As with so many other bloggers with whom I interact, and whose blogs I read, I am, even if subconsciously, always on the lookout for topics about which to blog. I hesitate to write that, because I don’t ever want my friends and family to think they can’t talk to me about a particular subject because I’ll then write about it. But so many interesting conversations come up on a daily basis that I want to put down to the 21st century version of pen and paper, the keystroke and data. I promise that if I blog about something we’ve talked about, I won’t identify you unless I’ve asked you for your permission.
So…I had a conversation with a friend recently, about thankfulness, and the idea of blessings. I’ve just written a post about being thankful, without having an entity to thank. My friend is a believer, and our discussion was about how he felt that all those things for which we are grateful were actually blessings from God, whether I acknowledged that or not.
What followed was a discussion about why God would choose to bless certain people with so much, and keep any blessings from the vast majority of others (say, most of the continent of Africa). Most of the world does not have clean water, or enough food, or safety. He said that sometimes God blesses us because we’ve been faithful, and sometimes he blesses us because it’s a part of His plan that we don’t understand, and vice versa – that sometimes we lose things because we’re disobedient, and sometimes we don’t understand why because we don’t understand His plan.
I asked if He thought God’s plan included any compassion on the part of God. Why, whatever His plan may be, allow children to be born into starvation, in a war-torn country, to suffer for 5, or 6, or 7 years, witnessing death, feeling pain, to die a horrible death – whatever could God’s plan be with that kind of misery, multiplied by the thousands?
He hesitated, but then concluded that maybe all of that suffering was a way to get the attention of each of us, individually, to turn to Him. This is not an immoral man. I think because he’s heard this his entire life he’s accustomed to how it sounds. It was not unfamiliar to me, as a former believer, and yet even only a few years away from the faith myself, I was utterly horrified at hearing him say this. I asked if I could repeat back to him what I heard him say. I described what life could be like for such a child, the things she might see, and feel, the pain, the agony, the absolute and complete suffering, all to get me to talk to God? When He could, in the blink of an eye, say that to me Himself, and save this child, and thousands like her, from this fate? I don’t know if I tried if I could come up with a more blasphemous thing to say.
He backpedaled and said he reconsidered. He said no, maybe that was not the reason. He’s imperfect and he should have thought a little deeper before he answered. He said what he should have said was that, no, God did not do that. God was only the author of all things good, that the evil and suffering in the world were the work of Satan, and sin. This “metaphorical child” (yes, he said that) was in pain and sorrow because Adam had originally sinned, the world became imperfect, and evil came into the world. Now she suffers because of that. I pointed out that that was really a variation on what he had just retracted. Could God or could God not intervene and alleviate this child’s suffering? Yes, he said, He could, but He just chose not to….right back to getting our attention through the suffering of this child.
He reconsidered again, and said that he thought he could express it best this way. God knows ahead of time how to get the most people to turn to Him, since that’s what he wants from every single person on the planet. It hurts him to see suffering, he doesn’t want those people to suffer, but in the aggregate, that’s the way to get the most “bang for your buck” (my words, not his). I think he took my stunned silence as acceptance of his position.
Of all of the reasons I push back against religion, this is probably the one that motivates me the most. This is a good man, a moral and loving husband and father. I think his compassion lever is malfunctioning, and it’s malfunctioning because he has had a lifetime of having to justify the unjustifiable, to moralize the immoral, to accept the reprehensible. The Bible does tell about God’s judgement and wrath and killing and destruction to achieve his means, very clearly, and in numerous places. Believers are left having to “do” something with all of these passages. And that something fucks up the system. Our natural compassion is blunted. When a tsunami kills thousands of people, and it’s a given that God is in control of the tsunami, we have to come to terms with what to do with that information, and we push it and shove it and hammer it in, until the workings of an imperfect but highly functional biological, social, and psychological system of care and compassion are skewed beyond recognition.
Life is random. And unfair. And sometimes we get the good stuff, and sometimes we get the bad stuff. There are things we can do to affect our fortune, for the good and bad, and there are things we cannot effect. The danger with thinking that the good things in your life are there because God loves you so much, is the unspoken implication that the bad things in someone else’s life are there because God doesn’t love them quite so much. And if God doesn’t care about them, maybe we don’t have to either. My friend tried to back away from this, and stepped right into the next steaming pile of poo with his argument about God’s plan.
The problem of suffering. Think. Think again. Then think again. Just don’t call me blessed; I want no part of it.
December 11, 2011 at 11:08 am
“Of all of the reasons I push back against religion, this is probably the one that motivates me the most. This is a good man, a moral and loving husband and father. I think his compassion lever is malfunctioning, and it’s malfunctioning because he has had a lifetime of having to justify the unjustifiable, to moralize the immoral, to accept the reprehensible.”
