entirely different methodology and fulfills tasks that support science by clarifying the definition of theory or identifying what qualifies as speciation in the animal kingdom, to state a couple of examples. Philosophy is also tasked with securing basic assumptions scientists no longer pay mind to like whether or not the scientist himself exists and whether truth can be apprehended. Philosophy also has a number of aims that once identified make it easier to distinguish between it and apologetics. The overarching purpose is acquisition of truth, but what distinguishes philosophy from anthropology, history, and science is that is has an inherent self-awareness in that it has also attempted to accurately describe what truth is. Likewise, philosophers try to get to the bottom of what constitutes knowledge. Philosophy also investigates a number of propositions, in addition to clarifying distinctions between propositions and the mental activity involved in grasping them (Sokolowski, Robert. “The Method of Philosophy: Making Distinctions.” The Review of Metaphysics, vol. 51, no. 3, 1998, pp. 515–532. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20130246. Accessed 23 Nov. 2020.). Aside from informing science, philosophy informs other disciplines; for instance, an anthropologist examining the differences between a religion and a cult will offer a series of propositions delineating one from the other, i.e., the anthropologist will philosophize to arrive at the differences between a religion and a cult.
Philosophy also aims to discover the underlying foundations that are irreducible, necessary, and sufficient. It accomplishes this via a formal calculus or logic (“On Method.” Thoughts and Ways of Thinking: Source Theory and Its Applications, by Benjamin Brown, Ubiquity Press, London, 2017, pp. 1–4. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv3s8tn7.4. Accessed 23 Nov. 2020.). Logic, therefore, is one of the hallmark methods in philosophy. Wildman also observes that analysis is entitled in the process of inquiry and it guides “the elaboration, testing, and refinement of hypothetic explanatory models toward optimal clarity and consistency” (Ibid., 7). Similarly, Penelope Maddy observes “that a large part, if not all, of the philosopher’s job is the careful analysis of the content of concepts like ‘cause’, ‘freedom’, and…’knowledge’. Conceptual analysis led to the advent of analytic philosophy (Maddy, Penelope. What Do Philosophers Do? Skepticism and the Practice of Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 60, 62-63. Print.). As Reich observed, apologists also use the language of logic, but if they are doing so in a circular manner, then they are misusing the method. Draper’s solution to differentiate between philosophy of religion and apologetics is to require philosophers of religion to use argument construction to test their positions as opposed to using logical arguments to make a case for their positions. Given the issue of confirmation bias, he sees no other alternative (Ibid.).
To see the apologist’s misuse of logic, one need only consider their favorite mode of reasoning, namely deduction. Since apologists proceed from predilections that they confuse for axioms, a lot of them ignore that validity and soundness are not the same thing. That is because propositions do not emerge in a vacuum; nor do they stand alone. In fact, the apologist’s baseless foundationalism would fall victim to an infinite regress of epistemic justification. Take for instance, the observation that all men are mortal. We can now propose that since all men are mortal and Socrates is a man, then he is mortal. If propositions stood alone, it would be impossible to refute the negation of this deductive argument. In other words, one would be able to argue that all men are not mortal and since Socrates is a man, it follows that he is not mortal. Both arguments are valid, but only one of them is sound. The manner in which one decides between the two arguments is through the realization that propositions, generally speaking, have a correspondence to reality.
Tangentially, it can be granted that a weak pluralism should be allowed if only because foundationalist axioms can apply to logical and mathematical theorems. There are pure or abstract logical and mathematical theorems that have no correspondence to reality and as such, correspondence theory of truth has limits. For example, when doing mathematical proofs, there are multiples sets N (the set of natural numbers), Z ( the set of integers), Q (the set of rational numbers), and R (the set of real numbers); there are also D (the set of decimals) and C (the set of complex numbers), which are less common in proofs. One may come across a statement that reads “n ∈ Z,” which states that n is an element within the set of integers. More specifically, one might be asked to prove the statement “∀n ∈ Z . n(n + 1) is even.” This can be done by assuming that some natural number n is either odd or even. Upon making n = 2m, one will find that 2(m(n+1) and 2(nm) are both even, which proves the statement. This mathematical proof does not rely on tangible reality in the way someone may point to a polar bear on television to prove that the proposition “polar bears are white” is true. There are also properties in mathematics that are true by definition, i.e., a priori, e.g., zero product property, associative property. In logic, the laws of logic are also generally considered to be axiomatic.
While foundationalism may have a place at the table of epistemic justification, the Christian apologist’s misuse of it is not tantamount to how it is employed in mathematics and logic. Consider, for example, the first premise of Craig’s Moral Argument: “If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.” There is simply something suspicious about this statement when compared to “If it is not raining, I will not take my umbrella.” A satisfactory deductive premise entails generally accepted facts. These facts are not controversial in any way. Any reasonable person would agree that if it is raining, they will take an umbrella or find other means to protect themselves from the elements. However, denying Craig’s first premise is not unreasonable and it is a premise that, in fact, has been and continues to be denied. Craig and other apologists may assert that the premises in their deductive arguments are true, but that does not make them true. The arguments for God continue to be batted around precisely because they start out with controversial premises that stem from an equally contentious foundational assumption.
The fact of the matter is that foundationalism has been largely abandoned. Foundationalists’ obsession with certainty, an infatuation that descends from Descartes, ultimately is not apt for mathematics, despite its limited application to the field. It is also unsuitable for science. Peirce, Dewey, Quine, and other pragmatists introduced a non-foundationalist paradigm know as fallibilism. This is implicit in Popper’s notion of falsification. This new approach assists philosophers in navigating philosophical inquiry for purposes of correcting hypotheses as opposed to instilling in them the confidence that the available resources are already enough prior to engaging in inquiry.
