Wrestling a Straw Man can be Fun for a While

Yesterday’s “Belief Blog” on the CNN website attempted to gain perspective on the earthquake/tsunami in Japan from representatives of various world religions. Obviously, it being a popular blog, the respondents were only permitted to provide cursory answers to what is a tricky theological question: “how could God let this happen?” I decided to post portions of their responses and interpret/respond to the contributors’ answers.

Note: quotes from each contributor will be in italics while my comments will be plain text.

Respondent #1: Rabbi Harold Kushner

Whenever a disaster like this occurs, I go back to the Bible, to the First Book of Kings. Elijah, in despair over the situation in Israel, runs to the desert, back to Mt. Sinai to find the God of the Revelation to Moses.

“And lo, the Lord God passed by. There was a mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind. There was an earthquake but the Lord was not in the earthquake.”

To me, that is the key: the Lord was not in the earthquake.

Natural disasters are acts of nature, not acts of God. God cares about the well-being of good people; Nature is blind, an equal-opportunity destroyer.

An interesting start. Even if we take the premise that God and nature operate separately there is still the question of design. The Rabbi quotes from Elijah but maybe he should go back a little further to Genesis where it describes God as being the ultimate creator of the universe and everything in it. It would follow that if Genesis is to be believed, God designed this imperfect world we live in, including its shifting tectonic plates – the natural phenomena that blindly killed thousands of innocent Japanese. Seeing that this is the case, it wouldn’t seem that God could escape responsibility. If you hire a carpenter to build your house would you not blame him if your roof collapsed on you?

Respondent #2: Dr. Sayyid Syeed

This disaster is not the result of any sins of these people; we need to be clear that there is no belief that these victims “deserved” it for any of their actions. Rather, Muslims see these kinds of tragedies as a test from God. Muslims believe that God tests those he loves, and these tragedies also serve as a reminder to the rest of us to remain grateful to God for all our blessings and cognizant that we must support those in need.

This quote certainly differentiates the respondent from the traditional Judeo-Christian response which assumes disasters are divine punishments for the wicked (for examples please see: Robertson, Pat;Falwell, Jerry; Testament, Old). Still, there is something unsettling about Dr. Syeed’s argument. If snuffing out the lives of more than 18,000 people is a reflection of God’s love, I’m not sure I, or anyone else, would want it. If there is a God, I would hope man’s bond with Her/Him would not be analogous to an abusive relationship.

These kinds of calamities should push us in positive ways. They should strengthen our faith in God and in his goodness. We attribute the things we don’t understand to his limitless wisdom and comfort ourselves that he is with us and he loves us, so there must be some meaning in what has happened, even if it is beyond our comprehension here at this time.

Here Dr. Syeed seems to be addressing the immediate question that would follow his answer that the tsunami can be explained by God’s “tough love” approach to humanity – namely, why does God’s love have to be projected through punishment? Unfortunately the answer to the follow-up question is equally unconvincing as Dr. Syeed goes to the favorite failsafe of all monotheistic religions: God’s will is inscrutable. Taking this track opens up the question that if God really did seek to show some “meaning” through the tsunami, couldn’t She/He have found some other way of doing so without killing scores of innocents? As Dr. Syeed states, God’s power defies logic so Her/His options to communicate whatever opaque message humanity is meant to learn from this event would be limitless.

It is the collective duty of all humankind to put resources in this and advance our understanding of how to respond to these disasters in a scientific way.

Dr. Sayeed loudly proclaims “don’t question God’s inscrutable will”  and accept the good and bad in the world as a reflection of God’s love in one paragraph, then whispers “let’s try to mitigate the impact of his ‘love’ wherever possible” in another.

Respondent #3: Sam Harris

Either God can do nothing to stop catastrophes like this, or he doesn’t care to, or he doesn’t exist. God is either impotent, evil, or imaginary. Take your pick, and choose wisely.

As the lone atheist respondent, we know which of the three options above Harris would pick – though we might not be limited to the three presented. What if the Vikings/Greeks/Romans/Egyptians/etc. were right and we live in a polytheistic universe? Not likely but at least as worth of examination as two of the three alternatives presented by Harris.

Religious faith, on the other hand, erodes compassion. Thoughts like, “this might be all part of God’s plan,” or “there are no accidents in life,” or “everyone on some level gets what he or she deserves” – these ideas are not only stupid, they are extraordinarily callous. They are nothing more than a childish refusal to connect with the suffering of other human beings. It is time to grow up and let our hearts break at moments like this.

Here is where Sam Harris and the other “New Atheists” (Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett) tend to lose me. It is one thing to argue that the compassionate  response to crises like the tsunami often undertaken by religious organizations could just have easily been delivered by secular institutions (both from a material and moral standpoint, with the moral aspect underlined). However, it is only biblical literalists and their orthodox brethren that “erode compassion” in times like these. I’m certain that such people as Pat Robertson aren’t as rare as we’d like, but they are much more the exception than the rule among the self-described faithful.

Those identifying themselves as “religious” are not monochromatic. There are many shades of religious conviction from the orthodox to the heterodox. Assuming the faithful are of one mind leads to pedantic statements like Harris’ (even worse is Dennett’s insistence on referring to atheists as “brights”!). Even worse, it leads to a failure to contemplate the complexities of theological argument. It wouldn’t be far off to say that the New Atheists are often fighting a straw man with their condescending literature.

This brings me to my ultimate point, and sort of the point of this entire post – I understand that the arguments put forth by the selected respondents are cursory and unconvincing. However, unlike the New Atheists I do not assume that this is the extent of the world’s collective theological wisdom. Despite my snark above, I know that wisdom cannot be dismissed quite so easily.  Too many brilliant minds have pored over this issue and produced too many works to provide such a simple and easily refutable summary as CNN’s selection of commentators have made. As a fence-sitting agnostic myself, I admit that these thinkers’ faith may have acted as a hindrance with regard to the validity of some of their arguments, but we cannot dismiss their philosophy outright.

I may come off as a vehement, sarcastic and patronizing atheist, but unlike Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett and Harris, I’m at least willing to take their primary criticism of religion – that it fails to be self-reflective in a meaningful way – a step further and question their often shallow and dismissive assaults on religion. There is an ocean of knowledge out there and, as worthwhile as the New Atheists have been, they still have penetrated only a few leagues below the surface of that knowledge. Between theism and atheism I believe that atheism will one day prevail, but the fight has a long way to go. Harris et al. shouldn’t proclaim victory quite yet.


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