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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Christian Delusion: Chapter Nine--The Darwinian Problem of Evil

Today, I continue working my way through The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, edited by John W. Loftus. Loftus is the author of chapter nine, "The Darwinian Problem of Evil." What Loftus is referring to is the amount of animal suffering throughout the long history of evolution on this planet continuing to the present day. He quotes from Richard Dawkins:
The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive; others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites; thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease . . . . The universe, we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference (River Out of Eden, pp. 131-32 cited by Loftus, p. 239).
Man's moral sensibilities related to animal suffering seem to have evolved as well. Whereas in the past, there seemed to be little concern because animals were thought to be soul-less creatures who could not really feel pain and emotion; modern understanding of animal neurology indicates that they have many of the same feelings that we humans have. For those of us who have pets and love animals, we cannot stand the thought of our beloved animal friends suffering. Yet, if there is a God, he created the world in such a way that animals must prey on one another to survive. Is that demonstrative of an all-loving, perfectly good God? Loftus doesn't think so and he evaluates eight different answers that Christians have offered to explain this problem.

1. Animal suffering is due to the fall of Adam.

There are two variations:

a.The first way is the traditional solution that a historical fall in the Garden subsequently caused human and animal suffering from that time forward. (p. 243)

This is the classic Christian answer to the problem. It is held today by many conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists. It is falling more and more out of favor because it is dependent upon a literal reading of Genesis 1-3 and therefore an earth created in six 24 hour days less than 10,000 years ago.

b. The second way is that God retroactively created these painful effects into creation from the very start, antecedently, because he foreknew a later fall would occur (p. 243).

This view is held by those who believe in theistic evolution and recognize that animal suffering had been going on for millions of years before man appeared on the scene. Some of the proponents of this position include: Michael Murray, A. H. Strong, and William Dembski.

The problem with both of these variations is why should animals be punished for what man did? It seems grossly unfair and unkind to subject them to such terrible suffering for something that was totally beyond their control.

2. Animal suffering is due to the evil influence of demons and Satan.

This view was held by no less than C. S. Lewis. He wrote:
some mighty created power had already been at work for ill on the material universe, or the solar system, or, at least, the planet Earth, before ever man came on the scene . . . If there is such a power, as I myself believe, it may well have corrupted the animal creation before man appeared . . . The Satanic corruption of the beasts would therefore be analogous, in one respect, to the Satanic corruption of man (The Problem of Pain, p. 135 cited by Loftus, p. 250).
Other notables holding this view or one very similar to it are Richard Swinburne and Greg Boyd.

The problem with this view is well expressed by Richard Kingston:
If God entrusted to fallible angelic beings such absolute control over creation that it was within their power to "brutalize" the animal kingdom for all time, then he cannot be exonerated from all culpability for what allegedly happened. Must we not go further and say that such action would indicate either incompetence or the fact that the sufferings of the lower creatures are unimportant in eyes of the Creator? (Animals and Christianity, p. 74 cited by Loftus, p. 251).
So, this view really does not answer the problem of how an omnipotent and perfectly good being could allow Satan and the demons to "brutalize" his creation. Either, as Kingston says, God doesn't care about the suffering of the animals (in which case he has less virtue than man does) or he couldn't stop Satan from corrupting his creation (in which case he is not all-powerful). The only other alternative is to say that God must have a good reason for doing this, although we don't know what it is--but that is answer #8 (see below).

3. Animals really do NOT suffer.

A third option is to say that animals have no souls, cannot think, and therefore, feel little or no pain (p. 252). This position was put forth by the philosopher Rene Descartes. He saw animals as little more than machines. Those who followed his teaching
administered beatings to dogs with perfect indifference, and made fun of those who pitied the creatures as if they felt pain. They said the animals were clocks; that the cries they emitted when struck were only the noise of a little spring that had been touched, but that the whole body was without feeling (Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, pp. 201-02 cited by Loftus, p. 253).
While I am not aware of any theologian or philosopher today (and Loftus doesn't mention one) that would argue that animals cannot feel pain, the general notion seems to be prevalent in the way that many moderns treat animals (both in hunting, trapping, and slaughterhouses).

