It’s one of the most notable cultural statistics of our time: According to the The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the number of people claiming no religious affiliation—the so-called “nones”—is rising rapidly. About one-fifth of the U.S. population is either atheist/agnostic, or has no particular affiliation at all. A fair number of the unaffiliated still consider themselves “spiritual,” but don’t affiliate with a particular religious group for a host of reasons, including perceptions of religious institutions as being overly concerned with money and power.
I am supremely irked by the “spiritual but not religious” label that so many unaffiliated folk claim. But I am going to leave that issue to other Christians to argue.
Instead, I want to speak to a problem that many good-hearted, quick-minded people have with religion, and particularly Christianity as it is practiced and articulated here in the U.S.—the failure of religion to adequately answer the problem of evil and suffering. Quite simply, many people cannot reconcile the brutal pain and stark unfairness that characterize so many human lives with the Biblical notion of a loving God who is intimately involved in his creation and the lives of his creatures.
Last week, a Texas mother of two penned a viral post on CNN titled Why I Raise My Children Without God. Nearly every point she made hinged on the disconnect between the religious vision of a loving, just God and the sadness, pain, and injustice that mark human life.
The post is rife with odd assumptions and failures of logic. The author rejects God based largely on the inane statements many Christians make about God. For example, she writes:
Take for example the senseless tragedy in Newtown. Rather than address the problem of guns in America, we defer responsibility to God. He had a reason. He wanted more angels. Only he knows why. We write poems saying that we told God to leave our schools. Now he’s making us pay the price.
She utterly fails to recognize that 1) most Christians are as horrified as she is at the idea that God would allow children to be murdered for a reason, any reason, and particularly to fill a need for “more angels,” and 2) many Christians are indeed responding to Newtown by renewing our commitment to more effective gun-control measures.
In another head-scratching statement, the author writes:
If God is fair, then why are some babies born with heart defects, autism, missing limbs or conjoined to another baby? Clearly, all men are not created equally.
Here, she seems to be confusing the Bible with the Declaration of Independence.
But setting aside the author’s mistakes in logic and failure to separate who God is from the foolish things that people say about God, her fundamental problem—How can I tell my children that the universe is watched over by a God of love and justice when the world is full of so much agony?—is a legitimate, understandable problem for many people. It is a problem for many of the “nones.” And frankly, it is a problem for many of us who fiercely claim belief and are raising our children as Christians.
To the Texas mom and others for whom this fundamental disconnect between a loving, involved God and a pain-soaked world is an insurmountable stumbling block to faith, please understand something:
Any Christian who tells you that God orchestrates or allows terrible suffering for some grand purpose is lying. The notions that “everything happens for a reason” or that “God just needed another angel” or “God gave me cancer so I would become a better person” are not from the Bible. They are bullshit. (As is the notion, by the way, that the primary reason to believe in and follow God is to get to heaven.)
The Bible actually never explains suffering, except in the broadest sense of pain being the result of our living in a fallen world—a world that is broken, that does not operate as our loving, just, merciful God intended it to. Instead of explaining suffering, the Bible just tells us to take care of people who suffer. By doing that—by offering food and clothes and water and company and mercy to those who are hurting—we are God’s hands in this world. We are helping to heal the world. We are ushering in God’s kingdom. Simply by giving someone a glass of water or holding their hand as they cry. This is remarkable.
You might have balked a little at my use of the word “fallen” to describe the world and humanity in the last paragraph, with its whiff of original sin and the mythic story of Adam and Eve. That’s why I tend to use the word “broken” instead. Because, really, who can look around this world, at schoolchildren murdered in Connecticut and hostages murdered in Algeria and the daily misery of abused children, babies born in refugee camps, suicidal war veterans, bombs falling on civilians, rape as a strategic tool of war, and not believe our world is broken?
Here’s the thing: The world is broken not because God is unfair or absent, but because of us. Because we are broken, all of us, and we have the terrible habit of allowing the misery spewing out of our own broken places to ooze all over other people. Most of us don’t bring assault rifles to elementary schools, of course. But we gossip, we hoard, we belittle, we sneer, we ignore, we care more about protecting ourselves and our stuff than caring for other people.
Texas mom, you take offense at the notion that it’s our brokenness, our free will and tendency to use it poorly, that leads to suffering. You wrote, “‘He has given us free will,’ you say? Our children have free will, but we still step in and guide them.”
