Archives for posts with tag: religion

The problem of evil is quite famous. Even if you’ve never heard about it, you still probably know what it is. God is supposed to have three qualities: omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. God is all powerful, all knowing, and all good. Yet clearly evil exists in the world, and if evil exists, then God cannot have at least one of those three qualities. Either God knows of evil and is good, but can do nothing to stop it; or God is all powerful and all good, but is ignorant of evil; or God is all powerful and all knowing, but we’ll say is ambivalent towards the fact that evil exists. Hence, the problem of evil. Why devote yourself to any such a God?

As an example, since we are nothing if not a smidgen pretentious here at Blog for Chumps, I’m going to give a quotation from Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov that summarizes it quite well:

This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty- shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy, and because she didn’t ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its angelic, sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child’s groans! Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to dear, kind God! I say nothing of the sufferings of grown-up people, they have eaten the apple, damn them, and the devil take them all! But these little ones!

There have obviously been many attempts to account for the problem of evil. One of the more famous attempts was by St. Augustine of Hippo, who suggested that goodness was like light, and evil was like darkness. Darkness isn’t actually a thing, it is just an absence of light. A bit like how cold is really just the absence of heat. With regard to God and evil, evil doesn’t actually exist per se except as the absence of God. We can choose to follow God, or not, but then that rejection would cast a shadow onto the world, so to speak.

Of course, it’s all a bit bullshit, and isn’t going to convince anyone whose heart isn’t already in it. It creates more questions than it answers (Like how do free will and an all-powerful God coincide? What does “evil” mean, and can it really be described as the absence of goodness when so much of what is “evil” is just bad luck?). So the problem of evil remains.

What if, however, what if the problem of evil was not a theological thorn to be mulled over academically; what if the problem of evil was the universe’s way of saying, “Hey! Fuck Face! Remember how there was a little girl beaten half to death, smeared with shit, and then left in an outhouse to die during a famously unforgiving Russian winter? It was just a few paragraphs ago. It was indented and italicized and everything! That’s not that far off from what happens every day. Maybe y’all should do something ’bout that, hey!?”

This is not groundbreaking stuff. Bad things happen. We all know it. We all want to help. Caring about other people could almost be described as the only moral truism. I’m reminded of one of my favourite lines from The Committeean obscure psychedelic film from 1968 (scored by Pink Floyd):

Look, I’d like to explain to you about that guy. He’s enclosed in himself. He goes on and on, I get the feeling that he just isn’t concerned. Concerned with other people. I mean, everything else is a matter of taste, a matter of opinion. But if anyone can live on this earth and not care about other people…

The why to do anything about it is so obvious there’s almost no point in even asking. Why ought a human being react to suffering? The terms we use to describe such people who don’t typically hover around the word “monster.” They lack “humanity,” the very essence of what it means to be human. The “why” is the easiest thing. We are human. That’s why. The hard part comes after.

Part of the significance of the problem of evil is its enormity. If it could be conquered easily, pretty sure we would have figured it out by now. Some Benedictine Monk would have had a small epiphany one day, and been like, “Oh yeah, that’ll do it!” and everything would have been rosebuds from then on. But no, the evil is too enormous. Consider the unending wars in the Middle East, the threat of increasing world famine as global temperatures rise, the presidential election of a narcissistic bully; it is literally impossible for one person to do anything about all of that. It’s not even a David and Goliath scenario. It’s probably a bit closer to the story of David and the Atomic Bomb. You’d be lucky if more remains of you than your shadow dusted onto the floor.

It is an imposing sight. Some religions have decided to acknowledge the problem of evil, rather than deny it or skirt around it. The primary Buddhist truth is that life is suffering. They suggest getting over it. That’s certainly one way to handle it, but quite frankly if there’s a little girl beaten and stuck in an outhouse somewhere, I certainly hope that any passers-by wouldn’t have that attitude.

Like I said, the why is easy, but with its enormity, we can get a little lost on where to go from there. Who do you help? Having completed a social work degree, I can tell you that those in the caring profession focus primarily on helping themselves. Every guest lecturer spoke about self-care. That’s an easy place to start. Look after yourself. You’ve got to make sure that you yourself are not beaten half to death and smeared in shit before you go looking for others in such predicaments.

From here on out it’s simply a matter of emanating outwards. The first emanation is to your loved ones. These are the people that matter to you. Caring for them is not difficult either; some might even suggest that it’s even easier than caring for yourself. These are the people who support you, and in turn depend on you for support. Take care of them next.

