Debate Round One: Commentary on cl’s Rejoinder

by Matt DeStefano on February 22, 2012

Well, I did not see that one coming. It’s taken me awhile to fully appreciate cl’s rather unorthodox reply, and I admit I am still largely confused as how to take it. Right off the bat, cl admits that Peter’s “needless suffering” exists, but cl doesn’t see that this conflicts with the God of the Bible:

I’ve concluded that needless suffering exists. On my view, sin caused death, suffering and so-called “natural evil.” According to Genesis, God made the world good and humans had eternal life. Sin entailed a fall from the highest possible good. It was not necessary, God did not desire it. The suffering sin produced cannot possibly be logically required for the higher good to obtain because the highest possible good had already obtained. Criticisms that God “could have made a world without suffering” are nullified.

Here, cl is arguing that we have already had the highest possible good, and that humanity’s actions have put an end to it. Sin, or presumably — the original sin — was a fall from perfection. Without coloring the debate too much, I have to wonder if cl is referring to a literal Genesis here, or a figurative one? It seems that cl must commit himself to a literal Genesis, as the evolutionary history of mankind doesn’t exactly speak volumes about a previous perfection where we had eternal life.

Moving on, cl disputes the idea that suffering is needed in order to realize a higher good:

Even though suffering is needless, eliminating suffering doesn’t eliminate any higher good. Suffering isn’t necessary to produce goods. Obviously, Jesus didn’t believe that removing suffering eliminated higher good, else no sick would have been healed, nor would commands to heal be issued. In fact, we would have been commanded to ignore suffering. This defangs Peter’s “obstruction of divine justice” argument on the spot.

This  strikes me as a plausible  response to this notion that goods are necessarily obtained through suffering, especially given the considerations of his argument above.

Argument from Ignorance, Incredulity

cl does take a page from the Skeptical Theist playbook by noting:

Peter’s inability to conceive of a higher good or logical requirement does not justify even the provisional assumption that none exists, and to posture otherwise is to argue from incredulity. [2] Similarly, my inability to identify a higher good or logical requirement does not justify even the provisional assumption that none exists, and to posture otherwise is to argue from ignorance.

This is one area of Peter’s argument that I also found weak, and I think this will force Peter to buttress the epistemic warrant for moving from a position of “it seems that there is unnecessary suffering” to “there is unnecessary suffering”.

However, considering the context with which cl began his post, one can wonder how relevant this is. If cl is simply admitting that unnecessary suffering exists (indeed, it seems cl sees all suffering as unnecessary under the proper context), we need not surmise whether or not this move is warranted. It’s simply irrelevant.

Analyzing Analogies

cl finds Peter’s analogies to be fallacious:

These are textbook examples of the fallacy from false analogy. [4] Magic notwithstanding, there is no remote possibility of reindeer flying. However, since several members of the class “suffering” are logically required to obtain higher goods, the possibility of Peter’s examples following suit seems significant. So why would he imply only a “remote possibility” that his examples might be logically required to obtain higher goods? Why would he imply that a measly $1,000 is commensurate to eternal joy?

I’m inclined to agree with cl on these. While I think I know what points Peter was after in these analogies, I think they were a bit theatrical and didn’t quite address the points he was intending them to address. After all, we have the requisite tools to determine whether or not a reindeer flies, but do we actually have the requisite tools to understand God’s purpose in allowing suffering?

Again, though, I must stress that cl’s opening concession makes this largely irrelevant. If cl is arguing that needless suffering does exist, then isn’t Peter also warranted in making this assumption? It seems the real point of contention is not this “noseeum” (from probable to actual) but rather whether or not needless suffering entails (logically or probably) the existence of the God of the Bible.

cl begins to point out possible goods that may have come from the Black Death:

Alternatively, historians such as Bowsky (1971) and Bridbury (1983) suggest the plague may have been a key turning point in European economic development: wages would not have risen had there not been such a drastic increase in the demand for laborers. Isn’t a deficit of laborers logically required in order to spur demand? Why does Peter act stumped? Are these not grounds to doubt Peter’s claim that his examples are “proof beyond reasonable doubt” of needless suffering?

I have to imagine that very few people will take the deaths of so many Europeans from a horribly violent and destructive plague as serving a higher good by the fact that it “may have been a key turning point in European development”.