Draper’s solution, although noble, is unlikely to be implemented. Similarly, asking Christian philosophers of religion and apologists to adhere to Maddy and Wildman’s philosophical methods is futile. Nielsen’s solution, despite being more radical, is the only one that makes sense for anyone concerned with Draper’s reservations about the philosophy of religion. Nielsen suggests the following:
It is a waste of time to rehearse arguments about the proofs or evidences for God or immortality. There are no grounds — or at least no such grounds — for belief in God or belief that God exists and/or that we are immortal. Hume and Kant (perhaps with a little rational reconstruction from philosophers like J.L. Mackie and Wallace Matson) pretty much settled that. Such matters have been thoroughly thrashed out and there is no point of raking over the dead coals. Philosophers who return to them are being thoroughly retrograde.Nielsen, Kai. Naturalism and Religion. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2001. 399-400. Print.
So Nielsen’s radical solution is to end all discussions about arguments for God or other theological arguments concerning immortality. These matters continue to be discussed because most philosophers of religion and virtually all Christian apologists prioritize their propositions and underlying beliefs over the facts and evidence. Refusing to discuss these arguments further ends the stalemate between Christian theists and atheists that concerns Draper — a concern echoed in the third issue above — and will allow for philosophers of religion to consider the concepts of non-Christian, non-monotheistic religions.
Now, to state my solution less provocatively and controversially, I think that intellectual reparations are in order. Christians need to let other philosophers who practice other faiths have a long turn at the mic. Christianity, for instance, has a meandering history with the problem of evil and virtually anyone can take note of the considerable difficulty Christians have had. All of their theodicies are problematic and there is no reconciliation to be had between a perfectly benevolent deity and the evil and suffering in the world, or with the notion that this is somehow the best possible world God could have created. As Dennett suggests, perhaps another religion can square this problem away. Perhaps Buddhism or Zoroastrianism have better theodicies to offer or some way of explaining evil and suffering that coheres with modern science and offers ways to solve this problem. This series will explore some of these issues. I have no pretenses of exhausting all possibilities with respect to what philosophy of religion can become.
The other, more pressing, issue is that I am not sure whether modern philosophers of religion are competent enough or equipped to start fielding non-Christian perspectives. The problem is akin to having me review some student’s econometrics homework. I have no idea what any of that is about and I am therefore, unfit to review his work. Likewise, if people write about esoteric topics in Near or Far East religions, how can I expect a predominantly Christian group of peers to review their journal submissions? This is perhaps one reason the so-called International Journal For Philosophy of Religion is rife with Christian articles right through this month’s issue. Here is a list of the articles in February’s issue:
- Kant’s religious ethics: the ineluctable link between morality and theism
- The ineffability of God
- God’s place in the world
- Whiteness and religious experience
- Progressive atheism: how moral evolution changes the god debate
- Truth is subjectivity: kierkegaard and political theology.
What are these reviewers to do with a viable submission concerning indigenous African or South American religions? I can go through this same exercise in one philosophy journal after the next; Christian Theism has an iron grip on the entire enterprise, a virtual monopoly. While there has been moderate effort to rectify this, the solution has been to segregate non-Christian perspectives. Someone might be content with the fact that Journal of Indian Philosophy and Religion and Journal of Buddhist Ethics exist, but this is still exclusionary and not integrated enough. Never mind that college-level curricula also prioritize the Christian perspective.
Ultimately, to divorce philosophy of religion from Christianity and from Christian apologetics, a thorough demarcation is necessary. Apologetics is to philosophy what creationism is to science. Apologetics is not philosophy, plain and simple. It is an inversion of the philosophical process, a bastardization of its methods, and ultimately, devoid of sound argumentation and caters to cognitive biases like confirmation bias and fallacious reasoning like circular reasoning, special pleading, ad hoc rationalization, and non sequitur. It is pseudo-philosophy and must be recognized as such and eliminated as an academic field of inquiry. Any Christian who is concerned with this suggestion perhaps recognizes that much of Christian philosophy of religion is indistinguishable from apologetics. Proselytism simply has no place in an academic setting where religious freedom and more importantly, human autonomy is valued. I would not go as far as saying that all of Christian philosophy of religion falls to the wayside if apologetics is ousted in the same way Intelligent Design was. Perhaps there is a baby in the bath water, but it is not my duty to decide that.
Philosophy of religion needs to move forward and the best way forward is in discussing non-Christian perspectives and topics, and giving them ample time to gain traction in the field. I do not see these perspectives coexisting alongside yet another lengthy dialogue about the Kalam Cosmological Argument or yet another reiteration of a long-defeated argument like the Argument From Contingency. Nor can we allow the field to be dictated by Christians because they have controlled the narrative in the philosophy of religion since its inception. Foundationalism became evidentialism, and now both have given way to existentialist fideism on one side and an attempt to undermine scientific explanation with metaphysical explanation, specifically via neo-Aristotelianism, on the other. In truth, exercises of this sort are either not philosophical or if those involved can prove otherwise, these projects ought to be relegated to other specialized journals in philosophy, for sake of satisfying anyone interested in the niche topics discussed in those areas. So long as Christian perspectives monopolize the field, there is no real incentive for philosophers of religion to broaden their horizons and acquire competence with respect to these perspectives. It seems philosophers of religion are in a haste to perpetually rake the dead coals of the theism-atheism debate. There are other perspectives to consider and what better time than now in the 21st century, a period that will be defined by equality, inclusion, and diversity. Philosophy is no longer the handmaiden of theology, and that includes the philosophy of religion. This series will pave a way and show us how we can move on and move forward. The next entry in this series will focus on Buddhism and The Problem of Evil.
