Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Why Do Children Suffer?


[African child]

One question frequently asked is: If God exists, why do children suffer?

Some atheists seem to consider the suffering of children to be the ultimate proof that there is no God. After all, if there exists an all powerful, all knowing Supreme Being who is just, good and kind, how can He allow such things to happen?

Being the father of a child who is quadriplegic, this thought has crossed my mind once or twice too.

There are several possible answers.

First of all, children may die because of a parent’s sins. If a parent is wicked, it would, in some cases be unfair for him to leave children behind since he would then retain some measure of immortality through this children. Children who die for this reason are surely rewarded endlessly in the afterlife for their sacrifice.

Second of all, what is the alternative? If children would never experience the slightest discomfort their entire lives until they reached maturity, suffering later in life would come as an overwhelming shock. By going through teething, diaper rash and numerous other discomforts great and small a person grows accustomed to discomfort. Then, when he reaches maturity, and he begins being punished by God for sin, this does not come as a sudden, unbearable change. Seemingly, some level of discomfort during childhood is actually an example of God’s mercy.

Thirdly, there is the issue of reincarnation. A person may have sinned in a previous life. In order to achieve atonement he may need to revisit this world. This is a common concept among Eastern religions and it has been adopted in recent centuries by most Orthodox Jews. Just as an example, let’s say a person sinned by hitting people. He may be returned to this world in a body, which has no hands so that he will relive his life here, but this time free from the sin he was in the habit of committing. This will be his atonement.

To me, the question “If God exists why do children suffer?” is something like the question “If the earth is round, why don’t people fall off the other side?”. It’s a childish question to begin with and there are perfectly reasonable answers.

For more details, this book should be very informative. The author himself died of cancer in middle age, leaving a large family.

36 comments:

david said...

When did Jews begin to accept reincarnation? Doesn't this go against you argument for divine justice?

I would add another theory. That all pain and suffering are a result of sin. If God has given us a guide by which to live, and we all ignore that then it is sometimes going to have a negative effect for both us and others.

Cameron said...

One question frequently asked is: If God exists, why do children suffer?

CH: Obviously because God is Evil.

JP: Some atheists seem to consider the suffering of children to be the ultimate proof that there is no God.

CH: It's not a proof that 'no god exists' (for example, Thor is unaffected by this argument) but it is proof that an omnipotent, omni-benevolent God exists.

JP:There are several possible answers.

First of all, children may die because of a parent’s sins. If a parent is wicked, it would, in some cases be unfair for him to leave children behind since he would then retain some measure of immortality through this children.

CH: So your loving and caring God extends the punishment he metes out for the wicked to include their innocent children? Doesn't it bother you at all that even our imperfect human morality isn't so barbaric as to punish the innocent?

JP: Children who die for this reason are surely rewarded endlessly in the afterlife for their sacrifice.

CH: I don't recall a single element of scripture that suggests that children who suffer would be rewarded in the afterlife. What's more isn't it clear that if the child in question is an atheist (or otherwise not of the correct faith) that they aren't going to be rewarded in the afterlife whether they are wicked or not?

JP: Second of all, what is the alternative? If children would never experience the slightest discomfort their entire lives until they reached maturity, suffering later in life would come as an overwhelming shock.

CH: Ah yes, the ole 'childhood leukemia is character development' argument.

JP: By going through teething, diaper rash and numerous other discomforts great and small a person grows accustomed to discomfort. Then, when he reaches maturity, and he begins being punished by God for sin, this does not come as a sudden, unbearable change. Seemingly, some level of discomfort during childhood is actually an example of God’s mercy.

CH: 'Some level' might be, but brain cancer? Massive birth defects? As for what the alternative might be, how about your loving caring God curing malaria? Dystentry? Or the aforementioned child-hood leukemia? Now THAT would be mercy.

JP: Thirdly, there is the issue of reincarnation.

CH: Oh yeah, this is going to be good.

JP: A person may have sinned in a previous life.

CH: And monkeys might fly out my butt. Seriously. They might.

JP: In order to achieve atonement he may need to revisit this world.

