Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Mutual of Omaha and the Marlin Perkins Theodicy

An atheist once proffered what he thought was a valid objection to the existence of God: In the arctic, he noted, polar bears face a sere environment; there’s not a lot to eat, and due to the polar bear’s size, it needs to eat a lot. Worse yet, a female polar bear has to find not only enough food for herself but for her cub as well.

So, imagine, said my atheist acquaintance, a polar bear on the hunt for food. Suppose she finds a seal pup. If the polar bear is successful in her hunt, she and her cub will eat, but the baby seal will die. If the baby seal manages to escape the polar bear, then both she and her cub will starve. Why, oh why, said the atheist, would such a thing ever happen in a universe created by a loving God? What kind of God would allow it?

Atheists seem to revel in this kind of argumentation. With a big “Aha! Gotcha!” grin on their faces, they lay it out before the theist, ready to deride or otherwise tear apart any response the theist might make. After all, they figure, there’s no way to formulate a defensible response—either the theist will argue that Got thinks it’s okay for baby seals to die or that He thinks it’s okay for a polar bear mama and her cub to starve to death. Either way, it’s a lose-lose situation, and either possibility undermines—so says the atheist—the notion that God loves His creation.

I try not to characterize people as stupid simply for saying things I disagree with. As one who at one time had his own flirtation with atheism, I know that it’s not stupidity that underpins the atheist’s world view. As Ron White said, “You can’t fix stupid,” and the fact that I went from theism to atheism and back to theism suggests that at one point or other, my world view went from broke to fixed. Thus, stupidity was never a relevant issue. It most certainly didn’t apply to my atheist acquaintance. Still doesn’t.

That being said, the God-doesn’t-exist-because-either-bears-or-seals-end-up-dead ploy is just so insufferably brain-dead stupid that it doesn’t even qualify as an argument. Ontologically speaking, it is incoherent.

What kind of God allows the bear/seal scenario? There’s the obvious answer: the kind of God Who would allow such a thing.

Virtually every argument against the existence of God I’ve ever come across—no, strike the “virtually,”—the question posed concerns itself with God’s nature, not His existence. The very question itself, “What kind of God…?” presupposes that there IS a God; it is merely a question of the kind, to wit, the kind that allows suffering to exist, as opposed to the kind that would prohibit it.

So if Kenneth Copeland or Jesse Duplantis or Creflo Dollar, Jr., preach that there is a God who loves us, the atheist is only kidding himself when he offers the lose-lose scenario to suggest that God is merely a figure of their imaginations. The scenario has no bearing whatsoever on whether GOD loves us, but whether God LOVES us, and even if the scenario were in any way valid, the atheist still hasn’t said one word as to whether the presence of suffering necessary negates the possibility that God loves us despite whatever suffering we endure. Isn’t it at least possible that God loves us anyway?

This simple intuition is, in point of fact, empirical. The idea that one might love without intervening in suffering is part of our daily experience. For example, when my kids were learning to ride bikes, I did my best to teach them the how, but as any father knows, there comes a point when dad has to let go of the bike and let the kid proceed on her own, knowing full well that she might topple over and hurt herself. And in my case, that’s exactly what happened, and more than once (I have three daughters). For anyone who argues that because I didn’t dive head-first under my kid so she wouldn’t scrape her knee that I didn’t (and don’t) love her, I can only say that he and the horse he rode in on know exactly what he can do about it.

I know for a fact: I love my child, and yet there were times when I didn’t intervene to prevent her suffering.

Oh, yeah? says the atheist. Well, I’ll bet you at least picked your kid up from the ground. You hugged her and put a bandage on her knee. You at least showed signs that you love your kid. Why doesn’t your all-loving God ever do anything like that?

So the atheist’s argument subtly shifts (as all atheist arguments are wont to do, by the way); from God’s existence, to why He allows suffering, to why He doesn’t mitigate suffering. Asking an atheist to make up his mind about why he says there’s no God is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall, and oftentimes just as messy. But I digress.

