Billy Graham’s TEDtalk


The annual TED conference (TED = Technology, Entertainment, Design) bills itself as “bring[ing] together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes).” You see presenters at TED along the lines of Al Gore, Jane Goodall, Freeman Dyson, Marvin Minsky, and on and on. Many of the best TED talks are available for free as video podcasts at the iTunes store or from TED’s website. I was quite surprised to find, among these “best of TED” talks, a 27-minute lecture from 1998 by Billy Graham. His talk was on “Technology, Faith, and Human Shortcomings”. Here it is, in its entirety. You should really watch the whole thing.

I think it takes a lot of guts for an evangelical Christian — to say nothing of a then-80-year old with Parkinson’s Disease — to walk into TED, into a crowd of people who by and large have precious little sympathy for your position, and talk with such ease and boldness. But Billy Graham has been around the block a few times and been into more hostile environments than that.

I happen to agree with Graham’s conclusions about Jesus Christ (although not every point of his Southern Baptist theology). But even if you don’t, listen to the questions he asks and the points he raises*. What about human evil, death, and suffering? Technology won’t solve these problems; what will?

(* …and don’t respond by reflexively hurling insults at Christians like depressingly many of the commenters at TED’s web site do. If you disagree with Christianity, fine, but step up to the plate and put forth a viable answer to the question rather than simply name-call like a 5-year old on the playground.)

17 Comments

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17 responses to “Billy Graham’s TEDtalk

  1. virusdoc

    Watched the whole thing. He is an excellent orator.

    You make quite a challenge at the end of your post: provide alternative answers to the problems of evil, suffering, and death! But I’ll give it my best shot as a former evangelical Christian and current agnostic evolutionist.

    1) Death: not a problem at all. In fact, death is the greatest invention in the universe, second only to life. Without death, the number of organisms would increase exponentially, and all resources would be consumed in a few generations. Death ensures that life can continue indefinitely, as resources can be recycled to the environment. So here, the problem is not death, but irrational fear of death. The solution to irrational fear is not irrational hope (for example, in an afterlife or in the ability of technology to prolong life indefinitely), but rather education about how life and death are inextricably linked. If you want your children and grandchildren to have a future, you have to get out of the way and stop using resources. To prolong your own life can often be the most selfish, unloving thing you can do.

    2) suffering. Suffering is complex and can’t be dealt with as one concept. It can take both physical and psychological forms, and it can occur with good biological reasons (in response to disease) or for no reason at all (suffering as a result of human choice, for example, which probably falls in the “evil” discussion). I’ll deal only with physical suffering that occurs as a result of biological causes. This is a real problem, but its root is tied to #1 above. We are biological entities that require a fairly narrowly defined environment in which to survive. The simplest form of suffering–physical pain–is often an early warning system to inform us that we are pushing the boundaries of a hospitable environment. We are too cold or too close to a fire. We are low on nutrients and need to eat. In this sense, “suffering” is unpleasant but actually a blessing. The problem comes when the source of the suffering cannot be relieved by changing ones environment, as is the case in chronic disease states. Unfortunately, this problem has been exacerbated by medical technology as we strive to extend life at all costs. I believe part of the solution here is the more judicious use of technology: alleviate suffering where possible, but not when doing so creates a prolonged state of some other form of suffering. Allow death to come more rapidly, the way we were evolved to die, and you will alleviate the vast majority of the “suffering” that humans experience.

    3) Evil. Evil is the most vexing of the three, and to my mind is the only real problem in the group. Evil is absolutely predictable from a biological sense: all physical traits have a spectrum of phenotype, from mild to intense. In the sense that aggression is a biologically influenced trait, we should expect that distribution to have a right shoulder. The problem is how to deal with such individuals, and how to protect those of us in the middle and left of the curve from undue suffering at their hands. This problem has defined every judicial, penal, and governmental system since the dawn of human history, and I don’t have a solution. But neither does Jesus or Christianity, as the arc of Church history will attest.

    There you have it! In response to Graham’s challenge, I say that:
    -death is not a problem,
    -suffering is an inherent and often beneficial component of our biology, which we have elevated to a problem with technological attempts to forestall death, and
    -evil is a predictable outcome of biological variability that no human system (religious or otherwise) has ever been able to solve.

  2. virusdoc

    I would like to flip the challenge back to you, as well. How are the solutions to these three “problems” offered by Jesus superior to those I’ve outlined above? And don’t respond reflexively by an appeal to the transcendant afterlife. The problems of evil, death, and suffering are problems in this life and this world, so I’m curious how (in your estimation) Jesus addresses them in this life and this world.

