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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

God, Atheism and the Problem of Evil - Part IV

The accounts of personal and cultural pain that have been transmitted by individual people throughout history, whether the pain they experienced was physical, emotional or spiritual, have produced experiences that been invaluable tools for interpersonal and intercultural dialogue.

We understand that the experience of grief and sorrow may be an essential component in the development of the moral consciousness, because of the way in which the recognition of pain in others develops empathy and compassion, while at the same time fostering an environment of caring.

Communities, societies, cultures that develop with the virtue of compassion at their center, communities that promote caring and mutual responsibility, are communities that have come to the understanding that people are not objects, but are in fact other persons, co-equal sharers of the lived experience. Without this basic understanding there is no foundation for moral choosing.

While the experience of pain, of trauma, of suffering is terrible, and while the intentional infliction of pain by one free agent onto another may be immoral (and possibly evil), it is impossible for us to conclude that the experience of pain in itself, is intrinsically evil.

If the experience of pain is not intrinsically evil, merely allowing for the possibility of the experience of pain cannot be considered to be intrinsically evil either.

We struggle with a deep cultural bias concerning the nature of pain, resulting in a significant misconception concerning its relative value, allowing for the common conflation of pain with evil. This arises from a structural bias in our language, a linguistic bias that associates discomfort and misfortune with what is "bad," and "evil."

This bias is at the root of the ideational difficulty that we are now faced with, it is hyperbolic, and not rooted in reality.

Many cultures (including our own) have conflicting, paradoxical, and even diametrically opposing views on the subject of pain.

Some cultures, including the Christian culture, will proclaim that the experience of pain is evil, that our ability to experience pain is evidence of our fallen nature, and that our experience of pain is a manifestation of divine justice.

Christian philosophers and theologians will make those proclamations from one side of their mouths, unequivocally, while from the other side of their mouths they will blithely state that the experience of pain is at times Holy, especially the experience of pain on another’s behalf.

The concept that a person must endure some kind of agony in order to achieve a divine blessing has its origins in the very earliest human religious traditions. Even though most modern religious traditions no longer advocate self-inflicted pain as a valid practice, some ecstatic and mystic traditions still do, the veneration of people who have endured great agony with patience, courage and strength persists in well recognized and deeply reverenced currents in our society.

A more ordinary example of the way in which our culture assimilates the experience of pain can be understood simply by being cognizant of certain facts, such as the fact that, before the turn of the twentieth century, one out of three Americans died from a dental related disease. Dental pain was common to everyone. They simply endured it, as billions of people living in the developed world do today, they endure. It does not prevent them from being happy, or from experiencing joy.

People have an enormous capacity to put off the ill effects of pain. Individual people have the capacity to undergo excruciating agony, and a day later be relatively unaffected and trouble free. Which is to say that cultural and personal biases have absolute priority concerning the way in which we evaluate and internalize the pain we experience.

The value of pain is relative to cultural conditioning and individual perception. Therefore, it cannot be given an absolute or universal value.

Pain is a condition of living, from birth to death all animals experience it. 

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