The answer, of course, is that sometimes He allows suffering and sometimes does not. Sometimes He doesn’t mitigate suffering, or at least appears not to, and sometimes He does. So God does mitigate suffering, at least at times, just never in a way to satisfy an atheist. (This, of course, is the atheist’s problem, not God’s, for the simple fact that whatever answer is given, the atheist will elect not to be satisfied with it.)

From the theist’s perspective, however, God sends comfort, often and in many ways. He is rest for the weary. He is a cool spring for those who thirst. He is a right good help in times of trouble. He is my shepherd, Who makes me to lie down in green pastures, Who leads me beside the still waters, Who restores my soul, Whose rod and staff comfort me, and Who, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, is with me. Therefore, I will fear no evil, which, as near as I can tell includes suffering. (Really, someone needs to write all this down. Oh, wait, someone already has.)

The atheist simply denies all this, not because he must, but because he wants to.

“WANTS” to? the atheist sneers testily, at the insinuation that his wholly arbitrary worldview is wholly arbitrary. I could say just as easily that you believe in God for the same reason. You just WANT to believe in God, and so “see” His handiwork all around you.

Perhaps, I reply. But just as it’s possible for one to love without preventing suffering, it’s also possible for one to love without mitigating it either.

Don’t believe me? Here’s my handy-dandy two-word response. It not only answers the question regarding mitigation, but suffering in general, and even refutes the aforementioned incredibly stupid bear/seal scenario. Ready? Okay, here goes:

Marlin Perkins.

I’ll give you a moment to let that sink in.

Yup. Good old Marlin “Just as the tigress protects her cubs, Mutual of Omaha provides you the security you need through life’s uncertainties” Perkins.

For those of you too young to remember such things, there was a time when television was broadcast over analog airwaves rather than digital signals. There were no satellite dishes, nor even cable. For that matter, there was barely any TV—just two channels, plus a third if you had a UHF converter box. On Sundays, after the football game (yes, singular), there was a nature program called Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, hosted by the curator of the St. Louis Zoo, Marlin Perkins.

“Welcome,” Marlin Perkins would say. “Today we’re headed down to sunny Venezuela to observe the mighty anaconda.” And off the camera crew would go, jiggedy-jig, where they would find a hungry anaconda resting quietly in the crook of a high tree branch, waiting for lunch to come ambling by.

“Uh-oh!” Marlin Perkins would whisper. “Here comes an unsuspecting capybara, and the hungry anaconda has him in his sights.”

A capybara, must you know, is the largest member of the order Rodentia, roughly a 130-pound hamster. Good eats, according to the anaconda. And so, as Marlin and company sat with baited breath, the capybara would titter into range, and the anaconda would slump off the tree branch and fall on top of the capybara, wrapping its massive coils around the capybara as it struggled to escape, slowly and brutally crushing it to death before swallowing it whole. Rather a nasty way to die, one would suppose.

Yet, during the entire episode, Marlin Perkins never once bothered to call out a warning to the capybara that it was about to be eaten. He never rushed to its rescue. He did absolutely nothing to intervene. Nor did he bother to whip out his tranquilizer gun (he almost always seemed to have this handy) and anesthetize the poor capybara to ease its suffering while the anaconda cruelly crushed it to death. He never sent flowers to the capybara’s widow, either. Nope. He just sat there, never even lifting a finger.

Question: Do you suppose that Marlin Perkins failed to prevent the capybara’s demise because he didn’t love animals? Let’s see—reptile curator of the Saint Louis Zoological Park in 1928; director of the Buffalo Zoological Park in 1938; director of the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago from 1944 to 1962; director of the St. Louis Zoo from 1963 to 1970; host of Zoo Parade, 1963; host of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom from 1963 to 1985; founder of the Wild Canid Survival and Research Center, 1971, a wolf sanctuary instrumental in breeding wolves for eventual re-placement into their natural habitats. Oh, yeah, there’s a guy who clearly had no love whatsoever for animals. He only devoted sixty years of his life to them.

