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Haiti: Problem of evil and Sentamu vs Robertson

Letter on NSS Newsline here.

I awoke this morning (Thursday 14 January) to the struggled musings of John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, on the Today programme. He was attempting to reconcile the supposed existence of a loving, omnipotent God with the tragic events in Haiti. The only appropriate response he was able to muster was that he could offer "nothing which makes sense of the horrors". Had he paused at that point, then he would, at least, have been intellectually honest. But, no, he meandered onwards to utter several irrelevant, rambling, and borderline absurd opinions... read on.

Programme available for a short time here. I share the frustration of the author of the letter - what on Earth is Archbishop Sentamu on about (process theodicy?)?

Pat Roberston has a different view on Haiti: "True story...". At least Robertson's explanation is clear.


anticant said…
There've been a few stupid Archbishops of York - Coggan, with his patronising reference to "the gormless masses" swiftly followed by the apologetic admission that he didn't know what "gormless" meant (though his Yorkshire flock most certainly did!) springs to mind - but this one certainly takes the biscuit (or the communion wafer).

I listened twice to these incoherent vacuous ramblings without having a clue as to what Sentamu was trying to say. His words were indeed insulting, both to the suffering people of Haiti and to the intelligence of his listeners. John Humphreys was far too polite; he should have echoed F.E Smith's admonition to Mr Justice Darling: "If your lordship would be pleased to use what your lordship is pleased to call your lordship's mind..."

If this is the best intellectual material the Church of England can muster for one of its highest offices, its days really are numbered.
anticant said…
As for the absurd Pat Robertson, if he thinks that all successful revolutions against colonial exploiters are "pacts with the devil", presumably the American colonists who threw out the British were - as Americans always see themselves being - exceptional.

What utter tripe these self-appointed spokespersons of God talk! They are mentally ill.
Don Stewart said…
I expected nothing else of Robertson and wasn't expecting much from CofE clergy, but found myself intensely annoyed. He had nothing, literally nothing, of value to say but said it anyway.

How pompous do you need to be to believe that what we need in this situation is Your Grace babbling nonsense on the BBC?
Anonymous said…
If something trancendetal governs the universe, why would it be that human beings should enjoy a special significance.
Paul P. Mealing said…
'Pacts with the Devil' are not Faustian but true stories. I was wondering how long it would take for someone to blame human-inspired evil for the natural calamity in Haiti.

After the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004, there were Islamic fundamentalists roaming amongst the grieving and the dead in Aceh trying to turn people to Allah using the same premise.

Regards, Paul.
riotthill said…
Easy words for the Archbishop, and Pat Robertson. Swaddling clothes and devil pacts would take on different meaning were either in Port-au-Prince with his church collapsing around him, his family, friends, and flock dying and himself awaiting rescue and re-building.
Vieux Phil said…
See my position on this topic in my blog at
Mike said…
All of this reminds me of Voltaire's reaction to the earthquake of Lisbon in 1755 and its implications for Leibniz's theodicy. It's interesting what you say about Robertson at least being clear. Maybe that's one reason religious fundamentalism is resurgent: Oblivious to the requirements of reason, people like Robertson are free to offer a coherent, unwavering message.
aarlin81 said… – VIRGINIA BEACH, Va., January 13, 2010 --On today’s The 700 Club, during a segment about the devastation, suffering and humanitarian effort that is needed in Haiti, Dr. Robertson also spoke about Haiti’s history. His comments were based on the widely-discussed 1791 slave rebellion led by Boukman Dutty at Bois Caiman, where the slaves allegedly made a famous pact with the devil in exchange for victory over the French. This history, combined with the horrible state of the country, has led countless scholars and religious figures over the centuries to believe the country is cursed. Dr. Robertson never stated that the earthquake was God’s wrath. If you watch the entire video segment, Dr. Robertson’s compassion for the people of Haiti is clear. He called for prayer for them. His humanitarian arm has been working to help thousands of people in Haiti over the last year, and they are currently launching a major relief and recovery effort to help the victims of this disaster. They have sent a shipment of millions of dollars worth of medications that is now in Haiti, and their disaster team leaders are expected to arrive tomorrow and begin operations to ease the suffering.

