NYT readers, including Dan Dennett, respond to Ross Douthat’s column on the “increasing” evidence for God

August 21, 2021 • 1:15 pm

The other day I dissected Ross Douthat’s long-form NYT essay, “A guide to finding faith.” In short, it was dire, but no worse than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.  His thesis was that, in this age of science, empiricism gives us more reason than ever to believe in God, especially Douthat’s Catholic God. It still baffles me why the NYT would publish such tripe, but the proportion of tripeish material in the paper is approaching that of a bistro in Normandy.

But the readers have responded, and you’ll find five letters at the site below (click on link). Four of them are critical of organized religion, while one misguided soul supports Douthat.  There are two notable letters in the former category, and I’ll reproduce them below.

To the Editor:

On a weekend when fundamentalist Muslims were winning a war against the United States, and as fundamentalist Christians demand the right to cause their fellow Americans to suffer and die from a preventable disease, Ross Douthat had the gall to tell me that I ought to accept the same primitive explanations that led directly to their fundamentalism. Hard pass.

David Bonowitz
San Francisco


To the Editor:

Ross Douthat is so frantic in his campaign to stop the erosion of faith in faith that he can’t resist twice committing the sin I call lying for Christ.

First, he unaccountably misinterprets the meaning of the title of my book “Breaking the Spell,” which called for scrutinizing the phenomena of religion with the same objectivity we adopt when studying viral pandemics.

Second, he misinterprets illusionism, the well-evidenced theory that says that evolution has designed us to be conscious of an efficient oversimplification of the physical world: a user-illusion that helps us track the features of the world that matter to us.

It is ironic that Mr. Douthat himself breaks the spell, taking a hard look at the difficulties confronting would-be religious believers today. His recommendation that they cultivate a return to the mind-set of the Dark Ages is particularly telling. We secularists can glory in the wonders of “creation” without the nagging worries he exposes.

Daniel C. Dennett
Medford, Mass.
The writer is co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.

h/t: Barry

Some pushback by religion

August 18, 2021 • 1:15 pm

What I thought would be a pretty uncontroversial post the other day about Ross Douthat’s ridiculous arguments for God as the most parsimonious explanation for nature, turned out to generate a lot of heat. You didn’t see all of it because some came down in the form of emails and of comments so inordinately intemperate or stupid that I didn’t post them.  I don’t want interminable discussions of dumb and long-refuted arguments for God to contaminate this website, though I did allow a few believers to have their say.

Among the accusations were these:

a. You can’t prove atheism. This amuses me because atheism is simply the failure to accept the existence of gods, mainly because there’s no evidence for them. But yes, you can’t prove that there’s no god because you can never prove a negative like this. But you can’t prove that there are no fairies, either, yet I remain an a-fairyist. All I can say is that the less and less evidence we have for God, when (as Victor Stenger often said) there should be evidence for God, the less likely it is that God exists. Just look at it from a Bayesian perspective.

b. The presence of God is not an empirical matter. This was said by someone who characterized himself as a “firm believer”, in which case I wonder why he believes so firmly!

c.  The question of moral evil in a world run by God was solved by Alvin Plantinga, and most philosophers accept his explanation as a valid one. However, my argument was not about moral evil—Plantinga’s explanation is that we have free will, a higher good than the moral evil it creates)—but about physical (or natural) evil, like tsunamis or childhood cancers.  Plantinga’s explanation for that is outlined on pp. 148-149 of Faith Versus Fact, and involves invoking Satan. It’s ridiculous and no sane person would accept it.

d. Even physical evil is compatible with God, for what is a mere lifetime of suffering from disease compared to the glory of eternity with God? My response: what kind of sadistic god would allow even a mere lifetime of suffering if he could prevent it?

e. Atheism is a faith, like religion. This old chestnut is equally risible. Atheism is LACK of faith, for faith is believing in something without sufficient evidence. Atheism rejects belief in god because there is no good evidence for him (or her or it). If atheism is a faith, so is a-fairyism—the refusal to believe in the existence of fairies. Those who say that atheism is a faith must also say that everything they themselves reject because there is no good evidence, is also a faith like religion.

I guess I saw what we already know: much of America is religious, and not religious in a liberal way like the Unitarian Universalists or Quakers. People are willing to make the most ridiculous statements to defend their belief that God exists. One of the most ridiculous is that “atheism is a religion, too”, which I always read as “See? You’re as bad as we are!”. But it ain’t so.

The persistence of belief in God in an age where all evidence once adduced for His existence has vanished (creationism was the most powerful argument) still perplexes me. I can give reasons, like people want something MORE than what exists in the natural world, people want an afterlife, or people want to fob off on God things that they don’t understand (consciousness, or, in the case of Intelligent Design, “irreducible complexity”). There could be evolutionary reasons behind it, like Pascal Boyer’s “agency” theory, and so on. But explaining the ubiquity and strength of religion gives religion no credibility at all; it is a sociological question, not a theological one. Nevertheless, some people still claim that because religion is pervasive, that goes on the “God exists” side of the ledger.

In Faith Versus Fact I lay out a scenario that would convince me—provisionally, of course, because I’m a scientist—of the existence of a divine being. Even my rigorous criteria have been criticized, because they could, some say, merely involve trickery by space aliens. So be it. But nothing has come close to the kind of evidence I’d require.

I’d like to know what evidence would convince believers that there is no God. That evidence, of course, is already there: childhood cancers, tsunamis, the failure of prayer, the failure of God to instill a single religion in humanity, the failure of God to appear to humans for the vast majority of the hominin lineage, the disappearance of miracles that used to occur all the time, the uselessness of invoking supernatural forces to understand nature, the failure of Jesus to return, the paucity of evidence for Jesus, and so on, and so on, and so on. What about Auschwitz and the Nazis? Doesn’t that count against God, at least a benevolent and powerful one? I guess not—not if killing 10 million people was necessary so that Nazis could have free will.

If you’re a believer reading this, let me know what it would take to convince you, in this life, that there is no God.

Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ obstinacy

November 11, 2020 • 9:45 am

Today’s Jesus and Mo strip, called “things”, came with an email note:

It’s probably more of a motto than a policy statement, and it’s definitely more widely adhered to than it should be.

This is pretty much the case, and never truer when believers deal with theodicy: the Achilles heel of religion. If there’s a kind, loving, and all-powerful God, why do so many children and innocents die from natural disasters and diseases (“physical evils”)? There’s no good answer that can be reconciled with the Abrahamic God.  Theologians, of course, do have an unconvincing explanation for “moral evil”—people doing bad stuff to others. That answer: “free will”, which allows some people to do evil, is necessary for God’s schema of salvation. But as for physical evils like cancer, earthquakes, fires, and tsunamis, believers have to default to the position of “God is mysterious.”

