I’ve lately been sensitive to the feelings of believers, mostly avoiding rudely dismissive sentiments about their faith, but a recent incident on the downtown streets of Vancouver has reminded me of how strongly I feel about the absurdity of the irrational evils and cruelties of this world.
I was standing in Starbucks, waiting for my order, when a woman entered. She was between 25 and 50, with one of those careworn faces which made it hard to guess her age. Despite the snow flurries, she was dressed in a micro-skirt, open-toed shoes, and a light sweater. Her hand shook slightly as she held out a $50 bill and asked the clerk for a cappuccino. He told her that they didn’t take bills that large, and after a silent ten second pause, she turned out the door and headed unsteadily back up the street. The clerk and a male customer exchanged grins and knowing looks before going back to what they had been doing. It’s easy to speculate how she acquired a $50 bill, and how she would spend the rest of it after she found someplace that would serve her coffee. It’s easy to moralize, or to patronize, or with a little good grace to sympathize. I’m not at all claiming any superior sensibility or moral position for myself here. It was only after she was gone that it dawned on me that I could have bought the coffee she wanted for her instead of passively watching her humiliation. But that’s not what I thought of at the time. What crossed my mind as I watched her hurry away through the cold wind was something quite different.
What stuck in my craw was how unjustifiable human suffering is. If only there had been a benevolent Designer back in the day, instead of a set of morally-indifferent chemical and biological processes! How things would be different! And that thought led to the present impulse, to refurbish and republish a piece that I first posted at the start of this blog adventure, six months ago. The two or three faithful readers I had then may remember that article. The original, of the same title, is no longer on this webpage, so for anyone who missed it, here it is again, with minor augmentation. The tone is aggressive, even contemptuous, which is how I wrote it then. I have chosen not to soften it. If it offends or disappoints you, I’ll just have to live with that.
. _ . _ . _ .
God’s in his heaven;
All’s right with the world
Because they believe in God, Christians are comforted by a feeling that the world makes sense. For me, the world makes sense only if I don’t believe in a god. If their God exists, madness and cruelty reign in heaven, and I want no part of it, or of him.
Leibniz coined the term “theodicy” to denote attempts to justify God’s existence and goodness in the face of the existence of evil. Indeed, on a moral basis there is no greater difficulty for believers than The Problem of Evil. For me, the existence of evil is an insurmountable barrier to belief — both rationally and emotionally — and I have labelled my version of an attempt to justify god’s non-existence and non-goodness “theidiocy,” after Leibniz.
To start, we need to reject “God works in mysterious ways” as thoroughly gratuitous, an unverifiable assertion that is outside rational discussion, by definition. I am an unapologetic doubting Thomas. What we can talk about is what we can sense or experience; that’s just the way it is.
The Christian God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent and, for all I know, he lived in the Omni Center in Atlanta until it was demolished (whether by the Babylonians or by the NBA’s accountants is a matter of continuing theological dispute).
An omnipotent God can do whatever he wants, again by definition. So how did he do in his design of the universe, at least the parts that matter to us?
Not very well, I’m afraid. The world is a place of frailty and mortality. It is filled with pain, suffering, injustice, and evil. Not just human evils like hatred and war (a design flaw if there ever was one!) but natural disasters like floods and hurricanes. Some argue that this is the best of all possible worlds because God made it. This circular argument, where the happy conclusion is embedded in the premises, which themselves are mere assertions, is a favourite of Christian metaphysics. Leibniz tried to dodge that issue entirely by scolding us for requiring this to be the best of all possible worlds for us rather than for God. This second argument is closer to the modern scientific view, but at the same time it rather fatally undermines the notion of omnibenevolence, doesn’t it?
Most of God’s creatures suffer through lives that are “nasty, brutish and short.” Darwin famously based his final rejection of the idea of a benevolent God on his observations of a particularly nasty species of wasp, which paralyzes its prey then lays eggs in the still-living body so that the wasp’s offspring can eat the beetle from the inside out, feeding on the body and blood of the living host. Since this could not be the design of a benevolent and loving god, Darwin reasoned, there is no benevolent and loving God.
This world is the best an all-powerful being can do? Predators and prey, half of creation hunting and killing and eating the other half? Disease, hunger, death — would it not have been better all around to design away these flaws? (The idea that they were purposefully designed in is far worse!) A vale of tears as a way to prove our worthiness to go to heaven? Why design a need for proof in the first place? Why not proof by the quantity of happiness enjoyed rather than the quantity of grim suffering endured? What kind of a plan is this? A tortured humanity ransomed by a murdered saviour? This is a religion with serious psychological problems. What about people? Why were we created as a mix of animal urges and rationality? Why design us to be weak, uncertain, inconsistent, violent, envious, hateful, proud, duplicitous, fearful, prone to error — in a word, sinful — if not to satisfy some dubious emotional needs of God’s own?
Indeed, the Christians’ God does have serious mental issues, if the Bible is any evidence. He is a being racked with jealousy, anger, vengefulness. He plays favourites, encourages wars, and smites his enemies. He created flawed humanity, and now he sits in judgement, consigning the vast majority of us to hellfire when we act on the flawed impulses with which he plagued us. He has an insatiable need for love and obedience, for worship and gratitude. What kind of super-being needs an entire universe to bow down before him? That’s insecurity on a cosmic scale — literally.
If we are made in God’s image, as believers claim, he did a thorough job, for we have all of the qualities he exhibits himself. Would that it were otherwise!
Therefore, I must conclude that the Christian’s God was a designer with a severe imagination deficit and destructive emotional crippling. The best I can hope for is that he doesn’t exist.
Many theists say that without God life would be meaningless. I say, better neutral indifference than irrationality and psychopathology. The greatest horror for me would be to die and rise again to stand before the Throne of Heaven, for then life had a purpose indeed, and an unconscionably horrible one — for the face of God is not Love, but Absurdity.