Friday, December 31, 2010

The Problem of Evil

Theodicy is the attempt to explain why suffering and evil exist in a world created by an all powerful, all knowing, and all loving God. If God is omniscient, then he knows about all the suffering in the world; if God is omnipotent, then he has the power to prevent suffering from occurring; and if he is perfectly good, then he would not want us to suffer so greatly. And yet there is an enormous amount of suffering in the world. This is a huge problem for theologians and believers alike: how to justify the evil existent in world they believe was created by a loving, powerful, all-knowing God. 
First, evil is everywhere; it’s caused by wars, murder, rape, slavery, genocides, and abuse of women and children. However, this type of “moral evil” (suffering caused by man’s inhumanity to man) is terrible - but it’s only the tip of the ice-burg. There is also the immense suffering caused by diseases such as malaria, AIDS, cancer, and tuberculosis - just to name a few. In the last millennia there have been 6 pandemics which have each killed between 1 and 100 million people. That number is so staggering that our brains can’t even comprehend it. Yet each number was a small child, a mother, a father, a brother or sister, a cousin, or a friend who was mourned over, as you or I would mourn over our own children.  Imagine that.  Malaria alone has killed between 80 - 250 million people in the last 100 years - mostly children.  And don’t forget the natural disasters (sometimes called “acts of God”) such as killer hurricanes, cyclones, earthquakes, and floods.  We all saw the suffering recently in Haiti and the 2004 Asian Tsunami that killed about 250,000 people each - many of which were women and children. But in just the last 500 years there have been 9 natural disasters, each of which killed at least 250,000 people. It seems as if God wants us to suffer, that He’s unaware of our suffering, or else He is a bungler of a creator who didn’t have the ability to create a world in which disease and natural disasters didn’t kill the innocent so indiscriminately. 
And, if you take pity on suffering animals, how can we justify their suffering - which has been occurring for much longer than humans have been around.  Animals with developed nervous systems, capable of suffering pain, have existed for 100 million years before modern humans evolved just 100,000 years ago. The animals died, and continue to die, horrible deaths: they are eaten alive, starve to death, die of dehydration, die of horrible diseases, are buried in earthquakes, or are burned alive in forest fires. Also, remember that 99% of all animal species that ever existed are now extinct because their birthrate couldn’t keep up with the death toll. The existent animals today are the lucky survivors of natural selection’s inefficient and cruel processes. Today, however, domesticated animals may have it worse off than their wild relatives - since they are bred, raised in horrible conditions, and then killed by the bucket load for our food.  The number of animals killed for our consumption is staggering: in 2000 alone, 9.7 billion animals were killed just in the U.S.  - many of these sentient creatures died painful deaths after having lived even more terrible lives of unimaginable suffering. This type of evil - suffering caused by natural disasters, disease, or animal suffering - I call “natural evil”. 
Theologians have been struggling for centuries to find answers to the thorny problem of suffering in a world supposedly designed by a simultaneously all knowing, all powerful, and all loving God. But none of them, as I'll now try to explain, are valid explanations.
My first exposure to an attempt to explain the existence of evil was while reading the “Book of Mormon” in high school. In Alma chapter 14, Alma and Amulek are preaching to the wicked people of Ammonihah who, after rejecting the message, round-up the righteous women and children and begin throwing them into a large fire. Amulek, witnessing the horrific sight and sounds of innocent women and children being burned alive, says to Alma that they should use God’s power to stop the genocide. However, Alma says that “The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day.”  
