The question of why bad things happen to good people undoubtedly dates back to the mists of pre-history, when our ancestors first developed the ability to pose the question, “Why?” The tendency has been to answer the inexplicable with “God.”
It’s a serious question, and it deserves serious thought. What does the existence of suffering say about God?
Dagon linked to a piece from October 2005 by Sam Harris, entitled, “There Is No God (And You Know It).” Harris opens by presenting a likely scenario: A little girl is abducted, raped, tortured and killed, and while this is happening, her parents are innocently maintaining belief in a loving God who is watching out for them.
The argument here is that if God truly were omnipotent, omniscient and caring, He would never let atrocities and tragedies occur. As they do occur with regularity, either God is a hypocrite or, more likely, He simply does not exist. “If God exists, either He can do nothing to stop the most egregious calamities, or He does not care to. God, therefore, is either impotent or evil.”
My first reaction to this essay was disdainful anger. Harris mocks people of faith with dripping condescension: “Atheism is not a philosophy; it is simply a refusal to deny the obvious.” Or, “atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make when in the presence of religious dogma.”
Harris assumes that people of all religions have the same fundamental beliefs about the nature of God and His role in the world (which is as sophisticated as assuming all Americans support George W. Bush), and because he thinks of faith as willing surrender of analytical thinking skills in favor of uncritical acceptance of a highly illogical belief system that demands adherence even in the face of reason and science, he doesn’t stop to consider that many people of faith have wrestled with this very question and come to conclusions far from the one he claims we all share.
The response to accusations like this is necessarily complex. It involves thoughts about free will and conscience, mortality, and though the phrase may sound strange, the benefits of suffering. The answer to “Where is God in the midst of all this tragedy?” can be found in the results of a Washington Post poll that Harris himself links to: 80% of Hurricane Katrina survivors responded that the experience strengthened their faith, a phenomenon we also saw with the 2004 Tsunami. Harris sees this as evidence of the utter idiocy of religious people, when the ironic truth is that far from proving that suffering indicates the absence of God, it is during our darkest hours that God is most present.