Yes, exactly. God has stepped in to guide us, both in our scriptures and more radically, in the person of Jesus Christ. And just as our children are ever-so-capable of ignoring our guidance or rejecting it outright, so does humankind frequently fail to heed God’s guidance. Jesus Christ showed us in every action and encounter how the world is supposed to work and how we are supposed to relate to one another—with charity, forgiveness, generosity, peacefulness, healing. acceptance. Jesus Christ made clear in the most obvious way possible that God knows all about how it feels to suffer, all about rejection and brutality and murder. And then Jesus Christ showed us, through the resurrection, that even the worst the world can throw at us, even a horrifying, bloody death, is no match for God. The light of God shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
Tell me, even if the story of Jesus’s resurrection seems nutty to you, haven’t you had experiences in which darkness has simply failed to overcome light? In which something new and promising has sprouted from a stinking pit of death and hopelessness? That fact—that life can overcome death, that light can outshine darkness, that the goodness of creation and of people continues to flourish in spite of everything—is the fundamental truth to which we who believe in a just, loving, merciful God cling. We have to. We can’t imagine any other way of negotiating this vale of tears, any other source of hope strong enough to get us up out of bed every day to work for peace and justice and love, even if on some days it’s just in our own households or our own souls that we labor, even when we are overcome, as you are, by how terrible we can be to one another, how awful life can be for the living.
The God we believe in is not a capricious wand-waver, answering “the silly prayers of some, while allowing other, serious requests, to go unanswered,” as you wrote, Texas mom. Honest Christians will tell you that we don’t have any idea how prayer works. We even sometimes doubt that it works at all. We get as pissed off as you do when someone claims that God secured them a prime parking space at the mall, while our prayers for a friend to be healed from cancer go unanswered. So why do we pray?
You know how children, when they are sick or lonely or sad, sometimes just need to be with their mom or dad? Even if they know we can’t fix things. We can’t make their tummy feel better or take away the sting of a friend suddenly deciding she’s not a friend. They seek us out anyway, finding solace in our presence, a smidge of healing in telling us how bad they feel and leaning their head on our shoulder. In part, prayer is like that. When I tell God how sad or angry I am, when I lean on God, I feel better. I feel less alone. (The Psalms, by the way, are full of whining, groaning words to pray when we’re fed up…See? The Bible isn’t so out of touch after all.)
And we pray because we truly believe that with God nothing is impossible. Just like you, we don’t understand how that could be, given that there’s an awful lot of work that needs doing in this world for which God’s infinite possibility could be put to good use. But the fact that we don’t understand doesn’t mean that we have no choice but to believe that either God is an unfair, powerless tease, or God is not real. It just means we don’t understand. It just means that God is God and we are us. Which is essentially what God told Job in the only Biblical passage in which God speaks directly to why good people sometimes suffer unspeakable horrors.
God is God (loving, just, merciful). We are us (broken, beloved, God’s hands in the world). Our best bet for bringing this world more closely in line with who God is instead of who we are is to listen to what God has told us, in the words of scripture, the lives of the saints, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and to live accordingly.
I have never been one of those Christians concerned with saving other people. Salvation is God’s job, not mine. I understand why believing in God, particularly in light of how awful this world can be, is too much of a stretch for many people. Sometimes it’s a bit of a stretch for me. But I keep on believing because I haven’t found another way of understanding the world that so fully incorporates the worst and best of life in this broken world, that acknowledges how terrible things are while promising that they can be better than we can possibly imagine.
I do ask that before you reject God, you realize that the voices whose bullshit proclamations—about what God wants, what God does, who God loves, and how God works—tend to get airtime are not speaking for most of us. And they are certainly not speaking for God.
Author’s Note: This post is not intended to critique all “nones” or all of the reasons that people choose not to affiliate with a religion. Given the 9,000-plus comments and 60,000-plus Facebook shares on Texas Mom’s CNN post, it appears that her reasons for rejecting religion struck a chord and are shared by others. This post was meant to counter Texas Mom’s statement of non-belief, which was full of inaccuracies and logical failures, not to argue with well-reasoned, clearly articulated atheist/agnostic beliefs. The concerns Texas Mom wrote about found an audience among people disillusioned by prevalent cultural notions of who God is, and by our failure as Christians to offer a theological world view that connects with their lived experience of a world where bad things happen for no good reason. This post is addressed to Texas Mom, the thousands of people who responded positively to her message, and the many people I’ve heard say over the years that a major stumbling block to belief is the disconnect between who God is supposed to be and what they see and experience. That disconnect is a central concern not just for those who don’t believe, but for those of us who do, which is why I chose to address it.