In Defense of Believers

Back in ’96 there was a great piece in The Atlantic called “Why Americans Hate the Media”.  It began by recounting a PBS broadcast from ’87 that posed a number of moral conundrums to American military men and others to journalists who had covered military actions.  The author shared his surprise that the combat veterans had apparently thought long and deeply about the issues raised, and seemed prepared to continue doing so.  The journalists, in contrast, would not or could not give any reasons for the positions they took, whether they held them forcefully or tentatively.

Why was this surprising?  I assume because it was the journalists who had for decades set themselves up in moral judgement of the soldiers, rather than the other way around.  That created an expectation that the soldiers, presumably lacking a firm moral compass, needed the supervision of the journalists, who presumably possessed one.

I was reminded of all this when I read Anne Roiphe’s “Only Adolescents Question God’s Existence”, in which she condescends to explain The Problem of Evil to believers, who must never have thought about it.  She reminds us that terrible things have happened to innocent people; Auschwitz, volcanic eruptions and so forth.  Since God cannot possibly have a good enough reason for any of this, He either doesn’t exist or doesn’t deserve to be worshipped, and so believers have to “ignore the contradictions” and “shrug their shoulders at uncomfortable questions”.  Atheists, it seems, have thought it all through objectively, and out of empathy for the world’s suffering have come to the only reasonable, moral conclusion.  Believers are interested parties, too bound up in the rightness of their beliefs to allow either empathy or reason to affect them.

I see many essayists of late making the same case.  (As a side point perhaps deserving further study, I find it interesting that there’s been a shift from arguing from contradictions between Genesis and cosmology/geology/paleontology to arguing from theodicy.)  Like the Atlantic article, I’d like to display some evidence that neither the bad reputation of believers nor the good one of non-believers is deserved.

First, it’s not tenable to accuse believers of not having considered the issue, given that one entire book of scripture is devoted to it (Job) and another references it repeatedly (Ecclesiastes/Kohelet).  And given that Ms. Roiphe is Jewish, I’ll mention that the Talmud contains, among other things,

  • an argument over whether it was better for Man to have been created or not and
  • the story of a famous apostate who lost his faith on seeing a man die as the result of performing a mitzvah whose reward is long life.

Of course there are many more examples, which is not to say that every believer goes around with these sources running in a loop just underneath his consciousness; it does show that the firmest of believers, through the ages, have faced up to the questions Ms. Roiphe says they must hide from.

Second, let’s examine Ms. Roiphe’s proposition:  There’s too much suffering in the world for it to have been purposefully created by a benevolent God.  Put another way, had God created the world He would either have made one without suffering (for style and brevity I’m eliding “too much” suffering and any suffering at all; I hope that’s okay) or He simply would not have made the world at all.

So, a world without suffering.  The first thing to go, of course, would be free will; for people to not suffer at the hands of other people, the other people have to either not want to hurt them or not be able to hurt them.  Either way, nobody could have an unsanctioned desire and act on it.  Also gone would be bravery, self-sacrifice, generosity, fortitude, mercy… you get the idea.  It’s the stuff of a hundred literary dystopias.  O brave new world, that has such people in’t!  I assume this is not the ideal world that Ms. Roiphe et al believe should have been created by a merciful God.

Do they believe, then, that the richness of our inner lives is not worth the price in suffering, that God should have “walked away from Omelas”?  Had they the power, would they un-create the world for the sake of the sufferers?  Or perhaps, if possible, euthanize only the sufferers themselves?  That could be a tenable position; certainly I wouldn’t dream of telling someone who experiences life as an intolerable burden that it’s all for the best.  Still, I don’t get the impression that Ms. Roiphe wants to be the world’s Kevorkian.

So there you have it.  The preceding isn’t meant to be the definitive answer to the question of suffering — that’d be a bit much to expect of a blog post, and it’s way too much to expect of me.  Nor do I expect to refute Ms. Roiphe’s agnosticism or support my own belief.  Rather, I had the modest goal of showing that believers have not refused to face difficult questions and non-believers have not necessarily faced them.

About the Author
Michael and family moved from NYC to Alon Shvut in 1986. He works in Software; blogs sporadically on education, public policy and whatever else comes to mind; chairs the boards of two educational institutions and practices philosophy in the ancient tradition of corrupting the minds of youth.
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