And yet believers still believe—all the harder—in the face of this unanswerable argument. Perhaps we’ll have more on that later today. 

A Christian tries to save my soul by answering my hard questions about religion

August 23, 2020 • 9:15 am

In 2014 I published a piece in The New Republic (click on screenshot) which, despite the title, which I didn’t choose, described ways to turn religious peoples’ debate arguments back on themselves.

Part of that article involved using a “no-god of-the-gap” arguments, asking religious people to answer a series of six questions. The bit below is from my piece:

But we can play the Gap Game, too. There are huge gaps in believers’ understanding of God, and in those lacunae, I claim, lies strong evidence for No God. Here are a few religious gaps:

  • Why would the Abrahamic God, all-loving and all-powerful, allow natural evils to torment and kill people? Why can’t he keep kids from getting cancer, or stay the waves of tsunamis?
  • Why, if God so ardently wants us to know and accept him, does he hide himself from humanity? And, since modern humans originated over 100,000 years ago, why did God wait 98,000 years before sending his son to redress our sins—and then to only a small portion of humanity within a hundred miles of Jerusalem? Or, if you’re sufficiently sophisticated to see God not as a bearded spirit but as The Ground of All Being, why isn’t that Ground obvious to everyone?
  • Why would an omnibenevolent God consign sinners to an eternity of horrible torment for crimes that don’t warrant such punishment? Official Catholic doctrine, for instance, is that unconfessed homosexual acts doom you eternal immolation in molten sulfur. That’s unconscionable. And would a loving God really let someone burn forever because they were Jews, or didn’t get baptized?
  • Why is God in the Old Testament such a narcissistic bully, toying with people for his amusement, ordering genocides in which innocent women and children are killed en masse, and demanding the death of those who work on the Sabbath? How does that comport with the God that Christians and Jews worship today?
  • Why didn’t Jesus return during his followers’ lifetime, as he promised?
  • How do any believers know for sure that their faith is the right one, especially given the presumed penalty for guessing wrong?

Now I didn’t think that these questions would flummox more “sophisticated” believers, but they were designed to plant doubts in the minds of the more open-minded believers, or of those on the fence, and help them realize the intellectual vacuity of Abrahamic religion.

And, sure enough, six years later a Christian came out of the woodwork, emailing me a long screed yesterday giving his answers to the questions above (the writer is a man). To be fair, the guy spent a lot of time on the answers, even quoting the relevant Biblical passages. But the email turned out to be too long to post here.

Instead, I’ll just show you how he answered  three of the questions above (they’re in bold below, and stuff from the email is indented). I’ll say a few words (flush left after my initials), and let readers respond. I have the writer’s complete email with the answers to the other three questions, and will be glad to send them—without the sender’s name—if you’re interested.

If you respond, please be polite: the gentleman did, after all, have my salvation in mind. But be as hard-nosed as you want in the answers. Afterwords, I’ll inform the sender of the comments on this site so he can see the responses.  I have of course eliminated the name or any identifying aspects of the sender; the point here is to address arguments, not “out” a believer.

Here we go, with the sender’s words indented, with all words exactly as sent: typos and other errors are the sender’s.

In this article from 2014 you said that no theologian could provide credible evidence to the “gap” in believers understanding of God. I have a rebuttal to your six gaps. I know it will probably not change your mind about a thing, but if anything I hope that it enlightens you to the fact that some Christians will research and formulate comprehendible arguments. If it means anything to you know this; even as a stranger, i sincerely do hope that you will think about these things and I care enough about your salvation that I bothered to do this for you.

Q) Why would the Abrahamic God, all-loving and all-powerful, allow natural evils to torment and kill people? Why can’t he keep kids from getting cancer, or stay the waves of tsunamis?

A) This question is easily answered by the most simplistic Biblical concept there is. Loving God=freedom for people, freedom=choice. Humanity chose to rebel against God and the consequences is separation from God=death(Gen 3). God holds all things together (Pslm 75:3)therefore going against him, rebelling, sinning and going our own way leads to death(Rom 6:23). He dwelt among us in the garden which was perfect and God(Gen 1:31) (Gen 3:8) and kept all things Holy, once His presence left death and decay gripped all creation. Satan is the accuser, the liar, the murderer of the human family(Jn 8:48) who holds the power of death(Heb 2:4). Because of his pride he first rebelled against God and has sinned from the very beginning(1 Jn 3:8), and he uses that very same pride today to get people to not believe, masquerading as an angel of light(2 Cor 11:14) making sin look fun and beautiful, lying that we will not die for disobeying God (Gen 3:4). The key is though, that God has been using redemptive work ever since the days of Noah (Rom 8:21). All of the Biblical story points to Jesus and how it is God’s plan to save us from the punishment and judgement of our sins by becoming a perfect man (Heb 9:11) fulfilling all of God’s law and dying on the cross, rising again to bring us to life through him (Jn 6:40). So the all loving God was able to make a way for anyone that believes in the Son to live forever by reconciliation with the Father again(Jn 3:16) (Rom 10:9).

Suffering is a permanent sickness for the earth until we go to our true home, heaven (Rom 8:18-26). Even Jesus was not exempt from suffering. It is used as an instrument of obedience. As Wayne Jackson from The Christian Courier says ” all sunshine and no rain creates a desert”. We use suffering as a means to bring glory to God by persevering, enduring, and to become patient, compassionate, loving, kind, and yes even joyful which are all qualities God desires to see arise out of us from trials. The child that gets cancer has hope, hope in Life with Jesus eternally (Matt 19:14). The tsunami victims have hope if they cry out to God to be saved (Pslm 34:17). God also promises we are not alone during life’s trials(2 Cor 1:3-7)(Heb 4:16). Jesus told us that in this fallen world we would suffer but he has overcome the world(Jn 16:33) so we can overcome the world through him( 1 Jn 5:5). Life is not all about the materialistic. There is another life beyond this. Plus God can heal providentially with medicine, wisdom for the doctors, and for the complex design of the human body and immune system are all ways he can work through natural law. It is foolish to think that if God created the world that all of the resources we have available are not created by him either. Who would understand it better than the one who created it all? With no God, cancer consumes the child and they have no hope, no more life, just a cruel and unfair “chance” that is uncontrollable and uncalculated in an uncaring universe.

JAC:  Here the blame falls on humans and (naturally) Satan, with God unable or unwilling to intervene to stop natural evil. Humans, of course, were responsible because Adam and Eve chose to eat the forbidden fruit, damning all their descendants to both moral and natural evil. Note that, unlike theodicy of “moral evil,” in which humans do bad things to other humans as an undesirable but necessary product of free will, free will here invoked only once: on the part of Adam and Eve. (You can’t invoke free will for stuff like cancer and tsunamis, which do not have any capacity to choose freely. Neither, of course, do we, but here we see the critical importance of libertarian free will in Christianity. If our “choices” are all determined by factors we don’t control, the whole explanation above collapses.)

