I try not to be an evangelical atheist. Both because it’s behavior that annoys me among the religious, and because I don’t want to be one of those Christopher Hitchens douchebags. I generally want to respect others’ beliefs, and don’t seek out to challenge them. But every once in awhile, something from the religious believers pushes me too far, and I snap.
Recently, I read a news story about a little girl whose inoperable brain tumor inexplicably disappeared. She went from a certain death sentence to miraculously healed, confounding her doctors. To an extent, it’s only natural that her family would credit divine intervention for her sudden recovery. I get it. It defies explanation, and we humans don’t like things we can’t explain.
And to be clear, I don’t begrudge this child her miracle. I am thrilled for her. To know that a child is healthy is always reason for joy.
But after the fifteenth or sixteenth “God is great!” social media comment on the story, I began to get frustrated.
How many hundreds or even thousands of children are lying in hospital beds right now who will never get such a miracle? Are they less worthy of it somehow? Are the beloved mothers and fathers and grandparents and aunts and uncles who will not recover undeserving of divine intervention? The babies starving to death in Yemen and Syria? The kids mowed down by gunfire in Sandy Hook? The families being slaughtered by gang violence in Guatemala and Honduras, or facing separation, incarceration, trauma, and abuse at our own borders if they attempt to escape in order to survive?
I bet I had you right up until that last one, didn’t I?
And that’s my point. This kind of narrative, even if it is inadvertent, ends up creating a system where good luck, or lack thereof, becomes a kind of virtue signaling. Those who are healthy, who live in peace, who receive the miracle recoveries, come to believe that they deserve their fate, and that those who are sick, or who were born into war and violence and trauma or abject poverty, or who will never get their miracle ending, are equally deserving or even responsible for their own fate.
This toxic attitude is what allows people who call themselves Christians to demonize the poor and the sick and the refugees, and ignore their plights, while supposedly following the teachings of a man who allegedly told them to treat their neighbors as they want to be treated.
I was raised, for most of my childhood, attending church. I had twelve years of religious education. Admittedly, we were more Christmas and Easter Catholics for the first few years of my life and we did not start going to church weekly until after my sister was born, when I was 7. And I never liked church. Even for the two years I sang in the children’s choir, mass was always just something to get through, and I was relieved every week when it was over. Thank goodness we were only Catholics, not Baptists. One hour a week was hard enough to endure. But I still learned it all. And what we were taught (despite all the biblical and, you know, observable evidence to the contrary) was that God was an all-powerful loving parent, always accepting and ready to embrace us and wanting to do what was best for us. When our prayers seemed to go unanswered, it was because God had a better plan for us.
It’s a nice idea. Honestly, even in spite of my relatively late indoctrination, and natural capacity for cynicism and skepticism and generalized impatience with organized religion, the reason it took me so long to completely stop believing was that it was a comforting thought. It was appealing to believe there was some cosmic father figure who would ultimately make everything okay. (You would think the fact that it’s also an unbelievably privileged viewpoint could go without saying, but the sheer number of believers would suggest otherwise.)
But I’m essentially a scientist at heart. Even when I resist it, eventually I have to give in to the evidence. Eventually I couldn’t comfortably reconcile a loving omnipotent deity with the horrors of the world. The small, insignificant horrors I’ve lived through, but more importantly, horrors that I’ve witnessed, up close and personal, as a social worker and counselor. Horrors that I watch every day on the news.
What kind of loving parent would let his children suffer the way so many in this world do, if he had the power to stop it?
Perhaps there is some kind of creative force that is not omnipotent. I’m open to the possibility. At best, a loving being who has limited power to intervene that is used when possible. At worst, an indifferent being who intervenes at random for its own whims. In neither case, in my opinion, a being worthy of praise or worship.
I personally find it easier to believe in a cruel, capricious, amoral creator who toys with us for its own amusement, torturing many at random and rewarding a few equally at random. (This, for the record, is actually the God that the bible depicts. One who drowns everyone but a select, supposedly righteous few, who orders his faithful follower to murder his child, who sends his own son into the world to be tortured to death in one of the most painful and horrific ways known to humanity. “For he so loved the world” is, frankly, a rather interesting spin on that.)
But at the end of the day, I really think it is all just random chance. It would be nice to live in a world where good people get the miracles, and evil people get cancer, but we live in a world where some good people live easy lives, and some get cancer and AIDS and go bankrupt and get raped and abused, and a lot of bad people never have to face any kind of real justice. Personally, I’ve never known anyone who faced significant hardships who deserved them.
Personally, I think most of us deserve the miracles. But it just doesn’t work that way.
So whatever you believe, just stop fucking equating luck with virtue and misfortune with just desserts, okay? There but for the grace of God, right?