Objections to the existence of God

Well, fate is cold as ice
Why are little ones born only to suffer
For the want of immunity or a bowl of rice?
Well, who would pay the price
For the heads of the innocent children
If there's some immortal power to control those dice....

Rush, Roll The Bones, 1991 (Lee/Lifeson/Peart)

One of the most common views I have ever heard expressed verbally or in print goes something like this: "If there is a God, why does he allow such suffering?" This is a fair question, and one we would not want to skip over. If God is, as is so often claimed, good, kind, loving and merciful, then how can this be reconciled with the cruelty of man and the cruelty so often found in nature? Does God, as Richard Dawkins once sarcastically suggested, like blood sports?.

I think there are roughly three ways that mankind has tried to justify or explain this apparent contradiction in religion. The first, which is found in all religions at some point in history, even if only as a minority within that religion, is that God is great, so great in fact, that he is impassible, beyond our understanding, and that our ways are not his ways. Some take this further and imply that God is so great, and mankind so small (if not sinful) that really the sufferings of humanity are no more than the plight of the mayfly to a human. If anything, God allows these things to test mankind, to see how devoted the human race is in the face of such provocations to disbelief, if you like. (This, I think, was the suggestion one year by an Iranian mullah after an earthquake caused severe damage and loss of life within that country).

The second view is that since it seems to be going bad, the created order was not really the work of God, but of another minor deity or even some sort of evil being. This view was once popular in the ancient world and was held in particular by people calling themselves the Gnostics. The Cathars of the medieval ages also believed this. According to this view God did not really like material things, but this "minor deity" or whoever it was threw a spanner in the works by creating something as vulgar as matter, and so the souls of people are trapped in material bodies but really have a spiritual nature. Occasionally you hear these views expressed in a modified form today, sometimes in Eastern religions, sometimes in the cults in the West.

The third view is that the created order was really at one time perfect, but that historically something went wrong which caused the present instability (earthquakes, famines, etc). This is the view adopted by most Christians, Jews and, I think, Moslems. It seemed to take a knock in the optimistic era of the nineteenth century, when it was challenged both by Darwinistic evolution and the view that humanity was evolving peacefully towards civilisation, but the horrors of the First World War made people think again.

Taking these three views in order, it seems to me that there is some truth in the first view, but only up to a point. Obviously it is true that, if God is really omnipresent (everywhere at once), all-powerful, transcendent (above everything else) and yet immanent (everywhere at once), then his ways must really be different from our ways, and if we could see things from the divine perspective, then we would perhaps understand some of the reasons why things happen as they do. And yet we should not press this argument too far. God is all of these things, and far removed in one sense from the human race: yet words like transcendence and omnipotence do not mean the same thing as indifference or obliviousness. If God is impersonal, as some New Age thinkers and others in the past have suggested, then of course he cannot care any more than water or electricity can care about the fate of mankind. But if God is personal, and has the attributes claimed for him by the great religions, then he cannot be indifferent. There is a moving line in the book of Isaiah, speaking of a time when God was punishing Israel for its wrongdoing: "In all their afflictions, he was afflicted". The idea is of the suffering of a parent forced to punish a misbehaving child. Such a view, of course, still does not explain how it came to be that mankind behaves the way it does, especially if God created it in the first place.

