If you have to ask…

I know, I know, this is hardly ‘timely,’ insofar as what provoked the post anyway, but the content still applies, and I prefer to take the time to do the subject justice rather than dash off something so it’s “fresh.”

In the wake of the terrorist attacks on Paris a few weeks ago, Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, admitted that the attacks had caused him to question where god was. Unsurprisingly, he got a quick answer that apparently made everything okay, and then, happy with this superficial response, failed to pose any of the hundreds of followup questions that any sane person would have asked, given the opportunity of a direct line to god. I’m with Professor Ceiling Cat on this one: I think Welby is just using current events in a grotesque method of promoting himself and his agenda, as unbelievable as that may seem coming from a man of the cloth. You are welcome to view that interview video at the first link above and see if this strikes you as the manner of someone conversing with god – I have to admit I’ve seen more convincing performances coming from 10-year-olds…

Curiously, the same question has been asked millions of times in the past, always in the face of terrible events, and while the churches keep reiterating the same responses, they don’t seem to be sticking. There is a regular conflict with the idea of a loving and caring god, especially one that favors the “right” people, that nevertheless permits some pretty atrocious behavior; it’s almost as if the idea of “right” isn’t really worth anything. But what happens if we ask such questions honestly, without immediately finding a self-justifying way of dismissing the subject? Where does the question of where god was during the attacks actually lead?

1. The most obvious response is, god was on the side of the terrorists. Let’s face it, nobody thwarted the attacks, no one was forewarned by vision or divine communication, including the archbishop himself and his casual conversations. Hell, Welby says god admitted to being in the middle of it! Further, there’s also the statement that the victims’ tears were being saved. Now, obviously the stalwart christians find this to be somehow reassuring, but it sounds pretty damn sadistic to me, like a serial killer recording his victims’ screams.

2. Religious folk are inordinately fond of raising possibilities as justification for their beliefs, so none of them should have any problem with the possibility that human suffering is simply not a mitigating factor in god’s actions. This is the biggest stumbling block, because 2.8 seconds of thought demonstrates how this conflicts with a loving and caring god. According to every religion on the planet, we were created this way, including our ability to suffer, so we can only conclude that suffering is completely intentional. After all, this is a being that created the universe, including the laws of physics, so cannot possibly be constrained by anything at all; everything imaginable could be accomplished without human input, period, and certainly without human suffering, so it could only exist because god wanted it to exist – which makes this a definition of “loving and caring” that no sane person should even contemplate. The usual counter-argument is that this world is a test to see how we get to spend the afterlife, which doesn’t actually change anything and ignores numerous facets, like how many people suffer way out of proportion to others. Do starving children in economically depressed countries really require more ‘testing’ than the rich fuckers in Europe? Because this seems like a seriously inefficient system…

3. It doesn’t make any difference whatsoever. This is also an answer that is forwarded by religious folk fairly often, in the guise of, “it’s all part of a master plan,” and variations thereof. Fine, no problem; if it’s all part of a plan then it doesn’t matter what the hell humans get up to, does it? Good and bad have no meaning in such circumstances, and guidance is pointless – which means that archbishops and all other holy men have no actual purpose. If we don’t know what the plan is, then we cannot act on it, and free will and all that jazz is pointless. Do whatever you want. The terrorists could be acting as god’s right hand – we don’t know.

4. It’s all nonsense; there’s no supreme authority, no plans, no goals, just the laws of physics and the pettiness of imperfect humans. Shockingly, this doesn’t run afoul of any evidence that has ever been put forth in the history of mankind, despite people like the archbishop and their conversations that somehow fail to produce any useful results. Of course, what this means is that we deal with adversity, not as a plan that we don’t know, not as retribution for some unknown affront to magic sky pony, but as simply undirected events. Except, of course, for the directed actions of people like the terrorists – and, not to leave anyone out, the inquisitors, the holy tribunals, the purgemasters, the fundamentalists pressuring the lawmakers, and all of those who believe they’re acting on some divine authority because we still fuck around with such flimsy and insubstantial excuses.

