Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What's God Got To Do With It? Fallacies of Theistic Belief

Last night, I happened to watch an episode of "Crossing Jordan" in which Jordan encounters what appears to be the resurrection of a man who Jordan, as a medical examiner, knew for certain had died. As the plot unfolds, Jordan gives the impression that she is an atheist or at least a skeptic, believing instead in the power of science to explain the apparently inexplicable. Using her forensic skills she solves the mystery of the "revived" corpse --up to a point, and she agrees with a priest friend that the unanswered portion of the riddle is indeed a miracle. It turns out that Jordan is not really an atheist after all. She's just angry at God for taking her mother from her when Jordan was just a child. With counseling from the priest, Jordan forgives God, accepts his will, and returns to the fold.

This theme is similar to a TV-movie that I saw a few nights before called "The Christmas Visitor". The story is about a family who loses interest in attending church, at least on Christmas after the son, a soldier, is killed in battle around the time of that holiday. Their acceptance of God's will is restored one December when a young hitch hiker who enters their life has uncanny knowledge about their son and may in fact be their son's spirit who has come back to help them get past their grief and regain their faith.

The common thread of these two shows that drives me ape-shit is not so much the "miracle" that revives the characters' religious sentiments (after all, this is American commercial television fare, folks). Rather it's how the characters, just like people in real life, have no problem believing in a supreme being, usually a benevolent one, until something tragic happens to them or a loved one. This line of "thinking"(?) conscious or otherwise can best be summarized: "As long as a disaster, no matter how horrible, happens to Joe Shmoe down the block or to his family and not to me or my people, God exists and is good." Is this failure to question God's grace or existence when misfortune strikes outside a believer's immediate circle (the "other") a form of narcissism or just the built-in weakness of theism itself?

The flip side of this typical outlook of most God-believers who survive a calamity (e.g. a natural disaster or a plane crash) in which many other people died is "God saved me but not the others. Therefore, I must be special in His eyes". Instead, why do they not think "I'm alive but my neighbors (or fellow passengers) didn't make it. Why? Didn't they have just as much right to live as I do?" Or if they do ask that question, they likely do so in the form of "survivor's guilt" rather than as a tribute to the humanity that they shared with the deceased.

By removing the notion of a supreme being from the equation, bad events become understandable (although this is usually little comfort to the bereaved). These natural phenomena and their resulting casualties can be rationally explained as the result of physical laws and randomness (being in the wrong place at the wrong time.) For example a killer earthquake such as the one in China a few months ago is not an act of God, but simply the result of natural forces involving stressed tectonic plates many miles below the earth's surface, the shock waves from which radiated out and upwards and struck what happened to be a densely populated area of the planet. Similarly, illness is not a sign of a God's displeasure but simply the result of pathogens or a genetic flaw.

Then there are disasters that involve both nature and human responsibility, such as the shipwreck in the Philippines last month that took over 700 lives. Aside from the typhoon itself that overturned the vessel, there were man made errors as well, such as engine failure at the height of the storm, likely the result of poor mechanical maintenance. Added to this was the decision by the captain, along with possible malfeasance and incompetence by the company that owned the Ferry and by government authorities who allowed the ship to sail under such severe weather conditions in the first place (See "Philippines Ferry Sinking: Recurring Disaster").

And let us not forget those who carry "lucky charms" (not the cereal, but talismans which are just about as useless and without the flavor of the former) such as rosaries, believing that doing so will protect them from harm. A fat lot of good those amulets did for the shipwreck fatalities who were holding them and praying to God for deliverance as the ship sank (no doubt there were many, as approximately 85% of Philippines population are Roman Catholics, most of them hopelessly so.)

The category of tragedy that is probably the most difficult of all for someone to come to terms with is the loss of a loved one as the result of deliberate violence by others. To give an extreme example, I can't imagine a greater sorrow or horror than for parents to lose a child as the result of a willful act by another, such as a sexual predator. How much more is their grief compounded if they believe in a God who they question for "allowing this to happen", pray for an answer, and are met with stony silence. But A different perspective on this terrible occurance is that there was a chain of events that led up to the death of of their child, all of which were natural and / or man made, beginning perhaps with the molestation of the killer him/herself when (s)he was a child. None of these links are traceable to a supernatural being.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, if we there is no supreme authority to appeal to or blame when things go wrong, then wouldn't it stand to reason that there is no such entity to praise or thank when things go right? Take for example the good fortune of winning a lottery. There is no more evidence of a God who favored or intervened for them any than of one who "cursed" or "turned his back" on their luckless counterparts in the aforementioned ferry disaster. In the case of a lottery winner it's simply the random luck of the draw. Assuming the contest wasn't rigged, some participant simply wound up with the ticket that had the right combination of numbers, no matter how many lottery players prayed to God to make him/her that individual.

As for those who experience good fortune as the result of their own merit and receive recognition awards for their achievements, these people earned it. There is no need for them to thank a God (think Oscar awards) when it was their own efforts that got them where they are. The same goes for success in a any venture in which a person put forth his or her best effort.

There is a popular clichè "let go, let God". But in his books Man for Himself and Psychoanalysis and Religion, the late Erich Fromm, a renown humanistic psychoanalyst discussed the powerlessness and helplessness that people undergo when they surrender their personal sovereignty to a "higher power". I wholeheartedly agree. Like the vast majority of Americans I also believed in the existence of a supreme being for most of my life, and during that time I found personal difficulties harder to bear than after I gave up that credence. In turn I discovered that it's easier to tolerate life's hardships when there's no supernatural entity to blame for them or fruitlessly pray to in order to make problems go away. I must deal with them realistically and solve them by myself or with the help of other people, here and now. And by the way, my skepticism about God's existence was not due to a sudden loss of faith over any particular incident. Rather it was a gradual awareness (thanks in part to Fromm's influence) that grew over a period of years.

Throughout the world, there are many societies comprised of millions of people who are not dependent on a belief in the God that our society envisions, and they get along just fine. In fact, they are just as civilized if not more so than theistic cultures. America and the Philippines are supposedly God-centered societies (notwithstanding their respective Constitutional separations of church and state). Yet both countries have an extremely high rate of violence. Further, the former has the world's highest rate of incarceration, and the latter is fraught with endemic and systematic corruption. On the other hand, Japan and Scandinavia are very peaceful regions, have a low crime rates, and are not chained to religious dogma. In fact, Danes who also have a very low rate of church attendance are very peaceful and according to a survey, extremely content with their lives (see "Denmark "world's happiest nation"). China, Taiwan, and South Korea are other examples of countries that are not god-dependent and have orderly and developed societies. Contrast these societies with devout Muslim countries which are very backward and from which so much terrorism has sprung. Central to the terrorists disregard for human life is their belief that God is on their side and they will be rewarded in heaven for furthering the cause of Allah against the "infidels". Yet, this is no more absurd than the notion of eternal rewards and damnation which prevails in many so-called "Judeo-Christian" countries.

There is no more proof of an afterlife than there is of a supreme being. Personally, the greatest reward when I die is to leave a good name, i.e. to be remembered as someone who made a positive contribution to the world or at least did what he could to try to make it a better place. I consider that as the true meaning of immortality. On the other hand, the greatest "eternal punishment" is to be forgotten as though I had never existed or to be remembered unfavorably. One doesn't have to believe in a supreme being to understand and follow the adage: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. " Virtue is truly its own reward. Perhaps in time, humans will evolve to a higher level of reasoning. At that stage, we will not be dependent on any power higher than our own minds and hearts, a power that will enable us to achieve universal justice and peace for no other reason than for the sake of advancing world civilization, its simply the right thing to do.