  3. Here’s my take on your question, virusdoc, from one former evangelical to another.

    For the most part, there’s actually not much in what you said that Jesus Christ or the Christian church would disagree with. Of course death is necessary, even good, for human survival (can you imagine how crowded it would be otherwise?); and Jesus would completely agree with you that the fear of death is irrational. (He always referred to death as “falling asleep”, which sounds like something I’d say to my kids if I were trying to get them not to be scared of something.) Suffering, in the biological sense as you’ve taken it, also has good reasons for existing, and although Christ performs miraculous healings in the New Testament, you also don’t see much of God throughout the entire Bible making a huge effort to remove pain from people’s lives — I would take that as a sign of agreement with your assessment about the necessity of pain. As for evil, the entire Bible (including Jesus’ teachings) is absolutely plain in saying that as long as there have been and remain to be human beings on this planet, there will be evil in each person. Even after wiping out the earth with a flood, supposedly because of God’s anger over man’s evil, man remains evil. There seems to be no eradicating it, and indeed a close reading of the Bible will show that evil is basically man’s defining characteristic — even for those who have committed themselves to following Christ and who have full faith in what He did and said.

    To understand what Christianity says about all this, I think it’s important to note what it does not say. Christianity does not purport to make man death-proof. It does not claim that belief in Christ will eliminate your suffering (despite what the televangelists say). And very importantly, and very often misunderstood, it does not lay out a path for man to work his way into an evil-free state. The eradication of these things is not a problem to be solved, from Christianity’s point of view. They are just facts of life. (The picture gets brighter if you include the transcendent afterlife, but you asked me not to bring that up.)

    Instead, what Christianity says is that man is more than merely a biological organism. Graham got at this in the talk. Man is more than a mind and a body — he has a soul. And people with souls do not merely respond to death, suffering, and evil as an organism responds to a stimulus — they respond on the level of the soul. Imagine if your oldest son were killed in a car crash tomorrow — or contracted leukemia and wasted away to death before your eyes. On one level, yes, death is not a problem; but there is another level in which his death would make absolutely no sense to you, and you would reach a place where your mind and your body simply can’t follow. Christianity doesn’t deny what you’ve said. But it does say that there’s more to it than that.

    So we cannot get rid of death, suffering, and evil in the here and now. Instead, the real problem consists in making sense of these things, on a level that is deeper than evolutionary logic. To keep this comment from becoming a treatise, I’ll just say that most of what Christianity teaches about this approach to these three problems consists in (1) the existence of a Creator, who is not an impersonal force but who knows and loves His creation; (2) man’s choice to go against the will of the Creator, bringing death, suffering, and evil into the world (i.e., this is all our fault!), and finally (3) the Creator choosing to close the circuit and redeem man from the guilt of what he has done. The big implication of (3) is that although death, evil, and suffering are here to stay, we can at least be assured that these things are not being inflicted on us as punishment but can have a positive, purposeful meaning in our lives.

    I understand that this last paragraph probably casts serious doubts in the minds of some readers as to the viability of my intellect. I make no effort to defend myself on that count. But I do hope that I’ve given a decent summary of what Christianity says about all this, whether or not it seems reasonable.

  4. @anonymous: Hey, that sounds like a great bumpersticker. Have you considered making some?

  5. virusdoc

    “Just another liberal professor” has taken to anonymous comments? And reflexive name calling? Go figure.

  6. No, I think JALP always seemed at least to have something to say despite the vein-popping rage.

  7. virusdoc

    Really? JALP’s last (signed) comment, on your Rapture 2.0 post, had exactly the same tone and lack of content. I imagine a quick IP log comparison would confirm…

    But my apologies to him/her if I am wrong.

  8. Jami

    “evil is a predictable outcome of biological variability that no human system (religious or otherwise) has ever been able to solve”

    “although death, evil, and suffering are here to stay, we can at least be assured that these things are not being inflicted on us as punishment but can have a positive, purposeful meaning in our lives”

    I find it interesting that even though you are both trying to comment from two different viewpoints (agnosticism vs. christianity) it seems that you come to the exact same solution. Death, suffering, and evil are facts of life that have no “solution”. The important part is that it doesnt matter how you come to that solution, just that you can agree. I guess the next step would be to talk about how you deal with each of these ideas in your day to day life. But I’m going to guess that after all of the back and forth, we would again see you both come to the same solution. A christian would deal positively with death by thinking that their loved one is now in a “better place”, and they may deal negatively with death by thinking that God punished them. An agnostic, or non-religious person would deal positively with death by celebrating that person’s life and focusing on achievements, and they may deal negatively with death by feeling abandoned or angry at the “natural” cause that killed them. Same with suffering and evil. But honestly, most people in both groups are going to come to the same end actions regardless of the ideas that they are based on. Makes me remember that we really are all just human beings, and we always will be. Forget all the other classifications.

