I return to David Hart’s lamentation of the “utterly inconsequential” to address his flippant dismissal of the problem of theodicy. Theodicy, in short, is an examination of an omni-god’s benevolence in the face of the existence of evil. In other words, it’s an attempt to get a god “off the hook.” According to Hart, noting the incompatibility between the god of Abraham’s omnipotence and his omnibenevolence given that evil exists is an “incorrigibly impressionistic” recycling of an old argument. He’d like us to believe that this issue is somehow resolved despite the fact that it is eminently problematic to many people. This belief matters and it impacts the live of atheists and believers alike. Bad things being explained as happening in accordance with the god of Abraham’s will, for example, is an often heard platitude intended to comfort the suffering: “It’s all according to God’s plan” and “God has a special plan for you” are consolations offered to those who suffer. However, a consequence of this explanation is that it betrays an unflattering concept of this god; namely, his eternal cruelty and injustice. Assuming that this god does exist, let’s examine the “comfort” provided for in his plan and what this idea says about his understanding of justice.
For a contemporary, pop-culture illustration of the problem, I offer the song “Judith,” by A Perfect Circle. Watch the video and pay careful attention to the lyrics that follow. (This is an official video on YouTube. Therefore they require that you watch it only on the YouTube page and sometimes after a commercial. If you don’t wish to do this you can refer to the lyrics for the rest of the discussion).
You’re such an inspiration
For the ways that I will
Never, ever choose to be
Oh so many ways for me to show you
How your savior has abandoned you
FUCK your god, your lord, your Christ
He did this, took all you had and
Left you this way, still you pray, never stray, never
Taste of the fruit, never thought to question “Why?”
It’s not like you killed someone
It’s not like you drove a hateful spear into his side
Praise the one who left you broken down and paralyzed
He did it all for you…
Oh so many ways for me to show you
How your dogma has abandoned you
Pray to your Christ, to your god
Never taste of the fruit, never stray, never break, never
Choke on a lie even though he’s the one who
Did this to you, you never thought to question “Why?”
It’s not like you killed someone
It’s not like you drove a spiteful spear into his side
Talk to Jesus Christ as if he knows the reasons why
He did it all for you
It might be tempting to dismiss this as a simple rebellion for its own sake. But there is something much more serious here. It is a revolt against the so-called “justice” of Jesus, a revolt against the idea of divine justice. “FUCK your god, your lord, your Christ” Maynard James Keenan sings with an intensity loaded with visceral emotion and venom. His rejection of god and Jesus is contextual and deeply personal. Judith, for whom the song is titled, is Keenan’s mother who was paralyzed by a stroke when he was a young boy. We can infer from the song the manner in which Judith comforted herself for this affliction: she accepted it as being part of Jesus’ plan for her or as a punishment for some unspecified sing (“He did this, took all you had and left you this way…He did it all for you”).
The inherent cruelty of intentionally crippling someone as part of a plan is nearly self-evident and would cause a significant problem for anyone to use as a defense of Jesus’ sense of justice. Let’s assume then that this intentional crippling wasn’t just part of a plan but was a punishment for some sin. What was the sin? According to Keenan, she did nothing…certainly nothing worthy of this kind of punishment. What crime is great enough that a just punishment would be an intentional crippling? By almost any measure, intentionally inflicting upon a person permanent paralysis – and the cognitive handicaps that can coincide with a stroke – as a measure of punishment for any crime is unjust. Keenan’s mother is not the only person to experience such a tragedy and equate its cause to Jesus. Every one of them who do so implies a conception of god and Jesus whose justice is indefensible, whose justice is inherently malevolent.
One of the common defenses used as a solution to the problem of theodicy is human free will. Very simply stated, the free will argument proposes that an omnipotent, omnibenevolent god cannot interfere in the commission of evil acts because that interference would negate human free will. The problem with this solution is that it does not address the existence of “natural evil,” the harm and suffering caused by natural means such as hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and medical conditions like the stroke in question. Free will has no part in this equation.
If we are to believe that Jesus is god, and we are told that he is, then we know from the biblical texts that he is responsible for natural evil. He makes lands desolate, sends floods, sends plagues, and lays waste to entire cities. We are also told in the biblical accounts that he is responsible for a distorted sense of justice. Punishing children for their parents’ sins (Isaiah 14) and killing children and fetuses because parents worship other gods (Hosea 13) are just two examples of the god of Abraham’s repugnant sense of law and justice, fulfilled through Jesus (Matthew 5). We are also told that those who do not believe in him are destined for eternal suffering (eternal evil) solely for the commission of a thought crime. If this were true, then I can think of few examples of a greater injustice than this. It is a colossal misfit between punishment and crime.
The problem of theodicy has been a convincing argument against the existence of a god for many people. It seems odd then that Hart, as a theologian, would dismiss this issue so easily. Those who are convinced by this argument are in good company. Noted biblical scholar Bart Erhman cites it as the reason for his agnosticism as does Lutheran pastor-turned-atheist Larry Cartford. If Hart has somehow discovered the enigmatic solution to the problem of theodicy then he should, perhaps, make greater efforts to relay that solution to more people so that they are not swayed into disbelief because of it. Dismissing its importance and its power to sway others betrays Hart as being incorrigibly naive.
