The craziest Templeton grant yet: Evolution and “self-giving love”

January 6, 2020 • 10:00 am

Templeton continues to waste perfectly good money on theology, which is the study of the invisible and its self-justification by simply making up stuff that can’t be tested. A paradigmatic example of the genre is this award of $133,130 for studies of theodicy by Mats Wahlberg, a professor of “systematic theology” at Umea University in Sweden.

What really burns my onions about this is the palpable stupidity of the project and the obvious objections to its thesis—and, most important, its lame attempt to justify why evolution by natural selection involves suffering. But Wahlberg’s “justification”, a particularly odious and tortuous species of theodicy, appears to involve only human beings. Click on the screenshot to read about this travesty:

Evolution has long stymied theologians, as it aims directly at their Achilles heel: why would an omnipotent and all-loving God “create” in a way that involves tremendous amounts of suffering? After all, a good God could have created a world of herbivores and no parasites, and could have given each individual a fixed longevity and a painless death. Then the only thing that would suffer would be vegetation. And there wouldn’t need to be be earthquakes, either, nor asteroids. After all, why did God create the dinosaurs and then let them all die off, presumably with substantial suffering, after the big asteroid struck the Earth?

It was this suffering that famously drove Darwin to the idea that if there was indeed a God (and I think Darwin was at best a deist), it wasn’t a good God. Here’s a well known passage from a letter that Darwin wrote to Asa Gray on May 22, 1860, six months after The Origin had been published:

With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.—   Let each man hope & believe what he can.—

Here Darwin punts to the view that perhaps God designed the laws that govern the world, though he can’t understand why those laws result in so much suffering. (Remember that in the last paragraph of The Origin Darwin argues that natural selection is a kind of law similar to the law of gravity.) But it’s clear that Darwin doesn’t accept a beneficent god.

And Professor Wahlberg, with his two-year $133,130 Templeton grant, isn’t content with the “I have a dog’s mind” view of theodicy, and so is taking Templeton’s dosh to work on solutions to the problem. Or rather, it seems, he’s already solved the problem, and simply wants to work out the details (indented quotes are from the Templeton blurb).

His question:

 “If you look at it superficially, the laws of evolution might appear to be antithetical to the Christian worldview — they involve a lot of competition, survival of the fittest, suffering and extinction,” Wahlberg says. “So the question arises, why would a perfectly good God choose to create by such a process?”

The answer: 

In theological terms, a theodicy is any attempt to understand how a good God could justifiably allow evil or suffering to exist. For Wahlberg, evolution requires its own version of theodicy — one with potential insights into the origin and purpose of divine and human love.

“In order to have great love, you have to be prepared to suffer for the sake of the one you love, just as Christ suffered for humanity on the cross,” Wahlberg says. “Perhaps we cannot separate love and suffering — they go together.”

Wahlberg’s proposed evolutionary theodicy runs as follows: If God wants love to be realized in the world, he would have to create the world so that it provides the necessary conditions for love. If this entails the possibility of suffering, then we have a glimpse of why God would make such a world. Wahlberg describes this as love’s “shadow side,” a necessary condition for the greater good. “If this hypothesis is borne out,” he says, “then you have to ask whether this entails that the world itself must have such a shadow side.”

Wait a tick! First of all, this “suffering” appears to be limited to humans, and is the reverse side of being in love. But evolution, of course, is the source of all creatures. So if a deer loves its fawn, does that necessarily involve suffering? Well, maybe, if the fawn dies and its mother feels grief. But what about all the evil inflicted on animals that can’t suffer for love, like fruit flies, rotifers, earthworms, sea turtles, most fish, and, in fact, all creatures without parental care, the capacity to “love”, or both. Or did God create evolution so that only humans could suffer, and doesn’t care about the suffering of every other species?

And even if you accept that the gratuitous suffering is simply a byproduct of the real creature that needs to suffer—Homo sapiens—why did God create love that allows the “possibility” of suffering? After all, if he controls all, he could make all romantic breakups mutual, and all deaths less grief-promoting by proving to all (which he could do, but doesn’t) that the dead find eternal life with their friends and relatives?

But Wahlberg may well be speaking not of our love for other humans, but of our love for God. In that case, no suffering need exist at all, save for those, like penetentes, who make themselves suffer needlessly so they can mimic the fictional sufferings of Jesus. After all, if you love God then all should be well—and you even get an afterlife in Heaven. Why do you have to suffer? Jesus did that suffering for you!

This is delusion, pure and simple, and yet Templeton wants to pour enough money into this crazy project that could otherwise buy hungry and impoverished kids Plumpy’nut, an effective and cheap nutritional supplement. In fact, the size of this grant would provide 2219 hungry Third World children with a two months’ supply of Plumpy’nut ($60 for each kid’s supply). I like to think of these ridiculous grants in terms of Plumpy’nut Equivalents.

Finally, Walhlberg has the temerity to suggest that his hypothesis is testable, even though I’ve shown above that it’s already dead upon arrival because of what we know of biology.

In its present form, Wahlberg casts his version of evolutionary theodicy as a philosophical theory, defensible not through scientific experimentation (although it draws on recent biological insights) but through careful thought. “You have to formulate it in a very precise way, and then you have to test it by confronting it with the strongest possible objections and see if there are adequate responses,” he says.

But it’s absolutely clear that Wahlberg’s “testing” of his theodicy is not a real test, as he would never reject his idea (for one thing, the Templeton money would dry up). Instead, he simply tweaks his unfalsifiable views so they remain viable. Theological “tests” like this one are shameful:

One such objection concerns the nature of heaven: if suffering is necessary for some of love’s highest expressions, can there be a heaven suffused with love but free of suffering?

“You can see heaven as the goal of the process where you go from being a created being and learning how to love God and your neighbor,” Wahlberg says. “It might be that the process requires at least the possibility of suffering, even though the end state might be free from suffering.”

It might be. . . it might be. . . It might be. Such is the cry of the Red-Breasted Theologian. Or it might not be. Here Wahlberg is simply spinning his wheels. There’s no way his idea can be refuted. But that’s theology, Jake! At least it keeps the trough filled with dosh.