    Our bodies and brains are all made of the same stuff, and we all live in the same world. I wish more people could remember that more often.

  9. robertf

    Billy Graham is a skilled and practiced orator whose job is to marshall his skills to pursuade us of his position.

    But the question “What about human evil, death, and suffering? Technology won’t solve these problems; what will?” – is rather dishonest! It is not technologies job to solve these problems, and no philosophy of technology claims that it is trying to. Technology has extended human life expectancy from 30 years to 80 years – which would seem to be worthwhile in its own right, and life from frequent discomfort to mostly comfort (think Central Heating).

    Now these questions are the role of religion. So ask the same question of religion – since Billy Graham raised them, let us say Christianity.

    “What about human evil, death, and suffering? Has Christianity solved these problems?”

    Last time I checked, Christians had a 100% death rate. (Buddhists allegedly do get reborn frequently, but the aim of their practice is to END rebirth!)

    Evil and suffering – you don’t have to look far to see evil actually caused by (religion of choice). Salem can show how corrupting it is to adopt a position in the absence of evidence.

    What Science & Technology do bring is an evidence based approach to the world. If a technologist says that he has the solution to life after death, he will be able to demonstrate it and replicate it. He is subjected to stringent pier review, and so has a strong commitment to TRUTH – he has no alternative.

  10. @robertf: I think you’ll see some of those points mirrored in my response to virusdoc’s post. The short version: Christianity doesn’t claim to eliminate death, suffering, or evil.

    Christianity is an institution. Institutions do not cause evil. *People* cause evil. And that’s one of the main points of Christianity. Any institution can be hijacked by people and use the institution for a front for evil deeds. But to say “religion causes evil” is just confusing the agent with the instrument. (Some institutions allow the perpetuation of evil more readily than others — I’m thinking of the Communist regime under Stalin, for instance — but that’s different than saying “Communism caused evil things to happen”. Enable, perhaps, but what out there can’t enable bad things to happen?)

  11. virusdoc

    @ Robert:

    I do believe what I was trying to do was make “sense” of death, suffering, and evil, but not in the way you use the term “sense,” which seems to seek a transcendant moral meaning. I don’t think it is possible to make “sense” of these problems in that way. We can strive to understand why things are necessary and predictable given the way the universe (and our biology) functions, but this isn’t the same as giving death or evil a meaning that transcends us. Such a meaning would need to come from a transcendant source—which of course is what Christians believe occurred. I am skeptical of such claims and actually don’t find them very comforting in the face of these problems.

    Using the example you gave–my son dying from leukemia (a scenario I’ve spent a good deal of time since his birth thinking about)–let me explain why your Christian attempt to make “sense” of such an event actually would render such an event LESS understandable and tolerable to me:

    “1) the existence of a Creator, who is not an impersonal force but who knows and loves His creation;”

    If He exists, is aware of our situation, and has any power, he would be a much more likely target for my anger than my adoration. After all, he set into place the very laws that made my son’s cancer inevitable, and did nothing to prevent it from occurring. This has always been my strongest objection to the idea of a personal, powerful deity: we cannot simultaneously praise such a god for the good things we receive and absolve him of responsibility for undue suffering.

    “(2) man’s choice to go against the will of the Creator, bringing death, suffering, and evil into the world (i.e., this is all our fault!)”.

    There has never been a time in history when pain, mutation, disease, and death were not a part of life. And to suggest that the act of a human brought this upon not only all future humans, but indeed the entire biosphere (since the same types of suffering and death visit all life forms), is perverse. It paints god rather like a toddler whose toy has broken, kicking and throwing sand at everyone around him! My hypothetical son died of cancer because the sustenance of life in a changing environment requires the ability to evolve. Evolution requires mutation, and that mutation occurs in a random manner. It is an absolute deductive certainty that some individuals will have mutations that are “bad” for them, but might possibly be essential for their species at some time in the future, when the environment is different. Does this biological argument make it any less heart wrenching when something like this occurs? It does for me, because I realize that my own life (and that of my son before his illness) is only possible because countless billions of humans (and prehumans) before us were subject to the same random flux of genetic information. The occasional necessary suffering that resulted has produced the diversity that life now is, and sustains it into the future.

