Suffering is, unfortunately, a part of life. Whether it is the loss of a parent to cancer, or the break-up of a long marriage, people endure hardships with tragic consistency. Recent events this year have reinforced this truism, as the country has witnessed the desperate plight of many tens of thousands of people in the state of Queensland. Entire towns have, it seems, been swept away by the fury of nature. The ferocity of these floods has been breathtaking, as has the widespread destruction. As if that weren’t enough, the state has been battered by cyclonic storms that have devastated livelihoods with ease. These disasters are indeed reminders that suffering is an ever-present part of life, which for some undermines belief in God’s existence. It is to this issue that I want to speak, using the Queensland disasters as a springboard.
In later posts, I will provide a particular Christian interpretation of disaster and suffering, including what we have seen recently. Right now, however, I wish to interrogate the non-believer’s response to such suffering and hardship, perhaps creating intellectual room for a Christian perspective to take its place. Indeed, it is important to provide some sort of apologetic, albeit a partial one, since such a disaster may prove ripe for the spiritual sceptic (I should point out that when I speak of spiritual sceptics or non-believers, I am referring to people who are, at the very least, sceptical of God’s existence. I am not yet referring to non-Christians). Even in the face of such destruction and loss, the church does have something to say as it seeks to respond. That may be news to some, but the Christian story does supply meaning to an otherwise meaningless situation. Although non-believers may declare that the Queensland floods (or any other event, such as the Christchurch earthquake, that occasions pain and suffering) prove that God does not exist, or that the persistence of belief in God despite such a tragedy is absurd, I would ask people to consider the alternative for a moment.
Without God, these tragedies are nothing but the consequences of the blind, impersonal forces of nature. We may be able to offer immediate causes for what happened. We can, for example, talk about the heavy rains and the aberrant weather patterns that caused the floods in Queensland. We can talk about the persistent failure by state governments to build dams that would control and manage the flow of rivers in the region. We could even talk about the green ideology that has (perhaps) exerted some influence over the reluctance to build such structures. These are all viable reasons for what, in the instance of Queensland’s tragedy, occurred. And yet none of them can provide a deep – one might even say existential – reason for this or any other disaster. Like all natural calamities, the Queensland floods and storms have shown us that, in the final analysis, man is at the mercy of nature. What is more, whilst the non-believer might derive some sense of satisfaction from facing what they think is the cold, hard reality of the world, their perspective does little to offer meaning in the midst of human misery. To them, this simply happened; one can talk about why it happened, but that question cannot be pressed too far. At the end of the day, the atheist or non-believer can only admit that such things simply happen. Events are merely brute facts, without ultimate intelligibility. If the universe is the product of blind chance, then its various goings-on cannot thereby possess meaning. They simply are. According to the non-believer’s scheme, events (both good and ill) do nothing more than occur. They do not mean anything, for they happen within a purposeless universe that has come into being without reason.
This is all the atheist or non-believer can offer when a tragedy strikes. If they follow their philosophical presuppositions far enough, then they have to admit that disasters such as the ones we have witnessed recently do not bear meaning. The cosmos does not possess any overarching structure, or goal-oriented significance, whilst the occurrences contained therein cannot be explained in terms of anything greater – or deeper – than the brute fact of their existence. That has to be conceded. To be sure, this does not mean that the existence of God is thereby proved. But when the atheist or non-believer scoffs at the attempt to shore up belief in God during a time such as this, one has to ask whether the interpretation he (or she) offers is any more satisfactory. All they can say is that such a calamity has occurred; nothing more, nothing less (without over-anticipating what I want to say below, to even call an event a “calamity” would be stretching the interpretation of the event, since that implies an attempt to explain the inexplicable according to moral categories that have no place within a purposeless universe). Mere happenstance is all that remains.
