Susan Jacoby, an author and atheist wrote a column in last Sunday’s New York Times entitled “The Blessings of Atheism.” In it she proposes that atheism has a lot to offer, especially in times of tragic loss and that it frees human beings from having to ask and answer difficult question. As you may imagine, I am not so sure that asserting a question can be avoided means that it has actually been avoided, or that what she calls blessings are in fact blessings.
I would like to excerpt her article and make a few comments. Her original writing is in bold, black italics. My comments are plain red text. These are excerpts. For the full article CLICK HERE
In a recent conversation with a fellow journalist, I voiced my exasperation at the endless talk about faith in God as the only consolation for those devastated by the unfathomable murders in Newtown, Conn. Some of those grieving parents surely believe, as I do, that this is our one and only life. Atheists cannot find solace in the idea that dead children are now angels in heaven. “That only shows the limits of atheism,” my colleague replied. “It’s all about nonbelief and has nothing to offer when people are suffering.” …..
Just a minor quibbles here, the Christian faith does not teach that “dead children are now angels in heaven.” Human beings never become angels, we always remain quite human.
Secondly, I am not sure that what her friend said should be allowed to represent what all Christians think of atheism. I for one do not hold that atheism “has nothing to offer.” People generally do not cling to philosophies that offer them nothing. Atheists clearly do have reasons for holding to their philosophy and it must offer them something. For some it is their response to the problem of evil or the seeming absurdities of this world. For others it is merely that the existence of God is inconvenient to their moral life, or worldview. For still others, it is a way for detaching from what they see as the problems posed by belief (e.g. our concepts of sin, guilt, judgment, and so on). Yet others have many complaints about the Church. I am not trying to speak here for atheists, or put words in their mouths, but the bottom line is people usually hold to things for a reason.
Ms. Jacoby goes on, in a part of the article not reproduced here, to trace the origins of her atheism to the problem of evil and suffering. She saw a friend die a lingering death from polio back in the 1950s. Being dissatisfied with the answers faith provided, she detached from faith and sees atheism as an alternative to believing in a God who would allow such things to happen.
So it would seem that atheism does have something to offer her. She seems to think that the non-answer of atheism is an answer and that denying the existence of God means she can avoid struggling with the questions related to evil and suffering. As we shall see, I propose that here solution offers neither an answer, nor an escape from the problem of evil.
[But] it is primarily in the face of suffering, whether the tragedy is individual or collective, that I am forcefully reminded of what atheism has to offer. When I try to help a loved one losing his mind to Alzheimer’s, when I see homeless people shivering in the wake of a deadly storm, when the news media bring me almost obscenely close to the raw grief of bereft parents, I do not have to ask, as all people of faith must, why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen.
I am not sure why Ms. Jacoby considers herself free of having to ask this question. I think the problem of evil and suffering is something that perplexes every human being on the planet, and Ms. Jacoby cannot so easily exempt herself from the questions surrounding it. While she may not direct them to God, she cannot ultimately avoid the universal human struggle to inquire into the meaning of all things, including evil and suffering.
Human beings seek meaning, seek reasons. I am not at all convinced that her demurring from the question of suffering is either possible or authentic. The only truly authentic “refuge” from this question is to insist that life and this world really has no meaning at all, to insist that everything is ultimately meaningless, absurd, and pointless. But I have never met a human being, let alone an atheist, that “brave” to live in a world of utter meaninglessness. And hence even Atheists search for meaning, something to work for, base their lives on, something by which to navigate. They too seek answers.
So unless Ms. Jacoby is insistent that nothing has meaning, then she too must somehow wrestle with the basic questions we all wrestle with. Questions that underlie our alarm at the presence of suffering and evil, even before God is included in the question. For example:
- Why does anything exist at all?
- What is existence?
- Why do we value existence over non-existence?
- Why is there Love?
- Why do we ponder meaning, assign value, grieve loss and celebrate gain, in ways that other animals do not seem to do?
- What is justice?
- And how do we come to know it and distinguish it from injustice?
- Why are its basic concepts so ubiquitous?
- And why do humans ponder justice whereas animals do not?
- Why does injustice trouble us?
- What is suffering?
- Why does some suffering alarm us more than other forms?
- Why does death alarm us and life please us?
- Why are we alarmed at what happened at Sandy Hook?
- Why do we say it was wrong or evil?
- Why do we seek ways to prevent it in the future?
- Where does human wickedness come from?
- Why do we call it wicked?
- Why do we do such horrible things to each other (things not even animals do) and why does it bother us?
- Why do we even have these questions?
- Why do we seek answers for them?
- Why do we care at all?
I am not trying to be impertinent or playful. But just dismissing “the God question” does not let Ms. Jacoby off the hook. She like all of us, is stuck with trying to make sense out of all this. And there are a ton of underlying questions and imponderables beneath tragedies like this.
I am sure that Ms. Jacoby would have to say, to many of these questions, “I don’t know for sure. I have some ideas but I cannot answer all this.” And that is a fine and honest answer. And you know, I cannot answer it all either.
But then why do we suddenly have to have a clear answer to the God question? Why does Ms. Jacoby say that all people of faith must ask (and I presume answer?) as to why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen?
Honestly, I don’t have a simple pat answer. And if Ms. Jacoby is ready to answer all the questions above thoroughly and with air-tight completeness that maybe I’ll answer this one. But until then, I don’t know why believers are required to answer such a mysterious and complex question, while she goes free.
