What would you do with a character who is religious, and doesn't abandon any of his religious beliefs, but reaches an epiphany one day that "Life is Meaningless?"
Imagine for example that Joe is LDS. (This a model I have drawn from a conversation I recently had with a friend who wanted my opinion on this) Joe believes like most Mormons that the purpose of life is to prepare him and test him, and if he passes everything he will someday be able to create worlds and help other intelligences and spirits to live a mortal life and later still to advance to his Godlike level that he hopes someday to achieve. He also believes there is an inherent set of laws that govern the universe, that are greater than even Gods. For example the concept of Justice.
He then asks, "What is the significance of me having a successful mortal existance and reaching this godlike state?" And concludes that it is solely to help these others do the same things, and they will continue to help others... and he thinks aside from this gratification there is no real point to all of this. Not a visible one. And that if he doesn't bother with it, someone else will and every deserving entity will still have the opportunity (according to the demands of justice) to progress, etc, with or without him. Regardless of no apparent purpose for intelligences to even exist or for some of them to trully need to become Gods anyway. Then Joe wonders "what is my purpose and role that is so essential and worth defending in this utter cycle of of nothingness anyway?"
Unable to prove that his role is in any way significant to any meaningful purpose, or irreplaceable, he is thrown into a catch 22. Unwilling to abaondon his beliefs, he think his religion is completely valid, but unable to see why the universe should be so structured, even though can't imagine it any other way.
That was a very poor way to capture the character my friend is trying to write in fiction. He described him a lot better to me when we talked about this, and the question came up, how would such a character view other characters? How would he view the world? What would his motivation be to even get up in the morning? He is plot-essential and it is plot-essential for him to think this way. But as a lot of the "pov" is written through his eyes (the only way to try to express his thinking) neither my friend, nor I (whom my friend came for advice), know how to write this character. Nor can we predict how a reader will respond to one.
I guess a quick recapitulation would be, we have a character who strongly sees no point in the meaning of life defined by his religion, but is adament in his belief that his religion is valid anyway. How then can these attitudes be expressed in his daily routine, and what would his daily routine be anyway? Believably.
I suppose his friends would try and jolly him out of this new position, depending on (1) how close they are to him as friends, (2) whether they share his beliefs, and (3) whether they, too, feel life is or isn't meaningless.
As for daily routine, how about, say, if he prays to his gods, how about having him start as if by reflex, then remember partway through and stop.
Are you looking for philosophy, or characterization?
If existence is meaningless, then your character is a religious nihilist (Wikipedia).
By his own lights, it doesn't really matter what he does, but humans aren't built that way, so I might expect to see:
depravity that results from a release from the inhibitions that are rooted in "meaning"
a futile attempt to "define his own meaning"
obsession with the minutiae of things that he finds important or that he likes...
I'm sure there's more. The point is, the character's character would still be rooted in human nature (with its good points and bad, its sublime and brutal, its intellectual and emotional), while his philosophy would have become unrooted. That's the area of disjoint that you or your friend need to explore.
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Agree with oliver. I would think that the most likely result would be a seed of depravity, eventually increasing as he increasingly actualizes his beliefs. He's like a rebellious child--he acknowledges the factual existence of both his parents and their rules, but fails to see the purpose of the rules or his suburban existence in general.
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I suspect that even if he concludes "life is meaningless," his conclusion is not based on rational argument. It's based on depression; or on frustration at not being able to achieve something; or some other frustration. Human nature, not logical deduction.
Interestingly I think this character is remarkably like Satan along with those who understood his point and chose to follow him anyway (a third of the stars). It wasn’t as if they didn’t get it, they absolutely did, but they just fail to see the point, just like your character. I would say that this view leads to a kind of self-destructive insanity. I’m not sure I remember how LDS view Satan but I think it’s not as negatively as mainstream Christianity. Still, I don’t know that the bible reports that these beings out and out formed a rebellion as much as just started doing whatever they felt like doing, like making human bodies and taking the daughters of men. They seem to thrive on conflict and pain now since “the whole world is lying in the power of the evil one.” All free moral agents are designed to function on the concept of love, remove that and you get a downward spiral of destructive behavior starting with Cain killing Able. Those who truly love are happy to live in it forever, those who don’t quickly expand their sense of self worth over the feet of others and then become indignant at them for saying Ouch.
Incidentally, in my experience, the largely agnostic if not outright atheistic Sci-Fi community will not tolerate addressing such issues within the genre. At least not in any obvious ways.
In my opinion, if someone has that level of deep angst about the meaningfulness of his life, he doesn't, in fact, hold the certain belief you say he does that his religion is valid. When we believe something - anything - is totally valid, we don't anguish over it. We are at peace with the belief.
The stirrings of discontent mean that somewhere, below the surface of his conscious mind, your friend/character questions the truth of this belief.
De nile ain't just a river in Egypt....
[This message has been edited by Elan (edited March 03, 2007).]
Interesting. So I guess the question now becomes "is it possible for someone to believe something is valid but still believe it is pointless, or feel an anguish over it?"
I think it is, offhand.
quote:When we believe something - anything - is totally valid, we don't anguish over it. We are at peace with the belief.
My example would be, I believe there is certain validity that there is disease, starvation, and suffering in poorly developed countries. I think that is valid. I am not, by any means, at peace with that, though. This is not really analogous I'm just attempting to demonstrate belief in validity without being at peace.
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It is problematic. People who never had any faith are easy, just walk down any street, you’ll meet plenty and you know how they act and think in that narrow band of real. Someone who had as resounding a faith as you described (awareness of a supernatural reality) would be more difficult. This thought that it is all pointless would surely affect him. Like being the only one on a plane that knows its going to crash but then deciding that he doesn’t really care. I guess it just doesn’t seem that’s the way it would go. I like trailmix’s point, that some just become indifferent but can’t just suddenly pretend they don’t know something they do know. I don’t know, I guess you would have to weave the conflict into the story. His friends in the faith would notice his indifference. He would loose his sense of spirituality because he would be unlikely to maintain a prayerful relationship with God or do any personal study to maintain his faith because he just don’t care anymore. The conversation at church would become more and more alien to him. While those around him may make declarations of faith and joy he would become just a bystander who said little, slowly becoming a foreigner in his own land. People would notice.