Note, too, the Mother-Teresa-like concentration on suffering as a way to glorify God. This is barbaric. “The child that gets cancer has hope in eternal life with Jesus”? Not if the kid is too young to know about Jesus, much less accept him as a savior! And what about tsunami or accident victims that don’t have time to cry out to God to be saved? After all, as the writer said in another part of the email:

Not being baptized does not necessarily mean you will go to hell. Observe the thief on the cross. All he did was repent and that was last minute(Lk 42-43)! We all have been blessed with time to repent and come to Jesus(2 Pet 3:9). Then through acceptance of him, the Holy Spirit leads you to the decision of baptism and repentance(Matt 3:11)(Acts 13:24).

Not if you meet a sudden and unpredictable death, much less if you’re of a faith that doesn’t worship Jesus as the savior (e.g. Islam or Hinduism)!

Finally, if medicine and doctors are all products of God’s wisdom, why was He so late to bring antibiotics to our attention? Or, for that matter, why doesn’t he heal those cancer-stricken kids himself rather than rely on methods that aren’t always reliable? Why is suffering abated in some children but not others? But we must drop these questions and pass on.

Q) Why, if God so ardently wants us to know and accept him, does he hide himself from humanity? And, since modern humans originated over 100,000 years ago, why did God wait 98,000 years before sending his son to redress our sins—and then to only a small portion of humanity within a hundred miles of Jerusalem? Or, if you’re sufficiently sophisticated to see God not as a bearded spirit but as The Ground of All Being, why isn’t that Ground obvious to everyone?

A) He is hidden, or veiled, away from humanity because He is too Holy to be looked at without humans dying (Ex 20:18-20). He has revealed himself through His Word from which he spoke to prophets and patriarchs through dreams and visions and messengers (angels) see (Pslm 147:19) (1 Sam 3:21) (Isa22:14). Also creation displays God’s attributes and wonders and God is evident through all creation (Rom 1:20)(Pslm 19:1-2). In fact, we bear the image of the Almighty (Gen 1:27) and, God’s people also bear fruits that can only come from the holy spirit(Jn 15:16) which reveals a transformation that is visible for all to be recognized as coming from God(Matt 7:16) which shines a light for others to see (Matt 5:16). He also revealed himself through His Son Jesus (Jn 14:9) who was fully God and testified all that we need to know about God in our present state, more shall be revealed later, in eternity we will have all the answers we have ever sought(Pslm38:15). Jesus even says that there are some who would be unbelieving even while seeing (Jn 5:43-47),(Jn 20:29)(Jn 6:36).

Finally, we are to seek God with all our hearts, minds and strength humbly and confidently (Jer 29:13), (Matt 6:23), (Duet 4:29). God’s timing is His own and his ways are not our ways(Isa 55:8), the reason he waited was because everything had to be fulfilled perfectly for his redemptive plan (Matt 8:17), (Jer 33:14), (Acts 7:17), just as we are waiting now for Christ’s return (Jm 5:8). The area that He chose was foretold in prophesy (Pslm 130:8), (Rom 11:1-5) and the milage sure didn’t seem to make a difference for the spread of Christianity. We are now reconciled to Isreal from all nations and peoples who call on His name, great multitudes (Eph 2: 11-18) (Rev 7:9). Why is the ground not obvious to everyone? Because of our hard hearts. Our idolatry. Our carnal desires that we will not give up to taste and see. Our rebellious nature(Ezek 12:2)(Pslm 53:12). Seeking our own ways(Isa 53:6), inventing our own gods and following the god of this age(2 Cor 4:4)

JAC: First of all, several humans in the Bible (e.g. Moses, Abraham, etc.) did see manifestations of God without dying. But what I was talking about here was not a vision of God as a person, but the absence of well documented miracles these days when they were so frequent in Biblical times. (This is a question I discuss in Faith Verus Fact, even including the kind of miracle that would make me a provisional believer.) In the end, the writer expects us to accept God because the Bible says that there’s a God, and the Bible is TRUE. This is another instance of “begging the question” in the correct sense: assuming what you want to prove. The writer has no evidence that the Bible, as opposed to gazillions of other scriptures that make contradictory claims, is the truth.

Which brings us to the last question this Christian tries to answer.

Q) How do any believers know for sure that their faith is the right one, especially given the presumed penalty for guessing wrong?

A) How we know for sure that our faith is correct is that our God has revealed himself (Isa43:12)(1 Cor 4:1)(Duet 29:29)(Ezek 20:5). This was achieved by signs and wonders, prophets, his Holy spirit, his Word, his promises that have been fulfilled(Jos 21:45). No other God is like Him who created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1)(Col 1:16). No other “god” has ever or will ever be able to prove themselves and have faded and passed through the ages, but the word of the Lord endures forever (1 Pet 1:25). So therefore, if someone in a monotheistic religion believes all of this about the one true God, then they must believe Jesus is who he said he was (1 Tim 2: 5-6). If not, they are calling God a liar and the entire Christian religion is false. If Jesus didn’t create the New Covenant through his death and resurrection, then that means we cannot be reconciled to God. We would be stuck having to atone and sacrifice for our own sins which we would all fail at and be lost forever.

My point is Christians can be confident their faith is the right one through faith in Christ, the other religions are not even confident enough to know if they are saved or not! Even the most devout among them still question whether God will have mercy on them based on their actions, which still might not even be enough for salvation no matter how good they have been. But there is a contradiction: if God has revealed himself then how can one not know what God wants from them to be saved? Even better, how does any other religion have a superior way to salvation than God dying in their place for them? Trusting that Jesus is the way is how to be sure your faith is right(Jn 14:6). Jesus is Divine. Jesus is God. And to deny him is to deny God (1 Jn 2:23(Luke10:16).

JAC: Here we have more question-begging. We know that Christianity is the right faith because the New Testament says so, and the Bible must be true. If you doubt the Bible, you “are calling God a liar.” I’d put it more gently: the Bible is the word of humans, not of a god. The second paragraph assumes that we all want salvation, but some religions, like many kinds of Judaism, don’t believe in or expect an afterlife.

Oh hell, I’ll put in one more question and just a snippet of the sender’s response, just to show that he sees homosexuality as a sin:

Q) Why would an omnibenevolent God consign sinners to an eternity of horrible torment for crimes that don’t warrant such punishment? Official Catholic doctrine, for instance, is that unconfessed homosexual acts doom you to eternal immolation in molten sulfer [sic]. That’s unconscionable. And would a loving God really let someone burn forever because they were Jews, or didn’t get baptized?