The second emanation is to your community. The interdependence is a bit hazier here than with your loved ones, but it still exists to some degree. Your community supports you, and in turn, you need to support your community. Your community is still relatively easy to care for, as well. If you’re going to make a difference in the world, this is where it is likely going to be. Keep in mind, your community could be as small as your neighbourhood, as big as your country, or if you’re really masochistic, the planet itself. Each of those statements of community, however, has to be made with the understanding of who else belongs to that community too. You can’t claim to be a citizen of the world and then ignore those troublesome populations that don’t quite fit in with your worldview. It is totally fine to limit your community, however, since we have one final emanation to cover.

The third emanation is to everyone and everything else. Whether you’re caring for your family, your neighbourhood, your city, or your country, you have to at least be conscious of global affairs. Like if you’re developing a recycling program for your neighbourhood or whatever, you should at least be aware of the global slide into climate change. Or if you’re setting up refugees into shelters and connecting them with a community support network, you should at least be aware of the wars that pushed them into this situation, and the international backlash against their very existence. This is certainly not to dissuade you, just to remind you. This is the why, remember? The problem of evil is what motivated us in the first place. The problem of evil in all its monstrous, unholy glory. We’re doing this because we care on a scale bigger than ourselves, but we act within a limited range because that’s all we’re capable of.

I’m hoping that we’re all feeling pretty jazzed about caring for other people right about now, but before we go off all gang busters to do that there is one more thing I’d like to address. There were probably very few, if any of you who clicked on my The Committee hyperlink up there to examine it further, so I’ll highlight the following line, said in response to the protagonist’s quote about that guy who isn’t concerned for other people:

So you cut his head off. The thing you really seem to hold against him is typified by what you did to him.

Since this may seem odd (it’s a psychedelic film; it’s odd in context as well), the story goes that the protagonist killed some dude because that dude didn’t care for other people. He chopped his head clean off by slamming it under the hood of his car. If depicted today I imagine it would be quite graphic, but back in 1968 I assure you it was quite sterile.

The point is that it matters how we help people, just as much as who we help and why. The film quite pointedly declares that exacting vigilante justice on whomever we think deserves it is the wrong way to do it. Pro-tip: if your version of helping involves murder in any way, you’re doing it wrong. Now, the how has been debated longer than the problem of evil has even existed. What is the nature of morality? How do I help?

Lucky for you, I solved morality ages ago. The how is just about as easy as the why. Do you know what the entire culmination of philosophy of ethics has resulted in? I’ll tell you. We don’t know shit. Honestly, if you’re up for it, you can work through most of it playing this silly game, and the conclusion is the one I gave. We don’t know shit. What do we do when we don’t know shit? We ask. I’m a straight dude; what do I know about the problems of the LGBT community? A scraping, maybe, since I try to be socially conscious, but their grasp of it is the iceberg underneath the tip that I can see. If I were so inclined to care for that portion of my community, I would ask. What can I do to help? Want to care about the homeless? Find organizations closest to that demographic; what can I do to help? Aboriginal groups? What can I do to help? Adult male offenders? What can I do to help?

Ask. Learn. That shit is out there. Not just for community stuff either. How can you help your Mom? What about a niece or nephew? Close friends and lovers need help to, and the same rules apply. Is there a problem? What is it? How can I help?

The why driving us is so enormous that sometimes we can only focus on how big, grotesque, and impossible it all is. I can’t do this. There’s no point in doing that. Fuck those people they had their chance, I’m just going to make sure I come out okay. The monolith of evil can seem so tall that we feel like we are the only ones sitting under its shadow. But what it stands for is our ultimate driver: care for other people. Obviously. Ask them how you can help. Simple enough. And do it in such a way that you can make a difference. Whatever else you believe is irrelevant.

I’m going to close off here with a short parable. There’s an old man walking down a beach after high tide on a sunny, summer day. Millions of starfish remain from the tide, slowly drying out to their deaths in the hot sun. The old man picks up one starfish, carries it out to the water, and places it down. He continues this process for a time until he suddenly notices a small child is staring at him. The child asks, “Old man, why are you doing that? Can’t you see that there are too many starfish here? You’ll never save them all! What difference can you actually make?” The old man does not saying anything. He picks up a starfish, walks it over to the water, and puts it down in the ocean, saving its life. “Made a difference to that one,” says the old man.

