« Have Atheists Become News? | Main | One Fewer God »

September 11, 2006

9/11 and Atheism

This from an interview on public radio with Pat Berger, a 78-year-old woman in New York who appears to have found (or strengthened) atheism through the events of September 11:

"I really realized that it is all chance, and it is all random," she says. She remembers learning that a woman in her son's apartment building died in the twin towers because she happened to walk into a meeting at the wrong time. "There is no one watching out for anybody," Berger says.

I can think of other examples of this: One is a relative whose belief in God did not survive his experience with the Holocaust. Why does tragedy not more often lead to a surrender of belief in a benevolent God?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at September 11, 2006 10:24 AM


Because tragedy usually means the loss of someone you love and letting go of that love is harder than seeing the truth about anything.

Love is more important than truth.

What is love?

Over half a million people in this country died of cancer last year.

Tragedy is everywhere.

Wouldn't it be nice if instead of 24/7 9/11, the news networks just turned off? In remembrance of those who lost so much love five years ago today, we will not torture them with memories for 24 hours. Dreams of justice.

The only justice here is the dead are not sitting in some heaven watching us make fools of ourselves while we pumping ourselves up to hate and grieve even more.

Posted by: Jay Saul at September 11, 2006 11:24 AM

You ask: "Why does tragedy not more often lead to a surrender of belief in a benevolent God?" I think the simple answer is that those same delusions that make people believe in fantasies such as God and life after death and all of that are not likely to be challenged by the mere fact of a personal tragedy. In fact, I could see that theists would believe even more in their Gods after a tragedy, as in the midst of their fears they don't resort to reason, but instead need something irrational to cling to even more.

Posted by: Wayne Jones at September 11, 2006 11:58 AM

the argument typically runs something like this:

1) evil/pain/suffering is a reality in the world
2) if God is omniscient, omnipotent & good, he would not allow evil/pain/suffering
so either:
3a) God knows about evil, could do something about evil, but doesnt care - in which case he's not good
3b) God knows about & hates evil, but cannot do anything - in which case he's impotent, not omnipotent
3c) God hates evil & can do something about it, but doesnt know it's a reality - in which case he's not omniscient
3) therefore there can be no all knowing, all powerful, good God

but when you consider that Christians worship, as God himself, a man who who underwent torture and brutal execution, does it not raise questions about this paradigm in your mind?

if the climax of the bible is a man suffering physically, indeed exhausting God's very own curse, does this not suggest that pithy views about a God who holds back in the face of suffering and evil just aren't even in the right ball park when considering the God who presents himself in the bible?

it looks rather like the bible's answer will be something like: God knows about evil, cares about evil, can do something about evil, AND HAS DONE SOMETHING about it, to destroy it. It seems to me this option doesnt sit well with those who give up God in the face of tragedy. There is a hidden assumption that the problem of pain is simple, superficial and not deep, or to put it another way, that God could at once deal with "evil out there" without dealing with the evil in me & you.

rather, their & your response that it is naive to maintain trust in a purportedly trustworthy God in the face of tragedy reveals that their expectations have not matched God's promises the bible sees secured in the cross, but they've invented a God of their own expectations

Have you read the problem of pain by CS Lewis? or God, Freedom & Evil by Alvin Plaintinga? The latter pretty much ended all philosophical dialogue on this argument.

Posted by: Chris Oldfield at September 11, 2006 2:38 PM

Belief in a benevolent God gives meaning to tragedies.

1. You have a 1 in X chance of getting cancer. Treatment for it will be horribly uncomfortable and only possibly effective. If it doesn't kill you outright, there is a still a good chance it will come back and kill you later.
- or -
2. You have a 1 in X chance of getting cancer because the Supreme Ruler of the Universe wants to test how you will deal with it. If you deal with it correctly you get to go to Disney World for eternity. Even if you don't get to go to eternal Disney World right now, because you know that the Supreme Ruler of the Universe cares enough to test you, your ticket will still be good when you get the opportunity to go again.

Seriously, which would you rather believe in?

Posted by: Todd Sayre at September 11, 2006 8:51 PM

"Have you read the problem of pain by CS Lewis? or God, Freedom & Evil by Alvin Plaintinga? The latter pretty much ended all philosophical dialogue on this argument."--Chris Oldfield

Way to go, Alvin! Guess we can all go home.

Todd, I had cancer and now I don't. Does that mean I have a Get Into Disney World Free card?
Would I still have to pay for the rides and ears?

Posted by: Jay Saul at September 11, 2006 11:46 PM

Jay: I'll take that as a no then
Todd: emotive, but why do you think 1 & 2 exhaust all options?

you havent, for instance, considered that there may be something badly wrong with the universe and badly wrong with the moral order.

The problem of suffering presented in the bible is far deeper, far more real than some arbitrary distant God playing testing games. It's very very messy indeed. Far from the rather trite options 1&2.

Posted by: Chris Oldfield at September 12, 2006 6:28 AM

Those 2 are most certainly not the only options.

3. In the computer simulation we perceive to be reality, one of the programmers decided to change the simulation so that biological entities had a random chance of developing what we call cancer. Being the sadistic sort that he is, he made sure that the disease was slow, painful and had only somewhat effective treatment. After you've been deleted from the simulation (that is to say, died in our reality) the programmer saves a record of your final days to watch again and again at his leisure.
- or -
4. 100 Millions years after the asteroid impact that ended humanity on March 22, 2007 a race of super intelligent descendants of prairie dogs develop time travel and weapons capable of shooting thin beams of ionizing radiation that cause cancer when they pass through our tissue. Their technology is so far advanced beyond ours we cannot detect their presence, much like the invading aliens who are trying to kill all the prairie dogs alive today with undetectable "chronoparticle discombobulators" which erase prairie dogs from existance retroactively when they get hit. The aliens and future prairie dogs are locked in a galaxy-wide battle in the future. The aliens are losing and so they made this last ditch effort to prevent prairie dogs from founding an evolutionary line whose descendants will ultimately lead to their defeat. The aliens are vulnerable to radiation, which is why the future prairie dogs have to use it as a weapon. When the asteroid hits and wipes out mankind on March 22, 2007 the atmosphere will be contaminated with so much radiation that the aliens will never be able to step tentacle on it again. Cancer patients are merely victims caught in the crossfire. It isn't that the prairie dogs don't care about us (they enjoy watching Friends, after all) they just have their own survival to worry about. That may seem callous, but please couch those opinions in the knowledge that these are humanities last days.

