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Mr. Captain and I have–or rather had–a cat we nicknamed Monster for how downright evil she was (but she was “just a little one“). She passed away yesterday. Her death reminded me of how David Marshall, among many other Christians, believes that this world we live in is the best possible world out of all possible configurations and that his god is in charge of all of it–and how wrong that belief is in reality.

Sure, /thathappened. (Credit: Boston Public Library, CC license.)
Sure, /thathappened. (Credit: Boston Public Library, CC license.)

Monster was a tuxedo cat (I called her a “cowcat” because she looked like a Holstein cow) and as ex-feral as a cat can get without actually ever having been outdoors or out of human care in her life. I wrote about her a year ago and mentioned how she was slowly starting to thaw and become more friendly as she approached her golden years, but she never came close to being a lovey-dovey lap-fungus kitty. She had these weirdly explosive, increasingly-frequent bursts of wild affection at strange times and an incredibly loud purr that sounded as if she never quite understood exactly how purring was supposed to go or why cats did it. She was the most catlike cat I’ve ever known.

Last week she got what Mr. Captain and I thought was a “kitty cold.” It was weird that she’d gotten one, sure, but she fit all the symptoms. After finding out a few days later that she wasn’t eating (her brother was actually taking advantage of her weakened state to steal all of her food), we took her to the vet. There, an X-ray revealed horrific news: our cowcat had a huge tumor pressing on her heart and lungs. She was coughing because she was having trouble breathing due to the constriction on her trachea. The vet found it unlikely that Monster was even able to swallow food at all by then.

The subject of this awful conversation was sitting quietly on the counter trying to purr, and even this uncharacteristically-soft noise was a hardship that meant stopping to cough every few breaths. “She’s probably been dealing with this for a while,” said the vet. “They can cope with it until they can’t, and then it’s very sudden.”

When cats’ bodies decide it’s time to go, they don’t fuck around.

Our options were few. We could put her through hugely invasive weekly chemotherapy, pills forced down her throat daily, and forced feeding by IV or intubation. This would buy Monster a week, maybe two, maybe not even that, and in the meantime any serious stress could overburden her constricted trachea and she’d suffocate to death in front of us. Or we could do nothing, which meant letting her starve to death, which wouldn’t take very long but would of course end pretty damned miserably. Or we could put her to sleep.

I looked down at my strangely-docile hatebeast softly purring and coughing on the counter. She hated people. Didn’t respond well at all to a lot of handling. Treated her weekly nail-trimming session as the worst and most egregious indignity any cat had ever had to undergo, ever, in the history of forever. Barely tolerated brushing. She was a cat who went her own way, and always had.

And she might seem kind of okay right now, I realized, but she really isn’t.

As the saying goes, sometimes the simple things aren’t easy and the easy things aren’t simple, and this was one of those things that was really simple but not easy at all.

“Give her a clean end,” I finally said through tears, while Mr. Captain nodded beside me, his hand holding mine so tightly it almost hurt. “I can’t do all that to her.” The vet nodded and said she’d do the same if it were her cat in that situation. She already had her needle kit and shaver at the ready–our decision was no surprise at all to her.

Monster purred the whole way out.

After the vet left, Mr. Captain and I clung together and wept afterward, each of us with a hand on her limp body, until we were spent. I think we were both shocked at the depth of our grief. And then we went home bearing our empty cat-carrier as a visible sign of defeat.

The world a god made?

David Marshall and his pals would have you believe that this suffering is part of the world their god made.

Mr. Marshall explicitly declares that he has no answer to the problem of pain and suffering, and can only trust that his god knew what he was doing–though I don’t see how someone could come to that conclusion through observing this world. Only someone who already needs or wants to believe in the idea of a benevolent, omnipotent god could ever think something so patently grotesque or so thoroughly absent from the actual world.

As awful as it is to see a Christian blindly declare such misplaced trust, it’s worse when Christians try to explain away suffering. Sometimes they even claim that all animals were plant-eaters before the “Fall” and that some of them were apparently chosen at random to get rewired on the fly to be obligate carnivores afterward–which will make anybody even casually versed in biology laugh out loud because yes, lions either totally had those teeth, claws, digestive tract, and instincts beforehand but ate plants anyway, or else they magically grew all of it in one day because a talking snake persuaded two ignorant humans to eat an off-limits piece of fruit. If the latter, that must have been one hell of a day for them. No wonder such Christians tend to believe that being gay is some kind of “lifestyle choice” if they can think that animals can go from eating nothing but plants one day to eating nothing but meat the next by magic. And if their god did magically modify animals to be like that after the Fall, then he deliberately put into them the potential for diseases and suffering, just as he magically changed Eve’s body in a way that was guaranteed to cause billions of women and fetuses to die in misery and agony through childbirth. Even theistic-evolution Christians (not Young-Earth Creationists; they usually think that “God” somehow guided evolution to make the world’s creatures look like they do now) like David Marshall have a lot of explaining to do here.