Chris Roslan
Spokesman for CBN

Not only are they attempting to re-write history they are trying to, one again shift the blame/attention. The biggest problem I have is the typical "you didn't watch the whole thing therefore you're taking the statements out of context" garbage. The problem for Robertson and his 700 Club ilk that entire segment is available on YouTube!

This is no different than his idiotic comments just after the attacks on September 11th in the U.S. During his interview with Falwell he agreed with every statement Falwell made. When the backlash came he tried to claimed that he hadn't and didn't share Falwell's opinion. Then the video surfaced and he used his face time, not to apologize, but to attack those people who "sit around recording everything he says to try an use against him".

Pat Robertson is a TOOL BAG.
Steven Carr said…
At least we know now that what distinguishes religion from science is that religion can provide answers to the questions that science cannot.

Science cannot ask the 'why?' question.

Religion can ask the why question.

It is like having two equally valid ways of producing knowledge.
Steven Carr said…
And we musn't forget that Thought for the Day should be banned to the non-religious, as that is the one opportunity religious people have to express themselves on the Today show, which otherwise never hears religious voices, if it were not for that slot.
Mike said…
Steven Carr,
Good point. We all know that science can't answer the "why?" question. If we want to know why the earth shook in Haiti we shouldn't listen to any drivel about "tectonic plates" and the "build-up of stress along fault lines." We just need to ask people like Robertson who are authorities in the only field suited to deal with that kind of question.
Mike said…
I just noticed on Richard Dawkins's website that his foundation has set up a charity fund called "Non-Believers Giving Aid." A statement on the website says, "When donating via Non-Believers Giving Aid, you are helping to counter the scandalous myth that only the religious care about their fellow-humans."

A little further down it says, "Preachers and televangelists, mullahs and imams, often seem almost to gloat over natural disasters - presenting them as payback for human transgressions, or for 'making a pact with the devil'. Earthquakes and tsunamis are caused not by 'sin' but by tectonic plate movements, and tectonic plates, like everything else in the physical world, are supremely indifferent to human affairs and sadly indifferent to human suffering. Those of us who understand this reality are sometimes accused of being indifferent to that suffering ourselves. Of course the very opposite is the truth..."

Here's the URL:
Toby said…
Did anyone hear AC Grayling on the Today Programme responding to the Sentamu and Theodicy arguments? It's the last audio clip on this page for a few days only I guess.

A good contribution I thought and shows that non-believers should get on the radio more often.
anticant said…
Satan puts a word in:
Martin said…
Plenty of people make pacts with the Devil. A more recent example is Tony Blair, who made such a pact around about 2001/2002.

The real mystery is how Sentamu can spout solid gold gobbledygook, yet still hold the confidence of other Christians. Have they put their brains on stand-by, so that they are ready to swallow any old waffle?
anticant said…
Don't all religionists put their brains on stand-by?

An additional factor with Sentamu could be tokenism.
Mike said…
Deists don't put their brains on stand-by.
Martin said…
Mike, here's a quote from the radio recording:

"Well, for the Christian, you've got to see the God who is very much like Christ like, and in Him there is no unChrist likeness."

Sentamu is the second most senior clergyman in the Church of England. He said the above in a very considered way. Are you saying that Christians hear this and make some sense out of it? I think they turn their ears off. This is, after all, a much kinder explanation than saying they make sense out of nonsense.
Mike said…
No, Martin, I wasn't saying that. I basically agree with you when you say their brains must be on stand-bye if they're unable to find fault with Sentamu's incoherent rambling. But I don't think we should generalize the statement to include all of the religious, and I gave the deists as an example, I suppose, because I keep thinking of Voltaire (who of course was a deist) and his response to the Sentamus and Robertsons of his day in the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake. Read his "Candide" or "Poem on the Lisbon Disaster," which can be found in translation here:
Steven Carr said…
Atheists are in a dilemma.

