In the Garden of Eden, Honey …

So, Eric MacDonald decided to talk about keeping New Atheism strident, but it ends up being more a discussion of why evolution and Judeo-Christianity-Islam aren’t compatible. And he says this:

To find, after years of suffering and sorrow — and that is, I suspect, the experience of most people a good bit of the time — that the god who designed all this could have done a much better job, right from the start.

And he quotes Hume immediately thereafter:

In a word, CLEANTHES, a man who follows your hypothesis is able perhaps to assert, or conjecture, that the universe, sometime, arose from something like design: but beyond that position he cannot ascertain one single circumstance; and is left afterwards to fix every point of his theology by the utmost license of fancy and hypothesis. This world, for aught he knows, is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance: it is the work only of some dependent, inferior deity; and is the object of derision to his superiors: it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force which it received from him. You justly give signs of horror, DEMEA, at these strange suppositions; but these, and a thousand more of the same kind, are CLEANTHES’s suppositions, not mine. From the moment the attributes of the Deity are supposed finite, all these have place. And I cannot, for my part, think that so wild and unsettled a system of theology is, in any respect, preferable to none at all.

Now, my usual response to these sorts of arguments that basically boil down to “If there’s a God, how come the world isn’t better than it is?” is to reply that you can’t judge whether the world is the best it could be without looking at the design specs, or what God wanted the world to be like. And I still think that’s a decent argument. But it’s quite weak compared to this one:

Of course God could have created a much better world. He could have created a perfect world, with no suffering or problems or anything. But that would be like the world the Garden of Eden talked about, and no matter how you take that story something has happened to make it so that we can’t have that sort of world. So why, then, are you claiming that it’s an incompatibility with Judeo-Christian-Islamic religion to not have a perfect world? The basic text of those religions outright says that the world will not be perfect.

So, what this will do is ask: how good a world ought it be? Should we have had less suffering, and so a different method than evolution? Is there some benefit to having suffering in the world, even if it isn’t being done to moral agents?

And so it all boils down to: if we concede that those religions do not and cannot advocate a perfect world without suffering, and if we concede that this world is not, in fact, designed to produce maximal suffering, how imperfect a world could we expect to have and still have a God in it and creating guiding it?

And since MacDonald used to be an Anglican priest, I’m surprised he hasn’t already thought of this issue. There ain’t no livin’ in a perfect world, but those who advance these arguments keep on dreamin’ of livin’ in a perfect world. It’s time we stopped doing that and started arguing as if there doesn’t need to be a perfect world, but that the world ought to be better than it is if there’s a God. So no simply pointing out some design flaws or issues that cause pain, suffering and death, but issues that really ought not be there if there is a God. This will require a bit more thought, and I’d be interested in seeing if any come up.

A while ago, I argued with someone who said that God could, at least, make it so that there was no such thing as childhood leukemia. I replied that if he conceded that God has no obligation to eliminate all suffering, why is it that childhood leukemia is so bad that He would have a moral obligation to remove it? Is it worse than adult leukemia, morally? And if it isn’t that much different or worse, then why stop at it? Why not move on to adult leukemia, and all cancers, and all diseases, and all suffering? But that would eliminate all suffering, and if it is conceded that we don’t have to have a painless world for God to not be contradictory, then the question will always be “Where do we draw the line?”. So that’s what I ask people like Eric MacDonald: where do we draw the line?


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