Atheism before evil

Paul Draper argues that given the distribution of pleasures and pains we observe in the world, the hypothesis of indifference is more likely than theism. The basic fact is our observation of evil, but mine makes me not puzzled not about Draper’s conclusion but about his claim to an initial observation of evil that is not of itself already for or against theism. That some evils are like this might be true, but they are not the only sorts of evil, and the relations between these different sorts are problematic to Draper’s overall argumentative structure.

For reasons that should be clear later I’m stuck using personal examples and so this post will be testimonial-like. That’s unlike most of what gets posted here, but it is what it is.

My wife has insited on natural childbirth for all of our five kids. The pain is prolonged and rips flesh and muscle apart. She has no evidence that anaesthesia causes harm to either mother or child, but she will not use it. After birth, when she’s being sewn up or probed by doctors, she’ll take all the drugs on offer because she sees – I think rightly – an ontological difference between a medical procedure and giving birth.  Medical procedures are responses to disease, corruption or physical defects, but birth is not. Everyone agrees if there is nothing wrong with me, then the doctor has nothing to fix, but my wife observes her situation and does a modus ponens while many others demand the drugs and so are logically commited to the modus tollens. But there isn’t an observation of labor pain that isn’t one of these or another. Either there is something wrong with you (which you should fix if you can) or there isn’t (and so there’s nothing to fix). Your observation of the pain is a result of a pre-existent belief (or absence of belief) about the meaningfulness of natural processes. The analogy from this to a critique of Draper’s argument is pretty clear, but I want to argue that further analogue from observation too.

My wife asks people for prayer intentions in the final weeks of pregnancy and has me read her one intention per contraction. Contractions are intense and painful, but the woman gets a break between most of them (my wife tells jokes between them, or talks to the doctor or the doula, etc.) As the contraction swells up she usually gets a few seconds to prepare, and she starts making the low, controlled working groans that she uses to breathe her way through the next 60-120 seconds. The intention clearly enters into her work and it is clear that the pain becomes a side-effect of a work she is achieving. The intensity of the pain is something anyone seeing her could rejoice in because they can be confident that the intention is being achieved – even if the petitioner didn’t know what they should have intended. That said, it’s not as if my wife is smiling through all this or takes the pain as nothing. She doesn’t think “this is all for the best, I’m one with God” she just thinks “this is hurty and I want it to stop”.  Labor doesn’t become some happy-clappy religious experience just because you choose to make an offering of it. But what becomes clear to anyne who experiences this with her while believing what she believes is that God is most of all present in the world in a consciousness that suffers. Suffering is an energy that one can either harness or allow to dissipate, even if the experience of suffering will be the same whether he does the one or the other.

My goal in babbling about all this is to problematize the idea that pain and suffering are things that God needs to fix. There is an important truth to this if we are considering the beginning or end of the whole human family, i.e. the creation of the first persons called to salvation or the final reward of human life in the eschaton, but the matter is more complex for human life in via. In the same way that our observations of labor pain arise from logically antecedent judgments about nature, our observations about suffering and pain in general are results of logically antecedent judgments about God. We don’t get to view pain or suffering from some non-committed, supposedly scientific or “objective” state.


  1. theofloinn said,

    January 30, 2016 at 3:16 pm

    Also, if it did not feel pain, an animal would not know what to avoid. Pain is instructive to survival.

  2. February 3, 2016 at 3:39 pm

    Zeus, who has guided men to think
    who has laid it down that wisdom
    comes alone through suffering.
    Still there drips in sleep against the heart
    grief of memory; against
    our pleasure we are temperate.
    From the gods who sit in grandeur
    grace comes somehow violent.
    176-183, Agamemnon (Grene/Lattimore)

    There are times when fear is good.
    It must keep its watchful place
    at the heart’s controls. There is
    in the wisdom won from pain.
    Should the city, should the man
    rear a heart that nowhere goes
    in fear, how shall such a one
    any more respect the right?
    517-525, The Eumenides (Grene/Lattimore)

  3. February 3, 2016 at 3:46 pm

    But he who gladly sings the triumph of Zeus
    shall hit full on the target of understanding:
    of Zeus who put men on the way to wisdom
    by making it a valid law
    that by suffering they shall learn.
    There drips before the heart instead of sleep
    pain that reminds them of their wounds;
    and against their will there comes discretion.
    There is, I think, a grace that comes by violence from the gods
    seated upon the dread bench of the helmsman.
    174-183, Agamemnon (Lloyd-Jones)

    There is a place where what is terrible is good
    and must abide, seated there
    to keep watch on men’s minds;
    it is good for them to learn wisdom under constraint.
    And city or what man
    that in the light of the heart
    fostered no dread could have the same
    reverence for Justice?

    Neither a life of anarchy
    nor a life under a despot
    should you praise.
    To all that lies in the middle has a god given excellence,
    but he surveys realms in different ways.
    517-531, The Eumenides (Lloyd-Jones)

%d bloggers like this: