A World in Shadow VI

In 2006 and 2007, I wrote several entries in a series called A World in Shadow, bolstering the atheist’s argument from evil by describing particularly shocking or egregious instances of natural and moral evils. However, I haven’t written any new entries for this series in some time.

To be honest, I stopped writing these posts because I found them too upsetting. There are more than enough – far too many – examples of tragedy and catastrophe in this world to make the case against a benevolent overseer; we need not dwell on them. But today, I have to make just one further exception. I don’t like writing about these things, but this is one case where the tragedy is so shattering, the suffering so horrendous, and the action needed to stop it so trivial, that it perfectly sums up and encapsulates the argument from evil.

I’ll begin where Gene Weingarten begins, from his March 8 article in the Washington Post:

The defendant was an immense man, well over 300 pounds, but in the gravity of his sorrow and shame he seemed larger still. He hunched forward in the sturdy wooden armchair that barely contained him, sobbing softly into tissue after tissue, a leg bouncing nervously under the table. In the first pew of spectators sat his wife, looking stricken, absently twisting her wedding band. The room was a sepulcher. Witnesses spoke softly of events so painful that many lost their composure. When a hospital emergency room nurse described how the defendant had behaved after the police first brought him in, she wept.

This ordinary man, Miles Harrison, was a loving father who made an irrevocable mistake: on his way in to work one day last summer, distracted and beset by daily trivialities, he forgot to drop off his infant son at daycare. He entered his office, leaving the child still strapped into his car seat in the parking lot. And over nine hours, on a sweltering July day, the temperatures inside the car rose until the boy slowly boiled to death.

It seems incredible, unbelievable that any parent could forget their own child. But this case is not the first, and it will not be the last. It happens, on average, around 20 times a year in the United States alone, to parents of every occupation and social class:

Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.

Part of the reason why this happens is the recommendation of safety experts that young children in child seats be in the rear of the car, facing backwards, to protect them from injury in crashes. A child who can’t easily be seen by the driver is easier to forget about. But the larger reason, as Weingarten’s article explains, simply has to do with the fallibility of human memory and attention. Though we value the lives of our children, that does not mean the memory is treated any differently by the neural circuitry of the brain. In people who are stressed, sleep-deprived, distracted, the higher executive functions can be shunted aside by the lower, more primitive system of the basal ganglia, an evolutionary autopilot that carries out frequently rehearsed tasks with mechanical single-mindedness. (This is why you can sometimes drive a familiar route and end up at your destination with no memory of the journey.) Usually this is a harmless mental shortcut, but when it goes awry, this is the tragedy that results.

I have no desire to place blame on the parents who do this. For the most part, they’re not bad people; they’re loving parents who made an awful mistake, and who’ve already punished themselves far beyond anything a judge or jury could ever impose. But consider, now, how little a benevolent god – if there was one – would have to do to stop this from happening. It would take no dramatic interventions, no obvious miracles – just a small, possibly even subconscious nudge to the parent before it was too late. It would interfere with no one’s free will to do this. These parents, after all, are not murderers, did not desire to kill their children.

But these tragedies continue to occur, and that can only mean one of three things. Either there is no cosmic authority watching the affairs of humankind, and we are on our own and must take the initiative ourselves if we are to prevent tragedies like this. Or there is a god who lacks either the knowledge of what is going on or the ability to do anything about it. Or, most horrifyingly, there is a god who knows perfectly well when this happens, could save these children if he so desired, but does nothing – only stands by and watches while innocent infants slowly broil to death behind glass.

For reasons I cannot fathom, millions of people adopt the third of those three choices and call it comforting. What comfort they find in believing that their lives are overseen by such a heartless monster, I couldn’t say. But there is reason to believe that at least some people to whom this has happened have drawn the obvious moral:

The Terrys are Southern Baptists. Before Mika’s death, Mikey Terry says, church used to be every Sunday, all day Sunday, morning Bible study through evening meal. He and his wife, Michele, don’t go much anymore. It’s too confusing, he says.

“I feel guilty about everyone in church talking about how blessed we all are. I don’t feel blessed anymore. I feel I have been wronged by God. And that I have wronged God. And I don’t know how to deal with that.”

Four years have passed, but he still won’t go near the Catholic church he’d been working at that day. As his daughter died outside, he was inside, building a wall on which would hang an enormous crucifix.

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: The Colossal Contradiction
Atlas Shrugged: Hume's Meadow
Atlas Shrugged: The Lilies of the Field
Atlas Shrugged: Bare Branches
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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