Because, as long as we keep trying to see such things in religious terms, they’re never going to improve. There’s a huge difference between what’s “right,” according to any religious nitwit you care to ask, and what’s “beneficial” according to a secular outlook: “beneficial” is measurable and largely objective, while “right” is any fucking thing that somebody can loosely interpret from their supposedly holy scripture. The archbishop is quite sure that he’s right… and so are the terrorists, and for that matter, every other religious person that exists. Well, that certainly clarified matters. And instead of believing that “right” is something that should be both demonstrable and convincing – in other words, capable of converting everyone in the world to the One True Religion™ – religious folk tend to believe that everyone that doesn’t agree with them is mistaken and, all too often, an infidel. This has been going on for centuries; obviously it ain’t accomplishing jack shit.

Doubt is a very useful emotion; it makes us examine our decisions and and actions to ensure that we’re correct, and makes us pause before acting rashly. Yet it’s imperfect, because it can easily be overridden by ego, as in, the process of finding justifications for an existing attitude so that we never discover that we had been wrong. Welby’s ‘answer’ very quickly made everything okay, even reassuring him that his own brand of christianity was correct despite no evidence at all that demonstrated this. It’s not safe to assume that the terrorists did the same exact thing… and it’s not safe to assume that they did not, either. When the practice is so prevalent within religion – indeed, religion cannot actually exist without it – then it’s not a matter of whether this dismal trait of humans contributed to so many vicious acts all throughout history, but how often.

I’m not comparing Welby, or the bulk of religious folk, to terrorists; I’m simply pointing out that a common trait among all religions not only permits, but passively condones, actions of this nature. This is a pretty wretched state of affairs from something that is supposed to guide mankind towards good. You’ll notice that Welby, high priest that he is, did not actually offer anything of any use whatsoever to the situation – he simply tried to alleviate the doubts among the other christians who might consider him an authority. He could, while in conversation with god, have sought some functional action to take, but somehow did not; no question of where to find the responsible parties, no inquiry about changing their motivations, not even a request for a hint about how to avoid such things in the future. This is like climbing the mountain to speak to the wise man and asking him what the elevation is. None of this strikes me as odd, but I have to wonder why so many of the religious folk never seem to grasp such things. Feel free to ask about it yourself; you know all you’re going to hear are even more excuses…

There are further problems with this kind of self-indulgent lip-service, though. First off, it’s very easy to play armchair psychologist in such situations and assume we know what was motivating the terrorists, when we have a hard enough time knowing what motivates ourselves. However, if we really are dealing with religious extremism, the archbishop of Canterbury appearing on TV and claiming that the attacks made him doubt his god are not exactly helping, for countless reasons. The most obvious is that this is something they’d be delighted to hear, and Welby’s quick follow-up that his faith was still intact (and that the terrorists were “perverted” in theirs) could very well be motivation to try harder on their part. The second bit is, couching any of this in terms of religion would simply be validation (something that, to their credit, many people in Paris specifically avoided and denigrated.) It is not a holy war, and as an atheist I can say this even while calling religion absurd; this is simply an act of over-emotional but not-very-bright people, who haven’t grasped how little their actions are really going to accomplish. I can give the faintest bit of credit, at least, to both Welby and cardinal Vincent Nichols for not trying to provoke a christian response, instead saying this was best left up to the governments. While that’s kind of a “duh” thing, it makes them at least marginally brighter than any terrorists.

But worst of all, any mention of religion at all in such circumstances is simply implying that religion has any relevance or application whatsoever – even when it manifests in such a wishy-washy ‘answer.’ We don’t need to be validating and encouraging such pointless and vapid thinking; there are real issues out there, and we need real solutions, and the ability to seek them rather than hiding behind a cloak of self-righteousness. Every day we have some fucktard that does something incredibly stupid and very often harmful, based on their belief of ‘what god wants,’ and none of us can call it stupid if we do the exact same thing ourselves. There is nothing that we will ever do to eradicate extremism completely; psychosis is not going to go away. However, psychosis is not a dividing line, but a spectrum, a large grey area, in many ways defined by what culture and society have established in the first place. If believing that you can talk to some magic puff of smoke is actually seen as aberrant and unhinged (rather than as a supremely arrogant bragging point,) there’s simply going to be a hell of a lot less of it. Not to mention, those that still do will be easier to spot.

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