Note: In this post, I do something I don’t often do — namely, make an argument for why I think religion is mistaken. Or classic Christian religion, anyway. If this is something you think you’ll be offended by, now might be a good time to stop reading.
The classic big argument against the existence of God — or at least, against an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God — has always been the problem of evil. If you’re older than ten years old, you’ve almost certainly heard it: Why does evil exist? Why did God create us with the capacity for evil and the desire to do it? Why do bad things happen to good people?
But for me, evil isn’t so much the problem. Evil can be more or less answered by free will: God wants us to have free will, so he has to allow us to do evil things. I don’t think it’s a tremendously good answer, and it’s one I ultimately don’t agree with; but it’s not an entirely unreasonable answer, and it’s one that takes a certain amount of debate and back-and-forthing to really counter.
The big problem for me is the problem of suffering — suffering that’s NOT caused by people.
Tsunamis. Droughts. Birth defects. Painful, drawn-out illnesses. Five year old children with cancer. That sort of thing.
This is not suffering caused by people with free will. If you believe in God, then you believe that this is suffering caused by God.
Now, the usual answer to these things is “God moves in mysterious ways.” Yes, God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good (let’s call it APAKAG from here on out) — but we can’t possibly understand his plan. Maybe he wants these bad things to happen so something good can happen later, or to build character, or for some reason we can’t understand because we’re not as all-knowing as he is.
This, unlike free will, is an entirely unsatisfying answer. And not just because so many people use it in such a weasely way, explaining every good thing as being proof of God’s benevolence and every bad thing as mysterious ways.
It’s unsatisfying because it renders the entire concept of good and evil meaningless.
If God behaves in ways that would be considered unspeakably cruel and brutal if any of us did it, and yet is still considered good — not just good, but the apotheosis of good — than what on Earth does it mean to be good?
For God, or for us?
If you’re going to say that God causes these sorts of suffering, on purpose and with the power and knowledge not to do so — if you’re going to say that he has the power to prevent or stop this suffering, and doesn’t — and youâre still going to say that he’s good, then what possible meaning does the word “good” have anymore?
If you say that, then you’re pretty much saying that what it means for God to be “good,” and what it means for us to be “good,” are such radically different concepts that the one has virtually nothing to do with the other. If our human understanding of good and evil have any meaning and any basis in reality, then God has pretty much got to be evil — brutally, cruelly evil. But if God causes horrible suffering for the duration of people’s lives when he has the power and know-how not to, and yet is nevertheless somehow good, then what it means for God to be “good” is so far removed from what it means for us to be “good” that it becomes an irrelevant abstraction.
And I don’t think the concepts of good and evil are, or should be, irrelevant abstractions.
Now, you could argue that God doesn’t cause these things to happen. He merely allows them to happen. You could argue that God set the world and its physical laws into motion, but intervenes in that world only rarely.
But that just begs the question. If you have the power and the know-how to prevent or stop suffering — if in fact it would be easy for you to do so — and you merely stand by and do nothing… I suppose it’s not quite as evil as causing the suffering, but it sure is in the same ballpark. And besides, if God is APAKAG, why did he set the world into motion in a way that results in tsunamis and birth defects and pediatric cancer? Even a non-interventionist APAKAG creator god is still, by definition, morally responsible for the world he created.
And you could make the pet or parent comparison. Sometimes pet owners or parents have to do things to their pets or kids that cause suffering — taking them to the vet, pulling out splinters, not letting them eat whatever they want, etc. — in order to bring about some other good.
But the problem with that is omnipotence. I’m a pet owner, and if I could avoid pinning my cat down, sticking her in the back of the neck with a sharp needle, and dripping 150 ml of fluids under her skin, every day for the rest of her life, you’re damn well right I’d do it. I do it because I’m not omnipotent — I have limited power, and that’s the only thing I can do within my extremely limited power to keep her alive and healthy.
And you could argue that heaven is for eternity and this lifetime is an eyeblink, and the suffering of this lifetime compared to the eternity of bliss in heaven is like one stubbed toe in a lifetime.
But again, I make the pet owner comparison. We only spend a couple minutes a day sticking a needle in the back of my cat’s neck… but she really really hates it, and she doesn’t understand why we do it, and if I could avoid causing her that suffering for that two minutes a day I would.
If I — a reasonably good person, but very far from All Good — would avoid sticking my cat with a needle for a couple of minutes a day if I could, then wouldn’t an All-Good God avoid visiting people with tsunamis and droughts and birth defects and childhood cancer if he could?
It doesn’t make sense. And in order to try to make it make sense, you have to redefine the concept of goodness so radically, twist it around in such contortions, that it bears no relation to any kind of human understanding of goodness.
What makes sense is a world without an APAKAG God. As Julia Sweeney says in her performance piece “Letting Go of God,” “The world behaves exactly as you expect it would, if there were no Supreme Being, no Supreme Consciousness, and no supernatural.” What makes sense is a world in which tsunamis and droughts and birth defects and childhood cancer happen, not because of some God who could stop them from happening if he wanted to but mysteriously doesn’t, but because of the laws of physical cause and effect, the laws of physics and meteorology and biology and genetics.
None of which needs to be explained in terms of good and evil.