God Owes Us an Apology

by Barbara Ehrenreich

The tsunami of sea water was followed instantly by a tsunami of spittle as the religious sputtered to rationalize God's latest felony. Here we'd been placidly killing each other a few dozen at a time in Iraq, Darfur, Congo, Israel, and Palestine, when along comes the deity and whacks a quarter million in a couple of hours between breakfast and lunch. On CNN, NPR, Fox News, and in newspaper articles too numerous for Nexis to count, men and women of the cloth weighed in solemnly on His existence, His motives, and even His competence to continue as Ruler of Everything.

Theodicy, in other words--the attempt to reconcile God's perfect goodness with the manifest evils of His world--has arisen from the waves. On the retro, fundamentalist, side, various men of the cloth announced that the tsunami was the rational act of a deity enraged by (take your pick): the suppression of Christianity in South Asia, pornography and child-trafficking in that same locale, or, in the view of some Muslim commentators, the bikini-clad tourists at Phuket.

On the more liberal end of the theological spectrum, God's spokespeople hastened to stuff their fingers in the dike even as the floodwaters of doubt washed over it. Of course, God exists, seems to be the general consensus. And, of course, He is perfectly good. It's just that his jurisdiction doesn't extend to tectonic plates. Or maybe it does and He tosses us an occasional grenade like this just to see how quickly we can mobilize to clean up the damage. Besides, as the Catholic priests like to remind us, "He's a 'mystery' "--though that's never stopped them from pronouncing His views on abortion with absolute certainty.

The clerics who are struggling to make sense of the tsunami must not have noticed that this is hardly the first display of God's penchant for wanton, homicidal mischief. Leaving out man-made genocide, war, and even those "natural" disasters, like drought and famine, to which "man" invariably contributes through his inept social arrangements, God has a lot to account for in the way of earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and plagues. Nor has He ever shown much discrimination in his choice of victims. A tsunami hit Lisbon in 1755, on All Saints Day, when the good Christians were all in church. The faithful perished, while the denizens of the red light district, which was built on strong stone, simply carried on sinning. Similarly, last fall's hurricanes flattened the God-fearing, Republican parts of Florida while sparing sin-soaked Key West and South Beach.

The Christian-style "God of love" should be particularly vulnerable to post-tsunami doubts. What kind of "love" inspired Him to wrest babies from their parents' arms, the better to drown them in a hurry? If He so loves us that He gave his only son etc., why couldn't he have held those tectonic plates in place at least until the kids were off the beach? So much, too, for the current pop-Christian God, who can be found, at least on the Internet, micro-managing people's careers, resolving marital spats, and taking excess pounds off the faithful--this last being Pat Robertson's latest fixation.

If we are responsible for our actions, as most religions insist, then God should be, too, and I would propose, post-tsunami, an immediate withdrawal of prayer and other forms of flattery directed at a supposedly moral deity--at least until an apology is issued, such as, for example: "I was so busy with Cindy-in-Omaha's weight-loss program that I wasn't paying attention to the Earth's crust."

It's not just Christianity. Any religion centered on a God who is both all-powerful and all-good, including Islam and the more monotheistically inclined versions of Hinduism, should be subject to a thorough post-tsunami evaluation. As many have noted before me: If God cares about our puny species, then disasters prove that he is not all-powerful; and if he is all-powerful, then clearly he doesn't give a damn.

In fact, the best way for the religious to fend off the atheist threat might be to revive the old bad--or at least amoral and indifferent--gods. The tortured notion of a God who is both good and powerful is fairly recent, dating to roughly 1200 BC, after which Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam emerged. Before that, you had the feckless Greco-Roman pantheon, whose members interfered in human events only when their considerable egos were at stake. Or you had monstrous, human-sacrifice-consuming, psycho-gods like Ba'al and his Central American counterparts. Even earlier, as I pointed out in my book Blood Rites, there were prehistoric god(desses) modeled on man-eating animals like lions, and requiring a steady diet of human or animal sacrificial flesh.

The faithful will protest that they don't want to worship a bad--or amoral or indifferent--God, but obviously they already do. Why not acknowledge what our prehistoric ancestors knew? If the Big Guy or Gal operates in any kind of moral framework, it has nothing to do with the rules we've come up with over the eons as primates attempting to live in groups-- rules like, for example, "no hitting."

Yes, 12/26 was a warning, though not about the hazards of wearing bikinis. What it comes down to is that we're up shit creek here on the planet Earth. We're wide open to asteroid hits, with the latest near-miss coming in October, when a city-sized one passed within a mere million miles of Earth, which is just four times the distance between the Earth and the moon. Then, too, it's only a matter of time before the constant shuffling of viral DNA results in a global pandemic. And 12/26 was a reminder that the planet itself is a jerry-rigged affair, likely to keep belching and lurching. Even leaving out global warming and the possibility of nuclear war, this is not a good situation, in case you hadn't noticed so far.

If there is a God, and He, She, or It had a message for us on 12/26, that message is: Get your act together, folks--your seismic detection systems, your first responders and global mobilization capacity--because no one, and I do mean no One, is coming to medi-vac us out of here.


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