by Richard Bernstein
One of our participants posed a question, which has been on everyone’s mind at one time or another: Why do people believe in God? Underlying the question is a need to reconcile the notion of a benevolent, omnipotent divinity with the omnipresence of evil, tragedy and disasters affecting so many, including the young and the innocent.
The answer to this paradox has led some philosophers and theologians to propose that we, as humans, cannot understand the Big Picture or the ultimate meaning of misfortune, suffering and untimely death. While these may appear to be horrible, such events have an inscrutable but essential purpose in the long run. An alternative explanation would suggest that we are all sinful and therefore neither blameless nor innocent. Thus, no victim of adversity is undeserving, even if the “just deserts” are not explicable by mere mortals. A third rationale for tragedy is that God is limited in what He can do. He created a universe with rules. Once these were set into motion, neither we nor God can break the chain of causality and consequences. A fourth, more cynical explanation might be that God is not only not omnipotent, but that he isn’t all good. His image in the Book of Job is not a flattering one. He appears to be somewhat sadistic in testing Job because of his wager with Satan. Even those who believe God is benevolent may still hold that he can be retributive in keeping a Cosmic Ledger to judge those who deserve to be rewarded in the afterlife and those who need some form of punishment. Finally, the atheist claims there is no need to explain how there can be evil and God since there is no God. Many hold that God is obviously man’s creation and not the other way around. They believe our fear and ignorance led our forbearers to create an all powerful being to assuage our anxieties and insecurities about the threats in our environment, our feelings of impotence and our concerns about what death will bring.
Given the above difficulties, many in the group found it quite extraordinary that God was not dead in the hearts and minds of most people, especially the highly educated and thoughtful. It appears that the ability to have faith is a key to allowing many to reconcile the otherwise contradictory evidence that a benign God could exist in a world where evil and suffering are so apparent. Some expressed their sense of an underlying Presence behind the world of appearances or identified God with the power of Nature or Life Force or Creativity. For others, like Felix Adler and other ethical humanists, God was identified with the Good and the ideals to which human strove in trying to create a better world and to improve the lot of their fellow beings and of the natural world. While not the providential God who intervenes in human history, it is an idea of God that is accepted by many theists and non-theists.
Some noted that competing ideas about God have led to sectarian conflicts and prolonged periods of misery throughout history. Even today, the terrorism we fear in our lives derives in part from interpretations about what God wants from his followers, as interpreted by certain members of the priestly class. While religion can be blamed for causing horrific consequences, atheism also has a checkered history, given the consequences of Stalinism and the Nazis.
While religion has inflicted suffering, it has also inspired magnificent art, architecture, and music. It has stirred people to perform heroic and altruistic deeds that have advanced civilization. For some God is love and is shown in “in the face of man” and in all good deeds. This idealistic rhetoric was held by a minority of participants. Most felt such ideas contributed to the misguided notion that people could not be moral unless they believed in God or unless God was around to dole out punishment to the wicked. By contrast, one person suggested truly moral acts required that they be done without concern for reward or punishment.
As always, no consensus emerged. As always, the group found the topic and discussion stimulating and a way to respectfully explore the paradoxes that are intrinsic in any good subject. Join us on the last Monday of each month for a mind stretching and provocative exploration of a subject that is on your mind.
by Richard Bernstein