Negative theology is approaching what we traditionally refer to as God and only describing It in negative terms. The idea is that God transcends human existence to such a degree that anything created by humans, language most particularly, cannot be used to define It. So for example, one could not say God is good because goodness is a term humans use to describe human events in such a way that we are capable of understanding it, and God in Its massivity would exist well beyond our capacity to understand Its characteristics to the point where ascribing “goodness” is nonsensical. The negative theologian would thus say that God is not-good. This might seem counter-intuitive and even anti-God, which leads to double-negative theology. Since broccoli is also not good, morally-speaking, and a comparison between the two is absurd, God would need to be described both as “not-good” and “not-not-good.” God could even be said to not exist under this framework, given that our human understanding of what it means to exist would be so far removed from God’s presence that the use of the word becomes too limiting. God would also certainly not-not-exist, but my amusement comes from using non-existence as a necessary divine trait.

There are three reasons that this approach appeals to me beyond the paradox of God’s non-existence describing God’s existence. Firstly, it coincides with my favourite “proof” of God. The human mind is quite finite and very likely incapable of a complete understanding of the universe, and given this reality it is again likely that there are things that exist in the realm outside of where our brains are able to comprehend. If what we refer to as God “exists”, It would exist in this realm and in turn would flummox our linguistic capabilities to the point where negative theology is the only theology that makes sense.

Second, language functions solely as social cohesion. It doesn’t point to anything. If I say the word chair, I’m not referring to a chair, I’m referring to my idea of a chair, and if your idea of a chair coincides with my own, you understand me. If I said chair, and you didn’t understand the word I was using, for instance if I used a foreign language or used the word cathedra (or something equally outlandish that might as well be a foreign language), there would be no understanding because the barrier between these social groups (non-English speakers and the pretentious against regular English speaking individuals) precludes a common linguistic grounding. We might both have the same idea of a chair, but because of that barrier we would not be able to communicate our shared idea. If my idea of a chair is four legs, a seat, and a back, and your idea of a chair is three legs, a seat, a cushion, and no back, and I ask you to help set up some chairs at a dinner party and you arrive with something that does not work for my seating arrangement, then again, understanding was not present. A barrier existed, but it was not in the language itself but in the idea. This is far more problematic since if no seating arrangement was ever necessary, then you can see how that lack of understanding might never present itself to ever be resolved.

So if language only exists within the shared understanding of a community, then as I said, it can’t point to anything real. If we are looking to describe something universal, then language is absolutely flawed in its capability to accomplish this. If I say “good”, understanding would only be possible under two conditions: we both share the same idea of the word, and I am expressing it in a language that is accessible to you. Those two requirements are only available in communal groups, so really, “God is good” is better used to describe the group that believes that God is good rather than to describe God.

Lastly, negative theology falls under the umbrella of my favourite philosophical doctrine, skepticism. If I can’t say anything about God, and you can’t say anything about God, then there’s no way we could ever actually disagree, even if our ideas of God are totally incoherent from one another. There would exist enough disbelief surrounding our ideas of God that fundamentalist dogmatism would become significantly more difficult to develop. I wouldn’t say impossible, since it is equally difficult to separate authoritarianism from organized religion even under the most compassionate doctrines, so I’ll hedge my bets on this one. Even still, anything that helps on the road to interfaith respect is a good thing.

Unfortunately, spoilsports dismiss this approach as removing God from any kind of religious pragmatism, and this is a valid criticism. If we can’t say anything about God, then why bother talking about It at all? Why worship something if we can’t even positively acknowledge that It exists? Why adhere to any doctrine? Part of Christianity’s appeal stems from the fact that Jesus is 100% a human man and 100% a God, and that makes Him far more relatable than the negative theologian’s unknowable God.

There are those who counter this, and say that we can point to events in the world, and use language to describe them with the understanding that it is being described in human terms. Like we can point to a rainfall after a long drought as God being good, because rain revitalizing our crops is something that would conform to a “good event” in a human sense. I disagree with this refutation because then some asshole could come along and say, well why was the drought so long to begin with? And that asshole would have a fair point. If we want to point to events in the world and describe them in a human context, then we would have to account for every event. God can’t work in mysterious ways if we just pointed to an event where we were quite comfortable using the word “good” to describe it.

Of course, the obvious solution is faith. There exists a feeling of God in a believer, and even if that feeling is not qualifiable by anything they could express, that does not negate the power or the drive that their faith brings them. That feeling may lead them to follow doctrines that they believe are most in line with their faith, even if relating them back to a God is again, impossible. Being unable to name God has never really been an obstacle before (notably Yahweh, and the fact that I’m not making this up and negative theology has a very long history predating Christianity), so I don’t see why it can’t be applicable now. Faith is a greater motivation than doctrine, and is far more honest in regards to its application.

Post-script: As I finish writing this, I now realize that double-negative theology is much better expressed as, “God is not good… OR IS IT???” rather than “God is not-good, and God is not-not-good.”

