Saturday, January 16, 2010
In defense of Pat Robertson
Poor Pat Robertson. Yeah, you read that right: Poor Pat Robertson. He’s being criticized once again for his claim that the devastation of the Haiti earthquake was brought on by a “pact with the Devil” that Haitian slaves entered into in 1794 in order to win their independence from France. Monstrous? Sure. Delusional. Of course. But perfectly consistent with his worldview, and, more importantly, not to be dismissed by anyone of any political persuasion who professes to believe in the God of theism.
The logic of Robertson’s view is pretty simple. His most fundamental intellectual commitment is to the existence of a good and all-powerful God. A good God cannot want people to suffer undeservedly, and an all-powerful God would not allow people to suffer undeservedly. Therefore any undeserved suffering is evidence that there is no such God. But since (he presumes) there is such a God, all human suffering must be deserved. The same logic famously led Jerry Falwell to say that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were deserved— though he did not follow this through consistently enough to say that the actual victims deserved what they got, only that America had earned this collectively by “throwing God out of the public square.” Similarly, Robertson didn’t claim that the Haitians suffering from this earthquake had bargained with Satan, only that their forebears in the 18th century had. Both he and Falwell thus clearly presuppose some form of collective responsibility. After all, among the victims of 9/11 there must have been at least one dues-paying member of the Moral Majority, who could presumably not be held individually responsible for America’s moral corruption.
The move both Falwell and Robertson make is not hard to understand. So-called ‘natural evil,’ such as an earthquake, has always seemed harder than human evil to reconcile with God’s goodness. Human evil, after all, presupposes our free will, which is understood as a little bit of God’s creative power that He has bequeathed unto us. But even if we suppose (quite dubiously) that we have free will, and that it is better that we have free will than that we don’t, this really does nothing to ease the problem of evil. If God created us with our power of undetermined choice, then He is responsible for the consequences of that gift. An infinitely powerful God could have created us so that we always use our free will for the good, and a perfectly good God would have wanted to do this.
A complete discussion of the problem of evil lies far beyond the scope of this little post. And plenty of well-meaning people (i.e. not people like Robertson) believe in God as a healer rather than a cause of the world’s pain. But I’ll briefly consider one possible response to the problem, equally as unsatisfactory as any other, namely the idea that suffering can be justified as a way of helping us reach God. Perhaps, as a psychological matter, this helps people to cope with what might otherwise seem overwhelming. But it does not stand up to any intellectual scrutiny, for once again this way of thinking is incompatible with God’s (alleged) infinite goodness. If reaching God is a matter of choice, how can someone reach God whose life is snuffed out in an instant? If one person’s suffering is taken to help someone else to their redemption, doesn’t this make the sufferer a means to an end in which they cannot share? And why should so much suffering be necessary, and distributed so unequally? Even if a perfectly good and powerful God cannot find a way for me to reach Him except through, say, my child’s illness, why does that require that my child slowly waste away and die in intense pain? Wouldn't a severe but curable stomach bug do the trick?
A believer will say, This shows that God’s ways are mysterious, beyond what mere mortals can comprehend. Someone like me, on the other hand, will say, This shows that the idea of God makes no sense.
[By the way, this is not an atheism blog, although you might get that impression from the first two posts. Among future topics expect to see one on “CNN in our Moral Life” and “Kant on the Ignorance of the American Voter.” Let me know if you have a preference about which should come first.]