Book description: In this book, a former Christian, author of Philosophical Atheism: Counter Apologetics and Arguments For Atheism, presents a decisive case against Christianity. A multidisciplinary approach, one that employs the insights of history, anthropology, the sciences, and philosophy, is used to debase Christianity while bolstering the case for naturalism. The central claims of Christianity are taken to task and evidence is provided to show that the claims are not true. Humanism is offered as the way forward for self-actualized human societies and as means to alleviate the issues we face.
Book length: Nine chapters, 332 pages. Table of Contents can be found here. The finalized Table of Contents is slightly different from that, but that is negligible.
The Amazon description for Kindle and Paperback are currently under review for a misspelling; the same applies to the back cover of the book. The corrections should be made within the next 24 hours. If the issue doesn’t bother you, feel free to purchase today! Happy reading and please leave a review once you are done reading.
For starters, I will reiterate what I wrote in my response to Hellenistic Christendom:
Both Irenaeus and Hick systematized human (Libertarian) free will.1 Arguably, there’s an inconsistency in their view of free will because they don’t focus on the origin of the human propensity for evil, i.e., original sin. If one were interested in a systematic reconciliation of the Original Sin Theodicy and Hick’s theodicy, it would be a rather simple task. The only issue would be in assuming that God allowed the Fall because he wanted human beings to ascend to moral perfection. He wanted to give us a choice and of course, a choice isn’t real unless there are alternatives. You can choose to lead an immoral life, to live in sin, or you can, per the Old Testament, keep God’s commandments or, per the New Testament, confess your sins and accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. This sort of theodicy would run into exegetical issues, however. Human beings do not, on their own will, ascend to moral perfection. According to Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
Moral perfection or perhaps better put, holiness, isn’t a summit one reaches; it is more like, especially given allusions in the Bible (e.g. Colossians 3), a garment that you are adorned with. So Irenaeus and Hicks failed at this systematization because they forgot that “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). As a person driven by great personal pride, I can see the allure of Irenaeus and Hicks’ point of view; we are essentially Sisyphus, but we succeed at pushing the boulder to the summit! It is, however, not a Christian point of view.
But can it be a naturalistic, atheistic point of view? There’s quite a lot to unpack if one were to entertain the pertinent and yet tangential discussion on determinism and free will. If human beings have free will, it is highly probable that it is not congruous with the Libertarian view, the notion that ceteris paribus, one could choose a different course of action. Suffice to say that a Nietzschean view is more probable: the great person is distinct from the ordinary person and it is through great people that we achieve moral nobility.2
I happen to think that Nietzsche was right in his conclusion though one would be hard pressed to find in his works anything resembling a cogent argument supporting said conclusion. Nietzsche thoroughly explains the difference between great people and the herd and these allusions are present in his treatment of master and slave morality and in his idea of the Übermensch. Nietzsche, however, does not provide us with a road map detailing how a slave becomes a master, how a member of the herd ascends to greatness. In fact, for Nietzsche, it’s not so much an ascent to greatness, but rather a descent, especially given how important suffering and solitude were to him and should be for a great person.
So I want to offer an informal argument because, to my mind, determinism is the wind at the back of every member of the herd. Even absent Irenaeus’ omniscient god, in where it would be hard to reconcile human free will with this deity’s predetermination, on naturalism, there is a sense in which most actions, moral or otherwise, are predetermined. Although I don’t think determinism applies to mundane actions (see here), I think it certainly applies to actions carrying greater consequences and moral implications. So before a person becomes great and strives for moral perfection, one must first become aware of as many determinants as possible, so that in having this awareness, one assumes control of the determinants that would otherwise determine a given decision.
Nietzsche’s great person does not leave the herd by accident, but rather by getting to know the chaos. Nietzsche describes it thus:
Cause and effect: such a duality probably never exists; in truth we are confronted by a continuum out of which we isolate a couple of pieces, just as we perceive motion only as isolated points and then infer it without ever actually seeing it. The suddenness with which many effects stand out misleads us; actually it is sudden only for us. In this moment of sudden- ness there is an infinite number of processes that elude us. An intellect that could see cause and effect as a continuum and a flux and not, as we do, in terms of an arbitrary division and dismemberment, would repudiate the concept of cause and effect and deny all conditionality.3
A great person therefore has the kind of intellect that doesn’t separate and breaks things, and categorizes them as causes and effects. Such a person would see the entire continuum and moreover, their role within that continuum. As such, this individual would not be controlled by cultural norms, societal expectations, religious tenets, and so on. This person would be able to act free from all determinants, assuming a well-placed tumor doesn’t dictate his/her behavior.4
An atheist who subsumes Irenaeus’ theodicy or perhaps more accurately, the thinking that underlies his theodicy, has to be the kind of individual that becomes great. Then s/he is free to pursue moral perfection. In keeping with Sartre’s atheistic existentialism, such an atheist would will meaning for the suffering and evil we see in the world and may take it upon themselves to help others transcend the herd mentality. This thinking is implicit on the Kardashev scale. Michio Kaku, for instance, thinks of the human race as a type 0 civilization, on the cusp of a worldwide language (English), interconnected (the Internet), and technically advanced enough to harness the energy of the planet. It is not, however, a type I civilization capable of harnessing the energy of its star (e.g. Dyson Sphere) or controlling natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes.5 Scientists and philosophers alike have entertained the idea that the destiny of humanity is an ascent up the Kardashev scale, but prior to doing so, what’s implied is a moral ascent, for it will take a moral species to disarm its militaries and set aside its sociopolitical and cultural differences.