Meanwhile, children in Africa and India are starving, and they won’t get their Plumpy’nut because Wahlberg needs that money to perfect his apologetics.


h/t: Michael

The blind leading the bland: Nicholas Kristof interviews William Lane Craig

December 22, 2018 • 1:30 pm

When I saw the headline below in the New York Times, I wondered why the deuce Nicholas Kristof wanted to talk to William Lane Craig. But who could NOT read that article after the headline, wanting to see how Craig answered? (Click on screenshot and be prepared to facepalm.)

It turns out that this is part of a series Kristof is doing on Christianity—but again, WHY? At any rate, here are the predecessors:

This is the latest installment in my occasional series of conversations about Christianity. Previously, I’ve spoken with the Rev. Timothy KellerJimmy Carter and Cardinal Joseph Tobin. Here’s my interview of William Lane Craig, professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and Houston Baptist University.

The interview is a gold mine of apologetics and laughs as Craig weasels and wobbles and waffles about Jesus, Scripture, and miracles. Have a look; I’ll put some of the Q&A below.

It’s hard not to reproduce the entire text! But here we go:

KristofMerry Christmas, Dr. Craig! I must confess that for all my admiration for Jesus, I’m skeptical about some of the narrative we’ve inherited. Are you actually confident that Jesus was born to a virgin?

Craig: Merry Christmas to you, too, Nick! I’m reasonably confident. When I was a non-Christian, I used to struggle with this, too. But then it occurred to me that for a God who could create the entire universe, making a woman pregnant wasn’t that big a deal! Given the existence of a Creator and Designer of the universe (for which we have good evidence), an occasional miracle is child’s play. Historically speaking, the story of Jesus’ virginal conception is independently attested by Matthew and Luke and is utterly unlike anything in pagan mythology or Judaism. So what’s the problem?

Note the “(for which we have good evidence)” after he mentions God. That, presumably is Craig’s dumb Kalam Cosmological Argument (read the link), which somehow gets from the assumption that “all things have causes” to “God is the Christian god and Jesus is His son”. He adduces additional “evidence”, like “fine-tuning” later on.

The “problem”, of course, is that even if you accept the existence of a creator, that doesn’t get you to miracles and Jesus.  And “independently” attested by Matthew and Luke? Really? Were they both there when God manufactured a haploid genome and inserted it into one of Mary’s eggs? And how independent were these Gospels? Although “Biblical scholars” (i.e., believers) consider them evidence of the writers being independently motivated by God to write the Truth, I think it more likely that they’re recounting a common myth, or even copying each other.

But wait! There’s more! Craig does some bobbing and weaving after Kristof asks him why he takes the New Testament as gospel truth but not the Old Testament. You’ll enjoy Craig’s response. Then Kristof asks him about why he thinks the New Testament is inerrant. (To be fair, he’s pressing Craig pretty hard, but pressing Craig is like trying to wrestle a greased eel.)

[Kristof] How do you account for the many contradictions within the New Testament? For example, Matthew says Judas hanged himself, while Acts says that he “burst open.” They can’t both be right, so why insist on inerrancy of Scripture?

[Craig] I don’t insist on the inerrancy of Scripture. Rather, what I insist on is what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity,” that is to say, the core doctrines of Christianity. Harmonizing perceived contradictions in the Bible is a matter of in-house discussion amongst Christians. What really matters are questions like: Does God exist? Are there objective moral values? Was Jesus truly God and truly man? How did his death on a Roman cross serve to overcome our moral wrongdoing and estrangement from God? These are, as one philosopher puts it, the “questions that matter,” not how Judas died.

But don’t the core doctrines of Christianity include all of us being imbued with Original Sin, that Jesus was crucified and then resurrected, and that there’s an afterlife in which you either go up or you fry. It’s interesting that he says “leave the contradictions to us Christians” and then says the important questions are those that aren’t contradicted but also have no answers. But Craig does think there are “objective moral values”—since he believes in Divine Command Theory, he thinks that whatever God says is correct and moral by virtue of God having said it. Ergo, we can kill anybody who picks up sticks on the Sabbath and curses their parents. I wish Kristof had pressed him on that!

I like this exchange best.

[Kristof] Why can’t we accept that Jesus was an extraordinary moral teacher, without buying into miracles?

[Craig] You can, but you do so at the expense of going against the evidence. That Jesus carried out a ministry of miracle-working and exorcisms is so widely attested in every stratum of the sources that the consensus among historical Jesus scholars is that Jesus was, indeed, a faith-healer and exorcist. That doesn’t prove these events were genuine miracles, but it does show that Jesus thought of himself as more than a mere moral teacher.

That reminds me of the famous passage from C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity, where Lewis pretends to exhaust all the possibilities:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

I prefer the Poached Egg Hypothesis, but that’s not acceptable to most people.

Several times in the interview Craig appeals to “the consensus of historical Jesus scholars”, a consensus that of course is based on construing truth from what’s in the Bible. And I’m deeply suspicious of that consensus, especially in the absence of extra-Biblical evidence for even a historical person on which Jesus was grounded.

I remain agnostic about whether there was a real person on which Jesus was based, and even about whether that person could have claimed magical powers (a bit more of a stretch), but, as Craig says, “that doesn’t prove these events were genuine miracles.” Indeed—and there lies the rub that Craig avoids. Even if you accept the premise that some first-century charismatic preacher said he could do magic, that doesn’t mean that he could, or that such a person, now dead, continues to perform miracles.

And there’s this.

[Kristof] Over time, people have had faith in Zeus, in Shiva and Krishna, in the Chinese kitchen god, in countless other deities. We’re skeptical of all those faith traditions, so should we suspend our emphasis on science and rationality when we encounter miracles in our own tradition?

[Craig] I don’t follow. Why should we suspend our emphasis on science and rationality just because of weakly evidenced, false claims in other religions? I champion a “reasonable faith” that seeks to provide a comprehensive worldview that takes into account the best evidence of the sciences, history, philosophy, logic and mathematics. Some of the arguments for God’s existence that I’ve defended, such as the arguments from the origin of the universe and the fine-tuning of the universe, appeal to the best evidence of contemporary science. I get the impression, Nick, that you think science is somehow incompatible with belief in miracles. If so, you need to give an argument for that conclusion. David Hume’s famous argument against miracles is today recognized, in the words of philosopher of science John Earman, as “an abject failure.” No one has been able to do any better.