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Muslims are all terrorists. 1.6 billion people, a quarter of the world’s population, are interchangeable variations of the same, freedom-hating towel head. From those in Uzbekistan to Bangladesh; from Morocco to Indonesia; from Algeria to Tunisia, all of them identical in every way. Actually, in doing some research so I could sarcastically list Muslim countries that nobody talks about because America isn’t drone-striking the shit out of them, I discovered that there are more Muslims in India and Pakistan than in the entirety of the Middle East! Normally this would imply vast cultural differences based on external influences, but we’re ignoring the incredible diversity that a quarter of the world’s population spread out over the globe necessarily implies, so again, for the sake of argument, Muslims are a homogeneous group with one goal in mind: destroying the West with suicide bombs and beheading videos.

Why do they hate our freedoms? I mean it’s just as easy to make blanket assumptions about their motivations (they’re evil) as it is to make blanket assumptions about their behaviours, but I’m going to hold motivations to a higher standard at this point otherwise this blog would be over very quickly.

I haven’t been entirely fair. I am certain there is another generalization that someone could use that doesn’t denounce Muslims as evil, and there is. They are just backward savages who haven’t caught up to civilization yet. It’s not bigotry if it’s condescending! I mean, the Iraq War was justified as a means to bring modernity and democracy to a simple, superstitious people who would surely be grateful for the wisdom (This was obviously after the “Weapons of Mass Destruction” excuse fell apart). If you consider the Medieval period when Christianity was pulling people apart on the rack, and now Muslims are beheading people, clearly parallels can be drawn. Muslims, a quarter of the planet, are just less culturally evolved, and surely they’ll catch up in the next few hundred years. That is how time works.

This is called Modernization theory. It basically says that all civilizations start out as baby hunter/gatherer tribes, and evolve through similar phases, until everyone ends up at the pinnacle of culture, us. We’re the best, and everyone else is just in an adolescent phase of their cultural development, and they can’t help that their limbic systems haven’t fully developed yet! This is what is commonly known as racism: the perceived notion that one’s own culture is superior to another. If a culture exists today, then it is a modern culture. THAT is how time works. The reason that one society might have longer life expectancies and less random violence isn’t part of some preordained path that each group of people must follow; human societies don’t exist in a vacuum. Shit goes on all around us, and that is what determines the direction groups of people will follow.

So what’s been going on with these generalized Muslims? Well, way back when Western secularism was first introduced to Muslim-dominated countries, the elites were all very impressed! They marveled at the technological advances that had been made; they listened to the Enlightenment ideas with rapt interest; they were awed by the massive expansion that the West was capable of, and they actually tried to secularize themselves with these Western ideologies. Except the problem with top-down ideological revolution is that it is indistinguishable from oppression. It usually involves banning practices from the previous paradigm, and violently enforcing its new social norms. This means that the Muslims who had been living out their lives quite contentedly were now being punished for that old way of living and were pushed toward this new way that allowed the powerful to buddy up with Western imperialists. Who cares what happens to the vulgar masses? Try to imagine what would happen if Obama implemented Sharia law while in office.  The reaction to that, I imagine, would be identical to the sordid Middle Eastern history of Islamic conflict with the West.

In addition to brutally enforced Westernization, the relationship between these two civilizations continued with a general disdain held by the West against the Middle East. Consider the creation of Israel. Turns out that the British, who did not even have ownership of the land at the time, promised it both to the Arabs, in the hopes that they would help them fight the Ottomans, and to the Jews as well, mostly to get them out of England. Given that someone was going to be inevitably screwed over by this incredible act of duplicity, and that the Jews had just suffered through the holocaust, Israel thus became a Jewish state. This Jewish state, now beholden to the West, acts as a stabilizer for the area. Stability in this context means that it will destroy with violence any group that gets out of line and does not provide appropriate resources at a steal of a price. The West betrayed the Muslims of the Middle East, and then allied themselves with the favoured demographic in order to marginalize and rob them.

