In this post, I'm going to refute what I consider to be one of the most ridiculous arguments made by religious people: That, in the wake of some disaster, whether manmade or natural, God reached into the world to give us a sign that he's still there, watching over us and caring about us.
I'll begin by providing an example of this belief. After the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11, during the clean-up efforts, a hunk of metal was found in the wreckage that resembled a cross, bringing to mind, of course, the crucifixion of Jesus. This cross was subsequently salvaged from the wreckage and made into a religious shrine.
"One Christian rescue worker selected a crossbeam and attached religious symbolism to it. He suggested that this specific crossbeam was not scrap metal like all the others, but was a sign from heaven, 'a promise from God that he is with us even in the face of terrible evil and untold suffering.'
The decorated crossbeam was seized by Father Brian Jordan, a Roman Catholic Franciscan priest, and a religious relic was invented."
Where do we even begin with this nonsense? The first point worth making is that the World Trade Centers were constructed using crossbeams. So it's absolutely no surprise that a crossbeam was found in the wreckage. The supernatural is just not required to explain this. It's not a miracle, it's not a sign from God, to find part of a building in the destroyed rubble of that building.
Christopher Hitchens, in a debate against Douglas Wilson, gave an example of something that, if found in the wreckage, truly would impress him:
"Did you see the slack-jawed, gaping propaganda of the World Trade Center? When everything was all cleared away, at the bottom of the girders, there was a cross standing there. All buildings are built with a cross-hatch of steel . . . It would be amazing if there wasn't a cross. If it was a star and crescent made out of melted steel, I'd be really impressed."
Now that we've established that the finding of this cross is no miracle, let's assume, for the sake of argument, that it actually was a miracle. As we'll see, this assumption would present the religious believer with enormous difficulties and troubling conclusions.
So, ok, God reached into our world and ensured that a cross was left behind in the wreckage. So clearly this is a God that has the ability to interfere in our world and bring about certain outcomes. So why did he not use these powers to just prevent the disaster from occurring in the first place? Not only would a God have the power to do this, but he would also have the foreknowledge to know what would happen if he didn't. Ask yourself: If you could see the future with perfect precision, if you saw that 19 hijackers were going to crash planes into buildings and kill thousands of people, and if you were all powerful and could prevent from this occurring, wouldn't you do just that? What kind of a monster would you be if you just sat back and let this atrocity take place? And, from the Christian perspective, given that the planes were allowed to crash into the buildings by God, what does this say about the idea that this God cares deeply about our suffering and well-being?
A quote from the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus comes to mind:
"Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?"
The religious believer will typically interject at this point to say: "If God were to interfere and prevent these manmade disasters from occurring, then this would be a violation of free will. Even if it pains him to see people commit these horrible atrocities, to prevent them would be to make us unfree human beings."
I see the point, but I just don't buy this argument. Let's imagine an analogy with parenting. Parents, generally speaking, allow their children to act freely within certain boundaries. So they will allow their children to hang out with their friends, play the sports they like, play the videogames they enjoy, read the books they're interested in, and so forth. But a parent will not allow their children to kidnap, torture, and brutally murder other children. They won't allow them to rob a gas station using a toy gun and a ski mask.
So I would argue that the ethical course of action isn't to allow your creations to do whatever they want to even if they're committing horrendous atrocities. Instead, the ethical choice is to grant them the freedom to act within certain boundaries. It is simply not ethical to allow people to crash planes full of innocent human beings into buildings if you have the foreknowledge and power to prevent this from occurring. It is simply not ethical to allow people to commit genocide. And any God that would allow these things to take place would have to be a monster.
The religious believer might say, but if God intervened in some cases, where would the line be drawn? And I think that is a fair question. If God intervened to prevent people from doing terrible things, would we live in a world where our every wrong move was being regulated and impeded by a divine hand in the sky? Rather than free creatures, wouldn't we, at this point, just become the mere playthings of this God, nothing more than puppets on a string whose movements he dictates?
I would say a few things in response. First, this intervention could take place in a manner that would make it undetectable to us. So rather than a giant hand reaching down from the heavens and smacking us, like the final boss fight in Super Smash Brothers, this God could instead just change the outcome in a way that we wouldn't even notice. So he could, for example, make it so that the 9/11 hijackers overslept on the day of their planned attack. He could strike Hitler dead from apparent natural causes before he began his genocide. Just use your imagination, and you can imagine a thousand different ways that horrible atrocities could be prevented while still allowing people to believe that they're acting as free agents. And this would also, incidentally, address another religious counter-argument, that, if God was constantly intervening, this would eliminate our capacity to decide for ourselves whether to believe in this God's existence.
