22 December 2008

God...? The myth of Divine Retribution

"I don't believe in God as I don't believe in Mother Goose."
-Clarence Darrow

It's been 41 years since the most recent incarnation of The Troubles began in Northern Ireland. It's been 30 years since Jonestown. It's been 16 years since ethnic cleansing was initiated in the former Yugoslavia, largely on religious lines. It's been nine years since Oral Roberts told his faithful that the Lord would kill him if he didn't raise eight million dollars. It's been three years since twelve Danish cartoonists (did you know there were twelve?) drew pictures of Mohammed, pictures which lay dormant for months until two imams (both of whom had been granted amnesty in Denmark, and you know how I feel about ingratitude) fabricated a dossier and took it to Cairo in an attempt - sadly, successful - to incite mayhem which led to deaths from Indonesia to Nigeria. Three years since the State of Kansas held "science hearings" on whether to teach evolution in the schools.

If you want to know why I'm an atheist, well, religious people are not acquitting themselves particularly well, but I'm not tackling all of this today. I'll have later entries on the fallacy of prayer, on the use of religion and "god" to justify the most onerous human behaviour, and on why the separation of church and state helps both, but today it's the myth of divine retribution.

I understand the impulse. We want there to be some methodology or reason for random events in a complex and unpredictable world. We want there to be a system. We want the pain we feel to be worth something - for the souls in purgatory, for a greater plan, for God's will.

Well, I want a pony.

There isn't a reason. Things just happen, good and bad. There's no such thing as "karma" or divine or ethical retribution, we don't get our just desserts. Two examples of millions:
1. Jacques Chirac, the former French president, approved nuclear tests in the Pacific and Algeria, destroying the lives and livelihoods of indigenous people - of his own generation and for decades and genereations and likely centuries to come - with cancer and a deadly, noxious and irradiated environment, and he is quite likely going to die at home, at peace, cancer free, in his own bed.
2. Andrew Jackson died at age 78 of heart failure, at home, not frozen, starving, or dispossessed, unlike the thousands of those on whom he practiced ethnic cleansing in evicting the Cherokee nation from their land, an eviction that lead to a mortality rate of over 25%.

"What comes around goes around," we blithely say, or "She'll get what's coming to her." Well, it doesn't and she won't. We might hope that the person in front of us with 22 items in the express lane will have a parking ticket on his car, and if he does than we think it's fair and somehow causal. Of course, it isn't. Do we really think that the energy or guiding force or God or gods is involved in that level of detail of the universe? And if so, do we think that e/gf/G/g's shares our biases, priorities, or pettiness? Does the e/gf/G/g's think that because I (the injured party) was annoyed in the grocery line that HE (the offender) should pay? How egotistical! How self centered! If there IS a e/gf/G/g's, nearly everyone agress, then she/he/it/they is/are larger than us, omniscient, eternal, universal. Then why do we insist, through this myth, of making she/he/it/they so small - as small as us at our smallest and pettiest?

Why, if (okay - can we take it from here that "god" = the various ways people use to talk about the non existant energy/ guiding force/ white dude in the sky/ pantheon that people believe in? That's a lot of punctuation.) "god" exists and is engaged at that level of detail in our lives does bad shit go down all the time? I was told as a child that bad things were part of "God's Divine Plan" and that the "mystery will be revealed to you when you die."

That seems to make "god" awfully capricious.

The South Asian tsunami of Boxing Day, 2004, was part of a larger plan that I just don't have the capacity to understand as a mere mortal, but yet "god" is involved in day-to-day life to ensure that bad people get what's coming to them? At the end of the day of December 26, 2004, over 150,000 people were dead or missing.

If it IS part of "god"'s plan then "god" is really inefficient - there were no good among the 150,000 dead? "God" couldn't have given those among that cohort who were morally deficient in some way the cancer, or something less broadly devastating? - or god has a really crappy plan to require so much human suffering and death. And stop cringing, blasphemy is a victimless crime.

It seems that the underpinning of this is cognitive dissonance - the willingness to believe two opposite and oppositing beliefs simulataneously. (E.g., "'God' is merciful, kind and loving; it's part of 'god's' plan for 150,000 people to die in a natural disaster.") The impulse to believe is strong, and it is broadly reinforced through every aspect of our lives (the solstice, the Pledge, the inauguration, football players pointing skyward after a score), but it does not serve us well. We want to believe so badly that we suspend our rationality to allow ourselves to believe in the face of fairly obvious and simple demonstrated evidence against the arguments supporting belief. The mental gymnastics required to make this work - this myth of divine retribution - are embarrassing, and if we were to have been created by a "god" who endowed us with such amazing things as consciousness and our capacity for thought and rationality, then that "god" is likely embarrassed we do such a poor job with it.

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