The second view is properly called dualism and is really another minority view that has a catch in it. Firstly, if a different deity created everything, then God at least would not be all-powerful, since he failed to prevent it happening. Furthermore, this minor deity would possibly on a plane with God in terms of power and ability, in which case we then have to ask how he or she arose in the first place. If they were both there from the beginning, then presumably they might both have an equal right to be there, in which case it becomes much harder to say that the view of one is more correct than the other. As it is, the Judaeo-Christian picture of the Devil is emphatically not of a power that has always existed in the same way as God, but rather of a creature created by God which then rebelled against him. Nowhere does the Bible speak of the Devil having the power to create things, despite certain popular medieval or "folksy" ideas. This sort of dualistic view has also led to other problems. For example, if true life only consists of the spiritual, and matter is at best common and vulgar and at worst evil, then there are two ways of life which adherents of this view tend to adopt. Either you can treat things like food, sex and the body are trivial things, in which case you can indulge yourself as much as you want since they don't really matter, or you regard them as a nuisance or an evil, in which case you ill-treat yourself and try to resist things like sleep, hunger and the desire for sex. Again, this is the view taken in some Eastern religions, and occasionally adopted by Christians, Jews and Muslims in former ages. Apart from the fact that it would be extremely hard to live like this, it also fatally undermines a lot of human motivation. If this world is just a passing shadow, why bother? If we live in the vale of illusion, why worry about things like science, art and the sufferings of others? Taken to its ultimate extreme, this view is expressed in the idea that the whole universe is just Brahmin's dream, and that when he awakes, it vanishes - and presumably everyone with it. In the idea of nirvana, where the soul at last finds its rest by falling like a drop of water into the ocean, it is important to realise that this does not equate roughly to the idea of heaven. On the contrary, the individual soul is annihilated - it no longer exists. If this is your end, then you no longer are. I stand open to correction here, but I think this may explain the stoicism in some parts of India.

The third view, as I said, is historically the position of Christianity, Judaism and, I believe, Islam. It is expressed in the story of the Garden of Eden and goes something along these lines. When God created everything it was good. He then created Man, whom he gave free will and complete freedom. Man, however, was tempted to put forth his hand and try to be like God (this is the meaning of the seizing of the forbidden fruit in the Eden story). Far from making him God-like, however, it made him miserable and caused an estrangement from his Creator. It also caused him to be cast out of a place of paradise and into the present world, where he had to suffer several disadvantages that he had not previously known. (The full story is in the Book of Genesis, chapters 1-3, and is worth reading). Part of the effect of being expelled from his former position was that mankind was now estranged from God but also from one another and from Nature, an idea summed up in the picture of Adam and Eve putting on fig-leaves whereas before they were unabashedly naked, and of Adam struggling with soil full of weeds while Eve has to give birth in painful labour.

Now to a twentieth-century reader there are obviously some difficulties here. Scientific study (geology, palaentology, etc) seems to imply that the world has been in a constant state of flux and instability since day one, with continents shifting, volcanoes blowing dust into the atmosphere, several mass extinctions and even asteroids striking the earth with fearsome force. As an amateur zoologist and dinosaur afficionado I would be the last person to claim the ability to reconcile Genesis with science. All I can do is suggest a couple of pointers:

  1. Although it does not get as much prominence in the Bible, there is implied a similar story of the fall of Satan, an angelic type of creature whose crime was the same, ie trying to set himself up in God's place. Presumably because his powers were far in advance of the human race, the punishment and subsequent misbehaviour of this creature would be the greater, much as we hold a small child less culpable for naughtiness than we do the teenager who shoplifts. Accounts such as the Book of Job also imply that this being does have certain powers to misdirect acts of nature and the like. I offer this merely as a suggestion to how things might have been disrupted before man arrived on the scene.
  2. The other aspect of this question is, of course, the behaviour of mankind. I accept that there is no easy answer to why a tectonic shift in the earth's crust should kill thousands of people, or a tidal wave flatten a coastline. But it was man and not God who invented weapons to kill others, and men and not God who organised crazy or inefficent or injust systems of running society. Even when they tried running society along lines supposedly given by God, humanity couldn't get quite right: now that a large part of us have given up altogether on that and tried to run it our own way, the situation is even worse, as made evident by the appalling acts committed in this century. I have read that Africa produces enough food to feed its people, but wars and corruption both cause starvation and malnutrition instead. Similarly an accident caused by drunk driving is not an act of God but an act of human stupidity. Perhaps the best line to end this argument was one uttered during the terrible bombing of Hamburg in 1943 by the RAF. A German hausfrau was witnessing the awful scenes of death and destruction and asked, "Why does God permit this?" A man who apparently had been a German NCO in the previous war replied sternly, "Leave God out of this. God doesn't make war: men do."

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