Monday, January 22, 2007

The Problem of Suffering

The question of why bad things happen to good people undoubtedly dates back to the mists of pre-history, when our ancestors first developed the ability to pose the question, “Why?” The tendency has been to answer the inexplicable with “God.”

It’s a serious question, and it deserves serious thought. What does the existence of suffering say about God?

Dagon linked to a piece from October 2005 by Sam Harris, entitled, “There Is No God (And You Know It).” Harris opens by presenting a likely scenario: A little girl is abducted, raped, tortured and killed, and while this is happening, her parents are innocently maintaining belief in a loving God who is watching out for them.

The argument here is that if God truly were omnipotent, omniscient and caring, He would never let atrocities and tragedies occur. As they do occur with regularity, either God is a hypocrite or, more likely, He simply does not exist. “If God exists, either He can do nothing to stop the most egregious calamities, or He does not care to. God, therefore, is either impotent or evil.”

My first reaction to this essay was disdainful anger. Harris mocks people of faith with dripping condescension: “Atheism is not a philosophy; it is simply a refusal to deny the obvious.” Or, “atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make when in the presence of religious dogma.”

Harris assumes that people of all religions have the same fundamental beliefs about the nature of God and His role in the world (which is as sophisticated as assuming all Americans support George W. Bush), and because he thinks of faith as willing surrender of analytical thinking skills in favor of uncritical acceptance of a highly illogical belief system that demands adherence even in the face of reason and science, he doesn’t stop to consider that many people of faith have wrestled with this very question and come to conclusions far from the one he claims we all share.

The response to accusations like this is necessarily complex. It involves thoughts about free will and conscience, mortality, and though the phrase may sound strange, the benefits of suffering. The answer to “Where is God in the midst of all this tragedy?” can be found in the results of a Washington Post poll that Harris himself links to: 80% of Hurricane Katrina survivors responded that the experience strengthened their faith, a phenomenon we also saw with the 2004 Tsunami. Harris sees this as evidence of the utter idiocy of religious people, when the ironic truth is that far from proving that suffering indicates the absence of God, it is during our darkest hours that God is most present.


Jarred said...

Interesting topic, Andy. Do you plan on posting your own thoughts on the question of suffering at some point?

Andy said...

I think it would take a book, and I don't think even a book would satisfy the (reasonable) objections that some people have, that if God is truly benevolent, we wouldn't suffer as we do.

But yes, I do have some ideas on this front and maybe I can elaborate on them at some point down the line.

Actually, even though the book in total was uneven, I thought the chapter on suffering in Lee Strobel's The Case for Faith that I reviewed in early December was interesting and persuasive on a lot of these arguments.

Part of the problem with answering objections like this is that unfortunately there are people who hold a views on suffering that are as damaging and deluded as Harris says. But those views are far from universal, and rather than dismissing all religious people as willfully deluded morons, Harris might have at least inquired of some respected mainline theologians.

Jarred said...

Now that you mention it, I do recall you writing a review on Strobel's chapter about suffering. Thanks for jogging my memory.

I agree that Harris is making blanket statements and vastly oversimplifying things. Sadly, that seems to be a widespread practice when individuals are discussing viewpoints in opposition to their own. I will say, however, that getting into the question of suffering with people of faith is an excellent way to get an idea of just how much they've examined their faith.

Anonymous said...

False hope to those who are suffering, only makes a situation worse.

It's normal to question claims (praying or worshiping a deity will solve or stop a bad situation) that give no real results.

Maybe it's the fault of believers who claim to the sufferer, that seeking divine help will stop the bad, from happening.

If one can find inner peace peace from praying to an invisible deity, fine. But to rest your hopes on that diety stopping the kidnapper from killing your daughter (just an example), is unrealistic.

I would find more confidence in the police finding my kidnapped daughter before the kidnapper kills her.

Believers claim that their diety can do many things, and solve many problems. Creating unrealistic expectations will only cause more question, critics, and lose potential believers.

For thousands of years, billions of people have been believers, yet, is the world a better place? Is the world a less violent, more compassionate place because of all these believers? Are these same believers also the cause of suffering in the world?

Jarred said...

Is the world a less violent, more compassionate place because of all these believers?

In some cases, yes. My own family was greatly comforted by fellow believers after the tragic death of an aunt and uncle. The compassion shown was incredible.