According to Alma, God allows terrible suffering on the innocent so that he can later punish the wicked. However, this is like saying that if we had the power to stop a terrible crime that was occurring, such as the murder of a woman and her children, that we shouldn’t try to stop the killer, because then we wouldn’t be able to prosecute and punish the killer afterwords!?  If somebody allowed such murders to occur, with full knowledge of the crime in progress, and the power to safely stop it, we would surely prosecute THAT person as well. I don’t know why God somehow gets a pass for allowing suffering that He knows about and has the power to stop. However, this justification for evil is rarely used - probably because it’s so weak. 
The most common justification for suffering and evil is the free will defense.  I was convinced for a long time that free-will explained the “problem of pain”.  According to the free-agency defense, evil exists because humans misuse their God granted free-agency. Free agency is given so that we can choose between good and evil. God can’t stop people from using their free-agency because good can only exist if we are also free to choose what is evil.  In this way, good can’t exist without evil. In the Book of Mormon, Lehi utilizes the “free-will” defense when he says “it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.  If not so . . . righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad.” 
Nicholas Everett said the following with regards to this line of thought: “If a thug shoots me in the leg, it is certainly good if there is a compassionate person to care for me - but it would be absurd to say that the good of the compassion is so great that it justifies the thug in shooting me in the first place. The world would be a better place with neither the shooting nor the compassion.” 
The other, and more damning, problem with the free-will defense is that the victims of the misuse of free-will are often innocent. In “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the irreligious Ivan Karamazov has a discussion with his brother Alyosha (who is about to become a monk) about why God would allow innocent children to suffer. Ivan recounts a story about a little girl who is abused, beat, and tortured by her parents until “her whole body was nothing but bruises”. The child, a five-year old, has a bathroom accident in the middle of the night, so her cruel parents make her eat her own excrement, smear it in her face, and then lock her in the outhouse in the cold Russian night. Ivan then says “Can you understand what a small creature, who cannot even comprehend what is being done to her, in a vile place, in the dark and cold, beats herself on her strained little chest with her tiny fist and weeps with her anguished, gentle, meek tears for ‘dear God’ to protect her - can you understand . . . why this nonsense is needed and created? Without it, they say, man could not even have lived on earth, for he would not have known good and evil. Who wants to know this damned good and evil at such as price? The whole world of knowledge is not worth the tears of that little child to ‘dear God.’”  If suffering is the ticket needed by God for our salvation, Ivan says he would “most respectfully return him the ticket.” To this blasphemy, Alyosha accuses Ivan of rebellion against God. 
Ivan’s reply to this accusation is to ask Alyosha to “imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fists . . . would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?” To which Alyosha answers softly “No, I would not agree.” Dostoevsky, who believed in God, later tries to defend the problem of pain by saying it is necessary for our growth and eventual salvation. I read “The Brothers Karamazov” the year before I went to medical school. I remember being troubled by the fact the Dostoevsky couldn’t rebut his own argument to my satisfaction (as he tried to do in a subsequent chapter). 
But the real destroyer of the free-will defense is the fact that much, if not most, suffering has nothing to do with people exercising their free-agency. The 2010 Haiti earthquake indiscriminately killed people in their homes, schools, or places of work. The 2004 Asian Tsunami killed mostly women, children, or the frail unable to swim or run for high ground.  Free-will had nothing to do with it; nor does it have anything to do with the millions of children who die from malaria and AIDS every year today. Free-will also has nothing to do with the vast amounts of animals suffering. Neither does some greater good that could possible come from suffering, as Nicholas Everett suggests with his example of the leg shooting thug. The world would be better without malaria and birth-defects, as well as the hospitals and medications which we use try and treat them with.  And for what possible greater good do animals and children, incapable of free will, suffer so much for? And why so much gratuitous suffering? 

