Sunday Evening Theism

J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he teaches writing to college students and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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16 Responses

  1. BlaiseP says:

    The story of Job does not mention a brother. His three friends who come to visit him, Elihu, Bildad and Zophar, arrive to find him in a terrible state. They sit with him for a week, in silence, so great was his suffering.

    Had they gone away at that point, they would have been recorded as the greatest friends a man ever had. Instead, they have to open their mouths to say stupid things and ask stupid questions.Report

  2. JL, thanks for the thoughtful response.

    Since it is apparently easier for me to poke holes in the arguments of others than it is for me to defend my own argument against critiques or qualifications, I will comment on a few points you have raised here.

    “…the believer’s life is defined by a series of peaks and valleys as he or she grapples with doubts sown by blunt confrontations with twentieth- (and now twenty-first) century suffering.”

    Doubt exists for atheists as well (at least for me), as we try to reconcile observation and humility. I mentioned in my post that for humans to deny the existence of God is like a cell denying the existence of the organism of which it is a part. I think this intuitive view is consistent with some Eastern concepts of God, but aside from very few notable exceptions (also mentioned in my post) it is not consistent with Abrahamic conceptualizations of God.

    An important point, which I did not raise explicitly in my post (although it was raised by several commenters), is that there is a very real, fundamental difference between evils perpetrated by human beings (who libertarians imagine have free will, and let’s, for the sake of argument humor them), such as the Holocaust, and natural evils such as natural disasters and disease.

    There are a few ways to reconcile the existence of natural evil and the existence of omnibenevolent God: Satan, this world being just a test for the afterlife, karma, faith (This one is interesting because if there is reason to believe something then how, by definition, can you also have faith?), and also similarly interesting is the notion that without evil, there cannot be good. Personally I like this “Taoist” interpretation at face value and find it useful for deconstructing utilitarian arguments which assume that we should maximize happiness.Report

  3. Tod Kelly says:

    I’m confused. What does this have to do with Erick Erickson?Report

  4. Burt Likko says:

    Having had a Christian background, Christian theodicy is more familiar to me. The authors you quote explore the limits of theodicy in any tradition, although the dramatic experience of the Holocaust is a perspective that demands respect. Iraneas’ theodicy has always seemed stronger to me than Augustine’s or free-will arguments: evil and suffering are necessary for human development. But still this makes no sense to the parents of the burning children. What are the core Jewish theodicy arguments?Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Burt Likko says:

      I’m sure Brother Wall will remember me bringing this up the last time we discussed this but there is Theodicy to be found in the intro to Elie Wiesel’s _Trial Of God_:

      The trial lasted several nights. Witnesses were heard, evidence was gathered, conclusions were drawn, all of which issued finally in a unanimous verdict: the Lord God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, was found guilty of crimes against creation and humankind. And then, after what Wiesel describes as an “infinity of silence,” the Talmudic scholar looked at the sky and said “It’s time for evening prayers,” and the members of the tribunal recited Maariv, the evening service.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Judaism doesn’t do theodicy in the same way. God and his purposes are essentially unknowable. He has given us The Law (the Torah) and our job is to study and obey it. Anything much beyond that is above our pay grade, though there was a general faith that there would be rewards for a job well done. Individual exceptions to that were simply understood as God having a higher purpose we didn’t understand.

      The Holocaust blew a giant hole in that. If He’s going to stand by and let all of His people be murdered and not do a damned thing to help, to Hell with Him. That’s why Israel is, the minority of ultra-Orthodox aside, largely a secular state. It isn’t there to glorify God or to fulfill any Biblical predictions; it’s there because Jews decided that when the next Hitler comes, they can’t rely on Him or on the rest of you either.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Burt Likko says:

      Adding to what Mike said, the Rabbis weren’t interested in theological questions the way that Christian theologians were. The Rabbis were mainly concerned with what God expects of people in general and Jews in particular. Most of the Talmud are debates on the meaning and requirements of particular Mitzvah in the Torah. There is very little on the nature of God. This concern with what God expects is also why Judaism doesn’t really focus that much on the afterlife beyond it exists.Report

  5. Chris says:

    One of the things that used to really strike me about many of the atheists I’ve known, though I haven’t thought about it in a while, is that like many Christians, they are completely unwilling to admit to bouts of doubt. It seems that to them, if you’ve come to your conclusion entirely through reason (which many of them believe they have), then there is no real room for doubt. While I imagine there are some people who were raised as atheists who have little or no doubt, I have a hard time believing that there are many of us first generation atheists who don’t doubt pretty regularly. I know I do, not so much intellectually but emotionally. This seems entirely natural to me: my emotional development largely took place while I was a Catholic youth, and my emotional reactions to things were partially filtered through my Catholicism. It would be weird if I were one day able to just completely undo that particular aspect of my development through sheer intellectual will power.

