Saturday, January 16, 2010

In defense of Pat Robertson

Poor Pat Robertson. Yeah, you read that right: Poor Pat Robertson. He’s being criticized once again for his claim that the devastation of the Haiti earthquake was brought on by a “pact with the Devil” that Haitian slaves entered into in 1794 in order to win their independence from France. Monstrous? Sure. Delusional. Of course. But perfectly consistent with his worldview, and, more importantly, not to be dismissed by anyone of any political persuasion who professes to believe in the God of theism.

The logic of Robertson’s view is pretty simple. His most fundamental intellectual commitment is to the existence of a good and all-powerful God. A good God cannot want people to suffer undeservedly, and an all-powerful God would not allow people to suffer undeservedly. Therefore any undeserved suffering is evidence that there is no such God. But since (he presumes) there is such a God, all human suffering must be deserved. The same logic famously led Jerry Falwell to say that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were deserved— though he did not follow this through consistently enough to say that the actual victims deserved what they got, only that America had earned this collectively by “throwing God out of the public square.” Similarly, Robertson didn’t claim that the Haitians suffering from this earthquake had bargained with Satan, only that their forebears in the 18th century had. Both he and Falwell thus clearly presuppose some form of collective responsibility. After all, among the victims of 9/11 there must have been at least one dues-paying member of the Moral Majority, who could presumably not be held individually responsible for America’s moral corruption.

The move both Falwell and Robertson make is not hard to understand. So-called ‘natural evil,’ such as an earthquake, has always seemed harder than human evil to reconcile with God’s goodness. Human evil, after all, presupposes our free will, which is understood as a little bit of God’s creative power that He has bequeathed unto us. But even if we suppose (quite dubiously) that we have free will, and that it is better that we have free will than that we don’t, this really does nothing to ease the problem of evil. If God created us with our power of undetermined choice, then He is responsible for the consequences of that gift. An infinitely powerful God could have created us so that we always use our free will for the good, and a perfectly good God would have wanted to do this.

A complete discussion of the problem of evil lies far beyond the scope of this little post. And plenty of well-meaning people (i.e. not people like Robertson) believe in God as a healer rather than a cause of the world’s pain. But I’ll briefly consider one possible response to the problem, equally as unsatisfactory as any other, namely the idea that suffering can be justified as a way of helping us reach God. Perhaps, as a psychological matter, this helps people to cope with what might otherwise seem overwhelming. But it does not stand up to any intellectual scrutiny, for once again this way of thinking is incompatible with God’s (alleged) infinite goodness. If reaching God is a matter of choice, how can someone reach God whose life is snuffed out in an instant? If one person’s suffering is taken to help someone else to their redemption, doesn’t this make the sufferer a means to an end in which they cannot share? And why should so much suffering be necessary, and distributed so unequally? Even if a perfectly good and powerful God cannot find a way for me to reach Him except through, say, my child’s illness, why does that require that my child slowly waste away and die in intense pain? Wouldn't a severe but curable stomach bug do the trick?

A believer will say, This shows that God’s ways are mysterious, beyond what mere mortals can comprehend. Someone like me, on the other hand, will say, This shows that the idea of God makes no sense.

[By the way, this is not an atheism blog, although you might get that impression from the first two posts. Among future topics expect to see one on “CNN in our Moral Life” and “Kant on the Ignorance of the American Voter.” Let me know if you have a preference about which should come first.]


  1. What I have difficulty with is the short-term view of God in this blog, on both sides of the issue. Thinking inside the framework of particular acts as all-encompassing good or evil applied to events is what we're taught, but I think it's a mistaken or misshapen thought in some ways. This view obscures many other long-term events that participate in the created "good" -- the earth, for instance, and fault lines, which come from an earth created through a natural process, the response of people all around the world to the disaster, the reminder to anyone who is fortunate to read about it from afar -- how incredibly lucky are we. Robertson's view of God reminds me of a child's view, that there is a physical God in the sky (white beard? grey? hovering just past the moon?) waiting to point the earthquake-finger at Haiti. This view is frightening not because it's just absurd, but because it is, to me, a denial of the greater purpose of religious belief. Religious belief is driven and underscored by the ability to lenghthen the human perspective, which tends to the immediate because of our physical biology, but through religious practice (be it yoga, meditation. prayer, church, humanist observance) enhances our activity and attention to future and past thought.

    The victims do participate in the suffering, even those who have died still participat on some level. In catholicism, a person doesn't stop being upon death. I';m not meaning the soul and heaven, though this does further strengthen that participation, but just looking from a humanist view, the victims don't vanish, they are mourned and remembered and their presence is felt and we have cutoms that show our dedication to interacting with the dead -- bringing flowers, days of mourning. They don't participate like you or I, physically, but there is a level on which they do and they, in memory or in burial or in impact -- remain in some kind of presence after death.

