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I can’t help but notice the justifiable outcry from my atheist brothers and sisters in response to the incomprehensible new revelations about the child rape industrial complex, also known as the Catholic Church. Secularists are frustrated by the culture of cover-ups, hush payments and the failure of Papal intervention. Even Pope Francis, who has been adored by liberals, is facing intense scrutiny for his inaction on the matter. Nonbelievers want the atrocities to end. But more fundamentally, they are baffled by how people could believe in a God that allows his institutions to perpetuate an epidemic of child abuse.
There are many questions that atheists long to ask their superstitious counterparts. How do believers make sense of the problem of suffering? How do they explain the dichotomous God who acts as both a lover and an executioner? If God is all powerful, why doesn’t he swoop in and hand all of the criminal priests to the horned one himself? In reality, most Catholics and Christians give precious little thought to the logic that supports their faith. Questions of this nature require critical thinking and most believers don’t appreciate when their religion is under the microscope. When questions, like those posed by frustrated atheists, are presented to the average believer, they’ll typically deflect and disengage.
So, as a courtesy to my dear atheist friends, I thought I’d explore these questions from the viewpoint of (religiously literate) Christians and then test that viewpoint’s foundational logic.
Disclaimer: I don’t share an Evangelical worldview so I’m playing devil’s advocate here purely for the sake of philosophical exercise.
All of the atheists’ questions begin with the assumption that God is directly responsible for Catholic child molestation and all other instances of human suffering. The premises that they rely on to arrive at that conclusion go something like this:
God created the children and their pedophile abusers. God also created the system that the abuse occurred in. Furthermore, because of his omniscience, God knew that the abuse was going to happen and, because of his omnipotence, he was able to stop the suffering. But he didn’t and therefore, God is culpable for the children’s suffering.
Christian theology’s central message is Christ’s liberation of humanity from the clutches of sin. While Fundamentalist Christians and progressive Christians argue about how Genesis should be interpreted (literally vs. allegorically), they all believe that man and woman were created with free will. They were given rules to follow and they were given the freedom to choose whether or not they would follow those rules. As the story goes, mankind chose to not follow the rules (sinned) and were separated from God’s perfect nature, which meant they would ultimately die (no heaven – bad) because it is not possible for humans to live a sinless life when they are separated from God’s presence. Jesus, a sinless and perfect being, paid mankind’s debt with his life and made salvation attainable (heaven – good) for those that accepted him as their savior.
The crux of this narrative is choice. In this theological framework, God awarded man with free will. The choices that people make determine who they become and how successful they will be and how positively or negatively they affect other people. There are consequences, good or bad, to every choice. In the Christian framework, our choices determine whether heaven or hell awaits us in the afterlife. Atheists believe that there are real-world consequences for choices in this life because they don’t believe in a Heaven or a Hell. Christians delay the ultimate judgment until after they die. Their choices determine their eternal fate. Hell is key to Christian theology, because without it, there’s no need for Jesus and his sacrifice. Choices determine fate. Therefore, choice and free will are what give life meaning. Without choice and free will, life doesn’t have any meaning and sin wouldn’t be a viable concept since sinning, by definition, means choosing to do wrong. If there’s not choice, there can be no wrongdoing.
If God were to intervene every time a tragedy happened, it would violate the principle of free will, which is foundational to Christian theology. Divine intervention to save a child from the disgusting clutches of a pedophile priest would violate the priest’s free will. Again, in this theological framework, the priest will have to answer for his sins on Judgment Day. If God were to intervene and prevent him from committing the abusive act, it would, in effect, be protecting the priest from the punishment of the crime that he was planning to commit. At its core, the Christian justification for God’s inaction during time’s of tragedy is that God didn’t create us to be robots. He provided us with the freedom to choose good or evil, which lies at the heart of the Gospel.
Right out of the gate, I see a fundamental problem with the ‘free will’ logic. That problem is miracles. I’ll remove all of the miracles of Jesus from consideration because, according to Christian tradition, while he was a flesh and blood man on Earth he didn’t have the comprehensive divine abilities that God does. We still have a lot to work with.
The Hebrews’ escape from the Egyptians in Exodus comes to mind. God tormented the Pharaoh for refusing to free the slaves. Plagues terrorized Egypt and God even sent the Angel of Death to kill all first born children. God allowed Moses to part the Red Sea, which saved the Hebrew slaves from annihilation and destroyed their Egyptian oppressors.
It sure seems like God didn’t have a problem intervening on behalf of his Hebrew allies. What did the Hebrews have that the Catholic children lack?
In the book of Daniel, the prophet (also called Daniel) makes a career out of interpreting God’s divine messages. The Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar II, was tormented by a dream and none of his spiritual advisers could interpret it. Fortunately, Daniel rose to the challenge and interpreted the dream. The king then acknowledged that Daniel’s God was the one true God and made Daniel his chief ‘wise man.’ Years later, when Daniel was older, Darius the Mede sentenced Daniel to death in the lions’ den. God intervened, closed the mouths of the lions and saved his faithful servant.
In this case we see, once again, God taking a highly active role in his creation. Why did God save Daniel (an old man at the time) from the lions but doesn’t save little children from horrific abuse?
I’ll give one last example. The prophet Elijah in 1 Kings and 2 Kings practically has a miracle on every other page. Ravens gave him bread and meat when he was starving and thirsty. A widow and her son were preparing to eat their last meal, so Elijah (through God) magically made their oil and flour not run out. When Elijah claimed victory over the prophets of Baal, God answered Elijah’s prayer and rain fell on the famine landscape.
Clearly, once again, God has no trouble intervening to protect those that he loves and cares for, and to destroy those that he hates.
The Bible’s saturation of miracles cuts the free will argument off at the knees. If God selectively intervenes to save certain people but not others, the principle of choice is neutered. Life is a roll of the dice; God might intervene on your behalf and he might not. There’s no way to know for sure. It’s not axiomatically possible for the choices of some people to matter and for the choices of others to not matter.
The inevitable response to these objections will be something to the effect of: God works in mysterious ways, his ways are higher than ours, or my personal favorite, we can ask him that when we see him in Heaven. Christians are adamant that the Bible is the divine word of God. Many of them are also adamant that it is the LITERAL word of God. The examples that I just used aren’t metaphors or allegories, they’re narratives. They’re literal accounts of God saving his favorite people and destroying his problem children.
So, what do we do with this conclusion now? Truthfully, I have no fucking idea. I know that chastising Christians for their naive beliefs can be deeply gratifying, but that divisive rhetoric usually just repels them further away from critical thinking. I believe that the key to solving some of these institutional religious problems is by encouraging religious reformation. Reformers are the people that transform the faith from the inside and can make it better suited for the twenty-first century. We need another Martin Luther, someone who attacks the foundations of the faith from the inside.
Many atheists want to simply eradicate religious thinking. I’m not entirely opposed to that as a theoretical possibility, but I believe that it’s simply not feasible and that religious evolution is a more realistic way to improve these ancient institutions. The free will argument is castrated by the Bible’s own narrative. Sometimes God saves the day and sometimes he destroys cities and creates genocidal floods. Either way, God infringes on the free will of his creations. The children and their parents don’t feel like God loves some people and hates other people. They feel that God hates us all.