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"Hard" atheists believe that there is no God. They argue a lot about what's reasonable to believe and what isn't, but if you directly ask them whether they have the same degree of faith in God as they have in the Easter Bunny, many will say "yes".
Many hard atheists are "at peace with this belief," in Elan's words. However, because they believe that at root there's no inherent order to the universe beyond the physical laws, and there's no purpose inherent in these laws, they often (as I said before) define their own meaning, or do some of the other things I discussed above. Most, though, from what I've seen, don't really think about it or care. They think morality is bigger than God (for a variety of philosophical reasons) and that therefore they can be moral regardless of God, gods, or no God. Maybe the MC could have a similar attitude.
Any atheists on the list care to comment or add a different viewpoint?
Your character believes his religion, but feels his role in it is unimportant. To me it seems that these two philosophies are incompatible. The MC will eventually choose one or the other: a renewed devotion to his faith when he realizes what he believes, or he will give up on it entirely. Being LDS myself, I know that it takes effort to actively participate. Besides the three hours on Sunday, there is also family night on Monday. The church is all volunteer so members are expected to take on duties of running the church. Beyond that, members are expected to be home or visiting teachers. This means that once a month each adult will go visit 3-4 families in their home and teach them. So, your MC has a lot on his plate. He can't be actively engaged in his church if he doesn't think he's important. My guess is that he would simply stop going to church. He might not rebel against it, he would simply stop going.
That said, I don't think he would be a bad person either. Some people think that if you aren't religious and don't have a devine sense of right and wrong, nothing will hold you back from doing what you want. I don't see a strong trend of atheists committing crimes. I don't see agnostics going out and stealing or raping or whatever. Just because you don't believe in any god or any sense of punishment won't necessarily make you a bad person.
The MC 'could' turn out doing bad things, though. If he turned from his religion he could decide that since there is no punishment for sins that he can do what he wants. I think this behavior would come from his own desire to do it, though, and not because he was no longer religious. There are many murderers, rapists, and child abusers that are also religious.
To make it simple, I doubt the MC could hold both viewpoints at once (his church is true and his place in it is not important). I see him making a choice between belief and disbelief, because how could any church be true where each member isn't important.
Not exactly the same issues you're asking about, but have you bounced your ideas off these folks? http://www.exmormon.org/bboards.htm They will at least have many insights if not suggestions as they've found themselves in some predicaments, too.
Personally, I'd like to see the story of a man raised in the LDS church awakening in the spiritual world to be told, yes you are in Heaven, yes you get to stay, yes there is important work for you to do here, BUT, nothing at all like you were raised to believe! Would he accept it...or would he go stomping up to Jesus Christ personally and DEMAND that Heaven be CHANGED to suit what he was raised to believe? Would Jesus Christ then:
--Say, certainly, Heaven is each person's concept of what it should be, here ya go? --Say, everyone else had to deal with the "real Heaven" as opposed to their imaginary concept, DEAL WITH IT! --Kick the guy into Hell?
Of course, such a book couldn't be accurately written unless you'd actually been to the Spiritual world, but it's a kick to think about!
It would be a fun, I think humorous, and probably controversial read.
Matt, I think I agree with you. I too am LDS and don't reallys ee it as a possibility. However, on the other hand, it sure makes for an interesting character and teh character is designed to explore the possibility. Is believing in a religion and seeing it as pointless mutually exclusive? I think there might be a small, hard to spot, fascinating gray area that we've all overlooked.
quote:I don't see a strong trend of atheists committing crimes. I don't see agnostics going out and stealing or raping or whatever. Just because you don't believe in any god or any sense of punishment won't necessarily make you a bad person.
Right. Some of this depends on how deeply the MC feels the philosophy he claims to be propounding. Individuals aren't a bundle of truth claims, but actual historical entities with histories and biases and emotions. It's highly unlikely that someone who grew up in a particular way will completely change his way of life or his actions based on a philosophical argument, but if he internalizes the argument then you should expect *some* kinds of changes. And since a lack of meaning implies a lack of objective reason to do one thing rather than another, he'll either have to "create his own meaning", reject morality, or ignore the problem (and work through the attendant conflict).
I'd categorize myself, if pressed, as an agnostic. I have had hundreds of conversations based around my beliefs or lack thereof.
One belief that I do hold is that I do what is right because I believe it to be so, without fear of punishment or hope of reward, therefore my motives are more pure.
More pure than what, I really dont know. But it seems reasonable to me that doing something without reward or without fear of what might happen if I did not do it, is a greater act of goodness than someone that does something knowing they will recieve a reward for it.
My sense of morality is based upon the desire to create the best world possible for my children. I dont have kids yet but hope to soon. (Im recently married) I find that doing what is right is contagious or at least, if people respect me they attempt to do what is right when I am around. I am talking about small acts like, not littering or making fun of less fortunates to bigger things like drinking and driving or cheating on their significant others.
So I agree. In the absence of religion, we as agnostics or athiest, find another rationale for right and wrong. I want my children to live in a better world, not a worse one, therefore, I should be a better person instead of a worse one.
I would hope that a religious person is doing things that are good because they are good, not because they are, in affect, being bribed. If you are doing good just because you want a reward, or want to avoid punishment, then your motives aren't pure.
I'm sure there are those that don't commit crimes because they don't want to be punished by the state. If that's what it takes to keep people from committing crimes, so be it.
I am sometimes struck by the arrogance of religious people, not to say nonreligious people aren't sometimes arrogant. I don't often hold with the so-called "religious right" in this country because they are so busy judging people that they rarely help anyone.
But prejudices and imperfections, examinations of self and others, is what makes fiction good. Someone earlier in this post mentioned that a lot of the scifi/fantasy community is atheist or agnostic. I don't know how true that is, but so what. Though I believe in a God, that doesn't mean that I discount those that don't. I think speculative fiction is a great place for such debates. I missed watching the original Star Trek by several generations, but I've caught quite a few of the episodes in reruns. I love how they would tackle the controversial issues in a way that they could be discussed. That's also the reason I haven't cared for Star Trek lately.
Atheism and religion, differing levels of spirituality, differences in opinion, as long as its handled in a fair manner, without being preachy on either side, would make for great stories.
This is a great discussion in the context of writing characterization (probably turn bad in any other context).