So while Irenaeus’ theodicy is incongruous with Christian theology, it is not inconsistent with atheism. We do not need a god who wants us to achieve moral perfection. We can very well expect that of ourselves and of one another. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of work to be done both personally and collectively. Assuming Nietzsche was right, greatness is reserved for a select few while mediocrity awaits the herd. Perhaps then what’s needed is the right kind of master so that the subordinates have a good example to follow. I hold that Irenaeus had in mind a noble view of the human species and that regardless of the fact that his view is not in keeping with Christian theology, for an atheist to write off his theodicy either as an ineffective justification of suffering and evil or an interesting heresy is tantamount to tossing the baby out with the bath water. Irenaeus saw the great potential in the human race and he thought it possible that we could, of our own will, achieve moral perfection. It is a noble view that any atheist should adopt; it is probably the view at the heart of humanism. We are truly better without a god!
1 Cramer, David C. “John Hick (1922-2012)”. International Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. ND.
2 Anderson, R. Lanier. “Friedrich Nietzsche”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 17 Mar 2017. Web.
3 Kaufmann, Walter. “The Gay Science”. Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, 1844-1900. The Gay Science; with a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. New York :Vintage Books, 1974. p. 173.
4 Choi, Charles. “Brain tumour causes uncontrollable paedophilia”. New Scientist. 21 Oct 2002. Web.
5 Creighton, Jolene. “The Kardashev Scale – Type I, II, III, IV & V Civilization”. 19 Jul 2014. Web.
So that there’s no confusion, Steven at Hellenistic Christendom is referring to a post on my Tumblr blog titled An Open Letter to Christians. The letter is admittedly polemic, especially given that I was in the process of revisiting (for lack of a better word) Christian bloggers who I have had debates and discussions with in the past. The Christians who have become even more repulsive, professing things that are shocking even for them, are the individuals the letter was mostly intended for.
In discussions and debates, or in my more general rhetoric, I employ two similar, albeit subtly different, tools meant to end a discussion. The one is a tool meant to tell a given opponent that I have no respect for them personally. To put it mildly, it’s my way of telling them to shove off because I don’t feel the individual is treating me, first and foremost, like a human being. An apotheosis would be most Trump supporters. While I still try to reason with some of them because I recognize they deal with cognitive dissonance borne from disenfranchisement (i.e., they support Trump because, to their mind, it’s the same as supporting the Republican Party; otherwise, there’s no longer a Party for them to belong to), the lot of them don’t see me as a human being and by their own admission, would rather see me dead. There’s no use in having a discussion with anyone who isn’t convinced of one’s basic humanity.
The letter was more so designed to be a definitive end to any discussion or debate with those kind of Christians and it was successful given that none of the individuals I had in mind came forward to respond. Another tool I employ may seem identical, but it is more so intended as a sort of non-fallacious Courtier’s Reply. As Steven can attest, one gets frustrated speaking to someone else who isn’t on the same level, which is to say, I get frustrated speaking to someone who is either an ultracrepidarian or someone who has succumbed to the Dunning-Kruger effect and as such, doesn’t know as much as they think they do about the topic(s) in question. Steven briefly mentioned debates on evolution and creationism; I rarely come across a creationist that deserves intellectual respect and because of that, I often admonish them to study evolution more in-depth. Even when they have a perfunctory grasp of an evolutionary concept, like speciation, they quickly show that they’re not as versed on the topic as they claim to be, conflating or even failing to see the differences between sympatric and allopatric speciation, for instance.
So while I do accept Steven’s apology, I feel like an apology of my own is in order. I apologize because the latter tool ran the risk of knocking the wind out of your sails. Setting aside that you peered over the shoulders of giants, it was unfair to level accusations of intellectual dishonesty, pretense, and hollow thought, no matter how accurate they might have been. The accusations could have resulted in a loss of intellectual interest and curiosity; I’m glad that only confidence was lost for a time. I wouldn’t want to be responsible from having further discouraged you from studying already dismaying disciplines. Philosophy and science are not easily apprehended, as you well know and as evidenced by how esoteric each discipline has become, largely relegated to the confines of the ivory towers of academia.
Otherwise, you have nothing to apologize for. Discussions like these don’t persist for our (mine and yours) benefit. They persist for the benefit of the audience. Given this, whenever I do decide to have such discussions or debates, despite being a post-theist, the hope is that my opponent is an intellectual equal, give or take. It is of no benefit to the audience if there’s a intellectual skew, so to speak. It is my desire, given that anyone is to decide between an array of positions, that each position be represented charitably and accurately. Because of this, in participating in a discussion or debate in where one is at an intellectual (dis)advantage, one is robbing the audience of an accurate and holistic rendering of a given position(s). This is why so many people reject not the position in question, but a misrepresentation of said position, e.g., feminism.
Despite your youth at the time, you didn’t respond with your own surmises. I should have appreciated that more at the time. At the very least, you turned to people you considered authorities on the matter, so even if you couldn’t accurately and holistically represent a given position, you gave the audience a path to follow. Some paths, though dead-ends, are still worth taking if only because they have become undeservedly popular, e.g., mainstream evidential apologetics. Other paths, even if erroneous, are worth taking because I still wholeheartedly believe that the best response to a flawed path comes from someone who walked it. This is why I often start a discussion or debate with a Christian by telling them that I believed as they did; I stood where they stood. So the question I want to stick with them is: why am I now standing over here?
I stand here because I don’t think the Christian system succeeds. This is when some readers would scoff. “Christianity has convinced some one-fourth of the world’s population! How dare he say it’s not successful!?” To which I would say that it takes a depraved Western mind to equate popularity with success. Never mind that Islam is more “successful.”
