Who's To Say
These Acts
Were Even Wrong?
Stephen A. Lonsdale

Graphic Rule

From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Stephen A. Lonsdale"
Subject: Re: (no subject)
Date: September 19, 2001 4:22 AM

It's good to hear from you again! I thought about you not two weeks ago and noticed that we hadn't heard from you in some time. Thanks for writing! You were instrumental in helping us build our initial confidence in putting this project together (when I struck out on my own). I will always remember the special role you played in supporting PAM early on, particularly in the midst of some rather vicious opposition (I've still got those pictures you sent when that one guy was giving me some grief).

Short Graphic Rule

We rightly discuss these questions for two reasons, and there is a third motive that we all must look out for. First, since some prominent theists are offering up explanations for this tragedy ("Why would God allow this?"), we rightly respond with our thoughts on their explanations. Secondly, we rightly address these questions, even in the face of shock and great grief, in the interest of trying to prevent similar tragedies from recurring.

The only invalid reasons for discussing these questions revolve around using the situation to bolster one's pet ideology. I've had to be extremely careful in this respect. I'm foolish if I think I've done a thorough job at keeping my ideology out of my comments or have phrased my comments so that it's impossible for my opponents to misunderstand what I have said. I can only do the best I can with what I've got (which is not much) and try to address the needs stated in the two points described above: responding to the claims of the theists against the atheistic position and seeking an understanding which might prevent further tragedy. I will say that I have tried my best in both respects.

One project we've started is to try to collect all the "theodicies" that have been offered up this week. A theodicy is an explanation for what happened which specifically addresses what is called the Problem of Evil. In other words, theologians try to justify continued faith in a personal, loving God in light of great evil: "How could a loving God allow this?" is the question a theodicy tries to answer. Falwell's remark is a theodicy: he says God did this to judge secularists (atheists), civil libertarians, and homosexuals.

The theodicy which calls this tragedy a "call to repentance" or says that we need to "return to God" is virtually indistinguishable from what Falwell said except in the degree of brazenness: Falwell and Robertson have no tact, and thus have lost much ground with their position. The others at least know how to say the same thing without losing as much ground.

In "The Gospel Spin Doctors," I discuss this issue of degree of brazenness by comparing the homophobic Rev. Phelps with mainstream leaders who simply call homosexuality "wrong" or "against God's will." In the same piece I compare Fr. David Trosch, who openly advocates murdering abortion providers, with his less extreme allies in the anti-choice movement, who simply call abortion "murder." This bit was my editorial sidebar to a news piece which covered how the mainstream Conservative Christian movements consider Phelps and his group to be a growing liability in their own efforts to curb anti-discrimination legislation, which they call "special rights for homosexuals." In it, I point out that Phelps and Trosch are at least being honest and up front; the "mainstream" activists who distance themselves from Trosch still consider the anti-choice movement a "war." They differ from Trosch only in that they want to win so badly that they are even willing to deceive the public as to their true position (which is much closer to Trosch than they admit).

Phelps and Trosch (and now Falwell and Robertson), as despicable as their opinions are, at least tell us up front what those opinions are. Many others, while criticizing their more vocal colleagues, still voice less vicious variations of the same opinions. Thus the "call to repentance" or the perceived need to "get right with God" differs little from what Falwell and Robertson said, except that Falwell and Robertson will get nowhere with their brazen pronouncements, while the less brazen ones, with their smoothed over versions of the same message, will still convince many that God is trying to tell us something in all this.

Realizing the potential problems in trying to present a theodicy for the questions raised by this tragedy, many theologians have refrained from even trying to explain. Instead, they admit they don't know why God would allow this. This is, perhaps, the wisest move on anyone's part, though it is, I think, the default position of the atheists: We don't know why this happened, and can only respond to it as best we can and do what we can to pick up the pieces and put what's left of our lives back together (as Rev. Graham emphasized in his statement).

Your remarks carry the theodicy question one step further in that you now ask how we can even know that this is evil, considering that the theologians (such as Graham) admit that they don't know how a good God could allow such evil to fall upon us (avoiding the theodicy as a mystery rather than calling it a message or a judgement).

This is a good point and ought to be raised.

However, your objection follows similar logic to that which some theists include in their generalized objections to the atheistic position: How do atheists know right from wrong with no absolute moral guide? You seem to be asking, How does anybody (theist or atheist) know that this is evil? After all, the theist admittedly has no absolute moral guide for this situation, since the theist refrains from offering theodicy to the questions raised amidst our current pain and outrage. This being the case, we must ponder this question with great care if we choose to address it at all.

I think your question of how we can derive comfort from a deity whose motives are unknown is legitimate. Most theists simply trust that God's motives are de facto good. This is a classic example of faith: the theist trusts God's motives even in spite of suggestions or evidence to the contrary; the theist trusts God's motives in the face of not knowing what those motives are. In other words, the theist takes the goodness of God on faith.

The most that your objection accomplishes is put theism on at least equal par with atheism as far as being a tool for finding cold, hard answers (I'll deal with comfort below). We can argue that those who do respond with a theodicy don't really know: Falwell, Robertson, and the others who think they know, don't really know. But you're saying that those who admit that they don't have a theodicy also admit that they don't have any advantage over the atheists. The only "advantage," really, is a lie, because the Falwell-types think they have answers but cannot demonstrate that they do -- it's just talk, as those who say, "I don't know," admit. So, if being fooled into thinking that you know is an advantage (I don't think so), then that's the only advantage that this expression of theism brings. But then, such theists run the risk of making pronouncements that could turn out to be wrong (such as the reader who pointed out that Sweden is even more "secular" than America and has no problems like this, thus falsifying Falwell's explanation).