What I said about the Sci-Fi community being largely atheistic was, I must confess, not of my own originality. It was something that Virginia Kidd told me 7 or 8 years ago with reference to my story “Elizabeth’s Gift.” Virginia (passed away couple of years ago now) was of course married to James Blish for many years. What an odd couple they must have been to have tea with, both so spooky but so intense. Anyway that was what she warned me of. She felt the story was well written but that she couldn’t sell it to any of her established contacts. I was so emotionally attached to that story that I kind of gave up writing for a long time after that and I’m just now trying to get back into it. But you know what Matt, Virginia’s circle of contacts were probably a little dusty and I think things may well have changed somewhat now.
I have to admit though that a story about an LDS man struggling with his faith in a Sci-Fi context would find few non-LDS readers. Kind of like the LDS “Pride and Prejudice,” give me Keira Knightley any day. I am not LDS and I was very distracted by the deep-seated suspicion that all through the movie someone was trying to subtly preach a new faith to me.
Others have commented on how they feel as those without any particular faith beyond mans own achievements. So let me say something as a man whose life is based strongly in a faith in God. Strictly in the interest of helping understand characterization in our writing. I frequently find myself feeling very sad for those without faith. I find it difficult to understand how one could manage if all there was is this 70 years and that’s it. And so much of that fraught with problems and Ill health. I didn’t even like typing it. I couldn’t bare it myself. Just the Jessica Lunsford story would leave me reeling in despair and may well result in an Oswaldian solution… I can’t even believe how evil this world is. I don’t believe in a literal Hell but it wouldn’t be a half bad idea in that mans case.
There are plenty like me so factor that into your writing. Murrieta/Temecula is extremely religiously diverse like most places, but it is more religious than most communities and I’ve heard my views echoed many times by those of different faiths. I know what you mean about the arrogance but it’s hard to apologize for it. Like I said before, its like being on a plane that you know, I mean KNOW, is going to crash and everyone around you is treating you like you’re a crazy extremist who is trying to spoil the fun and burden everyone with obligation to react. To put it another way, it’s like living in a nice house. You know the house isn’t yours, you know the house didn’t build itself. Even though some of your roommates try to say that the house could have built itself, you know deep down how unlikely that is. You know they say that because they don’t want to feel obliged to or respect the real owner. You think they're too lazy and self centered and that they hope they’ll just be able to get away with it by saying “oh, I had no idea” if the owner returns. I expect that’s the arrogance you’re talking about.
Write it in my friends.
[This message has been edited by tnwilz (edited March 04, 2007).]
Um... for what this lacks in context it compensates for in pure curiosity, this is for the athiests and to some extent the agnostics.
As I understand atheism, it seems just as energetic as any religion, except they disbelieve in God instead of believing. Agnosticism is more like "I don't know what the real deal is, there could be a God, maybe not, the whole issue is blown out of proportion and it all seems like nonesense to me anyway, so I'm just going to stick to my life. Figure things out as they come, rationally and empryically." I'm completely fine with both beliefs, I just want to know if I am semantically correct.
You see I'm very intrigued, more so with the agnostic "beliefs," and think that had I been born under other circumstances, I would doubtlessly have evolved into an agnostic by now.
But to any who believe there is no afterlife, or even a distinct possibility of no afterlife, how do you judge yourself as an individual human? I'm not talking about morality or ethics, I mean human composition. In our culture we tend to refer to human "spirituality" a lot, which could mean a variety of things. So what I am asking you is, does all of our individual uniqueness and internal feelings come from 100% biological roots (totally possible), or do you see yourself as more than just the sum of your parts?
This could be vital insight for properly writing an agnostic's or atheist's point of view.
[This message has been edited by Zero (edited March 04, 2007).]
quote:He then asks, "What is the significance of me having a successful mortal existance and reaching this godlike state?" And concludes that it is solely to help these others do the same things, and they will continue to help others... and he thinks aside from this gratification there is no real point to all of this. Not a visible one. And that if he doesn't bother with it, someone else will and every deserving entity will still have the opportunity (according to the demands of justice) to progress, etc, with or without him. Regardless of no apparent purpose for intelligences to even exist or for some of them to trully need to become Gods anyway. Then Joe wonders "what is my purpose and role that is so essential and worth defending in this utter cycle of of nothingness anyway?"
Okay, let me make certain I am understanding this correctly.
This person is asking why he should strive to reach a higher level of being if all it means is that by reaching that level, he is supposed to help others get there, too?
In other words, why should someone who wants to be a writer who is actually read by people bother participating in a writers forum where he is expected to help those who aren't as far along in their writing skills and understanding as he is to learn and improve so that they can have a chance to be actually read by people, too?
This person is asking, basically, "What's in it for me?" Right?
On the religious question, I don't think he needs to worry. If all he can see about this particular religious belief is that he's not going to get anything out of it, he won't find himself in the position of being able (much less expected) to help anyone else. So it is all meaningless in his case anyway.
One of the more powerful things you can write about is the growth of characters from this kind of selfish attitude into people who see that there is more to any kind of life (atheistic, agnostic, religious, whatever) when they forget themselves and make other people's lives better.
This is the "it's better to give than to receive" thing I've been trying to show people about being in a workshop all along. You really do grow and learn more when you give someone else feedback than you do when someone gives you feedback.
Besides that, one of the things that psychologists have found out is that there is a direct correlation between a person's self-esteem and the good things they do for others. If you do something good for someone else, you feel that much better about yourself. You grow as a person.
Back to a religious point on this, in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul pointed out that without love, everything you can possibly do is worthless. So, sure, reaching the top of the mountain is meaningless if you don't have any love for the view and for those who are asking you to help them get to the top as well.
If you are going to write about characters like this, show those characters learning to love what they are doing, and to love those for whom and with whom they are doing those things. Bring them and your readers to success through love (and I mean much more than romantic love) and let your readers feel that love in what they have read. Then neither your religion nor your writing will be meaningless. And you can be a writer who is not only read by people, but enjoyed.
Just for clarification, I dont think that all religious people do good things because of the rewards they may recieve.
I do subscribe to Hobbes belief that ultimately we are all selfish creatures. For instance, I do good things because I want the world to be a better place for myself and eventually, my children. So even my seemingly selfless acts of goodness and kindness are selfish. Even when I do something kind that I dont beleive will have any impact on my world or the world of my children, I feel good about myself for doing it. I gain out of every good action I do. If doing good felt terrible, I'm not sure how much good I would do.
