Soul-building and the mystery card

Earlier today, prior to the NEPA Freethought Society‘s August meeting, I had a conversation with a member of Libertas Ministries — Allen — who believes, according to his business card and my discussion with him, that “the power of Jesus Christ” can “fight the epidemic of addictions.” Allen agreed to have a short recorded discussion with me while his ministry was preparing to leave. The discussion, embedded below, lasted a short 15 minutes. This post will focus on two elements of the discussion — common Christian apologetics — in regards to belief in God in respect to natural suffering which I will later explain in this post: soul-building and the mystery card.

During this discussion, Allen responded to a question that I posed which was inspired by the character Prince Prospero in the horror film “The Masque of the Red Death.” I asked, “How can you look around this world and believe in the goodness of a god who rules it?” This question is a formulation of a classic argument against belief in the Christian god known as the evidential problem of natural evil – namely that the evidence of egregious suffering resulting from natural causes provides a reason to not believe the Christian god exists.

Allen explained that natural disasters  may lead to good outcomes and are required for certain persons to achieve certain ends. He told a story of a fire which had destroyed everything a person he knew owned. This fire, he explained, had lead to a reunified relationship and was part of God’s plan which had led to a desirable end. This popular response Allen provided is commonly known as the soul-building theodicy or soul-making theodicy.

While the soul-building theodicy may seem to be an attractive response, this does not provide a sufficient response to the evidential problem of natural evil unless a believer in God will admit that natural disasters — irrespective of our well-placed moral intuitions — aren’t actually horrific events. Would it be the case that God — an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing being — if he has some sort of divine plan, would have to utilize natural disasters to achieve good ends?

Allen had — after responding to my assertion that natural disasters and particular maladies are horrible and the world would be better without them — explained that our perspective concerning natural suffering, different than God’s perspective, might be flawed. While we may consider natural disasters to be horrible, Allen explained, they may actually not be. Allen said that the world would “not necessarily” be a better place if it were absent of  natural disasters and that God’s plan — which absolutely includes natural disasters — is way beyond our comprehension.

An admission of this sort seems to commit a theist to an absurd position of moral agnosticism as I explained in my discussion. If natural disasters might, for all we know, be good and needed for good outcomes, we can’t maintain that natural disasters are horrible events. He has played the ultimate mystery card! Allen endorsed this position and questioned the ‘badness’ of natural disasters in our discussion. He is left to commit himself to an untenable position — that natural disasters are not horrible events — in order to attempt to defend his belief in God.

I had explained, in my discussion with Allen, that good ends can be had without natural disasters and that an all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful god could have created the universe in a different way so that natural disasters would not happen. Trials and tribulations having nothing to do with natural disasters, after all, are faced by people on a daily basis. It seems, then, that if God has woven some divine plan natural disasters are not needed to build compassion, inspire greatness, or achieve good ends.

Instead of playing the mystery card — that for all we know natural disasters might be a good thing or that God may have reasons for permitting and designing natural disasters — or arguing that good which comes from natural disasters is required for us to aspire to greatness or achieve good outcomes, the evidence of suffering in this world — purely a result of natural causes — should lead us to the conclusion that the Christian god does not exist.

If you’re interested in more discussions I have had with religious believers, consider listening to my two formal recorded debates with Rev. Marcelle Dotson of Field of Grace United Methodist Church and with Catholic philosopher Dr. Ronda Chervin (PhD, Fordham). Also consider listening to my discussion with Pastor John Murray, a fundamentalist minister who had assembled his church outside of an LGBT pride event in order to preach about the evils of sin and homosexuality.

If anything else interests you in the discussion or if you’d like to add further commentary, please feel free — as always — to comment below…and please remember I was very limited in time! More extensive discussions are provided above.