Although Kristof doesn’t ask him the logical question—”How do you know you’ve found the right god and the right faith?”—it’s implicit in the query. And Craig gives an implicit answer: that Christianity is not as “weakly evidenced” or as “false” as are other faiths. How does Craig know this? Not because the Bible is more credible than the Qur’an, but that Craig has personally experienced “the self-authenticating witness of God’s Holy Spirit.” Yep—”self authenticating” (see the link for a takedown).  And really—”the best evidence for God from contemporary science” is the Cosmological Argument and the fine-tuning argument? I don’t think many physicists would say, “Yes, that evidence pretty much convinces me of a God.”

As far as Hume’s argument against miracles, which is basically that you should accept a miracle only if a genuine God-produced miracle seems more likely than false testimony or dubious claims, that doesn’t seem to me an “abject failure,” but rather an exercise in judicious skepticism. But perhaps you feel otherwise.

I have to say that publishing this interview seems rather dumb, unless it exposes Craig’s philosophical weaknesses to a public that, by and large, considers him serious and learned. But I think people would nod their heads in assent at Craig’s answers.

And perhaps that would be true of all of Craig’s interviews with Christians. But somehow I don’t think, despite Kristof’s hardball questions, that he’s trying to do a number on Christianity.

h/t: Barry

William Lane Craig waffles on Adam and Eve

July 12, 2018 • 12:45 pm

I’m both amused and bemused by William Lane Craig’s latest “Monthly Report” on his Reasonable Doubts website, a report that deals with a “Creation Project” conference he attended. Click on the screenshot to see the report:

The meeting was a Dabar Conference called “Reclaiming theological anthropology in an age of science“, with the aim of  “orienting evangelical theologians to the relevant recent work in the natural sciences and to promoting scholarship in the field of the doctrine of creation.” In particular, it was convened to deal with the increasingly disturbing (to Christians) knowledge that Adam and Eve could not have existed as historical figures who were the ancestors of us all. This comes from population genetics, which tells us, given conservative assumptions about mutation rates, that the smallest bottleneck in our species in the last several hundred thousand years is at least twelve thousand individuals. That, of course, is greater than two (Adam and Eve) or eight (Noah and his family). Ergo, the human population could not have descended from either the Primal Couple or the Noah Clan.

This finding has cast into doubt the entire premise of Christianity: that we’re all afflicted with Adam and Eve’s original sin—a sin that can be expiated only by accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior, whose Resurrection portends and suggests our own resurrection in the life to come. Here’s the conference agenda:

No topic within the doctrine of creation has been more unsettled by modern science than theological anthropology. Increased knowledge of the physical world has made traditional views of the human person more difficult to affirm—our minds do not appear to be quite as separable as previous ages believed. Is belief in the soul scientifically naïve? More recently, genetic research has raised new questions about our biological origins and whether belief in a historical Adam and Eve is warranted. But what exactly is at stake in affirming (or not) a “historical Adam”? What are we to make of original sin, for example, if one removes historical referentiality from the opening chapters of Genesis? In this third year of the Creation Project we’re seeking wisdom about the origin, nature, and ultimate purposes of human life.

The meeting, of course, was supported by Templeton: the Templeton Religious Trust (another investment of Sir John’s legacy, but separate from the John Templeton Foundation). The Dabar Conferences are, in turn, under the aegis of “The Creation Project”, also underwritten by the Templeton Religious Trust.

So, what does William Lane Craig think? His previous discussions (e.g., here) suggests he accepts the “microevolution but not macroevolution” form of creationism. That is, he admits that there might be change within a species, or even production of related species by splitting, but rejects the notion of the common ancestry of substantially different life forms, and argues that the whole process is guided by God anyway.

Here are several ways that Craig handles the “threat” to Christianity presented by population genetics vs. Adam and Eve. None seem completely satisfactory, even to Craig himself.

1). The Bible could be metaphorical, but only in part.  As he says (Craig’s words are indented, emphases are mine):

Vital to this question is understanding exactly what the Bible requires us to believe about the historical Adam, and so the contribution of Old Testament and New Testament scholars is absolutely vital. This question is not so cut-and-dried as most of us imagine. For example, one of the Old Testament scholars discussed the genre of literature represented by Genesis 1-11. Comparing these accounts to creation stories in ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian mythology, he finds in the biblical stories the same interest in what is called etiology(explaining something in the author’s present by telling a story about past prehistoric events) which is an earmark of myth. For example, we keep the Sabbath because God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. He argued that Genesis 1-11 is of the genre of what he called “mytho-historical” writing—the stories are mythological but there is an underlay of historical events beneath the myth. If this is correct, then one cannot press the details of the stories (e.g., Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib, a walking, talking snake, etc.). Rather, it would be like seeing the motion of people behind a curtain: you can tell there are people back there, but you don’t really know what they’re doing.

This of course, simply means that the Genesis story might not be taken literally. In fact, if he admits that Genesis is largely mythical, it becomes hard to tell what it means. One thing is for sure: it’s become mythical only because science has disproven its assertions. Theologians of earlier eras, including Augustine, Aquinas, and various “church fathers”, certainly took the story of Adam and Eve, and the Fall, as literal truth. It’s up to Craig to explain to us why what was once fact is now myth.

2). The New Testament’s claims about Adam and Eve, and the meaning of their existence, might be literary conceits.

But what about the New Testament?  Paul surely believed in a historical Adam, didn’t he? That seems right, but does Paul’s argument in Romans 5 or I Corinthians 15 commit us to that belief? Some scholars think that Paul’s references to Adam are merely to the literary Adam of Genesis 1-3. For example, I might tell someone, “Jan is my man Friday.” Does that commit me to the reality of Robinson Crusoe and his man Friday? Obviously not!

But how does he conclude that the “literary Adam” is not a “historical Adam”? Is Craig admitting that Adam and Eve are just as fictional as Robinson Crusoe and Friday? If so, then what is the meaning of Genesis, and are Romans and Corinthians wrong in telling us that Adam and Eve brought sin into the world, but Jesus and his crucifixion and Resurrection expiated our sins, and gave us the possibility of eternal life?

Here are the arguments of Paul to which Craig refers (again, my emphasis):

For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.

For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die.

But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.

10 For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.

. . . 13 (For until the law sin was in the world: but sin is not imputed when there is no law.

14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come.

15 But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many.

. . . 18 Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.

19 For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.

20 Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound:

21 That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord.


I Corinthians 15:

12 Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?

13 But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen:

14 And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.

15 Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not.

16 For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised:

17 And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.

18 Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.

