Recently there has been a video clip circulating online of David Attenborough being interviewed and asked about the God question. His response is interesting. You can watch it here:
The problem with his argument is that he takes something from the natural world and makes a philosophical assertion based on an entirely emotive foundation. Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic Magazine, recently made the point for not using emotion in a recent article in Scientific American. My temptation is to just flip the argument. However, I consider myself a reductionist of sorts and so I want to spend some time deconstructing his simple quip first.
Attenborough is an incredibly gifted communicator and he uses that to his full advantage. In the clip, he combines his attention to the interviewer’s question by also looking to the audience and camera. Responding in hushed tones and elongated vowels, he makes a very short and poor argument for why he doesn’t believe there is a Creator. Sadly, what he is actually doing is manipulating the person who doesn’t think, into the preferred agreement ‘there is no God’ – The current western zeitgeist, I believe to be on the wane.
I believe he knows only too well that his argument from emotion means nothing. When people ask him “how do you not believe in a God when you see the natural world in all its beauty?” they are of course responding to the fact that he has spent his entire life making his living from showing us the beauty and wonder in the natural world, and it’s on the same basis that he is making his argument that there is no God. He completely discounts what he has made his living from in suggesting that by the same means there are natural evils like worms worming into the eye of a five-year-old child. Why doesn’t he just say “a person” as all people are equal and there are many things that only humans catch in terms of illness. Why does he use this example of natural evil when it’s not even the worst thing that can happen to a human? He knows he is being emotive and not actually dealing with the problem at all. Generally, from the atheistic side of academia, on the problem of suffering, the silence is deafening! Theodicy is something that has had much thought throughout the ages, and there are plenty written resources on the subject. I shall leave titles for further reading at the end of this post. It is clear that it can only be sufficiently explained through the Christian worldview. Those who take an atheistic worldview never seem to properly address the problem other than to complain about it. How they can’t see how contradictory that is, I don’t know – To whom are they complaining? If you have no claim on a subject, then your counter-claim is null and void.
Moral Evil, and turning it on its head
Obviously, in order to discern this natural evil, we use empathy. Presumably, Sir David can explain empathy to be more than an evolved social behaviour when he thinks that natural evil is some kind of explanation for his atheism. Personally, I believe he knows that the worst of all experiential evils come from humans themselves. Since the seventies, he has been an advocate for the overpopulation myth and he is on record for having said “humans are a plague on the planet Earth” – however, we also know this is untrue! It is becoming increasingly evident that humans are a part of the eco-system just as much as we abuse the environment. Actually, the evidence is heading in the direction of our custodianship over planet Earth. Regarding population, we expect to reach steady state at around 9 billion, which is believed to be a sustainable level, especially if we can continue to reduce our carbon footprint.
So, to turn the argument around one could easily say “what if the problem is not evil? What if the problem is empathy?”… If you remove empathy then evil doesn’t exist. Surely that would be the easier thing to do as it has been clearly shown in history that it is easier to remove empathy than it is to remove evil. You just need to look into recent history at cases such as the Hutus and Tutsis to see that we are able to remove empathy from the equation. A little further back, Pol Pot, Stalin, the Nazis, Nanking and Unit 731, Mao, Panzram… The list goes on. Jordan B Peterson, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, once said “If you really want to understand Evil, you need to understand it’s an aesthetic. It’s an art form.”. Any study of humanity reveals malevolence is deeply rooted in our condition. It also goes to show that objective morality is true. All that is true and absolute is perfect, and everything else is abstract. Clearly, empathy and evil are one and the same in the fact they are on the same scale – you could just say at different ends.
The difference between empathy and evil is a bit like the difference between habit and addiction; again both are relative but entirely different. We have to work at habit forming with discipline, yet addiction seems to happen effortlessly. This also serves as an analogy for the human condition which I shall touch on in conclusion.
I wonder if you have ever clicked on some media on the internet you know you shouldn’t? Say, a media release from ISIS of an execution. It didn’t auto-play. You chose to click on it even though you knew what you were about to witness. If you are someone who has done this, let’s examine what is going on… You chose to witness a barbaric execution which had already happened, and you likely knew some detail of how it was carried out. You knew it would give you some kind of weird feeling inside yourself. Likely, you end up turning that weird feeling into an anger you have to project somewhere. Inevitably you will project your anger at ISIS. The trouble is, that weird feeling you had was of perverse pleasure, and in choosing to click on that video and watch it, you actually played a part in the execution. Empathy and evil are inseparable. Even more so when we fail to acknowledge the guilt within ourselves.