A) First of all let’s get one thing strait: all sins are punished(Rom 5:12). Not just homosexuality but also lust, idolatry, murder, greed, selfishness, fornication, adultery, hate, theft, lying, idolatry, and blaspemers. No one is good, there is not one(Pslm 53:3). We all have weakness(2 Cor 12:9). Now this is considering that these sins are not repented of that we receive the punishment. . . .

Final thoughts [from the sender]:
• How, after fierce opposition and persecution to the early church, did Christianity spread so rapidly by so few men, with such little resources and survive 20 centuries and is still the biggest religion? Why risk your life and families life for something that is false, and why do so many people suffer for the name of Christ but are still zealous and faithful?

JAC: Lots of people have risked their lives and families for religions that this sender claims are false. QED

• The biggest humanitarian and philanthropic movements in history are influenced and supported by Christians and the church and some examples are: The Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, World Vision International, Samaritans Purse, Water Missions International, Feed the Children, ect. Also most addiction services and many hospitals and nursing homes are started in the name of Christ with Christian values and ethics as their mission statement.

JAC: Do I need to point out that the argument above says nothing about whether the tenets of Christianity are correct? At best it says that belief in Christian tenets can motivate some people to do good. The same holds for the tenets of many faiths.

• Some of the most influential historical figures that have impacted society and made for a better life include: Abraham Lincoln, Leonardo Da Vinci, Mozart, William Shakespeare, Martin Luther King Jr, ect.
Ect. indeed!  I won’t bother to list the many historical figures or organizations who were Christians and did bad things. As the physicist Steven Weinberg famously said:
“With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.”

Ross Douthat’s dumb Easter theodicy: what is the “meaning” of the pandemic?

April 12, 2020 • 11:00 am

If you knew that Ross Douthat was religious, or even that his faith was Christian, but didn’t know what brand, you’d know by the end of his new column that he was Catholic. And indeed he is, for at the end he invokes the Hornéd One, aka Beelzebub.  In other words. . . SATAN.

After going through all the reasons why we’re having a pandemic, even under the watch of a benevolent and powerful God, at the end Douthat defaults to Old Nick. Such belief in Satan as a real “being” is inherent in Catholicism. Even the supposedly liberal Pope Francis accepts Satan—and the driving out of his demons via exorcism.

It is pathetic that a paper like the New York Times publishes this kind of drivel, ridden with explicit acceptance of supernatural beings. And now. . . SATAN? Yes, the paper strives to publish all points of view, but why so many op-eds expressing the point of view of deluded religionists lacking evidence for their beliefs? Where are the columns by “nones” and atheists? After all, we’re now about 25% of the population, so for every three religious columns there should be one expressing nonbelief.

But I digress. Read Douthat in one of his wonkier pieces, dilating on theodicy and meaning-making:

The point of the piece, of course, is how to reconcile the pandemic with Douthat’s Catholicism.  Now we have familiar answers to this kind of theodicy: free will (for moral evil), balancing the scales in the afterlife, testing people, and so on.  But none of these deal adequately with the issue of physical evil, like the pandemic or earthquakes, in which good people meet their ends. Nor do they explain why people who have never had the opportunity to sin, like small children, often suffer horribly: getting cancers and other diseases and, in poorer parts of the world, malaria, eye diseases, and starvation. The unanswerable question for believers is this: why would a powerful and loving God allow this to happen? It is in fact the inability to answer that question that cost Bart Ehrman his faith.

Douthat runs through the usual litany of answers for “sophisticated believers”:

1.) There is an explanation, but we don’t understand it. That doesn’t wash because the same people who say that seem to understand a whole lot about God.

2.) The “ministry of healing” of Jesus, as well as of those who care for the sick, show us that God is “loving” and tells us “where to find his presence today”. That’s hogwash as well, for if one concludes anything from pandemics and the pervasiveness of suffering (in animals, too), God isn’t loving at all but either indifferent or sporadically cruel. Further, because you don’t have to be religious to help people (most scientists racing to find vaccines and medicines are nonbelievers), finding helping behavior doesn’t say anything about God’s presence.

3.) “It is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead.” If that’s the case, who would want such a vocation? I thought that the major benefit of religion was it’s ability to provide people with explanatory schemes.

4.) “Suffering may be a gift to the righteous, given because their goodness means that they can bear more of its hard medicine, its refining fire.” Is that the “gift” of the Holocaust? What a stupid thing to think!

No, the existence of things like this pandemic testifies, if you’re religious but honest (an oxymoron?), to the idea that God is pretty much of a jerk. And the responses of god-enablers to show why He isn’t forms a sad commentary on the willingness of people to be duped.  In fact, to many nonbelievers, this kind of suffering is clearly a result of natural selection—in this case on the virus to propagate its genes. Earthquakes? The result of plate tectonics. The nonbeliever, in fact, is in a much better position than the believer to understand suffering, for we have credible explanations.

But none of those explanations have an extrinsic “meaning”. Christopher Hitchens exemplified this when he got throat cancer, and briefly pondered the reason. And then he said this:

To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply “Why not?”

Douthat, though, argues that even atheists must make meaning out of these tragedies.

This need is powerful enough that even people who officially believe that the universe is godless and random will find themselves telling stories about how their own suffering played some crucial role in the pattern of their life, how some important good came from some grave evil. And it’s a need that religious believers must respect and answer: We can acknowledge the mystery, with Martin and Wright, while also insisting that in their own lives people should be looking for glimpses of a pattern, for signs of what a particular trial might mean.

And indeed, we are meaning-making beings, and many of us try to find some good in the pandemic. And there is good in people’s responses and behaviors—so much good that it often brings me to tears. Every time I see a nurse or doctor decked out in full anti-virus regalia, my eyes get moist. For I am seeing true biological altruism: people risking their own lives without hope of reproductive gain.

But for atheists there is no “mystery”. The pandemic is here because of biology and evolution. If there is a “meaning” to the tragedy, it’s one we confect ourselves post facto. And who among us would argue that the world is better off with the pandemic than without it? Did we need this “trial”? We can surely learn lessons from the pandemic about how to prepare for the next one, and perhaps there is a calculus somewhere that, in the end, tells us that fewer lives will be lost with the pandemic than without it. I have not heard that argument, but even if it were true that is not the “meaning” of the pandemic—it’s the result.  And surely you can’t say that about all physical evils. What is the “meaning” of earthquakes that kill so many people? That now we can prevent them? What is the meaning of the Holocaust? So we can prepare and stave off the next one? For that we lost ten million people?