CH: Aren't there enough mechanisms to 'achieve atonement' already? Punishment in Hell, Purgatory, Heaven, and of course our lives on earth. And now you want to add reincarnation too?

JP: To me, the question “If God exists why do children suffer?” is something like the question “If the earth is round, why don’t people fall off the other side?”.

CH: You think children suffer under a loving God because of gravity?

JP: It’s a childish question to begin with and there are perfectly reasonable answers.

CH: If by 'reasonable answers' you mean;

- God is a complete jerk who extends punishment of the wicked to their innocent children.

- That children somehow deserve to suffer because of something that happened to them in another lifetime that they have no memory of.

- Or finally, and perhaps worst of all, that they suffer horribly as a way of building character. At least until the excruciating cancer they suffer from actually kills them.

Gosh that sure sounds like a loving God to me.

jewish philosopher said...

You see, Cam, the weakness of the argument “if there is a God, children would not suffer” is that once you can find any reason why God would make children suffer, the argument is worthless. Sorry, that is the case.

David, reincarnation is based on kabala. I don’t see why it has anything to do with divine justice.

yitz.. said...

@JP

two things:
1. if you posit afterlife than all judgements of what is just/right are postponed until the afterlife and then the question is eliminated altogether as we are trying to assess God's righteousness without seeing the rewards OR the punishments.

2. if you suggest that Judaism adopted the concept of reincarnation from eastern religions late in the game, then how is judaism perfect and divinely authored? plainly your suggestion is wrong and gilgulim (a concept radically different than eastern reincarnation) was always part of Judaism--- it's just that just like the after-life it isn't clearly laid out in the pshat. Yibum is a good specific example of how gilgulim were addressed and referenced in the actual text.

jewish philosopher said...

"That children somehow deserve to suffer because of something that happened to them in another lifetime that they have no memory of."

What has memory got to do with justice? If a serial killer banged his head and forgot his crimes should he be freed? Grasping at straws, Cam.

jewish philosopher said...

No, I don't think reincarnation was copied by Jews from Hinduism and Buddhism. I'm just saying it's a common religious belief.

Cameron said...

JP: You see, Cam, the weakness of the argument “if there is a God, children would not suffer” is that once you can find any reason why God would make children suffer, the argument is worthless. Sorry, that is the case.

CH: There is a difference between God having any reason, and God having a good and moral reason for children to suffer. God's reason might be that he is a sadist and enjoys inflicting pain and suffering on helpless creatures for his amusement - but that doesn't make it a moral reason.

"That children somehow deserve to suffer because of something that happened to them in another lifetime that they have no memory of."

JP: What has memory got to do with justice? If a serial killer banged his head and forgot his crimes should he be freed? Grasping at straws, Cam.

CH: What I was getting at is the concept of 'mens rea' or 'guilty mind' which is considered to be part of what is legally required to assert the different degrees of guilt in a crime. Someone who kills a person without intending to is treated differently from someone who intends the crime (it's the difference between a straight forward accident or manslaughter vs 1st degree murder).

If the child has no memory of any past crimes, and is otherwise what all reasonable people consider to be completely innocent of any grievous crimes warranting their suffering, then there is no moral purpose to this suffering and your God is simply guilty of a grave evil.

The simplest way out of the problem of evil is just to admit your God is capable of evil, and isn't a God of Love.

This just begs the question of why anyone would ever wish to believe in such a being, but there you go.

jewish philosopher said...

“If the child has no memory of any past crimes, and is otherwise what all reasonable people consider to be completely innocent of any grievous crimes warranting their suffering, then there is no moral purpose to this suffering and your God is simply guilty of a grave evil.”

Why?

If tomorrow a serial killer bangs his head and forgets everything, should he go free?

JP 1. CAMERON 0. !!!!! YES!!!!

david said...

JP, if I live a horrible life and instead of dying and being judged, I am put back on earth to try again that surely is not compatable with your idea of divine justice. If the second time around I am the greatest fella ever what then, have I escaaped punishment. At what point do I stop being put back on earth to have another go. And if I suffer in the first life what am I paying for at that point?

jewish philosopher said...

God has many ways, means, and times and places to ensure that our soul receives proper atonements for its sins. This process may span thousands of years, until everything is settled perfectly. Let’s say a man was a cruel slave driver in one life; he may return later as a poor slave. A woman who was a bad wife may return to this world to live out life as a spinster. There is the also the fire of hell. And there is suffering in the current life. The possibilities are endless, just as God is all-powerful.

avrum68 said...

"The simplest way out of the problem of evil is just to admit your God is capable of evil, and isn't a God of Love. "

C'mon Cam, that's just Christian talk. The God of the Hebrew Bible does some pretty bad-ass things. How/why...I'll leave it to JP to provide answers.

Me? I'll side with tradition visavis not being too smug to know, with any degree of certainty, why God would do this or that. Practically, it's very easy to see the real-life benefits of living a religious life. How? Spend a shabbos with an Orthodox Jew.

badrabbi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
badrabbi said...

Avrum,

No one doubts that there are some benefits to living a religious life. Things are simple, emaphsis is on family, the community is supportive more or less, and there are lots of holidays.

But is that the issue? Are we arguing whether a frum life is "the life"? Go and talk to a fundemental Muslim and she will talk up her life style to the hilt.

The issue at hand, I thought, was whether a good god can harm children. JP's response, an absurd one, I think, is that yes god harms children because the children are really not so innocent after all or that the children's parents must have done something really bad.

The absurdity of a monumentally evil statement such as JP's is hardly mitigated by a promise that Shabbat in an Orthodox Jew's house can be rather pleasant!

david said...

Why do we assume that to suffer is always a bad thing? We need to first see the whole picture, something we cannot do in this life.

A simple example of what I mean would be this. As children I am sure everybody is able to think of a time when their parents have punished them. This can involve having something taken away, or maybe a smack. Whatever the punishment, the intention is to cause you some discomfort for doing something wrong. It would normally end with the child upset and to some degree suffering. Quite often the child will think that it was terrible and unfair, and that their parents could have done things differently.
Now if we think of a time in our adult live, for those of us with children, things look different. When a child does something wrong a good parent knows that not punishing the child, and thus causing them to suffer, would be irresponsable. It would be telling the child that doing wrong has no negative reaction.
My point is that only once we are parents ourselves do we understand why our parents did what the did. I feel that it will only be when we are dead, and in the next world that we will see why God has allowed us to suffer in this life.

jewish philosopher said...

Bad, I feel the real absurdity is people like Sam Harris who try to use the suffering of children as a rationalization for living a hedonistic life. It isn't, as I've explained in this post.

You seem to feel that blaming God is better than blaming children. That's your call, but I don't look at it that way.

The Jewish point of view is that God is good and man was created to live eternally in Paradise, as we would expect a good, all powerful Being to arrange. However, we blew it. And we keep blowing it each time we sin. That's why we suffer. It's not God's fault. It's our fault. Accept responsibility

badrabbi said...

"we blew it. And we keep blowing it each time we sin. That's why we suffer. It's not God's fault. It's our fault. Accept responsibility"

JP, you are a computer programmer. Suppose you write a program, say a database for a company. The program is buggy and doesn't work so well. What are you going to say to the company; "Don't fault me, the program blew it?" Will you blame the computer program if it behaves not according to your liking?

God created us. If we "blow it" and behave not according to His liking, is it our fault?

jewish philosopher said...

Yes, because we have free will and we freely choose badly.

avrum68 said...

"The absurdity of a monumentally evil statement such as JP's"

It's only absurd because, judging by your blog, Judaism is absurd...or many elements of it anyway. Me? I'll stay on the side-lines with respect to passing judgement on how God metes out punishments.

"is hardly mitigated by a promise that Shabbat in an Orthodox Jew's house can be rather pleasant!"

You're right. I wasn't clear. I was repsonding to Cam's question/conclusion:

"This just begs the question of why anyone would ever wish to believe in such a being, but there you go."

You can't have it both ways. Either God exists or God doesn't exist. If God exists then de-facto, you believe in every aspect of God. And hence, He commanded us to observe Shabbat, a wonderful gift. With respect to events like children dying, I'll stay out of those murky waters. I have a tough enough time figuring out what cereal to eat in the AM.