Look to your brother! Steven has the right idea. Christianity should extend as an overarching philosophy, a fact recognized by Patristic thinkers like Irenaeus, Augustine, Origen, etc. If ever there were a “true” religion, it would have to make sense of reality and experience in toto and for everyone. In this (!), I do not think Christianity is successful.
With no intentions of scaring Steven, he finds himself at a particular place in my own journey that I consider the turning point. For me, it was shortly thereafter when I realized, Christianity is false. It’s not a true religion or philosophy; it is an inadequate system.
To keep this response brief and on topic, one of the reasons I came to this realization is because Christianity doesn’t succeed at logically explaining, defending against, and/or justifying suffering and evil. Before I proceed, it is admirable that Steven is doing what a lot of Christians don’t: leaning on “The Word of God.” Though it isn’t uncommon for a Christian to find comfort in the Bible, some so-called Christians act as though the Bible is beneath them! They would much rather rely on personal insults or less egregiously, on scholarly input devoid of any biblical exegesis, let alone “sound” doctrine. So they end up pursuing what they think is a robust philosophical explanation, but don’t stop to consider whether that explanation is theologically consistent.
The Problem of Gratuitous Suffering and Evil
I take issue with Steven’s idea of “truth that is true for them.” It has the particularly putrid scent of epistemic subjectivism. While I don’t deny that perspectives are important, I wouldn’t say that perspectivism, Nietzschean or otherwise, is equivalent to subjectivism. Although I don’t see Nietzsche as saying that each perspective is as true as the next, even if he did alluded to such a conclusion, I would only agree that each perspective seems as true as the next. Nietzsche, however, isn’t alluding to such a conclusion, let alone drawing that conclusion. So I can understand, given the story of Job, how someone might come to the conclusion that I don’t have the full story. It is, after all, how things seem from Steven’s perspective. I can also understand why Steven would say the following:
The full picture, then, is contained somewhere between the lessons established with the anxieties of the Old Testament man, the judgement of God (“Wail, for the day of the Lord is near,” Isaiah 13:6), the coming of the New Covenant and finally the death and redemptive execution of Jesus’ resurrection. Surely there must be some answer from the Son of God whom has conquered death.
This is where it is once again useful to remind Steven, along with everyone following this discussion, that I walked the Christian path. The story of Job represents not just the anxiety of Old Testament men, men who lived under the old covenant; it also represents the optimism of every worshipper of the Judeo-Christian god from the Old to the New Testament and beyond. God is not just a consuming fire; he is also merciful. The optimism expressed in Job is the optimism modern Christians express as well: “God’s grace and abundance will arrive! He will have mercy. This is just a trial, a tribulation. It means something, it is for something!”
In fact, all of the Sunday School stories are meant to give children a cohesive narrative: “God is like any caring parent. His punishments can be harsh, but even his punishments are informed by his love.” Job’s story ends with God restoring Job’s fortunes: he gave him twice as many friends, ten children (seven sons and three daughters), 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, and so on. Likewise, Jonah survives in the belly of a large fish and is eventually released after a repentant prayer. God floods the world save Noah, his family, and two to seven of each kind of animal. All of these are stories borne of, as Steven alluded to, “childish” optimism. Moreover, they are stories intended to instill trust in god.
These stories are taught in Sunday school for two reasons, one far more insidious than the other: 1) they are allusive to the archetype of Jesus’ redemptive sacrifice on the cross in that god’s wrath during the old covenant is supplanted by his grace via the salvation one can find in Jesus Christ, the advent of the new covenant; 2) it is not so much an instillation of trust in god, but rather what I’ll call first indoctrination. First indoctrination is much harder to instill in an older convert; that is perhaps one reason why it was easier for me, a convert at 18-years-old, to pull away from Christianity. From what I gather, it is much more difficult for a lifelong Christian to even question Christianity, let alone renounce it. First indoctrination is, as many atheists have pointed out, tantamount to the psychology of abuse: “even if god hurts you, it is for your own good; never forget that he loves you no matter what!” Even if god sees fit to make you orphaned, homeless, infertile, sterile, diseased, or what have you, it is for a purpose and, even if you lose sight of the fact and can’t explain why this has happened to you, he loves you.
This is precisely the mentality I had when my relationship with my relatives became strained, when at 19-years-old, I was kicked out of my house. I was homeless for four years and I remember my resolute determination: there’s a reason for this! God still loves me! I’ll make it out of this! Yet my making it out found no better explanation in Christianity than it did in naturalism.
The key was to give myself and the people who supported me credit rather than “give God all the glory.” No! It’s not that god put a certain drive in me, a drive that has made me the kind of person that doesn’t like to lose and that certainly doesn’t quit. It’s not that he put supportive people around me. Rather, given multifarious facts relating to me, my upbringing, what I’ve been exposed to, my genetics, my neurophysiology, and the upbringings, exposures, etc. of them who supported me, I found a way out of homelessness. It’s the proverbial Spanish Pentecostal tale that goes around: “Woe is me! I’m stranded in the ocean! From where does my help come from! It comes from God!” Then God sent a boat. And you said, “no, I will wait on the Lord!” Then God sent a ship. And you said, “no I will wait on the Lord!” Then God sent a helicopter. And you said, “no, I will wait on the Lord!” Then you drowned because you didn’t see that God uses people to bless you!