    “(3) the Creator choosing to close the circuit and redeem man from the guilt of what he has done. The big implication…is that although death, evil, and suffering are here to stay, we can at least be assured that these things are not being inflicted on us as punishment but can have a positive, purposeful meaning in our lives.”
    Leaving aside the fact that (3) seems to directly contradict (2) (we are redeemed from the guilt, but not let out of prison and relieved of the punishment? This is a redemption in word alone.), this doesn’t do much for me when my son is dying. And it is difficult for me to envision a more “purposeful” explanation of cancer than the one I gave above.

  12. robertf

    @Robert: I agree – religion does not CAUSE evil. I expressed myself somewhat clumsily. My point is that Christianity claims to be a divine rather than human institution, whereas in practice, it shows all the strengths and weaknesses of any other human organisation – not divine perfection. However, generally it is not as evil as Stalinism!
    Your thought experiment with the dying child is interesting:- a colleague lost his Son in a motorbike accident a decade ago. This led him to a very strong faith. To my mind, this is rather peculiar – I would have expected the angry reaction sugested by Virusdoc – but Christianity has given him some meaning from an unbelievably awful event!

    Congratulations on the iPod. They play excellent quality music – & your Touch seems ultra cool! My dealer recommended recording music in lossless format and using good quality (Sure) earphones to get the best sound.

  13. Jami

    I have to disagree with the point that people cause evil. Evil is not “caused”, evil is something that has to exist in order for our world to work. If evil did not exist, we would have nothing to do, and there would be no reason for our own existence, let alone the existence of the entire universe.

    Thinking statistically about this… If you were to try to do an experiment to try to show causation, I doubt it would be successful. I’m sure that evil could be correlated🙂 with people’s actions, but to scientifically prove that people are the cause of evil? That seems to be quite a feat!

    I guess that is what I will never understand about Christianity. How is it that we take the blame for a natural occurence? Is it not in our nature to be curious? Thus leading us to do things that we are not “allowed” to do. (I’m thinking Adam and Eve here.) Are people then the cause of entropy? And how? Entropy and evil existed long before humans ever did, so how are we the cause? Maybe my definition of evil is much more broad than a Christian’s definition?

    Evil needs no blame and it needs no solution. Opposites have to exist. Without evil, there would be no good. How does Christianity deal with that?

  14. @Jami: “Without evil, there would be no good. How does Christianity deal with that?” I think Christanity puts this the other way around — without good, there would be no basis for calling things evil. So the real question is, what is “good”? Christianity says that God is good, that is, what He does defines the term “good”.

    Christianity would also say that we take the blame for a “natural” occurence because it was through original sin that evil became “natural”. And while it’s in our nature to be curious, it is also (again due to original sin) that it’s in our nature to disregard the boundaries of our Creator. That’s the problem Adam and Eve had and, according the Bible, the same problem that we now have. My kids are great examples of this — the 4-year old is endlessly grabbing something she’s not supposed to grab and then asking, in honest curiosity, “Daddy, what’s this?” Curiosity, meet disobedience.

    I would say that your definition of evil may not be too broad globally, but I don’t think I’d put entropy under the umbrella of “evil”. The second law of thermodynamics is just a fact of life, neither good nor bad, and Christians would say that entropy happens in full accordance with the will of God and is therefore no sin.

  15. Jami

    What God does defines the term good?

    But didnt God create Adam and Eve? And didnt He create them with the nature of being curious and the nature of disregarding boundaries? (I might also say that He created them with instinct to survive, and thus the instinct for the “Original sin”.) So isn’t all of that good?

    How do you draw a line between what God created and what Adam and Eve “created”? Are they not in essence the same? I think I know the answer to that, but that is what I will never agree with Christianity on.

    I was going to argue that Original sin could not be the beginning of evil as a natural thing because evil exists in non-human forms, and it existed before Adam and Eve. I would classify destruction as evil and our entire universe was created from lots of destruction. But… I guess if we are going to assume that God created the Universe in the traditional Christian fashion, then that point is mute.

    I guess its the chicken and the egg question… which came first? A Christian would say good. But if good came first, then how did we know that it was good until we experienced evil? So how can you say that one existed before the other? The only logical answer to me is to have both existing at the same time. I know I have a good life, but my measure of good is relative the amount of evil that I have been exposed to.

    I’ll stop now… 🙂

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