I beleive that we are all unique because of the combination our biology and the sum of our experiences. No one has the same genetic make up and the same exact experiences. There is an infinite ammount of combinations.
There is an unlimited amount, I agree. Experience, that's a good variable. But what about two twins. Very similar genetically. Let's say they are "identical," I am fairly sure they are still somehow somewhat different biologically, (but I'm no geneticist/biologist), because I have seen very different behavior between them at incredibly young ages (which we call "personality") The significance of their age, unique experience is more finite. So there are/can-be inherent differences independent of experience and with very similar biological-chemistry. So they have to be somewhat different biologically, or else there would have to be more to the equation than we can see. No?
KDW, Um... that's sort of a main spolier of the story. He learns/changes, and is a dynamic character and follows roughly the plot you outlined. It's just a matter of is, is his original state believable in the first place? And would readers be put off with the character and drop the book before he begins to change?
Absolutely. I beleive, no, thats too strong a word. I think that there are biological triggers that point our personalities in a certain direction. There is a certain amount of evolutionary memory that could be past to the unborn through genetics as well.
Those bio-triggers could/would/should be different in each twin. I think there would be an infinite ammount of trigger combinations. That would cause the twins response to similar experiences to be completely different. That should account for different personalities within close biological and experience combinations.
These arent my beliefs per se. Just one of the infinite possiblities that I dont discount. That is part of the great benefit and curse of being agnostic. Infinite possibilities. It makes for great conversation but doesn't comfort in the face of tragedy.
An LDS "Pride and Prejudice"? How about an LDS "Jane Eyre"? Okay, I want credit for stopping there and letting someone else say something really bad here.
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I like your theory Scott. I've never read anything like that but I certainly don't see how that couldn't be a possibility. In the context of a story it could certainly be accepted as a science. Which makes me ask an ethical question. If a person's personality (exposition/decisions/cognition/etc) are based completely on deeply rooted biological factors, because they have no inherent spirit or whatever, then are they more than just computer programs working out the details of their programming? Responding perfectly, exactly, as they are made to chemically do so? So then is there agency after all? Or crime? Or are people who commit terrible crimes and make awful choices just victims of having really crappy genes? And is it ethical to punish them if that is the case?
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quote:And is it ethical to punish them if that is the case?
It doesn't matter. If the theory is correct, then you'll punish them (or not) because your atoms are configured to punish them (or not).
That's my problem with the notion of physical determinism. It's not that it's false -- it could be true -- but if it is, then what I think really doesn't matter very much. Much like the "The earth is 6,000 years old and the fossils were planted to test our faith" theory on the other side of the religious spectrum.
I keep thinking that I'm going to write a story that explores this very subject, but it's darned tough to write it in a way that provokes thought about the questions instead of preaching my answers.
I'm actually aksing for answers, I have my own answers of course, but I am interested in other answers, not for debate, simply to explore them perhaps enrich more of y characters. It is easy, for me, to write a character like myself, harder to get into the deepest roots of the motivation of a character who doesn't think how I do. I want to hear your opinions and reaosnings and how you draw your conclusions, etc. Again I have no interest in debate, I simply want to get into other heads and figure them out.
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It does seem rather sterile and bleak when read the way I wrote it but in my head it is the definition of hope.
Hear me out.
Its the scientific version of "God made us who we are and has a plan but has given us free will"
The triggers point us in a direction, our experience conditions us to respond a certain way but ultimately our own value is determined by our responses to adversity and our choices. It is an uphill battle to be a good person when being bad is so easy but we can choose to be good despite our genetic makeup and our conditioning.
About personality being purely biological; In my senior year of high school I did a research paper about artificial intelligence. The paper is rather irrelevant here, but I came across an applicable idea (I can't remember whose it was). Basically he argued that consciousness has some quantum mechanical component, which is what makes it so hard to understand. The point is that quantum mechanics is random and can only be used on a statistical level, so the outcome for any single particle, or in this case consciousness, is indeterminable, even with identical genetics and experiences and without any need for a "soul"
As for religious/spiritual/moral/philosophical/etc. views, I have a particular viewpoint that I like to call Apathyism. The basic idea is that all of the "big questions" in life-does God exist? What's the meaning of life? What is right and wrong, good and evil?-don't matter. There is no way to conclusively prove one answer or another, yet a lack of proof does not prove a lack (most existentialists fail to realize this. They reason that: I can't prove life has meaning, thus there is no meaning. That's illogical.) and thus it is impossible to know the answer. This means the answer doesn't affect our lives in any way that we can observe (we could determine it empirically if it did), so our beliefs in the matter are independent of the answer itself. This means that our actions, which we base on our beliefs, are also independent of the answer itself. This means that the answer (if it even exists) doesn't matter.
So your character's problem isn't that his life is meaningless, it's that he believes his life to be meaningless. I experienced this sort of angst for all of ten minutes, which is how long it took me to develop the above line of reasoning. But that's just me. Most people will try to create meaning in their life, instead of claiming that it's meaningless to ask if there's a meaning. This could go one of two ways. Either the character can reject his religion in search of another meaning, or the character can embrace his religion and try to find meaning in it. If you choose the latter, he would eventually come to some modification of his religion that he believes to have meaning, even though he can't prove it (isn't that what faith's about?)
quote:I’m not sure I remember how LDS view Satan but I think it’s not as negatively as mainstream Christianity.
I'm not sure how Christians view Satan. One Orthodox Jew has told me they view Satan as an angel whose calling is to test humans... sort of. I probably got that wrong, but the point is that they don't think Satan is evil.
To understand the Mormon view of Satan, it is necessary to first understand that they believe Angels are the same type of being as a human spirit (not a soul) and that people with bodies are more powerful than spirits. But like tigers that make friends with orangutans, or mice that are adopted by snakes, people with bodies are prone to believing various ideas, like that spirits have power over them.
So according to Mormons, Satan is a spirit that first offered an alternative plan in which people would not live with conditions of "agency" (loosely translated, free will) so that all would be saved but in exchange Satan would assume the glory of God the Father. God reject this, Satan rebelled and was cast out. It thus appears ironic to some Mormons (such as myself) that some of the principal religious debates are over things like the existence of free will, and that Mormons are considered not Christian because they don't see Jesus as having the Father's glory. We see him as Creator and Mediator. If there is no being above Jesus, in what sense is he a mediator? Just saying is all.
