The Problem of Animal Suffering
In a chapter of his own in his edited book The Christian Delusion, John Loftus says there is no possible justification for God to have allowed all the enormous suffering that animals in our world have experienced. It’s a question on which I have done no study at all, so I found his survey of eight Christian answers quite informative — albeit with some cracks in his logic I don’t have space for here — until answer seven. There’s no crack there; it’s a chasm instead, and it does his credibility some serious damage.
Loftus writes (pages 259-260),
[Michael J.] Murray suggests that it is intrinsically good for God to create a universe verse that begins from a state of chaos and leads up to order rather than instantaneously created by fiat, and that such a manner of creating is an outweighing good of the sufferings it produces. …
He suggests it is good that human beings exist in a regular, law-like environment where human soul making is possible and where they have freedom to exercise it.
I think Murray’s answer has definite possibilities. Loftus can imagine more than possibilities. Let’s see how much he really can imagine.
I will quote at length from pages 262 and following:
I see nothing in the world that could not be bettered by God through perpetual miracles. As David Hume wrote, the ordering of the world by natural laws “seems nowise necessary to a very perfect Being.”78 I call this the Perpetual Miracle Objection.…
God could have made fruit trees, tomatoes, carrots, grape vines, blueberry bushes, corn stalks, bananas, wheat, barley, and corn to grow as plentiful as weeds do today in areas where they are needed, or he could have changed our diets. And if for some reason this isn’t enough, then God could’ve created us such that the process of photosynthesis would feed us off of the sun itself. Barring that, I see no reason why any creature has to eat at all, since God could perform a perpetual miracle that would provide us all with miraculously created nutrients inside our bodies throughout our lives. If he did this, no creature would ever starve to death. …
Human beings would still have to work for a living, since we’d want a good home with the comforts of life. Cities would still need to be built and maintained. With more time on our hands we could meditate, pray, and focus on raising our families. We could do more traveling, and be better educated. We could pursue our hobbies or engage in sporting activities. And if God had done this we wouldn’t know any differently.
But if there were no meat eaters of any kind, then what would happen to dead carcasses. … They decompose into nothing because of the help of scavenger birds, like vultures, and parasites, like maggots, (although God could have designed all bodies to dissolve naturally by innate chemical reactions once dead).…
Furthermore, if God did these kinds of perpetual miracles, then scientists would not be able to explain as many things naturally, which in turn would be a good thing for believers. The God of the Gaps defense would be given a boost. I’ve already explained in some detail why a world that couldn’t be explained by natural science would help me to believe, anyway. And such a world would not significantly affect morally significant human freedom.
There’s so much wrong with this.
Writing Off All Science
First, there cannot be any such thing as a perpetual miracle. A miracle is by definition an exception. If everything’s an exception then nothing is.
Granted, Loftus could parry that objection easily enough: “Fine, we don’t have to call them miracles. Just call them God’s continual actions in his world.” But that’s no help. Remember he said, “scientists would not be able to explain as many things naturally” I wonder what leads him to think scientists would be able to explain anything at all naturally. There’s nothing natural in a world of perpetual miracle, at least, nothing natural in any sense of the word we could imagine. There would be no natural regularities to discover, and thus no science.
Did you catch that? Loftus thinks that if he were God he would have made a world with no science, ever. Really? Is that what he pictures when he dreams of a better world than this one?
Misunderstanding Belief and Freedom
He’s completely mixed up on religious belief, too, when he says believers would get “a boost” from all the new gaps in natural law. We’d really need God to explain all those gaps, wouldn’t we? Well, no. Apart from the fact that there would be no natural law, and thus no gaps, there would also be no message for us to believe.
Here’s why. Any message in order to be a message to us needs to be distinct enough to be noticed for what it is in the midst of the noise around it. There has to be a strong enough signal-to-noise ratio. A world of perpetual miracle would be a world of nothing but noise, a place where nothing was extraordinary, so no signal could even be recognized as being a signal. We wouldn’t know a god from a golf ball. (And who would play golf — even with all that additional “time on our hands” — not knowing where the ball might dodge off to so it wouldn’t bean any badgers?) We might not even know a golf ball from one of those “miraculously created nutrients inside our bodies.” We wouldn’t reliably know anything at all.
But (Loftus might retort) God could teach us directly and without mediate causes, just planting knowledge in our brains; but then it could no longer be possible that “such a world would not significantly affect morally significant human freedom.” If God taught us that way we would have no basis on which to decide either to accept or decline his message; we would have no freedom to choose our response to him. If God wanted to create a world of free agents making morally significant decisions, Loftus’s way wouldn’t be the way.
Eliminating Human Moral Significance
Finally, Loftus seems to be imagining a world where actions have no consequences. Suppose I hit a golf ball that’s headed straight for a badger. More to the point, suppose I take direct aim with my 3-iron and try to smash the critter. In Loftus’s world of perpetual miracles and no animal suffering, either I’d miss every time, or the 3-iron would turn soft as a licorice stick, or the beast would slip on a helmet before the club reached its head. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t harm the thing. My intentions might matter, but my actions never could; and in that case it’s impossible to imagine anyone ever developing an intention to harm.
So here’s the question: how could God use perpetual miracles to prevent animal suffering in a world where humans golf and build cities and travel — and make morally significant choices along the way?
(And if you weren’t sure of my point on the impossibility of science, when you read it the first time, think about it again now: how does he do all this while still allowing enough cause-and-effect regularity to permit science to happen?)
Loftus thinks the world would be a better place if no human decision could make no moral difference ever. At least not where animals are concerned. And he thinks Christianity would be more believable in a world like this. This isn’t just weak, it’s horrifically unsound.
Maybe none of this was as clear to him as it should have been, and I should give him grace for that. I would — except for this: in a book that pretends to speak authoritatively about how the Christian “delusion” supposed fails, the author really ought not be so delusional about religion, human freedom, and science and logic.