Over at today’s New York Times, conservative author Ross Douthat is upset at Richard Dawkins’s piece on Pat Robertson, Haiti, and theodicy.
But Dawkins’ “defense” of Robertson, against the “milquetoast” Christians who rushed to disavow the televangelist’s suggestion that the Haitian earthquake victims were being singled out for divine punishment, offers an interesting illustration of militant atheism’s symbiotic relationship with religious fundamentalism.
How does Douthat (the name begs for puns!) harmonize the disaster in Haiti with the notion of a powerful and loving God? By quoting the words of Jesus:
I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you, that ye may be the children of your Father who is in Heaven. For He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:44-45) . .
There’s a heavy stress on sin and the possibility of ultimate punishment here, obviously. (Plenty for Richard Dawkins to find obnoxious, in other words.) But Jesus also lays a heavy emphasis on the idea that we shouldn’t interpret the vicissitudes of this life as God’s way of picking winners and losers, or of punishing particularly egregious sinners. Until the harvest, the wheat and tares all grow together, the rain falls on the just and unjust alike, and those who survive natural disasters are as liable to judgment as those who perish in them. . .
In other words, everything will be equalized in the afterlife. That’s bogus, of course. What could happen in the afterlife to discount the suffering of children who die of leukemia, before they’ve even had a chance to sin? Or those innocent victims of Haiti? Do you stand a better chance of going to heaven if you’re a good person who has experienced undeserved illness, evil, or disaster, than if you’re a good person who hasn’t? Douthat’s remedy here is the same as those who take the Bible literally: in the end, everything is judged appropriately, although we can’t understand exactly how God is going to do it.
So is it reasonable to believe that the Gospel passages quoted above “speak more clearly” than, say, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to the question of whether Christians should interpret the events in Haiti as God’s punishment for some (spurious) 18th-century sin? I think it is. So do many theologians, ancient as well as modern, Protestant as well as Catholic, And the fact that Richard Dawkins and Pat Robertson both disagree tells us something, important, I think, about the symbiosis between the new atheism and fundamentalism — how deeply the new atheists are invested in the idea that a mad literalism is the truest form of any faith, and how completely they depend on outbursts from fools and fanatics to confirm their view that religion must, of necessity, be cruel, literal-minded, and intellectually embarrassing.
I’m not sure exactly which “new atheist” has claimed that “mad literalism is the truest form of faith.” I think people like Dawkins assert that it is a very common form of faith, and those who don’t adhere to it—who pick and choose what they want from Scripture (as Douthat does above, conveniently leaving out the Old Testament)—don’t have good reasons for their particular interpretations.
Douthat neglects the theodicy of Jews, who of course don’t accept the New Testament and so can’t invoke the conciliatory words of Jesus. But even considering Christianity alone, Doubthat still fails to address the most important question of all: how do you harmonize an ominipotent and beneficent God with the idea of natural disasters and the horrible suffering of some innocent people? True, some “modern” Christians don’t see the events in Haiti as God’s punishment of sinners, or of anyone else. But these Christians still haven’t explained, at least to the satisfaction of any rational and inquisitive person, why God allows things like that to happen if He could prevent them. In that sense, Pat Robertson has a better answer than those oh-so-sophisticated modern theologians.
If Douthat was right, there would be no need for theodicy. But of course there is: it’s one of the busiest areas of modern, non-literalistic theology.