Andrew Sullivan recently quoted Susan Jacoby on the subject of leaving religion for atheism. Susan said, in essence, that people do not deconvert on the basis of a single powerful argument expressed to them but by the accretion of doubts in their own mind. It included this statement:
[U]nless you’re raised atheist, people become atheists just as I did, by thinking about the same things Augustine thought about. Certainly one of the first things I thought about as a maturing child was “Why is there polio? Why are there diseases?” If there is a good God why are there these things? The answer of the religious person is “God has a plan we don’t understand.” That wasn’t enough for me.
Sullivan later put up a response he received from a minister:
That is not the religious answer. That is a religious answer. It happens to be a bad answer. It is bad theology. Atheism is a rational rejection of bad theology – and more power to them. But there is also good theology out there – good religious answers which do justice both to our reason and to our spirits.
Why does God allow polio and disease and other bad things to happen to good people? Because God is not an omnipotent manipulator of the world. Because God works through the system, not over-powering it. Because we have free will that allows us to create justice and love, and also evil. God’s power is not coercive (“you must not do that horrible thing and I will stay your hand”) but patiently persuasive (“there’s a better way, make a better choice”). God’s “plan” was not to create polio, or human beings, but to set the conditions and watch what we do, and to use that “still, small voice” to gently urge all creation toward divine ideals of deep rich experience, consciousness, love, marvelous beauty, and thoughtful theology.
As any teenage theologian can see, the idea of a simultaneously all-powerful and all-loving God is impossible based on the evidence of the tragedies that befall us everyday. But there is better theology available. The churches should be better teachers. And atheists shouldn’t give up so soon.
No, I don’t think his answer is “good theology,” nor do I think it’s a good answer. I also don’t think it is even minimally consistent with other points of their theology. It certainly isn’t consistent with the Bible, which portrays an omnipotent God who intervenes in his creation on an almost daily basis. And the God of the Bible is nothing if not “coercive.” I don’t think Noah’s flood or the many orders to commit genocide are examples of God being “patiently persuasive.”
It isn’t consistent with the idea of praying to God for him to intervene in such a manner, something encouraged by Jesus himself in the gospels. It is consistent only with deism, not with Christianity or any other specific type of theism of which I am aware. This example of “good theology” is an entirely different set of beliefs than the one found in historical Christianity, Islam or Judaism.
I would also ask the minister how he knows this is “good theology” and the position he rejects is “bad theology.” Is there evidence that can be appealed to in support of one and not the other? None that I know of. If his answer is that he merely accepts it by faith, that is also true of those who assert the truth of the “bad theology” he rejects, and since faith defends all positions equally well, it is of no use here. How does he discern between the two other than by which he prefers to be true?
This isn’t a better answer to the problem, it’s just one that is more vague. Both answers suffer from the same problem, which is that there is no basis for making a logical argument that can give us good reason to accept or reject either of them.
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