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Thought for the Day, 15 January 2010

Some more on Haiti and the problem of evil, this time from The Rev. Dr Giles Fraser:

The word "theodicy" describes the intellectual attempt to justify the existence of God in the face of human suffering. Coined by Leibniz at the beginning of the eighteenth century, he argued that out of the various possible worlds that God could have created, he might have created the best of these, a world containing less suffering than all the other options available. With this suggestion, Leibniz sought to explain how it's at least logically possible that a merciful God could create a world with the suffering that it has.

And then, in 1755, some years after Leibniz published his famous argument, a massive earthquake hit Lisbon on the morning of the first of November, the popular feast day of All Saints. A 15ft crack opened down the middle of the street. Locals watched the tide disappear only to return as a huge wave that drowned most of the city. 30-40 thousand people were killed.

It was in the face of this terrible disaster that Voltaire came to mount his celebrated attack upon Leibniz in Candide. Voltaire cast Leibniz as the foolish Dr Pangloss, ready to trot out the absurd idea that this is the best of all possible worlds whatever misfortune befell him. The satire was biting. He was claiming that all theologians seem to care about in the face of human misery is getting God off the hook. Theodicy, Voltaire insists, is a moral disgrace and a sick joke.

Well, I have no answer to the question of how God can allow so many innocent people to die in natural disasters, like the earthquakes of Lisbon or Haiti. And indeed, I can quite understand that many will regard these events as proof positive that religious people are living a foolish dream like the idiotic Dr Pangloss.

And yet, I still believe. For there exists a place in me - deeper than my rational self - that compels me to respond to tragedies like Haiti not with argument but with prayer. On a very basic level, what people find in religion is not so much the answers, but a means of responding to and living with life's hardest questions. And this is why a tragedy like this doesn't, on the whole, make believers suddenly wake up to the foolishness of their faith. On the contrary, it mostly tends to deepen our sense of a need for God.

What many believers mean by faith is not that we have a firm foundation in rational justification. Those, like Leibniz, who try to claim this are, I believe, rationalizing something that properly exists on another level. Which is why, at a moment like this, I'd prefer to leave the arguments to others. For me, this is a time quietly to light a candle for the people of Haiti and to offer them up to God in my prayers. May the souls of the departed rest in peace.


Toby said…
But a much better summary of his argument can be found on the excellent Platitude of the Day blog.
Anonymous said…
Resorting to prayer helps people rationalise their decision to do absolutley nothing, or very little, in the face of overwhelming suffering of others or indeed, their own personal woes, leaving everything to higher authorities in both this world and their imagination.

Much better would be to do much of the very little and encourage as many others to do their respective little things in order to create a big wave.

Mine is to complain bitterly of what is looking like a military invasion of a disaster area.
Mike said…
By the way, I remember readig some discussion on this blog a few weeks ago in response to one of Stephen's rough-draft book excerpts on the question of whether non-believers are less generous than believers when it comes to helping the needy. So I just thought I'd give another mention to the Richard Dawkins Foundation project for Haiti, "Non-Believers Giving Aid." Here is an update (a couple of days old now) on how the fundraiser is going:

I hope we pass the word on to our friends.
Jit said…
Yes, anonymous regarding prayer as the easy option.

"It's time quietly to light a candle.."

'nuff said.
Greg O said…
Oh for goodness' sake. I think I prefer the traditional barmy rationalizations to this sort of sorrowful shrugging of the shoulders. Of course there seems to be a "need" for a powerful, benign guardian when tens of thousands of people are dying slowly with bits of their houses on top of them - doesn't mean one's going to show up though, does it? You might just as well say "it's at times like this I think Superman must be real". I'm not sure I've ever read such a shameless defence of wishful thinking.
anticant said…
I cannot understand what people who pray think they are actually doing, and what type of meaningful communication they believe their prayers result in.

In the past I have had many discussions with religious friends about this, and none of them came up with convincing answers. One in particular - a really impressive woman who did a great many practical good works - devoutly believed that if one laid one's concerns before God, He would take care of them, and that in the end Goodness had the edge over Evil.

If only it were that simple!

Faith, I suppose, means believing against the evidence. A superb recent example was this exchange between the Archbishop of Canterbury and Richard Dawkins in a BBC interview:

DAWKINS: You believe in science?


DAWKINS: But what about the Virgin Birth?

ARCHBISHOP: Oh yes, I believe in that too.

