Friday, March 30, 2012

Dinesh D'Souza and the Problem of Evil

The Problem of Evil, also referred to as the "Problem of Suffering" has been a huge difficulty for theists for quite a few millennia.  It's quite the problem because no one can possibly refute the foundational aspect of the dilemma since no one can possibly claim that there is no such thing as evil or suffering in the world.  As such, it's something that comes from non-believers and it is just as well something that believers themselves have to wrestle with in the throes of doubt.  A lot of times, theists seem to think that atheists use this argument as a strong refutation against their god's existence, which I don't think is the case.  It's really not much of an argument against any god's existence so much as an argument against the extant theology of most current religions.  It shows that the proposition of a benevolent god as is the framework of most modern religions is really not consistent with the nature of reality.  It still leaves room for an uncaring god or a malevolent god.

Dinesh D'Souza seems to think this is a solved problem, so I was curious if he'd uncovered some new mode of apologetic that no one had noticed.  Given that it was Dinesh D'Souza, though, I really shouldn't have expected much.  Indeed, there was nothing new.  It was little more than a series of bald assertions that old arguments made hundreds of years ago and still parroted today are solid proof that there is no problem in the first place.

Seriously?  All those brainless platitudes about God working in mysterious ways or placing the greatest trials on those he loves the most and so on solve the problem of evil & suffering?  Is there a brain in there, Dinesh?

When your child dies of leukemia or something, the theist will argue that the child has at least gone to heaven, and you will be able to meet up there when you die as well.  When you face near financial ruin, it's God putting you through trials as a test of your character and faith, and God helps those who help themselves.  When you are found to have contracted a horrible disease, it's okay because God will save you because he is merely putting you through trials because he loves you.  Now Dinesh argues that these sorts of meaningless platitudes offer genuine consolation to people in their difficult times.  He argues that the positive impressions lent by the picture of things like the afterlife gives people real hope that death is not the end.  This is in contrast to what he posits to be the atheist position which he claims is little more than "eh, sh*t happens" ... because in the Dinesh D'Souza universe, not having a blind and unsupported belief in magical beings and deities is the same thing as being callus and uncaring.  I forgot that that was the definition of theism.

He hits his first snag by utilizing a statement in his argument which is unequivocally untrue about all religions, no matter which one you pick.  That their ideas give real hope and genuine consolation to people.  Well, he might have had something there if not for the "real" and "genuine" keywords (and yes, he repeatedly impresses that particular factor).  Putting that implies that you've got some substance to it which is founded at least on some level in verifiable fact.  There isn't any such thing for any religion.  They all have foundational principles which can only be believed on faith.  What you can't escape here is that without exception, all you can offer is false hope.  And it doesn't require that your religion be proven false, because none of them are verified, or even verifiable.  The idea of an afterlife or a loving god cannot even be demonstrated to be true at any level, so you have no substantial content whatsoever to base these fanciful images of angels and rainbows.  How on Earth can you call it genuine given all that?  Until you have solid evidence, there is nothing that differentiates the idea of an afterlife from being imaginary. 

It seems that the only sense in which you can define that hope as "real" is in the sense that those feelings are actually felt.  But it is at best an illusion.  People who fell for the 419 fraud genuinely believed they would get their money.  But that doesn't help the case for it being a fraud or not.  Dinesh does, at least in debate, accept that there is no evidence of an afterlife or an "other side", but simply says that because it could be true, the hope it offers is real.  No.  He's as wrong as it is possible to be wrong.  "Real" isn't written by what could be possible.  Truth and substantial evidence is not a construct of what-ifs...  it's a result of what-is.  Anything outside of that can not be considered as valid.  Yes, an untested hypothesis is not the same thing as an untrue hypothesis, but that doesn't mean that an untested (let alone untestable) is worthy of any consideration.  Indeed in science, the adage is that that which has not been shown to be true is given equal weight as that which has been shown not to be true.

Now Dinesh's best argument against this is an invocation of the argumentum ad populum fallacy.  He argues that there is something inbuilt in humanity such that every culture, every religion, has created some form of afterlife.  It's such a common vein throughout the world, and the fact that everybody has thought of it implies that there is some deep characteristic of humanity that has birthed this idea.  Therefore, there has to be more to it than some imaginary wishful thinking.

Yes, Dinesh.  There is indeed something deep within human nature that is widespread throughout the world that creates the idea of an afterlife.  It's called fear.  People, by in large, are afraid of dying.  That's why people either want to live forever, or invent some way by which death is not really the end, and people just live forever in some other form besides the life you know yourself to have.

