Posts Tagged “abrahamic”

Michelangelo's "God", from "the Creation of Adam"Every time some hideous catastrophe takes place in the occidental world, inevitably, people start musing about “where God was” while it was going on. I’ve noticed this has been particularly common in regard to the Aurora massacre that happened just over a week ago. CNN’s Belief blog alone has hosted multiple postings which ask this one question … but that’s hardly the only place. The media and the blogosphere are literally choked with people asking that question. Last Sunday, preachers and pastors around the country were (trying to) answer it for their flocks during their sermons, and I assume are still trying to do so.

I tangentially mentioned that particular question myself, just a few days ago — so I have to confess, even I have stumbled into it. Given how frequently this question has come up, I’ve decided I must address it a little more directly.

The question, “Where God was during the Aurora massacre?” is a direct consequence of “the problem of evil” which lies at the philosophical heart of the Abrahamic faiths.

Elsewhere I’ve devoted an entire Web page to this particular dilemma. To keep it brief, the problem lies in the fact that the Abrahamic faiths believe in a creator deity which is simultaneously omnipotent (i.e. having the power to do anything s/he/it wants), omniscient (i.e. knowing everything that can be known: past, present, and future alike), and benevolent (i.e. wanting there to be no suffering on the part of anyone). In spite of this supposed combination of traits, though, we know that this deity’s creation contains suffering … a lot of it. Over the centuries many theodicies have been proposed to explain how this presumed creator deity can have all three of these traits yet still there is a lot of suffering. All of those theodicies, however, fail the test of logic, because they all fail to take into account the absolute nature of the three traits the Abrahamic deity is assumed to possess, as well as his role as the creator of the universe.

The one most apologists use is the “free will” theodicy, or the claim that the creator has given humanity “free will,” so that each of us can do whatevever s/he wishes at any time, and said deity refuses to do anything about it … hence there is suffering in the world that God cannot prevent. Unfortunately this fails for three reasons: First, not all suffering is even of human origin, so that someone’s presumed “free will” played no role in it and cannot have caused it. Second, that creator deity is believed to have intervened in human affairs many times in history and has gone so far as to order people around; clearly he is not some kind of remote spectator-being who’s philosophically opposed to getting involved in people’s decisions and unwilling to get in their way. Third, as the creator, he must have known how his creation would turn out; he must have known in advance what everyone would do; he must have known there would be widespread suffering for uncountable billions of people over many generations; yet — despite knowing all of this prior to the moment of creation — he created the universe anyway.

Ultimately, a truly omnipotent and omniscient being can never be absolved of any responsibility for what he creates; if he exists, and if he created this universe, he and he alone is responsible for everything that ever happens in it. Those who are part of that creation can, at best, only be secondary agents — since he created them as they are, and they did not create themselves. In the end, simply put, it is logically impossible for the creator of the universe we live in — which has suffering in it — to simultaneously be omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent. It just doesn’t work.

The curious thing about the problem of evil is, as soon as you take the Abrahamic deity’s presumed benevolence out of the equation, the rest of it actually becomes logically tenable. Removing his omnipotence or omniscience tends not to work so well: If you assume the creator was less-than-omnipotent, you’re still left with a creator who made a universe he knew would get out of his control and have suffering in it that he couldn’t do anything about; and even if the deity was less-than-omniscient, he still must have had some idea that he was risking creating a universe that might have suffering in it. So even taking either or both of those out, you’re still left with a creator-being who must have behaved in a less-than-totally-benevolent manner.

While this is coolly logical, it unfortunately does not fit with prevailing notions about the Abrahamic faiths. Most Jews, Christians and Muslims are unnerved even to consider that the deity they worship might be something other than benevolent. Some are willing to dispense with his omnipotence or omniscience (e.g. Harold Kushner, author of the best-selling When Bad Things Happen to Good People), but for the most part they simply refuse even to entertain the idea that their creator deity could be anything less than loving and compassionate.

Thus, as far as I’m concerned, for followers of the Abrahamic faiths to have to ask themselves, “Where was God during the Aurora massacre?” just provides more evidence of the inherent, undeniable absurdity of their beliefs. They shouldn’t even be asking it! What they should be asking — instead — is, “Why do I believe in a creator-deity to whom tradition assigns a combination of traits that logic tells me he can’t possibly have?”

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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In the wake of the manner in which Christians — such as Marion “Pat” Robertson — have used the Haiti earthquake to advance their own agendas, scientist and outspoken critic of religion Richard Dawkins is using the comments of Christians — both Robertson’s, and those who try to distance themselves from him — to expose the reality of the religion they worship. In the Washington Post On Faith blog, he wrote (WebCite cached article):

Needless to say, milder-mannered faith-heads are falling over themselves to disown Pat Robertson, just as they disowned those other pastors, evangelists, missionaries and mullahs at the time of the earlier disasters.

What hypocrisy.

Loathsome as Robertson’s views undoubtedly are, he is the Christian who stands squarely in the Christian tradition. The agonized theodiceans who see suffering as an intractable ‘mystery’, or who ‘see God’ in the help, money and goodwill that is now flooding into Haiti , or (most nauseating of all) who claim to see God ‘suffering on the cross’ in the ruins of Port-au-Prince, those faux-anguished hypocrites are denying the centrepiece of their own theology. It is the obnoxious Pat Robertson who is the true Christian here.

Where was God in Noah’s flood? He was systematically drowning the entire world, animal as well as human, as punishment for ‘sin’. Where was God when Sodom and Gomorrah were consumed with fire and brimstone? He was deliberately barbecuing the citizenry, lock stock and barrel, as punishment for ‘sin’. Dear modern, enlightened, theologically sophisticated Christian, your entire religion is founded on an obsession with ‘sin’, with punishment and with atonement. Where do you find the effrontery to condemn Pat Robertson, you who have signed up to the obnoxious doctrine that the central purpose of Jesus’ incarnation was to have himself tortured as a scapegoat for the ‘sins’ of all mankind, past, present and future, beginning with the ‘sin’ of Adam, who (as any modern theologian well knows) never even existed?

The reality of Christianity is that sin, suffering, and retribution are central to everything about it, and Dawkins delivers this philosophical hammer-blow to Christians who would try to disavow Robertson:

Educated apologist, how dare you weep Christian tears, when your entire theology is one long celebration of suffering: suffering as payback for ‘sin’ – or suffering as ‘atonement’ for it? You may weep for Haiti where Pat Robertson does not, but at least, in his hick, sub-Palinesque ignorance, he holds up an honest mirror to the ugliness of Christian theology. You are nothing but a whited sepulchre.

Dawkins will, no doubt, be condemned for this confrontational piece, which is one of the harshest things I’ve read about Christianity, in the mass media, in a long time. (People seem to think that atheists like Dawkins are supposed to be meek, humble milquetoasts who cannot say anything even remotely mean about any religion … even though they, themselves, think nothing of deriding atheism, secularism, and other forms of non-belief.) But whatever the merits of Dawkins writing this confrontational piece may be, the fact remains that he is correct: Christian theology is predicated on viciousness and suffering, and revels in it. I have long argued that the God of all the Abrahamic faiths (i.e. Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition) can — logically — only be a malevolent being. It is not possible for him to be benevolent, as JCI worshippers assume him to be, nor is it possible even for him to be ambivalent or neutral. It’s heartening to see a public figure delivering a similar message.

Hat tip: Unreasonable Faith and the Friendly Atheist blogs.

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