Saturday, January 23, 2010

From Paula Kirby

This comes from yesterday's On Faith column at WaPo. I really don't think a waterhead like Pat Robertson needs answering, and in any case he's been ripped apart on this and so many other subjects by so many. But this piece by Paula Kirby seems particularly well-constructed and aimed and I'm compelled to repost it. Paula Kirby, the WaPo site says, is a writer and former Christian living in Scotland.

Suffering and the vain quest for significance

Question: Many have criticized Pat Robertson's suggestion that the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti was the work of the devil or a form of divine punishment. But if one believes God is good and intervenes in the world, why does God allow innocents to suffer? Why does God allow Haiti to suffer so much? What is the best scriptural text or explanation of that problem you've ever read?

It is the year 2010. Over the last three to four centuries we have amassed a huge amount of knowledge about the Earth and its place in the universe. There is much yet to learn, but the knowledge we have acquired would have astounded our forefathers.

Thanks to marvelously sophisticated technology, itself the result of an accurate understanding of the workings of the universe, humans have walked on the moon. We have landed explorer robots on Mars, and have photographed the nucleus of Halley's Comet, the surface of Betelgeuse and new planetary systems forming in Orion. We know the approximate composition of the individual planets and comets, we know the approximate number of stars in our galaxy and of galaxies in our universe. We know the size of the universe, and its age, and the forces that drive its expansion. We know which stars are hot and which are cool, which ones are new and which are ancient beyond all imagining. We have detected planets in other solar systems, and know their size and the shape of their orbit, and whether it is possible that they contain any of the chemical prerequisites for life. Back on our own planet, we know how it was formed, and when. We can read its history, inscribed forever in the rocks. We know what forms its surface and the underlying mantle, and can make an informed guess at what makes up its core. We know how life evolved from its earliest, infinitely primitive forms into the staggering array of species we see around us today. We know what causes night and day, the seasons, and the tides. We can predict to the minute when the next solar eclipse will take place, and from where it will be visible.

And - crucially, in the context of this question - we know exactly what causes earthquakes.

All this knowledge is new to us. Our species, Homo sapiens, has been in existence for at least the last 100,000 years, perhaps more, and for the vast majority of our collective past, we had no proper explanations for any of these things. No wonder, then, that our forefathers imagined that storms and tempests, floods and droughts, famines and disease, volcanoes and earthquakes were caused by demons, or at the hands of divine beings whose wrath they themselves had been so unfortunate as to incur.

Our primitive ancestors - and even our more recent ones - had no knowledge of plate tectonics, of subduction zones or sea-floor spreading. How could they know of the pressures that build up along faults in the Earth's crust, sometimes over hundreds and hundreds of years, but no less inexorably for that? To them earthquakes, when they came, were not just terrifying and devastating - as indeed they still are today - they were utterly mysterious, beyond comprehension, totally inexplicable. And yet humans have minds that seek explanations and so, in the absence of scientific understanding, they resorted to the supernatural. We can forgive them for that: any apparent explanation, no matter how preposterous, no matter how harsh, is comforting compared with the terror of unknowing. The idea of a cosmic battle between Good and Evil, or of natural disasters as the acts of a wrathful deity, must have seemed reasonable enough, in the absence of anything better.

But we have no such excuse today. The physical processes that cause natural disasters are well understood, and we know that they proceed in total blind indifference to us, our wishes, our fears, our hopes, our desires, our virtues or our peccadilloes.

To be fair, even most religious people acknowledge this (how could they not?). Indeed, it is this very realization that underlies the question of how a loving God could permit such suffering, a question that has kept generation after generation of theologians in a living. As ever, instead of looking at the reality of the world around them and drawing their conclusions about the nature - or even existence! - of the god they worship based on what they see, the theologians start with their desired answer - God is good! - and then contort themselves into ever more desperate intellectual non-sequiturs in order to twist the evidence to fit that answer.

The explanations (sic) that they come up with fall into three broad categories:

1. God wanted to create humans, and human life is only possible where there are plate tectonics and, consequently, earthquakes. (That life is only possible on Earth because of plate tectonics may well be true; but how odd that theologians should wish to claim that the all-knowing, all-good and all-powerful creator of the laws of physics could not have created them so as to permit life without the kind of suffering that plate tectonics cause.)

2. That God created the world perfect, and that such suffering was never part of his purpose for us, but that human rebellion opened the door to our suffering.

3. It's a mystery.

The third of these can be dismissed since it just means, 'Yes, you're right, it really doesn't make sense, does it? But I want you to go on believing it anyway.'

The first two are more interesting, because you will note that they put humans well-and-truly center stage. It's all about us! Yippee! We are important! So important that the whole universe was created with us in mind! And so important that our misdeeds are enough to change all the laws of physics!

We humans cannot even survive in the vast majority of the conditions prevailing on our own planet. The Earth's atmosphere extends to about 60 miles above us, but we can only breathe at altitudes lower than roughly one and a quarter miles above sea-level. 70% of the surface of the Earth is covered by water, an element in which we are unable to survive unaided for more than a few hours. The deepest point of the oceans is nearly 36,000 feet; but if we venture unaided more than about 180 feet down, the pressure will crush us. Too hot and we die. Too cold and we die. Too high and we die. Too low and we die. And humans have only been around for less than one-hundredth of one percent of Earth's history. And this, on a planet supposedly created for us!

It gets worse. This tiny planet is not even a pinprick on the scale of the universe, a universe which is something like 40 billion light years in size. What is that in miles? The distance traveled by light in a single year is 5.87 trillion miles, so I'll leave you to multiply that by 40 billion and find space for all the zeroes.

The idea that any of this has anything at all to do with us, that it was created with us in mind, or that our 'sinfulness' has had any effect whatsoever on the majestic, monumental and utterly indifferent laws of physics, is egotism of the highest order. Not bad, for a religion that preaches humility!

It would be comical, hilarious, side-splittingly funny - but for one thing. This obsession with human behavior and the ugly conviction that there is some kind of link between suffering and sin, whether individual, national or original, leads to the kind of repugnant, sickening, disgraceful attitudes voiced by Pat Robertson this last week. Just when the rest of the world is overwhelmed with compassion, with the urgent desire to help those whose suffering is beyond our capacity to imagine it (with initiatives such as Non-Believers Giving Aid, for instance), Pat Robertson and others like him are saying, 'They brought it on themselves'. It is not enough, apparently, that they should be traumatized, grieving and in pain. They should be feeling guilty as well. It is not enough that we should help them. We should judge them too.

Give me the indifference of the laws of physics rather than the hubristic self-righteousness of the religious any day.

By Paula Kirby | January 22, 2010

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