Are these same believers also the cause of suffering in the world?

Again, in some cases, yes. But only in some cases. You're attempting to create an unrealistic "all or nothing argument."

Andy said...

That kind of thinking is not in line with mainstream Christian ideas about God's role in our world, however. God is not a genie who intervenes in our affairs at our request; rather than us telling God what we think He should do through prayer, through prayer God reveals his intentions for us. In the case of the hypothetical little girl, God would attempt to act through appeal to the conscience of the kidnapper. This is the relation of free will to suffering: when bad things happen, a lot of people do just say, "It must have been God's will." Not at all! A lot of what happens on earth is absolutely contrary to God's will. The kidnapper knows he is doing harm, but does it anyway.

Is the world a better place for having had religion? Maybe, maybe not. But I don't think you can make any kind of authoritative claim that a religion-free planet would have been better off.

Jarred said...

Okay, I just went and read Sam Harris's piece, and am astounded by the degree of his smugness and condescension. Also, being the person that I am, I hope you can forgive me for commenting on one particular statement:

"As Richard Dawkins has observed, we are all atheists with respect to Zeus and Thor."

To put it bluntly, Dawkins is wrong.

Andy said...

That's right, I'd forgotten about that!

People like Dawkins and Smith tend to think that the principle reason people believe in God is because we have a need to explain what remains unexplainable about our origins -- which is largely what Greek and Norse mythology were about, e.g. thunder was either Loki's hammer or Zeus being angry, etc. And it is true that I myself attribute the unexplainable to God, but not because there is no alternative possibility. I believe in God because my personal experiences give me reason to.

Jarred said...

Of course, part of the problem with Dawkin's and Smith's position is that it doesn't look more closely or more deeply of various culture's mythologies. While there certainly is that element of "explaining the unexplained" in the myths, there's much deeper meaning as well. For example, Thor's hammer (Loki only steals it on occasion ;)) does not merely cause thunder. It is the weapon of defense against those etins that would destroy both gods and men alike. This aspect of the relationship between gods, men, and etin-kind combines with other aspects (such as the gods' own tendencies to intermarry with other etins) to portray some rather profound spiritual (and arguably even physical) truths. Indeed, scholars such as Joseph Campbell have spent great amounts of time studying the rich symbolism iherent in various myths throughout the world.

kr said...

False hope to those who are suffering, only makes a situation worse.

sigh ... with the phrase "false hope" you have already entirely dismissed so many possibilities

which is neither here nor there to the bulk of the discussion

In my understanding, God does sometimes just say "no" ... but yes, usually, for whatever reason, conscience and free will receive priority, and if litereatuer and tradition are any indicator direct intervention is decreasing

wouldn't it be nice to think this is because we as a species have progressed far enough that more often we can be spoken to that way (conscience) and be responsible for our own affairs?

(of course, then we should all be afraid how bad we used to must have been!) (gah! the grammar horror!)

this touches a little on a question another Andy-reader asked of me offline, which I haven't written my complete response to: more or less, whether traditional male/female roles aren't logicaly fundamentally tied in with evolution?

yes and no

logically, once any biological population hits a certain population density/resource scarcity, aggressive high-breeders probably win out and those survival patterns are inbred/taught

I note that many religions have progressively encouraged different answers than the easiest biological ones (we can see, at our current level of technology, the aggressive answers will lead to species-, and maybe planet-, death)

so religion, whether it is based in a real God or is merely an abstraction humans use to separate ourselves from biology enough to try to answer survival questions another way, is probably useful overall

and the most evolution/biology-related religions (with violent "solutions") seem to die out, over the long term (because people can, _overall_, see their answers are untenable, and offer nothing much)

just some thoughts

kr said...


it's my understanding that the Norse theologies have an especially strong following in the prisons

this is apparently because the overall theological outlook (as I have heard it presented, which meshes with the little reading I have done realte to Norse mythology) matches long-term incarceration better than Christianity: life sucks and then you die, but that is no reason to live without honor ...

I roomed with a pagan (a Wiccan, she worshipped the Goddess in Her aspect of the Moon) for a couple of terms in college

also irritated a coven on campus such that they hexed me (unpleasant)

so whether (a) diety(s) exist(s) or not, spirituality is alive and well, and has something to contribute

if merely because admitting reality is the first step to living in the truth

Gary said...