So... Mormon nihilist. I actually believe there are a fair number of these. I was one myself for quite a while. I think I moved more in the direction of atheist, until I noticed I was an atheist, and then I decided I needed to figure that out. Due to misunderstandings about the role of personal effort in salvation, a lot of Mormons don't understand the necessity of relying wholly on the merits, mercy and grace of Jesus Christ. If any of these people really thought it all through, they would probably come to a similar conclusion to the character described. But to be a Mormon is also to rely on the validation of spiritual feelings, so most of them don't really think it through.
My original novel had to do with the problem of being a Mormon who can't trust their feelings due to mental illness. I have since split this into two novels.
You seem to describe a "room for individual choice" or agency that somehow is a product of the biological connections. Is it fair to say you believe there is something more than just biological chemical reactions fulfilling their programming, you're just not specifically aware of what it is?
You have given me a very interesting explanation that I've been lacking. Valid or invalid it can't be ignored and it helps me in my mind to justify a belief that people can be self-driven, uniquely personable, and aside from genetic factors and experience. If I understand correctly you are suggesting that there are elements of randomness, like certain connections might be made in identical people but different reactions might occur? Is this the product of even deeper "programming" that we cannot detect, as on definition of random, or is it simply trully random? The main question I have about this style of reasoning is, "this explains differences in human behavior in genetically similar people, but does it still leave room for voluntary agency? Or are people still the product of their biological programming, which we accept as somewhat random?"
franc li, That's a really intriguing story idea. Mormon nihilst is a great term to describe the above character. You say you've had experience with this, what do you think are some natural products of this kind of thinking? If we considered this state of mind to be a multi-directional fork. You aluded, or seemed to, that you became an athiest after this experience. What provoked that reasoning above, say, an alternative conclusion?
If I sounded rude, it wasn't intentional. I was giving you the answer that makes the most sense to me. I've also discussed these issues -- generally on friendly terms -- with people who describe themselves as atheist or agnostic or some other flavor of that, and I've read a variety of books on the subject, so I might be able to offer thoughts that Scott or others can augment or shoot down. (I want to be careful when trying to represent a mindset that isn't my own.)
quote:If a person's personality (exposition/decisions/cognition/etc) are based completely on deeply rooted biological factors, because they have no inherent spirit or whatever, then are they more than just computer programs working out the details of their programming?
Most atheists I know would say "yes". One of the more coherent attempts at describing how this could be possible (though it still doesn't work for me) is in David Deutsch's The Fabric of Reality. Deutsch is a quantum physicist at Oxford. Although he accepts physical determinism (in the grandest way: there is a multiverse, which is a block universe in which everything possible happens and the apparent flow of time is an illusion), he rejects reductionism. He talks about "emergent properties" of things, which can only be seen at higher levels than the parts that make them up. Consciousness is an emergent property of these assemblies of matter that we call human beings. The Fabric of Reality deals extensively with emergent properties.
If you get the book (and it's worth reading for a variety of reasons), you might find it instructive to compare his discussion of emergent properties to Leibniz's rejection of materialism on the basis that it can't encompass perception: the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an entry here on his philosophy of mind. Leibniz is also interesting in that he also rejects Cartesian dualism (i.e., the idea that there are two substances, matter and spirit), which leads him to something called "preestablished harmony". I find it unsatisfying, but I give the guy points for original thinking.
quote:So then is there agency after all? Or crime? Or are people who commit terrible crimes and make awful choices just victims of having really crappy genes? And is it ethical to punish them if that is the case?
One of the answers proposed is that QM "saves" the notion of morality by providing unpredictability, as in Zaq's post:
quote:The point is that quantum mechanics is random and can only be used on a statistical level, so the outcome for any single particle, or in this case consciousness, is indeterminable, even with identical genetics and experiences and without any need for a "soul"
From what I've seen, though, most of the scientifically minded atheists I've read or discussed this with reject the notion that randomness really saves the notion of free will. I paraphrase one person from an email list a while back: if I have as much free will as a photon, how much free will do I actually have?
Instead, they adopt a philosophy called "compatibilism", which means that free will exists and is compatible with physical determinism. Leibniz's preestablished harmony is actually a form of compatibilism, although most people seem to mean something else by the term. Compatibilism was a fruitful thing to study for me personally; although I reject the notion that physical determinism is compatible with free will, studying compatibilism taught me how free will is compatible with God's perfect foreknowledge of the universe (you can read a somewhat poorly written version of what I think here).
Deutsch's ideas are summarized on Wikipedia here, by the way.
The notion of compatibilism by itself may make something clear: it's worth looking up what people mean by "free will". There are things that people intuit as being aspects of free will, but there are a variety of arguments about what it really means and whether you would want it if you could have it. It seems to me that many of the arguments are devised specifically to preserve a concept of free will while eliminating the need for a spiritual element, but nevertheless, they're there for the researching.
Finally, I suggest you read The Science of Good and Evil by Michael Shermer. I'll be honest: I think the reasoning in this book is vapid. I respect plenty of atheists, but I can't see how Shermer can say some of the things he does with a straight face. That said, he's a columnist for Scientific American, and some people think this book is fabulous.
quote:Its the scientific version of "God made us who we are and has a plan but has given us free will"
I'd like to be precise and say that it's the non-theistic version rather than the scientific version.
His explanation is about what I've heard other atheists and agnostics say. I don't understand it, to be honest, and I'll say why if anyone cares, but to avoid getting off-track I'll simply note that it immediately leads to a radical form of relativism that I can't relate to any rational structure.
It's probable -- it's even a key element of what I believe -- that there's no infallible answer to these questions. That said, I wouldn't subscribe to Apathyism (if I understand it correctly) because I feel that the answer is important, even if I can't be completely sure of it.
I find that most atheists I discuss this with or read seem to think that in scientific matters, answers matter even if they can't be determined infallibly; while moral issues are merely matters of opinion, and therefore don't matter other than as preferences. (You might research the Logical Positivist movement of the early 20th century if this interests you. Details in a minute.) This, again, leads to radical relativism, but few of the atheists with whom I talk care about that. They say, generally, that if that's really a problem, having a God or gods doesn't help, and only pushes the problem back an additional step. (Deutsch doesn't believe this is a problem, either; he's again somewhat unusual in my experience for his belief in atheistic moral objectivity.)
