God's Little Object Lessons
Within theistic worldviews, birth defects present a particularly troubling example of the Problem of Evil- the obvious question being, "if God is so loving, why would he cause children to be born physically deformed or developmentally disabled?"
John Wilson addresses this question, and points out that claiming these children to be the recipients of God's 'cruelty' or 'curse' is an insult to them and demonstrates ignorance of God's 'higher purpose.'
I don't think any parent of a disabled child would like the idea that their child is a curse to them. I'm sure there are difficulties but does that mean the child is useless? Does that mean that the parents can't learn anything from the child? Does the child not love?...This is another one of those arguments that is supposed to defend some people group from the likes of people who think God is loving. If I have a special needs child, the Lord would certainly be showing Grace by teaching me to love and be patient and understanding and allowing my heart to be changed to pour love on a child who, in the arms of some proponent of that argument, would apparently be hated.
The desire to see meaning and purpose in adverse circumstances is natural human psychology, and not something that I would normally take issue with. But John raises some interesting points that I think deserve robust commentary. Firstly, I would agree that no parent would want to see their child, no matter how disabled, as a 'curse' that exists for no other purpose than to demonstrate God's anger, and I would echo his sentiment that labeling such a child with that label is both dehumanizing and immoral.
The problem is that this is an explicitly Christian label, not one that stems from naturalism. The root of this can be found in Genesis 3, where Yahweh speaks curses into existence after he discovers that Adam and Eve have eaten from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Especially astute readers will note that only two curses are given in this passage: one to the serpent, and one to the soil. Neither Adam nor Eve are specifically 'cursed' by Yahweh, and in fact the only threat of death comes from Yahweh's removal of the two proto-humans from the Tree of Life, which it must be presumed could have sustained them otherwise. Later, as Jewish theology evolved, the concept that any physical disability or deformity was the province of Yahweh became more explicit:
Exodus 4: 'Who makes a person dumb or deaf, gives sight or makes blind? Is it not I, Yahweh?'
Strangely enough, even though such physical handicaps were the result of Yahweh's whim, they were clearly negative attributes, and any person burdened with such a condition was prohibited from partaking in many sacred activities:
Leviticus 21: Yahweh spoke to Moses and said: 'Speak to Aaron and say: "None of your descendants, for all time, may come forward to offer the food of his God if he has any infirmity, for non may come forward if he has an infirmity, be he blind or lame, disfigured or deformed, or with an injured foot or arm, a hunchback, someone with rickets or opthalmia or the scab or running sores, or a eunuch. No descendant of the priest Aaron may come forward to offer the food burnt for Yahweh if he has any infirmity; if he has an infirmity, he will not come forward to offer the food of his God. He may eat the food of his God, things especially holy and things holy, but he will not go near the curtain or approach the altar, since he has an infirmity and must not profane my holy things; for I, Yahweh, have sanctified them"'
More recent Jewish religious tradition reflected in the story of Job introduces the concept that not only is suffering and pain due to God's sovereignty, but it also reflects some kind of sin or impiety in the life of the person who receives it. As Job's friend Zophar tells him, in an effort to prompt confession and repentance:
Job 11: Come, reconsider your attitude, stretch out your hands towards him! If you repudiate the sin which you have doubtless committed and do not allow wickedness to live on in your tents, you will be able to raise an unsullied face, unwavering and free of fear, for you will forget about your misery, thinking of it only as a flood that passed long ago.
By the time of Paul the concept had progressed to the point where not only was the human condition the result of God's curse, and not only were physical hardships divinely mandated, and not only were they deserved as a response to sin, but in fact the continued existence of death and any suffering was directly due to the 'original sin,' which, though not literally supported, was at that point obscured by enough layers of tradition to be a plausible explanation when Paul needed a motivation for his casting of Jesus as the ultimate salvific agent:
Romans 5: Therefore, just as sin gained entry into the world through a single individual, with death arriving on sin's coat tails, death permeated all mankind since all sinned.
And thus, we can see that this concept, albeit perhaps not self-conscious of its own theological ontogeny, is thoroughly Christian in every way. Whether Christians like it or not, their own theology holds children with hydrocephalic skulls or spina bifida up as examples of the curse of God, leveled against mankind for the crime of eating a piece of fruit.
Lest I be accused of wrangling Christian theology without assessing the teachings of Jesus, his words in the Gospel of John are consistent with the preceding Jewish understanding, but plays down the causal impact of sin, instead introducing a novel spin on suffering as an opportunity for divine action:
John 9: And passing by, he noticed a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, "Rabbi, who sinned, this poor wretch or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that the mighty works of God might be displayed through him."
And thus we reach the second point that John presents: that of handicapped or disabled children existing explicitly as educational tools, whether to demonstrate the power of God as with the blind man in John 9, or serving to bestow a lesson of Grace as John posits on his blog. While, as I said above, I can't find fault with parents wanting to find purpose in their child's misfortune, at the same time I can't help but see it as the most hollow purpose imaginable.
What this argument says, in essence, is that God purposefully gave these children malformed bodies in order to teach their parents a lesson. It may have been the case that the parents desperately needed such a lesson, and that their lives may be immensely improved because of their child's struggles, but I find it horribly immoral to cripple a person simply as an educational strategy. Surely we can expect that an all-good, all-powerful deity such as that posited by Christianity could come up with an alternative lesson plan for any subject that doesn't require causing babies pain.
Within my naturalistic worldview, of course, the idea that painful birth defects serve some divine purpose is absolutely nauseating. In my worldview, such events are what everyone recognizes them to be according to common sense: horrendous tragedies. This approach does not diminish the humanity of the afflicted, but provides a rational and visceral basis for human empathy, which is the very foundation of morality. We all may not be born with physical deformities, but we all come to know tragic circumstances throughout our lives, and approaching our fellow humans with real empathy is approaching them as equals, not embodied object lessons handed down from on high.