Theodicy and Animal Suffering

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Four ten-day-old kittens

Four ten-day-old kittens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Too many attempts at developing a theodicy, a broad-based account of why God allows evil and suffering in the universe, take account only of human suffering. Either writers do not deem it important, or else in Neo-Cartesian mold they deny either than animals have emotions or that because they do not find a sense of anomie in pain that they do not suffer in the way that human beings suffer. The Neo-Cartesian route, though still defended by certain Evangelical Protestant scholars who want a cheap way to get God off the hook for animal suffering, is so far from our experience of animals to be absurd. When will Calvinist philosophers stop try8ing to find a cheap way out of a real problem by denying it’s a problem? It is the propensity of some Evangelical scholars to deny the hard issues of their position: the Bible not being inerrant on historical and scientific matters, the evidence for some kind of macroevolution (even if more than Darwinian mechanisms are insufficient to explain all of evolution), the accounts of God in the Bible as an arbitrary, angry, jealous individual who kills with as much ease as He creates–and the problem of animal suffering. Not all Evangelical scholars agree with the Neo-Cartesians (to be fair, this includes Calvinist scholars–my intense dislike of Calvinism encourages me to be rather expressive emotionally).

The Neo-Cartesian position some scholars espouse has been used to justify abusing animals since “they don’t really understand pain like we do” and since “humans are over the other animals”.Despite the claim of some that animals have a sum total of positive emotions that outweigh any bad, one should also consider their short lives in the wild, often spend in running from predators and seeking sufficient food. Human beings have burdened animals with enormous tasks, The history of man’s treatment of animals has, at best, been a “mixed bag” (no pun intended). Abuse and/or abandonment of pets is a growing problem, especially during difficult economic times. Thus both evolutionary biology and its nature “red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson) and man’s abuse has resulted in a tremendous amount of animal suffereing. How could a good God allow such suffering.

Evolutionary biology provides little help, for animals must pass on their genes to their offspring for the species to survive. Survival–life–is the necessary condition for all other good things in life. Why the food chain? Why so much pain due to predatory relationships between carnivores and omnivores and their prey?

Why is there so much human abuse of animals–dog fights, cock fights, beating pets until they are bruised and bleeding. Does God simply overlook such pain and suffering? If man, the steward of the animals, fails to exercise stewardship and instead exercises cruel domination, do animals have any recourse in a just and merciful God?

Francis Collins, John Hick, and C. S. Lewis have provided attempts to explain animal suffering within an evolutionary framework. For Hick, animal suffering is the required result of God using evolution to bring forth life. Lewis posits a fall of some kind to explain animal pain. Without an eschatological dimension, as I have mentioned in previous posts, animal pain has no redemption–and Romans 8 makes clear that the entire creation, not merely man, will be subject o the saving power of God. John Wesley correctly understands that animal resurrection is a possible implication from the Romans passage.

I do not believe that such resurrection involves just the species. God’s concern is for individuals, and millions of individual animals have suffered over the millenia without a smidgeon of support Duns Scotus was correct in holding that each being is individuated by haecceiitas, a unique formality that contracts the individual natures into an individual thing that is incommunicable. Only God knows the haecceitas in this life. It is arbitrary to say that only the human body is resurrected–why not animals? If God cares about each blade of grass, surely He cares enough about individual animals not to allow them to be annihilated at death. Alternatives allow no justice for the suffering endured by animals (or by people), In raising humans and non-human animals, God reveals His mercy and love in extending the gift of eternal life to the sentient beings of His creation. To deny this is to deny the love of God for His creation and His concern for the “least of these.”

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Anger at God

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A cat on a grave in Pere Lachaise Cemetery

A cat on a grave in Pere Lachaise Cemetery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cover of "A Grief Observed"

Cover of A Grief Observed

Sam was a wonderful cat–a yellow and white tabby whose fur matched that of Sienna, a sweet cat whom I really loved, who sat on my leg at night when I lay down on the couch and was by my side when I woke up in the morning. Sadly, she had multiple health problems and had terminal kidney failure for which she had to be put to sleep. From the start, Sam was every bit as sweet as Sienna. He’d virtually clamp to my side every morning and I’d reach over and rub the smooth white fur on his belly. Then he started having urinary problems. Two surgeries, which would have cured 98% of all cats with his condition (crystals blocking a narrow urethra, causing damage resulting in massive scar tissue growth) did not sure Sam. I was so upset when he was put to sleep (he was only five and a half years old)I could barely function. I was also furious–at God. It wasn’t that long before Sam died that I had lost my best friend to breast cancer–a woman who ate well, exercised, took care of herself, and died at 46. The two deaths so close together infuriated me, and the object of my anger was God.

God took our first cat, Liebchen, a real ornery character who still loved us; within a month He took Sienna. Then He took my best friend, then Sam. I was so furious I called God about every name from the depths of hell. I imagined that God became incarnate in a human body so He could “enjoy” Himself when animals and people, especially children, suffered. I mocked the design argument, pointing to the windpipe and esophagus having one entrance with only a flap making the difference between life and death. No human designer would be stupid and incompetent enough to make such a system. Evolution seemed cruel and arbitrary, and if there was a God, He seemed a cold, uncaring b…rd.