Such reasoning flies in the face of the persistent human need to ascribe and construct meaning. Humans are driven by a need to interpret things according a certain purpose, to view events and happenings through an interpretive grid. This is no fleeting, transient whim; it is instead a deep-rooted yearning, leading us to bestow order upon chaos and to discover purpose for our lives and the world at large. The atheist’s assumption that the universe is “blind, pitiless and indifferent” (to paraphrase Richard Dawkins) jars horribly with this human need to find meaning. How does a purposeless universe give rise – without forethought or planning – to beings that are driven, enlivened and animated by purpose? That is a particularly vexatious question, and comes with even greater urgency when a disaster like the Queensland floods befalls a segment of humanity. The search for meaning at a time like this is particularly acute, and the atheist cannot offer anything substantial. He is forced to admit that there is no reason for what has happened, just as there is no reason for why anything happens. That can only darken the existential void in which people of calamity often find themselves.
At the same time, the non-believer cannot escape the other logical implications of his worldview. If there is no purpose to the cosmos; and if it is just the random movement of molecules and particles; then one cannot speak of good and evil, joy and suffering, in any meaningful sense. The reductionism of atheism – which necessarily embraces a materialist outlook on life – becomes obvious when its proponents assign cause to purely physical factors. The notion of transcendence is completely anathema to such a worldview. What this means is that any talk of morals, ethics, or events that either enrich or diminish life, is disingenuous from a materialist point of view. All is simply the random shifting of atoms. The death of a loved one – or, in this case, the devastation of floods and cyclones – cannot be ascribed any more meaning than one might ascribe to the particles under a microscope. Similarly, to speak of morals is specious, since the objective foundation upon which any robust conception of morality must rest does not exist. If the universe does not care, then why should we? Why should we care about the deaths of people swept away by a torrent of water? Why should we recoil in horror when we see the carnage wrought on a South Sudanese village by government-backed militia? These things, broken down to their constituent parts according to a materialist, atheistic worldview, are nothing more than the outward manifestations of inward physical occurrences. There is nothing beyond the biological, and the biological does not work according to a greater scheme – moral or otherwise. It simply is. So, if we take the Queensland floods as an example, the non-believing perspective cannot even discuss such a calamity using moral categories, since those moral categories cannot fit into the purely physicalist account of tragedy and suffering. The biological is ultimate, and moral discussion – which relies on some notion of objectivity or transcendent framework to maintain coherency – is without basis.
Again, I must remind people that all of this in no way automatically validates the Christian, or even merely theistic, worldview. But it does show up the atheistic view for what it is. Further – and this is closely aligned with my point just above – the non-believer’s case against God, which he bases upon the supposed contradiction between God’s goodness and the presence of evil, becomes incoherent once one follows that atheistic view through to its logical conclusion. How can one speak of the contradiction between the claimed goodness of God and the persistence of evil when one’s own worldview has no room for transcendent moral categories? Surely the worldview in question subverts the specific claims made against God whenever disaster or tragedy strikes, for one cannot squeeze out objective morality on the one hand and use it to score a philosophical (or atheological) point on the other. Of course, the atheist may claim that he does adhere to the notion of objective morality. But why? Why, if the cosmos that gave rise to humanity is actually blind and morally indifferent, should those very same beings be committed to such an outlook? I leave that question for readers to ponder.
None of this will be of comfort to people who have seen and experienced tragedy, pain, suffering and hardship. I don’t expect that to be the case. What will comfort them are wise pastoral counsel and the persistence of sacrificial love. However, my aim here is to engage with the various philosophical and ideological interpretations that use such events to deny God’s reality. I will continue to do so over the next few posts.
Recently, I took part in an online discussion, where I used some of these arguments to critique the atheist’s position, including the rather unsatisfying account of morality (as I see it, anyway). Indeed, my argument there – that the biological reductionism and naturalistic conception of humanity that seems to be part-and-parcel of an atheistic worldview – was much the same as the one I have used here. Anyway, I was accused of attacking a straw man by offering this characterisation of atheists’ views on humanity. My inerlocutor told me that when it comes to humanity, morality and the rest, atheists’ views are as diverse as their fingerprints. That may be, but two things suggest that the strawman may have become a real one after all: the logical (and, I would say, inescapable) implications of a naturalistic conception of the world and humanity; and the fact that atheists have said exactly what I have said in my characterisation of humans as, at base, a collection of atomic particles.