That's a lot of words, but it might provide you with some leads. I admit it's mostly directed toward atheism and agnosticism vs. a religious nihilist, but it's stuff to read, anyway.
Some follow-up reading, if you're interested. First, Logical Positivism and the Vienna Circle.
There are other members of the circle, but if I remember right these are the most important for the foundations of the philosophy; Hans Reichenbach, for example, is known for his system of logic.
Next, Karl Popper. He's very interesting, in that he is often associated with the Vienna Circle but held radically different beliefs, including on moral philosophy and the status of metaphysics in philosophy. His philosophy is remarkably readable; I recommend Conjectures and Refutations. His moral philosophy tended toward the political; originally a Marxist, he reasoned his way out of that position and championed what he called "The Open Society". His book The Open Society and its Enemies is dedicated to that topic.
There's more, but I have to get going.
I'm an engineer by training and a marketing guy in my career, so I won't be offended if any real or wanna-be moral philosophers out there want to correct, cajole, discuss, etc.
Like I said, I’m not LDS. But who gets to decide what Christian is, Christendom? Christian is a fact of your faith not a bestowed title. By definition they don’t come much more Christian than Mormons. On the other hand, ultra hypocritical mainstream Christianity may be in for a shock.
Matt 7:21 Not everyone saying to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of the heavens, but the one doing the will of my Father who is in the heavens will. 22 Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and expel demons in your name, and perform many powerful works in your name?’ 23 And yet then I will confess to them: I never knew YOU! Get away from me, YOU workers of lawlessness.
Did Jesus not describe himself as a mediator countless times. Was he not “the firstborn of all creation.” Did not all things come into existence “through” him. Does history not show in fact that the Trinity was made up by an apostate church (that Paul foretold) hundreds of years after the disciples and apostles established the first century Christian church? If you answered yes then you’ve read your bible without anyone leaning over your shoulder trying to spin every other thing Jesus said into the trinity, which isn’t even in the bible. Lets be honest, if you handed the bible to someone who never been influenced by anyone they would draw the conclusion that Jesus is exactly what he says he is, quite simply God’s son. The Trinity has to be painfully extracted from out of context quotes.
Regardless of the Mormon view there is agreement that Satan is described as a rebel, a manslayer, a liar and the father of the lie. John 8:44.
What actually is this Kingdom that all of Christendom so fervently prays for over and over in the Lords prayer, “Thy kingdom come.” Jesus came to preach the “good news of the Kingdom.” Ask the average so-called Christian on the street, what is this kingdom you pray for? – they haven’t a clue!
Am I helping here or just turning this into something else? I’ll shut up you like. I’m just trying to help you understand the passion of different views so you can create a believable character.
I'm not smart enough to understand any of that stuff you wrote Oliver so I'll stick with believing in God.
Wait, did I just make their point?
It amazes me that some intellectuals will work so hard at something so as to feel good about not having to work so hard at something.
Its much much harder to stand by your faith for a lifetime than it is to walk out of university feeling happily relieved of all obligation to a universal Sovereign.
If the Americans had stepped onto the moon and found a simple picture of a cat drawn in the dust (a Russian cat,) what would they have said? If they said, “Look at this marvelous accidental meteor pattern… that looks just like a cat… holding a Russian flag,” who in their right mind would believe that it was a random pattern. Wouldn’t everyone say, “Look, we simply lost the space race, lets not kid ourselves.” Yet you can bet the government would spare no expense to see if there was an alternate explanation other than, “we ought to be congratulating the Russians.”
Matt 11:25 “At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.”
Just a contrary view to the intellectual atheists, how most serious Christians would answer.
Hope I'm not getting obnoxious.
[This message has been edited by tnwilz (edited March 06, 2007).]
"It amazes me that some intellectuals will work so hard at something so as to feel good about not having to work so hard at something."
I amazes me that people think this is a true statement. I don't see how it can be.
Conscience is not dependant upon belief. Everyone has a conscience, unless they are sociopaths or something similar. Athiests are just as likely to be moral as those with strong religious beliefs, and it sounds discriminatory to me to say an Atheist is automatically a criminal or lacking in all forms of moral judgement or conscience. Unfortunately, they are often met with suspicion.
It is also false to say they work hard so they don't have to work hard, as if that is what motivated them. They are motivated by belief, just like believers. If non-work was their belief, they would choose to not care one way or another and have no belief.
Atheism is not non-belief. Atheism is a belief, just like a belief in God is a belief. It is no different to intellectually engage in your belief as an Atheist as it would be for a member of a religion. I've seen numerous members of varied religions take a highly intellectual approach to their belief.
"Its much much harder to stand by your faith for a lifetime than it is to walk out of university feeling happily relieved of all obligation to a universal Sovereign."
You make faith sound like a burden. I agree, stout belief in anything for a lifetime is difficult but being an agnostic or athiest doesnt free you the burden of obligation to Mankind. Just because we choose not to serve God, doesnt mean we are carefree hedonist. We arent talking about nihilsm.
"Like I said, I’m not LDS. But who gets to decide what Christian is, Christendom? Christian is a fact of your faith not a bestowed title. By definition they don’t come much more Christian than Mormons."
Sorry, I just had to come back and thank you for saying this. I'm not Mormon myself, but it's very frustrating to hear people say Mormons arne't Christians. I live in Utah, and I do know quite a bit about the faith, and I couldn't say it isn't a Christian faith. (I was raised Southern Baptist, and I heard that statement a lot before I moved here and realized how many false things I had heard about them.)
I hope didn't open up a can of worms. I don't want KDW to close this topic because I am learning a lot. Let's endeavor to be respectful if we can. I am a Christian, in my own eyes, but I am intrigued by other beliefs. Maybe someday I or others will have our beliefs challenged and defeated. But it won't be today, and it won't be here, and it won't be by any of us.
Sorry, wasn’t trying to offend. Just playing an extreme angle. Those are my views but I would never normally fling them around like that. I have no feeling at all that an atheist would lack a moral code; I hope I didn’t imply that. I believe that all men and woman inherently know right from wrong, no matter what their religious persuasion. The question I was originally tackling was what if a man believed, indeed knew of a higher reality but somehow decided he didn’t care anymore. That was where I raised Satan as an example of one who had done just that. He was once a faithful angel who knew quite well of the existence of God. This is in no way related to atheists or agnostics who “know” nothing for sure and subsequently lean on their own sense of right and wrong. Being faithful to your belief in God is not a burden at all, but it is more than just a belief system, it is a way of life. If it’s a burden, than being married is a burden or being a parent is a burden.