You know that I respect you and love you and appreciate your opinion. But I feel like you’ve come to some faulty conclusions here. Why do you say his “compassion lever is malfunctioning?” Is it because he is in a better place, socially, economically, than the continent of Africa? Or is it because he recognizes that he is in a better place? Or is it because he is attempting to believe that there is a “logic” to the suffering?
Because attempting to believe that there is a logic to it all is a coping mechanism which, I don’t believe, is any different from the thousands of others that people like you and I employ every day. Some people over-eat, some people cut, some people lash out at their loved ones, and this is regardless of the absence or presence of religion.
I think the best and most subversive example I can think of is what I’ve begun to think of as an inflated sense of self worth: there are people who walk around every day who say, “I deserve x, I worked hard for y, I’m a good person because I z.” But you and I clearly agree that the world is random and unfair, so it logically follows that really, no one deserves anything. You may feel like you worked hard for x, let’s say awesome grades because you studied for finals (which I should be doing now) but really, for some haphazard reason you were put into a situation that was conducive for that. You may feel like you worked hard, but essentially luck provided you with a laptop, a school, an IQ. Because one misstep 1000 years ago and you never would have been born, one change in a DNA sequence would have meant that you were born with a mental handicap.
To borrow a quote from Primo Levi, which I actually first heard reading David Sedaris: “One single Anne Frank moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did but whose faces have remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is better that way; if we were capable of taking in all the suffering of all those people, we would not be able to live.” There are people who walk around every day, who claim that they have intrinsic merit, and there are people who walk around every day and “Thank God” for it. I don’t think either makes any sense. But these are natural responses to the reality that we are incomprehensibly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, and if we could really wrap our heads around it, if we could really understand how small we were, how little we mattered, how none of our character or “merit” is really anything but luck + nature + nurture, we wouldn’t be able to live.
And I don’t think the particular coping mechanism your friend employs makes him less compassionate. I think the conclusion that religion is the reason that your friend’s “compassion lever is broken” is faulty. The fact that there could be a reason (which we don’t think there is) doesn’t make Christians any less apt to act. Christian organisations in particular are incredibly active in Africa. I’m sure it has occurred to you that Christians aren’t completely logical beings. Human beings aren’t particularly logical. Whether or not there is a “reason” that allows a people to go on living, it doesn’t “justify the unjustifiable” or make the suffering of those people any less heart-breaking, and it doesn’t keep me or him for feeling just as bad as you do for those who are less fortunate. “Donate to Japan? Fuck that, God did it!” isn’t generally what you’ll hear in a church on Sunday. Generally you’ll hear the pastor asking the congregation to dig deep.
I really do try to view your positions as objectively as possible because if you’re right, I want to know it. “I will spin on a fucking dime,” as that guy you like said in that poem I like. But I’m still not absolutely clear on how religion, which you view as a vice, is any worse than any other psychological mind trick we play on ourselves to get by. And we all employ them. I venture to say that we must.
Oh, time to study agaiiin… 😦 Thanks for the break! 🙂
December 12, 2011 at 10:14 am
You darling girl! So glad to see your name and read your thoughts! Are you around for the holidays?? Girls will be in and we’ll throw down sometime over the season – we’d love to see you! And hear about your adventures! I’m dying to talk to you about law school.
If you have about a thousand years to spare, I can give you a response to that…
love you hard sweet child – call, text, email, FB, come see us!!
December 15, 2011 at 9:38 pm
“You know that I respect you and love you and appreciate your opinion. But I feel like you’ve come to some faulty conclusions here. Why do you say his “compassion lever is malfunctioning?” Is it because he is in a better place, socially, economically, than the continent of Africa? Or is it because he recognizes that he is in a better place? Or is it because he is attempting to believe that there is a “logic” to the suffering?”
I’d say it’s specifically that calling yourself “blessed” because you were born in the modern USA implies that you somehow deserve your situation, and those born in less fortunate situations deserve the misfortune they find themselves in. No one “deserves” to be born into poverty, famine, war, and misery.
December 11, 2011 at 12:40 pm
Well said. I’m also a former believer, and I have had similar lines of thought. You put it into words better than I’ve been able to. As always, the problem is that people who need to read this won’t, and people who don’t need to will. I’ve thought the same thing about Hell… God knew the future, and decided to create a world where over half the people ever born would be condemned to eternal suffering. Yet he chose to create anyway… so who can we blame but him? Anyway, great writing. Thanks for posting it.
December 12, 2011 at 10:20 am
Ben – I’m so moved by your comment, and by your reading the blog.
I find that, 5 years out from my de-conversion, my passion about this is mounting, not subsiding.
So stay tuned…more rants to come!