It's just that the brand of Christianity that seems to be the dominant religion in the United States presents most things as a simple "Yahweh did it" vs "Yahweh did not do it" dichotomy. So long as he is ascribed with both omnipotence and omnibenevolence the "Yahweh did it" crowd gets both an answer to why some tragedy occured and a reason to beleive it was for some ultimate good even if they can't see how it could be so.

Of course that doesn't solve the problem of the existance of other religions with other ideas about this sort of stuff.
But there's no chance any of those could be right, is there? That's just a bunch of old myths, right?

Posted by: Todd Sayre at September 12, 2006 8:10 AM

Anything can happen once.

I think a little Douglas Adams would work here:

"There is a theory which states that if anybody ever discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened."


"The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be."

We know so little about anything how could we possible know what the probabilities are about anything? It is possible bin Laden is right about everything. I just don't believe it. And it is my job to decide what to believe in. For me believing in as little as is possible is the most reasonable path. Right now I believe I am typing.

Posted by: Jay Saul at September 12, 2006 12:17 PM

[JayS]: "Because tragedy usually means the loss of someone you love and letting go of that love is harder than seeing the truth about anything.

"Love is more important than truth."

The latter statement, particularly, keeps floating through my brain. And I'm not sure I'm with you... but a more interesting (for me anyway) observation is, why does that feel like not-the-right-answer? why am I feeling defective [insert better adverb here] if I don't swoon and come down on the side of Love with you (and most others)?

Seems to me that this is emblematic of the entire debate: the species seems to have wrestled throughout its history with the idea that without some kind of purpose/meaning-giver-in the sky (or wherever), any purpose/meaning arrived at is somehow defective. To me this is the 'love' argument. God is love etc.; it sets you free; it's unconditional; it's all you need; on & on... no need for truth if love conquers all. Is there?

But, seems to me that love and truth need to be thought together, not hierarchically; more like love is what helps unconceal truth; that truth provides a horizon for the (fleeting, temporary)energy of love...? I'm not gonna take this too far b/c it gets too stupid sounding, but it seems worth pointing out the beginning of this thread, which, JayS, had meaning for me today.

Posted by: JM at September 12, 2006 11:47 PM

Love and truth are words that we can never be sure we understand when others use them.

There are only two words I really like (excluding names of things and animals and people I like): Love and Magic. Truth, not so much. And I refuse to try to define either Love or Magic in anything but poetry and art. And that only because I don't even know what I mean when I write poetry or create animations.

I have an improvable hypothesis: If you understood what I mean when I say love and truth you would agree with me.

But since we both like to play with words and therefore are stuck in our own meaning gravity traps, we dance and twirl around and around moving mostly to our own thinking.

Posted by: Jay Saul at September 13, 2006 1:45 AM

You'll note that I did not capitalize love or truth, for a reason.... to prevent them from sedimenting into hard, fast, static definitions against which other possibilities are measured (esp in the case of truth, which has been given the imperial treatment since the Romans); against which the dance comes grinding to a halt. Fun playing w/ words w/ you again, JayS, though I'd hate to think of being stuck in my own meaning-gravity trap...? is that how it comes off (hope not)

Posted by: JM at September 13, 2006 11:27 AM

JM, you come off just fine; we are all stuck with the meanings we create. Life is making choices of significance; if we stop, we die. We are not really trapped by life but it sure feels like it.

Life is like science: we don't know what the truth is, but we have a pretty good idea what it isn't.

Posted by: Jay Saul at September 13, 2006 6:47 PM

Hmm. Interesting idea re: what science is/not: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, was our convocation speaker yesterday. Really dynamic, fun, smart dude (even been on Colbert--go to the planetarium if you're in NYC)--and an astrophysicist who makes science and its 'wonderment' part of the real world of power relations: e.g., greatest scientific/technological events/achievements accomplished by the drivers of war, profit, or 'awe' of power (>> the pyramids or the palace at Versailles)...i.e., don't feel so much 'stuck with the meanings we create' but hard to achieve meanings when the dominant discourse deliberately veils 'truth' ... in other words, what does it mean to actively work *against* being 'stuck w/ the meanings we create' yet keep finding oneself defined in such terms? this is a real issue in my view......

Posted by: JM at September 14, 2006 11:02 PM

You are walking down the sidewalk. A car is parked at the curb. A huge pine tree is in the yard. A big black dog is coming down the driveway.

Meaning is assigned pre-consciousness. We react emotionally to the world, we have no awareness of deciding to pay more attention, assigning more meaning to the dog. The car and the tree and the millions of other things in the visible area could not even exist and you would not notice.

But take some LSD (or ten years of meditation) and the lawn may be more significant than the dog. In which case the dog would not sense any fear and would probably just lick your face as you lay on the lawn--the mystic garden.

Defining is what meaning is. You can't have your cake and not have your cake too.
One has to prioritize to function, to act.

I think what you are describing is like meditation; stopping the internal dialog where we consciously develop meanings.

Posted by: Jay Saul at September 15, 2006 12:47 AM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)