19 If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.

20 But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.

21 For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.

22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

This seems pretty clear to me: Jesus’s coming, divinity, and resurrection gave us the possibility of eternal life by washing us free of the sin inherited from Adam. Indeed, if there is a non-negotiable belief inherent in Christianity, this is it. If Adam and Eve didn’t exist, then you have to find a reason why we’re all born sinful and need the ministrations of Jesus to be washed clean.

3). Maybe the population-genetic calculations were wrong. To obviate this, Craig claims that extra genetic diversity which hides the real bottleneck of Adam and Eve came from —get this—hybridization of Homo sapiens sapiens with our Neanderthal subspecies:

As I shared in our last Report, some scientific popularizers have claimed that the genetic diversity of the present human population could not have arisen from an isolated primordial pair. Joshua Swamidass, a geneticist from Washington University, who was at the conference, helped me to understand that this claim is completely wrong-headed. Rather what is at issue is the genetic divergence in the present population, that is to say, the mutational distance between alleles (= the variants in our genes that are responsible for various traits like eye color). These data present a severe challenge for a historical Adam and Eve more recent than 500,000 years ago. (But here’s a new wrinkle: Swamidass says he neglected to take account of the genetic contribution of Neanderthals and other archaic humans who interbred with homo [sic] sapiens and so have contributed to the human genome. He’s going to run new calculations to see if that makes a difference to the date.)

Given that the genetic variation in our own species contributed by Neanderthals is only about 2-3%, and none in Africans, I wouldn’t hold my breath to see if the “new calculations” reduce the bottleneck from 12,000 to 2!

Craig’s penultimate redoubt is this:

4). Well, even if the geneticists are right, and Adam and Eve didn’t exist as the Bible says, we can still confect a story from Genesis, even if the Bible be metaphorical:

If there was no historical Adam, then obviously we cannot be held accountable for his sin, nor did sin and death enter the human race through Adam. To a large extent, I think, the importance of this issue is going to depend on how committed you are to Catholic/Reformed theology. The doctrine of the imputation of Adam’s sin to us is not one that is clearly attested biblically. What is essential, I think, is affirming the universality of sin and the need of every human being of God’s saving grace. That doesn’t require a historical Adam. For me, then, the central theological issue raised by the historical Adam will be, not original sin or the Fall, but rather biblical inspiration and authority. Can we in a scientific age trust what the Bible teaches?

Here he’s simply making up stuff, picking and choosing the parts of the Bible he likes (universal sin, but not obviously inherited “original sin”, as well as “God’s saving grace”) and rejecting the parts he doesn’t like (Adam and Eve). And if that’s the case, what is the “authority” of the Bible? For if the Bible be but “inspiration” and not truth, how are we to be Christians? What are we to believe? The answer to his last question is clearly “no”. Evolution itself tells us we can’t trust what the Bible teaches.

In the end, if we interpret the Bible by how we’re “inspired” by it, then each person has their own dogma and there is no one way to be a Christian. After all, why couldn’t “God’s saving grace” be metaphorical, or even the existence and story of Jesus himself? Who gets to be the arbiter of Biblical truth?  In the end, it can be only science.

5.) Finally, for Craig Biblical interpretation comes down to “understanding how their original authors and audiences would have understood Biblical texts.”

Handling this issue will involve two components for me: biblical exegesis and scientific findings. What’s important is not to let the science guide one’s exegesis. One must set that aside and try honestly to understand these texts as their original authors and audiences would have understood them. Once that is done, then the challenge will be integrating them systematically with a scientifically informed view of the world.  I’ve got my work cut out for me!

Indeed he does, for he’s trying to understand what the Bible says by ignoring from the outset the empirical facts. First you figure out what the authors of these texts meant (note: here he’s almost admitting that the Bible was a human production not guided by God), filter that through the “inspiration” that you get from the metaphors that you discern, and then somehow twist the science into that interpretation. This is the reason, for instance, that Craig simply cannot buy the main parts of biological evolution: it conflicts with any form of creation by God. Indeed, I now have trouble deciding whether Craig is a traditional Christian rather than a Smorgasbord Christian who’s completely reinterpreting Christian doctrine.

As reader Mark, who sent me Craig’s link, remarked:

Oddly Craig doesn’t seem to think the story of the fall is central to Christian belief (or his belief anyway), so his concern is simply to shoehorn the science as we know it into his understanding of the Christian myths and legends. You can see from the second quote above that science is always the handmaiden to Craig’s beliefs, rather than the guide to them.”
Craig clearly is an odd duck (sorry for the insult to ducks) in so explicitly claiming that the Fall, and perhaps the Resurrection, aren’t so important at all. My questions are three: Dr. Craig, how do you discern what the Bible truly means given that you think that at least some of its claims are fictional? Second, why couldn’t the story of Jesus, his crucifixion, and his resurrection be just as fictional as the story of Adam and Eve which you appear to see as myth? Finally, why isn’t the claim that we can be saved only through God’s grace also a myth? Couldn’t that be a metaphor for simply living a good life and not hurting people?

Religion as therapy: Stephen Asma doesn’t care whether it’s true as long as it makes us feel better.

June 4, 2018 • 1:00 pm

In its slow movement towards Regressive Leftism, the New York Times has just made a quantum leap: a really bad op-ed piece for “The Stone” philosophy column that, as Authoritarian Leftists are wont to do, coddles religion. One would think that such Leftists would be rational and not spend a lot of time touting the benefits of fairy tales, but that wing of our party is also pragmatic, and realizes that criticizing those fairy tales offends a lot of people in America. Much better to tell everyone that religion is a good thing. Ergo we have the piece below (click on screenshot) that says we need religion—it’s not clear who “we” are—because it’s therapeutic and gives us emotional benefits.

It’s also not clear whether the author, Stephen Asma (a professor of philosophy at Columbia College in Chicago), is even religious, as he admits that religion is irrational, “isn’t terribly reasonable”, and that “most religious beliefs are not true.” (But which ones are true Dr. Asma?) In the end, though, none of that matters, for to Asma the emotional benefits of religion outweigh both the downsides of faith, which are many, as well as the probability that the empirical claims of religion, particularly that of the afterlife, are palpably false.

