I just finished reading (and very much enjoyed) Susan Jacoby’s new book The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought. A few days ago, while looking through blog posts tagged with her name, so see if anyone had written about her book, I came across Barry York’s open letter to Jacoby concerning an article of hers called “The Blessings of Atheism” that was published earlier this month. I started writing a comment in the comment section, but (as often happens) it became very lengthy. Not wanting to take up essay-length space in a comment section of someone else’s blog, and considering the fact that his letter addresses some topics I want to write about in any case, I decided to expand on what I was originally going to write and turn it into an essay.
It would, perhaps, be a good idea to start with Jacoby’s piece, since that is the piece under discussion here. Jacoby writes about a misapprehension that atheists don’t believe in anything positive and don’t have a source of comfort when their loved ones die, since they don’t believe in an afterlife. She also addresses theodicy, which is a vindication of the divine attributes, particularly holiness and justice, in establishing or allowing the existence of physical and moral evil. She writes that an atheist does not have to try to reconcile the horrors that happen in the world—including illnesses and murders—with a belief in a just God. In the second half of her article, she writes about Robert Ingersoll and how atheists can show that empathy is a cause of atheism, to disprove the idea that atheism is devoid of feeling or concern.
This issue of empathy resulting in atheism is relevant to the first of York’s points that I want to address. In response to Jacoby’s story about a childhood friend was stricken by polio, and how this caused her to ask why God would do such a thing, York writes,
The concern I would raise is that by your own admission it appears you came to your worldview through subjective feelings, not objective observations. With all due respect, may I point out that this seems to be inconsistent with the atheistic worldview which rather prides itself on being scientific-based and research-oriented? Perhaps you have established your position in this manner, but after reading your article several times it was appeals to emotion that you used to justify your atheism, not science.
This is a common accusation against atheists whenever we write about a story from our own lives as part of a piece about atheism. The problem here is with the definition of God being used by many in the monotheistic religions; if we start with the concept that God is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient, even one example of something bad happening contradicts that description of God. Jacoby’s point may not be based upon a scientific study, but it is indeed based on an observation: the observation that her friend had polio and the fact that this does not fit with the description of God that she had learned about. Yes, of course, she had an emotional reaction to the situation, since her friend was ill, but her observation is still accurate.
Related to this point are the explanations which are offered by religious leaders and others for why God would allow bad things to happen. Jacoby received an unsatisfying answer from her mother when she asked why God would allow such a thing to happen to a little boy; her mother said that while the priest might say that God has His reasons, she did not know what those reasons were. York asks, “As an author and researcher, have you ever looked carefully at the theodicy issue as presented not by unbelieving ‘Cinos’ (Christian-in-name-only) such as the childhood priest you mentioned, but by sincere teachers of the Bible?” Apart from the fact that this is yet another example of a person of a particular religious faith declaring that others in the faith are not “true” followers of that faith (a topic which could fill volumes by itself), there is also the fact that people have been attempting to address the problem of theodicy for quite a long while, and many of them are sincere, believing that their particular interpretation or answer is in accordance with scripture. The problem is not that certain people are sincere teachers while others are not; the problem is that, regardless of their sincerity, the various interpretations offered are not sufficient. They may offer explanations with some scriptural support, but the initial problem—that contradiction between the description of God and the existence of suffering—still persists.
What, then, does the Bible have to say about the subject? It says many things on the topic, but the one Biblical book that is particularly famous for addressing the topic is the Book of Job. York writes, “One whole book of the Bible, the Book of Job, is taken up with theodicy as one man struggles with horrible personal tragedy. So it is a subject any true Christian has to wrestle through to find answers. Honest Christians all admit our struggle with it as well, for theodicy has always been a difficult one for us.” I’ve mentioned before that Job is my favorite book of the Bible; there are many wonderful passages, but the following seems rather apt for the discussion at hand.
Look, my eye has seen all this,
my ear has heard and understood it.
What you know, I also know;
I am not inferior to you.
But I would speak to the Almighty,
and I desire to argue my case with God. (Job 13:1-3)
I find it rather odd the way that the Book of Job is automatically invoked against atheism and against those who question God’s justice in times of tragedy, given that it portrays God behaving rather indifferently towards his subjects. It also contains the words of a man who seems more human than many of the other characters in the Bible, as he struggles with the tragedies that have befallen him without a divine explanation. Both Christians and non-Christians struggle with the existence of tragedies in our imperfect world, and we hear explanations given by others that we may not find convincing; we attempt to understand what’s going on and why. The desire to argue one’s case with God (though not all would phrase it in that manner) is an understandable reaction to the horrible things which happen.
