Thursday, August 24, 2006

Atheism and Evil

As an update to the post below, I offer a link sent by Paul Cella in which evidence is given that Heather MacDonald was, in Paul's words, "plying her atheistic-chic trade during the tsunami as well." The link is to a post on the front page of View from the Right, the website of a Mr. Lawrence Auster, within which post three more links are given to an older exchange between Mr. Auster and an unnamed correspondent in the theologically bedevilled aftermath of the December, 2004, Asian tsunami. It turns out that the correspondent's name was Heather MacDonald. Though in her American Conservative piece she somewhat seems to be playing the victim card at finding herself a conservative in a movement with altogether too many Christians at its core; and though her ostensible point is that morality and conservative principles in general can be arrived at without recourse to God, the fact that she was unable to make that point without twitting Christians about their failings, and without reminding us that the sheer multitude of awful occurrences in life ought to give any intelligent person pause over the matter of God's existence, let alone His providence, makes one suspect that she rather enjoys her status as an insider-on-the-outside (or vice-versa) and, more importantly, that the real conflict is not between the marriage of conservatism and Christianity, but between atheism and the fact of evil. Her correspondence with Mr. Auster removes all doubt.

Her essential position is probably summed up in these (her own) words:

I've been tuning into Christian stations constantly, trying to get their explanation for this tsunami, and they are maintaining a stony silence, doing their usual Jesus programming unperturbed. I guess they've worked out such minor problems long ago, and feel no need to revisit.

Mr. Auster gives her a polite and patient reply, to which she responds:

Oh, I fully believe that the painful death of one or ten disproves the existence of a loving god who allegedly should be thanked for answering prayers when something good happens. If God has the power to intervene and answer the prayers of one cancer victim's family, his decision not to do so in all the other cases shows extreme capriciousness or callousness in my view. But the sheer magnitude of this disaster, which is not from human evil, just brings the fact of his indifference to human suffering into starker relief. Or, is he hurtin' bad inside, but is restraining himself from exercising his clear powers of intervention to teach us some kind of lesson?

It cannot be only I who senses here the tone of one who is not so much feeling put-upon as who enjoys being a pest. (She's actually on to the truth in her last sentence but, of course, cannot know it.) Mr. Auster is incredibly patient with her, his answers theologically sound (as far as I can tell), and offered in the spirit of one who really wishes to ease another's pain, and to aid her in the search for truth. The problem is that she is not at all in pain, nor is she seeking any truth. She's already found it.

My only point is: if you give God credit for the bounties of life, he deserves blame for the disasters as well. In my observation, however, he gets a free pass when tragedy strikes, but receives thanks if the baby is pulled from a well safely.

Mr. Auster hits all the right notes, but MacDonald refuses to sing along, returning to her central objection without reponding to any of the points into which he has put great effort. (She repeats herself one more time at National Review). He calls her on it, to no avail. She simply cannot

understand why one would worship such a God who capriciously decides to intervene in sometimes trivial cases, and not in others of such horrific devastating power. Or how such behavior should earn one the title of the God of Love.

Ah yes, a Love that never disciplines, overlooks all wrongs, heals all wounds, and counters all catastrophe. By analogy, most of you are very bad parents.

Here's how the world according to Heather might look: you, being a nice person, will never get sick, and neither will your friends because you only socialize with other nice people. However, bad people will get sick, and often, and horribly. They will probably be stricken with the worst kinds of terminal disease so that their end is a writhing, screaming agony. This will happen because they deserve it. Since some people are worse than others, this latter fate will be reserved for the Saddam Hussein types, unless we can think up something more awful; perhaps he'll fall, or be pushed, into a wood chipper or a plastic shredder. Nice people, the relatives of those he persecuted, get to do the pushing because justice is poetic, revenge is sweet, and balance is restored.

