Sunday, May 26, 2013

God Giving Us the Finger

One of my Facebook friends from high school, now the wife of a Methodist minister, complained yesterday because some newscaster on MSNBC called the Oklahoma tornado "the finger of God reaching down out of the sky."  One of her friends agreed: "What a stupid thing to say!! As if God would intentionally destroy...sheesh...."  This baffled me: which god were they talking about?  Certainly not the god of the Christian Bible (Hello! The Deluge?), who not only would but has "intentionally destroyed" on numerous occasions.  For once I restrained myself and didn't comment.

This, you see, is one of the reasons I have never felt I was missing anything by not being a religious believer.  I'm not sure it really gives much comfort in times of trouble; I haven't observed that religious people, for all they claim otherwise, really draw any kind of strength or wisdom from their beliefs.  One of my favorite examples is C. S. Lewis, who to judge from A Grief Observed, went to pieces when his wife died of cancer.  In the end he accepted a belief that he had often rejected, that God is a cosmic sadist who inflicts pain on us for our own good -- but it's up to us, not to him, to deal with it constructively.  If we fail, it's our fault; if we succeed, to him goes the glory.  This sort of thing doesn't make Christianity look like something I need.

I don't mean only Christianity, of course.  Reading up on Christopher Isherwood recently, I wondered how much Vedanta really did for him.  From the biographical and autobiographical materials I've read about him, it seems that his years of greatest involvement with the movement coincided with a lot of heavy drinking and emotional instability.  No doubt he'd have said what devotees commonly say: that he'd have been so much worse off without the spiritual shelter Vedanta gave him.  I suspect that the booze and the promiscuity may have had their benefits, and that a lot of what's touted as spiritual growth is just getting older and less inclined to indulge in drama.

Still, something else is going on with those comments on the Oklahoma tornadoes.  My friend and her friend were objecting to a central doctrine of their religion: that Yahweh is not merely the creator but the sustainer of the world.  Nothing happens without his knowing it, and since he is omnipotent as well as omniscient, nothing happens without his permission and collaboration.  This isn't a religious invention like the Immaculate Conception, it's a biblical doctrine, most poetically expressed by Jesus himself, Matthew 10:29: Not a sparrow falls without your Father in Heaven knowing it.  An omniscient, omnipotent being is responsible in a way that no mere human being can be, yet believers makes excuses for the lapses of their gods that they'd never tolerate if they were made for a human malefactor.

A common evasion for this problem is the claim that God can't intervene, because it would interfere with our free will.  I don't buy it for several reasons: first, if so, then why do Christians pray in order to ask for his intervention?  Second, why then is the Bible (and Christian lore) full of stories where God did intervene?  Third, doesn't this excuse pose insuperable difficulties for the Christian doctrine of Heaven, where no one will suffer?  Either there's no free will in heaven, or the Christian god doesn't mind interfering with it.

Though I discuss subjects like this as an atheist and therefore an outsider, the problem of suffering has been addressed by many believers.  When I see believers misrepresenting their own tradition, as my friend did, I won't be put off from criticizing them by the assumption that an outsider has no business criticizing insiders.  (Christians have never let any such consideration inhibit their criticisms of other religions!)  I know very well that other insiders would raise and have raised the same objections I do -- it's often from such insiders that I've learned these objections.  This same friend, upset by some of my criticism of Christianity, told me that if I'd just become a Christian I wouldn't be so critical.  That would be true only if I let groupthink and moral laziness accompany my conversion, which often happens but isn't inevitable.  The prospect certainly doesn't make becoming a believer any more attractive to me.

This is why I'm critical of my fellow atheists when they cast all believers as unthinking sheep.  Many are, maybe most, but not all; believing in a particular god or joining a cult is not an excuse for this kind of dishonesty.  And atheists aren't immune to it either, alas; we just tend to exercise it with different imaginary friends, called "Reason" or "Evolution" or "Science."  The only way to think critically is to do it, not to join a club.