Science has conclusively shown that animals do in fact feel pain and experience the emotions of fear and anxiety as well. An omniscient God would have known this when he created the animal kingdom so the only conclusion one can draw is that he simply doesn't care about their suffering. Maybe, if there is a Creator, his attitude is the same as ours when we step on an ant or a spider? That brings us to explanation #4.

4. and 5.  God is indifferent to animal suffering.

(While Loftus has two different views under 4 and 5,  I see them as essentially the same.)

This view holds that God is using animals as a means to an end. They only have instrumental value and no intrinsic value (p. 257). This view grows out of the idea that only man is created in the "image of God" and animals are present on the planet in order to meet man's needs.

The problem with this view is that it is repugnant to man's moral sensibilities. It would make God no different from those, like Michael Vick, who run dog-fighting rings. If what Vick did was morally disgusting, then what the Creator has done on a much larger scale is even more disgusting.

6. God will reward those animals who suffer by resurrecting them to eternal bliss.

This view has been put forward by Irenaeus, Athanasius, C.S. Lewis, Jurgen Moltmann and Keith Ward among others.

While this view seems somewhat absurd to many people, it doesn't answer the problem anyway. Just because someone is rewarded in the future for the suffering he endures in the present does not excuse the one who is responsible for the suffering. The suffering is still a wrong no matter how much reward is later given.

7. Animal suffering is a necessary consequence of the way God created the world.

This view basically holds that while there may have been some other way for God to create the world, we don't know how that would be, so it could be that this is the only way that the world could be created in order to accomplish the evolution of man and bring about God's desire to have creatures that could fellowship with him. This position is advocated by Michael Murray and Dinesh D'Souza. Murray writes:
In order to have organisms which, like us, are capable of intellectual reflection, deliberation, agency, morally significant action, etc. there must first be less-complex organisms which have only primitive capabilities such as the ability to experience pleasure and pain, or sentience (Nature Red in Tooth and Claw, p. 284 cited by Loftus, p. 260).
First, the biblical literalists would certainly disagree with Murray as they believe God created all things in six days. Second, if finite man can imagine other ways that God could have created in order to eliminate the pain and suffering of the animal world, why couldn't an omniscient being? We could imagine all animals being created as herbivores. Surely, an omnipotent being could accomplish that. We could even imagine God creating animals and humans without the need to eat at all. To say that this is the only way that God could have created is a cop-out and actually undermines the omnipotence of God.

8. Animal suffering is a mystery but God must have a good reason.

This is always the answer of last resort for the Christian with no answer. When everything else fails, they will say: God must have a reason and we must trust him because we know he is all-good and all-loving . Stewart Goetz takes this tact:
It is reasonable for the theist to be a defender and answer these questions with "I do not know," because the matter is one that lies outside our cognitive purview. One thing that is important to understand is why it is beyond our ken. The explanation for this ignorance has to do with our lack of knowledge of both a beast's nature and the purpose for which a beast exists ("The Argument from Evil," in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, p. 492 cited by Loftus, p. 264).
C. S. Lewis also argues this way: From the doctrine that God is good we may confidently deduce that the appearance of reckless divine cruelty in the animal kingdom is an illusion (The Problem of Pain, p. 130 cited by Loftus, p. 264).

First, this answer is no answer at all. It says we don't know and thus we don't have an answer.