From this article, " the ultimate reason that suffering exists in the universe is so that Christ might display the greatness of the glory of the grace of God by suffering in himself(on the cross) to overcome our suffering. The suffering of the utterly innocent and infinitely holy Son of God in the place of utterly undeserving sinners to bring us to everlasting joy is the greatest display of the glory of God’s grace that ever was, or ever could be."

I think it could be argued that suffering is ordained in believers lives so that in and through [the suffering] God's grace will be magnified.

Anonymous said...

Good or bad should not be explained as having been done in the name of a deity, or by a deity.

Islamic terrorist claim to kill for the glory of Allah.

Did a diety make Katrina hit the Gulf states? NO.

When a big storm just misses populated areas, why do believers thank God? Did God make the storm miss the people? No.

Religion has done more good than bad over the centuries, but the pro/con list is more even than people like to admit.

I just don't understand why people would praise a diety for good things, or blame a diety for bad things.

If there is a diety, I doubt that it is responsible for an individuals good or bad fortune in their lives.

If the diety were to grant peoples prayers, the world would truely be a better place.

kr said...

again, I suggest that Diety may be the way humans personify or otherwise quantify a set of truths we experience (or a set of truths we need to create for the survivial of the species, but that suggests WAYYYY more about the necessary interconnectedness of our personal energies than even I want to think about, and I am increasingly convinced of the breadth of our energetic connectedness to each other and the universe in general)

I totally admit that atheists or agnostics might be right

but God meshes with my experience very tightly

and I, and lots of other people (particularly common amongst Evangelicals in our culture) have seen specific physical changes in response to specific prayers--it does still happen

(again, I admit an atheist answer: possible we are tied in to the physical quantum world enough to shift physical reality ourselves, and God is just the way we conceptualize/explain that, to maintain some faith in our so-comforting Newtonian physics ; ). If that is true, a bunch of people who read this blog should be Very Worried that Evangelicals have more actual control of the world than you Ever Suspected Possible, and the talking heads aren't the ones you actually need to worry about ... mwah ha ha ha ...) (sorry--insomniac sleep depriviation makes me a little punch-drunk ; ) )

although, even some sci-fi (and a whole lot of fantasy) I have read is based on the premise that the Scots-Irish are as a people more psychically active than most folks ... and their American decendents (I read recently) are the backbone of Evangelicalism. (Also the culture-group probably most likely to declare "FUCK YOU" if you try to impose your reality on them.) So, whatever. (I am like 1/16 Virginia Irish, which would only count under Louisiana's old "you're-black-until-1/64th" laws--perhaps it combined with my 1/32 Romany to make me the spiritually(/psi?)-aware, anti-establishment, we-are-all-one-family social freak that I am. Gypsy and Celt are both supposed to be "strong blood' ; ). ) Irish (tho not Scots) and Gypsy also of course famously wrap into Catholicism pretty easily (which explains me). Yep ... all-y'all should be mighty afraid, I'm thinkin' ; ).

One of my personal "Benevolent God must still be active in the world, just people don't see it that way" evidences (easily might only be convincing to me) is how few people DO die horrible deaths every day, despite our collective and individual messed-up-ness--this occured to me many years ago when I yet again wasn't in some horrible car accident on the freeway (or maybe it was when I drove too tired and depsite that law of physics that claims two objects cannot occupy the same space mysteriously did not impact that corner of that parked car ... ).

But the deaths thing applies more broadly: how ridiculously few people died in 9-11, really (and how many of those were because the people who ran the buildings, at least some of whom an increasing number of Americans believe were actually involved in designing the collapses, told people "the safest thing to do is stay in your office" and "no, no, go back up, don't worry, you can get back to work (just ignore those secondary explosions you hear)")? Mt St Helens in 1980 only killed 60 people. Here in the NW, we get windstorms that fell huge residual forest-trees in developments full of tightly packed family houses ('no comment' on development, or on global warming ; P ) ... I think someone was killed this month, but I cannot remember the last time before that that a tree-fall death occured around here--well, OK, no, there are sometimes a few deaths where people drive their cars at 60 into newly-felled trees on a curvy highway ... but the trees generally don't land on people. (My Wiccan friend might suggest this is because trees have more respect for life than we do ... which is probably true ; ). )

More often the stories resemble one of my favorite college stories, where a full-size pine fell across a picnic table where six of the college staff were eating lunch one summer day ... and the worst any of them had were scratches. Well, and trauma ... it took several minutes to pry the one-bite-from-it sandwich from the frozen-stiff fingers of one wide-eyed woman, apparently. (The college, for some reason, soon took on a massive tree-health-checkup ... .)

