A Skeptic - Brandon Stanton, Do we not realize how cruel that is?
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Photographer Brandon Stanton recently posted a portrait on his popular blog, Humans of New York, of an ordained pastor expressing scepticism about purpose behind the evil in the world.

I’ve been a deep believer my whole life. 18 years as a Southern Baptist. More than 40 years as a mainline Protestant. I’m an ordained pastor. But it’s just stopped making sense to me. You see people doing terrible things in the name of religion, and you think: ‘Those people believe just as strongly as I do. They’re just as convinced as I am.’ And it just doesn’t make sense anymore. It doesn’t make sense to believe in a God that dabbles in people’s lives. If a plane crashes, and one person survives, everyone thanks God. They say: ‘God had a purpose for that person. God saved her for a reason!’ Do we not realize how cruel that is? Do we not realize how cruel it is to say that if God had a purpose for that person, he also had a purpose in killing everyone else on that plane? And a purpose in starving millions of children? A purpose in slavery and genocide? For every time you say that there’s a purpose behind one person’s success, you invalidate billions of people. You say there is a purpose to their suffering. And that’s just cruel.” – Bill

Since he isn’t named (Dragnet, anyone?), I’m going to call him Bill. I’d like to address what Bill said in turn.

People Do Terrible Things in the Name of Religion

Some do terrible things because of religion, others because of atheism, others because their yogurt is expired. This statement is more accurate when we shorten it. People do terrible things.

But that in itself is a pretty bold claim. If you doubt God exists, how can you call anything “terrible”? In general, lots of people dying for no reason is considered terrible. Have you ever wondered why?

No, really. Without a universal moral concept — which you can only find in a few religions — “terrible” doesn’t exist. We’re just a bunch of aimless animals with funny feelings we call “morals.” And those morals can’t apply to everyone if they’re just our feelings (or some kind of irrational evolutionary byproduct), which means it is also irrational to say that anything is truly “terrible,” “cruel” or “evil.” You can’t believe in genuine good or bad without a higher universal source for those definitions.

Then shockingly “unreasonable” ideas like being created by a supernatural being who gives us worth and a moral compass start to come to the foreground as the best answer. I’m not going to quote Sherlock Holmes here. You’re welcome.

Note: for those of you who would complain that bad atheists are just bad people who happen to be atheists — since action is supposedly not motivated by non-belief: if a person commits a crime they otherwise would not with a true belief in God, then it was because of atheism. The non-belief in God psychologically enabled them. Besides, atheism is a religion, there are atheist churches as well.

Although, from what I gather, Bill may still believe in God, he just doesn’t like to believe that God is actively involved in the world.

Having a Purpose is Cruel

This is the crux of what Bill is saying. Because he can’t imagine a purpose behind evil — such a purpose being “cruel” — there must not be a purpose. I’m afraid that amounts to nonsense. Just because I can’t imagine almond milk (yeah, almond milk) does that mean that almond milk doesn’t exist? Of course not.

Honestly, though, what is more cruel: believing everything happens with purpose and we’ll find out in heaven, or that people die for no apparent reason and it makes us feel bad just because? How much more benevolent is a God who creates us, give us no purpose, and then leaves us to destroy ourselves?

Bill says, “For every time you say that there’s a purpose behind one person’s success, you invalidate billions of people. You say there is a purpose to their suffering. And that’s just cruel.” However, the only thing I can think of that’s worse than suffering is pointless suffering. Wouldn’t a good God give our lives meaning?

God + Evil = Wha?

At the outset, Bill is saying that he can’t reconcile terrible things that happen. In fact, when responding to Bill’s thoughts, a few quoted the famous Epicurean paradox, followed by a lot of collective back-patting. Here’s how it goes:

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 he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

One error with this paradox is the assumption that a good and able God would not permit evil to exist. That’s a rather arrogant claim. After all, if He is God, He understands everything — far above and beyond our finite minds. So this “paradox” claims to know more than God and then sits in judgement upon Him. It commits the straw man fallacy: it creates a God that doesn’t exist (one that doesn’t understand everything), and then proceeds to rip Him down like a Justin Bieber poster.

Another key error with the Epicurean paradox is the assumption of a crazy little thing called “evil.” As we went through above, calling anything “evil” requires a definition that applies to everyone all the time. A definition that can only be set by a higher universal source — as in, like, maybe God. So in the process of disproving God with this argument, you must assume His existence — which is the fallacy of self-contradiction.

I’m still not quoting Sherlock Holmes. You’re welcome, again.

Based on the reasoning here, we can conclude that the only logical and non-cruel way to think about the issues Bill raises is to believe in God and that there is a purpose in everything. While we can’t always know the purpose behind terrible things that happen, we can take solace in the fact that there is one — and nothing is stopping us from searching. That gives me hope.