The claim that religion is good for people regardless of its truth isn’t a new argument, of course, and I wonder why the Times even published it. Asma gussies it up with some neuroscience, saying that our “reptilian brain” was built not for rationality, but for emotionality, and that “emotions offer quicker ways to solve problems than deliberate cognition”. (Really? Has he asked a Catholic priest how we should treat gays, women, divorced people, and those who use condoms?)

But I am getting ahead of myself. Asma isn’t offering any new arguments, but touting his brand-new book, Why We Need Religion. Given the plethora of goddies who inhabit our Republic, I’m guessing he’s hoping for a best-seller. After all, when you tell people what they want to hear, you sell more books, particularly when you tell them it’s okay to be religious and especially when you tell them there’s an afterlife. (It’s not clear whether Asma thinks there is one.)

At any rate, several readers called this article to my attention, fully expecting I’d go after it. And I will. But read it yourself by clicking on the screenshot below. Also, recall that I’ve written about Asma before—back in 2013 when he wrote an equally dire piece dissing science and claiming that there’s no way to demarcate it from pseudoscience. He also went after evolution, saying that Darwin’s theory wasn’t “solid science” because it couldn’t be falsified. You can read my critique of that at the link.

Asma begins by giving one of those “dying grandmother” case studies in which someone’s religious belief soothes them in light of a tragedy. The tale came from one of Asma’s undergraduate students:

Five years ago, he explained, his older teenage brother had been brutally stabbed to death, viciously attacked and mutilated by a perpetrator who was never caught. My student, his mother and his sister were shattered. His mother suffered a mental breakdown soon afterward and would have been institutionalized if not for the fact that she expected to see her slain son again, to be reunited with him in the afterlife where she was certain his body would be made whole. These bolstering beliefs, along with the church rituals she engaged in after her son’s murder, dragged her back from the brink of debilitating sorrow, and gave her the strength to continue raising her other two children — my student and his sister.

. . . No amount of scientific explanation or sociopolitical theorizing is going to console the mother of the stabbed boy. Bill Nye the Science Guy and Neil deGrasse Tyson will not be much help, should they decide to drop over and explain the physiology of suffering and the sociology of crime. But the magical thinking that she is going to see her murdered son again, along with the hugs from and songs with fellow parishioners, can sustain her. If this emotionally grounded hope gives her the energy and vitality to continue caring for her other children, it can do the same for others. And we can see why religion persists.

(Note the gratuitous science-dissing here. As if someone like Tyson would try to console a grieving mother by explaining science!)

Yes, of course we all know some reasons why religion persists, and not the least among them is brainwashing of kids. The question is whether it should persist—whether there’s a non-magical alternative that doesn’t come with religion’s harms. To many of us, there is: the alternative of secular humanism. The only downside to secular humanism is that it doesn’t give people false hopes that could console them. On the other hand, it helps us enjoy the one life we do have, and not waste our time going to church and pondering a nonexistent postmortem future.

And yes, religion also persists because it offers false hopes to those who have no other source of support, and, in the case of seeing one’s kid in the afterlife, those hopes can’t be dashed: the mother will never learn she’s wrong.

You’re saying, “But still, those hopes ARE false. We can’t base our lives on falsehoods!” I agree but Asma doesn’t. He says that it doesn’t matter if religious beliefs are false so long as they’re helpful. 

Those of us in the secular world who critique such emotional responses and strategies with the refrain, “But is it true?” are missing the point. Most religious beliefs are not true. But here’s the crux. The emotional brain doesn’t care. It doesn’t operate on the grounds of true and false. Emotions are not true or false. Even a terrible fear inside a dream is still a terrible fear. This means that the criteria for measuring a healthy theory are not the criteria for measuring a healthy emotion. Unlike a healthy theory, which must correspond with empirical facts, a healthy emotion is one that contributes to neurochemical homeostasis or other affective states that promote biological flourishing.

Note that here Asma lumps himself with “the secular world”, implying he’s an atheist too. In that case, he’s making the Little People Argument: “I don’t buy religion, but it’s good for the Little Folk.” And, in fact, you cannot fully embrace a religion, or reap its supposed consolations, if you don’t believe it’s true—really believe it’s true. If you don’t buy the Jesus story of Christianity, then you’re not going to be consoled about meeting your son in Heaven. Asma doesn’t take up this issue: if religion is irrational, and impossible to believe for many, then such people can never force themselves to believe, no matter how much they’d be consoled if they did.

Further, if religion is good because it provides this consolation, then what about those religions, like Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, in which you don’t get to meet your relatives and friends in the hereafter? Are those religions also good because they have other benefits?

Asma would say “yes,” because he does see other benefits of religion, including the rituals that bring consolation, and the idea that “religious practice is a form of social interaction that can improve psychological health.”

Never does he mention that countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and France—countries in which people who really believe in Heaven and other such nonsense are in the minority—manage to sustain themselves quite well, with people finding meaning in nonreligious activities and philosophies. And those countries, as we well know, tend to be better off than religious countries in most ways, including having a populace with greater material and psychological well being, and, importantly, being happier.  If religion brings us so much consolation and happiness, and so much emotional well being, how come studies repeatedly show that a populace’s perception of their well being, and their assessment of their own happiness, are negatively correlated with the religiosity of their country? Why are the countries with the happiest and most secure people the most atheistic, while those with the least secure and unhappiest populations are the most religious? Why does religiosity go up after indices of social success go down? Shouldn’t it be the opposite, Dr. Asma?

Here’s what will happen. In the West, at least, scientific advances will continue to erode religion, despite what Asma says. Evolution, for instance, was one of the biggest faith-killers that ever came down the pike. As the evidence for God doesn’t get any stronger, but rationality and science continue to dispel things seen as mystical, like libertarian free will, the world will become more secular, regardless of what Asma thinks. That’s accelerated by the kind of material and moral progress outlined by Steve Pinker in his last two books—progress that reduces the need for religion as a psychological palliative. Asma argues that religion really doesn’t serve as Marx’s “opium of the people,” but the data say he’s wrong. (His article is woefully short of data and very long on unsubstantiated beliefs. But of course he’s a philosopher.)

And yes, there will remain a residuum of people who can’t survive without superstition. But much of the West will discover, as much of Europe already has, that we simply don’t need religion as an emotional crutch. Asma is not nearly as good a prognosticator as he is a canny speculator about what the American populace wants to hear.