And yet God supposedly set up the world in just this way - so that suffering was inevitable. For example, He supposedly created an animal world split between herbivores, designed to avoid predators, and carnivores, optimally designed to capture prey.  The upshot is that the flourishing of some animals absolutely requires the suffering of the others.  Either some animals will die of starvation, or other animals will be torn to pieces and eaten. As Richard Dawkins observed, “Who’s side is God on?” 
God supposedly created the world so that, after 99% of all animal species had already become extinct, humans would evolve to be able to worship Himself.  But to worship this God is to worship a being who also created cancer, smallpox, and birth defects. To worship this God is to worship a being who created an earth with a thin crust that occasionally shifts suddenly - causing devastating earthquakes and tsunami’s. To worship this God is to worship a creator who designed an earth with volatile weather patterns that cause famines and floods that kill millions. Couldn’t God design a better world that didn’t have all this suffering built into it, or at least not so much gratuitous suffering?  If he knew about the suffering his plan would cause, if he had the ability to minimize the suffering, and if he really loves us, then why wouldn’t He? 
Some say that God allows suffering because it allows other people the opportunity to try and alleviate it. The service opportunities that God provides, therefore, helps us to grow spiritually. By similar logic, then, it would be a good thing for me to go around and shoot people in the knee-caps because it gives someone else (doctors and Good Samaritans) the opportunity to administer to their wounds, and thereby grow at the expense of others suffering. Again, we instantly recognize that this is a ridiculous immoral scenario. But is there any difference when we assume God is the omniscient “knee-capper” who  causes suffering so we can have growth opportunities? 
The final gasped explanation for suffering is to say something like: “God’s ways are not man’s ways. We don’t know why suffering occurs. But there must be some reason it happens that only God knows. Trust in the Lord.” However, this is not an explanation or a defense at all.  It’s an admission by the believer that they can’t think of any possible explanation why God causes such suffering.  By way of analogy, imagine a person on trial for murder. This person was observed by multiple witnesses shooting the victim, there’s video surveillance of the murder happening, and the defendant’s fingerprints and DNA are on the murder weapon. Then imagine his defense attorney saying to the judge: “I don’t know why my client shot so-and-so, but he’s such a good person, there must be some reason that is simply beyond our ability to understand. Let’s just trust that he had a good reason, and let him off the hook.” What would an impartial judge say to that sort of defense? The “trust in the Lord” defense of “the problem of evil” is no different. 
Maybe there is a God, (not probable, but I can't prove otherwise) but whatever God is, he can’t have the properties of being simultaneously all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving. That confluence of characteristics is incompatible. God must then be something else; perhaps something sadistic because of the suffering he either causes or sanctions. Or maybe God is only all knowing and all loving, but an incompetent God who bungled his creation attempt. Or maybe he didn’t know what suffering his creation would cause because he’s not all-knowing. Or maybe he is aloof to human wishes: the God of the Deists who set the universe in motion and then left us to our own devices. It seems God, if he is anything at all, can be at most, only two out of the three all-powerful metaphysical qualities people usually ascribe to him (all-powerful, knowledgeable, and loving).  And if he is not simultaneously all three, then why does he deserve to be worshiped?
The foregoing makes it sound as if I’m mad at God. No - I can’t quixotically attack a myth of fiction, just as I can’t be mad at fictional villians such as Iago, Hannibal Lecter, or Cruella de Vil. 
It’s better to accept the fact that evil exist in the world. That it’s just the way the world is.  And because evil exists, we need to do everything we can to minimize the suffering that will surely continue.  We live in a universe that is, in many ways, fairly blind and indifferent to our suffering.  Mankind, rather than a God who supposedly wants us to suffer and therefore designed a world in which we would suffer, is the only hope to minimize some of the vast amounts of suffering in the world. 

