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Another presenter was Rita Swan who lost her son Matthew in the 1970s to a treatable illness after being prayed for by a Christian Science practitioner. She and her husband left Christian Science and have been crusading against religious exemptions to laws that protect children from neglect and abuse by allowing parents to substitute spiritual treatments for medical treatments. She pointed to their recent success in Oregon where the legislature removed several exemptions, including one in which it was a defense against homicide by abuse or neglect if a parent claimed to have “treated” an ill child using spiritual methods and prayer instead of medicine. Swan acknowledged that not every sniffle mandates a visit to the doctor and that parents surely have the right and duty to decide how much care a kid should get when the harms of treatment are likely to outweigh the benefits.
The Challenge of Evil God
The afternoon session featured a diverse panel focusing on the International Academy of Humanism. The first presenter was University of London philosopher Stephen Law who rehearsed his Evil God Challenge. Many late-night college dorm philosophers have puzzled over the conundrums involved with the claim that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. If all that’s true, how can there be evil in the world? The theistic response is that some evil is the price that God has to pay for greater goods.
Law questions this by pointing out that there is an enormous amount of pointless pain and suffering in the universe. A theist might reply that it’s not pointless, but then Law counters by asking the theist if the deaths of one-third of all children before the age of five in previous generations is really the price for a greater good? Theists also argue that God gave us the ability to choose evil because free will more than compensates for the suffering it brings. And then there is the argument that the material world is the “vale of soul-making” in which bad experiences cause us to grow spiritually and morally. And of course, there is the old standby: God works in mysterious ways, so how dare you question Him!
Law turns all these theodicies on their heads, by asking what if God were all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-evil? In this case, why is there so much good stuff in the world like healthy young bodies, beautiful children to love, and the ability to do good deeds? Free will is just the price that the Evil God must pay in order to produce a universe full of moral evil and enables us to suffer the agonies of temptation and guilt. The Evil God must give us the good stuff, but then takes it away to increase our suffering, including disease, old age, death, watching our beloved children die, etc. Indeed, the Evil God works in mysterious ways and puny humans simply cannot hope to understand the mind of the Evil God. Law argues that in terms of “reasonableness,” both cases are roughly symmetrical. Why is first case “reasonable” and the second one not?
After Law’s talk, the assembled secularists were treated to a lecture by Rutgers University biological anthropologist Lionel Tiger on “Male Original Sin.” Basically, Tiger was summarizing and updating his observations about growing masculine anomie and rootlessness in modern America made in his 1999 book, The Decline of Males. As evidence, he noted that the college attendance ratio is now skewed 58 percent female to 42 male. He asserted that 90 percent of “Ritalin victims” were male, and the drug is used to modify their behaviors more in the directions characteristic of women. One consequence is that women increasingly reject these low-ambition emasculated males and choose to have children on their own. One participant later made it clear that she had not come to the conference to hear men whine about being emasculated.
The final presenter was Nobel Prize-winning chemist Harry Kroto whose nominal topic was the abject failure of our educational system with regard to the effective teaching of science. It never occurred to him (or anyone else at the conference that I could discern) to wonder if education monopolies supported by government might have something to do with the that failure. Actually, Kroto spent most of his time noting how many world leaders have visited with Pope Benedict XVI. Kroto was also obsessed with Rupert Murdoch’s malevolent influence in the world, particularly the baleful effects of Fox News in America. I got the impression that Kroto thinks that most Americans are thoroughly brainwashed by Fox News, but that is hard to understand since Fox averages fewer than 2 million viewers in prime time. Kroto ended with a 1994 video clip [YouTube] of British television writer Dennis Potter who was then dying of pancreatic cancer saying that as his last act he would like to shoot Rupert Murdoch. Apparently, even secular humanists occasionally entertain violent fantasies about offing their enemies.
Disclosure: I want to gratefully acknowledge and thank the Center for Inquiry for inviting me to participate and for paying my travel expenses. I have been out as an atheist since my early teens.
Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.