Monday, January 27, 2014

Carnival Cruise Line and the Problem of Evil

No, fun though it might be, this isn't a cheap shot at Carnival, which had some very embarrassing moments in 2013. Nevertheless, millions of people have had millions of pleasurable moments and gained millions of pounds on Carnival cruises.

One of Carnival's mishaps spawned some of the most bizarre theological discussions ever. A small child drowned in a pool with dozens or people around, none of whom saw him until too late. The account mentioned onlookers praying for him, which in turn prompted a lot of snarky comments on the inefficacy of prayer, plus questions about why God would allow such a thing to happen. 

This wasn't a typhoon slamming into the Philippines, or a shoddy building catching fire or collapsing in some Third World slum. This was as close to a Garden of Eden existence as you can hope to find on this planet. Nobody was in want, nobody was hungry, nobody was cold, nobody lacked shelter, nobody lacked any material need, nobody was afraid, nobody was acting malevolently. Everyone was in a good mood, and probably even people who could be very nasty in everyday life were mellow and minding their own business. And yet a small child drowned in full view of all of them.

The obvious answer is complacency. Nobody expected a drowning, and nobody imagined that someone could drown in such a crowded setting without somebody spotting it in time. Very likely everyone assumed that any children in the pool were being watched by parents as required by posted signs, although this child was unsupervised. If it had been someone going for a 2 A.M. drunken dip, people would no doubt have expressed regret, but nobody would have been especially shocked. But this happened in broad daylight with a crowd surrounding the pool. Probably every onlooker would have tried to assist or at least alerted the crew had they seen it, but nobody was specifically watching for trouble, and so nobody spotted it until too late.  It doesn't help that drowning people don't fit the stereotype of the thrashing, struggling swimmer. Drowning people struggle quietly. They're too busy trying to push their heads above water to thrash, and too busy trying to gulp air to yell.

Once upon a time, people in America felt it was safe to leave doors unlocked, with the inevitable result that other people began taking advantage of easy access to peoples' belongings. During the Sexual Revolution, people enjoyed carefree sex, until herpes and AIDS spoiled the fun, because micro-organisms are very inventive. But criminals and disease are agents of evil, which in an ideal world would not exist. When people ask how a good God can permit evil to happen, what they often actually mean is "why didn't God make the world like Disneyland, or maybe a Carnival cruise?" And the answer is, look what actually did happen on a Carnival cruise.

So let's try to imagine a perfect world where nothing bad can ever happen. There is no disease and no crime, and no harmful animals or plants. But you can still get hurt. You can get hit by lightning and falling rocks, and you can fall off cliffs. What would happen? With no disease, people would probably get very casual about hygiene. What about leaving food out? Would it spoil? Waaah, why would a good God let my food spoil? Build your home on the edge of a cliff or too close to the water? Waaah, why would a good God let my house fall off the cliff? Waaah, why would a good God let my house be flooded? Would God let you float to the ground if you jumped off a cliff? Would God pop food into your mouth if you failed to feed yourself? In Exodus, God fed the Israelites with manna, but they still had to go out and collect it (and they got bored with it, eventually).

A good example of people living in a too-comfortable world (apart from one very big problem) is H. G. Wells' Time Machine. In this future world, humanity has evolved into two races, the surface dwelling, hedonistic Eloi and the subterranean, technological and cannibalistic Morlocks (the one very big problem I mentioned). The good film version (1960) displays starkly just how contemptible the Eloi have become. When a young woman is swept into a stream, the other Eloi make no effort to aid her (Saving Yvette Mimieux? A no-brainer.). When the Time Traveler asks where their fruit comes from, one answers dully "It grows." When he expresses a desire to learn about them, the Eloi asks "Why?" in a tone of voice as if to say "That's the dumbest thing I ever heard of." The Time Traveler is shown a library of books that crumble into dust when touched and berates the Eloi for wasting humanity's legacy.

But we don't need science fiction, because it's happening all around us. The better the world gets, the worse we get. America has the lowest crime rates in decades, yet we see people calling for ever more draconian punishments, and demanding the right to carry guns wherever they go. We periodically go into frenzies over imaginary crime waves. It seems the safer we get the more frightened we get. The more powerful our medicine gets, the more prone we are to complain about the cost and accuse doctors of withholding miraculous medicines. In fact, the more benefits of any kind we get, the more we see people accusing the very providers of exploiting them. Our Eloi have the civility and empathy of Morlocks, and our Morlocks are actually the civilized ones.

But it's an old story. Adam and Eve awoke in a world capable of supplying their every need. Everything was provided to them solely out of benevolence, or grace, as the theologians call it. And in short order they were convinced that God was scheming to withhold something from them that they had a right to (the first conspiracy theory?). "For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." (Genesis 3:5) Up to this point, Adam and Eve have contributed nothing to the world, and yet they think their rights are being infringed. Just like people who know nothing about science are convinced that science is lying to them about the age of the earth, or climate change, or the need for vaccination, and people who know nothing about economics are convinced that the rich or welfare recipients are robbing them blind. 

Ever think the Garden of Eden story is so unfair? I mean, why do we get kicked out of Eden because Adam and Eve screwed up? Well, the good news is, we do get born into the Garden of Eden. And the bad news is, before we can talk, we fall for the snake's pitch and exile ourselves. Think about it. You have no worries, no responsibilities, and everything you need is provided for you. And before you can even crawl, you flunk the first test. The world does not provide you with instant gratification. No matter how diligent your Mom is, she'll be doing something selfish like putting out a grease fire when you want to be fed now, or she'll fail to divine what's making you cry, or, cruelest perfidy of all, maybe she and Dad will be collaborating on another sibling. 

A little later on, when you develop some motor control, the snake slithers back and springs a second test on you. You want a toy. There's one across the room, and another one much closer in the hands of another toddler. What to do? The easy thing, of course, grab the toy away from the other child. And when we develop language skills, we do exactly what Adam and Eve did in the Genesis story. When confronted with wrongdoing, we lie, excuse ourselves, and accuse others. Game, set, match. Exit through the gate past the angel with the flaming sword, please. We don't have a lovely parting gift for you. 

And there's one final thing we do: we blame reality for our problems. My parents are to blame for sending me to my room. My Teacher is to blame because I failed. That stupid cop went and gave me a ticket. The System is to blame for sending me to prison. Care to bet Adam and Eve spent a lot of time complaining that God was such a tyrant? I mean, what's one lousy piece of fruit anyway?

There is, of course, a solution. It would require that human nature itself change so that we all exercise good judgement. We don't build houses in dangerous places. We accept that storms are a necessary force for flushing wastes and replenishing shorelines and wetlands, and we build suitably. We accept that earthquakes and volcanoes are part of the price for having the mountains that make the world beautiful and we exercise prudence. In short, there is no Original Sin.

It's pretty clear that the kind of world many of the "Why would a good God ...?" people envision would end up with God intervening constantly to save people from the consequences of their laziness and carelessness. 
And since I've seen comments from people who more or less explicitly assert that "compassion" means not allowing consequences of any kind, that's no exaggeration. God would effectively become a concierge and a janitor. The Garden of Eden on a cruise ship is sustained by lots of people, roughly one for every three passengers, working all the time, and enjoying a much less than Eden existence themselves. 

Why didn't God make the world like a Carnival cruise?" Because, look what actually did happen on a Carnival cruise.