Finally, as he did in the piece I criticized five years ago, Asma throws in some gratuitous science-dissing, connecting atheism with science and using that connection to impugn science. The man really doesn’t like science very much, except the kind of neuroscience that, he says, buttresses our supposedly strong need for religious belief:

Atheists like Richard Dawkins, E. O. Wilson and Sam Harris, are evaluating religion at the neocortical level — their criteria for assessing it is the rational scientific method. I agree with them that religion fails miserably at the bar of rational validity, but we’re at the wrong bar. The older reptilian brain, built by natural selection for solving survival challenges, was not built for rationality. Emotions like fear, love, rage — even hope or anticipation — were selected for because they helped early mammals flourish. In many cases, emotions offer quicker ways to solve problems than deliberative cognition.

As Reagan said, “Here we go again.” Most “problem solving” is not emotional, but either hard-wired (I pull my hand out of the fire when I feel pain, I run when I see a tiger) or rational. When Asma says that emotions offer quicker ways to solve problems, he gives no examples, nor considers whether maybe emotions may be worse ways to solve problems.

I could go on, but I have ducks to feed: a much more important task than going after this misguided religion-osculator. I’ll simply add by repeating what I said in 2013:

Asam’s piece was brought to my attention by a friend who added, “The NY Times will publish anything by a philosopher who sneers at science.”


h/t: Michael, George

Eleven year old college student wants to prove “scientifically” that God exists

April 27, 2018 • 12:00 pm

Reader Vera called my attention to this video of a great mind gone bad. Here is an eleven-year old student at a community college who was hosted for this video at Hellenic College Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology (HCHC), an Orthodox Christian liberal arts college and seminary in BrooklineMassachusetts.

“There is nothing unusual about seeing college students and children on our campus, but HCHC recently hosted a most unusual visitor who is both a college student and a child. Eleven-year-old William (Vasilios) Maillis is one of the youngest people ever to graduate from a public high school–at the ripe old age of nine–and will soon have his associate’s degree from St. Petersburg College in Florida. His long-term goal is to earn a doctorate in astrophysics and ultimately prove scientifically that God exists.
“On February 22, the HCHC community had the opportunity to hear William and his father, Fr. Peter (Panteleimon) Maillis, a graduate of both Hellenic College and Holy Cross, converse with Fr. Christopher Metropulos, HCHC President, onstage at the Maliotis Cultural Center. The conversation was the latest in a series of Presidential Encounters themed “Answering the Call” in which, Fr. Christopher explains, “We invite Orthodox Christians who are doing extraordinary things in their lives to share their experiences with us.”

h/t: Vera

Where did C. J. W*rl*m*n’s Wikipedia page go?

April 2, 2018 • 10:15 am

UPDATE: Thanks to reader CoffeeTime in the first comment, we learn that the Wikipedia page was trashed in 2016 because its subject wasn’t “notable”: his books weren’t given any attention and made little impact. So I was wrong in my speculation below. However, it must be nearly as bad to be deleted because you’re “not important” than because you were a plagiarist.


I can’t say the guy’s full name because I’ll owe readers money if I do, so just fill in the asterisks with two “e”s and then an “a”, successively. Or see this link. The man in question was once a writer for Alternet and Salon, an atheist (which he remains, I believe), and a critic of Islamic doctrine. Then he went off the rails, going after New Atheists in an unhinged book and being accused, with justification, of serial plagiarism (see here, here, here, and here). Alternet removed his pieces, though Salon (to its discredit) left them up, and the man was thoroughly trounced and disgraced. He didn’t even apologize, but fobbed off a lot of his plagiarism on “bad editing”, mistaken failure to use quotation marks, and even by making false counter-accusations that Sam Harris plagiarized too!

But the man found a new career, writing for The Middle East Eye*begging for support on Patreon, and engaging in a protracted campaign of defending Islam, demonizing Israel, and blaming all the trouble in the Middle East on America. Only Glenn Greenwald comes close to W*rl*em*n’s vehement Islamic apologetics issued by a non-Muslim.

Let me finish briefly; W*rl*em*n once had a Wikipedia page, which was here. It is now gone. Why? The only two reasons I can think of is that he’s no longer important, which doesn’t ring true, or that somehow it was removed because it called public attention to his plagiarism. But other journalists who have been disgraced for plagiarism, like New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer, still have their Wikipedia bios online, along with sections on their literary thefts.  Perhaps a reader can find out why this dude’s Wikipedia page somehow disappeared. I’m quite curious.


*He cannot be forgiven for writing this piece.

Confirmation bias writ large: C. J. W*rl*m*n argues that the slaughter at the Sufi mosque wasn’t religious but political

November 26, 2017 • 9:00 am

I’m not able to print the full name of the man who wrote what’s below on Twitter (if I do I’ll have to pay someone), but the name does appear in some of the tweets. The Person In Question has undergone a sea change from being a diehard atheist to an inveterate denier that religion—especially Islam—can ever do anything bad. (He also left mainstream journalism after being found guilty of multiple instances of plagiarism.) This, of course, is the position of the Regressive Left.

The religion-can-do-no-wrong stand, however, becomes problematic when considering the recent Islamist terrorist attack on the Sufi mosque in the Sinai peninsula, where the death toll has now climbed to at least 305, including 27 children. Given that Sufis are considered heretical Muslims, and have long been the victims of persecution by other Muslims, wouldn’t it be likely that this attack was motivated by religious differences?

Not according to the Man Who Shall Not Be Named. (Note: don’t watch the video if you don’t like the sight of blood or dead bodies.)

Someone asked him about the non-religious basis of terrorism:

And here is the man’s response.

Now I’m not sure what he means but “weaponizing”, or who the “political entrepeneurs” are, and it’s not true that Sufis, as he implies, are Shiites (some are, but most consider themselves from an offshoot of Sunni Islam).  What I don’t understand is why politics, often infused with ideology, can be responsible for mass killings, yet somehow religion (also a form of ideology) is immune. A priori there would seem to be no difference: in fact, people often consider their identities to be based more on religious than political beliefs. So there’s no reason to draw a distinction from the outset between politics and religion.

But the real evidence against the man’s thesis is empirical. Historically, religions have undoubtedly played a role, often a substantial one, in warfare and killing. In Europe, many died because they were the wrong kind of Christian. And what we see here is similar: many Sufis died because they were the wrong kind of Muslim. Muslim terrorists kill more Muslims than they do Westerners: is that the result of “political mobilization”? Some might be instigated by Western interference, but not incidents like this mosque, or the killing of apostates and gays, not to mention the oppression of women.