But the fact remains: the anaconda killed the capybara, and Marlin Perkins did not intervene, nor did he do anything at all to lessen the capybara’s suffering. Despite this fact, I never once heard anyone accuse Marlin Perkins of not being an animal lover. No one decried him as indifferent. No one ever characterized his inaction as reprehensible. Most importantly, no one—absolutely no one—ever, EVER, speculated that maybe Marlin Perkins didn’t exist.

Now see here! cries our snarky atheist in outrage. There are at least TWO problems with that argument. For one, Perkins never intervened because he wasn’t SUPPOSED to intervene. His job was to observe animals in the wild, and his function as a naturalist was specifically NOT to intervene so he could see and record how animals interact with one another. Are you saying that God is only some divine naturalist, sitting in a director’s chair behind a camera crew, merely observing when the polar bear kills the baby seal or the anaconda eats the capybara or when the school bus full of eight-year-olds rolls off a cliff killing everyone on board? That’s ridiculous! Why does he even NEED to see something like that, anyway? Isn’t he supposed to be all-wise and all-knowing? That means he supposedly already knows whether the anaconda will eat or starve, so why does he bother making an observation for an outcome that he himself has already foreseen? As for the second problem, no one ever disputed the existence of Marlin Perkins because Marlin Perkins was a real person! SOMEONE was director of the zoo in Buffalo in 1930. SOMEONE hosted Wild Kingdom. And that someone was Marlin Perkins. No one in his right mind would claim that Marlin Perkins never existed!

Well, to answer the first objection first, no, I am NOT saying that God is just an impartial observer. I am merely pointing out that when someone chooses not to intervene in the suffering of others, there are other possible explanations than to say he just doesn’t care or that he doesn’t exist. Maybe, as you point out, it’s his job NOT to intervene. Or maybe he has other reasons that are unknown to the rest of us. In any case, the Marlin Perkins theodicy demonstrates that it is still possible for someone to love the very individuals whose suffering he chooses not to prevent or mitigate. Marlin Perkins loved animals, yet did not stop the anaconda from killing the capybara. What I AM saying is: I do not know the specific reason, if any, why God might not intervene to prevent suffering at any given moment; what I DO know is that the atheist does not know the specific reason, either. Maybe God has a reason not to intervene. Maybe He has already intervened, but in a way that I don’t recognize or that the atheist chooses to ignore. Or maybe God just doesn’t care—despite the myriad attestations throughout the body of revealed scripture that He does.

As for the second objection, I should point out that Wild Kingdom went off the air in 1985. Since then, millions of people have come along who have never in their lives seen or heard of Marlin Perkins. None of those people have any empirical evidence whatsoever that Marlin Perkins was real. Despite whatever personal testimony that any of us who have seen Marlin Perkins can give to assure them that the man did actually live and breathe, at the end of the day their only real option is to take our word—or not. Being in their “right minds” has absolutely nothing to do with it.

Pshaw! dissents our atheist. For anyone who doubts the existence of Marlin Perkins, let him Google the name. Why, I’ll bet there are .wmv links galore for Wild Kingdom out there, and bios aplenty for Marlin Perkins. Given the wealth of evidence that is available on the internet alone, one would have to be a completely out of one’s gourd to continue to disbelieve.

Not exactly. Whatever evidence one may find concerning the existence of Marlin Perkins, for anyone born after 1985, the evidence is not empirical, but merely historical. In that case, their only recourse is abductive reasoning; they infer his past existence not by traveling back in time and observing him directly, but by inferring his existence from a study of artifacts and records.

And what’s so wrong with that?

