A Review of Chapter 9 of The Christian Delusion

Chapter 9 of The Christian Delusion is entitled “The Darwinian Problem of Evil” and is written by John W. Loftus.  He argues “that the existence of animal suffering cannot be reconciled with the Christian faith and is one of the strongest reasons to reject it” (p. 237).  Unfortunately, he does not lay out the exact form of the argument he is making.  At this point, it appears to be a version of the logical problem of animal suffering, not a version of the evidential problem of animal suffering.  This means that he is saying the existence of animal suffering disproves God’s existence, not that it merely makes it less probable.  The strongest form of this argument that I am aware of looks like this:  (1) if God exists, there would be no gratuitous evils; (2) there is at least one gratuitous evil; (3) therefore, God does not exist.

However, in the next section, Loftus states that he is looking for a theodicy in response to the problem of animal suffering and will not be satisfied with a mere explanation for why it is possible for both God and animal suffering to co-exist.  “Such a theodicy need not explain everything, but it should explain a great deal.  A defense merely suggests that something is possible.  But that is too low to be expected as any kind of standard at all.  Christians continually want to talk about what is possible rather than what is probable, and they resort to this standard far too many times in defense of their faith to make their faith probable” (p. 240).  But a defense is a refutation of the logical problem of animal suffering whether Loftus likes it or not.  Perhaps he really wants to make an evidential argument from animal suffering.  Such an argument would look like this:  (1) if God exists, there would be no gratuitous evils; (2) it is probable that at least one of the evils in our world is a gratuitous evil; (3) therefore, God probably does not exist.  Since Loftus and I appear to agree that the logical problem of animal suffering is easier to refute than the evidential problem of animal suffering, I will focus on the latter in this review.

Most of this chapter is spent responding to proposed solutions to the Darwinian problem of evil.  Before commenting on that portion of the chapter, let us assume, for the sake of argument, that we are unable to come up with any proposed solutions.  Would we still have reasons to believe that God probably exists?  I think so.  In my opinion, there are only a couple of decent arguments against classical theism:  (1) the problem of evil and (2) the problem of divine hiddenness.  On the other hand, there are many arguments for the existence of God.  If the arguments for the existence of God outweigh the arguments for the existence of gratuitous evil then the theist is justified in still believing that God probably exists.  He can construct the following argument:  (1) if God exists, there would be no gratuitous evils; (2) there is a God; (3) therefore, there are no gratuitous evils.

Let us now proceed to examining the author’s response to various Christian options to the Darwinian problem of evil.

Option 1:  animal suffering is the result of human sin.  Loftus believes that this option fails to explain why animals should bear the penalty for human sin.

Option 2:  animal suffering is the result of Satanic forces corrupting animals so that they prey on each other.  Loftus believes that this option fails to explain why God allows Satanic forces to harm animals.

In my opinion, the first two options raise a couple of important issues:  (a) is a world with agents who can choose to do either good or evil better than a world without agents who can choose to do either good or evil? and (b) if a world with agents who can choose to do either good or evil is the better world, then how much good and evil should they be permitted to do?  The critic needs to answer these questions if they want to argue that humans and Satanic forces should not be allowed to act in an evil manner and cause as much suffering as they do.

Option 3:  animals do not actually feel pain or suffer.  Loftus believes that animals do suffer because they have increased heart beats, breathing rhythms, and activity in the pain centers of the brain when they are subjected to painful stimuli.  Andrew Linzey states animals probably feel pain because they share a common ancestor with humans, they display similar behavior to humans, and they have physiological similarities with humans.

At the outset it should be noted that it is possible that some animals suffer while others do not.  While the points raised by Loftus and Linzey suggest that some animals suffer, they are not decisive.  We do not know what in the brain (if anything) explains conscious suffering.  One’s opinions on the philosophy of the mind influence what defenses will or will not seem plausible.  Some lobotomized patients report that they can experience pain but that the pain is not unpleasant.  It is conceivable that some animals experience pain in a similar fashion.  It is suggested that the right neocortex and the prefrontal cortex of the human brain are responsible for the qualitative experience of pain as pain.  If this is the case, it suggests that only humanoid primates suffer, for this part of the brain appears in late evolutionary history.  An animal could mimic human behavior because that behavior has proven to be adaptive to its environment, not because it regards a given situation as pleasurable or painful.  For example, rats with severed spinal columns showed pain related behaviors even though their brains could not be consciously aware of pain.  Since we don’t have a physiological explanation for conscious suffering we don’t know what similarities between humans and animals are relevant to our discussion.  I am indebted to Michael J. Murray for these points.