Lastly, there is the topic of finding comforting in the face of death and other tragedies. This is the part where, I must admit, I often not only disagree with religious apologists, but also feel a certain amount of frustration, due to the frequency with which people dismiss the feelings and experiences of people not of their faith. York writes,
I also must say to you, as one whose occupation means that I am often called on to comfort people in tragedy, that I do not think you can bring any true consolation to those who mourn. Oh, you can offer personal concern, hugs, tears, a meal, etc. But please realize that though your atheism may allow you to ignore the question of ‘Why?’ when other people are traveling through dark valleys, their pain will not let them.
York makes a mistake that I have noticed in the comments of other religious leaders as well; he makes a generalized statement about humanity based upon members of his particular faith. He is a Christian pastor, so I understand that his faith is important to him in times of grief, just as the faiths of many religious people are important to them in such times. People who are not religious find comfort in sources other than religion, whether it is in the presence of loved ones or in words of comfort or in knowing that we live in an imperfect world where bad things do happen. It shouldn’t be surprising that people who do not follow a particular religion would probably not find comfort in it. It’s also worth pointing out that the idea of an afterlife of a different religion isn’t going to offer much comfort to people if they not only don’t follow that particular religion but are also condemned by that religion to an afterlife that is filled with punishment for them for not believing in the correct god. In fact, there are people who feel the exact opposite of what York writes; they feel that it was their religious belief, or that of their family, which failed to offer them any meaningful comfort during difficult times.
It’s also important to mention, I think, that nonreligious sources of comfort are not only for nonreligious people. Minimizing the importance of nonreligious comfort that people take solace in during times of grief is insulting to both Christians and non-Christians who have found comfort in sources other than faith. There are people who, in difficult times, have been comforted by friends or relatives who are not of the same faith; while those relatives’ and friends’ faiths may not have been a comfort, their presence definitely was. York seems to present religion as real or better form of comfort, while relegating other forms to a secondary category. The secular forms of comfort mentioned by York are ones that people can have regardless of faith; they are not just a poor substitute or a halfway measure that is adopted by those who do not believe in god or in an afterlife.
Anyone, religious or not, who encounters tragedy—and most people do, in varying degrees—tries to find sources of comfort, to still the storm within, to find a way to continue living despite the reality of horrors in our world. While nonreligious people may ignore the question “Why would a just God allow such things to happen?” when not responding to claims made by religious people, since we don’t believe gods exist, we don’t ignore all the difficult question that are posed by death and destruction, by pain and misfortune, by terror and loss, by the terrifying lack of understanding about life that is a part of human existence. We think about the questions we have about the universe and why certain things happen the way they do.
Many of us also give thoughtful consideration to the nonexistence of justice in this life and the potential for justice in the future, not through divine intervention but through human morality. York writes, “Remember that the ‘dicey’ part of the word theodicy means ‘justice.’ Just because you choose to remove God from the equation does not mean you have answered the question.” In reality, neither including nor removing god in the equation means one has answered the question; including god simply means having to deal with yet another unknown variable in an equation that no human being on Earth fully understands. My secular worldview doesn’t offer a reason why the tragedies were just, and that’s just the point; they were not just, because the universe isn’t a just place. Religious worldviews don’t come up with a reason why those same tragedies were just, either; some try to, but doesn’t succeed. Human beings can and should aspire to be just, and to make our societies more just; however, when we ascribe justice to the universe, we will be disappointed and may become convinced to rationalize away any observations inconsistent with the description of a just universe. It is better to acknowledge that we live in an uncaring universe that does not know we exist and try to make our societies more just than to claim that there is ultimate justice despite lack of good reasons for believing so.
The lack of justice in this world is often observed by people both religious and nonreligious, and one of the things we seek is some sense that there are others who understand what we are going through. One common religious argument is that God understand the trials faced by humans. In this vein, York writes,
We see there that God made himself known by becoming flesh and entering into the sufferings of this world, then showing by his resurrection from the dead his ability to conquer the awfulness of sin and death. At the cross not only is comfort offered for those who grieve, but the promise of justice that mourning hearts also yearn for. You see, God the Father understands heartache. He watched his own Son die.
It would perhaps be advisable to keep in mind that, when addressing someone who does not share your religious beliefs, simply stating your beliefs is not going to be very convincing. As for the point about God understanding heartache, although I hesitate to be so blunt, it is worth pointing out that if you believe the common interpretation that Jesus’s death was God’s salvation plan for humanity, then God planned the death of his son and Jesus was reunited with his father after his death. To compare God’s experience of Jesus’s death with the experience of parents who, even if they are devout believers, cannot be absolutely certain of what lies beyond and grave and who will be separated from their children either for many years (if there is an afterlife and if they are send to the same place as their children after they die) or for eternity (if there is no afterlife or if they are send to a different afterlife than the one their children were sent to) is appalling to me. I know that there are believers who take comfort in the belief that God understands what they are going through and is there for them (as I also did, when I believed in a god), but the specific story of Jesus’s death is not likely to be very convincing to someone who doesn’t share your interpretation of that specific part of your faith.
