The other day, I came across an essay titled “Staining the Silence” on Vox Nova, a Catholic group blog. The author, Mark Gordon, writes about how his son was deployed to combat in Iraq in 2007, how he feared for his safety as any parent would, and how at first he prayed every day for his son’s safe return. But as time went by, he found himself unable to avoid an obvious and unpleasant realization: tens of thousands of parents, despite offering countless prayers of their own, had seen their sons and daughters return from war wounded and broken in mind and body, or not return at all. And he was forced to ask himself:
What right did I have to ask that my son be spared? More to the point, could I even believe in a God who might answer my prayer while ignoring the pleas of all those others?
…30,000 children die of malnutrition in this world each day, many of them in the dust, like animals. Can I believe that they are each simply living (or dying) out God’s unique “plan” for them? Can I believe that while also believing that God’s “plan” for me includes a lucrative new contract, a great bargain at the new car lot, or even the safe return of my son? No.
This is more self-awareness than most theists display, and I give him full credit for it. Not only does he recognize that it would be myopic and selfish to expect divine protection for his own family while others are suffering and dying, he goes on to say that his beliefs don’t offer an answer to the larger problem of evil:
Most of us don’t have the time, the capacity, or the will to dive deeply into scholarly debates about theodicy… We take the questions that flummox philosophers and set them aside; at least until we’re confronted with the reality that life is far more complex than we would like to think. I am confronting that reality this week, and I’m sorry to say I have no real or satisfying answers.
Naturally, there were commenters who objected to this and expressed basically the same viewpoint that’s mocked in this poem – that God specially protects a handful of his favorites while ignoring everyone else:
I think that it was your strong prayers for your son that kept him sane and whole admist that immoral war. Just imagine what your son’s fate would be if his moral, mental, and physical/mortal fate would be had he had no prayers of intercession or supplication to God.
What a bizarre and unsavory theology this is! It says that God is perfectly aware when someone needs help and could intervene at any time, but won’t do anything unless he’s asked – in fact, unless he’s asked by someone else other than the person in need of help. That sounds less like the plan of a compassionate and loving person, and more like the whim of a sadistic tyrant who demands that supplicants stroke his ego before he’ll consider granting a boon.
That view fails the test of morality. But the alternative, which was discussed in the comments, fails the test of reason:
When someone speaks of “God’s plan,” I say: Look at the Cross. That is God’s plan … for me, for those I love, for those children in the dust, for all humanity.
But this makes absolutely no sense! To say that God’s plan for us includes tragedy, agony and heartbreak, but this is excusable because he put himself through the same suffering, just raises further and even more baffling questions. If I lose my job and end up sleeping on the streets, and I have a billionaire friend who could get me out of these troubles any time he wished and not even notice the amount spent, what would it accomplish for him to say, “I’m not going to give you any money, but to prove I have compassion on your plight, I’m going to leave my vast mansion, dress in rags and sleep on the street next to you”? What good would that do either of us?
In the comments, Gordon suggested that God is under no obligation to help the suffering because “I don’t think he is in that business”. But that apologetic just reiterates the question: Why isn’t God in that business? Why does he refuse to provide help that’s in his power to give?
I wrote last year, in “The Poisoned Cup of Theodicy“, about theists who counsel each other to avoid thinking about the problem of evil because doing so damages their faith. This one, to his credit, doesn’t flinch from it as others do, but faces up to it squarely. But even so, he has no more satisfying resolution to offer.
It’s often said that people embrace religion because it brings them solace in times of tragedy. But how true can that really be when those same people admit that religion has no answer to the question of why we suffer? Isn’t what we want a reason, an explanation for the pain we go through? Isn’t that what gives us the ability to endure? I would think that, if anything, it would worsen the problem to believe that there’s an all-powerful god causing it to happen for reasons that are inscrutable to us. It would add an extra level of bewilderment and frustration to misery and leave believers tormented by the thought that they somehow did something to deserve it all.
The atheist’s answer is still the simplest and most persuasive: Suffering happens because there is no god, no cosmic overseer dispensing justice. There’s only randomness and the impersonal forces of nature, which sometimes act in our favor and sometimes against. The only ones who are there for us in times of tragedy are our fellow human beings, and we must rely on each other if we want to make this world a better one. It’s not the most comforting answer, but it has the benefit of being true, and contains no mysteries, no paradoxes, no unsolved contradictions that simply must be accepted on faith.