How To Deal With Apostates

It’s normal human behavior to treat individuals “in” our own self-identifiable group (be it race, religion, or culture) better than we treat people “out” of our group. This in-group preference is also normal animal behavior - which gives us some clues as to where the behavior came from, and why it’s a fairly base behavioral drive that we should strive to overcome. We live in a pluralistic society that can do without xenophobia. So here are some of my suggestions to active Mormons know someone who has left the Church (their group) feel like they are not being shunned. Shunning is also human nature, but it feels terrible to be on the receiving end. 

The main problem is not the members: it's the doctrine and policy of the Church.  But the doctrine doesn't exist in a vacuum; everything in life is part of a great causal web.  What LDS members are taught from childhood on can obviously effect their attitudes and behavior toward “apostates” like me.  However, I've observed that most members can look past the doctrinal implications and treat members like me very well. For example, my ward hasn’t done anything to make me feel "second-class." The most negative reactions have come closer to home (a perverse form of kin selection where their efforts to help actually hurt).   So here are some suggestions to improve the "not so helpful" reactions that I, and others like myself, have experienced. 

First, check your assumptions.  One of the worst things we do as humans is infer something (wrongly) from another flimsy bit of information. For example, when someone leaves the Church, LDS people tend to assume certain things about why they left. The Church has scriptures, hymns, magazine articles, and lessons that are chock-full of assumptions about the blessed state of the faithful and the misery of apostasy. Check out the Joseph Smith and Brigham Young Priesthood & RS lesson manuals for a few characteristic examples from the normal Sunday fare.  It's also just plain-old human nature to assume negative things about people who seem different than you; and nothing seems so different as when someone walks away from the Church.

LDS members usually assume we leave because of something we did (sin), or that we are running away from something (responsibility or guilt), or maybe that we were offended, or just distracted by materialism and neglected to strengthen our testimony until it slowly died out. Or maybe we were never truly converted to begin with. Whatever the assumption, it's usually disparaging to the apostate, while it simultaneously helps the LDS member cope with someone (maybe someone they trusted or respected) who left.  It seems to be a cognitive defense mechanism to protect them from their own personal crisis of faith.

Maybe you know someone who left the Church who actually was a selfish, lazy, materialist who was having an affair (yes - I've been accused of this too) seemingly making the assumptions true. I’m sure the assumption is true in some cases - perhaps many. But that would not mean that it's true in every case - or even the majority of cases. Lots of people are selfish, lazy, and materialistic.  The assumption was only true for the anecdotal instance you observed.  Lots of people may have just wanted answers to their sincere questions and concerns - and concluded differently than you. That shouldn’t be too hard to imagine. 

Instead of making assumptions, a helpful response would be to (ready for this?) ask your friend or family member why they left the Church, and then listen. I know it's crazy, but people really appreciate the openness. I know I would have.  It is extremely validating and makes you feel valued as an individual. However, I can't remember anybody asking me this most basic question.

In medical school we are taught to ask people what their chief complaint is (why they visited the doctor) and then to just listen and let them talk. You discover so much about what is wrong when you can do this - and the patients appreciate it too. But doctors have this bad habit of assuming they know what's wrong after a few sentences from the patient,  they quickly peg a diagnosis onto them, and then assign a treatment - all of which may be wrong because they forgot to listen. So in summary, don't assume anything, let the person speak for themselves, and listen while trying to keep an open mind. 

Second, don't make religion taboo to discuss. Religion seems to be “untouchable” or “off-limits” to discuss in any context of criticism.  But why should religion be afforded such special protection from inquiry - especially if it’s done with respect towards the individual believer?  It's possible to critique an idea without disparaging the individual. We rationally investigate and critique the ideas of science, history, economics, politics, psychology, and philosophy (any field of knowledge in fact) and the best ideas are left standing in the end. Then why not religion? Why is it somehow off-limits? Hiding behind the defense that "it's sacred" is a cop-out; an ostrich with it's head in the sand; a wizard behind the curtain; a way to keep religion safely out-of-bounds from any inquiry.

When someone won’t talk to you about religion, then you feel shunned, and that you are less important than the idea you can’t talk about. This is my main problem with true-believing-Mormons and their allergic reaction to skeptical inquiry.  Instead of silence, it would be helpful if the subject of religion could be openly talked about. Other religions, such as moderate forms of Judaism, Buddhism, and some mainline Christian churches handle debate, difference of opinion, and dialogue just fine. Unquestioning obedience to authority is something that should have died during The Enlightenment in the 18th century. I don't know why it lingers on today in the LDS church.

Also, what does it say about the strength of someone’s convictions, if they are unwilling to discuss them with someone of a different opinion? If people have really good reasons for their beliefs, then differences of opinion shouldn’t be so threatening. It seems too obvious to note that people avoid things they think are dangerous to them. That’s why we are innately scared of (and avoid) the dark, spiders, snakes, rotting corpses, heights, deep water, vegetarians, Voldemort, and midget clowns.  But why is my opinion so dangerous? 