Remember how I said earlier that the Western excuse for Middle Eastern intervention is to bomb the countries into respectable democracies? Well it turns out that the Middle East has been quite capable of establishing democracies in the past, but they tend to elect leaders who have the interests of the people in mind, rather than the interests of the West. In 1953, Iran elected a leader who was going to nationalize the oil industry so that the profits could go to the people of the country rather than foreign corporations. Unlucky for him, America and England decided that this would not do, and assassinated him. They then put up their own puppet dictator that brutalized the populace, but made sure that the money and resources went to the right people. More recently in Afghanistan, when Hamid Karzai was elected, rather than allow the people of the country to put into power someone who might allow Afghans some degree of autonomy, the US simply populated parliament with the warlords who had torn up the country in the aftermath of the proxy war fought between America and Russia decades earlier. I suppose putting in your own violent puppets in the first place means you don’t have to assassinate democratically elected world leaders to do it after the fact. Fun fact: Jihadi extremism was encouraged by the Americans during their cold war forays into the region as a weapon against the communists, and then was simply allowed to run rampant after the US pulled out their troops. The Taliban used Jihadi textbooks literally provided by the US to indoctrinate children into this violent mindset. There are many other examples of American interventions in democratic countries, purposefully destabilizing them for the sake of the flow of capital, but those are mostly irrelevant for the purposes of this blog.

America is actually quite fond of supporting brutal dictators in the Middle East. Remember the Iraq war that allowed Bush Jr. to fight Saddam just like daddy did? Saddam was the worst human imaginable, as the story goes, which is odd considering that America was providing him with money and weapons almost right up until they invaded his country in the early 90s. Or how about Hozni Mubarak, the malevolent dictator that Obama condemned when the people overthrew him. Again this is odd considering America had been supporting the despot for about 30 years. The excuses typically given are that these autocrats provide stability to the region, the same kind of stability I was talking about earlier.

The Middle East doesn’t produce violent extremism because of any ideological differences between Islam and the secular/Christian West, but because the Middle East has resources that the West devours but doesn’t want to pay for, so they, without any subtlety, fuck over everyone who lives there. People who, in theory, ought to have the rights to that covetous oil in the first place. If Arabs are constantly fighting over everything and are dirt poor, they’ll never be able to stand up to the greed-driven powerhouses responsible for their squalor. The touted “stability” that the West supports in the region is actually its opposite, since a Middle East in solidarity would be able to actualize some form of control over those resources, thereby forbidding the West from exploiting them.

If you’re thinking, hey now, I never condoned that colonial barbarism being committed by my society against the Middle East! I shouldn’t be targeted by Jihadi terrorists! I’m completely innocent! Doesn’t feel good to be judged for the deeds and mentalities of individuals who are only related to you by the most superficial of connections, does it? Well, I doubt the vast majority of Muslims in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, and Iran are particularly fond that they are being targeted for the deeds of people only akin to them under the most desperate of comparisons either. Except technically, we are more responsible for Western destructiveness than Muslims are for general acts of terrorism because we elect the government officials who collude with vicious imperialists regimes, if not the ones who perform the vicious imperialism outright. Muslims bear no such responsibility for the deeds of entirely unrelated peoples.

If you’re thinking, hey now, I know what this is really about, and Donald Trump isn’t trying to ban Muslims, he’s only trying to ban people from seven Muslim majority countries! Except, he said he was going to implement a Muslim ban, Rudy Giuliani said Trump asked him how to institute a Muslim ban, and considering the fear that right-wingers have of terrorists swarming in from my own Canada, why wouldn’t he include Canadian visas on his list? (you should totally read that second hyperlink to Breitbart because they manage to turn Canada’s loose regulations on Muslims to somehow being Barack Obama’s fault. It’s fucking hilarious) Trump said that Mexico is sending America their criminals and rapists, as if the country itself is responsible for the problem, and yet Mexico is not on the list either. The 9/11 terrorists that allegedly inspired the executive order did not come from any of these countries. That they are “trouble-spots” ignores the problems going on in Burma, Israel/Palestine, Romania, the Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, etc. The only connection any of these countries have is that they are populated by mostly Muslims and don’t do business with Trump. Saying that this executive order is anything but a ban on Muslims ignores that it does not target the largest terrorist-producing nations, ignores what Trump himself has said about instituting a Muslim ban, ignores most of global conflict, and does not even coincide with the worldview espoused by its most fervent supporters. An interesting counter-argument that I haven’t seen in slogging through alt-right perspectives might be that these are countries that America is being overtly hostile toward, but that doesn’t work either, since America is very vocally claiming that it is fighting “terrorism” and not individual countries, so banning visas from those countries makes no sense from this perspective either. Also, how is “Obama and Carter did it too!” an argument against it being a Muslim ban? If the Democratic party is so hard on Muslims, then why fight tooth and nail to oust them? You can’t clamor for a ban on Muslims, and then when one is basically implemented, deny that it is exactly that when people call you out on it.

Post-script: There is actually a short version to this. I mean, these days the West is basically murdering civilians willy-nilly and then expecting that the region is not going to be pissed off about it. Why do Muslims-who-are-all-terrorists hate us? Really?