An Answer That Begs the Question

I don’t want to spend all my time picking on the Newsweek/Washington Post blog On Faith, but a recent posting there contained such a devastatingly revealing omission that I couldn’t resist the chance to comment on it.

The posting in question was written by Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, president of the Chicago Theological Seminary and a minister of the United Church of Christ. I bear no grudges against the UCC – any denomination that could have given us Barry Lynn is all right in my book – but an irrational theology is an irrational theology, regardless of the ethics or character of the person who believes in it.

Thistlethwaite’s post is about the problem of evil, a perennial problem for theists of all stripes. As I have previously remarked, no less an apologist than William Lane Craig has called it atheism’s “killer argument”. If anything, I think religious liberals and moderates have a less satisfactory answer to this than the fundamentalists. As odious as fundamentalist theology is, it at least offers a clear explanation for evil and suffering: an angry, judgmental god who expresses his wrath by lashing out against human beings. Liberal theology does not seem to have a clear answer for this problem even within the context of its own assumptions, and tends to answer the problem of evil with platitudes about how God wants us to help each other that avoid the question entirely. Thistlethwaite does not do this, but her response is possibly even more telling.

Her post is titled “Fortunately There’s Atheism in the Bible“, and to give her credit, she does not shy away from the problem. On the contrary, she states it plainly, in vivid terms that effectively show its seriousness:

An unvarnished look at the 20th century could make an atheist out of anybody: the trenches in France, the ovens of the Holocaust, the Killing Fields in Cambodia, 800,000 butchered in ninety days in Rwanda, Columbia, Angola, Guatemala, Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki and on and on…

It may be that the horrors of the 20th century and the violent beginning of the 21st account for at least some of the current interest in atheism. How can any God worth the name countenance these acts and do nothing to stop them?

The question is admirably posed. Now comes her answer – or more precisely, her lack of an answer. Here is how she finishes the post:

Faith that cannot doubt, and doubt completely, has not plumbed the depths of faith – that is what the Book of Job teaches me and it is what a dialogue with atheism teaches me. I would dishonor the deaths of millions of innocents if I did not dare to look radical evil in the eye and ask, “Why?”

Take note: this is her conclusion. That is how the piece ends. She poses the question and then lets it drop with a resounding thud, without even making an attempt at giving an answer. In the face of the world’s evil, it seems, she has no answer to give.

To forestall the otherwise inevitable reply, I stress that I am not expecting a theist to know everything or to have an answer to every question they might be asked. But there is a vast difference between a question that simply remains to be answered and a gap that undermines a crucial point in a belief system. This is the latter and not the former. The problem of evil is not a minor matter of only academic interest, but a contradiction that bears directly on the heart of belief in God. As long as such a gaping logical hole exists, it would be unreasonable to believe without some answer, but none is given here. When it comes to evil, this seems to be at least one case where religion falls silent.

* * *

On a related note, I hereby nominate Ronald Spooner of Port Arthur, Texas for the first annual Not Getting The Point Award, for this comment recently published in his local paper:

Most of the killing going on in the world today is being done — or caused to be done — by people who believe in a supreme being. Can you imagine what would be capable of if they did not believe?

Mr. Spooner’s letter is a classic example of missing the obvious. Honestly viewing the violence and devastation occurring around the world in the name of religion, yet driven by an assumption that religion can only make people better and not worse, he concludes that theism is the only thing holding people back from even worse atrocities. (How much worse does he have in mind?) The notion that religion might actually be playing a causative role in these tragedies never even seems to occur to him. This is a little like a man throwing water on a grease fire, and consoling himself as the flames spread with the knowledge that things would be even worse if he hadn’t tried to extinguish it.

I have an answer for you, Mr. Spooner: Yes, I can imagine what people would be capable of if they did not believe in God. They would be capable of building a peaceful world of reason where our mutual differences are set aside in the name of our common humanity. Religion is not the only cause of our ills, but as long as it divides us, and as long as people think their dogmas are more important than other people’s freedom and happiness, the killing you refer to will never end. Atheism is not the solution to all our problems, but it is definitely the solution to one of the bigger ones. Put aside your prejudices and view it with open eyes, and you may realize that for yourself.

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