Monday, November 23, 2015

Room 101

This meme is unfortunately representative of so many more, and of a tendency in religion and spirituality that is far older than the Internet.

When this one turned up, I had just read a review in The Atlantic of Primo Levi's newly-published Complete Works, and the reviewer says that Levi rejected the idea of prayer when he was in Auschwitz:
He was not a believer, he explains, and “the rules of the game don’t change … when you’re losing.” Besides, to pray that you and not another should survive is such a prayer as the Lord should “spit … out upon the ground.”
I'm not so sure about that last part, though, because Yahweh requires prayer, and Levi's dilemma didn't originate during the Holocaust. I imagine you can see why I thought of that when I saw this. Life is good for me, but it's not good at all for many other people. Whom should I thank? Why should I thank them? For letting me off while crushing someone else? You can't give a deity (or whatever) credit for being nice to me while denying it's responsible for the bad things that happen to other people.

I commented to this effect, and the person who passed along the meme replied, first, that the meme doesn't mention God.  That doesn't work, because I was explicit that I wasn't talking only about gods.  Second, she was just thankful that she had enough good karma to receive good things.  That just dug her in deeper.  It would seem to follow that if someone is suffering, it's because they hadn't generated enough good karma; and that, not to put too fine a point on it, is vile.  That Syrian toddler who washed up on a Turkish beach: bad karma, right?  He must have done something bad in a past life for that to happen to him.  Not many people are careless enough to agree, but it follows from their understanding of karma as they express it.  They need to rethink their doctrine.

The doctrine of karma, from what I know of it (admittedly not much), doesn't mandate it, but it appears to be compatible with the understanding that those who suffer do so because they earned bad karma, and so deserve the bad things that have happened to them.  It is certainly used that way by many devotees of the idea.  Used loosely, as many people do, it's compatible with gloating over the downfall of someone they dislike.  They try to distance themselves from the imputation they are judging (which they generally pretend they don't do): it's not me, it's karma!  But like early Christians who imagined that their bliss in Heaven would be amplified by the pleasure of watching the torments of the damned in Hell, their denials are not convincing.  Thomas Aquinas proved it logically; according to the gospel of Luke, Jesus taught that the damned deserve and should receive no pity.

I have had a notably easy life, with relatively little suffering in it so far.  I don't imagine for an instant that I did something to earn it.  If there were anyone to thank for it -- as an atheist, of course, I don't believe there is -- my second impulse after doing so would be to berate him for letting other people suffer.  It's why I'm bemused when Christians deny that their god is a micromanaging god, especially when they're trying to explain away natural disasters.  If their god is responsible for the good things that happen to them, he is a micromanaging god, so he's also responsible for the bad things that happen to them, or to other people.  Since he's all-powerful and reputed to be quite touchy (R-E-S-P-E-C-T, what that word it means to Him!), it wouldn't be prudent to take him to task, but a bold person might do so anyway.  I don't know if I'd be that brave, but again, I don't think it's likely to come up.

People who grapple with the Problem of Evil, whether philosophers, theologians, or laymen, generally distinguish between what you might call natural evil (earthquakes, plagues, comets striking the earth and wiping out the dinosaurs) and what you might call moral evil (the Holocaust, Rwanda, the Khmer Rouge, Les Miz).  They generally take for granted that moral evil isn't really a problem for their god because (they claim) that he gave us free will absolves him of responsibility for it. (They don't do a very convincing job with natural evils either.)  I don't think this approach works: apologists don't even really believe it, because they routinely give their god the credit when people do good things.  If he could guide Jonas Salk to invent the polio vaccine, for example, or divert a bullet from someone's heart to a less vital part of the anatomy, he could guide a bad agent away from doing bad things.  It's no more a violation of free will to do the latter than to do the former.

Now, I'm not saying that whoever made this meme, or the person who passed it along, is a bad person.  They're just thoughtless, as most of us are much of the time.  But that's not anything to brag about.  As in George Orwell's 1984, who can blame a battered person for wishing the torture of Room 101 onto someone else, anyone else?  But the fact remains that they did it, and it's hard to live with yourself afterwards.   I know that after a course of treatment in the Ministry of Love, I would do the same.  But should I be thankful to the torturer for taking the rats away from my face?  (Remember: Orwell's target in 1984 was religious as much as it was political.)  I say no.  Many people disagree.