Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Do Atheists Hate God?

In 1999, Prof. Julie Juola-Exline was published in an article in the Journal of Health Psychology entitled “When God Disappoints: Difficulty Forgiving God and Its Role in Negative Emotion” and over a decade later, her original ideas are still making the news and being discussed in thoughtful blogs and in other blogs.

Back then, Joula-Exline was quoted as saying that her research “[R]aises the question of whether, for some people, feelings of anger at God might serve as barriers to believing that God exists.” I'd like to reframe her question, and suggest that it ought to be this: Might the experience of personal tragedy serve to allow critically inclined theists or agnostics to take the argument from evil more seriously?

The argument from evil may perhaps be summed up in a parable. A young boy is in an interrogation room with a one-way mirror along the wall. A priest comes into the room, locks the door, and proceeds to forcibly sodomize the young boy. Much later, after years of therapy and reflection, the boy has become a young man, and we ask him a curious question "Do you think that anyone was watching from behind the one-way mirror?"

The young man thinks for a moment and says "I've never known anyone so callous as to allow what happened to me in that room. Perhaps another perverted and amoral priest was in the next room, though. Or some other sort of sociopath. Or maybe a quadriplegic. Such people are fairly rare, however, and I think we can reasonably conclude that the observation room was empty."

At this point, the young man is using a form of Bayesian reasoning to take into account the prior probability of amoral or disabled human beings out of the set of all human beings. We modify the question a bit and ask the young man "Do you think that your father was in the next room?" He immediately replies in the negative, saying confidently that there is no doubt in his mind that his father, a loving and powerful man, would never have allowed the events which went on in that room. There is no conceivable reason that a loving father would have to allow his own beloved son to be victimized like that.

The atheological argument from evil runs in parallel to this scenario. Terrible things happen in the world, people are allowed to victimize one another, and we ask ourselves whether there is a Heavenly Father in the Observation Room, capable of intervening but refraining from doing so for reasons known only to Himself.

It should be obvious that those who have personally experienced tragedy in their own lives are going to have less difficulty taking such arguments seriously than those of us who have lived relatively charmed and carefree lives. In other words, it should come as no surprise whatsoever that those who "reported a greater difficulty forgiving God" might eventually tend towards unbelief.

If we are confirmed atheists, of course, we cannot direct our anger at a God in whom we do not believe. We can, however, visualize or imagine the possibility of a deity looking on indefferently to human suffering, and when we do so, we might easily a rush of anger at the character in our imagination, just as we might feel a rush of anger towards any other fictional bad guy. Who doesn't despise King Claudius for murdering Hamlet's father? Who doesn't loathe Darth Vader for his slaughter of the younglings? Who doesn't disdain the Big Lebowski for his greed, vanity, and hypocrisy?

My contention is that asking an atheist whether they are angry at god is much like asking someone how they feel about an effectively portrayed villain. An emotional reaction tells us nothing about whether we believe the villain is real, only about what we would think of him if he were real. Thankfully, all the gods are mythic fictions, there is no one worth despising in the Heavenly Observation Room and this leaves it entirely up to us to alleviate deprivation and rectify injustice.

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