Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Reasonable Doubts on "Faith and Reason"

One of my favorite podcasts is Reasonable Doubts—the Skeptical Guide to Religion, hosted by Jeremy Beahan, Luke Galen, and David Fletcher. Typically the three men speak with each other on topics of atheism, religion, and skepticism, discussing current events and apologetics.

Recently the three Reasonable Doubtcasters were guests of the internet radio show called “Faith and Reason” hosted by Bill Freeman. Freeman and his two co-hosts identified themselves as liberal Christians, and based on some of their expressed ideas they would indeed find themselves in hot water with many fundamentalist Christians, such as the idea that the beginning chapters of Genesis are not to be taken literally or that God may not be benevolent.

As is so often the case when believers and non-believers sit down together to discuss important issues, a lot of time was wasted circling around the proper terminology. It’s difficult to coherently discuss issues of religion and philosophy if the parties can’t agree on the definitions of key terms, such as ‘faith’ or ‘belief’ or even ‘God.’ The Reasonable Doubt podcasters carried themselves off well, in my opinion, in the face of Freeman’s claims that Atheism requires Faith and other misrepresentations.

Early in the broadcast the Problem of Evil was mentioned, and here was where I grew most frustrated. Freeman seemed to feel that the Problem of Evil was merely a thorny conundrum, a necessary but unfortunate byproduct of humanity’s lack of the right technology to uncover the solution. He acknowledged that philosophers and laypersons alike have been wrestling with the Problem of Evil for twenty-five hundred years.

When a theologian addresses the Problem of Evil, he has several options. He can suggest a technical answer, such as the Solution of Free Will. Often this answer fails to satisfy skeptics because it raises further problems. The second option is to redefine the terms, such as declaring that maybe God is not omniscient after all, or God is not concerned about our suffering enough to do anything about it. This answer fails to satisfy believers because it then diminishes God. No one wants to worship a being unworthy of worship. Some have argued that there is no suffering in this world—an answer satisfying to nobody.

The third option is then to punt to mystery, which is what Freeman did here. I’ve heard this tone before, back when I was a Christian. For Freeman, that lack of solution is somehow the proof that it’s such an important question. A theologian might say, “Our finite minds are too limited to understand the ways of God, and we can rest in the hope that one day we will be enlightened when we sit at the feet of Jesus in His glory.” When properly voiced with hushed reverent tones, such grave platitudes are meant to comfort believers. But for skeptics like me, they come across as an exasperated parent scolding a child, saying “Don’t ask silly questions.”

Listening to the podcast, I grew frustrated that the Reasonable Doubtcasters didn’t press Freeman on this issue, because there’s a fourth solution to the Problem of Evil, one that atheists know and believers won’t dare admit: Release your belief in God. It’s only the assertion that an all-powerful, all-knowing, benevolent God exists that the Problem of Evil arises in the first place. The Problem can be eliminated by setting aside the assertion.

Here’s an example of the issue I’m talking about. How can Santa Claus visit all the homes in the world to distribute presents in a single night? Well, we can try to answer this difficult question technically, by invoking worm-holes and the manipulation of the space-time continuum. But this answer fails to satisfy because it raises further technical issues, such as how does one man have the ability to pull off such feats?

Or we can redefine terms, declaring that Santa Claus is not a real person but just a spirit of the gift-giving season, and that when humanity unites in the spirit of Christmas it can circle the globe. But that answer would never satisfy a child who wants to sit on Santa’s lap and set out milk and cookies on Christmas Eve.

The third option is the most popular one—punt to mystery. Declare that Santa Claus has magical powers that we can’t comprehend. One might even use a bit of stick to enhance the carrot by suggesting that inquiring too deeply in the ways of Santa can lead to no presents on Christmas morning. “Believing is Seeing” as the story goes.

Of course, we all know how to solve the Problem of Santa’s round-the-world trip, and that’s by not believing in Santa Claus. It’s not a solution to the problem—it’s an elimination of the problem itself. The problem wouldn’t have existed to begin with if Saint Nicholas had not been deified into a globe-trotting elf. Likewise, the question, “How can a Good God allow Suffering in our World?” can never be properly answered—our best minds have been chewing on the question for 2500 years. But the question can be eliminated entirely when we relinquish our belief in God.

Of course, that’s not to say that there is no suffering in this world—there most certainly is. But it’s our problem to address, not God’s. We do this by studying our world thoroughly so that we can eliminate suffering caused by natural events, such as disease, earthquakes, and famine. And we do this by improving ourselves and our relationships with each other, by studying human psychology, systems of economics, and by cultivating love. None of these require a worship of a supernatural being to accomplish, particularly when such a being causes more problems than it solves.

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