Someone told me that there were to be special prayers in their local church for the people of Japan. This well-intentioned and fundamentally kindly proceeding nevertheless shows how absurd, in the literal sense of this term, are religious belief and practice. When I saw the television footage of people going to church in Christchurch after the tragic quake there, the following thoughts pressed.
It would be very unkind to think that the churchgoers were going to give thanks that they personally escaped; one would not wish to impute selfishness and personal relief in the midst of a disaster in which many people arbitrarily and suddenly lost their lives through ‘an act of God’. If they were going to pray for their god to look after the souls of those who had died, why would they think he would do so since he had just caused, or allowed, their bodies to be suddenly and violently crushed or drowned?
Indeed, were they praising and supplicating a deity who designed a world that causes such arbitrary and sudden mass killings? An omniscient being would know all the implications of what it does, so it would know it was arranging matters with these awful outcomes. Were they praising the planner of their sufferings for their sufferings, and also begging his help to escape what he had planned?
Perhaps they think that their god was not responsible for the earthquake. If they believe that their god designed a world in which such things happen but left the world alone thereafter and does not intervene when it turns lethal on his creatures, then they implicitly question his moral character. If he is not powerful enough to do something about the world’s periodic murderous indifference to human beings, then in what sense is he a god? Instead he seems to be a big helpless ghost, useless to pray to and unworthy of praise.
For if he is not competent to stop an earthquake or save its victims, he is definitely not competent to create a world. And if he is powerful enough to do both, but created a dangerous world that inflicts violent and agonizing sufferings arbitrarily on sentient creatures, then he is vile. Either way, what are people thinking who believe in such a being, and who go to church to praise and worship it? How, in the face of events which human kindness and concern registers as tragic and in need of help – help which human beings proceed to give to their fellows: no angels appear from the sky to do it – can they believe such an incoherent fiction as the idea of a deity? This is a perennial puzzle.
By A C GRAYLING