Here’s an interesting interview with Susan Jacoby on the subject of atheism. I don’t agree with all of her points, but it’s worth reading the whole thing. Here’s an interesting excerpt:
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. There are people who don’t know anything about science. One of the reasons I recommend Richard Dawkins’s book, The God Delusion, is that basically he explains the relationship between science and atheism. But I don’t think people are really persuaded into atheism by books or by debates or anything like that. I think people become atheists because they think about the world around them.
When Andrew Sullivan posted a link to Jacoby’s interview at his blog, a minister reader of his took exception:
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 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.
It’s interesting that the minister is so dismissive of Jacoby’s answer. What she is proposing is essentially the idea of “skeptical theism.” Skeptical theists go a bit farther than Jacoby, arguing not simply that, as it happens, we don’t understand God’s plan, but also that, as finite human creatures, we can not reasonably even expect to understand it. Far from being some fringe answer offered by theologically naive people, it is one of the most common arguments served up by philosophers of religion.
I can understand why the minister would be dismissive. Among its other problems, skeptical theism is not so much a counter to the problem of evil as it is a concession that there is no reasonable answer to be had. So let us have a look at what he regards as good theology; the kind that does justice to our reason and 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.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that very little of that actually makes sense. It is not very helpful to say that God works “through the system.” He created the system, and that system makes things like polio and suffering inevitable. We can reasonably ask why the system was created as it was, when it certainly does not seem too difficult to conceive of better systems. Moreover, we can question the wisdom of God’s decision to work through the system. Is it admirable that he chooses not to overburden the system (whatever that even means)? Perhaps we should also ask about miracles. According to most versions of Christianity, God, in fact, does not always work through the system. Sometimes he chooses to indulge in a miraculous intervention. The question, then, is why does God sometimes choose to intervene and sometimes choose not to?
Nor do casual invocations of free will really help all that much. Yes, people must have the freedom to choose evil. How does that solve the problem? To choose a recent example, whose free will would have been endangered if the devices constructed by the Boston Marathon bombers had been caused to malfunction? And for all the minister’s talk about how God is gentle and persuasive and loving, traditional theology holds that he turns into quite the judgmental dictator upon our deaths.
The idea that there is good and serious theology that makes religion seem reasonable, as opposed to the naive and unsatisfying version practiced by the masses, is, for me, a complete inversion of the truth. I’ve been an atheist for as long as I’ve been old enough to think about these questions, but I didn’t start to get really contemptuous of religion until I started reading theology and the philosophy of religion in a serious way.
I don’t have much of a problem with the Christmas and Easter Christians. The people who are members of a church because it enriches their social lives, or because it provides a safe environment for their children, or simply because they find it comforting. These are people who, if you ask them point blank whether they believe the doctrines, will claim that they do, but really they don’t think about them much. If you throw the problem of evil at them they are likely to say, “How should I know why God allows evil? But every view has its existential mysteries, and I know that my faith is so satisfying in so many ways that I’m not going to sweat it if I don’t understand everything.”
I can understand that. It’s not how I choose to live, but if other people feel differently that’s fine. Rather, it’s what the theologians are doing that I find tawdry and disreputable. If it amuses them to talk to each other about their latest invented-from-whole-cloth notions for explaining God’s ways then they are welcome to do so. But let us please have no illusions that they are contributing to humanity’s grand search for truth, or that their work should be taken seriously by anyone outside their little community of believers.
The minister requests that atheists not give up so easily, and criticizes teenaged theologians for worrying about the problem of evil. I would encourage him instead to consider the possibility that he has too quickly accepted facile answers to serious questions.