Perhaps something else which shows this is the behaviour of inappropriate laughter. We’ve all laughed at things we ought not to. Inappropriate laughter or pleasurable feelings we may have under the surface at the expense of someone else also go to show the empathetic/evil problem. Inappropriate laughter shows it spectacularly well, though – It’s like the tension between our empathy and the evil we’ve witnessed is released, and the collision brings a bout of uncontainable emotion manifest as laughter.
We can’t get rid of evil as hard as we try, but it is apparently easy to get rid of empathy. If we get rid of empathy, we get rid of evil. Simple, right? As a side to this – It seems we want to become more animalistic in the west anyway, so surely it’s the logical progression. We so often hear about core elements of our nature just being a “human construct”, and things which are recent fashions have somehow become facts without Science or consistent Philosophy behind them. Maybe we hear this increasingly because ultimately for our survival and evolution we really want to arrive at a state of just beingness. Perhaps ‘Human’ is a construct of Beings? Maybe we just want to be unaccountable, shameless, amoral, touching, tasting, seeing, smelling and feeling Beings? Some type of fluid being which always goes with the flow and always takes the easiest route?.. No, we don’t want to be that. I don’t fear any agenda or endeavour, but I can’t help thinking the more we count up constructs (or deconstruct humanity without keeping it together) and try and eradicate them the more we destruct what it is to be human. The more we try to arrive at just ‘being’ through this destruction, the more we inadvertently construct a Humonstrosity.. Anyway, back to dear old David.
I love David Attenborough and very much enjoy his tv programs, but as you can see I don’t agree with him on this. I don’t know what he knows of Christianity, but I would have thought he would know the basics. Stuff like, we are fallen and we live in a fallen world where there are diseases and pestilence. Conversely, to his complaint, the strides we are making in science to eradicate the worm only shore up the biblical mandate to subdue the earth. I’d have also thought he must know basic Philosophy, and that in order to be able to evaluate all of that which is subjective, we need an objective standard of absolute Truth. I very much doubt he’s a Subjectivist if he feels his knighthood means anything. To add to that, He accepted his knighthood but at some point said: “humans are a plague on planet Earth”.. Did he say this before or after receiving this esteemed human honour? Even if he’s not a Subjectivist, can he put any value in his knighthood as an Atheist? Surely a title like that means nothing without the heritage.
Taking the subject back to Christianity, there is a tradition within the faith called Calvinism, and within Calvinism, there is a doctrine called Total Depravity which describes the human condition. It is the idea that we are totally depraved, but for the grace of God. So what makes us who we are is this mixture of depravity and grace. We still don’t have a scientific explanation of what a human is, and even when we do we already know it will be devoid of value. Really, we can only achieve, or hold onto value through a theological understanding of what we are. RC Sproul once said he likes to ask Atheists “Where do you put your guilt?”. Well, I think emotions are quite like energy and they can transform. Just as tears can turn to laughing, guilt can turn to anger, and anger can be projected (put somewhere). Anyway, I’ve cut swathes out of this post to keep it short. If you’ve made it this far, thank you – especially if you don’t agree with me. Feel free to let me know what you think, and I would be happy to discuss it with anyone.
This, all my rambling here could probably be summed up by Isaiah 64:6 “righteousness as filthy rags”.
- Swinburne, Richard. 1977. The Coherence of Theism. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Swinburne, Richard. 1978. “Natural Evil,” American Philosophical Quarterly 15: 295-301.
- Swinburne, Richard. 1987. “Knowledge from Experience, and the Problem of Evil,” in William J. Abraham and Steven W. Holtzer (eds), The Rationality of Religious Belief: Essays in Honour of Basil Mitchell. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp.141-67.
- Swinburne, Richard. 1991. The Existence of God, revised edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Swinburne, Richard. 1998. Providence and the Problem of Evil. Oxford: Clarendon Press.