DAWKINS: But isn't that just superstitious nonsense?

ARCHBISHOP: In a very real sense it could be thought of as Nature opening herself up to her own depths.

DAWKINS (incredulously): What on earth does that mean?

ARCHBISHOP: Well nothing I suppose. I was just trying to be poetic.
Stephen Law said…
anticant - have you a source for that quote I could check as I would like to stick it in a forthcoming book...... it is magnificent!
Unknown said…
"For there exists a place in me ... that compels me to respond to tragedies like Haiti not with argument but with prayer."

That's not true. There is no such "place".
Anonymous said…
We have the ability to opine as we chose and to pray if we choose that. We do not however have any knowledge of God in the context of disasters or even a simple sunny day.

That we can choose to interpret signs and determine our actions accordingly; is also a human trait.

I believe God is; that is my opinion.

Haiti needs is a simple truth.
anticant said…
Stephen, it was quoted in a comment on a Guardian CIF thread. The poster said it was from a TV discussion between Dawkins and the Archbishop about evolution. Perhaps you could track it via the BBC archive?
David Pilavin said…
To Stephen:

The conversation that anticant
metionned could be found here

But it is quite different from the way anticant presented it - so maybe it's not such a great quote - if quoted correctly
Stephen Law said…
david - i think that's the wrong link - it goes to Hitchens.
David Pilavin said…
To Stephen

I checked it and it's OK - the actual interview starts at 1:32 or thereabouts
Stephen Law said…
I just get Christopher Hitchens in Madison. Odd....
David Pilavin said…
To Stephen

It is very odd - and I thought that it is the World Wide Web - a universal thing - it's very strange that the same url would yield two different virtual locations in two different geographical locations - here (in Israel) and there (the UK)

Anyhow - I suggest you just search for "Dawkins interviews Rowan Williams" on youtube and you'll find it
Steven Carr said…
'What many believers mean by faith is not that we have a firm foundation in rational justification.'

Giles Fraser is one of those people who lambast atheists for not understanding sophisticated theology - the kind that does not have a firm foundation in rational justification.
Paul S. Jenkins said…
Giles Fraser's Thought for the Day had me swearing in my kitchen. It was worse than useless.
Martin said…
Dawkins interviews Williams throws up "This video contains content from Channel 4, who has decided to block it in your country." for YouTube in the UK. I found a Times interview that suggests it was broadcast around about August 2008, but I can't locate it on the Channel Four website.

With regards Fraser's justification, I think the telling phrase is "deeper than my rational self". This clearly refers to his irrational self, but the comparative deeper is used to imply there is something more profound at his core. I say imply, because the statement makes no more sense than saying "hotter than my rational self" or "fatter ..." or "nearer the surface ...". Fraser is saying he is compelled to respond to tragedies with irrational nonsense. Fair enough, I suppose, but hardly a very grown up way to respond.
anticant said…
Sorry if I've started a wild goose chase - it just goes to show how elusive the origins of sexed-up dodgy dossiers, sacred gospels and even recent TV programmes are!
I think that can be roughly paraphrased like so:

So God is going to do whatever he wants. There is a "mysterious purpose beyond the ken of our limited human minds......but lets pray anyway! Lets ask him to do stuff and when he does (at about the rate of random chance) then lets thank him for his benevolent divine mercy but when he go right ahead and slaughters thousands well.....lets not try to reason about it, that only leads to realising what a giant heap of steaming dung this religion lark really is, no! instead lets appeal to our deep seeded need for a sky daddy. That will make us feel much better. Cognitive dissonence be damned!!

Praise Jesus! Pray to God that he at least doesn't postumously torture all those people he just killed and lets them 'rest' in peace. God is love and mercy and mystery. God is so gosh darned awesome!
Anonymous said…
Hey CC,

I would say this was more about presenting the problem of evil, shrug with impotence, come around with how religion has a function in giving this reverend some consolation in times when little can be done. When we are confronted with our limitations. In other words. It is just "being poetic" at the same time as he inadvertently gives us an example of one reason why there are religions (around invented anthropomorphic superbeings): because we feel impotent, we try and rationalize that someone else might be able to truly do something about it.

pikeamus Mike said…
I truly despise the use of the phrase "on another level" towards the end of this piece. That phrase is almost always used to imply that the thing on the other level is better. Implying that "faith based thinking" is better than rational thinking is exactly why moderate religious folk are just as bad as fundamentalists.

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