Monday’s USA TODAY (July 21st, 2008) featured an essay by conservative columnist Michael Novak entitled Reconciling Evil with Faith. I found the essay so outrageous that I am writing a longer than usual blog as commentary. To be fair, you ought to read Mr. Novak's entire essay for yourself.
Michael Novak writes, “One of the oldest accusations against God in the Bible and in every generation since has been that there is too much evil in this world for there to be a good God… Of course ceasing to be a Jew or a Christian does not wipe these evils away… The rejection of God does not diminish evil in the world by a whit.”
Mr. Novak is absolutely correct. It doesn’t matter if you believe in God or disbelieve in God, evil continues. But what does this fact tell us? Only one thing: what you believe has no bearing on reality.
Mr. Novak continues: “In fact, the turn of Russia and Germany from more or less Christian regimes to boastfully atheist regimes did not lessen, but increased, the number of humans who have horribly suffered, by nearly 100 million.”
Again I am not certain what this fact tells us. Is it that atheists are more barbarian than theists? Or that theists are less technologically sophisticated than atheists when it comes to murdering human beings? And who said Hitler’s Germany was atheistic? In Mein Kamf Hitler wrote: "I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord."
Mr. Novak even enlists atheist science to make a point (though again I am uncertain as to what his point is): “Even under atheistic interpretations of science, the vast suffering under ferocious competition for survival, for a vastly longer era than was known, far exceeds the evils earlier generations knew.”
What does this mean? Is he saying that it is better to believe the world is only 10,000 years old as the Young Earth Creationists argue because then suffering is so much briefer? Is he saying that only atheists believe the world is billions of years old? It seems to me that the only difference between the atheist and the theist on this point is one of semantics. Whether one is an atheist or a theist, one cannot deny the facts of suffering. Given these facts we can either say that nature is a bitch or God is a bastard, depending on our theological leanings. Neither interpretation reduces the suffering Novak admits.
Then he goes on to say, “[T]hose who suffer most from injustice and oppression seem to find more consolation and dignity in the Jewish/Christian faith than in any other worldview.” How does he know this? Buddhism, for example, is all about suffering and the ending of suffering? Can it be that Judaism consoles better than Buddhism?
And it gets worse:
“Judaism and Christianity seem very good religions for those who suffer because they bestow on them justice and dignity. The realistic point of Judaism and Christianity is that suffering is a normal part of every human life.” Is this true? Again Buddhism also says that suffering is natural to human experience, but what it doesn’t say, and what Judaism and Christianity to do, is that suffering is caused by God because of the sin of Adam and Eve. Buddhism makes suffering natural; Judaism and Christianity insist it is the act of a wrathful God.
And as far as Judaism and Christianity bestow justice and dignity on those who suffer, just ask the slaves in Christian Europe and America. Ask the colonized peoples of Africa and India. Ask the Palestinians in the West Bank. Ask those tortured by Americans in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. What Judaism and Christianity seem to do is comfort the afflicted by holding out justice in the next world, while giving this world over to the madness of men and women whose god is more sadistic then they are, and who excuses every evil that they do.
And it gets worse still:
“In fact, the poor also delight in the beauties of God’s creation. On balance, even with their acute suffering, the poor also feel blessed. They sense the rapture of sunlight flashing across lake or ocean, and soft breezes at sunset, and the great starry sky.”
This is obscene! The fact that acute poverty cannot rob human beings of their sense of awe, wonder and mystery is a testament to human soulfulness, but is this a defense of faith? Does the fact that Jews in Nazi death camps managed to find some beauty in a rainbow somehow make the evil of Nazism less evil?
And it gets even worse:
“For Christianity, the interpretive key to this world is the cross—the cross on which the Son of God died. For Judaism, it is the long, long exile and pain of the Jewish people. If God has so treated his only son, and also his own people, why should anyone else expect Easy Street?”
I love this! In other words, if God is a sadistic abusive murderous S.O.B., well, what can you expect? If this isn’t an argument for atheism, I don’t know what is!
And it never ends:
“Worse, the world seen by evolutionary biology alone is even more rife with suffering, yet rather more merciless. That world is characterized by raw chance, accident and the death of about 90% of all species that have ever lived. Perhaps earthquakes, tsunami, tornado, disease and famine derive from chance, and signify nothing.”
Yes, maybe they do, but what is the alternative? If earthquakes, tsunami, tornado, disease and famine do not derive from chance (and they don’t, they derive from the necessities of nature) then they are God’s work and thus signify something horrible, evil, and malign. If nature is blind and shit happens, I can live with that. But if, as Michael Novak seems to imply, God is doing this to people on purpose, we should be tearing down every house of worship to this monstrous deity we can find!
I just don’t see what Mr. Novak thought he was doing with essay. If this was a defense of belief, it failed miserably. If it was an atheistic attempt to recruit new members using reverse psychology, it may have succeeded mightily. I don’t see how anyone reading this piece could continue to believe in God at all. At least not the conventional God of mainstream Judaism and Christianity.
He ends his essay with this, “Whether our lives are meaningless, or not, is not a trivial question.” I agree. This is a question worth asking and exploring. But to assume, as Michael Novak does, that science and atheism (which are not the same: science is a methodology, atheism is an ideology) are somehow on the side of meaninglessness, while God and religion are on the side of meaning is just too much to bear.
Evolution does not make life meaningless! Evolution is the way life develops a level of consciousness capable of discovering meaning; it is the way life becomes self aware and moral; it is the way life comes to think about its Source and Substance. Evolution is the way God manifests in time and space. Evolution is the way God gets to discover Herself and say, “Wow!”
To anyone who wishes to think far more profoundly than USA TODAY gives you credit for, I recommend three books:
Thank God for Evolution by Michael Dowd,
The View From the Center of the Universe by Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams, and
God and the Big Bang by Daniel Matt.
If I could afford it I’d send copies of each to Michael Novak and invite him to think this through again.