    There are external factors, too, that lead me to doubt. Sometimes the emotional doubt is made all the more acute by the guilt I feel at my failure to make my parents (now Evangelicals), who desperately desire to return me to Christianity, happy. That is, the doubt often comes in this form: am I so certain in my beliefs that I am willing to continue to cause my parents this much distress (and judging by the way my mother cries every time she brings it up, and she brings it up often, the distress is very real and significant)? In the end, I feel like it would be dishonest of me to make a real go at being a believer, much less a Christian, again, because it simply is not what I believe, but that doesn’t prevent moments of very real, sometimes very upsetting doubt.

    I have always tried to use the doubt for constructive ends, though. It leads me to explore my beliefs in much more depth, both outwardly by reading and talking smart theists, and inwardly, by trying to figure out exactly what I think and why I think it. Maybe I was always going to arrive here, because we usually get where we want to go when it comes to these sorts of things (though I can say that young adult me never consciously wanted to become an atheist, quite the contrary in fact), but at least it puts the anxiety-inducing doubt to work.Report

    • greginak in reply to Chris says:

      I wasn’t raised with any religion at all. My parents weren’t believers in the faiths they were raised in. They didn’t talk about religion much at all nor did they push a belief on me. So basically i’ve always been a non-believer. So no doubt for me, since this is what i know and it works for me. Having a faith seems like wishing for a prehensile tail. I can see how it could be useful and fun, but i have no actual experience of having one to miss it nor is it something that feels natural to me.Report

      • Chris in reply to greginak says:

        Yeah, that’s what I figured: if you weren’t raised with religious faith, you’re significantly less likely to have moments of doubt, because there’s no residue of that faith. I haven’t known many second-generation (or greater) atheists, though.Report

        • zic in reply to Chris says:

          I think there are a lot of Christians who ‘believe’ because of social convenience; they don’t regularly attend church, they don’t really belong to a congregation of any sort. They may go to a church service at Easter or Christmas, they celebrate holidays with their family. They sort of subscribe to Christian beliefs, and generally believe that violating the social norms set out by Christianity bad, with some notion of a hereafter to bolster those notions. It’s not that they believe religiously, or so it seems to me, but believe socially. They don’t want to offend religious notion, but they don’t really partake of it, either, except as gathering time for family and a guiding set of social constructs.

          I can’t speak to their moments of doubt, I’m sure they have them. But I see these same people embracing Santa and the Easter Bunny for their children; and I can’t help but wonder if this is also an expression of their faith; I believe, but I understand what I believe is make believe.

          Perhaps you know more about this; if so, I’d be curious. But it does seem to be akin to some of the things LeeEsq & others have been saying about Judaism, perhaps lacking some of the scholarliness they also speak of.Report

          • zic in reply to zic says:

            I guess what I’m trying to say is that these people (I’d include most of my family) are atheist hedging their bets.

            It’s rather like being in the closet. By saying you’re Christian, you get the benefits of social stability and avoid the approbation non-believers sometimes suffer.Report

            • Stillwater in reply to zic says:

              I guess what I’m trying to say is that these people (I’d include most of my family) are atheist hedging their bets.

              The inclination to hedge bets is a holdover of culturally established belief that God takes punitive action against non-believers. There’s nothing rational about it. It’s just a lurking and apparently unshakeable background assumption bounding around in our cultural space. When I used to talk religion with folks dismayed about my lack of affirmative belief in the Christian God they’d always respond with a standard line: wasn’t I afraid of the consequences of being wrong? And my standard response was that supposing the whole story is true, and that God is benevolent and that He gave me freewill, he wouldn’t be such a dick as to punish me for holding beliefs derived from the exercise of that freedom. Only an asshole would do that.Report

    • Jason M. in reply to Chris says:

      As a contrast to greginak, I am a first-gen atheist, having been raised in a religious family. I wouldn’t say I have absolutely zero doubt, but the question of “is there a God” (including post-religious conceptions of God) has been effectively whittled down to something akin to wondering about what’s going on in any of the trillions of theoretical alternative universes right now; interesting to ponder, but with no application for how I live my life. I suspect that it the case for everyone else that, like me, “does God exist?” is joined at the hip with “what happens to me after I die?”, and so my journey from doubtless believer, to doubting searcher, to (damn near) doubtless atheist was actually more about grappling with mortality than anything else.

      It’s all one blurry continuum, but if I had to pick a keystone moment, it was the last few minutes before going into surgery for a appendicitis 10 years ago. I knew appendectomies were common, but I wasn’t sure if mine had already ruptured, and I considered the possibility that the last few minutes of consciousness before being put under might be my last. If there ever was to be a deathbed conversion or foxhole atheist moment for me, that was it…but I swear it never once occurred to me. I thought then, I as I do know, that I’d disappear into the same timeless void that preceded my earliest childhood memories, and I was at peace with that.

      As an aside, comprehending what it must be like to be an atheist without doubt is actually pretty easy. Just replace the belief in God with the belief in the Greek Pantheon.Report

  6. By the way, JL, this is a good post. Unfortunately, I don’t really have anything of substance to add.Report