Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Problem of Pain: Chapter 1-Introductory

As I mentioned last week, I am adding a weekly segment to my blog which is a book club for the CS. Lewis book "The Problem of Pain". My plan is to mimic the format of my bible posts which have a section heading in bold, a summary of what is said in normal text, and my response in italics. The only difference here is there are no section headings so I guess I will make them up.

Why CS Lewis Used to be an Atheist

There are three reasons given that CS Lewis used to be an atheist.
1. The universe is mostly empty and devoid of life. Even if every planet was filled with life the emptiness is far greater. In reality, it seems that life is much more rare than that, which makes the point that much stronger
2. The life we know exists lives largely in pain. Man has reason which provides the possibility for more pain than ever before in the form of psychological manipulation and torture.
3. Everything eventually dies on an individual level and on a societal level. Even if our current society survives as long as possible and spreads out into the stars, at some point the universe will reach heat death and civilization will come to and end. Ultimately it will be all for nothing.
CS Lewis then concluded that  the universe was either not created by a spirit at all, was created by an evil spirit, or was created by an indifferent spirit. But it was certainly not created by a good spirit.

When I posted that I was going to do this book club on reddit, someone said that he wasn't interested because the book starts with a straw man of what an atheist is. I think I have to disagree, I think there are many reasons for being an atheist, and not every person comes from the same perspective. Is it possible that Lewis is setting up a straw man? Sure. But I prefer to assume he is being truthful and these really were his reasons.

Now, let's look closer at his reasons. I don't find his first reason compelling at all. I don't see why the universe must have life in every square inch for it to be made by God. What if our planet was the only one with life? Does that mean there is no God? Not really, maybe he wanted to give us a beautiful sky and he is so powerful making all of that stuff wasn't a big deal.

His second reason is fairly compelling to me. It is difficult to square the pain and suffering so many people go through with an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God. My understand is that is the purpose of this cool.

His third reason I also don't find persuasive. But I understand why some people would. People want to live forever, and if you have been told your whole life you will get to, it might seem like a hard thing to face that you won't and that everything will eventually go away. I don't see a problem with life itself being transitory. Things don't have to stay around forever to be significant.

Men Couldn't Have Invented This God

The arguments raised above are very strong, yet the strength of those arguments actually works against the atheist. For if things are so bad, how could men have ever attributed the universe to a wise and good creator?

This argument is completely asinine and I am not even sure where to start. Pain exists and is very common, but there is also a great deal of joy and love and other good things that people can focus on instead. Furthermore, people who are in a great deal of pain will naturally reach out for an explanation and it could be consoling to think that there is a benevolent person who is in charge of things instead of thinking it is random and for nothing.

The Origin of Religion

In all developed religion we find three strands and in Christianity we find one more.

Very well, I'm interested in what these strands are, I guess each should get its own section

The Numinous

If you were told there was a dangerous animal in the next room you would feel fear. If you were told there was a ghost or a spirit and believed it you would feel a different kind of fear of  the uncanny. A bit more of a disturbance than a fear, or perhaps awe. The object evoking these feeling is the numinous.

I'm not really sure I understand, but lets just go with it. The numinous is ghosts or spirits or the incorporeal or something like that.

There is a difficulty in that we use the same words to talk about things of different type. Do we really mean the same thing when we say we are afraid of the ghost and afraid of the tiger? Perhaps ancient people did, but now they take on a different quality.

This is a very good point. There are a lot of times that we conflate different ideas by using the same words.

There are many examples of this numinous awe in history and today, it does not seem to go away with knowledge or with civilization. Due to the nature of the numinous, there could be no description of the physical world that could include the numinous, therefore, there are only 2 views that we could hold about the awe we experience toward the numinous
1. It is a mere twist of the mind serving no biological function yet showing no tendency to go away.
2. It is the direct experience of the supernatural which actually exists.

I will offer a third possibility, it serves a biological function, but we don't know what that function is. I even have a potential function, there are times when fear is a good thing for us, fear of the unknown for example. If fear keeps you from exploring a potentially dangerous place it has survival value, if a side effect is that you mistakenly believe a place is haunted and it keeps you from real danger there is value there. Sure, there could be side effects such as being afraid when you shouldn't be, but it is possible the benefits outweigh the detriments and the behavior survives.