As Steven alluded to, “God’s hiddenness puts one in a state of ‘existential vertigo.'” That is when one ought to sit still and come to realization that god is not hidden, but rather replaced. Perhaps Christianity has suffered from a base bifurcation: the notion that there’s a scapegoat, a vessel for god’s good use. If there be any value in the Sunday School stories and moreover, in the story and ministry of Jesus, it is perhaps in the realization that redemptive salvation, if indeed you require such a thing, is not in some outside celestial figure, but rather in you. God and man are concomitant in you. So perhaps it’s not so much that man created god in his own image, but that god is the apotheosis of man and that Christianity is thus better apprehended as a full revelation of man himself. The light at the end of the tunnel has nothing at all to do with some invisible figure pushing you along, but rather in you finding it within yourself to keep walking, or even crawling on bloodied knees and knuckles, until the end is reached. Yet why do we make so much of our own suffering?! Other people have it much worse. Furthermore, there are other religious philosophies that have succeeded where Christianity doesn’t, e.g., Buddhism. That’s another reason why I renounced Christianity, but I digress.
The Problem of Gratuitous Suffering and Evil requires a pivot. One must imagine oneself as a Christian, first and foremost. You must step into the Christian’s shoes, adopt the Christian position. You have to commit to the proposition that God exists and that there is an undeniable and observable degree of suffering and evil, both moral (human-driven) and natural (not human-driven) in the world. As a Christian interested in the project of systematizing reality, the onus is on you to reconcile these two propositions. How can a perfectly moral, good god allow so much suffering and evil? As Steven mentioned, there are several defenses and justifications. Unfortunately, none are satisfactory.
A Summary of Defenses and Theodicies
Because my interest is not only to inform, but to inform well, I will take it upon myself to go over two theodicies that are commonly offered. I will discuss the Free Will Theodicy and the Best of All Possible Worlds Theodicy. Then, I will circle back around to Steven’s “Full Story Theodicy,” which Michael Martin coined the “Ultimate Harmony Theodicy.” It is a theodicy based on optimism, on the notion that there’s a good reason for all of the suffering and evil we observe in the world, no matter how gratuitous.
The Free Will Theodicy
Though Alvin Plantinga is often, albeit wrongly, credited for this theodicy, this theodicy goes back to Irenaeus. It was further developed by John Hick, a twentieth century philosopher of religion. Both Irenaeus and Hick systematized human (Libertarian) free will.1 Arguably, there’s an inconsistency in their view of free will because they don’t focus on the origin of the human propensity for evil, i.e., original sin. If one were interested in a systematic reconciliation of the Original Sin Theodicy and Hick’s theodicy, it would be a rather simple task. The only issue would be in assuming that God allowed the Fall because he wanted human beings to ascend to moral perfection. He wanted to give us a choice and of course, a choice isn’t real unless there are alternatives. You can choose to lead an immoral life, to live in sin, or you can, per the Old Testament, keep God’s commandments or, per the New Testament, confess your sins and accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. This sort of theodicy would run into exegetical issues, however. Human beings do not, on their own will, ascend to moral perfection. According to Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
Moral perfection or perhaps better put, holiness, isn’t a summit one reaches; it is more like, especially given allusions in the Bible (e.g. Colossians 3), a garment that you are adorned with. So Irenaeus and Hicks failed at this systematization because they forgot that “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). As a person driven by great personal pride, I can see the allure of Irenaeus and Hicks’ point of view; we are essentially Sisyphus, but we succeed at pushing the boulder to the summit! It is, however, not a Christian point of view.
Plantinga, however, does extend the Free Will Theodicy in a way that my open letter alluded to. One proposition he holds is “God is omniscient, omnipotent, and morally perfect; God has created the world; all evil in the world is [the result of free actions by created creatures]; and there is no possible world God could have created that contains a better balance of [moral good and evil].”2 So, according to Plantinga, natural evil is a type of moral evil in that Satan and his demons are responsible for it. It’s worth repeating what I said in my open letter should suffice:
The appeal to spiritual entities has an evidential problem that I’ll set aside, i.e. they already have trouble proving their god exists, but now they’re talking about other spiritual entities that they can’t prove exist. What’s important here is that, unlike their god, these malignant entities are not omnipotent. If their power is finite compared to that of their god’s, the villains in this story would never win. So either the hero isn’t all-powerful or the hero is indifferent. A bystander who stands idly by when someone needs help, given that they’re human, might not help for fear of their own safety. God, on the other hand, would not be susceptible to bystander effect! An eternal, omnipotent being can’t possibly fear for his safety, so why does your god stand idly by when children suffer!?
Per Plantinga, Hurricane Katrina wasn’t caused by God. It was caused by Satan or a very powerful demon(s). Setting aside the dubious notion that New Orleans is filled with concupiscent people who deserved to be made examples of, there were well-meaning Christians and children in New Orleans. God is omnipotent, but Satan and his generals are not. So even if I granted that Satan himself or some powerful demon(s) created a destructive hurricane and aimed it at Florida and Louisiana, with every intent of bringing New Orleans to its knees, there is still the free will of God to contend with! Why did the omnipotent hero stand idly by as less powerful villains enacted their evil plot? Plantinga’s Free Will Theodicy doesn’t explain evil and suffering because God’s will is infinitely more powerful than mine, yours, Satan’s, and any demon’s. So what gives?
We come full circle to Hicks. Perhaps Katrina was allowed to help us on our moral journey. Yet given what the Bible says, we have no such moral journey. Once we repent, we are made clean by Jesus’ blood. We don’t have to do the work of cleansing ourselves. Given this doctrinal truth, there’s no sense in which Katrina or any other catastrophe was intended to strengthen our moral fiber. Tragedies aren’t intended to test us, to call us to action. Perhaps this is why so many Christians are content with “thoughts and prayers”! There isn’t much we can do. All is in God’s hands.