But Heather will say that I make of her position a caricature. She is willing to deal with the world as it is. All right: nice people get sick, just not as badly as bad people. If you're really nice, verging on sainthood, the worst you'll ever get is a case of the sniffles. A little less nice and you're looking at the flu, on down to pneumonia, hemorrhagic fever, the varieties of cancer, and the virtually infinite array of bizarre and unexplainable accidents, such as being struck dead by lightning, falling overboard on a Mediterranean cruise, being swallowed by volcanic magma, marrying Tom Cruise, or...getting caught in a tsunami. If you're a nice person, however, you will be healed, because God is love and he would not heal one without healing all. He is not only love, he is fair. He is a nice God, and he does not give candy to one child without giving it to all. The fellow I once knew who lost his arm in an industrial accident when a metal band unwound with unexpected, lightning-like speed from the crate it was binding (lopped his limb with the efficiency of a guillotine) - well, that won't happen because he was a dutiful husband and father who went to church on Sunday. And should a tsunami come ashore, it might scrape folks up a bit, but only bad people will die because...they deserve it. Should war come along, the good guys always win and only the bad ones die. In fact, under Heather's dispensation, nice people will be exempt not only from an ugly death, but from death period. Death is the ultimate sickness, the paramount evil, and a God of love would not require that you endure it.

(Some of you, by the way, have been entertaining nettlesome thoughts. You've been wondering: how do we know who's nice? What is nice? The answer's simple: by their illnesses you shall know them.)

Oh, stop the nonsense, she will say. Your scenarios stipulate God's existence. My position is perfectly clear: there is evil in the world. It is unevenly and unjustly distributed. A loving God would not permit this. Therefore, there is no God.

(And, again, some of you are thinking: "God would permit it if we are a fallen race." Some of you might even think you are sinners. Don't be ridiculous. God is unconditional, undiscriminating love. I'm ok, and you might be too. Besides, there's no point in talking to Miss MacDonald about sin until you first get her to God.)

And in trying to get her there, you must first defeat the inequities in life - her only stated objection - and that you can't do. Do you really wish to undertake the labors which Augustine, Aquinas, et al. have completed before you? Do you really think it would make a dent? They're there for the reading. I assume she's read them and not been persuaded. There are actually a thousand directions you might take in an attempt to convince her of error, so perhaps it's best if you settle for only one. And the one I'd like to take is to point out the pity I have for a woman of such intelligence (I'm relying on the testimony of others to that effect) to have gotten stuck at a level of inquiry appropriate to a thirteen year old child.

I had a friend once (actually, I've still got him) who had a girlfriend he would eventually marry. The girlfriend was the victim of many allergies. Sometimes it seemed she was allergic to the world. She could walk into a room and double over in agony if some unidentified element was floating on the air. Her eyes watered, her head hurt, and she couldn't breathe. She took many medications to combat it. One day my friend said to me, "That's why I don't believe in God, because people like her have to suffer." And that's exactly how Miz MacDonald thinks, the sort who looks at a deformed baby and concludes that a just God would not allow the innocent to suffer; ergo there is no God. Such a mind is more impressed by suffering than by existence, and offers thereby an inadvertant insult to the sufferer's very being. Rather than behold the child while exclaiming, "Look at that! He's here! Isn't that amazing?" she wonders instead if he should be here at all.

It is a common effort to wonder what might become of your faith if such an awful injustice should come your way as the death of your child. Would you lose that faith? Probably not. Having already been convicted of it, you might allow it to devolve into an impotent rage against He who might have prevented it. You might stop going to Church, reading the Bible, any number of things. You might tell Him you hate Him for it. But that rage is a door through which you might eventually pass to reconciliation, for to have rage there must be something to rage against. MacDonald cannot have even this, for in her thirst for justice she can find no Judge to hear her complaint, and thus the blithe amusement to be found in taunting those who do, and the fatalistic indifference she must bring to bear on the plight of those who genuinely suffer; I see no other path open to her.

The person more impressed by suffering than by existence is very much like that other who will not enter a Church because of the preponderance of hypocrites within. Both are reaching a very certain conclusion over a very dubious point: that the presence of evil in the world stakes a larger claim on our attention than the presence of good. The former outweighs the latter. The sinner disproves the saint. The tsunami discredits the previous day's sunset, and both disallow the feeding of the five thousand. The MacDonalds of the world make a similar demand as the doubting Thomas: "mete out punishment and reward according to our just desserts, and then I will believe." And in claiming that God (if He exists) could have stopped the tsunami but chose not to, she is really asking for a world in which there is no evil, a world that would never have required a Christ to walk upon it, that would spare every child the delusionary delights of Christmas, and in which Easter is never celebrated because Good Friday never happened, and even if it did it was Bad.