To be sure faith does supply some answers to aspects of the problem (e.g. God allows suffering for some greater good or purpose, God draws good from struggles, one moment in time is not the full picture and God will reward those who have suffered, many who are last shall be first, etc.) But none of these are full answers to the great mystery of suffering, evil and iniquity. In many places God is clear that we cannot comprehend all his ways, and believers are content to recognize in humility that we only see a very small part of the picture.
But Ms. Jacoby’s implicit insistence that we must have an air-tight answer to “the God question” is no more binding on us or reasonable to demand than that she should also have air-tight answers to the thousands of other questions that underlie incidents like Sandy Hook. Neither can she reasonably claim to be wholly free of having to ask these questions and both answer them to some extent and admit that she does not have complete answers either.
It is a positive blessing, not a negation of belief, to be free of what is known as the theodicy problem. Human “free will” is Western monotheism’s answer to the question of why God does not use his power to prevent the slaughter of innocents, and many people throughout history (some murdered as heretics) have not been able to let God off the hook in that fashion.
Her assessment is not fair or correct. Theodicy is not “Western monotheism’s answer” to the problem of suffering or evil. The Church does not have a simple answer to the very deep mystery of suffering. Theodicy is surely one of the factors in a framing of the discussion, but the truth of human freedom is held in tension and balance with God’s sovereignty. This is what orthodoxy does, it often holds competing truths in balance and tension. Human freedom is part of the picture, but it is not alone the answer, and we do not propose it as such.
Hence, her statement as written is incorrect.
Her parenthetical remark about the murdering of heretics is gratuitous, and displays the negative animus she brings toward believers and the Church. In this she tips her hand. I will agree that if she will not mention those murdered as heretics, I will not mention 100+ million who were murdered in the last century under the aegis of Atheistic Communism and other secular philosophies.
The atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world — whether that means visiting a friend in a hospital or advocating for tougher gun control laws — without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next. Atheists do not want to deny religious believers the comfort of their faith. We do want our fellow citizens to respect our deeply held conviction that the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth.
Her remarks here fail in terms of relevance. Believers are no less interested in the matters she describes than atheists. The Christian faith has had a remarkable role in inspiring countless people to undertake works of charity. The Church has founded and runs a huge number of hospitals, orphanages, shelters, soup kitchens and many other such outreach. Her implicit suggestion that atheists place a higher moral importance on our actions on earth is not only insulting, it is wrong and misinformed. I’d like to see some statistics to back up her claim. Meantime, I’ll continue put the outreach of Christians and other believers up against any group and I’ll bet we have nothing to be ashamed of.
We must speak up as atheists in order to take responsibility for whatever it is humans are responsible for — including violence in our streets and schools. We need to demonstrate that atheism is rooted in empathy as well as intellect. And although atheism is not a religion, we need community-based outreach programs so that our activists will be as recognizable to their neighbors as the clergy.
Fair enough. But I wonder how atheists would do this as a group since there is no real way they consistently come together in large numbers that I know of. Perhaps that will change. But as it is now, atheists do not seem to be a group that come together or act together in any large.
Robert Green Ingersoll, [an agnostic], frequently delivered secular eulogies at funerals and offered consolation that he clearly considered an important part of his mission. In 1882, at the graveside of a friend’s child, he declared: “They who stand with breaking hearts around this little grave, need have no fear. The larger and the nobler faith in all that is, and is to be, tells us that death, even at its worst, is only perfect rest … The dead do not suffer.”
Yeah, well, it’s a kind of the “death as therapy” thinking. Frankly death is a very strange therapy. But I find it is common today among many to esteem death as therapy. For example, some applaud abortion because otherwise the child might be born in poverty, or have a birth defect or something.
But death is a very strange therapy. To folk who talk like this, I wonder how they would feel if someone from the government came to them and said, “It must be tough earning less than $27,000 a year, so I’m going to kill you.” Or if someone lost an arm in an accident, and the doctor said, “Gee, it must be awful having a defective body. Here let me kill you.” At any rate the “death as therapy” movement is pretty active in this country via abortion and euthanasia.
I suppose I can relate to the fact that it’s good when suffering ends. But I’d kinda like to be alive to experience the relief, if you know what I mean. And even if I could say of my father, when he died, “I am glad his suffering is over,” I’d kind of like for him to be alive somewhere to experience that relief. I’m not really sure what good a benefit of any sort is when you’re not alive to experience it.
Too bad that this is the best consolation that Ms. Jacoby could cite. There’s just something about life and existence that seems essential for consolation to really matter. Non-existence just doesn’t “get me right here.” I’m looking for something with a little more heart.
In the end, a simple request of Ms. Jacoby. How about a little accuracy and fairness? Consistently in her article she has misrepresented what we teach. And while she thinks that “the God question” should have an airtight answer for a believer (it does not for it contains mystery) she would not likely insist on such an answer to any number of other questions apart form the God question. So in fairness, please answer, (with an airtight answer), “Why does anything exist?” And for a bonus question, “Why is there love?” Perhaps there is not a simple answer to such questions. And perhaps there isn’t a simple answer to the problem of suffering and evil. And perhaps that’s OK. Maybe we’d like complete answers, but maybe we can live without them too.