Morality can be expressed with the words ought or ought not. Ought is different from want and other similar emotions. You can not resolve morality into something else without presupposing it. For example, if you killed your parents and felt guilty that means you think you ought not have done it. The moralities accepted by different people differ, but not really by all that much. The thing in religion that is constant is that morality is at once approved and disobeyed.

I'm not sure if I am completely understanding what he is saying here, but he basically is describing morality, seems fine to me. If I have missed some of the point please enlighten me.

Morality and the Numinous are Related

We have these two separate things with very different character, the numinous and morality. Both are very different things. Religion says that morality comes from a numinous god. This is not what anyone really wants as we would like to understand morality better and having it come from a numinous being makes it mysterious, so this cannot simply be wish fulfillment. Lewis again offers two possibilities here, madness or revelation.

I guess I pretty much agree here, there is no reason our morality needs to come from a transcendent being that I can see. Further, his 2 possibilities seem reasonable to me, but I don't see why there can't be more. An obvious one I can think of is control. What better way to control people than to tell them a god wants them to do something rather than telling them it is the law.


The final strand which is unique to Christianity is a man saying he is "one with" the numinous being who is the author of morality. He is either a raving lunatic or he is exactly what he claims he is. If the records make the first hypothesis unacceptable, you must accept the second and believe every last bit of it.

So again, we are looking at a false dichotomy. Maybe he wasn't a raving lunatic but he was simply a manipulative liar. Maybe he was a really good guy but the stories about him are exaggerated. Maybe his life was a complete fabrication. My point is, Lewis is stating these two things as the only 2 possibilities when there are other obvious options.

Also, I want to point out that he is mistaken about this being unique to Christianity, my understanding is that there are other religious figures that share aspects of Jesus. A quick google search led me to this site. I just glanced at it, so I don't know how good of a resource it is but it seems alright to me. Maybe one of my readers can provide a better one in the comments.

Why Christianity is Necessary

You cannot simply ask whether the universe is the work of a wise and good creator or by chance or malevolence as that omits from the start all of the important things about Christianity and where it comes from. Christianity is not something which we have to have facts of the world fit into, but rather it is the thing that we have to fit into any worldview.

I don't understand what he is trying to say here, I tried to express what I think he is saying, but it just sounds like he is doing what he is accusing his debate opponents of doing, he is starting by assuming what he wants to prove. If I am misunderstanding his words please let me know.

Christianity creates rather than solves the problem of pain, because without a benevolent God in control of things we don't have to explain all of the terrible things in the world.

Agreed, that is the point of the argument isn't it? To say there is so much pain that shouldn't exist with your God. So it is intended to be used as evidence toward saying your God doesn't exist. Obviously an Atheist sees no contradiction with the problem of pain. Also I'd like to say that other religions have the same problem.

At every stage of religious development you can rebel, but there are consequences. You can close your eyes to the numinous if you are willing to cut ties to half of the poets and prophets and with the richness and depth of uninhibited experience. You can regard the moral law as an illusion and cut yourself off from the common ground of humanity. You can refuse to identify the numinous with the righteous and worship sexuality or the dead or the life-force or the future.

What the hell is he talking about here? This is just a pile of false dichotomies and ridiculousness. 


All right, well that's all for the first chapter, if you disagree (or agree) with anything I have said please say so in the comments. Next wednesday (3/28) I will do the second chapter Divine Omnipotence.


  1. Why CS Lewis Used to be an Atheist
    I agree with your analysis for the most part. It almost feels like a straw man argument since those seem pretty weak reasons for being an atheist, but I am willing to let that go as well. I think you are right. People have different reasons for believing different things. His first reason seems to neither prove anything nor disprove anything. The second reason, he does make a good point. But as you said yourself, that's the purpose of this book, so I'm really excited about hearing what he has to say. Pain doesn't really prove or disprove God, but it is hard to square with a benevolent God. With his third reason, I think isn't that great either. I think that if we are only here for a few years in a tiny part of an insignificant solar system floating in a sea of billions of stars among billions of other galaxies that that is really significant. Even on a scale as unimaginably large as that of deep space and time, we would be so lucky to emerge. He also seems to point out our awareness of death. I think its a moot point. Crows for example, when one dies, the rest of the murder have been known to sit in silence for a few minutes before flying away from the body of their lost one. I saw an awesome NOVA special on crows. They are way more intelligent that I ever thought to give them credit for. :) Anyhows, I think I am going to overlook these illogical reasons since they really don't have much bearing on the thesis and main point of the book and the knowledge about science wasn't as advanced when he printed this book. He can not be held accountable for the later.