Douthat believes we have an “obligation” to discern and interpret the meaning of the present moment—of this pandemic. Agreeing with the Dominican theologian Thomas Joseph White, Douthat believes that we must figure out what the pandemic tells us “about ourselves, or about God’s compassion and justice.” (Of course he never entertains the idea that perhaps there is no God, and that everything would make a lot more sense under that hypothesis.) And so the hapless Catholic comes up with his Easter Message in the time of the virus:

Asking these questions does not imply crude or simple answers, or answers that any human being can hold with certainty. But we should still seek after them, because if there is any message Christians can carry from Good Friday and Easter to a world darkened by a plague, it’s that meaningless suffering is the goal of the devil, and bringing meaning out of suffering is the saving work of God.

I’ve read the last sentence several times, and am not quite sure what the sweating columist means. It’s pretty clear that he does believe in Satan, but it’s not clear what Satan’s role is. You could say that physical evil is the product of Satan, and it’s then the goal of believers to find the good side, and the meaning, of that evil. (But why would God allow Satan to do stuff like this?)

Alternatively, you could say that physical evil is part of God’s enigmatic plan, and Satan is delighted if we can’t make sense of it, and so, like Christopher Smart’s cat Jeoffry, we must “counteract the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.” That is, we vanquish Satan by finding meaning.

To make his own meaning out of the pandemic, Douthat must not only accept the existence of God and his alter ego Jesus, but must also drag Lucifer into the mess. How much easier to dispose of that whole mythology and see suffering as the inevitable result of a materialistic world—one in which suffering is often an inevitable outcome of natural selection!  Yes, we must, as humans, try to find some good in the bad, but that doesn’t mean finding some pre-existing, externally imposed “meaning” to suffering that, in the end, it would be better to have avoided.

Atheists don’t have to go through the mental contortions of believers like Douthat. But then our own answers—which happen to be the right ones—don’t get published in the New York Times.

h/t: Bruce

More dumb theodicy in the New York Times

March 22, 2020 • 1:00 pm

Even though the New York Times is full of advice about how to take care of yourself during the pandemic, it also brings in a Jesuit priest, Fr. James Martin, to deal with the issue of theodicy, as you can see from the title of his piece in today’s paper (click on screenshot to read):

The paper identifies Martin as “a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America magazine, consultor to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication and the author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage.” And of course he raises the inevitable question—what I call the Achilles Heel of Abrahamic religion: “why is there natural evil?” Why would an omnipotent and loving God suddenly snuff out thousands of lives for no discernible reason? (We atheists don’t need to ponder that question, for the answer is simple: there is no God, and viruses evolved by natural selection to propagate their genes, killing our cells and fostering their transmission between people to do so.) Martin’s a Jesuit, so he’s not dumb, just canny:

The question is essentially the same that people ask when a hurricane wipes out hundreds of lives or when a single child dies from cancer. It is called the “problem of suffering,” “the mystery of evil” or the “theodicy,” and it’s a question that saints and theologians have grappled with for millenniums. The question of “natural” suffering (from illnesses or natural disasters) differs from that of “moral evil” (in which suffering flows from the actions of individuals — think Hitler and Stalin). But leaving aside theological distinctions, the question now consumes the minds of millions of believers, who quail at steadily rising death tolls, struggle with stories of physicians forced to triage patients and recoil at photos of rows of coffins: Why?

. . . The overall confusion for believers is encapsulated in what is called the “inconsistent triad,” which can be summarized as follows: God is all powerful, therefore God can prevent suffering. But God does not prevent suffering. Therefore, God is either not all powerful or not all loving.

To his credit, Martin disposes with the answers that suffering is a test (“Does God send cancer to ‘test’ a young child?”) and that suffering is a punishment for sin (ditto).  But then he punts:

In the end, the most honest answer to the question of why the Covid-19 virus is killing thousands of people, why infectious diseases ravage humanity and why there is suffering at all is: We don’t know. For me, this is the most honest and accurate answer.

This answer always baffles me. For if you don’t know why God does horrible stuff, or allows horrible stuff to happen, or fails to prevent horrible stuff, how on earth do you know that God is all-powerful and all-loving? Indeed, how do you know there’s a God at all? If you say “revelation tells me”, then why can’t revelation give you the answer to the question of natural evil? (The answer to that, of course, is that there is no such benevolent and powerful God, and you can’t fabricate a convincing reason if you think there is.) And if you respond, “The order and goodness of existence tells me there’s a God,” well, you’ve just contradicted yourself, for existence isn’t that orderly and good.

So, instead of giving an explanation, Fr. Martin suggests we just look to Jesus, even though the good Father has no more knowledge of Jesus or his motives than he does of God and His motives.  Yes, the benighted priest says that because Jesus was a healer, too, in looking to Jesus we are looking at a model for how to treat the sick and how to be compassionate even towards the dying. Because, after all, Jesus was that way.

And so we get this pathetic circumlocution to avoid questions of theodicy:

Christians believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. Yet we sometimes overlook the second part. Jesus of Nazareth was born into a world of illness. . . . “A case of the flu, a bad cold, or an abscessed tooth could kill.” This was Jesus’s world.

Yeah, and a world of dead people too, whom Jesus was able to bring back to life. Sadly, doctors can’t yet emulate that. And so here’s our model:

. . . in his public ministry, Jesus continually sought out those who were sick. Most of his miracles were healings from illnesses and disabilities: debilitating skin conditions (under the rubric of “leprosy”), epilepsy, a woman’s “flow of blood,” a withered hand, “dropsy,” blindness, deafness, paralysis. In these frightening times, Christians may find comfort in knowing that when they pray to Jesus, they are praying to someone who understands them not only because he is divine and knows all things, but because he is human and experienced all things.

Except for coronavirus! But let us pass on. . . .

But those who are not Christian [JAC: If you’re not a Christian then in all likelihood you don’t think Jesus worked miracles, much less did what the Bible says he did!] can also see him as a model for care of the sick. Needless to say, when caring for someone with coronavirus, one should take the necessary precautions in order not to pass on the infection. But for Jesus, the sick or dying person was not the “other,” not one to be blamed, but our brother and sister. When Jesus saw a person in need, the Gospels tell us that his heart was “moved with pity.” He is a model for how we are to care during this crisis: with hearts moved by pity.

So THAT is the answer? Be compassionate? Do we really need Jesus to teach us this? As far as I know, there are plenty of atheists out there on the front lines, with hearts moved by pity. They are risking their own lives to help others. They are altruists, and they don’t demand the fealty that Jesus did. These are real people to see as models, not some fictionalized rabbi whose deeds are, at best, dubious, and who may not even have existed.