Some people were horrified when they heard my thoughts, saying I would go to hell–that helped me a great deal–to increase my anger. Some people understood, including some Christians, thank God. I remembered the book of Job, which some Christians conveniently forget–or they do not read it carefully. Job is faithful to God, yet is clearly angry at God. He believes God is behaving in an arbitrary way toward him–“if it is not He, who is it” who is causing his suffering. Even after that, God says that what Job said regarding Him was “right.” This does not suggest, as some suggest, that there is an evil part of God, but it does suggest that God understands human anger–it often does seem as if the universe is unjust, uncaring–and that Stephen Crane‘s conception of nature as not giving a d..m about humanity is correct. The only plausible answer to the mystery of evil is eschatological. That seems inadequate for many atheists, agnostics, and even theists. Dostoevsky understood that unless somehow the pain and suffering of this life were rectified in an afterlife one could, with some justice, blaspheme God.

I was falling apart to the point that my work was suffering when I saw Sam lying on the other side of the bed one night. I was neither asleep nor obviously dreaming. I reached over, touched the soft fur, and watched him slowly fade away. I have seen him two times since then. I think it was a true visitation, though skeptics will have their own answers. It helped me get on my feet and mitigated my anger at God. God and I still have a love-hate relationship (on my part–God is love so He cannot hate). But without God, nothing is redeemed, and all the suffering and pain of humans and animals from the dawn of evolution until the present is ultimately worthless. I’d rather be angry at times at the only Source of meaning rather than be indifferent.

Christians should not condemn someone’s anger at God, but should bear with the person since most of the time the anger is temporary. Give positive advice at an emotional level–do not condemn the person who is angry to hell. It’s not your call in any case. Suggest books such as C. S. Lewis‘s, A Grief Observed and Nicholas Wolterstorff‘s Lament for a Son. Too many Christians have driven doubters and those angry with God permanently from the faith by their legalism. If you are angry with God, realize that such anger may not be permanent–it is best that it not be permanent, for that would lead to the bitterness of total lack of faith and a sense of meaninglessness in life. If a Christian is legalistic about your anger, confront him–let the person know that he is responding in an inappropriate way. Be patient with yourself and with others–only then can one day, perhaps you can be patient with God when bad things happen.

Animals Have Feelings: Against Neocartesianism

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Cover of "Descartes (Collector's Library ...

Cover via Amazon

If you step on a dog’s tail and it yelps, does it feel pain? Are some intellectuals so thickheaded that they cannot see the obvious? Yes and Yes.

People in both the ancient and medieval worlds believed that all living things had souls. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the greatest Christian thinker of the Middle Ages, accepted Aristotle’s view that plants have vegetative souls, animals have sensitive souls, and human beings have rational souls. Aquinas would have no problem admitting a dog feels pain when someone steps on its tail. He believed that animals have emotions that parallel human emotions, and although he did not discuss the issue directly, I have no doubt he would have said animals are consciously aware of themselves and the world, especially higher animals such as mammals.

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) believed that only human beings have souls and that only human beings are conscious and aware. For Descartes, animals are automatons, machine. So a dog yelping in what appears to be pain is no different than a mechanical toy with a sensor causing a yelping sound when someone steps on it. It is hard to believe that Descartes actually owned a dog!

A few years ago an article appeared in the scholarly journal Faith and Philosophy that defended God from the charge that He created a world with extreme animal pain–“nature red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson put it. They referred to scientists who defend Neocartesianism, a contemporary view that animals either lack consciousness or their consciousness is so limited compared to us that they experience either no pain or very little. The same would follow for other feelings, emotions, and thoughts.

I must admit that my first reaction on reading the article was fury. These Evangelical Protestant scholars were so intent on getting God off the hook for animal pain that they were willing to deny the fact of animal pain, or at least minimize the amount of feeling a nonhuman animal could have. But in doing so, reality, like an angry dog, bites them in the face.

We share similar brains and nervous systems with animals, especially mammals. Just as an animal withdraws from painful stimuli, so do we. Just as animals cry out when in pain, so do we. Just as some animals become aggressive when in pain, so do some of us. My thoughts are if something looks like it’s in pain, acts like it’s in pain, and cries out like it’s in pain, that is sufficient evidence to say it feels pain. Neocartesian scientists and their defenders accept what C. D. Broad called “a silly philosophy,” that is, a philosophy that would send anyone outside of academia to an insane asylum. I suppose if Neocartesians are consistent, they would support the most violent research on animals; after all, if they are automatons or near-automatons, why not vivisect them–without anesthesia, too! But I doubt the Neocartesians would go this far. One never knows.

Of course we cannot enter an animal’s mind to know for sure what its thoughts and feelings are. But neither can we enter into another human being’s mind in that way. We have to rely on behavioral evidence to identify an animal’s emotions just as we do with human beings. Now humans also have language, but the fact that animals lack a language in the sense that humans have one does not imply that they are without thoughts and feelings.

In defending God from the charge that He created a world with excessive suffering, one should never ignore reality. That is intellectual cheating, and that is precisely the crime of which the Christians who wrote the article in Faith and Philosophy are guilty. Reality is what it is no matter how much humans try to deny it. Animals do feel, and without the strong rational sense that humans have in the way, they most likely feel emotions in a rawer and more intense fashion than human beings. Only a Neocartesian is intellectually obtuse enough to deny that.