Option 4:  God does not care about animal suffering and/or has a different standard of goodness than humans.  Loftus believes that this concedes the argument by denying that God is the kind of God required by Christian theology.  But Loftus does not explain why this position would necessarily entail a God who is not consistent with the God described in the Bible.  Moreover, he does not explain why God’s standard is wrong while his personal standard is right.  Considering that moral relativism is espoused elsewhere in this book, we may also ask Loftus why his personal standard is right and the personal standard of another human being is wrong.  It is certainly conceivable that, say, divine command theory is the correct ethical theory and that it is consistent with the Bible.  Under this or a similar scenario the Darwinian problem of evil is no longer a problem.

Option 5:  animals are a means by which humans can become children of God and have no intrinsic value in themselves.  Loftus rejects this proposal because he believes God could likely achieve the same ends without animals suffering.  He believes that this position would make God a speciesist.  But he offers no reason why speciesism is wrong or why, in an atheistic universe, anything has intrinsic value.

Option 6:  animals will be resurrected and rewarded for their service to God and man.  Loftus does not accept this option because he thinks it leads to the absurd conclusion that anyone can inflict suffering as long as they later reward the victim.  But this conclusion does not follow.  The theist can state that God permits animal suffering because it is necessary for animals to obtain a greater good that could not be obtained by other means.  A second problem Loftus has with this option is that he cannot imagine an afterlife where all organisms live in peace with each other.  Yet, in the very next section, he can imagine a world where animals don’t need to eat at all.  This option is unscathed by Loftus’ arguments.

Option 7 is an answer provided by Michael J. Murray in his book Nature Red in Tooth and Claw.  Loftus does not give the reader a good idea of how Murray arrived at his answer.  I will briefly outline Murray’s argument, as I understand it, but strongly recommend the interested reader to read the aforementioned book.

  1. A universe that begins in chaos and works its way toward order is intrinsically good.  Murray arrives at this point by intuition.  “Chaos to order” is abbreviated as CTO in the following points.
  2. Genuine moral agency (free will) is a very great good that is sufficient to outweigh a great deal of natural evil.  It makes moral goodness possible in the universe.  Evil must be allowed to occur if true moral choices are to be an option.  God must remain hidden, to an extent, to allow humans to freely make moral choices.  If God’s existence and nature were fully evident no one would be able to freely choose to do evil.
  3. Intellectual pleasures (learning) is a very great good that is sufficient to outweigh a great deal of natural evil.
  4. Nomic regularity (laws of nature) provides a necessary condition for genuine moral agency and intellectual pleasure.  It allows moral agents to successfully carry out their intentions by being able to predict the consequences of an action.  It also allows agents to learn about creation and experience intellectual pleasure.
  5. In a world governed by CTO and nomic regularity, a spectrum of organisms with increasingly complex cognitive capacities is necessary in order to secure the emergence of beings capable of morally significant freedom.  Such a world requires that some creatures will suffer.

Loftus never directly addresses exactly how this argument goes wrong.  Rather he provides suggestions for how God should have created the world without any suffering.  But he does not show how his world would bring about greater good than the actual world.

Option 8:  humans are too ignorant of God’s purposes for animals and the nature of animal suffering to adequately explain animal suffering.  Loftus believes that the lack of an answer to the Darwinian problem of evil is a reason to doubt the existence of a good God.  But what Loftus needs to do is show that he is well-positioned to judge that there are no goods that God aims to bring about, and of which we are unaware, that might justify animal suffering.  On what grounds is Loftus carrying out his moral calculus?  Why does he believe he can accurately carry out this calculus on all of creation?  After reading Murray’s book and Loftus’ chapter I am convinced that humans are too ignorant about a number of important issues to be very confident in their approach to animal suffering.  It seems that many of the arguments, from both sides, rely too heavily on gut feelings to be very persuasive to an opponent.

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3 thoughts on “A Review of Chapter 9 of The Christian Delusion

  1. I’m sorry, but how is this you dealing with the chapter? You simply relate what is said, and your treatment of the chapter adds what? No discussions, no additions, no suggested solutions?

  2. Mindyourmind, I’ve taken your criticism into consideration and decided to re-review the chapter. I’ll try to have a more adequate response in about a week.

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