But here's the important thing to recognize: for the atheist, that world already exists. There is no such thing as evil - or good, for that matter. They are purely conventions of the mind. Actually, there is one good - life - and it reigns supreme in your hierarchy of values because beyond it lies nothing. To be or not to be, those are your alternatives, and evil is that which takes being away; good is that which preserves it. Thus we arrive at a social construct in which most of us agree not to kill each other, that we may enjoy what little time is left to us, for time is all there is, and only in life can you know it. No thought that any human has ever had is of any transcendant significance. The notion of losing your life to save it is utter nonsense. Should the human race pass away tomorrow and the dinosaurs once more rule the planet, it will be an event of no moment. Nature has her cycles.

Love, which you might have thought to be the greatest good, is a pearl of no price. When experienced in its most intense forms - for husband or wife, for children, sometimes even for God Himself - to such degree that you feel even death cannot extinguish this flame, you are really in the grip of a natural, biological affinity. It is common to all creatures, merely highly evolved in humans, and that love for God, even in the historical and once touchable person of Christ Himself, is a delusion wrought by your own sense of self-importance. Love is the emotional expression of a physical desire to survive and to perpetuate the species. In that sense, and that only, can it be called good.

The saints, often admired for their self-forgetfulness in seeking salvation, are the most deluded of all. The desert monk, in denying himself the company of his fellow man (and, especially, woman) is not self-forgetful at all, but supremely selfish. In their habit of life, their refusal to participate in that carnal ritual of perpetuation, the priest and the nun become positively evil.

We are counseled to be always ready with a reason for the faith that is in us, but we are not obligated to cast without ceasing our pearls before the scoffing swine. Life and love - the two sometimes travel together. You can't have the second without the first, but, terribly, you can have the first without the second. I would suggest rather that you behold the kind of world that must result when mere life is made the highest good (there is evidence of it everywhere), and the not-yet-realized world transformed by a love that surpasseth all understanding. Then choose your side. MacDonald has chosen hers, though I'm not sure she's fully aware of that fact - or its consequences.


TS said...

A tour de force of a post.

William Luse said...

Danken. That stuff over at Auster's is good, too. He put a lot into it, of which I'm not sure she was deserving.

Mama T said...

And you know, Bill, not just life, but your life. Because it's OK to jettison babies, or sick people, or old people when they interfere with your life.

My son, when he was only about 15, asked me, "How can atheists, who think that this life is all there is, and the ultimately important thing, take away that only important thing from a baby before it's born? How is it not doubly bad for them, since they're taking away the only thing for that baby?" I thought it was a good question then, and a good question now.

William Luse said...

Your son is sharp. 15? At fifteen I was thinking about something, but not that. Girls, sports. Of course, when I was 15 abortion was not legal. Nor contraception.

Chris said...

It's late and I'm tired from working (yes, til 4 AM on a Saturday night... party hardy). So I just want to say that this fine post deserves way many more positive comments.

Also, I've heard Mac Donald on the radio. She sounded bitter and joyless. I'm not saying one thing is causing the other (I know plenty of bitter folk without the atheism), but she didn't sound like sombody at peace and in love with her life, for whatever that's worth.

Although I will say, she was very, very sharp.

Also (oh how I ramble at 4 AM), it's baffling when an American conservative'a ultimate beef with the Christian God is His respect for human freedom, human choices, and the laws of nature.

William Luse said...

She'd probably say his respect for those things gets people killed, that a human who stood by respecting process more than life would be vilified, and that God ought to be held to at least as a high a standard, and so on and so forth. Tiresome.

Nârwen said...

When I was in college, the treasurer of our campus pro-life group was an atheist. He was fond of saying that all atheists should be pro-life, "because we hold that this is the only life there is, so we ought to be damn cautious about taking it away."
His stance caught some people by surprise. Once, at a pro-life rally, a pro-abortion counter-protestor yelled at him," Stop shoving your religion down our throats !"
He replied, "I'm an atheist. "
She did a double take, then shot back, "Oh no you're not !"

William Luse said...

I love that last line, a perfect summation of the liberal mindset: toe the party line or be vilified. You're not what you say you are unless we say it too.