( In the previous post, I reminded you that you can read in this Blog my book’s three introductory autobiographical chapters, by consulting the references I have given you there. I have decided to offer you here, in regular installments, the contents of the rest of the book, Chapters 4 through 16, 227 posts in all. Chapters 4 through 15 are thematic. The final chapter consists of “Random Reflections”, like the Blog which is the book’s prolongation. And you thought Voltaire was going to shut up ? )
CHAPTER FOUR : BELIEF AND UNBELIEF
GOD COULD CARE LESS ?
Another earthquake, another flood, another fire, another war and another gruesome report, in living color, of nations that are dying of hunger. Joseph Heller wondered about it all : “A man was shot today in the park. Nobody knows why. No one’s in charge”. God, it would seem, couldn’t care less.
There are, of course, people like me who do not believe in God. “The only thing that will excuse God for the suffering of an innocent child is the fact that He does not exist”. For Roger Ikor and countless atheists like us, the mystery is that so many people can continue to believe in a benevolent providence in spite of the overwhelming evidence that such a belief is a product of their own wishful thinking. “The whole thing is so patently infantile, so incongruous with reality”, wrote Freud, “that it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life”.
The believer may react, like the psalmist in the Bible, and call us fools. An eye for an eye, an insult for an insult, and the dialogue of the deaf goes on. Or he may go a step farther and try to win a convert. Thumb-screws being no longer legal in such situations, he will talk about causality and contingency, sunsets and the search for happiness. If all else fails, he will fall back on something like one billion Catholics can’t be wrong. He can handle objections about religious hypocrisy, sectarianism and superstition, but if his potential convert brings up the problem of birth-defects, tidal waves, famine and the meaninglessness of suffering and death, he will usually slip in a cautious petitio principii, a begging of the question, and say that God works in mysterious ways, or that trials are sent to test us, or that we are looking at the tapestry of life from the reverse side, and that one day we shall see the meaning of it all. His patient listener may be too polite to say so, but he is thinking that all of this is remarkably similar to that pie in the sky which was his objection in the first place.
The pathetic thing about such sterile arguments is not so much that the atheist gets no valid answers, as that the believer fails to recognize the validity of the atheist’s questions.
For the believer, they say, no proof is needed; for the unbeliever no proof is possible. It is true that many believers do not need proof. God is a given, part of the package of ideals, prejudices and beliefs they grew up with. But it is also true that for the believer as well as for the unbeliever no proof is possible. His reasons for believing in God range from the unquestioning acceptance of an inherited belief, to the need to believe there is Someone in control who can provide protection, fulfillment and purpose if not now at least after death, to some sort of personal experience of transcendence which he has learned to call God. He may be satisfied with his reasons, but none of them is a proof that God exists.
The extraordinary thing is, however, that believers not only believe that God exists, but say they believe in Him, they count on Him. “In God we trust”, proclaims the American dollar bill. In spite of dungeon, fire and the six o’clock news, they live and die with the conviction that God could indeed care less because He could not care more. As Victor Frankl put it, they can go to the gas-chambers of Auschwitz with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema on their lips. That surely is the ultimate absurdity, evidence of a psychotic blindness to reality. For the believer, however, it is we atheists who have not yet learned to see !
The problem of suffering, caused either by human malice or indifference or by natural disaster, has exercised the minds of thinking men ever since they crawled out of the cave of sub-humanity. The problem was, and is, simple enough for the primitive who peoples his pantheon with despotic divinities. It took a different focus in the tradition that gave birth to monotheism and the myths of Genesis. A good God gives man a Paradise, and if Paradise is lost it is not God’s fault but man’s. God gets angry, but His “just” anger is tempered by an unheard-of mercy. Adam and Eve are punished and they will die, but they are not struck dead on the spot. Cain is exiled, but is given a mark that will protect him. God floods the earth, but Noah and all of us get a second chance.
There may have been in these stories of Genesis a giant leap beyond the idea of gods in other primitive religions, but it is doubtful that many believers have taken any more than a small step since. People still pray for rain to start or stop, still expect God to provide good grades, good jobs, good health, still ask to be saved from accidents, energy crises and atomic annihilation. They still see suffering as a punishment from God. One of the prayers of the venerable Roman Missal, typical of many prayers still in use, asks the Lord to “save us from famine, so that the hearts of men may know that scourges of this kind proceed from thy wrath, and cease by thy compassion”. One could fairly ask, with Sigmund Freud, whether mankind has progressed very far from “the ignorant childhood days of the human race”.
There are some, however, whose belief in God is not diminished by either the reality of human suffering or even traditional religions’ anthropomorphic portrayal of God as a dispenser of rewards and punishments. They believe that God punishes no one. They claim to have a larger vision of God and His creation, of man and his history, than either the fundamentalist or the atheist. They do not expect God to protect them from crashes on any street, let alone Wall Street. And they consider it blasphemous to suggest that God is punishing anyone by earthquakes or floods or famine, or even to call such disasters “acts of God”. They insist that they believe in a God who believes in Man, a God who trusts man to the point of leaving him alone in this world, with all the potential to make of it the paradise it has never been. God could have given each product of human evolution a guardian angel to guide him through the jungle, across the street, and to the outer regions of the galaxy. He could have shown him how to exploit, prevent or at least predict every natural cataclysm. He could have provided us with bodies naturally immune to sickness, or at least given us a cure for cancer. He could have decided to interfere by making a tree fall on every mugger in the park, or arranged the weather so that it never rains on weekends except in the sub-Sahara. He could have solved our problems for us. He could have, says the self-styled enlightened, modern, liberal believer, but He cared too much for us, respected our freedom and intelligence too much to do for us what we can do for ourselves.
The debate will continue as to whether God is “psychologically nothing other than a magnified father” (Freud), “the last fading smile of a cosmic Cheshire cat” (Julian Huxley), or “the infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being” (Paul Tillich). But “liberated” believers have to live as though God were not “there”. They do not believe in a God who arbitrarily reserves His blessings for the elect and condemns others to misery, or a God who can be badgered into providing miracles for the chosen few. God, they say, is not going to stop us blowing ourselves up, anymore than He stopped us blowing Hiroshima up. He is not going to give us peace in our time, nor feed Africa, nor prevent the death of innocent children (or even guilty adults). That is our business, not His.
One has to admire such valiant, last-ditch attempts to make sense of continuing to believe in an apparently indifferent God, whose loving care is now claimed to be evidenced precisely by His not “interfering”. There is a similar explanation. God did not create us; we created Him.