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Rationally Speaking
a monthly e-column by
Dr. Massimo Pigliucci

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# 58 February 2005 God did it, or did He? Join Discussion

In 1755 a great earthquake struck the city of Lisbon, in Portugal. As a result, roughly 100,000 people died, in the process sparking a new debate about an old and deep theological dilemma: if (the Christian) God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, how could this happen? The answer, such as it is, has always been that we simply can’t understand how such calamities fit into God’s plan, but they do, so we should simply have faith in the supreme being and not be as “arrogant” as constantly questioning His plans.

Of course, any human being who deliberately causes the death of thousands, regardless of the stated motive or “higher” purpose, is branded as a horrible criminal, hunted down and prosecuted to the full extent of human law. Rational people feel rather frustrated by this sort of nonsensical double standard, and one defense against the irrationality of the world is, as Mel Brooks once said, a good sense of humor. If anything good came out of the Lisbon earthquake was that it inspired the French philosopher Voltaire to write what became a classical masterpiece of world literature, Candide. In it, Voltaire makes fun of the simplistic attitude that we live “in the best of all possible worlds,” as affirmed by one of the main characters, Dr. Pangloss (loosely based on the philosophy of Leibniz), and clearly implied by theological “explanations” of natural disasters.

Recently, I have witnessed two more examples of “Pangloss’ syndrome,” one in response to an event publicized throughout the world, the other while attending a religious gathering celebrating a rite of passage. The scopes of the two episodes are wildly different, and yet they reflect the same irrational, and highly dangerous, attitude about what happens in the world and why.

The largest event was, of course, the tsunami that caused two hundred thousand people to die in southeast Asia. For several days after the tragedy there was a serious debate in the media, eerily similar to the one that moved Voltaire’s pen: how could God allow such a tragedy to occur? Christian theologians, Jewish rabbis, and Muslim clerics all gave the same answer: we don’t know, but it must have been for a higher good. Some of these self-appointed experts about nothing went so far as to claim that perhaps the people who died were in fact somehow undeserving, and that the tsunami was God’s punishment for their sins. A colossal and outrageously insulting instance of blaming the victim, if ever there was one! It is hard for me to imagine the degree of mental gymnastics that one must perform in these cases to save one’s cherished pet religious views. This sort of events must cause an almost unbearable degree of cognitive dissonance, and one has to be particularly skilled at fooling oneself in order not to perceive the sheer absurdity of the whole plot. And yet, it seems to work for hundreds of millions of people the world over. This attitude “explained” Lisbon, the tsunami, the 9/11 attacks on the US, and essentially anything else bad that happens in the world: it is either our own fault, or it is for the pursuit of God’s inscrutable (but certainly supremely good) plan.

The same bizarre logic applies in reverse, of course: just in the same way as God is never responsible for anything bad happening to us, He takes all (or most) of the credit whenever something good happens. A good gig if you can get it! The second example I witnessed falls into the category of “God did it (because it’s good).” I was at a religious ceremony celebrating an important rite of passage for a young girl, followed by a feast at which everybody was having a jolly good time. At one point, the father of the girl took the microphone and told us a very poignant story: his daughter had actually been born very prematurely, and both her and her mother had barely survived the ordeal. Moreover, the girl had been in desperate conditions in the hospital after birth, and the doctors had little hope that she would make it. However, some doctor had the daring and brilliant idea of trying a new experimental drug, after having asked the parents’ permission. It worked, and the result was the beautiful young woman that we were now celebrating.

Had the story ended there it would have been a wonderful and moving tale of human compassion and ingenuity. But of course the father had to go on and add that, although he was sure the doctors had some merit for the final outcome, really this was a clear example of a miracle, a direct intervention of God to save his child. There are so many things that are simply wrong with all of this that it is, again, hard to imagine how perfectly normal, functional, people can sincerely embrace this sort of “reasoning.” To begin with, why does God get the credit for solving the problem, but not for creating it in the first place? Second, isn’t such an unwarranted shift of credit insulting for the doctors who did the actual hard work and took on a huge responsibility in case of failure? More generally, if we all (including doctors) adopted such attitude, wouldn’t that spell the end of any attempt to better humanity’s condition? If it’s all in God’s hands (why does He need hands, anyway?), then why bother? Which is, of course, exactly the attitude of so-called Christian scientists (an oxymoron of grotesque proportions), who leave their children to die because they think that all disease is the result of poor faith and can be cured only by restoring the latter.

I am no Voltaire, and this essay is no Candide. Therefore, I will leave it to the great French Enlightenment writer to make a final comment: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” We would find ourselves in a much better world if more of us lived by such words.

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