Of course, God having a sense of humor doesn't explain the tree falling on a balmy summer day on the picnic table rather than ten feet away. Well, it doesn't mesh with the sense of humor I've seen.

Perhaps those people needed to be reminded to enjoy Life ; ).

And now that I have descended to complete silliness, I will try to go back to sleep, because my daughter has school tomorrow and I have chosen to submit to the ridiculous evil of the schedule standardized schooling requires--at least this year. Until I follow the footsteps of my Appalachian and Gypsy brethren (and sistren) and Unschool my children, mwah ha ha haaaaaa ... ;) !!

Andy said...

Gary: *I* know what you mean by this, but that's a little advanced and alienating for nonbelievers who are addressing this question, I would think. If the proposition is, "Why would God allow a little girl to be raped, tortured and killed?" and your answer is, "So that God can be magnified," I think the response would likely be, "God is a sick fuck."

Jarred said...

KR: That's a very narrow understanding of Norse mythology and religion. I agree that seems to be the outlook of many who turn to that faith in the prison system, but there are others (myself included) who see things quite differently.

At any rate, I apologize to Andy for steering us down this rabbit trail. ;)

Gary said...


Yeah I know what you mean by that... =) When someone gets to frame a question like that they also get to frame the answer. I struggle with the whole suffering topic as well. However, I have would never call God's sovereignty in to question on this. I believe God is sovereign over the suffering in this world. I don't look at Katrina or tsunamis and think, "sheesh God, what the..." I tend to look at my own heart and wonder why he has hasn't killed me in my sleep. He would be perfectly right in doing so considering the sin in my heart. Which causes me to embrace what Jesus did in his ultimate suffering on the cross.

As far as your question, "why would God allow a girl to be..." I wouldn't answer that way at all.

kr said...

I'm sorry, wasn't meaning to demean or minimize the choice, merely to add another layer of why people are chosing it

and I certainly haven't done a serious depth of looking into the complexities of the Norse mythos (which is why I put in a few disclaimers and "apparently" and sounded hopefully generally less pedantic than I do when addressing Christianity ... )

I have known both good and bad pagans, both deep and shallow ones, pagans in it for the Holy and Pagans in it for the Power, just like Christians (see earlier juxtaposition of my friend the Wiccan with the women's power group that called themselves Wiccans ... )

I think addressing the diety/suffering question from a broader diety base was a reasonable addition--if minor (as yet, in modern times) religions find truth in a belief in the concept of diety, it weakens the Proud Atheist argument that Christians are merely sheepish idiots. And that Muslims are too stupid to think at all. (At least Catholics are generally accused of merely not thinking for ourselves ; ).)

Gary said...


since you mentioned Sam Harris and his evangelical fundamentalists atheism (I dont think you termed it that way), have you been keeping up with the debate between him and Andrew Sullivan?

very interesting stuff...

Andy said...

Honestly, I haven't been keeping up with anything lately. I wasn't kidding in my previous post when I said I had no idea what's going on in the world. I used to check in with Andrew Sullivan fairly regularly, but just haven't had time recently. Basically I open the NY Times website every morning just to make sure New York City is still there before I venture outside and that's all I have time for.

Jarred said...

KR: No apology necessary. You just happened to touch on a topic I'm naturally inclined to be passionate about. I probably let my passions get the better of me in this case. ;)

kr said...

Jarred: ; ). It'd be pretty ridiculous of me to object to someone defending a faith choice!

Will said...

I'm seeing a distinction here. Religious folks will accept suffering as a message or lesson, something to bring them closer to eternal truth. Non/less religious folks say, 'prayer doesn't work so what's the point.' I mean, prayer might work here and there, but it's not reliable. There's an essay I read online, 'why does god hate amputees' which laid it out thus: a religious, pious, basically sinless woman attempts to pray herself and a classroom full of students out of a serious situation (columbine style) and fails miserably. If prayer doesn't work for her, why should it work for anyone else?

