Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Original Sin

Why does God let bad things happen?

A perfectly natural question that is asked by all children at some stage or another when they begin to learn about religion. If God has the power to stop bad things from happening (AIDS, the cyclone in Myanmar, the earthquake in China) why doesn't he? This is a natural curiosity that we should all have, and when thought about in detail, can be quite corrosive to the concept of "faith". Religion, for the most part, makes attempts to quell this challenge with a set of answers, often provided to the child by an uncomfortable teacher or perplexed parent, who isn't too sure if their answer is provable or 100% true, but I'm sure feels it's in the child's best interest not to let their natural curiosity run wild with the subject. It could be considered that this line of inquiry could diminish the child's faith and obedience to God, which might be thought of as bad for the child (losing their way/straying from the flock), or bad for the parent (in the same way that Santa Clause is used to keep a child behaving well, so a parent might fear a child's behaviour would worsen if they found out the truth about santa).

That is the way the question was answered for me when I was a child, and because there were other things that sparked my curiosity more than God, I tended not to probe further. During my teens, however, I started to think about this conundrum again, and when I did ask myself "why did God let bad things happen", I found that answers I was given and those that I considered myself always began with the caveat of splitting out two types of 'bad things':

The first category of "bad things" are man made atrocities - war, murder, kidnapping, rape etc. and this is rather succinctly explained by the concept of free will. God doesn't control us like robots, and therefore can't stop us doing these things without taking away our freedom. It raises small questions like how does God justify the importance of free will outweighing the negatives of the suffering of a child? How does one equate these things to make such a decision? But on the whole it's not an overly disagreeable concept. The crux of the matter comes with the second category of "bad things" - natural harms. For example, if we are made by God, and in his image, why are we born susceptible to disease? Why does a child, born to a drug using mother inherit this addiction? Why does a hurricane/earthquake claim so many innocent lives?

I've come across many people posing this question, and many responses (all from Christians) entailing biblically-rational and theistic reasoning to answer this question. The most common revolves around the concept of original sin. To quote the good book itself:

Genesis 3
17 Then to Adam He said, "Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, 'You shall not eat from it'; Cursed is the ground because of you; In toil you will eat of it All the days of your life. 18"Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; And you will eat the plants of the field; 19By the sweat of your face You will eat bread, Till you return to the ground, Because from it you were taken; For you are dust, And to dust you shall return."

Upon reading through many, seemingly well thought-out responses to variations on the question "why do bad things happen (to good people)?", the convoluted, mental gymnastics that people employ in attempting to produce a 'Christian' answer just astounds me.

Having been a Catholic/Christian for most of my life, the more I think about this God I used to worship the more I get repulsed. The notion that these things are "punishment" for original sin really makes me dislike this god character. In real life, for example, I wouldn't befriend someone who hates an ordinary English person for the occupation of Ireland that their ancestors carried out.

The other argument (which is slightly more logical) that these are inherited consequences of the original 'Fall from Grace' still invokes the same feelings in me that this god fellow is a bit of a vindictive bully. The argument is that he punished mankind only once, way back when, by casting Adam and Eve out of the garden of eden/paradise into a world where bad things can happen (some Christians take this literally, most take it to mean a metaphor for early humans that rejected/betrayed God somehow) and that the bad things we see now are not God punishing us, but as a consequence of the fact that we as a race were booted out of paradise because our ancestors were bold. This seems to get him off the hook at first... until you factor in that he is "all knowing" etc. Surely this God that cast Adam from paradise would know that these "consequences" would arise? This makes cancer/aids etc a slightly more indirect punishment, but a punishment none the less.

And when you apply this lofty theory to real life, it becomes even more horrific. What this implies is that, when a 2 year old African child dies of Aids, or an Indian child is born with no natural immunity to malaria (as all children are), or when an Irish child is born with the potential to develop leukaemia (again, as all children are) - that their suffering is because a tribe of a few thousand people a couple of millennia ago rejected God? If this was the action of a modern human, he might think something like this - Stalinist Russia was a godless state... so young children being born in Chernobyl have immense suffering as a punishment/consequence of a decision I made to cause the "fall" of the Soviet people. I knew their suffering would be a consequence of my actions, I have the ability to stop them suffering, but I don't. That is not a character that any sane person would admire (let alone worship!!)

This brings me back to the awe that I feel when I look at these complex arguements to justify how someone who is supposed to be good and all powerful, could be exonerated from blame for all these bad things. It seems like way too much mental effort to have to go so far out of the way to make this salient truth that "bad things happen" fit and mesh with the biblical notion and description of a personal god. To me it seems like clutching at straws that don't need to be clutched at. I don't know why a reasonable, intelligent person (as most of the Christian debaters seem to be) would go to these lengths to try make this square-shaped argument (the bible stories) fit into a circle-shaped hole (the facts of the bad things in the modern world) when there is a perfectly good circle-shaped () argument to hand!

In fact (to continue the metaphor), there are so many good (circle-shaped!) answers to the question that are so much easier on the mind, so much more academically satisfactory, and just so much more "common-sense"!!
Some examples:
1. The bible is wrong
2. The bible is a good book, but written by many people over many years, some of it is right but this bit is wrong.
3. God doesn't exist!
4. God exists, but he/she/it isn't a personal God. Maybe he/she/it light the match at the big bang, but doesn't break the laws of physics and intervene with humans or tamper with the workings of the world.
5. God exists but doesn't know we exist!

When I was younger, and I began asking all these type of questions to myself, the 5 answers above (and I entertained and considered each of them and variations of them at different times) seemed so much more logical and reasonable, and therefore so much more satisfying to me than my previous attempts to mash truths that were obvious to me (i.e. bad things happen) with a 2,000+ yr old framework of thoughts and proposed notions that the bible told me were true.

Hopefully (if you managed to read all that without getting too bored! ) it might have gone some way to answering the questions for you.

What but design of darkness to appall?
If design govern in a thing so small.
- The last couplet of 'Design', by Robert Frost

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