This week's lecture was delivered by Prof. John North of the English department. I have known John North for 20 or so years, back to when our university had a weekly staff and faculty newspaper edited by Chris Redmond, the Gazette. He wrote good letters to the editor about the importance of the library for the University and the importance of scholarship. He is a scholar of some repute in his own field, too. And I learned some other impressive things about him that I didn't know before (more on this below).
Once again the talk was well-delivered (not a big surprise since Prof. North has won a teaching award) and easy to follow. Despite this, I would say that the emphasis was much more on the "god" and hardly at all on the "reason". And despite it supposedly being about "the problem of pain", more time was devoted to a summary of the dogma believed by most Christians. As usual, my comments are in brackets.
Prof. North started with answers to the argument that "a good God would not allow pain". (He gave as examples tsunamis and animal suffering.) He gave the following answers:
Answer 1: "because I cannot see the value in pain, there must be none" is unwarranted self-confidence, cf. God's answer to Job. [This is only relevant if one assumes that there is a god that has some plan that involves pain. But if one is simply trying to decide if a god's supposed attributes fit the evidence we see, then this answer doesn't really address the evidence.]
Answer 2: "to be free is to be free to choose evil with its consequences". Not to be free is to be an automaton. [I found this extremely unsatisfying. The best rejoinder I have heard is from the physicist Stephen Weinberg: "It seems a bit unfair to my relatives to be murdered in order to provide an opportunity for free will for Germans, but even putting that aside, how does free will account for cancer? Is it an opportunity of free will for tumors?"]
Answer 3: C. S. Lewis, "They say of some temporal suffering, 'No future bliss can make up for it,' not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory." [Assumes facts not in evidence. We have no evidence of "Heaven", or backward causality. Are we supposed to accept this just because C. S. Lewis says so? How can C. S. Lewis possibly know with any certainty about this supposed glory? It reminds me of Ambrose Bierce's classic definition of faith: "belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel."]
Why pain? He gave two answers: protection for our body, and protection for our soul.
He discussed his work as a volunteer chaplain at our local hospital, where he is on class for 2 shifts from 7 PM to 7 AM to help comfort dying people. He estimates that he has helped over 800 people on their deathbeds, by comforting them through prayer and Bible reading. [This is an impressive commitment to people who are suffering.]
The rest of the talk was an exposition of what many Christians believe, in an evangelical mode. I tried to write down some of it but the parade of Bible quotes was too familiar and boring. Here are a few things:
"unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven." --- Matthew 18.
[Here we have Christian exclusivity -- only Christianity has the answer and you won't enter heaven unless you accept everything Christians say as gospel. And we also have the denial of intellect and reason -- you must think like a child, not as an adult.]
"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." -- Mark 12:30-31.
[This kind of stuff disgusts me. Here we have the spectacle of a god commanding everybody to love him -- the kind of megalomaniacal behavior we would rightly shun or laugh at if it came from a friend or family member. Yet we are supposed to view god as some cosmic Mafioso and rejoice in it. I find that sick.]
The Apostle's Creed: "I believe in God, the father almighty..."
Christians are guilty: "For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)
"For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it." (James 2:10)
[Here we have a clear violation of the principle of proportionality - a basic principle of law recognized in almost all human societies, namely, that punishment should be proportionate to the crime. Another example of how Jesus' teachings are not models of ethical behavior.]
"If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them."
"Confession, repentance, and forgiveness is the only hope
- between myself and God - between myself and every other person."
This, Professor North asserted, is the ultimate solution to the problem of pain.
[Of course, it is no solution at all. "Confession, repentance, and forgiveness" did nothing for my relatives who were murdered by their Christian neighbors in the Holocaust. "Confession, repentance, and forgiveness" did nothing for my father who died of Alzheimer's. And it does nothing for the millions of people who lived throughout time before the supposed revelation of Jesus and nothing for the millions of people alive today who have never heard the message of Christianity. This is just a cop-out.]
"Only Jesus Christ, God become man, is big enough to forgive me. Forgiveness costs. Ever tried it? Accusing is more common. "The Accuser" is one of the names of Satan."
"Jesus is the creater and sustainer of the universe, the stars, galaxies, insects, and every person."
[So then, Jesus is also the creator and sustainer of killer tsunamis, the Black Plague, and all the mass murderers that have ever lived, including Hitler. Nice guy!]
"Jesus died for me, rose again for me, ascended into heaven. He sees every sparrow that falls."
[He may see every sparrow fall, but he doesn't help them. Isn't it strange that Jesus can do parlor tricks like turn water into wine, but he can't stop world hunger?]
"200,000 Christians are martyred every year." [Probably exaggerated; searches reveal many different such claims, with no really definitive source or account of methodology.]
"Why are people killing Christians?" [For most of them, probably the same reason they kill Muslims and atheists: for personal gain, because of ethnic tensions, because they are "different", and because their religion and culture tells them they should.]
At that point the floor was opened for questions. I asked about the millions of people who lived before Jesus and the millions of people who live today without ever having heard of Jesus. If the "solution to the problem of pain" is "confession, repentance, forgiveness" then all those millions cannot have any solution for their pain. (This is one of the reasons I abandoned Christianity long ago.)
I know that some Christians respond to the effect that the Christian god's existence is obvious to everyone and therefore no one has any excuse to not believe. Of course, this isn't so; monotheism is a relatively recent invention and polytheism was a common belief for thousands of years. Prof. North answered somewhat differently: that in the future all time, both past and future, will become present. And, further, that everyone walks around with a hole in their hearts that only the Christian god can fill. Finally, he said there are some things that he doesn't understand about his god, but he believes nevertheless.
[You can see here how reason has been abandoned. There is no evidence that in the future 'all time will become present time'; this is just meaningless verbiage concocted out of thin air.]
Now, here is my solution to the problem of pain: pain is an evolved response that is present in people, just like every other mammal. The effect of pain is to help an animal avoid harm in the environment, such as extreme heat, extreme cold, bodily damage, and so forth. As social animals, we have also evolved standards of behavior that we share with other primates (see, e.g., the work of Frans de Waal) and many of us can feel pain if we do not live up to these standards. We can also feel pain if life goals (such as love and reproduction) are stymied. Pain systems are not perfect and sometimes go wrong, causing people to feel pain even in the absence of harmful stimuli (e.g., phantom limb pain). Pain is not divine retribution and needless suffering does not enoble you. There is no inherent "meaning" in suffering, although some people may find their own personal meaning through it, and some people may learn empathy through it. Through science we have found methods for alleviating pain (e.g., anaesthesia, antidepressants). I feel acutely grateful to scientists like Crawford Long and William Morton for their discoveries, which work for everyone, not just members of the same sect.
To me that is a much more satisfying explanation of pain, and it is in accordance with the facts that we see. It doesn't require positing an involved theology with magical beings for which there is no evidence. If the Christian god really wanted to alleviate pain, he could have revealed the recipe for diethyl ether in the bible. He didn't.
If I find the time I will talk about my experiences after the talk.