You’re right of course, I was adopting a cynical view of the intellectual atheists motivations, but like I said I was trying to be a bit extreme.
Incidentally perhaps Solomon was another example of someone who didn’t quit believing but just lost motivation to stay faithful.
At any rate, I thought it sounded a bit extreme, and I wasn't sure how serious it was. I certainly wasn't offended (not being an Atheist), but I have a habit of defending beliefs if I feel they are being trounced unfairly.
Returning to the character, I think doubt is the most common result, rather than a reversal of belief. I struggled for seven years in a Church I didn't believe in, but it was more about extreme doubt and cynicism punctuated with sincere attempts to believe. I attended Church services and other obligations sometimes, but not often. I even attempted to marry a girl in that Church, going with the theory that true or not, it was an honorable lifestyle. To me, that is only one response to such a change of mind. It could easily be a more drastic change, too.
Yes, Tracy, I knew I wasn't helping much with your original premise, but the thread included Scott's initial comments from the atheist side, so I thought that what I wrote was still relevant.
quote:Atheism is not non-belief. Atheism is a belief, just like a belief in God is a belief.
While I agree with you, many (most?) atheists would not. They claim that atheism is a lack of positive belief in any particular gods, which is different from the positive belief in a particular God or gods that religions require.
This is often phrased as, "You're an atheist when it comes to gods like Thor and Vishnu. I'm just an atheist about one more god than you." And to be fair, St. Justin Martyr says something very much like this (see here).
This is just my view for whatever it's worth to writers wanting to know what goes on in the lives of (and, to some extent, the inner lives of) real people who might be different than oneself. I'm certainly not trying to defend my viewpoint or influence anybody else's view. The only things that actually get me anywhere close to proselytizing are the International Women's Writing Guild and freewriting!
There seems to be a general community presumption that to be agnostic or atheist is to deny the possibility of prayer or any type of afterlife. I avoid labels as much as possible, but if I had to pick one, I guess it would be agnostic (it takes WAY more faith than I've got to be an atheist! ), at least in terms of believing in a supreme being who is all-present, all-powerful, all-merciful, all-just, and all-loving and runs some sort of intercessory prayer line. I used to believe it, for a long time. Decades. Now I'm not so sure, not all of those things combined anyway. If there's a being even close, s/he has got some serious explaining to do (paraphrased from "Waiting to Exhale"). Long story, not relevant. Maybe someday I'll believe it again, also irrelevant to this discussion. Most people go through a crisis of faith at some point(s) or other in their lives. I'm ok with it.
I still pray though. To me, praying means sending your heart energy out, whether you do it directly or by means of an intercessory deity. It is possible to 'pray' without that intercession. It's possible to hold hands around a table before a meal and be grateful and send heart energy by whatever invisible bonds tie us to our loved ones without that. Possible to hold a loved one who is hurting or in trouble in your heart, sending love through the heart channels. Possible to be a spiritual being. I do it every day. I just try to do it directly instead of asking (or begging) an intercessor to do it for me or with me. I may doubt the existence of a supreme being, but I don't doubt or deny the spirit of love that lives in me and most other people I know, that makes us so much more than flesh and blood, that has a reach that can extend far, far beyond our bodies.
Just because I don't believe in an intercessory or supreme deity, doesn't mean I think my bag of meat and bones is all that there is. I think we are infinitely more than the sum of our physical parts, but I also think maybe that's just the way it is. Perhaps it doesn't need a supreme/ruling being to be that way. Maybe our spirits know what to do without that, on their own, diving through tunnels of love and light between forms of existence like geese in migration, just knowing how. Anyway, I mostly think some of our energy goes on in some form when we do leave our bags of meat and bones behind, whether it be to a happier land, another life, or some combination thereof. So if that be 'comfort', I have basically have that comfort, even if I am basically an agnostic.
I've seen both sides look down on or feel sorry for the other. Some religious folk feel sorry for those who don't have the comfort of faith or who aren't 'saved'. Some people towards the atheist end of non-religious feel sorry for those who need the comfort or support of a deity to feel whole and comfortable in the world, like a grown-up still needing a hand to hold. Me? I don't look down on anybody who is sincere and isn't making trouble for other people. In life, as in crits, we all should take what we need and leave the rest and let others do the same.
But anyway, just because someone is agnostic, doesn't mean they can't pray and believe in some sort of afterlife or going-on for our spirits after we die. I'm honest to gosh living proof of that. <grin>
The 'why be good?' aspect has been pretty well covered, but just for myself, I've always lived a service oriented life, one way or another, because I lead with my heart and that's what it does. I'm moral and ethical because doing the right thing makes positive contributions to myself, my family, my community, and the world, and that's always been important to me. Don't know if I could say why—just seems like it's always been that way, regardless of the state and denomination of my religious faith, which has been through various ins and outs in the 54 years I've walked the planet this time around.
Just FYI and FWIW to this discussion as it pertains to writing and characters.
I appreciate what you’re saying there Sharon and I think you reflect an extremely common view in western society, even amongst those who might say “Oh I’m catholic” or “Church of England” but are really talking about their family history. Later in life many come to terms with this faith that was never their own and draw similar conclusions to you.
When I was an 11 year-old boy I was with my dad when a man started telling us that he believed in fate. “When yer numbers up, its up, mate. That’s wot I believe,” he pronounced as if it were the royal flush of philosophies. “That’s interesting,” started my dad. “let me ask you a question then. Do you bother to look before you cross the motorway?” “What do ya mean? Of course I look.” “So you don’t have that much faith in your own philosophy, then.” “Maybe he was meant to die on the motorway,” I chimed in. My dad frowned at me.
Later in life I met others who had browsed “The chariots of the Gods” and declared that they believed God was a spaceman. When pressed at to why, they mumbled and had to concede that it merely amused them to believe such. If a man was called up for jury duty in the OJ case and he said, “Oh I like to think that all black men are guilty of something,” he would have been rejected instantly because he espouses a view that may be held by some but is not founded in facts and evidence. In other words he might be prone to making a life and death decision based on lazy bar talk instead of the preponderance of evidence. If you were on trial and complex DNA evidence showed it extremely unlikely that you were guilty. Wouldn’t you be angry if a juror said they didn’t understand the DNA evidence and couldn’t be bothered to have it explained again because they wanted the trial to be over so they just voted guilty?