Best of All Possible Worlds Theodicy
Perhaps this is why Plantinga alludes to the Leibnizian Best of All Possible Worlds Theodicy: “there is no possible world God could have created that contains a better balance of [moral good and evil].” Plantinga falls into a trap that Leibniz was well-aware of:
Leibniz was aware of this argument denying God’s obligation to create the best, but he was firmly committed to rejecting it, in virtue of a central principle of his philosophical system, the Principle of Sufficient Reason. According to the Principle of Sufficient Reason, for any state of affairs, there must be a sufficient reason that explains why that state of affairs and not some other state of affairs obtains. When it comes to our world, then, there must be some reason that explains why it, and not some other world, obtains. But there can be no such reason if it is the case that the goodness of worlds increases ad infinitum. Leibniz therefore concluded that there can be no infinite continuum of worlds.3
Given the Principle of Sufficient Reason, a Christian must reconcile the purported existence of a perfectly moral, good god and the observable existence of evil and suffering. From the Christian perspective, these two states of affairs obtain and as such, require an explanation. That, however, doesn’t explain why Leibniz saw this world as the mean of all possible worlds. If there exists infinitely many worlds with decreased goodness and infinitely many worlds with increased goodness, what makes this one the desired middle? This statistical manner of looking at the existence of our world is all too human because means imply margin for error, but for God, there is no error and he therefore, requires no margin for it.
Leibniz scholars, however, have identified what has been called the Holiness Problem. God is tarnished by the existence of evil because something can’t exist unless he deems it so. Per Leibniz, even if one holds that all evil is a privation of good, there is no way God isn’t also the author of all privations. Leibniz draws an analogy of two paintings, one of which is a smaller-scaled version of the other:
To say that the painter is the author of all that is real in the two paintings, without however being the author of what is lacking or the disproportion between the larger and the smaller painting… . In effect, what is lacking is nothing more than a simple result of an infallible consequence of that which is positive, without any need for a distinct author [of that which is lacking].4
We can agree that art isn’t about exactness or at least, not all art is about that. A portrait or landscape can be photorealistic, but no one would conclude that the artist captured the existence of a thing or even its essence. It is still, in the end, a representation. If an artist makes any conscious choice while rendering his representation, he also chose against some alternative. If s/he chooses to represent a person or landscape in black and white, s/he also chooses against representing a person or landscape in color. As such, the privation of color present in the painting is by choice. Privation is collateral and can, at times, be consciously selected. So God, in demarcating this world as the mean among all possible worlds, is to blame for Attenborough’s parasitic worm:
But I tend to think instead of a parasitic worm that is boring through the eye of a boy sitting on the bank of a river in West Africa, [a worm] that’ going to make him blind.
‘And [I ask them], “Are you telling me that the God you believe in, who you also say is an all- merciful God, who cares for each one of us individually, are you saying that God created this worm that can live in no other way than in an innocent child’s eyeball? Because that doesn’t seem to me to coincide with a God who’ full of mercy.5
In making this the best of all possible worlds, either because it’s the mean of worlds of increasing goodness or because it is the most parsimonious of worlds, God is responsible for parasites of this sort. There would be no getting around that. As with the Free Will Theodicy, there’s also a theological issue with the Leibnizian theodicy: Heaven. God has already created a world with maximum goodness and no evil at all. So we can then ask why human beings weren’t created to inhabit heaven from the start. Even a Christian can start to sense that perhaps, as other Christians have noted, theodicies do more harm than good.
The Full Story Theodicy
Steven’s line of thinking here is not uncommon. In other discussions with Christians, they remind me that god is omniscient and I’m not. I recall one odious Christian telling me something along the lines that I can’t conclude that this doesn’t look like a universe created by god because I’m stupid and god is infinitely more intelligent than I am. Steven’s line of thinking, while not disrespectful, is more or less the same. While he concludes that it’s likely that no one can know the full story in this life, he cites C.S. Lewis who said it would be arrogant of anyone to say there’s a moral dilemma though they’re half-way through the story.
Yes, Job suffered; he suffered enough for three or four different people, but as the story goes, good recompense awaited Job at the end of it all. The same goes for Noah and Jonah. Steven’s Full Story Theodicy rests on the same optimism present in these Sunday School stories. All evil and suffering exists for some good end. That still doesn’t explain how this good end compensates for the degrees of evil and suffering we observe and experience in this world. Even if I agreed that heaven, a place with no tears and suffering, is the good end to these observances and experiences, there’s still the issue that in the present, these things exist. Perhaps a thought experiment can work here.
Imagine a poor boy living in an Arab territory. His father is sick. His mother is unable to work because she is caring for the boy and his younger siblings. So he takes it upon himself to steal bread from a local vendor. Unfortunately, he is caught and he loses his right hand. Eventually, he receives a prosthetic hand that allows him to lift ten times his body weight. It works just as well as the biological hand he once had. Yet this prosthetic hand doesn’t take away the pain he felt when they cut off his hand. It doesn’t change the years he suffered, like the struggles he experienced relearning to do simple things with his left hand. It doesn’t change the nerve pain he still experiences till this day.
On the assumption that there’s a continuance of consciousness between this life and an afterlife in Heaven, no blissful experience there would change the trauma, the pain, the memories from here, and to do so, would be to fundamentally change one’s identity. So, there’s already an issue with that assumption. To delete one’s memories of a loved one because s/he didn’t make it into Heaven would be to change one at a fundamental level. So the version of me that enters Heaven isn’t the person I am now; so there would be no way in which my homelessness at 19-years-old is justified by living in a heavenly mansion. The heavenly version of me would have forgotten all of my earthly trials. Or, to make it so that I can’t suffer or cry would be to change me into the automatons early theologians thought animals were. We know better now, but to exist in a state in where I can’t reflect on my trauma, no matter how distant they are in my past, is tantamount to existing in a state in where I can’t reflect on my bliss either! So if my thinking here is accurate, there’s no sense in which past evil or suffering can be justified by some future good, even on the assumption that a perfectly good world (Heaven) exists.
