The time is now to lose your faith

How can one believe in an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent deity in the face of unimaginable destruction and loss such as December’s tsunami?

Whenever I’m feeling lazy or uninspired and I have to write a column, it’s always a struggle to resist the temptation to attack intellectual “soft targets.” And, of course, there is no softer target than the religious right.

After all, criticizing a worldview centered on the cretinous, Bronze Age desert morality of the most genocidal book ever written is like bumper bowling for the mind. Picking on premodern creatures such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Dobson is fun but not very challenging, because they’re constantly outdumbing themselves.

Last week, Dobson got himself in a tizzy because the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants appears in a video for young children that dares to suggest that gay people possess some sort of inherent human dignity.

On Saturday, The New York Times ran an article about evangelical Christian groups proselytizing while they distributed aid to victims of last month’s tsunami in Asia. Not only is this a flagrant violation of standards established by the Red Cross, but it has dismayed the native Christians who fear reprisals from offended Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.

Look, there I go again Ö No, I’ve got to cast my net a little wider – not just toward the Christian right, but against anyone who believes in God at all.

With the death toll from the recent tsunami increasing daily, almost certain to climb past 250,000, there has never been a better time for people who believe in God to re-examine their faith in the Almighty. Nor has there been a better time for us nonbelievers to do a little evangelizing on our own and effectively deploy one of the best weapons in our vast intellectual arsenal: the Argument from Natural Evil.

The Argument from Natural Evil goes like this: For any superior being to be worthy of worship by humankind – a “basic deity” – it must have at least three attributes. God must be smart, he must be powerful and he must be good, or he is not God.

Keep in mind that this is a pretty low threshold. Most believers claim to have a “three o’s deity”: A God who is omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent. This, of course, only makes the Argument from Natural Evil more powerful. The more concerned your deity is with day-to-day world affairs, the more answering he has to do from the Argument from Natural Evil.

Having established the minimal criteria for a being to be worthy of humankind’s worship, we turn to whether a smart, powerful, good being would allow the natural world – with its horrific tsunamis, earthquakes, mudslides, volcano eruptions, etc. – to work in the way it does.

Take the tsunami for instance. There is no doubt that much of the suffering we’ve seen on television could have been avoided under a radically different political and economic system. (Perversely, despite the tsunami’s nearly incomprehensible devastation, world stock markets have hardly taken a notice: Aceh’s oil and gas fields remain intact and because few of the victims could afford insurance of any kind, insurance companies are resting easy.)

Nevertheless, the immediate cause of the tsunami disaster was natural; it was totally out of human hands. Would a smart, powerful and good being have allowed the tsunami to happen in the way that it did? The answer, which has to be admitted by anyone with a shred of honesty, is “no.”

A smart being would have known beforehand that, unless something was done, a tsunami was going to occur Dec. 26 and kill hundreds of thousands of people (including blameless infants and children) and lay waste to a huge swath of the Earth.

A powerful being would have been able to prevent the disaster somehow. Perhaps the being is so powerful that it could simply will the earthquake that produced the tsunami never to have happened – but even if he wasn’t terribly powerful, couldn’t he have at least warned the world ahead of time about this disaster?

A good being would have wanted to prevent, or at least alleviate, the disaster. It would abhor needless suffering. Even if this being had some mysterious, inscrutable “plan,” surely it would have chosen a more constructive way to accomplish it.

In light of the Argument from Natural Evil, the only conclusion we can come to is that, in the extremely unlikely event that a supernatural being of any kind exists, it lacks one or two of the qualities a basic deity has to have. Even if there is a superior being of some kind, events like the tsunami demonstrate that it has to be either not smart, not powerful or not good.

There might be, for example, a supernatural being that is both smart and powerful but not good: Something like the wrathful, genocidal war criminal Yahweh of the Old Testament – who ordered the massacre of the Canaanites, Midianites, the people of Jericho and many others. That might be the kind of God the folks at Focus on the Family are into, but not for most people.

Likewise, there might be a supernatural being who is smart

and good but impotent: A being that knew about the tsunami and wanted to do something about it but was powerless to intervene in a meaningful way. But what’s the point of worshiping a weak supernatural being?

And so on Ö The point is that, if you think of yourself as a thoughtful but faithful person, and you believe that your deity is basically pretty decent, you have a very serious problem on your hands. The Argument from Natural Evil ought to be eroding and testing your faith.

You may count yourself among the faithless and you think, as I do, that religion of any kind is a social malady that ought to be eradicated, like racism. In that case, the weeks and months after the tsunami – when all of this horrific news footage is fresh in the world’s collective consciousness – are the perfect time to swell our ranks by invoking the Argument from Natural Evil.

Nick Woomer welcomes comments at [email protected]