He also completely misses the fact that merely offering convenient platitudes that explain away the occurrences doesn't really go very far.  To a large extent, it makes light of the suffering.  It reduces suffering to nothing more than a whim of the cosmic forces at work.  Your baby is dead?  Well, there's nothing to grieve about!  The kid's in heaven amidst the glow of angels!  Your wife died of an aneurysm?  Well, then she's in heaven, so it's all okay!  What's overlooked is that heaven is not here; meaning that either way, you've lost your loved ones.  You haven't even addressed that.  The problem of suffering isn't one that says that you can find ways to explain away suffering and thereby denote it as being okay.  It says that you can't have omnibenevolence and still have suffering.  You can't have a benevolent god and still have a concept of sin or Hell.  You can't have an all-loving god who outlines the things he hates and deems worthy of eternal torment in Hell.

Both Dinesh and William Lane Craig dodge this by simply saying but, but, but...  Heaven!  Heaven is infinitely good!  So that son you had who was killed in a fiery automobile accident?  He received an infinite good, so there was nothing actually bad that happened!  In Dinesh's words, this is what he describes as "looking at the whole framework", thereby making pathways through which there is no problem.  What if that son was gay?*  Or an atheist?  Or he happened to really like shellfish?  Wouldn't he then be the recipient of an infinite malice upon death?  Or is looking at the whole framework of Christian theology supposed to involve ignoring those bits?

Alternatively, let's just say, hypothetically, that this is my son we're talking about and it is a definitive fact that he did go to heaven.  Well, that's great for him, but what good does it do for me?  From where I stand, my son is still gone for good, and there is nothing more I can do for him, there is no more chance for me to say anything to him, and there is no more interaction between us ever to come.  So maybe heaven has eliminated my son's suffering, but it does nothing for me.  It does nothing for my wife who is also grieving the loss.  It does nothing for my still living parents who have lost a grandchild, and so on.  That suffering is unaffected.

Of course, a completely non-religious framework does not have anything to say about why these sorts of things happen, but it also does not change the story.  It does not make a car accident into a magical transformation or transition into an other-worldly state of being.  A car accident is still a car accident and it is still the thing that took away the only demonstrable life the hypothetical son happened to have.  So what can someone offer in a framework of no afterlife, no god, no reincarnation, no magical soul, no nonsense?  Well, there is a means of comfort which is real -- each other.  What an anti-theist like myself would say is that's the only thing we can offer as solace.  We can gather together and mourn a loss in unison.  We can all express our mutual love and caring and respect for each other and provide shoulders for one another to cry on.  That at least IS real.  The other people who care about you are real.  The other people who are your friends and family and the bonds you have are real and they are substantial, and that is precisely what makes them meaningful.  No religion can ever offer anything like that.

Dinesh would say of course, that good Christians or Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists would also offer this sort of comfort amongst their fellow brethren.  And so they would.  The point is, so would anybody.  That includes atheists, but Dinesh seemed to conveniently omit that part and say there is nothing beyond the "that's just how reality is" part of the picture.  It's funny how Dinesh can be so adamant that we take a "big picture" look at Christianity, and yet cannot so much as dare to consider extending the same courtesy to atheism.  Could it be...  because he's intellectually dishonest?

Though I don't have a direct example to go off of, I already can predict where Dinesh would go with this.  He would make the point that concepts like the afterlife, heaven, hell, god's final judgment -- these are all fundamental components of the Christian belief system.  Whereas something like solace by community and so on are not fundamental components of atheism.  Which of course, is not entirely wrong since atheism is not a belief system in the first place.  However, so long as he defines atheism as an across-the-board rejection of the supernatural (which is technically incorrect as Buddhists or Scientologists are atheists, but still believe in the supernatural...  but we'll go with it), the in-built implication of that when applied to such a scenario as the death of a loved one, a strictly rationalist view of the world means that the only thing that can be offered are sources that do exist in reality.  Friends and family gathering is merely a specific example, but then so is every platitude that Dinesh could potentially offer, seeing as how Christian theology is not so cut-and-dry as "go to heaven when you die"...  It's all contingent on your gullibility.

Dinesh, like all Christians argues that salvation is a gift, and if you're so lacking in gullibility that you would refuse it, it's not Jesus' fault.  Ummm...  the problem isn't the gift...  it's whether or not the gift even exists or not.  That's not even getting into the fact that the gift has a number of attached terms and conditions, none of which are remotely agreeable if you have functioning brain cells.  But hey, you don't like the EULA, well then you don't get signed up for a preorder on our infinitely awesome vaporware!  And if you don't get signed up for a preorder, we get to kill you!  Republicans said so!

* As a side note, I specifically used the case of a gay son because I am aware that the Bible largely only seems to mention men having sex with men as evil, and that's all the fundamentalists ever talk about.  They never seem to mention women lying with women in the same light.  Romans 1:26 mentions a case of lesbianism that came about as a result of a lack of faith in Yahweh, but there is no explicit condemnation of it.  Seems Yahweh isn't particularly averse to smokin' hot girl-on-girl action.  ;-)

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