The fact is that we don’t need religion or Jesus to give us an example of how to behave. Simple empathy or even humanistic philosophy is a better guide. After all, Jesus also counseled people to leave their families to follow him, and surely that’s not what Father Martin wants us to do in these trying times.

Yes, look to the doctors, the nurses, the healthcare workers, the ambulance drivers, and others of their species to be models “for how we are to care.”  We don’t need a fictional Jesus-Man to show us how to act. We already know how to act. In fact, the Euthyphro dilemma tells us that our compassion isn’t really modeled on that of God or Jesus, for we see Jesus’s supposed acts as good because they were good before Jesus even existed.  Jesus didn’t invent compassion; rather, we see Jesus as compassionate because his behavior conformed to behavior that was considered good long before he supposedly lived.

And I’d say this to Jesus, too: “Since you’re actually God as well as the son of God, you’re fricking responsible for this pandemic. Why on earth should we use you as a model for anything?”

I hate to say it, but this article is a crock, and doesn’t do credit to the NYT. Even the admission that we don’t understand God’s ways doesn’t qualify it as serious theology. It is a waste of column inches.

Father James Martin from Korean Wikipedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Egnor: We need to pray during this pandemic

March 9, 2020 • 11:30 am

Once again the creationist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor can’t resist scrutinizing my website and trying to find flaws in what I say. I suppose this is because he and his Discovery Institute colleagues, despite their confident assurances of two decades ago, have failed to make progress in getting the scientific community to accept Intelligent Design. So, like a frustrated pigeon pecking at a leaf, he pecks at me.

He’s really surpassed himself this time, though, for in his latest diatribe he claims to show that a.) prayer works during a pandemic, despite my mocking Mike Pence’s coronavirus response team praying together; b). Science’s rejection of gods, or at least its failure to seriously entertain divine actions in science—is circular and wrong; and c.) There’s strong proof that there’s a God.

This article appears in the site Mind Matters, which is run by the creationist Discovery Institute. Its theme appears to be that materialism (what I call “naturalism”) is false and that science can’t explain the material phenomena of the world. The usual guff! Click on the screenshot for a good laugh:

Let’s take Egnor’s three claims in order. Since he’s drunk the Kool-Aid, it’s easy to respond.

1.)  Prayer works in a pandemic. Egnor’s claims are indented.

The wisdom and efficacy of prayer in a crisis depends wholly on one question: is the prayer directed to Someone who is real, or is prayer based on a delusion?

If the Object of supplication is real, then prayer is probably the first thing you want to do in a crisis. A plea to the Boss is a fine preamble to the grunt work of managing a crisis. I’m a neurosurgeon, and I pray before each operation. It really helps.

If there is no real Object of supplication, then prayer is based on a delusion. But it’s interesting to note that, as historian Rodney Stark has pointed out, prayer and Christian faith during ancient epidemics saved lives because faithful Christians stuck around during epidemics. They provided care to afflicted neighbors who would not have survived except that they had kindly courageous friends to nurse them. St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital—the world’s leading cancer center for children, was founded because of a prayer. So the focus and compassion evoked by prayer saves lives, whether or not God is there to hear the prayer.

This is Pascal’s Wager applied to prayer.  First of all, what evidence does Egnor have that prayer “really helps” when he operates? And whom does it help? If it helps Egnor operate, fine; a New Ager could also be calmed by rubbing crystals before an operation.

But the true test is whether it helps the patient. I doubt Egnor has any evidence for that, as it would require controlled tests. Do religious neurosurgeons who pray before an operation have better outcomes than nonbelieving surgeons? I doubt it, but the onus is on Egnor to show it. The only really good test of the efficacy of intercessory prayer in healing—the Templeton-funded study of healing in cardiac patients—showed no effect at all of prayer in healing, not even an effect in the right direction. The only significant effect was in the direction opposite to that prediction—intercessory prayer hurt the patients in one measure of healing!

And we don’t need a Christian community now during a pandemic: that’s been replaced by epidemiologists and, most of all, medicine and medical care, all based on materialistic science. 

Finally, has Dr. Egnor asked himself this: if praying to God stops people from dying, so God has the power to cure, why did God allow coronavirus to spread in the first place? It’s not just killing off evil people, you know: it’s taking babies who haven’t even had the chance to do evil, or learn about the salvific effects of accepting Jesus.  In fact, pandemics are one bit of evidence against the existence of any god who is powerful and empathic.

2.) Science’s rejection of God and divine intervention in nature is wrong because it’s circular. This is Egnor’s dumbest argument:

Of course, if God does not exist, Coyne is right to imply that prayer is based on a delusion. But here’s the point: if God does exist, prayer is essential.

So, I ask Coyne, does God exist? Coyne’s answers to the pivotal question have been puerile. His arguments center on an astonishing line of reasoning:

1) [S]cience is about finding material explanations of the world
2) Only materialistic explanations have been found by science
3) Therefore, no non-material explanations for nature are needed.

So Coyne uses science that expunges theism to refute theism. In short, he concludes that atheism is true by using a scientific method that presupposes atheism. Oddly, Coyne finds this logic compelling.

There’s no circularity here. Science is perfectly capable of sussing out supernatural explanations for things, as I discuss in Faith Versus Fact. If prayer worked, that would be one hint of a god or gods, and you can test that (n.b., it doesn’t work). If only CHRISTIAN prayers worked and not those of Jews or Muslims, that would be even more evidence for a god. And I discuss scenarios in my book which would convince many, including me, that there was a god. It’s just too bad for Egnor that none of this evidence has ever come to light.

In fact, there was a time when the supernatural and religion were part of science: when Newton thought God’s twiddling was necessary to keep the planets in their orbits, because Newton thought their orbits were otherwise unstable. Then Laplace showed that a naturalistic explanation explained the stability. There was a time when everyone thought the remarkable adaptations of plants and animals, as well as their origins, required a divine creator. Then Darwin came along and gave the correct naturalistic explanation. Over the history of humanity, one divine explanation after another for things like lightning, diseases, and plagues have been replaced by naturalistic explanation.

So here’s the lesson, which I’ll put in bold.  Science doesn’t reject divine or supernatural explanations because we rule them out in advance. We reject them because they haven’t been shown to work. (Sadly, my Ph.D. advisor Dick Lewontin once gave an unwise quote that has served repeatedly as ammunition for creationists who claim that scientists are sworn not to accept any evidence for gods, divinity or the supernatural. We’re not! Science investigates supernatural claims all the time.)

3.) Finally, Egnor says that the arguments for God’s existence are convincing. Here’s how he proves God:

It is noteworthy that Coyne’s efforts to refute the actual arguments for God’s existence consist of his insistence that he really isn’t so stupid and he provides a few links. He obviously doesn’t understand the arguments, nor does he wish to learn them.