Don't you think the thousands of Muslims cvilians who were killed by American bombs were also praying when the bombs fell on them? Surely devout Muslims, who live up to much higher spiritual standards than the majority of Christians in America, (praying five times a day, mandated charity, pilgrimage and all that) should have a better chance at praying away harm, right? Yet the Christians sit with full bellies in comfortable homes watching the bombs drop on TV.

Also, it's not just a problem of suffering, it's also a problem of injustice. Europeans who wiped out and enslaved indigenous people across the planet are now the most wealthy people in history. Why would a benevolent god allow that?

So let's say we are trying to solve the problems of the world. From my perspective, adding God into our solutions only needless complicates things. Prayer doesn't work reliably and there's no divine justice we can count on. The problems of suffering and injustice are material problems - therefore the best solutions are material solutions. Spirituality is not necessarily wrong. It is just irrelevant to the problem of pain.


Regarding how few people die each day... isn't that just a matter of perspective? Every year around 40,000 people die on the highways of the US. 30,000 or so each year in Iraq since the invasion. How many people die of painful cancers every year? How many are murdered? What about the fine folks in Colombia who have to deal with death squads chainsawing them and torturing them to death? From a middle class American perspective, God is good - but that's not universal.

Will (aka FG)

Andy said...

Will aka FG: You misunderstand the purpose of prayer, which is okay, because a lot of religious people do, too. God is not a genie whose principle function is wish-fulfillment.

The injustices you are talking about: let's say for argument's sake that there is no God. Then all of this injustice you're talking about, the ethnic Europeans who continue to live of the spoils of the indigenous peoples they conquered in centuries past, the Americans who live comfortably at home while inflicting senseless, purposeless violence on Iraqis, all of that is man's fault, right? Well, I'm here to tell you, it's still man's fault. Why doesn't God try to stop it? He does. He gave us a conscience. We are supposed to stop and ask, for example, whether the best response to an atrocity like 9/11 is further violence. When we make the wrong choices, that's OUR fault, not God's. In our present generation, He has placed unprecedented resources at our disposal to heal the planet, cure disease, eliminate poverty and starvation. We CAN do all of that, NOW. But we choose not to. WE choose not to. This is God's fault?

I have another, longer piece on suffering coming later this week. I don't like writing long posts, but tough questions require more thorough answers.

Andy said...

Oh, I forgot to explain further what prayer is for, sorry. Yes, of course we can ask for things in prayer. But as I've explained in the past, responsible parents don't grant their child's every wish: sometimes the answer has to be no, and the reason is not because the parent doesn't love the child, but because the parent knows better what is in the child's best interests. Prayer DOES work reliably, from that perspective. Everyone dies, at some point. Avoiding death or suffering is not a question of praying the right way or professing the right faith; death and suffering are inescapable facts of human existence. The Bible never suggests otherwise; just examine the fates of the early Christian fathers: Paul beheaded, Peter crucified upside down, James stoned, etc. How great was their faith, and how dismal their fate!

We are not to pray to avoid suffering, but to endure it, and to help others endure it. Life IS suffering, and we are here to do everything in our power -- as limited as that sometimes is -- to alleviate it for others.

LeshDogg said...

Going along with Andy's "assumption" (there is no God - which I know is an example, not a belief with him), I think there's an important distinction to be made.

I think there is HUGE distinction between the belief in the power of prayer and the comfort prayer brings people. "Religious folk" might pray in the hopes that God will grant their prayer or solve their problem. Whether God does so is up to Him in their mind and they (or rather, most) are willing to accept His judgment. This is the point Atheists don't want to see - a person's willing acceptance of a higher being's will.

However, whether the prayer is answered or not, there is tremendous comfort in making that prayer for the majority of "religious folk" (why would they do it otherwise?). Solace is found in speaking to / with God.

So my question to Atheists is: if there is no God, what harm does it do you when others believe? If a person finds peace in speaking to nothing, why does it bother you? If you are so enlightened with the truth, why damage someone's solace?

Andy said...

Well, LeshDogg, I think the obvious response to that would be that religious people often go out and commit atrocities or say or do dumb things because "God" told them to. The unrest in Iraq is due largely to an ongoing squabble over who God's chosen successor to Mohammed was. If no one believed in God, then no one could claim that God told them...well, use the Pat Robertson quote of your choice. Or at least if fewer people believed in God, the Pat Robertsons of the world would have diminished influence. I think atheists would let religious people have their harmless delusions, but they don't see the delusion as harmless, at all. See Anonymous' comments here. They see religion as the prime source of much of the world's suffering. The sad thing is that they are correct.