Second, it says that God must have a good reason because we know that he is good. But how do we know that he is good? From the Bible? In the Bible, we have God ordering genocides in which infants are killed, demanding multitudes of animal sacrifices, killing all living things in a global flood and to top it off, sending a very large number of human beings to eternal torment. What can we discern from nature? We see animals killing each other, hurricanes, tsunamis and other natural disasters killing and maiming millions of people, and horrible diseases such as childhood cancers and birth-defects. None of these "natural evils" can be attributed to the "free-will" of man. They are simply the way God created the planet (unless you hold to a literal six day creation). Thus, I would say that based on the evidence from the Bible and from nature, God is not good. Yes, he is good to "his people," but not to the rest of his creation.

This chapter in The Christian Delusion is my personal favorite. I think that people are more sensitive to unnecessary animal suffering today than they have ever been. If God created the world the way it presently is, there is no way to hold that he is a good God.


  1. Actually Ken, while I didn't refer to anyone who argues animals don't feel pain there are a lot of them in today's world. In the books I footnoted they take aim at these authors, many of them behaviorists.

    And I do agree with you when you said "(While Loftus has two different views under 4 and 5, I see them as essentially the same.)" I only noticed this myself when I got my hard-copy.

  2. In the books I footnoted they take aim at these authors, many of them behaviorists.

    Ah, the Behaviorists...true believers if there ever were. I actually went on a date with someone who had just completed her Ph.D and was a strict Behaviorist once about two years ago. I eventually tired of her relentlessly pushing Behaviorism at me and questioning why I would believe anything that wasn't that I declared myself a Jungian and hoped that would end things right there.

    I just don't get how you can hold that absolutely every activity is simply a trained reaction. Moreover, if the training mechanism is reward or punishment, don't you still have to assume the creature being trained feels pleasure or pain?

  3. It is very obvious that mammals feel pleasure and pain. After all they have a nervous system and a brain. Why do cats purr or dogs wag their tails? Sheep and cows in labour groan and moan in pain. I am not so sure about plants and bacteria.
    Behaviourism has a place in psychology, but like many other theories, it's importance can be exaggerated by some people.

  4. Clare, don't forget that dogs laugh. When they are playing and panting, the panting is laughter according to neurological studies on dogs.

  5. This to me is the one fatal weak spot in Christian / theistic theology. There is no answer (as we have seen from the Awful Eight Attempts). There can be no answer - other than the Loving God does not exist.

  6. Andre,

    I agree. I think that the problem of natural evil which includes animal suffering as well as natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, tornadoes, volcanoes, and so on is the achilles heel for evangelical Christianity. I rank it right up there with the problem of the atonement--accepting the punishment of an innocent to pay the penalty for the guilty--as the two biggest reasons why I deconverted.

  7. BTW, I left out one very important type of natural evil--disease. Terminal childhood cancers especially are impossible to reconcile with the God postulated by evangelicalism, IMO. Also don't forget birth defects.

  8. Animal suffering ruins the common argument that pain is necessary for moral growth and future perfection. Can anyone imagine becoming "a better giraffe" for having endured an injury on the savanna?

  9. Animal suffering ruins the common argument that pain is necessary for moral growth and future perfection. Can anyone imagine becoming "a better giraffe" for having endured an injury on the savanna?

    I'm going to be giggling about that one for most of the day. It would be even more hilarious if it wasn't true that some out there may very well believe it though.

  10. And if you want to see some good people trying to touch their theological noses with their theological tongues, have a look at this collection of ideas :

    I had to cringe.