Point out what people like Robertson are saying and you are damned for attacking extremists who are not representative of the vast majority of moderates.

Produce arguments against the beliefs of the vast majority of moderates and you are damned for attacking people who should be your allies in the fight against extremism.

Atheists should really just shut up. That would please so many people.
anticant said…
If you believe in the existence of a supernatural being with attributes described by your holy books and holy preachers, and that you can communicate with this deity through prayer, obviously your mind will be tuned in to your auto-skypilot and your rational faculty will be pretty well disabled.

One of the most distressing manifestations of this in the dreadful scenes from Haiti we are now witnessing on our TV screens are the pathetic bereaved people who utter thanks to God for their own preservation, whilst not stopping to ask why he didn't also save their families, friends and fellow citizens.

Doubtless Sentamu and Robertson will come up with some crass reasons.
wombat said…
The Beeb now has a "Problem of Evil" article here
Why does God allow natural disasters?
Steven Carr said…
Why does God allow natural disasters?

Alister McGrath gives an explanation 'Suffering is the price we pay for being alive. More than that, it is the price we pay for being human. ….. To eliminate suffering is to eliminate life itself”'

Eliminate Auschwitz? That was the price the Jews paid for being alive.....

'Suffering and glorification are part of, but represent different stages within, the same process of growth in the Christian life.'

You have to admire the imbecility of such remarks, showing that a lot of hard work has been put into coming up with them.

People suffer so they can become better Christians. Suffering is part of the growth pattern of Christians.

So why do non-believers suffer?
Stephen Law said…
Where are the mcGrath quotes from, Steven?
Toby said…
Stephen, there's a reported exchange between McGrath and Peter Atkins (I think it is somewhere in "The God Delusion") where McGrath puts forward the argument that the Holocaust allowed the Jews to be noble in the face of suffering or some such nonsense. Atkins responded "May you rot in hell".
Martin said…
Buddhists have a much better handle on suffering. The Four Noble Truths say:

1. Life is suffering.
2. Suffering is rooted in attachment.
3. Suffering can be alleviated.
4. There is a path to the cessation of suffering.

I am not a Buddhist, but I find it difficult to disagree with these statements. The Christian muddle comes about through an insistence on an omnipotent God, and the belief that an individual can reach heaven (ie end suffering) through faith in Jesus.

Buddhists don't particularly believe in God, nor in heaven. Also they don't distinguish between my suffering and yours. And they don't preach. It is quite difficult for a non-Buddhist (assume perhaps a 21st century Westerner from a liberal democracy) to be offended by Buddhist beliefs.

On the other hand, Christianity is about a personal salvation through faith in God. It is egocentric, and its adherents are encouraged to proselytise. Essentially they want non-believers to feel bad. That in turn helps believers feel good. However, if you are non-believer, you don't have to play along, if you don't want to.

This is a very long-winded answer to "So why do non-believers suffer?". The message to Christians is don't be a non-believer or you will suffer after death. I'm sure it's meant to be personal and inward, in which case it is harmless to believers and non-believers alike. However the message can get twisted to if you are not a believer we are going to make you suffer now. This of course is not so good, the pious hunting down the impious for sport.

In reality we all suffer, it is part of life. You can try to help the people of Haiti now, which we would all judge to be an unselfish act, or you can pray for your future salvation, which is an act rooted in fear, egocentricity and superstition.
Steven Carr said…
Some are from Bethinking

'God is deeply pained by our suffering, just as we are shocked, grieved and mystified by the suffering of our family and friends'

Somehow McGrath knows the mind of God......

And McGrath knows there is suffering in Heaven. God is pained.

So when you get to Heaven, expect to suffer. Even God suffers in Heaven.
Mike said…
God does only good; God created evil; therefore evil is good. Q.E.D.

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