The flaw in their argument, however, is that they don't understand that misapplication of divine teaching (or its deliberate manipulation) reflects only on the moral instability of the human race, not on the Creator who expects better of us.

It is not a logical construct to say that because humans repeatedly do bad things to each other, there can be no higher power.

The issue of why humans can treat each other badly and why suffering, in fact *must* exist in this world is the subject of Friday's post.

kr said...

Will of Former FG Fame:

My number of people thing was somewhat tongue in cheek ... but somewhat serious. The way people drive here, which is better thanother cities I've been in!, WAY more than 50000 people shoud die every year, and antilock brakes and airbags just don't account for it to me ; ).

LeshDogg: 's why I was happy to see Jarred's perspective ... it becomes all the more obvious that for a certain sect of atheists, the condemnation is not so much of "Christianity" or even of "religion," but rather, "If you don't agree with me you are obviously stupid." Which is usually what they seem to be grumpy about regarding their experience of religious people.

Nice thing about the blogs, the Talking Heads on both sides don't get to control the conversation anymore, so more of us can see more of "the other side's" side. And of course we discover that mostly we are reasonably affiliated.

Speaking of which, Andy, I think you mischaracterized Anonymous' contribution in this string; I thought it was fairly balanced.

Will said...


I'm not part of Harris's camp. I'm a skeptical agnostic, not an atheist who believes that religion is pure delusion.

But I'll play devil's advocate here. I don't mean to offend anyone but it's late and I might use some condescending language. Andy and KR (and everyone else) - even though I argue with you, I have great respect for you. I mainly argue just because I enjoy it, not because I feel any great attachment to 'winning'.


Last night, just as I finished a nice grilled cheese sandwich, I was contacted by an entity from a higher dimension. He/she/it showed me a few things about our future (shocking, I tell you), and gave me a book of scripture, which I am currently transcribing into english.

I invite everyone who's reading this blog to spend a couple hours this Saturday morning meditating on world peace with me. While doing so, you'll need to chant the word 'zazzzuzzzm', and visualize a purple glowing pyramid. By doing so, you will experience personal insight and healing. Also, you'll want to eat only cheese from here on out. That will purify your body and concentrate your life force in the lower intestines, readying you to receive transmissions from he/she/it.

Now, what we need to do is get this book out to everyone that we can. Only the people who accept the truth as revealed in this book will survive the coming trauma that our planet faces. We true believers will make a new life on a cleansed planet. But we have only a limited time, a few years at most, to spread the word. The evidence for that is all around us - global warming, environmental destruction, war...

Having been, primarily, a Philosopher for most of my life, I haven't acquired a great deal of capital. I'll need some financial assistance to finish transcribing this book and order copies that I can ship to you. Please help! Just call 1 800 782 5377 (1 800 SUCKERR) to arrange payment and your own personal signed copy....

Ok, that was tongue in cheek. But let's say I was serious. And let's say that I had a few people who took me seriously as well, and we went around aggressively trying to convert people. What would you think of our mental health? What would you think about our ethics for trying to take money from the sort of people who would buy into this?

A religion differs from a cult only in its popularity. Some cultish beliefs, of course, are more likely to be abused because they fly under the radar and don't have orthodoxies like major religions do. But both cults and religions are based on stories/beliefs that cannot be factually verified. They both require that adherents modify their behavior in some way or other. These modifications might be helpful (going to church on Sunday serves a valuable social function, and yoga, qigong, meditation, and vegetarianism have health benefits) or they might just be stupid or even harmful.

So it can be beneficial for lots of people to get together every Sunday to read a book of stories and share their beliefs with each other. It certainly doesn't hurt me. But is it rational?

Let's imagine that every Saturday in your neighborhood 500 people got together to to hum 'zzzazzuzzzm' together. Let's imagine they've pooled their resources and built a big, nice building to do it in. They've also gathered enough funds to print out this strange book and subsidize missionaries to go door to door in poor neighborhoods giving out cheese sandwiches and telling people about he/she/it.

Might you be a little nervous?

So how is it any different for a few hundred or thousand people to gather together on Sundays to eat the flesh and blood of their god and distribute their book to other cultures in Central America and Africa?

