The gravestone is beautiful. A polished black marble with simple yet elegant heart-breaking script, beginning to wear slightly with age: “To the memory of Baby ******, born asleep.” Immediately below it is a similar inscription—“To Baby *****, born asleep.” To the rear of the headstone is a small metal plaque, and on it is another inscription dedicated to a third stillborn child.
Reading the dedications listed on the grave on a wet afternoon in late June, I fight to control both tears and anger at the sheer bloody tragedy surrounding this little piece of history I had discovered. I had never met those unfortunate people named as parents on the headstone, but surely the loss of a child must be one of the single most horrendous situations a parent can endure. To lose more than one hardly bears thinking about.
It was contemplating situations filled with intense suffering such as this that finally crushed what little faith I had left in God or the power of the Church; not that this took much doing, but in a way it provided a few more pieces of the puzzle to enable me to fashion a coherent outline of the thought process that led me to the conclusions below.
For me it is not so much the existence of God that I think requires further discussion; rather it’s his actions, or lack thereof, in the world—both today and through history. Proving or disproving his existence is, of course, an impossibility. Rather than debate this, let us instead examine the case for and/or against his worship.
To put the issue more clearly: If God does not exist, our lives continue much the same with whatever meaning we attach to them. However, if he does exist, should we worship him?
I was raised a strict Roman Catholic and as such was taught to rely on faith for a great deal early on in life. Life choices, friends, disagreements, and relationships could all be solved (apparently) through trusting in God and accepting how things turned out. This can actually work, more often than not (though not through any act of divine intervention); accepting things as they are and not trying to alter the impossible works well as a recipe for happiness in many—if not all—circumstances and is in fact one of the key ideas behind many philosophical schools of thought.
Indeed, many of the teachings and traditions of the Church (I refer to the Roman Catholic Church here, but the principle is the same across many more denominations) work not only to bring the practitioners closer to God but also to guide them in living fulfilled, wholesome, and serene lives. Many of the traditions were actually borrowed from the teachings of ancient philosophers such as the Stoics and simply altered slightly to include God in the equation.
So there we have a blueprint for a good life, provided by an all-loving god. If the blueprint is followed correctly, it will allow us to experience happiness not only in this all-too-fleeting life but also throughout eternity in heaven.
So far so good. We can even explain away natural disasters and loss of life by calling them God’s will and accepting them as something that was meant to be. Or can we?
We are taught that God loves each of us equally, perfectly—as a father loves his son. But a logical examination of the world around us shows that this cannot be the case. Or if it is, his love for us is so abstract or unknown that it is beyond our comprehension (which is essentially the same thing; if the way he loves us is so mutated from what we know as love, it becomes something else entirely of which we have no concept).
For an individual to be “saved” (or welcomed into heaven, born again, call it what you will), he or she must renounce evil, accept God as his or her Lord and savior, and dedicate his or her spiritual life to putting his or her trust in him more and more each day. All forms of Christianity accept this, in one form or another, as a basis for becoming a practitioner.
Instantly we can identify a problem with this scenario: If following the path of Christianity (or insert the religion of your choice) requires a choice, why are so many people denied the chance to make it? Uncontacted tribes and people in the far reaches of the globe may never have heard of Christianity—certainly a massive proportion of the world had not in the early days of the religion, when missionaries had yet to begin their ministries. Were these people simply abandoned as a lost cause by God, condemned by their ignorance to an afterlife of purgatory or worse?
If the answer to this question is yes, then this constitutes a strong argument for the lack of an all-loving deity. If the answer is no, and these people were effectively given a “pass” due to their not having heard of Christianity, then telling them about it would effectively worsen their position by giving them a further set of rules to follow in order to achieve salvation, throwing the whole need for religion into jeopardy.
This example may seem a little abstract to the modern-day reader; after all, the internet and the spread of humans across the globe means that the number of “uncontacted” tribes numbers almost zero. However, in our own local communities, there are those for whom accepting the word of God is impossible.