Finally, we have ISIS’s explicit announcement, in their own magazine Dabiq (see the article “Why we hate you and why we fight you“), that the main reasons this group kills non-Muslims involve Western rejection of Islam and of the hegemony of Allah, their mockery of Islam, and their secularism. Here’s reason #1 out of six (the first four four all involve rejecting Islam and Allah):

We hate you, first and foremost, because you are disbelievers; you reject the oneness of Allah – whether you realize it or not – by making partners for Him in worship, you blaspheme against Him, claiming that He has a son, you fabricate lies against His prophets and messengers, and you indulge in all manner of devilish practices. It is for this reason that we were commanded to openly declare our hatred for you and our enmity towards you. “There has already been for you an excellent example in Abraham and those with him, when they said to their people, ‘Indeed, we are disassociated from you and from whatever you worship other than Allah. We have rejected you, and there has arisen, between us and you, enmity and hatred forever until you believe in Allah alone’” (Al-Mumtahanah 4). Furthermore, just as your disbelief is the primary reason we hate you, your disbelief is the primary reason we fight you, as we have been commanded to fight the disbelievers until they submit to the authority of Islam, either by becoming Muslims, or by paying jizyah – for those afforded this option – and living in humiliation under the rule of the Muslims. Thus, even if you were to stop fighting us, your best-case scenario in a state of war would be that we would suspend our attacks against you – if we deemed it necessary – in order to focus on the closer and more immediate threats, before eventually resuming our campaigns against you. Apart from the option of a temporary truce, this is the only likely scenario that would bring you fleeting respite from our attacks. So in the end, you cannot bring an indefinite halt to our war against you. At most, you could only delay it temporarily. “And fight them until there is no fitnah [paganism] and [until] the religion, all of it, is for Allah” (Al-Baqarah 193).

Is ISIS lying here, covering up explicitly political motivations (#5 and #6) in favor of religious ones? Why would they do that?

Now it’s not yet clear whether ISIS was responsible for this horrific attack on Sufis (reports claim that the attackers were carrying ISIS flags), but ISIS is a major cause of terrorism, and they’ve stated their reasons explicitly. On what grounds does W*rl*m*n claim that ISIS is lying and that he alone knows the real reasons for their terrorism?

Well, we know why: he is lying for his cause. I won’t speculate on the psychological reasons for his transition from denigrating religion to being an avid defender of Islam. What’s clear is that because his thesis cannot be disproven by any evidence, it need not be taken seriously.  I would ask him this: What evidence would it take to convince you that religion played a substantial role in terrorist attacks? 

Does the nature of the Universe show that there’s no God?

November 4, 2017 • 12:15 pm

That, at least, is the contention of Emily Thomas, an assistant professor of philosophy at Durham University, in an essay at RealClear Science (“Does the size of the universe prove God doesn’t exist?“) This point has been made by many people before, including, as I recall, Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins: the Universe is unbelievably large and all those extra galaxies and planets would seem to be superfluous if God’s real concern was Earth. After all, the Bible refers to this planet, not others, and so what’s going on with all those other planets, even if they do harbor life?

The good bits in Thomas’s essay are simply the facts she gives (these are quotes from her piece):

  • Scientists estimate that the observable universe, the part of it we can see, is around 93 billion light years across. The whole universe is at least 250 times as large as the observable universe.
  • Our own planet is 150m kilometres away from the sun. Earth’s nearest stars, the Alpha Centauri system, are four light years away (that’s around 40 trillion kilometres). Our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains anywhere from 100 to 400 billion stars. The observable universe contains around 300 sextillion stars. 

The last fact is for just the observable universe. 300 sextillion is 300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars, and multiply that by at least 250 (or more, if the 250 is a linear dimension and not volume). That’s HUGE–even bigger than William Howard Taft! Thomas quotes Douglas Adams here as saying the Universe is “big really, really big”, but as I’m reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I’ll give the full and accurate quote:

Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.

The Universe is also old: about 13.7 billion years. Why did God wait so long to create Earth, and then wait another 4.5 billion years—until about 4000 years ago—to reveal himself to us?

As Thomas notes, this evidence—the size and age of the Universe—does not comport with a God who’s deeply concerned with what happens on Earth: the superfluity of stars and of time does not comport. As Thomas argues:

Over the last few decades, a new way of arguing for atheism has emerged. Philosophers of religion such as Michael Martin and Nicholas Everitt have asked us to consider the kind of universe we would expect the Christian God to have created, and compare it with the universe we actually live in. They argue there is a mismatch. Everitt focuses on how big the universe is, and argues this gives us reason to believe the God of classical Christianity doesn’t exist.

To explain why, we need a little theology. Traditionally, the Christian God is held to be deeply concerned with human beings. Genesis (1:27) states: “God created mankind in his own image.” Psalms (8:1-5) says: “O Lord … What is man that You take thought of him … Yet You have made him a little lower than God, And You crown him with glory and majesty!” And, of course, John (3:16) explains God gave humans his son out of love for us.

These texts show that God is human-oriented: human beings are like God, and he values us highly. Although we’re focusing on Christianity, these claims can be found in other monotheistic religions, too.

. . . Clearly, there is a discrepancy between the kind of universe we would expect a human-oriented God to create, and the universe we live in. How can we explain it? Surely the simplest explanation is that God doesn’t exist. The spatial and temporal size of the universe gives us reason to be atheists.

As Everitt puts it:

The findings of modern science significantly reduce the probability that theism is true, because the universe is turning out to be very unlike the sort of universe which we would have expected, had theism been true.

She then suggests several ways that theologians could answer this argument, including the possibility that we don’t understand God’s plan, or that God simply values natural causation and lovely stars. But these seem like post facto rationalizations (which they are), and so she concludes that this is all evidence against God:

The problem with these rival explanations is that, as they stand, they are unsatisfying. They hint at reasons why God might create tiny humans in a gargantuan place but are a million miles away from fully explaining why. The weight of galaxies, and the press of years, seem to sweep us towards atheism.

Well, this is all fine and good, but is somewhat unsatisfying on three counts. First of all, it’s not a new argument, though of course hardly any arguments against God are new.