If when you die you move onto something different, possibly even better then… great. And maybe that lump IS nothing, but you might want to get it checked with conclusive facts and evidence.
[This message has been edited by tnwilz (edited March 06, 2007).]
Oliver, I don't think Lehollis meant belief in a god, but a belief in something. I think of the movie Serenity it talks much about belief, *SPOILER ALERT*, The government agent believed that the secrets in River's head should stay secret, whereas Mal belived that these secrets needed to be known by everybody. /SPOILER ALERT. None of this believing had anything to do with a god.
Actually Mal in Serenity is a good example of Nihlism, Which is what this thread is supposed to be about. Life is meaningless so might as well keep on flying. (Or at least he's trying to have that viewpoint.) I personally don't enjoy completely Nihlist characters, they're not caring rubs off on me.
> Oliver, I don't think Lehollis meant belief in a god, but a belief in something.
Sure, but if the intent is to create a character who doesn't share your mindset, you have to get into their mindset as firmly as possible.
To that end, I'm relaying the fact (not arguing the point) that most of the atheists I've spoken to -- which means those who hold it as an explicitly thought-out position -- would insist that atheism isn't a belief in something. (There are those who haven't really thought about it and don't care, but that's likely to be irrelevant for characterization, and therefore can be ignored for our purposes.)
You can argue that they're wrong, but that would be arguing with them, not understanding them.
Being an athiest requires the belief that god (any of them) does not exist. I would say that if you simply don't believe in god (any of them) then you would be agnostic. Not believing in god is not the same as believing god does not exist. At least, I make that distinction, not really sure about the rest of the athiest/agnostics. Although I do run into the athiests that are athiests because they beleive the church is messed up. Which is kind of like not eating beef because you don't like steakhouses.
All the atheists I’ve met fall into two categories: Emotional atheists (they’re angry) or intellectual atheists. Most of the philosophical atheists are actually far more agnostic if you draw them out, its just too illogical to completely rule anything out.
The emotional atheists aren’t generally atheists at all. That’s why they’re angry; this is their rebellion over the frustration. If they were really atheists they would say, “that’s the breaks” and get over it. But they say, “Why would God allow a nine year old to be kidnapped, raped repeatedly for two weeks and then buried alive in a trash bag with a stuffed animal?” (Jessica Lunsford). They are so angry they want to take your bible and smack you across the face with it. They’re angry because they can’t quite convince themselves that there is no God, so they will stand in the front yard and scream at him. “From now on I won’t believe in you. I will deny you at every turn because I can’t accept this.” They don’t know how the insanity of mankind’s self rule will ever be resolved and all this daily horror be stopped. Their stories of personal tragedy have many times left me in tears.
This discussion is all really very interesting, but I hope you all remember to tie it back to characterization (or maybe setting) every so often.
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BTW, Kathleen, I thought your post above -- one of the few content-oriented posts I've seen you make -- was excellent.
I might be going too deep into the technical positions, elaborating on philosophy more than characterization. Not everyone (e.g., what Tracy calls "emotional atheists") are atheists because they've thought the position through. (Not that Tracy's statement of "what real atheists would say" is necessarily on target. More in a minute.)
However, characters with irrational positions are rarely as interesting as those with real reason for believing what they do, so I'm going to press on with the discussion. I'm Roman Catholic, but I will use links to back up the claims I'm going to make about the more common forms of atheist philosophy.
If you read the literature (e.g., George Smith's seminal Atheism: The Case Against God), you'll see that atheism (according to atheists) does not require the belief that God does not exist. Similarly, agnosticism does not mean that you don't believe in God.
In fact, at atheism.about.com, they say this (link):
quote:Theism, broadly defined, is just the belief in the existence of at least one god. Contrasted with this is atheism: broadly defined, atheism is the absence of belief in the existence of any gods. Most disagreement over this comes from Christians who insist that atheism must be the denial of gods, or at least of their god. Mere absence of belief in gods is, they claim, properly labeled agnosticism — even though agnosticism has it's own definition and is about a different concept entirely.
There can be agnostic theists, in fact -- people who believe in God or gods, but believe that nothing can ever be accurately said about Him/Her/It/Them, because words are limiting. Some deeply devout mystics fall into this category. To see the atheist comparison of agnosticism and atheism, see this link.
The confusion comes (atheists claim) because most people don't see the difference between "strong atheism" (the positive belief that no god exists, which most atheists will claim not to subscribe to) and "weak atheism" (the lack of belief in any god, not coupled to the positive belief of strong atheism). Strong atheism is tough, because it requires that you prove a negative. Discussion of weak vs. strong atheism is here.
People say "agnostic" when they mean "weak atheist" and "atheist" when they mean "strong atheist", and they're horribly, awfully uneducated about what agnosticism is.
Having said all that, even many weak atheists will tell you that they have the same faith in the Christian God as they do in Odin or Uhura Mazda or the Easter Bunny. When I have followed up with, "So the Easter Bunny might exist? You are a weak a-Easter-Bunny-ist?" I've gotten a variety of answers. I think a character would be believable whether they said "yes" or "no" there.
Enough for now. Hopefully this has been fruitful. I don't agree with much of it; if anyone wants to know why, I'll happily tell you, but that would be telling you about what I think rather than what atheists think.
Oh, that reminds me: Tracy said
quote:The emotional atheists aren’t generally atheists at all. That’s why they’re angry; this is their rebellion over the frustration. If they were really atheists they would say, “that’s the breaks” and get over it. But they say, “Why would God allow a nine year old to [snip horrific description]?”
The argument from evil is, however, a common attack against a belief in an omnipotent, benevolent god. This link shows how old this argument is: it includes an argument attributed to Epicurus (300 BC) that God can't be both. I don't think it's hard to poke a major hole or two in the argument -- anyone who values free will has a major bone to pick with the volitional aspect of it, and while "natural evils" remain a partial mystery, I think there's something to them, too -- but it has been used against me more than once. Countering with an argument based on free will and merit, which is so obvious that I can't see how they can think otherwise, tends to be ineffective without much further fruitful discussion following. Time to smile and wave.
Your mileage may vary. And Scott and others may have different opinions, whether for reasons rational or emotional. I'm merely providing the "standard" arguments from the atheist perspective.