First, if one is going to commit oneself to a naturalistic worlview (which goes hand-in-hand with atheism) then it becomes exceedingly difficult to suggest that humanity is, in the final analysis, anything more than an amalgamation of physical parts. My interlocutor that day said he was much more than a “collection of atoms” (yes, I know, a rather pithy line on my part). He said that he was that, but that he was also a thinking, feeling individual with loves, desires, hopes and dreams. But if humans are to be reduced to their constituent parts – which means one’s atomic “kit” – then I am not sure how those parts can end up constituting, not just a physcial entity (eg. a human being), but one that is able to think, feel, love and apply meaning to his/her existence. I mean, how did my online discussion partner become the thinking, feeling empatheitc indvidual he believes himself to be? Mere physicality (which is what we are reduced to in a naturalistic view of the world) is not enough. Random mutation, natural selection and deep time alone could not have produced atomic structures that go beyond their physical paramaters in this way. In other words, if (according to naturalism), our “essence” is really no different to that of other, even non-sentient, physcial structures, I wonder how those physical structures could make the transition from things that merely “existed” to sentient beings that are able to confer upon the world meaning and significance. As much as atheists try to claim otherwise, I can’t see how one can escape this reductionist thinking, or the problems associated with it.
The philosopher John F. Haught, in talking about critical intelliegence as a problem for naturalism, poses a question along similar lines (Is Nature Enough? Meaning and Truth in an Age of Science):
“…is the essentially mindless, purposeless, self-originating, self-enclosed universe of scientific naturalism large enough to house your own critical intelligence?”
As far as I can see, this is an inescapable question for the atheist (and therefore, naturalist), based on the indissoluble connection between atheism and a naturalistic conception of humanity. We could take this further, and suggest that the very mindlessness posited by a naturalistic account of the universe (where all is the product of the essential purposelessness of natural selection) should make one quite suspicious of one’s own thinking. If one’s thoughts are the result of random atomic occurrences (and nothing more), should one place supreme confidence in one’s capacity to understand the world and interpret it coherently? The fact that we do, and are able to provide some account of the world that is commensurate with reality suggests that there is more going on in our minds than just the product of mindless evolutionary processes. Further, efforts to develop a moral account of human behaviour – indeed, a moral “grid”, if you like – seem to suggest that humans are more than the accidental products of an ultimately mindless, amoral universe. In any case, this reductionsim seems to be inherent within naturalism, and protests to the contrary will not do.
Second, a number of atheist academic, both past and present, have expressed their views on humanity in terms that are quite close to my own (admittedly pithy) characterisation. Here’s Betrand Russell, the now deceased British atheist, describing human beings:
“…the result of accidental collocations of atoms” (Russell, Why I am not a Christian).
Or Stephen Jay Gould:
“If the history of life teaches us any lesson, it is that human beings arose as…a kind of glorious cosmic accident resulting from the catenation of thousands of improbable events” (quote taken from John Blanchard’s Does God Believe in Atheists?).
Or what about Richard Dawkins, writing in his book, The Selfish Gene?:
“[Genes] swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots…they are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.”
As far as I can see, the “strawman,” of which my interlocutor spoke, is very much alive.
This all has implications for moral reasoning. If the universe is essentially purposeless, and we are inextricably bound up with the universe and its ultimate nature, then on what shall we base an account of morality? More than that, why should we even speak about morality as if it had something to do with an objective standard of the good? And it’s not just believers in God who are aksing these questions. A recent article in The Guardian newspaper spoke about Peter Singer, the Australian atheist philosopher, and his struggles with providing a robust foundation for moral decisions. In it, he said that his previous confidence in utilitarian thinking has now been shaken, and he is more and more inclined towards a moral objectivity (Mark Vernon, “Without Beflief in Moral Truths, How Can We Care About Climate Change?”, May 25th, 2011). He’s no closer to God, but as the article says, “Only faith in a good God finally secures the conviction that living morally coincides with living well.” A bold claim, but I think that God provides a strong foundation for confidence in an objective moral ontology.