The question of, where would the line be drawn?, is a more difficult one to answer, and I don't have a good answer for you. Should every conceivable action that brings about suffering be prevented from occurring by this God? Probably not. In fact, I would argue against over-intervention just as I would under-intervention. Clearly we would expect and want to see a God prevent a genocide from taking place. But, at the same time, we presumably wouldn't also want this God to micromanage our every action and prevent every act of suffering from taking place. So is there a balance to be struck? Perhaps there's some middle-ground to be struck? Or perhaps this mental exercise illustrates the fundamental absurdity of believing in an all-powerful, all-knowing God who cares about our suffering and well-being? It seems to me that there just is no right answer to the question of "How much intervention is too much or too little intervention?" It seems that, no matter what degree to which a God would intervene, he would be acting unethically in some way.
Notice that these complications vanish when you assume there's no God. Why do people get away with terrible things? Well, because sometimes, people can do shitty things and get away with it. That's just the way things are. Sometimes, shitty things happen, and it sucks. Unfortunate as this may be, at least this realization doesn't produce mountains of confusion. This explanation is straightforward. It makes perfect sense. The same cannot be said of a belief in God.
I also reject the religious, free-will counter-argument for another reason. In what sense are we truly free agents if we get punished for our misdeeds in the afterlife anyway? If I murder someone, but then get sentenced to life in prison as a punishment for this action, would it be accurate to describe me—and other people within our society—as free to murder other people? Certainly not. Murder is prohibited by our legal system. Similarly, God presumably doesn't tolerate murder and will punish people for it in the afterlife. The difference between God and humans is that, if enforcers of our legal system—meaning police officers—knew that a murder was about to occur, they would take action to prevent it. If a cop drove by and saw that I had a knife to somebody's throat, he wouldn't just stand idly by while I murdered this person and then only afterwards punish me. He would take action right then and there to try to prevent the murder from occurring in the first place. This is because here in the real world, we actually care about the consequences of actions. We actually care about alleviating suffering and preventing needless harm wherever we can. This brings to mind a quote from Tracie Harris of The Atheist Experience:
"You either have a God who sends child rapists to rape children or you have a God who simply watches it and says, ‘When you’re done, I’m going to punish you.’ If I could stop a person from raping a child, I would. That’s the difference between me and your God."
There's also something important worth noting here: This free will belief is conveniently compatible with a God not existing. What I mean by this is: This is a belief that allows religious believers to justify the glaring absence of God in situations where we'd expect him to intervene if he truly did exist, if he truly was all-powerful and all-knowing, and if he truly did care about our suffering.
Ask yourself: How can we distinguish between a godless universe where planes crash into buildings, and a universe where planes crash into buildings and a God does absolutely nothing to prevent this from happening? There seems to be no way to distinguish between the two universes. As Matt Dillahunty once said, "a God that doesn't manifest itself in reality is indistinguishable from a God that doesn't exist."
So this free will belief, that God doesn't intervene to preserve our free will, functions as a sort of protective measure that allows the religious beliefs to remain intact. How convenient that we can explain away our apparently godless universe by crafting an explanation about how God could intervene, but simply chooses not to!
Now that we've dealt with human evil, let's turn to the problem of natural evil. I'll begin by recounting a story that was told to me by the mother of a friend. She described how her mother was, at one point, living in a trailer park that got completely ravaged by a tornado. After the tornado passed through, all around her was death and devastation. Homes were utterly destroyed. Debris was everyone. But of her mother's trailer, one wall had been left standing. Hold onto your hats, because here comes the miracle: This particular wall happened to have a large crucifix mounted to it, and it remained in place after the tornado had passed through. This, she believed, was a sign that God was looking out for her pious mother during the tornado.
First and foremost, there's the question of: Is this miraculous? Of course it's not. A piece of artwork that happened to be religious in nature didn't get dislodged from the wall after a tornado. So what? What about all of the other religious artwork in the trailer park that did get destroyed? What about all of the non-religious artwork that didn't get destroyed? There is no miracle here. This is just a person grasping at straws in a pile of randomness. It does not require divine intervention to explain the fact that, if you look hard enough, you might be able to find some kind of religious structure or object still standing after a natural disaster ravages a community. Some things aren't going to be destroyed, and some of the things that aren't destroyed are going to be religious, in nature. This isn't miraculous; this is randomness. This is perfectly explicable in a godless universe.
This belief might seem completely innocuous at first glance. In fact, you might even argue that it's consoling and thus beneficial. You might say, "look, a tornado just ravaged her community, so what harm does it do for the poor old lady to believe that a God was looking out for her and is still there for her during this difficult time?"
Well, if you ask me, this belief could hardly be more insulting to the people around her. What does it say about all of the other people who were killed in the tornado? Is this belief not an implicit smear against them? Clearly God wasn't watching out for them, so does this not indicate that these people were, in fact, miserable, wretched sinners, undeserving of God's protection? What an insult to the people whose bodies are still buried in the rubble, whose families are still weeping about their deaths. "Sucks to be you guys. Luckily God was looking out for me the whole time. If only you prayed a little harder, if only you sinned less, if only you went to church more often, maybe your family members wouldn't be dead right now. Maybe then you would have been worthy of God's protection like I was. Better luck next time."