    Men Couldn't Have Invented This God/ The Origin of Religion
    I don't really have much to add on what you said. On the topic of religion, there have been so many other religions that predate Judaism and have had so many different forms. People in more than one area of the world sacrificed each other to vengeful Gods. It doesn't take much research to find this out. Christopher Hitchens once said that Religion was man's first and worst attempt at science.
    “It would be an error to reply that our ancestors were ignorant
    and therefore entertained pleasing illusions about nature which the
    progress of science has since dispelled. “

    He doesn't seem to explain why this was an error. Man for a long time thought that sickness and afflictions were caused by God due to sin or turning away from God. This all changed when Germ theory came along. Religions have taught things like the world sits on a turtle or elephant for example. We know that this is false. He goes on...

    “For centuries, during which all men believed, the nightmare size and emptiness of the universe was already known. You will read in some books that the men of the Middle Ages thought the Earth flat and the stars near, but that is a lie. Ptolemy had told them that the Earth was a mathematical point without size in relation to the distance of the fixed stars - a distance which one medieval popular text estimates as a hundred and seventeen million miles. And in times yet earlier, even from the beginnings, men must have got the same sense of hostile immensity from a more obvious source.”

    It doesn't take much research to see how resistant the Catholic church was to science during periods like the inquisition for example.

  2. At the end of this chapter he asks you to spend five minutes reflecting on the idea that people didn't come up with the conclusions they have about religion in a world full of chloroform. I am assuming that he means that people aren't stupid. People come to their conclusions based upon evidence. People have come up with a lot of ludicrous ideas throughout history which were later proved wrong. But they had every right to believe those conclusions based upon what they knew at the time. The earth doesn't feel like it is moving and we can't feel the air rush past us. It's hard to notice the curvature of the earth from the casual observation and the stars seem to rotate around the earth. It doesn't mean that they were right. But as he says, he is just describing the origin of religion.

    The Numinous
    For the most part, I don't have a lot to add here. I think it really is a good idea for him to clear up definitions. Words can mean different things. Talking to religious people for example, they all seem to have slightly to vastly different definitions of who or what God is and what he can or can not do. I do want to point out however that we fear a lot of things which are irrational and others that are rational. You also bring up a good point that the possibilities he lists are not the only two possibilities. Being afraid of the dark for example is pretty illogical, yet I'm assuming it possibly served a “purpose” as in our ancestors were probably more likely to be hunted by predators in the dark since our vision isn't that great at night. Those that feared the dark vs those that weren't were probably more likely to be cautious in the dark rather than reckless and had a higher survival rate because of that. They went on to spread their genes and behaviors that they could pass down to their offspring. He discusses the example of being afraid of dead people. We can also fear what we do not understand. I think its advantageous, generally speaking, for a creature or animal to be cautious about something new. One sees a creature that its never seen before, it might not matter whether they approach this particular new animal or not, but it would be statistically advantageous for those cautious creatures. Those that explore every creature they came into contact with would have a greater chance of getting killed and or eaten. I think I am missing something rather big here, because this argument can't be as weak as I am perceiving it.


    I think he is describing altruism. Monkeys have also been known to show these kinds of behaviors as well. It's not exclusively a human thing. I might be missing something as well, but from what I understand I think I agree with him.

    Morality and the Numinous are Related

    I agree with you on that there are probably more possibilities to consider.


    I don't really have anything to add here. It really is a false dichotomy. I hear this a lot when I hear Pascal's Wager. There aren't always only two possibilities.

    Why Christianity is Necessary

    “I don't understand what he is trying to say here, I tried to express what I think he is saying, but it just sounds like he is doing what he is accusing his debate opponents of doing, he is starting by assuming what he wants to prove. If I am misunderstanding his words please let me know.”

    This was my understanding as well. Maybe someone can come in and clear this up. My thoughts were almost exactly the same as yours for the rest of this chapter. I really hope it picks up. I was really looking forward to this book. On good reads, it has over four stars from a lot of reviewers.

  3. "He doesn't seem to explain why this was an error."

    I think he was specifically talking about feeling insignificant in the vastness of space, he addressed that part of it anyway saying that people knew that the scale of space was very big earlier than is commonly suggested (which you quoted). But you are right, it seems like he is claiming the statement for a larger group of science facts, and he doesn't support the statement in that context.

    I like your example of being afraid of the dark.


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