See, from an atheist's perspective, religious beliefs are just loony - and why would you want your neighbor joining some loony zzazzzuzzm cult? Would you want your president professing those beliefs? What about the leaders of your armed forces? Lawmakers? Judges? Cops?

I have neatly sidestepped the original issue here, but I have to get up early tomorrow. Andy, I'll try and comment on the actual post topic tomorrow night.

Jarred said...

Will: I can't speak for Andy and do not mean to give the impression I'm doing so. However, personally speaking, I disagree with your suggestion that the difference between a cult and a religion is the level of popularity. I'm more inclined to use a much more complex method of distinguishing between the two such a The Advanced Bonewitts' Cult Danger Evaluation Frame.

Personally, when it comes to others' beliefs, I tend to take a "live and let live" approach. Even if I find their beliefs looney, I figure it doesn't concern me. There are obvious exceptions, such as when their beliefs begin to cause problems for me (e.g. cause them to act in ways that infringe on my rights) or give me reason for ethical concerns (e.g. involve abuse of individuals).

In closing, let me just comment that I also don't necessarily see the word "irrational" as inherently negative. There are a lot of things in life that are irrational. Love is a notable example. And I'm certainly not going to avoid love just because it's often irrational.

Will said...


I have a live and let live philosophy toward the beliefs of others as well.

But I would still prefer to have, as a partner in a critical situation, someone who is more likely to think rationally and act than start praying (although it has been widely noted that soldiers with a strong religious faith are more effective - the reasons for this could be debated, I guess). I would also prefer that my president and other elected representatives made decisions based on the best available science, rather than on something written down in a book 4000 years ago (or one that I wrote while eating a grilled cheese sandwich).

As for Bonewitz's scale, that is more concerned with the dangers posed by a particular group than with a question of definition.

At the most basic level, cults and major religions both demand certain beliefs and lifestyle changes. Some of those changes/beliefs are more dangerous than others.

Jarred said...

But I would still prefer to have, as a partner in a critical situation, someone who is more likely to think rationally and act than start praying...

You seem to think that these two are mutually exclusive by definition. I know several people who are perfectly capable of rational thought and action while praying simultaneously. Granted, this requires a certain amount of skill, much like walking and chewing bubble gum at the same time. ;)

would also prefer that my president and other elected representatives made decisions based on the best available science, rather than on something written down in a book 4000 years ago (or one that I wrote while eating a grilled cheese sandwich).

Again, a great many people of faith have demonstrated themselves capable of doing exactly that. You just seem to be focusing on those who haven't.

At the most basic level, cults and major religions both demand certain beliefs and lifestyle changes.

That can be said of more than just religions and cults.

Will said...

You just seem to be focusing on those who haven't.

Well... how much is too much? I mean, sure you don't want a legislator who wants to create an old testament theocracy - but do you want one who believes that the son of god was born of a virgin and every Sunday he goes to church to cannibalize his god?

That's why I created my own religion to make my point - would you be comfortable with a president who ate only cheese and thought that by chanting zzzaaazzzuzzm he'd gain special spiritual insight?

It's all a matter of perspective.

That can be said of more than just religions and cults.

You're right - but does that change my basic argument about religions vs. cults?

Actually, that makes me think even more strongly that religion is just an extension of human social behavior - just another way of relating to other people, sanctioning certain relationships, gaining status in the community, etc.

Jarred said...

Well... how much is too much? I mean, sure you don't want a legislator who wants to create an old testament theocracy - but do you want one who believes that the son of god was born of a virgin and every Sunday he goes to church to cannibalize his god?

What I want is a legislator that does his job and represents the best interests of his constituents, including me. His belief about virgin births and his religious practices are irrelevant to doing that job.

That's why I created my own religion to make my point - would you be comfortable with a president who ate only cheese and thought that by chanting zzzaaazzzuzzm he'd gain special spiritual insight?

Again, I want a president that does the job he's sworn to do. His dietary habits and meditative practices are not my concern, unless those practices actually start affecting his ability to do that job.

And to me, that's the line: Is their belief causing them to do their job poorly? In the case of government officials, are their beliefs leading them to make policy decisions that infringe on the rights of other individuals? If they are, then the line has been crossed. If they aren't, then it's nothing for me to be concerned about.

After all, isn't that the essence of "live and let live"?

kr said...

Ditto Jarred.