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Posts Tagged ‘suffering’

Apparently I’m doomed to keep harping on about this for as long as the wrongness-on-the-internet continues.

In one of my sporadic Twitter conversations about atheistic morality the other day, the person I’d randomly picked on to start needling for justification of their incorrect opinion managed to get quite incisively to the heart of the matter. While questioning the purpose of doing good, or indeed doing anything, in a godless universe, he referred to my implicit assumption that caring for other people is a good thing, and asked:

Who says?

Which I think is what it always comes down to, with these people who continue to insist that an “objective morality” is something only a deity can provide, and that atheistic ethics are necessarily haphazard and lacking any solid foundation.

Never mind all the actual facts about how people behave in reality, which in no way support the claim that atheists are any less inclined toward benevolent behaviour than the religious. Clearly abandoning one’s ideological axioms based on reality isn’t on the cards for this guy, or we wouldn’t even need this discussion.

Leave aside for now the complete irrelevance of that issue to the empirical question of whether a god exists. He’s not visibly trying to argue that a god does exist. He’s not even particularly trying to argue that atheists are bad people, I think; just that they could be, at any given moment, not like religious believers, who have a solid foundation for their morality, y’see. Just don’t ask what the hell that means and what practical effects it’s supposed to have.

The point is, he poses a good question. Who does say that caring for other people is good?

Who says it should matter to me whether other people are suffering?

Who says it ought to make the slightest difference to my life if some other sucker knows only pain and desperation on his short and brutal journey toward death?

Who says it’s a good thing in any measurable way to help those in need, to soothe pain and provide happiness, to do stuff that’s morally right, out of love and compassion for my fellow man?

If throwing acid in a child’s face would directly benefit Winston Smith in some way, who says it should matter to him whether that child is permanently disfigured?

We obviously need someone out there, someone in charge, to tell us why these things should matter. Otherwise it’s all just arbitrary. It can’t really mean anything if we just make our own decisions based on love and kindness.

Taking the religious line, it’s God who says. Compassion for others is good because he says so. You should care for people because God says you should. Leaving children’s faces unscarred is morally correct, because God has ordained that the suffering of children is a bad thing (*cough*Exodus 12:29-30*cough).

But I don’t take the religious line. I’m an atheist.

And I say you should care about other people.

I say it matters what difference we make, how kindly we behave toward others, how much suffering we alleviate.

I say that nobody else has to tell you that these things matter, you can just fucking decide it, if you’re not an uncaring and inhumane monster.

If you’re waiting for someone else to set some rules which dictate that torturing children is bad, you are doing morality wrong.

The next time someone claims that only God can give an “objective foundation to morality”, remind them about this archbishop, who, during questioning about the sexual abuse of a child, recently claimed uncertainty as to whether, at the time, he understood that sexual abuse of a child was morally wrong.

Remind them about that, then ask what the fuck use a god-based “objective foundation to morality” actually is to anyone in the real world.

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I’d like you to imagine two hypothetical scenarios.

In the first, a child is suffering. He’s in an extremely disadvantaged part of the third world. He’s six years old, and has depended on his mother all his life for food and nurturing and basic care. She’s now dead of malaria. He’s lost, and tired, and the hunger that’s accompanied him all his life is gnawing at him stronger than ever and there’s nobody to look after him.

In addition, God exists.

That’s scenario the first, okay? Don’t worry about the implications of that last bit, or think anything through in too much detail. A child is starving, as many children truly are, and also there is a god. The Christian one if you prefer, but whatever. Okay? Keep that hypothetical in mind.

Now imagine the same child, same suffering, same anguish and confusion and despair. Another human being in the same desperately miserable situation as described a few moments ago, in the same cruel, uncaring world.

And there is no god.

That’s the second scenario.

Now, you might have an idea as to which of these two pictures paints a bleaker view. That’s an interesting discussion – is it worse knowing there’s no-one to turn to for help, or seeing the one you could turn to allowing this to happen? – but not for today.

Here’s my question: When imagining the plight of the kid in each scenario described above, did you find yourself only giving a shit about one of them?

Did you feel saddened and motivated to help one of the children described above, and feel a strong compassion for him and desire to act morally by him – and find that the other just left you cold and unbothered, with no particular incentive to do anything about it?

Do you, in other words, only care about suffering and want to alleviate it if God exists? Is your compassion for other humans contingent on an all-powerful third party? Does the truth of one particular religion or another have any bearing on whether the plight of such a child sickens you and makes you determined to change it?

I expect your answer is no.