Agutten Shabbos

badrabbi said...

Avrum,

I will leave you to figure out the brand of cereal in the morning.

In the mean time, a bit of a clarification. I have never claimed "Judaism is absurd". It is not. Judaism can be a beautiful tradition. I consider myself a proud Jew with very strong traditions.

There are aspects to Judaism, though, that are in fact absurd. Time and time again I point to these aspects. The obsession with God and prayer, while by now a central theme to Orthodox Judaism, are in fact absurd. The many arcane rules meted out in the Torah are incorrect, and need to be revised. Much, if not most, of old rabbinical decress and customs are in fact none sensical and need to be rethought.
I am not in favor of throwing the baby with the bath water. Rather, I view Judaism as an initial version of a useful computer software. There was a version 1.2 with the advent of the Talmud. Now, I think, we are overdue for another revision.

jewish philosopher said...

"The obsession with God and prayer, while by now a central theme to Orthodox Judaism, are in fact absurd."

I suppose absurdity is in the eyes of the beholder, however my feeling is that God and prayer are the only things in life which are not absurd. All else is vanity, a meaningless, fleeting shadow.

avrum68 said...

"There are aspects to Judaism, though, that are in fact absurd."

Wow, we probably have more in common than I thought. I agree 100%.


"There was a version 1.2 with the advent of the Talmud. Now, I think, we are overdue for another revision."

You'd love Conservative Judaism. Seriously. The Law and Standards Committee is doing what you're requesting.

The movement as a whole is falling apart, but the ideas seem to be bang-on.

jewish philosopher said...

The fact is, Bad, Judaism has had at least two very successful sequals so far - Christianity and Islam. Judaism 2.0 and 3.0. Possibly Mormonism counts as 4.0.

Personally, I'm sticking with 1.0. Fewer bugs, I think.

Cameron said...

CH said:“If the child has no memory of any past crimes, and is otherwise what all reasonable people consider to be completely innocent of any grievous crimes warranting their suffering, then there is no moral purpose to this suffering and your God is simply guilty of a grave evil.”

JP: Why?

CH: Unwarranted suffering is an evil. An evil that God could choose to avert, but doesn't. Therefore, God is guilty of either inflicting the evil (god designed us to suffer from child-hood leukemia), or is guilty of not interceding to stop the evil. Either way, God is responsible (all-powerful remember?) for the evil. Ergo - God cannot be the all-good being you claim.

JP: If tomorrow a serial killer bangs his head and forgets everything, should he go free?

CH: Obviously, no. The mens rea is merely part of assessing the severity of the guilt, not whether the killer is factually guilty.

JP: 1. CAMERON 0. !!!!! YES!!!!

CH: Trust me, you don't want to keep score.

CH said: "The simplest way out of the problem of evil is just to admit your God is capable of evil, and isn't a God of Love. "

Avrum: C'mon Cam, that's just Christian talk.

CH: Actually, it's atheist talk.

Avrum: The God of the Hebrew Bible does some pretty bad-ass things.

CH: I agree. Ergo, cannot be a God of perfect love. Which is fine by me. I don't believe in Thor and he isn't a perfect God of Love either. Big hammer though. Smoking, big ass hammer.

Avrum: Me? I'll side with tradition vis a vis not being too smug to know, with any degree of certainty, why God would do this or that.

CH: The 'I am sadly too dimwitted to parse my God's intentions' position. Be my guest.

badrabbi: No one doubts that there are some benefits to living a religious life. Things are simple, emaphsis is on family, the community is supportive more or less, and there are lots of holidays.

CH: Nobody doubts that there are benefits to lobotomies either. Things are simple, emphasis on family and care-workers, the community is supportive more less, and every once in a while someone comes by to change your adult diaper and swap out your drool scarf. But that doesn't mean I'd recommend it.

CH said: "This just begs the question of why anyone would ever wish to believe in such a being, but there you go."

Avrum: You can't have it both ways. Either God exists or God doesn't exist. If God exists then de-facto, you believe in every aspect of God.

CH: I guess that I don't believe Thor exists. I just can't get past Mjolnir the magic hammer. Sorry. I was with you right through Odin, and the World snake, and even Ragnarok, but the magic hammer? I'm afraid it's a deal-breaker for me. Back to atheism I guess.