Discussing different religious opinions does not have to be dangerous.  I think that people (on both sides of any opinion) will only benefit when they engage in constructive dialogue. Why? Because other people usually see our faults better than we do (just ask your spouse). We have cognitive blind spots regarding our own illogical beliefs because it’s hard for our own brain to fact check itself. That’s why dictators are usually the most ignorant of people; nobody tells them they are wrong.  And aren’t human beings wrong all the time about things? Of course we are; all of us; both you and me. We are humans after all - not angels!  You might help smooth-off a rough edge of my beliefs, and I might return the favor.  Having a certain humility of conviction, and a willingness to hear other opinions - even to change our minds sometimes - helps smooth out any dialogue.

America's Most Distrusted Minority

Yesterday I was talking to one of the surgeons at work - a good friend and super nice guy - about religion. He knew I was LDS, and asked me if I had watched General Conference over the weekend. This launched an interesting conversation about religion. He told me he has a sister who joined the LDS church when she was 21, who is now happily married, active, and living in Mesa.  We were having this conversation in a crowded area of the OR. But before he told me what he thought about religion, we moved into an uncrowded supply room, and in a hushed voice, he told me: “I’m agnostic - but lean mostly toward atheism.” He said this like it was some kind of murder confession!  He also said that “if people here knew what I thought about religion, I would be totally ostracized.” I told him I’ve had the same thought. 

So I wondered if there was any data to support that feeling we both had. According to recent scientific opinion polls, there is:

For example, a 2006 University of Minnesota study found that “Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in 'sharing their vision of American society.' Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry." 

In addition to not being good Americans or good future sons or daughters-in-law, atheists are not viewed as qualified to be President either. According to a 2007 Gallup Poll, when asked if their party nominated “an otherwise well-qualified person for president”,  only 45% said they would be willing to vote for them if they were an atheist - the lowest ranking minority group in the study. More Americans would be willing to vote for a black candidate (94%), a Jew (92%), a woman (88%), a Mormon (72%), or a homosexual (55%), than for an atheist.

So if atheists are America’s most distrusted minority, the next question would be “Why?”  Why do people think nonbelievers do not share “their vision of American society?” Why wouldn’t someone want a nonbeliever to marry their son or daughter? Why would it be virtually impossible for a nonbeliever to be President  (even though many of our forefathers, such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Paine were non-Christian Deists who were rather critical of religion)? I mean, who wouldn’t want John Adams or Thomas Jefferson to be President again? :-)

In short, why the prejudice against a minority group based solely upon their religious views?

My Personal Story

Here’s the story of how I went from true believing Mormon (TBM) to religious skeptic. 

First, a little background.  I was raised in a very active LDS home. I come from serious Mormon pioneer stock and am a 5th or 6th generation Mormon. I am an Eagle Scout and I graduated from seminary, went on a Mormon mission, went to BYU, married in the temple, and served in various church callings including Gospel Doctrine teacher and a member of the bishopric. I am happily married and have four wonderful kids.  

I'll get into the particulars later, but in short, I had doubts about the Church going back to my teenage years. Specifically, I had doubts about Joseph Smith, polygamy, and blacks and the priesthood. Later, as I learned about evolution, I became troubled with the LDS view of human origins because it didn't fit well with the scientific facts I was learning in college and medical school. I never investigated these issues that troubled me and mostly accepted the apologists' explanations for them. The doubts never really went away, but I got good at putting them "on the shelf" - at least until I finished medical school and was about half way through my anesthesiology residency. That's when I could not ignore the doubts any longer.  

I read Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling during my anesthesia residency. It was a faithful examination of the real story of Joseph Smith from a believer's perspective. I came away  from this book thinking that Joseph Smith was very human, very fallible, and prone to human foibles and weaknesses. However, I still could make space in my faith for a two-dimensional Joseph Smith: part prophet, part man. When Joseph was a prophet, he was inspired. But when he was just being “Joseph” he was just as fallible as the next guy. 

However, Joseph Smith introduced the doctrine of polygamy while in his prophetic role. He taught that God demanded him to practice it, to instruct leaders of the Church to practice it, and that it was necessary for salvation. In learning the details of polygamy, I learned that Joseph Smith lied to his wife about it, he lied to the church about it, and he repeatedly lied to the public about it. Hugely influential books for me on the subject were Mormon Polygamy: A History by Richard Van Wagoner and In Sacred Loneliness by Todd Compton. 