I feel as though cl is wasting words here: why defend the Bubonic Plague at all? If natural evil is simply a result of our moral failure (original sin and the fall), then we are not owed an explanation for why it will bring about good, and the fact that it doesn’t is simply indicative of a rotten world that has fallen from God’s good graces.


cl makes a similar point to a worry I had about Peter’s theodicy critique:

Peter’s note that the soul-building theodicy cannot explain animal suffering is irrelevant. One cannot justifiedly fault a theodicy for not explaining a particular type of suffering when another theodicy can (consequence for sin). #4, defanged.

I agree with cl here. It’s unfair for the atheist to criticize a theodicy for not being universal when it simply isn’t intended to be so.

Black Death: Punishment by God

I didn’t see this one coming. cl says:

The Black Death was a moral evil that deserved punishment. Regarding Theodicy #2, Peter said victims “were not especially more sinful” than people today. According to the Bible, that’s false. Filthiness is sin.

cl is arguing here that the people who died from the Bubonic plague were being punished for being filthy. Moreover, he argues that the cleanliness laws found in Scripture could have prevented such a catastrophe:

Take heed, foolish humans! We were warned not to become “defiled” by rats or other animals designated as “unclean” [8] and warned not to eat anything they touched. [9] God commanded us to bury dung outside city limits, [10] to avoid contact with bodily discharges because they are “unclean,” [11] to cleanse anything a person with bodily discharge touches, [12] to evacuate and seal up any house with “greenish or reddish” mildew, [13] and if the mildew persists after seven days, to “scrape the walls” inside the house, [14] remove any contaminated stones [15] and dump them outside city limits. [16]

Among other things, Wikipedia lists, “decay or decomposure of the skin while the person is still alive, high fever, and extreme fatigue” as symptoms of bubonic plague, [17] and God specifically warned that failure to obey would result in—wait for it—wasting diseases andfever that would drain away our life. [18]

Interesting argument. Of course, Levicitus is ripe for the picking when it comes to dangerously absurd rules, laws, and customs. Should humans also take heed that eating shellfish is an abomination? (Lev 11:10) Should we also avoid planting two of the same crops in a field? (Lev 19:19) It seems to me cl needs to make a case as to why we should take the entirety of these laws seriously.

cl concludes by turning Peter’s own words to him:

This evidence is so strong even Peter claims it proves God’s goodness and glory “beyond a shadow of a doubt,” leaving him no rational alternative but to abandon atheism and acknowledge the God of the Bible. Peter recently wrote,

…knowledge of the germ theory of disease contained in the Bible rather than left to be discovered by fallible scientists would have saved billions of lives. Why [God] didn’t do so, given that it would prove [God's] glory and goodness beyond a shadow of a doubt, is unknown.” [19, emphasis mine]

My list is just the tip of the iceberg, and already we have something akin to modern hygiene and germ theory, delivered 3,000 years before Pasteur was so much as a twinkle in his father’s eye—by people atheists often denigrate as ignorant goat-herders.

A pretty interesting conclusion, and I’m anxiously awaiting Peter’s response. It’s hard to judge cl’s response, as the terms of the debate have certainly shifted. In the upcoming sections, hopefully we will flesh out a better response to the Free Will Theodicy argument that Peter originally brought up. If we are going to cast all suffering as generating from (or inherited from) the Fall, we will also need substantial warrant to take such a position seriously.

Cl addresses most theodicies in turn (although we didn’t see much interaction with the ‘natural law’ theodicy, and only brief mentions of free-will), and went to great lengths to alleviate one of Peter’s examples. I don’t think it’s fair at this juncture to deduct points for failure to respond to any specific argument (as, again, the debate has certainly shifted paradigms), but I will deduct (1) point from cl for failing to properly explicate exactly how we should interpret the Genesis story.  So, I will award cl 11 points.

  • Mike

    I’m not sure where the debate will go from here, but treading down the path of “this is what the Bible says” seems treacherous to me. I’d also add a nitpicking point. If cl admits that there is “needless suffering” then that makes the case against the traditional God of theism. This seems to have turned into a debate on two different gods. One is omnibenevolent and would not permit needless suffering and one is the God described by the Bible. That seems to be the case made by cl. So, a a response he isn’t addressing the criticism posed against him other than to say a false god is being described. Very strange.

  • Matt DeStefano

    Yeah, it doesn’t look very promising that it will continue. I’ll let those participating tell their tale, but it morphed into a debate which I had no interest in participating in.

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