Thursday, August 4, 2011

God is not a comic-book superhero

Because Jennifer Fulweiler converted to Catholicism from atheism, her blog attracts quite a few atheists … especially since, at one point, P. Z. Myers made her post “5 Catholic Teachings That Make Sense to Atheists” the focus of his anti-Christian rage.

On July 22, Fulweiler asked a pair of related questions that spun off into a reflection on abortion in her post “When the Best Place to be Born is the Worst Place to be Conceived”. Naturally, such a post begs for trolls and drive-by harangues, though at the time of this writing the comments are all relatively calm and thoughtful.

At least until “ac” showed up:

Abortions are not ideal and can affect a woman deeply but then I know of four that were thrown into depression by the miscarriage of a foetus at around 5 months. That’s God’s will is it?  I also know several women who would have died in childbirth without modern medical practice. God’s will again?
Someone has already mention the high rate of miscarriages, but there is also the high rate of maternal deaths that would occur without medical help, and in too many parts of the world does occur. This is God’s love in action? …
So, I return to a question I asked in another thread: In what way does God make life better for the people of Malawi, say?

Ah, the age-old problem of theodicy: How do we reconcile an omnibenevolent God with the existence of evil? In fact, in his essay “Seeing Catch-22 Twice”, Slate contributor Ron Rosenbaum posits that the heart of Joseph Heller’s master novel is Yossarian’s virulently anti-God screed in Chapter 18:

“And don’t tell me God works in mysterious ways,” Yossarian continued, hurtling over her objections. “There’s nothing so mysterious about it. He’s not working at all. He’s playing or else He’s forgotten all about us. That’s the kind of God you people talk about — a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed. Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when He robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did he ever create pain? ... Oh, He was really being charitable to us when He gave us pain! [to warn us of danger] Why couldn’t He have used a doorbell instead to notify us, or one of His celestial choirs? Or a system of blue-and-red neon tubes right in the middle of each person’s forehead. Any jukebox manufacturer worth his salt could have done that. Why couldn’t He? ... What a colossal, immortal blunderer! When you consider the opportunity and power He had to really do a job, and then look at the stupid, ugly little mess He made of it instead, His sheer incompetence is almost staggering. ...”

I wonder what it is about some atheists that make them think Christianity began and is sustained only by rich people in technologically advanced, agriculturally bountiful countries. The way this kind of objection is bandied about, you’d think Christians grow up blind to malnutrition, disease, rape, political oppression and the like. Oh, well; at least this attitude is a little better than Randian objectivism, which tends to sneer at the unfortunate as unworthy of empathy or charity, and rejects Christianity for its waste of effort and money at relieving their oppression.

But Christianity has never promised material comfort as part of this life. So far as it has taught anything about material comfort, it has always laid the onus on the community to provide for the poor, the hungry, the sick and the homeless. Far from teaching God as some supernatural superhero who stops hurricanes, foils evil villains and drops food and drinking water on famine-stricken lands, orthodox Christianity insists that natural disasters are allowed as part of the passive Will of God, and that human evil comes from the misuse of human free will.

Does that mean, then, that God doesn’t care what happens to us? Or that He is less than omnibenevolent? Only if there’s no final cause to God’s operation that requires evil to be permitted. At several points, I’ve tried in my stumbling, amateurish way to explain why the existence of evil isn’t irreconcilable with the postulate of an omnibenevolent God, at most length here and here. I’ve also tried to point out that atheism doesn’t answer the question of suffering any better; in fact, it merely trades despair and meaninglessness for hope and potential meaning. As the saying goes, better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.

But Yossarian’s invective reminds me of the writer who flippantly wrote that he believes God to be “one hundred percent malicious but only thirty percent effective”. And, as I said before, a malevolent God who isn’t intelligent or powerful enough to create unremitting universal misery is incompatible with the notion of a God powerful and intelligent enough to create a cosmos. Far easier to believe that, if He exists at all, He is indifferent.

And unremitting, universal misery is not a fact of all life. Yossarian not only insists that the glass is half empty, he scorns anyone who tries to divert his attention to the water in it. Disillusionment has become for Yossarian the ultimate illusion; it’s not the only reality that exists — it wasn’t even the only reality of the Army Air Force of 1943 — but it’s the only one he will admit.

The real question behind “ac’s” challenge — “In what way does God make life better for the people of Malawi?” — and Yossarian’s anti-theistic jeremiad seems to be, “Why don’t we live in Heaven now? Why is it our job to stop villains from killing kids and to share our food with victims of tsunamis? Why couldn’t God just let us all lay back on the grass, pop cherries in our mouths and make lazy afternoon love with the partners of our choice from here on out to eternity?”

Or, to put it a different way: is the real problem that God is indifferent, or is it that we’re too materially comfortable to do anything about evil ourselves?