JP: You seem to feel that blaming God (for evil and suffering of children) is better than blaming children. That's your call, but I don't look at it that way.

CH: Which goes to just how out of whack your moral compass is JP. You'd rather blame helpless and innocent kids for their cancer, than admit that your omni-powerful God allows them to suffer pointlessly.

jewish philosopher said...

Cam, could I ask you a sort of personal question? Why is it that consistantly atheistic criticisms of religion tend to be about 90% ridicule, insults, distortions and exaggerations and perhaps 10% actual logic which, upon close examination, is not at all logical?

Cameron said...

JP: Cam, could I ask you a sort of personal question?

CH: Sure thing.

JP: Why is it that consistantly atheistic criticisms of religion tend to be about 90% ridicule, insults, distortions and exaggerations and perhaps 10% actual logic which, upon close examination, is not at all logical?

CH: I don't claim to speak for other atheists, but I'm happy to defend my own comments as being more than 10% logical, and less than 90% ridicule, distortion or exaggeration.

That said, ridicule is something I think religion has earned. Mocking the logic, conclusions, absurdities etc. of faith is one the best ways of highlighting how reason-defying they are.

If you wish to take issue with any particular claim I make, I'm more than happy to address it on its merits.

Finally, I typically don't seek to insult you or the readers of this blog. I don't think (and have never claimed) that being a Jew is silly, stupid or worthy of ridicule.

That said, I frequently find your arguments and conclusions (especially those related to atheists, scientists and evolution) to be less than worthy, and in those cases I don't hesitate to let you have both barrels.

jewish philosopher said...

It would make things much simpler if you could just clearly, concisely state why you thing I'm wrong.

avrum68 said...

"The 'I am sadly too dimwitted to parse my God's intentions' position. Be my guest."

I've never met the creator of the iPod. But I use 'em, and they work quite well. I'm not sure if s/he created them to make money, to impress their spouse, to appease Steve Jobs, to create hearing loss...

If I can't figure out the exact intentions of the iPod developer, why would I venture to guess the exact, and the key here is EXACT, intentions of God?

It is possible to get the overall message without getting to smug about the fine details.

"I guess that I don't believe Thor exists. I just can't get past Mjolnir the magic hammer."

I agree. And that's why mass revelation, Jewish survival, and a holy book with characters that are all too human should provide the skeptic with at least a moment's pause visavis the Torah's legitimacy.

However as a Mussar teacher warned me:
"...arguments you're unable to accept will be impediments to an open, honest search"

Cameron said...

CH said: "The 'I am sadly too dimwitted to parse my God's intentions' position. Be my guest."

Avrum: I've never met the creator of the iPod. But I use 'em, and they work quite well. I'm not sure if s/he created them to make money, to impress their spouse, to appease Steve Jobs, to create hearing loss...

CH: The difference here is that you;
A - have evidence from the object in your hand, and from media accounts of usefulness, advertisements, biographies, etc. of Steve Jobs existence.

B - You understand what we mean by the words 'Steve Jobs', that is, they refer to a living breathing person.

So your claims of knowledge about Steve Jobs are completely different from your knowledge claims about God. Further, it is typically the case that the less we know about someone the less certain we would take our claims as to their existence. I for one would be more sceptical about Mr. Jobs (having never met him) than I would about my wife (who I know intimately).

Avrum: If I can't figure out the exact intentions of the iPod developer, why would I venture to guess the exact, and the key here is EXACT, intentions of God?

CH: If you can't figure out the intentions of the iPod maker than I'd suggest you haven't tried very hard. It plays mp3 files. I use mine to play lectures, podcasts and the occasional play-list of music.

Avrum: It is possible to get the overall message without getting to smug about the fine details.

CH: And then along comes the atheist who denies your big picture, in part because none of your details add up, or ever come into focus.

CH said: "I guess that I don't believe Thor exists. I just can't get past Mjolnir the magic hammer."

Avrum: I agree. And that's why mass revelation, Jewish survival, and a holy book with characters that are all too human should provide the skeptic with at least a moment's pause visavis the Torah's legitimacy.