Steven, it’s not that there are no arguments capable of changing my mind and heart because I’m obstinate. Obstinacy features in a person who is wrong and yet fails to correct himself. What do we say of a person who is right and refuses to budge? My mind and my heart are in the right place because I have done my due diligence in exhausting most of the ways in which Christianity might be true. Aside from systematizing reality, this system would have to be as simple as it is esoteric. Sure, a mature Christianity isn’t the proverbial walk in the park. There is much philosophical and theological ground to cover for any Christian who takes their devotion seriously. You recognize that and I admire that about you.
Likewise, any naturalist who takes their position seriously has arguably more ground to cover. I’m not only a non-Christian, but just as much, I’m a non-Muslim, non-Jew, non-Hindu. I also do not mystify consciousness. I reject nonphysicalist theories of consciousness, for example. I am as fervent in my rejection of panpsychism as I am in my rejection of Cartesian dualism. Just as fervently, I reject a theodicy based on reincarnation: suffering and evil exist because some accumulative karma from past lives determined that. Like you, I do not allow for systemic inconsistency, so it can’t be that I’m a naturalist with regards to the origin of the universe, but a non-naturalist with regards to consciousness. While there are philosophers who entertain such inconsistencies, I don’t think cognitive dissonance is a good leg to stand on. If anything, it’s a temporary crutch while one is in limbo between two seductive positions.
In any case, even though naturalism arguably spreads itself in more directions, it is a far simpler system, especially given that , assuming the naturalist in question believes in agency, only deals with the agency of entities that can easily be shown to exist. So when there’s a particularly pungent stench in the corner of my bedroom coming from a yellowish puddle on the floor, I now have to decide whether my girlfriend or my cat urinated on the floor. I can point to both agents and others can also verify that they both exist, and naturalist, Christian, or otherwise, everyone will agree that my girlfriend is the culprit! Jokes aside, we both know that even in esoteric matters, the simplest and, more often than not, naturalistic explanation is not only preferred, but also the case. No one would reason that a ghost urinated on my floor!
For many reasons not outlined here, I no longer identify as a Christian. It is not because, as some immature Christians would have it, I deny god in my unrighteousness or because I’m angry with him for causing a rift between me and my family, and making me homeless. Truth is, I’m responsible for that rift! Sure, I was young and far more hotheaded then than I am now, but I disrespected the Matriarch of my family, my grandmother and I did so when she was older and more fragile. I was an existential risk to her. My aunts, recognizing this, thought it best to separate me from her. Maybe they knew I was too stubborn to commit suicide or stay homeless or go insane. Maybe they knew I’d find a way.
Since then, we have had a short, but welcome reconciliation. At my father’s wake, which I was afraid to even show up to, my family forgave me. There were hugs and love and memories all around and ironically, this was all to do with my father’s example: he was a forgiving man, a forgiveness he adopted from the teachings of Jesus Christ and one that resonated with them. Yet it was still on me to accept their forgiveness and I did because even though I’ve matured and made someone of myself, I still recognized that my past self was someone who needed to apologize, someone who needed forgiveness. I was wrong!
I am, however, not wrong for being human. I do not think I’m totally depraved and I don’t think humans, by nature, are either. I can elaborate, but what I see are proclivities towards one vice or another for reasons mostly outside of our control. This would explain why even the most publicly devout Christians are the most privately immoral people. This explains why a guy in one of my old churches molested his daughters and granddaughter and explains why one of his sons molested his younger brother. This explains why evangelists seek out prostitutes. This explains why young couples commit fornication near universally. And yet the latter is contingent on the notion that marriage justifies sexual intercourse. I, on the other hand, believe that if both parties are educated, especially with regards to the consequences, and are in a position to consent to one another, then they are doing nothing wrong by having sex.
Where does it end? Let’s say a future good justifies a past evil, if a Christian guy’s girlfriend eventually becomes his wife, then is their past fornication justified by their future marriage? It can be argued that the couple never did anything wrong because God, being omniscient, saw their marriage. Never mind that this relies on what I think is a fault theory of time! On the A-theory, talk of past, present, and future are germane. In fact, on any realist theory of time, these concepts must be entertained. Time, on my view, is purely conceptual and not fundamental, but even in concept, we can visualize it as a line in which all points between a beginning and an end already exist. This is why we can visualize, plan, and execute our plans. This is why we meet someone, see a future with them, and take steps to ensure that that future, and not some other future, happens. So given this, a young man sleeping with his present-day girlfriend is not doing anything wrong if she’s his future-day wife, but I digress.
There’s much more I can say explaining why I’m not a Christian, but suffice to say I’m not a Christian. My reasons are exhaustive and spread out in a lot of different directions, but I think the crux has been aptly captured here: as a system, Christianity fails. This is what I intend when I say that Christianity is not true. For any experience or observation or entity x, Christianity must serve as a cogent and superior explanation for x. No other system should be able to outperform Christianity on any of these fronts. Should there be a system that does outperform it, then the likelihood of Christianity being a good system, let alone the best system, decreases. This is what I found as the scales fell from eyes. Christianity fails to account for many things x, y, and z. Suffering and evil are just a small part of that.
1 Cramer, David C. “John Hick (1922-2012)”. International Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. ND.
2 Arguing About Evil: Plantinga’s Free Will Defense”. Common Sense Atheism. 25 Oct 2009. Web.
3 Murray, Michael J. “Leibniz on the Problem of Evil”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 27 Feb 2013. Web.
5 Firma, Terry. “Naturalist Sir David Attenborough Loses His Patience With Bible Literalists”. Friendly Atheist. 15 Feb 2014. Web.