If I’m right, congratulations: you now understand how atheists can have morals.

But if I’m wrong… then, well, you have an odd system of deciding what is and isn’t a moral outrage, and I entirely fail to understand your process of thought.

I’d love to know what it is you’re using to decide whether or not a suffering child is “a bad thing”. For me, and many others, it’s pretty straight-forward, and can be judged largely in isolation. Whether or not we believe in God doesn’t really come into it. We just witness suffering and are moved by it. We want children not to be starving to death, scared and alone in a harsh world. Saving innocents from that fate is a sufficient end in itself.

God might be important to you, but I’m not sure why his opinion is the only one you care about when there are kids suffering and dying right in front of you.

You really are allowed to just love people and care what happens to them, you know. Even if there is no god and no afterlife and it’s all finite and bounded and there’s no ultimate arbiter to reward or punish you for getting it right or wrong.

It’s a pretty feeble kind of love that isn’t worth your effort any more without those conditions.

Yes, I’ve been finding theists to chat with on Twitter again. Some of them continue to baffle me.

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If you have nowhere to turn but me, to be informed about shit that’s going down in Japan right now, or how to donate and help the thousands of people who are having their lives fucked up and homes destroyed, then you have problems that go beyond my capacity to assist you.

Having said that, the latest update from the British Red Cross as I post this is that they currently “cannot accept donations specifically for Japan”, until they’ve been formally asked for international donations by the Japanese Red Cross. The American Red Cross seems to be able to do more, though, and are accepting donations for all those affected by the earthquake and tsunami. And if you find other legitimate organisations seeking funding to help people, knock yourselves out.

The hashtag #prayforjapan has been trending on Twitter all day. The fundamental feeling behind it, of compassion for others on witnessing their suffering, is unquestionably a good one, and I don’t doubt that the majority of those tweeting it also understand the importance of taking action beyond simply asking for divine help.

But, as well-meaning as it might be, and as important the compassion, it’s worth re-emphasising that praying’s not enough.

Any god who can do anything to help in response to your prayers either couldn’t stop this disaster from happening, couldn’t be bothered, or deemed it a just and righteous expression of his wrath. Either way, this was not his finest hour.

Although, this one thing doesn’t prove that there is no loving god, any more than was already obvious.

Whatever. Let’s make this one of those days where we don’t get bogged down in all that. Let’s make this a day where decide to be the kind of people who see this happening and think: fuck it, I can spare something to help.

I am really uncomfortable being this earnest for this long. I’m having to struggle not to title this post “Japandemonium!” or something shit and wacky like that.

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I’ve always found it slightly frustrating that so many people wait until a major newsworthy catastrophe to start wondering whether God isn’t something of a cock.

What’s going on in Haiti is clearly awful (and the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders could use your help), but if you want to question why God allows such suffering to exist, it’s not like there aren’t plenty of other examples to latch onto. You don’t have to wait for an earthquake or tsunami or terrorist attack; people are getting raped and murdered and starving to death all over the place, all the time.

And unsurprisingly, when the topic does come up, and God’s appointed spokespeople start offering answers… well, you’re generally lucky if “embarrassing” is the worst you can say of it.

I’m not familiar with John Sentamu’s work, but Archbishop of York sounds like a fairly important job title, as these things go. But he doesn’t have a coherent answer to the question either, as evidenced by a recent interview he gave, prompted by the earthquakes in Haiti.

He comes out with some waffle about God being “fully engaged”, and how he is “with us” throughout such events, which sounds like an admission that God is sadistic enough to want thousands upon thousands of people to suffer, to starve, to die. What kind of comfort is it meant to be that he’s there, if he won’t do anything useful to help?

I’m not entirely clear what he’s referring to when he says:

…what you are seeing is the face of God being disfigured, ah, and that is quite — pretty, pretty appalling.

But what I am clear on is that, if you’re hearing about an earthquake ripping a country apart, killing thousands and leaving vast numbers homeless, and what appals you is the disfigurement of God’s face, then you need to get your fucking priorities straight.

The interviewer presses the archbishop on the question of a “slot-machine-type God”, who deals out tragedy at random, or at least allows it to fall randomly. The archbishop denies that this is the case… and then goes on to make exactly that argument, saying that bad things can happen to anyone at any time, and not just to bad people. I’m not sure he has any more of an idea what he’s saying than I do.

And then he says something about Pat Robertson which I won’t insult the English language by calling a sentence.

It’s been a couple of thousand years or so, and we’re still waiting for an answer:

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