  11. I just thought I would poke another opinion in here, but it seems as though both yourself and Mr. Loftus don't take all sides of an issue into account. For example, this post is designed to show flaws in the Christian faith by looking at one area of a greater problem (suffering). But in no way did you ever try to summarize a Christian worldview on the matter (even though you mention that some answers account for a literal reading of Gen. 1-3, that was more in passing and never fully explains why that view is taken)
    Look at Genesis more than just one “idea” and you'll see a bigger picture come into play. First, note that animals are deemed "good" by God in chapter 1:24-26. In v30 God gives everything "that has the breath of life” plants to eat, including animals. Powerful wording since the breath of life is what God breaths into Adam in 2:7!
    Second, God cares for animals since He thinks they’re “good”. Later in Genesis we’re given the account of the flood (which is an entirely separate issue, but stick with me). God tells Noah that He’s found that the earth “is filled with violence because of [people]” (Gen 6:13). Then God sends the animals for Noah to collect (Gen 6:8-9). When Noah and the animals exit the ark, God says we can eat animals now, but notice what God says. He tells Noah “but you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man” (Gen 9:4-5). God then shows how serious He is about man’s life by saying that those who shed man’s blood will have their blood shed too (again, another issue altogether) (Gen 9:6). What we see from this is that man and animals are on almost equal terms for the shedding of blood. I will have to answer for every animal I’ve ever eaten. Likewise, animals will have to answer for all they’ve eaten. This seems like a weird idea, but look at the context. People might have been eating animals before the flood since “every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood” (Gen 8:21), so God made a provision for man. You can eat animals, but you still rule over them (Gen 9:1-2) but you must give an account of the animals you’ve killed.
    Which leads me to my third point: the responsibility of animals falls squarely on humans. God lets us rule over animals in 1:26 and reaffirms this in 1:28. You and I are responsible for the maintaining and well-being of animals since we are to rule over them. There are at least a few dozen commands that deal with how we are to treat and care for animals (see Exodus 23:12 and Luke 12:6) But because you and I are sinful beings, we don’t live up to the responsibilities that God give us. Does that answer the question of animal suffering? Not entirely, but given the context that we don’t live by God‘s standards on our own, why would we care for animals completely like we should?
    I hope I haven’t come off as harsh or not listening. I read your entire post and merely wanted to give another viewpoint for you and those who read to consider. When we try to answer the questions of God on our own, we get nothing but finite and unstable answers. But when we seek Him and truly come to God out of love (and not some means to justify selfish ends), what we get are answers. I’m sorry that something along your faith failed you, whether it was a person or “religion” or “church, but rest assured it wasn’t God. He is faithful and just and ready to forgive those who ask for it (1 John 1:9). I pray that God will reveal Himself to you and show you just how much He truly cares for you.

  12. Darren

    I don't have enough time to ask you all that I would like to arising from your post, and I have to run off now, but if we have a duty to look after animals (a duty you say we fall short of) how do we fail in, for example, our duty towards the fish and other animals of the deep blue sea, where predation is rife?

    Look forward to your reply.

  13. "I pray that God will reveal Himself to you and show you just how much He truly cares for you"

    Ken, you had better hope God does not reveal himself to you or you might need antipsychotic medications or even hospitalisation! and many experiments (including Mythbusters) have shown that prayer simply does not work.
    Don't you just love the arrogance and patronising tone of Christians?

  14. Darren,

    You say: yourself and Mr. Loftus don't take all sides of an issue into account. I think we both have made an honest attempt to do so. He lists all the "answers" that he could find in the literature to try to justify the suffering of animals and found all the "answers" wanting.

    Darren I don't know if I understand what you are saying. Are you saying it was never God's will for animals to be killed by humans? If so, how do you explain the animal sacrifices in the OT? In addition, what about all the killing that animals do to each other? Is that not part of God's will either? If it is not, then you have to explain how this present situation has come about and if it is, then you have to explain how God can still be considered a good God.

  15. Clare,

    Yes. I do "love" the patronizing tone. I am not sure they realize how they sound to others. "Oh you poor soul, you don't believe in God anymore."
    Well, I am doing quite well without my former superstitious belief, thank you very much.

  16. Firstly, if I came off “patronizing”, that wasn’t my intention. I just found this blog and thought I might offer another opinion. I can’t stop you from believing what you believe as much as you can’t stop me, although I see you and Claire couldn’t give me the same courtesy you expect of me.