Related to this point about not considering the perspective of the person being addressed, York states towards the end of his essay, “Ms. Jacoby, you said very confidently that ‘the dead do not suffer.’ Have you observed this? By this statement you are making a claim about something that only God himself could know. Think about that. When people are truly hurting, adding false and empty solace to the pain creates more despair and confusion, not less.” The immediate observation one can make is that people who believe in the afterlife have not observed it, either, just as atheists have not seen for certain that the dead do not suffer. The second observation one can make is that if someone does not believe in an afterlife, then it’s the afterlife that is the false and empty solace. It’s true that all the secular comfort in the world cannot create an afterlife for someone who fears death, but that does not mean that other sources of solace will cause more despair and confusion; the complete negation of death through belief in a supernatural afterlife is not the only way to lessen the pain.
I have always feared death, and there are a great many books (some nonfiction books about religion and atheism, but mostly works of fiction) that have helped me in thinking about it. They do not offer an afterlife, but they do offer what I think is the commonality between religious and nonreligious forms of comfort in times of grief: the knowledge that we are not alone, that there are others who have tread this path and lived, and that there is still some good in the world.
Back in December 2011, Susan Jacoby wrote her last regular “Spirited Atheist” column, titled “American atheists must define themselves, not be defined by the religious”.
I’ve been reading Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer, in which he discusses the various answers that the different books of the Bible offer to the eternal problem of theodicy.
One of Greta Christina’s must-read essays “Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God” is about the difficulty of thinking about and dealing with death and how to find meaning and comfort in the face of it. Interestingly, Greta has written in another blog entry that the first part of the “Comforting Thoughts” essay—in which she acknowledges that death can be terrifying to think about—has been quoted out of context by some pastors, who have left out the comforting thoughts about death, which (as one can tell from the title) are the point of the essay.
 York, Barry. “An Open Letter to Susan Jacoby”. Posted on 10 January 2013 at Gentle Reformation. Retrieved on 16 January 2013 from http://gentlereformation.org/2013/01/10/an-open-letter-to-susan-jacoby/.
 Jacoby, Susan. “The Blessings of Atheism”. Posted on 5 January 2013 at The New York Times. Retrieved on 16 January 2013 from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/06/opinion/sunday/the-blessings-of-atheism.html.
 Sharmin, Ani J. “Traversing the Bible: On the Experience of Reading the Good Book”. Posted on 28 August 2012 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 16 January 2013 from http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/2012/08/28/traversing-the-bible/.
 New Revised Standard Version Bible with Apocrypha. Ed. Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishing, 1989. Print.
 Lee, Adam. The Delusion of a Just World. Posted on 3 October 2011 at Daylight Atheism. Retrieved on 21 January 2013 from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/2011/10/the-delusion-of-a-just-world/.
 Jacoby, Susan. “American atheists must define themselves, not be defined by the religious”. Posted on 28 December 2011 at The Spirited Atheist. Retrieved on 16 January 2013 from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/spirited-atheist/post/american-atheists-must-define-themselves-not-be-defined-by-the-religious/2011/12/27/gIQAovELMP_blog.html.
 Ehrman, Bart. God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer. New York: HarperCollins, 2008. Print.
 Green, John. The Fault in Our Stars. New York, Penguin, 2012. Print.
 Sharmin, Ani J. “Book Review: John Green’s ‘The Fault in Our Stars’”. Posted on 26 August 2012 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 16 January 2013 from http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/2012/08/26/book-review-john-greens-the-fault-in-our-stars/.
 Christina, Greta. “Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God”. Posted on 10 June 2007 at Greta Christina’s Blog. Retrieved on 16 January 2013 from http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2007/06/10/comforting_thou/.
 Christina, Greta. “Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbor”. Posted on 12 December 2007 at Greta Christina’s Blog. Retrieved on 16 January 2013 from http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2007/12/12/thou-shalt-not/.
 Lee, Adam. Chapter 9. “Stardust”. Daylight Atheism. Big Think, 2012, Ch 9. E-book.
 Sharmin, Ani J. “Book Review: Adam Lee’s ‘Daylight Atheism’”. Posted on 16 July 2012 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 16 January 2013 from http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/1012/07/16/book-review-adam-lees-daylight-atheism/.