Seeing so many posts on Facebook over the years that “God is good,” I wondered if this mindless mantra posed as the counterpoint for one of the world’s most famous atheists when he decided to entitle his book God is not great.
Christopher Hitchens came out with his book in 2007. He lived only four more years, dying at age 61 of esophageal cancer. I didn’t “discover” him until he had already died. A brilliant journalist, public speaker and debater, Hitchens is one of my favorite characters to listen to at night when I’m lying in bed. Late at night, I’ll find a video of him on YouTube on my cell phone. I’ll put the cell phone on the bed stand and just delight in the soundness of his arguments.
Atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins keep those of us honest who find our calling in the “religion business.” There is no doubt that religion IS a business. Every church has a collection each Sunday and a yearly budget and monthly meetings of the church council bemoaning their financial situation. Though church meetings begin and end with prayers, the halo disappears as soon as people get own to practicalities. Much of operating a church is human, not divine.
Atheists like Hitchens carry the issue further. They maintain that not just the necessities of running a church (including everything from paying salaries to buying candles) but the religion itself is human, not divine. Religion, they insist, is man-made.
Earlier I mentioned the “mindless mantra” that “God is good” which I see all the time on Facebook and hear in churches. One time an atheist friend of Hitchens’ — British actor Stephen Fry — was asked, “What if you’re wrong? What if your life ends, and you are brought before your Maker? What would you say?”
The interviewer thought he had Fry cornered.
Stephen Fry didn’t blink. He said, “If I saw God, I would say to him, ‘Bone cancer in children, huh?’ ”
This is why I say “God is good” gets to be a mindless mantra. Frankly, I think believers say it so often as a way of convincing themselves in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.
I read the autobiography of the teenage surfer whose left arm was bitten off by a shark in the waters of Hawaii. Bethany Hamilton grew up in a fundamentalist family, in a fundamentalist church, and so she holds to the “party line” that the tragedy visited upon her was the will of God. God had some plan down the road for which a one-armed Stephanie would be better-equipped to lead than a healthy teen. She keeps the stiff upper lip. But there IS one point in her writing when she allows herself a moment of genuine grief. She wrote, I don’t know why God chose this to happen to me.
Then she resumed the rest of the book with “God is so good.”
I honestly wonder that believers who have had horrible things happen to them – the loss of a young spouse, the death of a child – insist “God is good” as a continual cover for their real feelings. I can imagine deep down there is resentment – resentment – towards the Almighty.
All these years believers have been faithful, praying the right prayers, expressing the right praises – only to be ambushed by some tragedy.
Some have had the courage to give up the delusion. Rather than maintaining with stubborn “faithfulness” that “God is good,” they adjust their beliefs to reality. This is very biblical. The believers in Jesus were totally mistaken as to what kind of Messiah he would turn out to be. How could hanging helplessly on a cross save anybody? But the early believers adjusted their thinking. They re-imagined a Messiah saving them not by a power play like running the Romans out of the Holy Land – rather, by being powerless: moving people through his suffering.
A more realistic belief in God – matching the reality of what we see in life – is that God is NOT in control like some divine movie director. The Holocaust is evidence enough. The result is – people make excuses for God – why didn’t God intervene?
This, too, is a carry-over from the barbaric portrayals of the gods of ancient times that got foisted onto God. They were in control of anything that happened – be it weather patterns or loss in battle or illness or famine…People would make excuses as to why the gods didn’t save them.
Rather, it is more a match for reality to admit – God is powerless. In other words, God’s effectiveness in our lives is not moving mountains – let alone diverting tornadoes or averting traffic jams for people in a hurry. Rather, to put it in non-religious terms, God’s “job” is — creating relationships. They go in three directions: relationships between us and God, between us and others, and a healthy relationship with one’s own self. Self-esteem, living out one’s potential – these are modern beliefs about the role of God in a person’s life as opposed to the centuries-old beliefs about being mouse-like.
The put-down of religion in the name of humility is one of the things atheists disdain. Another is the Cross. Atheists like Hitchens find the Cross to be the worst of religion – that a supreme being would demand the horrendous torture and hanging of an innocent in order for a transaction of forgiveness to be completed. Why can’t the supreme being simply say, “You’re all forgiven”? Why does there have to be the torture and execution?
Believers rush to defend God. “It’s an example of how much God LOVES us – that God would sacrifice His only Son.” This is one of the motifs in the Bible that Hitchens and other atheists pounce on. God sacrifices His son; Abraham stops short of the downward gesture of his knife from sacrificing HIS son…Why do human beings have to be sacrificed at all? What kind of barbaric God is this?
The human kind, they would say. There is too much of human cruelty in the Scriptures, and it’s portrayed as God’s will (like wiping out every man, woman, child and animal in Jericho).
There are also power plays in religion that are obviously man-made: like prohibitions about what not to eat, not working on the Sabbath, not having relationships with someone of the same sex, not mixing with people of other races…A priestly class gets to know the rules and thus becomes regarded as a power class in society. What kind of God IS this – who divides people, who elevates some and puts down others? This is the best that the supreme, all-wise, almighty can do? God has to work within the cultural trappings of barbaric peoples? It sounds more tedious than LBJ trying to outmaneuver the Southern Senators in order to get a Civil Rights bill passed.
Another ingredient of religion that the atheists attack is the obvious self-centered nature of religion. Every religious people claims THEY are God’s chosen – be they Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Christians…In our day, the self-centered nature of belief is evident in the Facebook posts. I remember when Tropical Storm Sandy battered the East Coast. The entire East Coast was being devastated, when a Facebook item appeared. A believer in New Jersey excitedly posted that the electricity in her house didn’t go out. “God is so good!”
What kind of religion could make anybody more narrow in vision than that?
A man-made religion, the atheists say.
As I say, the atheists keep us honest. But there IS one way that their argument falters. Hitchens and Dawkins and others tend to find a passage in Scripture that is horrendous – portraying God as ordering an atrocity – and then they say, “Is this the word of God?”
Some — fundamentalists, for example – insist “yes,” and for them I have no pity when they get bashed in debates by Hitchens.
But others understand the ancient nature of the Scriptures. They are more human than divine.
The portrayals of God mimic those of any ancient, barbaric deity. But these writings ARE set in time. That is, they ARE dated. It’s not as if what you read about God ordering the massacre in Jericho is as “inspired” as Jesus embracing the insignificant of society (children). In other words, the Scriptures change. The portrayal of God changes. There IS progress.
The writings of prophets like Isaiah and Joel ring out with the news of a God who is elevating people to levels of dignity worthy of being made in the image of God. The life and teachings of Jesus carry the predictions of this Good News to completion. It’s just that even in the more “modern” writings of the New Testament, they still take place in an age of ignorance and barbarism – such that Jesus’ death is interpreted as God’s sacrificing of His only Son. The cruelty that we find in the Old Testament continues into the New Testament. But there is progress.
What the atheists fail to do is to give credit to the movement. There is progress from a narrow God to a universal God – from people schooled in discrimination to people learning to live with others of different races.
What believers, however, fail to do is to give credit that much of the progress we have made in religion was the influence not of the churches – but of people outside of the churches. Abolition, feminism, gender equality – all of these are influences that picked up support in churches but would not have garnered the majority of society. It took the un-churched to tilt the scales in favor of progress.
Believers have to give up the narrow, ego-centric the idea that only the church-going are doing God’s work.