    Second, this may seem like a cop-out, but I can’t fully explain why God would have the Israelites offer sacrifices except what God has told us. What I do know is that God values us more than animals, even if animals are valued by God as part of His creation. Blood is needed as part of the atonement process, but “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb 10:4). That’s why Christ’s sacrifice was so important. He was the priest that goes into the Holy of Holies on behalf with His righteous blood, not animal’s blood. Animal sacrifice wasn’t in the picture originally for God, but became a means for those to know God more. Just look at the “garments of skins” that God made for Adam and Eve because of their sin (Gen 3:21-22), and God ultimately will redeem the earth and bring animals and humans together in peace: "The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." (Isaiah 11:6-9)

    I also can’t answer for how the oceans work, Andre. But what I do know is what I observe. Sin has and does distort what God intended for us. For example, I mentioned that people may have been eating animals before God said we could. And because sin distorts, it distorts the order of things that God designed. God never said animals could eat each other, yet they do. God never said people should get sick, but we do. God never told me to lie, yet I do. God designed a world that worked, but because He loves us gave us a free choice to do what we want. I chose sin, as did you and everyone else before me. A love that we can’t compare to anything else is that despite our selfish decisions, God provided a way out of it that isn’t dependent on what I do, only on what He has done for me.

    Every ideology is closed-minded, so I’m going to seem that way. But the more I observe arguments like you have provided Ken, the more I’m convinced that there’s a God who loves me so much I can’t even understand it. Anywho, thanks for the questions and I’ll be more than happy to answer any more you may have.

  17. Darren,

    I really don't see any answer in your lengthy reply. Do you believe that God created the world with natural evil, i.e., animal suffering and death, tornadoes, hurricanes, disease, and so on as part of the original creation or do you believe these things happened after the fall?

    If you believe they were part of the original creation, how do you explain a good God creating such terrible things?

    If you believe they came in after the fall, how do you explain the fact that science tells us that animals were killing each other for millions of years before man ever came on the scene?

  18. I believe the evil we see in the world came after the fall, but I want to know from you: how do you know that animals have been killing each other for millions of years?

    I’m not saying it’s not possible for the earth to be millions of years old, but how do you know this happened? Didn’t God create the earth with everything fully grown? Didn’t He obliterate the face of the earth with a flood, settling human and animal remains over layers of dirt packed down by water? I’m not claiming to be 100% right, but how can you be sure that you are? What about humans, who have tortured others, raped, lied, and hated others in the past and in the future – how can you know that the information given to you by others can be trusted? Can you fully answer for everything that naturalism asserts? How do you explain evolution not happening today (I know what the difference between natural selection and evolution is, by the way, and I’m asking about evolution)? How do you explain emotions, thoughts, feelings? How are you so certain that you’re correct about all the questions of life?

    I can’t answer all the questions of life, but my experiences and the things I’ve studied give me hope for something better than the tornadoes, diseases, and hate that exists because of us. I’ve studied naturalism in depth and nothing it offers gives me an adequate answer for why I exist and why the universe exists. I’m not satisfied with being some cosmic accidental vomit that naturalism must assert. I can’t look at the stars and think that they just happen to be there for no reason other than they are.

    I hope this clears up any confusion you have.

  19. There is another defense:

    Animals don't exist. They are all giant holograms conjured up by the matrix.

  20. One more:

    If animals didn't tear each other to pieces, then David Attenborough would be out of a job, and that is simply too unfair. What the God-hating atheist would have to show is that there is a possible world in which there is less animal suffering and yet David Attenborough is still employed. And that is just pure speculation!

  21. I know, Christianity doesn't fit the mold to what I think is right and politically correct so I'm not going to believe in it! We all know that animals should be the #1 issue that is involved with religion! Not people. Why doesn't Christianity stick up for animal rights more! We all should know that ancient peoples/nomads were never hunters and never used carnivorous practices to survive.

    Seriously people. You can be a Christian and believe in animal rights. Christianity mainly deals with a bigger issue. Jesus Christ and his doctrines.