What was disturbing was that this history - readily available to anybody, and extremely well documented by the Church - was very different than what I had been taught. The discrepancy between the actual historical account and the “faithful version” taught by the Church struck me as dishonest. Uncomfortable facts of history are carefully scrubbed from Church publications and are not discussed during church or seminary. 
Other troubling aspects of LDS history include Joseph Smith's  involvement in the occult, magic and gold-digging using magic stones which he later used to translate the Book of Mormon, Joseph’s heavy involvement in Freemasonry (which Joseph borrowed heavily from to create the Mormon temple ceremonies), the anachronisms in The Book of Mormon, the lack of any archaeologic, linguistic, or DNA evidence of Hebrews in America, glaring problems with the translation of the Book of Abraham (the papyrus he translated is actually a common pagan funerary text called “The Book of the Dead” that has nothing to do with the Book of Abraham), theocracy in Kirtland, Nauvoo, and Utah, racism practiced in the Church towards blacks until 1978, and opposition to the Civil Rights movement, LDS opposition to gender equality - especially during its political involvement fighting the ERA amendment and the Proclamation on the Family, and most recently its unethical opposition to same-sex marriage (including its behind-the-scenes involvement with Prop 8). 
This is only the barest of introductions to the issues I investigated.  I read voraciously for months from the most reliable sources I could find, trying cautiously to avoid both anti-Mormon and pro-Mormon bias. When the dust settled, I concluded that it was extremely improbable that the LDS church was anything other than a human invention and that our leaders were no more inspired than anyone else. 

What’s odd is how, one day, it just clicked. I woke up on Sunday Dec 28th, 2008, ready for a busy day of bishopric meetings, interviews, and Church services. But by the end of the day, I had told my bishop that I didn’t have a testimony anymore. I told my wife earlier that same day in between meetings. 
Initially, she was devastated. But as we communicated (which we have always been good at), and as she read the same information about LDS history, our viewpoints eventually converged.

I then examined Christian theology and my belief in God and found it just as vacuous and untenable as Mormonism.  Great claims require great evidence. However, during my search for answers about Jesus and God, I found no evidence that was reliable and convincing to me. 

However, I did not become morally unhinged or nihilistic after losing my faith. I think people can be moral without religion. I don’t feel any less moral than I did before. In fact, I feel a greater connectedness to people than I ever felt before. I feel a greater sense of wonder and awe about life. I feel free as I never have before. I feel life is a wonderful and precious journey that I'm lucky to be on. In short, I’m very happy with where I am now, and have no regrets with my search for truth. Life isn't perfect, but I think I’m as happy - maybe even a little happier - than the next guy. Of course I don’t know everything. But I feel very confident about my conclusions regarding the LDS church. I wouldn’t leave if I didn’t. 
My parents and siblings did not take the news well. There have been some tensions there. But we are arriving at a workable situation. It has been frustrating since the Church can condition members to ostracize and judge someone who leaves the church. Sometimes it can lead to family estrangement (ironic in a religion that claims to put family first). To some, I am an apostate, proud, sinful, intellectual, lazy, a bad father, blinded, etc. But we’re working through it. 
Anyway, I enjoy reading about and discussing religion. I still find it fascinating even though I don't believe in it as I once did.  I believe there are many ways to find happiness in life.  Religion works for some people. But it doesn't work for me.  I don’t have any desire to dislodge people from their beliefs, nor do I have any motive for making converts. My missionary days are over. But I do find it enjoyable to talk to people about religion.  
And maybe this is why I chose to start this blog. I need a voice, an outlet. There is no outlet for disagreement or opposing views in the Church, which is why I don’t attend anymore. My parents and siblings, for the most part, are not interested in talking to me about what I think. My opinions are too dangerous to their faith.  I understand why, and don't blame them. It's the system we were all raised in. We're taught to be scared of contrary facts and opinions, lest they damage our faith. They have too much to lose given the sunken costs of a lifetime of LDS membership. 

Maybe my journey will be helpful to someone else out there searching. Maybe someone else reading this will feel that they are not alone in the world.