    I think the remarks made by Falwell and Robertson show an extreme lack of religious understanding, in the same way as would a child's belief. Your response, Ted, and mine too, is at least tryng to understand it further. I come from a very strong Catholic upbringing (my mom was raised by nuns) and tried my whole life to understand the feligion, no less the faith, I was born into. I'm a weekly (mostly, except when I feel heathenish) church-going Catholic. If we haven't grown past the idea of God as a punk who bothers the Pharaoh with plagues, then what the hell has the human mind been doing for the last 2000 years?

    What's your thoughts on this Ted? I'd be interested to know. Does the idea of God give humans the ability to form long-term perspectives, to develop histories around a central figure, to think to the long future and long past? (That, and um, the cerebral cortex and synapses). At least, let me personally apologize for anyone who says "eh, it's a mystery" and shrugs it off. The last thing I'll ever do is shrug it off.

  2. PS, sorry for typos. I had to re-type this to post, sadly, because cut/paste isn't working. Just so you understand that "feligion" isn't some kind of cat belief system...

  3. Wow, Deborah, thank you for your thoughtful response, typos and all! I think it's important to distinguish theism from religion, and truth from utility. Belief in God can be useful or beneficial without being true, and the examples you give of religious practice don't require belief in God, or indeed in much of anything beyond the world we know. I meditate, for example, and I personally wouldn't call that religious, though I'm not going to quarrel with your decision to call it that.
    You mention the possibility that belief in God can broaden our perspective. The touchstone for my thinking on this Spinoza. The Appendix to Part One of his Ethics is a scathing indictment of just the sort of thinking you attribute, correctly, to Robertson. For Spinoza, everything is God, but for that very reason, nothing is God: what he calls God is just the universe itself, understood, as he says, "from the point of view of eternity." So to put this in your terms Spinoza might say that when you really broaden your perspective to the utmost you end up with a conception of God that has nothing at all in common with the God of monotheism, or any other variety of traditional religion, for that matter. When I teach this stuff I try to get my students to see this isn't bomb-throwing atheism, but that the attempt to make some sense of some widely-held ideas about God ends up looking like atheism anyway.

  4. Just out of curiousity, have you read any Alvin Plantinga, Peter Van Inwagen, Marilyn McCord Adams, or Stephen Van Wykstra on the problem of Evil? I know that Plantinga deals with your contention that God could have created us in such a way that we could have freely chosen to will the good all the time in "God, Freedom, and Evil." (The first half of the short work deals with the problem of evil as a whole.) Also, I know that both Plantinga and Van Wykstra deal with a number of the epistemological issues that you raise with your reference to believer's appealing to God's mysterious ways. (See Van Wykstra's article "The Humean Obstacle to Evidential Arguments from Suffering: On Avoiding the Evils of Appearance." and Plantinga's Warrante d Christian Belief, final chapter.)Because, there are interesting epistemological issues involved here. Sometimes a believer's appeals to "mystery" isn't simply a cop-out or a dodge for someone whose unwilling to face the obvious rational consequences, but rather a position developed in relation to quite sophisticated considerations of our epistemic situation.

    I only ask because the issues you raise have generated a number of interesting and constructive proposals and even developments in contemporary Philosophy of Religion and yet there wasn't a mention of some of these better, more nuanced versions of theistic belief with relation to God and evil; versions that don't function with the simplistic grid that Pat Robertson functions with. For that matter, there doesn't seem to be a mention of the more sensitive, coherent views that non-philosophically-minded believers take towards evil and suffering. It acknowledges that their might be nicer views, but the overall thrust seems to be that these are not quite as consistent. I might be reading too much into this here. Sorry if I am. But you don't seem to be presenting the other side in the most charitable light you could. It all seems a bit straw-mannish.

  5. I take your point, 6p00. To answer your question: I've read Plantinga and Van Inwagen, but not Adams or Van Wykstra. My area of expertise in philosophy is early modern, not philosophy of religion, so my touchstones here are Spinoza and Leibniz.

    The purpose of the blog is to apply philosophical thought to events in the news. In this context I'm more interested in commenting on Robertson than in writing something addressed to philosophers. The point I'm trying to make is that, as repugnant as Robertson's spewing is, it has a basis in a real problem for all theists. And, I might add, nothing I've seen in Plantinga or Van Inwagen makes me think they've solved the problem, either, despite what is obviously a vastly higher level of sophistication.
    Thank you for your comment!

  6. This post highlights some of the major objections to theodicy. But, the problem with Robertson's comment (even for those who believe in an all-powerful, all-beneficent god) is that he pretends to know some pretty specific details. I find it ludicrous that Robertson is privy to some supposed deal that the Haitians made with Satan. Leibniz, I believe, would object that there was certainly a reason for the earthquake, but only god really knows this reason. On my interpretation, even Leibniz would have some criticism for Robertson.

  7. True enough. Most theists have more knowledge and better hearts than Pat Robertson. I certainly don't want to suggest that all theists have to agree with Robertson's ravings; only that he is driven to the ravings at least in part by a logic that all theists share.