Not only is this insulting, but mindset is also extremely self-centered. "How wonderful it is that the creator of the universe cares about me, specifically, and took time out of his busy day to protect me, specifically." Well, lucky you, I guess.
There's something very important that needs to be understood about this belief, and it gets back to my earlier point about randomness: It's a belief that can only be held by people who weren't killed in the tornado. If her mother was one of the people who died in the tornado, she wouldn't be here today to tell us about how lucky she was to receive divine protection—because she would be dead. Dead people can't express gratitude towards the divine. If one of her religious neighbors who was killed ended up actually surviving, I imagine that she'd be making the same kind of claims about how she received protection from the Lord. So there's obviously a bias at work here.
Also notice that religious people are quick to express gratitude towards the divine when things work out in their favor, but they almost never blame the Lord when things go wrong. "My family survived the tornado? Thank God. My neighbors were killed? That's too bad." Why do they credit God for their survival, but not blame God for the deaths of their neighbors? This is a very clear double standard. It brings to mind something Christopher Hitchens once said in his debate against Al Sharpton:
"I do notice that Christians, or other believers, tend to say: If a baby falls 25 floors and it lands with a bounce on the lawn and is unharmed, they attribute it to divine intervention, and if it falls 2 feet off a table and cracks its skull and dies, they just say 'That's bad luck.'"
Probably the best theological response I've heard to the problem of natural evil comes from Thomas Malthus. To quote from the book The Story of Philosophy by Anne Rooney:
"The British cleric Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) argued that evil exists to spur humankind to hard work and virtuous behaviour as a way of escaping hunger and poverty: 'Evil exists in the world not to create despair, but activity.'"
But even this explanation is grossly inadequate and immoral. An analogy should help to illustrate this. Imagine that your house was on fire, and rather than putting out the flames and saving your pets and family members from burning to death, the firefighters instead just stood idly by and watched the disaster unfold. When you ask them why the hell they didn't help to save the lives of your family members, they say "Well, as much as we would've liked to, where's the fun in that? What we did, by standing by and not helping, is provide you with the incentive to work hard yourself to solve your own problems. So you're welcome." Regardless of whatever noble, underlying intentions are used to justify the inactivity, this is ultimately the thinking of a sociopath who doesn't care about the suffering of his fellow creatures.
It's also worth noting that the free will excuse can't be made when it comes to natural disasters. These aren't the actions of murderous, Islamic fundamentalists; this is an act of nature, or as they're sometimes called, "an act of God." So where is the divine intervention here? Why was the tornado's path not altered? Why did God not use his powers to prevent the tornado from forming in the first place? If God truly did care about us, and didn't want to see us suffer and die needlessly, why did he not take action?
Why would he even create a world, in the first place, so prone to natural disasters, whether they be avalanches, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, floods, or tornadoes? Presumably he could've created a world not plagued by any of these natural disasters. But he chose to create precisely this world, with the full knowledge that people would suffer and die as a result of these events. What kind of a decision is this? These are very troubling questions for the religious believer. If you ask me, it is simply nonsensical to believe that our world was created by and is watched over by an all-powerful god who cares deeply about our lives and doesn't wish to see us suffer.
But, to echo another point made by Christopher Hitchens in that debate against Al Sharpton, when you reject the idea that there's an all-powerful, all-knowing God out there who cares about us, the mysteries evaporate. The questions are painfully easy to answer. Why do tornadoes form? Why do they kill people? Well, tornadoes are just one of many natural weather events that take place on our planet, and sometimes, they happen to form in close proximity to where humans live.
Given these facts, it's worth realizing that no God will come down from the clouds to save us from the F5 tornado that's barreling towards our city. It is up to us to take action. It is our responsibility to monitor the weather, create tornado warning sirens, ensure that our buildings and shelters can withstand the force of these natural disasters, and dig each other out of the rubble.
The person who falls to their knees and prays to God to save them when the tornado approaches isn't just wasting their time—they're misusing it, because this is time that should be spent preparing for the impending disaster and recovery efforts. I can assure that if you see a tsunami speeding towards you on the beach, dropping to your knees and praying to God will not cause the waters to part around you like Moses and the Red Sea. And it's very telling that you never see religious people forming prayer circles on the beach when the tsunami is near. Do they not have the courage of their convictions? Do they not truly believe that prayer is effective and that God will protect them? Deep down, they seem to know that if they don't head for higher ground, their prayers will not save them. When it's actually time to put their money where their theological mouth is, they become just as secular and self-reliant as the most fervent atheist among them. I encourage them to ask themselves why this is the case.