God and human suffering.

Recently I came across this video made by Prager University(a free, non accredited, online university) & features Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College. It attempts to address the concept of suffering and how it fits into a world with or without god, though it seems heavily biased towards the belief that god exists.

Now before I get into it I’d like to make a few things clear. I don’t claim to be a philosopher, I’ve never taken a philosophy class and I’d not heard of Peter Kreeft nor Prager University before seeing this video.

The video begins claiming that many people suggest that because suffering exists, god does not. In my experience this is almost never the claim which is made. In fact the entire premise of the video seems to be based on a poor rehash of the “Epicurean dilemma”. For those unfamiliar with it, the dilemma goes as follows:

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

Essentially the dilemma states that god is 1 of 3 things: not all powerful, not all loving or not worthy of worship. It doesn’t actually make the claim, or even the suggestion, that no god exists. Only that if one does exist it is not the god most people claim to believe in.  The video sort of addresses references the dilemma, though it doesn’t say so and it does rehash the last conclusion to suggest most people claim it proves god doesn’t exist. And while I do love the Epicurean dilemma, at no point would I ever claim it disproves the existence of a god. While the dilemma doesn’t address the existence of an undefined god it does raise valid points about the traits often attributed to the gods of the world’s major religions.

The video continues on to discuss the actual suffering of people, dividing the suffering into two categories: Suffering caused by people, or moral evils, and suffering caused by nature.

It states that moral evils exist because free will exists and thus allows people to act in a way that is contrary to gods will. Making the assumption that a god exists, this premise makes sense though it does raise a few issues.
Assuming god is all knowing, he willingly creates beings who he knows will not only act against his desire but will also cause others who have not gone against him to suffer. Why would god deliberately create these people knowing the evil they will perform? Additionally if free will is the cause of “moral evils”, and making the reasonable assumption that there is no evil or suffering in heaven, does this mean that their is no free will in heaven?
It’s also claimed that without a god there can exist no absolute standard from which to judge if an action is good or evil. This is a good point but is ultimately irrelevant. Even when we acknowledge that our standards for judging evil are subjective it is still possible to judge something as being wrong or evil. Morality does not require the existence of a god to exist, especially not if you believe in an absolute standard of morality. In fact this leads us to another dilemma known as the “Euthyphro dilemma”. The dilemma is as follows:

Is something morally right because god commands it, or does god command it because it is morally right?

If something is morally right simply because a god commands it then it is not an absolute standard of morality, it is subjective and based entirely on the whims of this god. However, if god commands something because it is morally right then it can be argued that that is an absolute standard for morality, the problem here is that it is moral independent of what that god commands.

The fact is, assuming he exists, god not only allows but facilitates these moral evils to be performed and to effect the lives of innocent people. That’s undeniable and in itself suggests that god may not set out to allow suffering but he doesn’t do a lot to avoid it.

The second category of suffering proposed is that of natural suffering. This encompasses anything from natural disasters, such as earthquakes, to illness and diseases. And it discussing this category is where the video gets very interesting. In this section a few points are raised relating to how people feel about the suffering.

An example used is a young child suffering with an incurable form of cancer. Kreeft acknowledges that most people feel this is wrong or unfair or shouldn’t be happening, but he goes on to claim that this is an illogical position to hold if you don’t believe in god. Why? Well his argument is that if you don’t believe in a god then you only have your subjective feelings to base your objection off of. He then goes on to ask “how is your not liking something evidence for God not existing?”. This is not a claim I have ever heard anyone make. The closest I’ve ever heard is something like “if X occurs to Y then god can not posses trait Z”. If a child dies a horribly painful death from an incurable disease then, assuming he is all powerful, god is not omnibenevolent. It could be argued that god still possess some degree of benevolence but once he allows the pointless suffering of one of the most innocent members of our species he sacrifices “omni-” status.

Good and evil are concepts found, to my knowledge, only in our species however that doesn’t automatically mean nature doesn’t have some system of right and wrong. Empathy is found in most animals. If an animal is injured, others will often care for it. If I’m sad or hurt, my dog can be seen to empathise with me, she will try protect or help me. The premise that nature is only about survival is flawed. Yes it is a big part of it, but that is because no other species has evolved to our level yet.

Natural suffering exists, again this is undeniable, but if you would have me believe that an all powerful god exists then you must account for this suffering. Does it just occur and god does nothing to stop it? Or does god cause it? They are really the only options and both lead me to the same conclusion; your god is unworthy of my worship or devotion.

I’d like to close this post with a piece, though he will likely never see it, directed to Professor Kreeft:

We live in a world which is mostly likely godless. This is not a conclusion I’ve come to lightly, and I completely understand why it scares people. The world we live in can be cruel, we see that everyday when the innocent suffer and the evil thrive. However, something you neglected to acknowledge is, society is generally good. Most people do their best to reduce the suffering caused to others and, while it still exists, we do a pretty good job for the most part.
I don’t believe in your god, and even if I did I would not worship him. This doesn’t mean I don’t believe in anything though, I believe in people. I believe in their goodness and I’ve seen it first hand. There may be no way to fix the suffering people endure in this life but we are trying. And honestly that gives me more of an ability to remain sane than if I believed a god were watching over us as all this happens.
Your god may exist, heaven and hell may exist, I can’t say for sure they don’t. All I know is that you and I exist, this world exists and humans are the only ones in a position to alleviate suffering, and we are doing so on a daily basis.

AtheistAlan

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