Friday, March 2, 2012

The problem of evil - II

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is God both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

- Epicurus

The problem of evil has exercised many people for ages, an example being this TED talk. There is even a name for this study - theodicy. Whenever there is a natural disaster, there will be all sorts of Panglossian rationalisations by the faithful about why a benevolent god had to cause so much misery in this best of all possible worlds. I searched one site - Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True - and found several such amusing rationalisations. All one can say is that the religious mind is very creative. In all the pious hand-waving, one never finds an answer to the question, 'What do they expect the world to look like if there was no god?'

In his book, Arun Shourie writes about when Gandhi said that an earthquake in Bihar was caused by the sin of untouchability. That untouchability is a bane in India is unquestionable and Gandhi's efforts to eradicate it were admirable (On being told that the shastras endorsed Untouchability Gandhi replied that a shastra contrary to reason ought to be burnt. “I have so much faith in the correctness of the position I have taken up that, if my taking up that position results in weakening Hinduism, I cannot help it and I must not care.”) but to say that it caused an earthquake! Gandhi said that the earthquake was divine chastisement, that a calamity happens because of our personal sins and have spiritual causes, that the earthquake is fit punishment by god for the sin of untouchability, etc. Shourie writes:
I recoil at the next proposition that we would assume that the calamity has occurred because of our sin, as this would teach us humility. It could just as well internalize unwarranted guilt. With all the hardship that he already has to bear, should my son believe that any calamity that befalls me is also because of some sin he has committed, as this belief will make him even more humble and sensitive than he already is? Such considerations weigh heavily with me.
It was this aspect of organised religions of arousing unwarranted fear and guilt that increased my negative feelings against them. They are experts at stoking guilt feelings among emotionally vulnerable people in order to line their nests. Wherever religions have the upper hand, It is bad news for women, so it is strange that they manage to recruit self-righteous women to torture other women. And society views them as normal and harmless expressions of concern and help. Harmless, my foot.

Shourie discusses extensively Gandhi's responses to the persecution of Jews in Germany. He refuses to accept that if somebody follows the same methods that he successfully followed against the relatively more civilised British, he would have disappeared in the middle of the night never to be heard of again, as indeed happened to many people. He shows the classic signs of a person of faith - he is absolutely certain that he is right and no argument from any quarter persuades him to change his mind. And he keeps advising others to be humble! Shourie comments:
And it is manifestly circular. Non-violence is certain to melt the stoniest heart. When Hilter's heart clearly does not melt, that is because sufficient numbers have not offered themselves for immolation. And when someone asks, 'But aren't six million sufficient?' the answer clearly is, 'But they did not have love in their heart.' And how do we know that they did not have love in their heart as they entered the gas chambers? From the fact that Hitler's heart did not melt...
There is a neurological problem called hemineglect in which patients fail to notice one half of their field of vision, typically the left half. It is as if one half of the world doesn't exist for them. Similarly, believers seem to neglect one half of the balance sheet. They go ga-ga over birds and butterflies but fail to notice the bedbugs. Dan Dennett says in this interview that the tendency of not blaming god for disasters but praising him for bounties is a relatively recent one. (He may be speaking about the monotheistic religions; I don't know.) In 'On The Origin of Species', Charles Darwin wrote:
We behold the face of nature bright with gladness, we often see superabundance of food; we do not see or we forget that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life; or we forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their nestlings, are destroyed by birds and beasts of prey; we do not always bear in mind, that, though food may be now superabundant, it is not so at all seasons of each recurring year.
God seems to love spectator sports. He equips predators with brilliant adaptations to catch prey. He also equips prey with equally splendid adaptations to escape. Then he sets them against each other. David Attenborough puts things in perspective.Listening to Neil deGrasse Tyson, the idea of a loving, competent god is the last thing that occurs to me.

It is puzzling that most people prefer the simplistic religious explanations to the much more awe-inspiring scientific explanations. One reason could be that the latter require much more time and effort and most people are too busy to bother. It is much easier to simply accept the received wisdom of the society they happen to live in and keep getting 'offended' at the drop of a hat. Richard Dawkins rightly observed at the Jaipur Literature Festival that tradition, authority, revelation and faith are bad reasons to believe anything.

As for me, as Paula Kirby says regarding religious arrogance disguised as humility (the first two comments after this review are good examples), 'Give me the indifference of the laws of physics rather than the hubristic self-righteousness of the religious any day.' My disregard for the religious fairy tales has increased after my stroke after I started thinking about these issues a bit. Thinking is trouble for religion. No wonder priests lay so much emphasis on faith: don’t doubt - accept unquestioningly what those with a hotline to god say.

1 comment:

  1. As usual I enjoyed reading this entry as well. Feel forced to point out the difference between organized religion, where God is pulled in for mundane things and spirituality where there is a healthy respect for a higher power who serves as an anchor in the vast sea of life. Not everyone who believes in God is trying to get an answer.. I do believe in a higher power and it is a belief that has given me strength in times of crisis, call it a placebo effect , I don't care. This is not an attempt to find an excuse for god, as a higher power does not need support but as a lowly human being it is humbling and grounding to remind myself that I am one lowly speck in a vast universe were multitudes of lives have walked/swam/flew before me and will after me. In this vast universe it is nice to believe that there is one constant-higher power or God.Faith that gives us strength and integrity is the one to have, but when it is taken to a level where borders are created between people and miracles are expected, the concept of God stumbles .