If God exists, prayer in crisis is warranted and even essential. The arguments for God’s existence are irrefutable. Aquina’s Five Ways are a handy summary:

Aquinas’ First Way and a Stack of Books

Irrefutable, Impeccable, Inescapable: Aquinas’ Second Way

Aquinas’ Third Way: An Analogy to Moonlight

Evidence for the existence of God, as provided by Aquinas, actually consists of the same logical and evidentiary process as science itself, only with much stronger logic and more abundant evidence than any other scientific theory.

And, as Porky said,

And it is all. If there are going to be arguments for god that are convincing, they will have to be empirical ones, not theoretical lucubrations of ancient theologians.

An IDer answers one (or two) of my questions—or tries to

February 21, 2020 • 1:45 pm

Imagine my shock to see this page at the Discovery Institute’s Evolution News site (click on screenshot; I’ve archived it so the DI doesn’t get clicks).  The author is Granville Sewell, an intelligent-design creationist and a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at El Paso.

A good question? (I swear that they keep banging on about me because I’ll bring them clicks!). What is it?

Actually, it’s a bit confusing because they deal with two questions I asked.


2.) Here’s another one in the post:

Still, when we argue with atheists like Jerry Coyne, we may become frustrated and wonder why God didn’t just create all species simultaneously 10,000 years ago as some creationists believe, and make doubt impossible.

These are not the same question, though they both bear on whether we see evidence of God’s presence or of his handiwork.  I think Sewell is dealing mostly with the first one in his post, but does answer the second one—sort of:

Actually, the history of life on Earth is very similar to the history of human technology: we also design things step-by-step, through testing and improvements. In fact, as I show in the second part of my new video, the similarities between the history of life and the history of human technology actually extend far beyond this. So if the history of life looks like the way humans, the only other known intelligent beings in the universe, design things, why is this widely considered as evidence against design? Because God “wouldn’t” do things like we do, of course!

But even if you believe that God has to create through testing and improvements for the same reasons we do, and that just because something is designed doesn’t mean it can never go wrong (which addresses the main question in my Epilogue, why do bad things happen to good people), we still have to think that God has intentionally passed up a lot of opportunities to end the debate about his existence and silence all doubters.

In other words, all the species on the planet that have gone extinct simply represented God trying things out and then winnowing out the bad designs (nearly all of them during the end-Permian extinction)! Why did the passenger pigeon fail?

But then where do the new and very different species come from?  If they were created de novo, or tweaked by God somehow using evolution as his method, then we are back to creationism, de novo or gradual. But seriously, even though both God and humans are intelligent, there’s no reason given why God, who is supposedly omnipotent and omniscient, had to “test” the animals and plants and then, if they didn’t pass muster, extirpate them!

That’s a pretty lame answer, but it’s theology, Jake. But on to the Big Question: why is God hiding from us? (Whenever I think of this question, I think of philosopher Delos McKown’s answer: “The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike.”)

To see his answer, Sewell refers us to a previous article of his at Evolution News, “The biggest theological objection to design“, which is far more about theodicy—why does God allow natural and moral evil?—than about why God is hidden.

The issue of theodicy, which Sewell resolves by saying that evil is a necessary byproduct of good, is difficult to read, for Sewell recounts the slow and painful death of his wife (they had two young kids) from nose and sinus cancer. One could ask “well, couldn’t God just eliminate cancer?”, but Sewell uses a Mother Teresa gambit: suffering has its benefits. My response—and I’m not trying to be churlish here—is “Does the benefit of your wife’s suffering outweigh the tragedy of her loss and the fact that your children are motherless? Wouldn’t you rather have your wife back than have her dead but having learned lessons?” I will leave that answer to Sewell.

Does Sewell answer the question of why God doesn’t show himself? He does say that he believes in some miracles, even though he touts the hegemony of natural law (which doesn’t jibe with his approbation of intelligent design and repeated creations):

 I do believe that God has intervened in human and natural history at times in the past, and I would like to believe he still intervenes in human affairs, and even answers prayers, on occasions, but the rules at least appear to us to be inflexible.

But all it would take is ONE BIG MIRACLE, of the type I describe in Faith Versus Fact (p. 119)—a miracle that was taped and documented worldwide—to make me believe in a divine being—provisionally, of course, as it might be due to space aliens or some trick.  Why can’t we at least have that?

Well, here’s the reason Sewell gives why God is hidden:

Why does God remain backstage, hidden from view, working behind the scenes while we act out our parts in the human drama? This question has lurked just below the surface throughout much of this book, and now perhaps we finally have an answer. If he were to walk out onto the stage, and take on a more direct and visible role, I suppose he could clean up our act, and rid the world of pain and evil — and doubt. But our human drama would be turned into a divine puppet show, and it would cost us some of our greatest blessings: the regularity of natural law which makes our achievements meaningful; the free will which makes us more interesting than robots; the love which we can receive from and give to others; and even the opportunity to grow and develop through suffering. I must confess that I still often wonder if the blessings are worth the terrible price, but God has chosen to create a world where both good and evil can flourish, rather than one where neither can exist. He has chosen to create a world of greatness and infamy, of love and hatred, and of joy and pain, rather than one of mindless robots or unfeeling puppets.

The big flaw here is that god could walk out onstage, show us that he exists, and then not take on a “more direct and visible role.” He could just convince us he exists, and then go back to Heaven, put his feet up on a cloud, and quaff a bottle of 1961 Lafitte. This would NOT turn life int a divine puppet show: things would go on pretty much as they did before, but with more religious people and maybe a bit more good behavior. After a while, things would get pretty much back to normal, and science, which depends on “natural law”, would go on as before. Sewell’s point about us being “puppets” is irrelevant here: we could see God and still believe that we have free will and so on.  God could make a cameo appearance, let most of us believe in him (if we’re convinced; Muslims and Hindus wouldn’t be, perhaps), and then bugger off. Presumably that would go a long way to meeting what Christians want to see.

So while Sewell’s second essay explains—though not to my satisfaction—why there is evil in the world, it doesn’t even come close to saying why God remains hidden.


Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ evil

January 8, 2020 • 10:30 am

Speaking of theology, Jesus and Mo have a recycled strip called “evil2”, that deals with theodicy: the theological explanation for the existence of evil, both moral evil (bad people hurting others) and physical evil (tsunamis, cancer, and stuff that doesn’t involve bad people).  I consider theodicy to be the Achilles Heel of theology, for no attempt to explain either kind of evil is convincing. And if you say, “God’s ways are mysterious”, as Jesus does below, then you can’t pretend to know other stuff about God, like whether he’s good, omniscient, and so on.

And consider buying the new Jesus and Mo collection, which has over 200 strips. It’s only $15 and you can purchase it here.