As for comfort, which is, ultimately, your question, this is still purely a matter of choice: there are no advantages or disadvantages over either position (theism or the absence of theism) because some people want to be fooled for the sake of comfort. The classic example that I've used occasionally is the Japanese medical policy of not telling a terminal patient that she or he is dying. Americans, on the other hand, want to know these things (usually so they can "get right with God," etc.).

In the same way, at least one of our British readers expressed a form of disappointment that she did not have the myths of theism to provide her with (admittedly false) comfort during this painful time, saying,

It's in situations like this that you miss religion. I mean that quite honestly. The religious can pray and believe it makes a difference. We who have none know that it doesn't make a difference, but don't have the luxury of that false comfort, and though the comfort is false, it's nonetheless there.

I, on the other hand, do not feel "comfortable" (if you'd call it that) unless I have a pretty good idea of what's going on and am pretty sure that what I think is actually true. Even when I was a theist, I was one of those "I don't know" theists: I never speculated as to what God was or was not doing, but simply left it at what I did know.

Since I'm the same way as both a theist and an atheist, I might be tempted suspect that this has more to do with either my genetics or my upbringing than it does with any difference between theism and atheism. Then again, I was raised in an atheistic home, and both parents were raised in basically atheistic or Unitarian homes, all four grandparents being, at most, Unitarians of the Spinoza's god variety or Masons of the atheistic or Spinoza's god variety. So, if my thinking style is from early influences, mine were definitely atheistic and it is likely that that would influence my approach to theism (just as many theists who deconvert to atheism have a distinctively theistic approach to their atheism).

But I still think that where we derive our comfort is a choice, even though genetics, early training, and recent philosophical speculation (or indoctrination, as the case may be) could influence those choices.

On forgiveness: As an atheist, there is no special place in my heart for the notion of forgiveness. When somebody crosses one of "those" lines, that's it. If somebody threatens me with physical violence or hits me, or steals from me, or lies to me for the purpose of exploiting me, I really don't want to have anything to do with that person. Groveling like a Twelve Stepper working the Ninth Step holds very little sway with me. When we do certain things, certain results take place. Most of us know the potential consequences of certain behavior. If somebody who hits me thinks I ought to be "Christian" about it and turn the other cheek, think again. If you hit me, you're telling me that you think violence is a way to address problems or conflict, and I usually avoid people who think that way.

On the other hand, I have no allegiance or loyalty to "kinds" or "types": if one Christian mistreats me, that's just one person. If all but one Christian mistreats me, the remaining Christian still has not mistreated me and it is not the Christianity to which I respond but the behavior. For this reason, I cannot fathom the bigotry that our Arab-American fellow humans have endured this past week. Most Muslims are as appalled at what happened as we are; in fact, they have more reason to be upset because this was done in the name of their precious faith of Islam. In spite of what a few passages from the Koran and other works state, the modern expressions of Islam tend to be peaceful and even somewhat more inclusive than many modern expressions of Christianity.

As I understand it (as my Grandma explained it, who studied Islam for twenty years and would have become a Muslim had she believed in God at all), there is more room in most modern expressions of Islam for a Christian than there is room for a Muslim in most modern expressions of Christianity. Most of the problems in that part of the world come from the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and from American and Soviet and other forms of Imperialism. For these two reasons, and these two reasons alone do we see a resurgence of Fundamentalist Islam, where those horrible old long-dead sayings have been resurrected and become law in some countries. To say that these are what modern Islam teaches is like saying that modern Christianity and Judaism teach, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" or "Happy is he that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones." Islam had, for the most part, buried these ancient sayings and had become considerably more humane than what we hear, just as Christianity and Judaism have buried their horrible and long-dead passages from the Bible.

A person has no advantage with me for being an atheist and neither does a person have a disadvantage with me for being a theist. I will reserve my sternest vitriol for atheistic spokespersons who represent atheism through dishonest means, because part of my role as an activist is to advocate for the interests of atheists as atheists, that is, to help bring a clearer understanding to the public regarding what atheism is and what it is not. So, when an atheist misrepresents atheism by dishonestly promoting atheism, I feel duty-bound to speak out. In rejecting the claims of theism, an atheist is indicating to us that she or he has at least some respect for truthfulness, otherwise, it wouldn't matter if the theistic claims were true or false.

In sum, I think that social and economic pressures are what prompt people to turn to myths and loyalistic groups. When the Soviet Union blasted Afghanistan to dust as America countered the Soviet "aggression" by sponsoring and training Afghan soldiers, whipping them into a frenzy by supporting the Fundamentalist regimes (we created bin Laden!), they left the Afghans in a desperate situation with nothing left to lose. Since they were already down with no room to go down any further, they had no reason not to take us, the partial cause of their misery, down with them. In lands and neighborhoods where the people are allowed to prosper, you will not see people turning to myths and loyalistic groups in order to better themselves (or, in worst cases such as we saw last week, to take the rest of us down with them). The only instances of religion that we will see in good times tend to be the benign expressions and the exploiters out to "fleece the flock."

The truly dangerous expressions of religion are always enacted out of desperation and tend to become dictatorships, if anything, because the people really have no power of their own. Even in America, those who believe in the literal return of Jesus and the literal six-day creation tend to be the poor and the elderly. These situations are physical, and thus have physical solutions. Unfortunately, way too many people have discovered that they can better their own situations by keeping a large number of the rest of the people ignorant.

In short, I really don't know what we can do except to try to pressure our government into changing her ways. We really cannot tell anybody else what to do.

Cliff Walker
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
    people with no reason to believe

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