So this attempt to explain why suffering exists only moves the problem one step over, like most Christian hand-waving does. If we were speaking in terms of humanity, then we’d know that such rewiring could be the result of a potential breakdown in design or oversight in construction. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a bridge, a Space Shuttle, a cat, or a field of crops. If it fails, then it fails because of some weakness or vulnerability put into place or left in place by its builders.

As imperfect as humans can be, one thing we’re good at is improving ourselves and our creations.

Earthquakes aren’t such a big problem in most of America anymore because we know how to make our buildings more resistant to these disasters. We don’t just throw our hands up in the air and say “Welp! I reckon we just hafta put up with earthquakes destroying buildings around here because it’s the divine plan!” We know how to build better than we used to, so buildings made in recent years aren’t as prone to damage and collapse in that situation.

In the same way, we know a lot more about the human body than we did once. Chemotherapy drugs have much easier side effects than they used to, so even at much higher doses people don’t get quite as sick to their stomachs during treatment as they did years ago. We didn’t just say “Welp! I reckon we just hafta put up with people getting hugely sick from chemotherapy!” any more than we said “Welp! Guess people dying hideously of disease is just part of the plan!” We went and figured out how to make drugs that were easier on people’s systems.

And we’re not even omniscient or omnipotent.

The responsibility of creators in the real world.

When something terrible does happen with a building or a drug or anything else, we don’t blame magic or invisible superbeings. We ascertain whether or not the failure was something that person (or persons) should have realized was possible beforehand and if so, if that shortcoming was adequately addressed. Sometimes it’s not possible to see all potential problems, and sometimes it’s not possible to address all of those problems, but that’s part of what such investigations are meant to uncover.

In June this year, when an apartment-building balcony collapsed, we didn’t say that the actions of sinful humans thousands of years ago caused that balcony to be too weak to support the weight of the people standing on this otherwise-perfect building. No, instead we investigated and found its builders responsible for making a shoddy-ass building. And similarly, there’s a lawsuit going on right now against a drug manufacturer for a medication it made that has allegedly caused birth defects; we didn’t just say “Welp! Reckon those birth defects are just part of a divine plan and ‘God’ had a reason for wanting those kids to be harmed in the womb!” Instead, various people are trying to hold that manufacturer liable for any potential damage that resulted from the use of its medication.

When people make drugs, or buildings, or anything else, we hold them responsible for any problems they should have seen coming or didn’t take adequate pains to prevent. So why don’t Christians hold their god more responsible for the shortcomings in his own apparent product? If he were human, he’d be on trial for all the terrible stuff that happens in our world–but Christians give him a free pass at all times.

One can see why; if their god is fallible and flawed, or worse nonexistent, then they have no super-parent who can rescue them from life’s various pitfalls. It’s an impossible choice, a cruel dilemma their faith leaders have put in their paths: Either their omnipotent god made his toys prone to diseases like cancer, or he was powerless to stop his toys from developing a physiology that was prone to such horrific diseases, or he deliberately chose not to stop it from happening. And let’s not forget that he inflicted these illnesses and deaths on his toys–or allowed them to happen, which is the same exact thing–because, apparently, he desired to punish all of his toys for what two totally unrelated toys did. Little wonder most Christians don’t think about it much.

Monster’s cancer was not the by-product of an omnipotent god whose creation somehow got away from him. It’s a by-product of evolution, with no god required to understand. It’s millions of years of organisms making deals with the rest of forever to purchase a few extra bites of time at the expense of vulnerability to problems that might strike down a few while leaving the rest to survive long enough to breed.

It is not magic that is healing cancer, either, in an increasing number of lucky cases; it is humans refusing to take cancer laying down, refusing to take it as a sign of a fallen Creation, a divine plan that we can’t possibly ever understand, or of a god’s benevolent guidance. Our doctors and researchers raise a middle finger to these ideas every hour they spend at work. I’m glad of it too; back in my Christian days we prayed many times for miraculous cures from cancer–cures we never saw and only heard about in unconfirmed sightings at a remove. Given a choice, most Christians would even rather rely on medicine than on the magical thinking of prayer.

And when treatment isn’t possible, then we, as humans, can take the long view and make the difficult decisions that are best for our situations.

The only miracle I could find for Monster was a quick, clean end that released her from her suffering. Magic had nothing to do with her disease or her death, and I find the idea grotesque that diseases like hers could possibly be part of a perfect plan in any way–or even the outgrowth of entirely other people’s rebellion against that plan.

When I hear Christians chirp about “God’s plan” and about how this world is the very best that could possibly be, and about how they imagine an omnimax god is large-and-in-charge of all of it but somehow still allowing this suffering to go on when he is perfectly capable of stopping it, I am powerfully reminded of how happy I am to be out of a system that forces that kind of cognitive dissonance on people. Every single time I lose another friend or loved one to cancer, I am reminded anew of how ludicrous my old beliefs were–and how willfully blinkered I had to be to buy into them.

We’ll get back on schedule with the next post, but I had to get this off my chest. See you on Thursday, friends, and thanks for listening.


Rest in peace, Monster. I already miss you. Also, fuck cancer.

Monster in happier days. Obviously if I had wanted to read the magazine I would not have put it there.
Monster in happier days. Obviously if I had wanted to read the magazine I would not have put it there.
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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...