Philosophy professor writes embarrassing prayer in NYT, asking God not to stop shootings, but to make us better people so we won’t shoot each other

August 7, 2019 • 12:30 pm

I haven’t read “The Stone”—the philosophy column of the New York Times—in quite a while, but I seem to remember that it was very soft on faith and very hard on atheism. Well, today’s piece, by George Yancy, continues that tradition. (Yancy is a philosophy professor at Emory University, specializing in in critical whiteness studies, critical philosophy of race, African American philosophy. He’s also written a ton of books.)

Rightfully distressed by the shootings in Dayton and El Paso, and by Trump’s racism and divisiveness that seems to have changed the national mood in a way that might prompt such killings, Yancy offers up a column-length prayer to God. It seems that Yancy is a believer (he defines himself as a “hopeful Christian theist”), and thus sees nothing to lose by writing up a prayer. No matter that God, if He existed, would hear the prayer without having to read it in the New York Times, but Yancy clearly has bigger fish to fry. (Bigger than God?)

This part I don’t quite get, for why is writing a long prayer to a possibly nonexistent God a “risk worth taking”? Why couldn’t Yancy just think the words he writes? That way he wouldn’t have to embarrass himself in the pages of the good gray Times:

So, why write this letter? Ralph Waldo Emerson argues: “Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticisms. The foregoing generations beheld God face to face; we through their eyes. Why should not we also have an original relation to the universe?” Emerson emboldens a legitimate question, though one with a theological inflection: Why can’t I have an original relation to You, God? There is nothing about our universe that proves a priori that this letter will not be heard by You. So, I’ll just take the leap.

Notice that he’s looking for any a priori reasons that God doesn’t exist. I contend that the reasons to doubt God are a posteriori: not enough evidence! But let’s leave that aside and move on. Yancy:

I realize that the act of writing such a letter is itself hasty as it assumes that You exist. Of course, if You don’t, and there is no absolute, faultless proof that You do, then this letter speaks to nothing at all. The salutation is perhaps a bit silly. Yet, that is the risk that I take. In fact, it is a risk worth taking.

Then there’s a bit of implicit atheist-bashing, followed, ironically, by a plea for God to show himself. Yancy seems curiously unaware that the fact that if God wants us to know him and accept him (remember, Yancy is a theist), he’s remarkably reluctant about letting us see Him. Yancy doesn’t contemplate one of my favorite sayings by another philosopher, Delos McKown, “The invisible and the nonexistent look very much alike.” Yancy goes on:

Karl Marx would be quick to remind me that I have been seduced by religion, the opium of the people. Sigmund Freud would tell me that I’m infantile, needing a “God-figure” that functions as an illusion to restrain certain human impulses. Bertrand Russell would tell me that many arguments for Your existence (cosmological, ontological, teleological) are simply false and that science, in terms of its access to genuine knowledge, eclipses religion. The atheists Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and, before his death, Christopher Hitchens, have no place for You in their thinking unless it is to show that You have been created by human religious superstition, whose history, they might add, has proved to be morally abysmal. Yet, the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson at least calls himself an agnostic; he is on the proverbial fence until there is verifiable evidence to the contrary.

Give me a break! Tyson calls himself an agnostic because that word falls more sweetly on public ears than the word that really describes Tyson: “atheist”. For Tyson has admitted that he is a nonbeliever. He sees no possibility that God might exist.

Yancy goes on, raising the big problem with his theism:

I’m often possessed by a visceral angst, at times unbearable, a sense of suffering that I feel isn’t satisfied by atheism, agnosticism or, paradoxically, theism. Theists, after all, are too certain; for me this certainty can too quickly satisfy that profound sense of searching, of really wanting to know, of painfully screaming in the night for Your existence to be revealed, a face-to-face moment. You, of course, remain hidden (Deus Absconditus). Why? Is it too much to ask, as a philosopher in the 21st century, to reveal yourself to me, to the world, to have an original relation to You, like Moses?

Apparently, yes. God is very shy! Or, as McKown implies, perhaps it’s more parsimonious to assume that God doesn’t exist. (Yancy never tells us why he’s a theist.)

Yet God is silent while Yancy proclaims his own even-handed humanity:

Yahweh, I die just a little when Palestinian children are killed by Israeli forces. Allah, I die just a little when Israeli children are killed by the hands of Palestinians. According to one report, 2,175 Palestinian children and 134 Israeli children have been killed since September 29, 2000. There is a deep feeling of personal moral failure when I read about such deaths. Shiva, Vishnu, Ahura Mazda, Oshun, Kami — we need your help. Allah, if you are there, please hear the cries of those Israeli children. Yahweh, if you are there, please hear the cries of those Palestinian children. Even as billions of religious believers across religious traditions prostrate themselves in ritualistic prayer, we continue to suffer from horrible acts of violence.

Earth to Yancy: Yahweh ain’t listening!

The presence of moral evil against innocents (as well as physical evils like cancer and tsunamis) is the Achilles Heel of the theist; it’s an issue that, to my mind, no theologian has successfully rebutted. Either God could prevent the tragedies but won’t for reasons that are completely obscure (that is, he isn’t “all loving”), or he can’t prevent the tragedies, in which case he’s not omnipotent, or he’s an evil God that actually likes tragedy.

At any rate, Yancy seems to have more or less accepted that God, if he is all-powerful, isn’t doing much to stop the mass murders. What is a theist to do, then? Yancy decides that we need to pray for God not to stop the tragedies, but to make us better people, people who aren’t bigoted, people who don’t want to kill “the other”, people who are in favor of unification rather than division. And so here is Yancy’s prayer to his God:

So, it is with this letter that I seek You, that I ask for something more than we seem to be capable of, more than the routine prayers that are said in response to tragedy and sorrow. I don’t want to simply repeat clichés and recall platitudes. I am a philosopher who weeps; I am a human being who suffers.

This letter is not for me alone. It can’t be. The suffering of others is too great not to be moved by it, not to feel somehow partially responsible for it. So, it is with this letter that I seek an original relation, one that seeks our collective liberation, one that desires to speak especially on behalf of children and to free them from our miserable failure as adults to honor their lives more than we honor flags, rhetorical mass distraction, political myopia, party line politics, white nationalistic fanaticism and religious vacuity.

But if God is powerful enough to make us better and stop us from killing people, why can’t he just stop the killings in the first place? For if he’s capable of one, he’s capable of the other. Verily I say unto you: the ways of Yancy’s God are truly mysterious.

This column is embarrassing, to both Yancy and to the New York Times. If I were in charge of “The Stone”, I’d sure as hell do a better job than the present editors. For one thing, I wouldn’t publish soppy, chest-beating pabulum like this.