Second, theologians have other answers to the Argument from Douglas Adams not mentioned by Thomas. Michael Ruse—an atheist who specializes in helping Christians keep their faith by telling them how to harmonize science and Jesus—has suggested that Jesus traveled from planet to planet throughout the Universe, saving aliens everywhere (I am not making this up). But of course the Bible is Earth-centered. So theologians would have to claim that each planet has its own Jesus, and that God is saving different life forms in different ways—if those forms are “made in God’s image” and have souls to be saved. (In that case, what does “made in God’s image” really mean?)

Finally, there are many other reasons beyond the size and age of the Universe that already tell us that the probability of God’s existence is unlikely. And some of these arguments, like the existence of physical evils and the death of innocents and animals from horrible diseases, simply do not comport with an omnipotent and loving God—a God also described in the Bible. There’s the fact that God doesn’t show himself to us in convincing ways, and yet could if he wanted to. Why is he a deus absconditius? There are evolutionary arguments, too: if evolution is God’s way of creating humans, why all the wastage—the terrible suffering due to natural selection, and the 99% or more of species that have gone extinct without leaving descendants? Why the superfluity of species, much less stars?

Theologians have answers for these, too, for there is nothing that a clever, committed and well-paid theologian like Alvin Plantinga cannot rationalize as comporting with God’s existence. (If you can  accept the Holocaust and God at the same time, there’s nothing that can dispel your faith.) But that, too, is an argument against accepting God: if his/her/hir/its existence cannot be disproven by anything, then we need not take God seriously.

I’m not overly impressed by arguments like the superfluity of stars as evidence against a God, though it does count for something. And I’m pleased that RealClear Science is giving arguments for atheism. But Thomas writes as if scientists and philosophers like her have just discovered this argument in “the last few decades”. In fact, we’ve known for much longer that this is not the kind of universe that argues for existence of a god, and we’ve known it from several other considerations. Unwarranted suffering alone is, to me, the strongest argument against the Biblical god, for theodicy is the Achilles heel of theology.

Readers might amuse themselves by thinking up other reasons why the sheer size and age of the Universe alone do not militate against God’s existence. If you can walk like an Egyptian, you can think like a theologian.

Two pairs of tweets about the NYC murders

November 1, 2017 • 10:45 am

The odor of apologetics is strong today. . .

My friend Dr. Orli Peter, a psychologist, analyzed Sarsour’s tweet in a FB post:

Notice how Sarsour invents the “criminalization” of Allahu Akbar so she can foment outrage and divisiveness. This is a common tactic among narcissists — to fan unrest, enflame the crowd with outrage, and take advantage of the ensuing divisions. Watch narcissistic community leaders and religious leaders do the same thing.


. . . and the ever-reliable apologist Nathan Lean, the director of research for the Pluralism, Diversity and Islamophobia project at Georgetown University’s for Muslim-Christian Understanding.


h/t: Orli

Sunday school: A rabbi explains the spiritual lessons we should learn from hurricanes

September 10, 2017 • 9:00 am

Why do bad hurricanes happen to good people?” is the title of a PuffHo article by Rabbi Pinchas Allouche of Congregation Beth Tefillah in Scottsdale, Arizona. And indeed, one may well ask why a loving and omnipotent God would allow innocent people to die. More than that—if he’s omnipotent, then he’s actually killing them by not intervening. The “evil as byproduct of free will” argument won’t work for physical “evils’ like earthquakes and hurricanes, for the damage is not done by other humans exercising their so-called will, but by blind physical forces or microbes without free will.

The suffering or killing of innocent humans by disease or natural disasters is the Achilles heel of theology, for there is no explanation that either punts and says “we just don’t know” or confects a convoluted scenario that is risible for everyone but religionists.

Rabbi Allouche appears to choose the first alternative, quoting another rabbi:

Rabbi Yekutiel Halbershtam, of blessed memory (1905-1994), who lost his wife and all eleven of their children in the Holocaust, was asked a similar question. His response was moving:

“I too have many, many questions for G-d,” he once revealed to his students. “And I know that G-d would be glad to invite me to the heavens and give me the answers to all of the questions I have. But I prefer to stay here on earth with my questions, then to die, and go up to the heavens, to receive the answers.”

Indeed, tragedies are, almost always, inexplicable, in the realms of human understanding. Sometimes, G-d is super-rational. And, sometimes, our finite minds will never be able to comprehend the ferocious disasters conducted by the infinite Creator of the heaven and the earth.

Well, if you can’t answer that question (and the Holocaust is as good an example as any), then how do you know that “G-d” exists at all? Or that G-d is benevolent rather than malevolent?

And since when did Jews believe in Heaven anyway? It’s not mentioned in the Old Testament, though with judicious scrutiny and arduous mental labor you can barely scrape the concept out of the Talmud. But never mind. The existence of the Holocaust should turn any rational Jew into an atheist.

Instead of pondering these unanswerable questions, rabbi Allouche chooses to draw some “spiritual lessons” from hurricanes and their attendant tragedies.

Therefore, it would behoove us to replace the unanswerable question of “why” with the challenging questions of “how should we respond” and “what can we learn from this.”

These questions are diametrically opposed. Asking “why” to a question that cannot be grasped, leads to passivity and despair (even if some fools claim to know the answers to these impossible questions). Yet, asking, “how should we respond” and “what can we learn from this” propels us to take positive action, and provide direction to a world that seems to have lost it.

So what are the lessons that “provide direction to the world”? There are two:

1).Where there is destruction, we must respond with construction.” In other words, help shelter strangers, send medical supplies to the affected areas, and tender other diverse means of help.

 2) “Live a life that matters.” Here’s the good rabbi’s advice:

For when death rears its ugly head, and we are struck with the realization that life – with all of its material pursuits and possessions – is so vulnerable, we are then forced to ask ourselves:

“Am I living a life that matters, or am I wasting it on temporary activities and pleasures? Am I making the important – important, and the trivial – trivial? Am I devoting adequate time and effort to that which will live on forever: my soul, my family, and my values? And have I made a difference yet today in this world, and in someone’s life, with acts of unconditional love and kindness to my loved ones and strangers alike?”

 Except for the “soul” part, this is the same lessons that many secularists can and do draw from physical tragedy: help other people who are afflicted and, realizing your life is ephemeral, make every day count. As James Taylor (not a rabbi) wrote, “Shower the people you love with love.”)

It’s telling that a rabbi, faced with the hardest questions of theodicy, retreats into pure secularism. You don’t need any god to support those answers, and you don’t need any rabbi to give them.