Copyright © 2011 JP Laughlin
In David Hart’s lamentation of the “utter inconsequentiality of contemporary atheism,” he expresses admiration for high manifestations of skepticism and atheism. Moreover, he argues for their necessity. In doing so he defines the “true skeptic” and “truly profound atheist” as “someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection.” Let’s leave aside that his assessment of the New Atheists that they lack this quality reveals that Hart either did not understand what the New Atheists have to say or he cannot defend his faith against their indictments. (The New Atheists, every one of them, are expressing outrage and “profound moral alarm” at religious corruption, psychological terror, injustices, suffering, and evil caused by religion, all of which, Hart admits, are the precious qualities of skepticism and religion). Instead, let’s examine what it might mean to be an atheist of profound proportions and offer an alternative definition.
First, it must be said that atheists are not required to have a deep knowledge of the beliefs they reject. One does not, for example, have to have a deep knowledge of Buddhism and its cultural and historical impact (or the consequences of rejecting it) to reject it as a belief system. Nor does one have to have such knowledge of Aesop’s fables (with their own cultural and historical impact) to reject the idea that a tortoise will beat a rabbit in a race. Perhaps Hart is correct in that lacking this knowledge an atheist risks not being “profound.” But I’m not convinced of the utility of an atheist aiming for profundity (at least, not the kind Hart is looking for)…unless, of course, they are seeking to impress Mr. Hart.
What is a “truly profound atheist?” When I look in my infant daughter’s eyes I see atheism (in the sense of “absence of belief”) in its purest, most unadulterated form. This is profound in its own right. A friend, and Presbyterian minister, described it as sublime. Not only does my daughter inherently lack belief in a god, she is naturally equipped with rudimentary forms of scientific reasoning. The discovery of the world through play engaged in by infants is the process of experimentation. It is experimentation to determine the nature of the world – cause and effect. For example, in a fitting display of inflicting operant conditioning upon a parent, my daughter has discovered that by investigating sound (experimentation) through exploring the changes in her vocal cords and the shape of her mouth, she can create adorable baby coos (cause) that make her father do silly things (effect) that make her laugh – she can do this repeatedly (replicable).
We are born into this world as natural scientists and without belief in a god. This is profound and sublime. What happens to change this? How does a child cross the threshold from non-belief to belief in a god? Pastor Douglas Wilson provides a revealing example in the film Collision. (I recommend Pastor Wilson to any believer who seeks an example of an honest confrontation of atheism. He is smart, funny, and refreshingly honest in his apologetics). In this film, the camera follows Pastor Wilson and Christopher Hitchens as they tour the country to promote their book Is Christianity Good for the World? This book is a series of letters that they exchanged with each other while engaging in a theism/atheism debate. In one scene, while sitting in a taxi Pastor Wilson confesses, “The first reason, the most fundamental reason, the most basic reason I’m a Christian is because my parents are Christians and they loved me and taught me and my mom spanked me diligently and brought me up in the nurture and [admonition?] of the Lord.” To put it mildly, a child must be told, often repeatedly, by a trusted authority figure, usually parents, that a god exists. Why is this the case? Because it is not obvious to the developing mind that such a being exists. Keep in mind that every time an idea is read, said, or heard another imprint of that idea is formed in our minds…“the most basic reason I’m a Christian is because my parents are Christians and they loved me and taught me and my mom spanked me diligently …”! This is the meaning of “indoctrination” at its very core.
Moreover, I question whether Hart is willing to apply the corollary of this criterion to theists in all of their diversity. Does he expect his fellow theists to have a sophisticated knowledge of the four noble truths, the eightfold path, the cycle of Saṃsāra, Maitreya, or Buddhist eschatology (and the consequences of rejecting them) in order to disavow the Buddhist belief system? I think it’d be great if they did, but I wouldn’t say that it was a necessity for profound theological exploration. Or, more specifically, and perhaps more relevantly, does he expect his fellow profound Christian theists to have a sophisticated knowledge of the concept of tawhid (the fundamental unity of God), its philosophical impact on the concept of the Ummah (the Muslim community of believers) and its direct challenge to the doctrine of the Trinity in order for them to say, at best, that there is not sufficient evidence to believe that the message of Islam is true? Though I find all of these subjects interesting and worthy of academic study, I cannot be so bold as to think that everyone would or should share this appreciation. Furthermore, I am certain that an understanding of these concepts is not a necessary condition for any Christian to provide a profound answer as to why they are Christian.
However, I would suggest that even this is not what Hart means in his lamentations of the utterly inconsequential. Instead, by saying that he wants atheists to understand the “sophisticated forms” of theology and the consequences of rejecting them, I have a suspicion that he does not mean understanding theology or rejecting religion in general. Rather, what he means is that he wants atheists to understand his “sophisticated” theological endeavors and the consequences of rejecting his religion. (In Hart’s own words, “Gosh, who could’ve seen that coming?”) And why atheists would desire to attain this kind of profundity he does not say.
Copyright © 2011 JP Laughlin