Absolutely nothing. Abductive reasoning is perfectly legit. I’ve never met Napoleon, yet I believe the man existed, because I’ve seen paintings of him and have read history books recounting his accomplishments and have seen documentaries on television describing the events of his life in vivid detail. Still, at the end of the day, I CHOOSE to believe that Napoleon was a real person but am not COMPELLED to do so. I “know” that Napoleon existed because, as St. Augustine observed, all knowledge is an assent to belief. One simply observes some bit of data and makes the choice to believe it or disbelieve it. Again, being in one’s “right mind” is not germane to the process. Not all “right-minded” people (whatever the term actually means) believe or disbelieve the same things.

So what’s your point?

My point is that in order to believe in the existence of Marlin Perkins, there is no prerequisite requirement that you should first have to meet him eye to eye. The testimony of others will suffice, as will the historical record, provided you feel the testimony or the record is reliable. Note, however, there is absolutely no standard anywhere as to what constitutes “reliable.” What is reliable for one may seem unreliable to another.

But, like I said, no reasonable person, seeing all the available evidence, would try to deny that Marlin Perkins existed.

Because there are so many people who say they saw him with their own eyes.


And all the historical records attesting to his existence.


So only a closed-minded dimwit stubbornly denying the evidence before him would say absolutely that Marlin Perkins didn’t exist.


You do realize that many people believe in God—millions who claim to know Him on a personal basis. You do realize that over ninety percent of all people believe in God or in some other higher power. You do realize there are documents and artifacts and records galore all attesting to God’s existence.

Not at all. If there were valid evidence for the existence of God, I would believe in him, but there’s not, so I don’t.

Or maybe you’re only a closed-minded dimwit stubbornly denying the evidence before him.

Hey! What about all that “I don’t call ‘em stupid just because I disagree with ‘em” nonsense?

Fair enough. I’m only discussing the possibility.

Besides, you’re forgetting the crucial point.

Which is?

No one’s ever seen this God of whom you speak. I would think that would support the notion that there’s no God at all.

We established that the face-to-face isn’t necessary. But even if it were, history tells of eyewitness accounts. You say you’ve never seen God, but there have been—and are—scores of others who say they have. Like Moses. Or Elijah. Or Christ, who claimed to be His very son.

Get real! Those are reliable sources, however you construe the word? How do you know that Moses or Elijah or Christ ever existed?

By the same abductive inference that leads me to believe in Napoleon.

Are you serious? The source materials attesting to Napoleon probably outnumber all references to Moses, Elijah, and Christ together, a hundredfold or more.

But it is not the quantity of sources that matters, but their quality, their reliability—and “reliable” is a relative term, solely a measure of how one “feels” about the data in question.


So we’re back at square one. Fact is, we never left it. Whether one believes in the existence of Marlin Perkins, or Napoleon, or Moses, or Elijah, or Christ, or even God—it is a matter of what one chooses to believe, as all belief ultimately is. It is a matter of accepting certain data and of rejecting certain other data. There is no more basis for saying that God does not exist than for saying that Marlin Perkins did not exist—it depends upon what data set one chooses to ignore or to accept.

Yet note, there is a disproportion in reciprocity: although there is no basis for the non-existence position, there IS a basis for the pro-existence position. Abductive reasoning allows us to “know” that Napoleon existed, and this knowledge is just as reliable as our knowledge of Marlin Perkins.

Furthermore, abductive reasoning is only one sense in which we have knowledge of God. There is another, more fundamental sense in which we may know God, most commonly subsumed under the tradition of Natural Law. It is the sensus divinitatis, the spontaneous awareness of the reality of God, which each and every one of us has, including the atheist. Unlike the bear/seal scenario, such awareness constitutes an ontologically coherent argument.

Thus my atheist acquaintance can only make the observation: in the wild, sometimes bears eat and seals die; other times, seals escape and bears starve. What does this have to say about the existence of the One who created both the bear and the seal, and what does it have to say about His nature? Absolutely nothing whatsoever.

Which, by the way, is atheism’s entire stock and trade.

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