On Sunday, Times columnist Dan McCullough responded to the Boston Marathon bombings with an essay entitled, “Why does God let evil happen?” This is an apt topic and certainly deserves consideration by thoughtful people.
Unfortunately, the writer somewhat flippantly disinvites non-believers from reading his thoughts (“If you don’t believe in God, don’t bother reading any further into this piece today….Thanks for checking in; I’ll see you next week.”)
Mr. McCullough and believers everywhere are in no position to exclude non-believers from this conversation. Atheists and agnostics live in the same violent world as believers like Tamerlan Tsarnaev and must also suffer the tragic consequences of his deep religious convictions.
In the spirit of full disclosure, let me say that I am not an atheist. I am, however, a skeptic, and wish to use whatever reason I possess to understand what drives people of faith to such extreme and immoral methods. Skeptics like myself would like to read McCullough’s private conversation with fellow believers so as to learn why their God lets evil happen.
Undoubtedly, Mr. McCullough didn’t want non-believers to read his thoughts because he was exploring “the problem of evil”. This is inside stuff, for sure. For non-believers, understanding evil is not particularly difficult. It would be over-simplifying, but also true, to say that bad people, for numerous reasons, choose to do bad things. For believers, this is a problem because they think their God, in addition to being omniscient, omnipotent, and good, controls people’s actions. In other words, God knew in advance that the Tsarnaev brothers were going to kill and maim and he either lacked the power or the decency and sense of justice to stop them. This is, indeed, a problem. But again, only for those committed to faith in God. What is curious to non-believers is that at no time throughout the mental gymnastics necessary to reconcile this problem do they consider, at least publically, that maybe there is no such God or, if there is, that he lacks either the interest or will to do anything about evil actions. In this case, why does he deserve worship?
What is disappointing about the column is that McCullough, a professional philosopher and apparently a theist, makes no attempt himself to reconcile these competing ideas. He cites three other sources: Spinoza, Jesus Christ, and the author of the Book of Job. None of these explanations are particularly enlightening. Spinoza apparently sides with us skeptics; Jesus says people are born blind in order to further glorify God; and the Job author says that God can do whatever he wants to Job, so “shut up and stop whining.”
Spinoza states something along the lines of, “We want God to interfere in every aspect of our life, so all goes well in our highly subjective, selfish view. This is unreasonable and absurd.” Non-believers would agree.
Jesus Christ’s justification of the man born blind is stunningly cruel. A man is born blind, he tells us, so that God the Father can be glorified. Skeptics would like to know why people would adore a God who is so needy for glorification and recognition that he would call for the blinding of a perfectly innocent human being.
The Job author gives us a similarly self-serving God who enters into a wager with his own rival and uses Job as his lab rat. The author does tell us that once God wins the bet he rewards Job with another family and numerous other blessings. He says nothing, however, of Job’s ten innocent children and thousands of animals who had to die so that God could win his bet with Satan.
McCullough concludes thus: “So, I don’t know about you, but these theodices don’t make it any easier for me to look at that (Richard) family picture this morning. I mean they do make sense in their own ways, but I still feel empty.”
Agnostic readers would like to know how they “make sense in their own way”. A theistic philosopher like Mr. McCullough should try to help the rest of us understand why they believe as they do. There is much at stake for all of us. Our nation and world are full of religious zealots like Tamerlan Tsarnaev, eager to terrorize and punish the rest of us who choose to live our lives guided by reason rather than by faith in the supernatural being described in the Bible and the Qu’uran.