Consider victims of any sort of personality disorder where the sufferer has an inflated sense of one’s own importance and is predisposed to be highly resistant to accepting that there might be a power greater then oneself. Taken to extremes, someone in the grip of an extreme narcissistic personality disorder may in fact believe that he or she is in fact the highest power in the universe.
This example is slightly different, as the subject has the opportunity to choose a religious existence but not the mental capacity. As the personality disorder has arisen through no fault of his or her own, how can he or she be blamed for poor decisions as a result of it? Also not taken into account here are the mentally handicapped, those with learning difficulties or critically low IQs, or simply the average person who was raised in an atheist household and has been taught—and believes—that there is no god.
Why would an all-loving god not provide his children with at least the predisposition to be receptive to his word?
Conditions such as the disorders mentioned above often develop in childhood, but others can be present from birth. In other cases, the subject may not get a chance to make a choice at all, as his or her life is cut short by disease, violence, or accidents—which brings us back to the issue of unnecessary suffering.
Some suffering is essential to our growth as a person. If we lived a sheltered life wrapped in cotton wool, we would likely develop into a selfish, entitled, naive nightmare. Suffering hardens us and teaches us about the world; suffering makes us stronger people. Or most of it does.
Losing my job and being unemployed and nearly homeless for a year was hard. I lost a great deal of weight and money. I also learned about how I cope under financial hardship, experienced a whole new side of life, and met a host of interesting people with whom I otherwise would not have had contact. I emerged a (thinner) but stronger person.
The parents who lived through the loss of three children did not emerge better people. They may be stronger, they may well be less emotional in everyday situations, and they may be able to empathize and support others in similar situations (all positive attributes), but—and let me be crystal clear on this—there is no skill, attribute, or emotional state the achieving of which can be justified by the death of three children.
Perhaps the previous statement is a little inaccurate. A better one would be that they did not emerge better enough people for God to justify taking away the three things they loved most in the world.
God’s actions here could perhaps be justified by Christians who say that the tragic events that took place were all part of God’s plan and that we should not blame him for wanting to bring these children “home” to him in heaven. After all, aren’t they in a better place now? Perhaps. Maybe heaven is all it’s cracked up to be, maybe not.
The question is, however: Why did God bring these children in the world at all if all they were going to cause was such intense distress and grieving? Not to teach us anything, not to make us better people. To do this would be to admit that our development as humans here on Earth means more to him than the lives of children. It would be tantamount to saying that the only reason these children existed at all was to serve some purpose in the development of others.
Perhaps it could be suggested that these things happen in the “natural order of things,” and it is our own free will and poor decisions that lead to these terrible circumstances. Why then bring God into the equation at all? I will not go into the futility of prayer in this article (you cannot attribute miracles to God or the saints without asking why he or they did not perform these acts for others in an identical situation); however, an examination of the points above show very clearly that—if he exists—God is obviously not at work in our lives.
These questions and many more are what ended my faith in God all those years ago. It was not a simple question of proving the existence of a deity; it was more a matter of determining his worth as a figure of worship—of determining whether a being who allowed mothers to watch their children die in front of them, families to be ripped apart by abduction or violence, or horrendous diseases ravage the people closest to us was worthy of endless adoration and devotion.
To the end of my days, I will wish I had a faith. I wish I could answer these questions satisfactorily and therefore put my trust in an all-loving deity who ultimately has the best intentions for me and all of humanity. But I simply cannot. Having a faith such as that must be a great comfort to those in need, but I cannot be a part of worshipping a god with what appears to be strong psychopathic traits.
There is much we can learn from the world around us, much good we can do, and many people—such as the tragic parents I read about on that wet day in June—to whom it is our duty to extend comfort and hope. We can learn to deal with terrible events through philosophy and achieve a greater sense of peace and serenity from studying philosophical schools of thought than we can from petitioning an abstract, seemingly indifferent deity. Regardless, our thoughts should be with this life, geared toward living an honest, upstanding existence on our own terms and celebrating our very human condition.
As (the Christian!) Stephan Grellet reportedly said—“I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it for I shall not pass this way again.”