CH: Except that the above claims are made by all religions. "Our god is real, and has revealed herself through all this wonderful evidence. It is your God that is false."

From the followers of Islam, to the Hindu, to the Baptist, to the Mormon, all believe their revelation to be special and somehow exceptional while all the others are false.

Indeed, among each of these religions are subsections, off-shoots, heretics and other groups who claim that the tenants of the main faith are false, and that their own sub-set is the one true faith.

avrum68 said...

"Except that the above claims are made by all religions"

Wrong. And here's why:
http://www.dovidgottlieb.com/publications.htm

Cameron said...

Thinking perhaps you had something intelligent to reference I checked out the argument you linked to Avrum, and I am sad to report that up front in the introduction he admits that his arguments are only for those who have an emotional open-ness to Judaism (i.e. people who already believe).

Like the Tarot reader, the Tea leave Diviner, and other charlatans, he tailors his arguments to those who already believe. As such I'd treat him with the same contempt.

Now, if further in there is a genuine objection to my claims that all religions make the same claims to special revelation - be my guest and dig it out for our mutual analysis, but I'm not going to wade through nonsense looking for an argument you think defends your position.

avrum68 said...

" I am sad to report that up front in the introduction he admits that his arguments are only "

Uh huh. So you didn't read it. Not surprised. Hey, I'll tell ya what, I'm reading something very interesting. Heard of a guy named Antony Flew:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antony_Flew

Turns out one of your own - non-Jew/atheist - has embraced God. And since you don't need to have an "emotional open-ness to Judaism" , I figured you'd very much enjoy the book...I've even provided a link for you Cam:
http://tinyurl.com/2ylc5w

Your welcome ;)

Cameron said...

Avrum: Uh huh. So you didn't read it. Not surprised.

CH: And I gave my reasons why - he is specifically engaged only in appealing to those already on his side, and I then requested that if he had a decent argument you find it and bring it to our attention. Did YOU read it? Or is this an exercise in getting others to do your research for you?

Avrum: Hey, I'll tell ya what, I'm reading something very interesting. Heard of a guy named Antony Flew:Turns out one of your own - non-Jew/atheist - has embraced God. And since you don't need to have an "emotional open-ness to Judaism" , I figured you'd very much enjoy the book...I've even provided a link for you Cam:

Avrum: Gosh, thanks Avrum. However, I am already familiar with Flew (and revere his work 'God: A Critical Inquiry'.

His conversion story is sadly overblown. As he approached his deathbed (he is very advanced in age) he did not convert to Christianity - he merely admitted the appeal of Wittgensteinian fideism.

So your welcome yourself.

avrum68 said...

"His conversion story is sadly overblown."

Bwahahah...wait till you read it. Oh man, what I wouldn't give to be a fly on Cam's wall.

Ah damn it, I can't wait. Here's a quote from page 1:

"I have now been persuaded to present here what might be called my last will and testament. In brief, as the title says, I now believe there is a God!"

Hey Cam, I use Pepto Bismol for gastroesophageal reflux, you may find it helpful. Bwahahaha....

Cameron said...

I'm not denying that he has had a conversion, but the 'God' he has converted to isn't one you would ever recognize.

It isn't even one he would recognize. In the classic sense, he's a deist (ala Jefferson, etc.).

I also have to say that I'm not sure what his conversion has to do with anything written above. Is their an argument it is mean to refute? Or were you simply so wounded you grasped for any straw and found Flew's 'I'm old and scared' conversion?

avrum68 said...

Cam,

You're making a fool out of yourself.

READ THE BOOK!

Curious...Dawkin's pulled the ol' "he's an old man" routine to explain Flew's conversion (a pathetic accusation which Flew deals with in the intro to his book). How do you explain Francis Collins' "conversion" which took place in his 20's?

Oh, and by the way...READ THE BOOK

Cameron said...

Avrum it is you who are pathetic. We come to this forum to debate the issues - not to reccomend reading lists.

If the book has something important or intelligent to contribute - than perhaps you could summarize it for us?

Or are you suggesting I read the book for you - because you can't?