God, Japan and the Meaning of Life


The following article previously appeared as a segment on episode #042 of our podcast ‘Skeptics with a K’. Subscribe via iTunes

On Friday 11 March 2011, a dreadful earthquake struck Japan.

The scale of the disaster was shocking and disturbing.  Perhaps equally disturbing, however, were the messages which appeared on Facebook and twitter in the aftermath of the earthquake, suggesting it was ‘payback’ or some kind of karmic reaction to the Japanese alliance with Nazi germany during World War II. Specifically, they claimed, it was due to the unprovoked Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

My initial response to this, and this is meant sincerely, is “fuck you, you obnoxious pig fucker”.

For one thing, there is no such thing as ‘karma’.   For another, even if there were such a thing as ‘karma’, as described by the Buddhist tradition – it doesn’t work like that. And even if there were such a thing as ‘karma’, and even if it did work like that, the people injured and killed in the Tōhoku earthquake are not the same people who attacked Pearl Harbor.  They merely happened to have been born in the same country, some decades later.

To punish the people who live in Japan today for war crimes committed by their forefathers is not only unjust, it’s nonsensical, unless you subscribe to some kind of “the sins of the father shall be visited on the son” bullshit.  In which case, fuck you. Oh, and fuck you, you fucking pig-fucking, dick-fuck, fuck face.

Other messages were more positive, but equally as useless, such as #prayforjapan posts which appeared Facebook and Twitter. While this undoubtably represents a more positive sentiment, sentiment is unfortunately all it offers. You cannot clear debris, or cool nuclear fuel rods, with prayers.  This unfortunately exposes the impotence of Christianity. Faced with tragedy on this scale, they hit their knees and clasp their hands, begging their imaginary friend to intercede.  That intercession, if it comes at all, always seems to take the form of real people getting in there, and getting their hands dirty.  Though He was quite hands-on in the Old Testament, God likes to take a bit of a backseat these days.  He could, any time he chose, wave His giant hand and stabilise the nuclear reactors, clear the debris, resurrect the dead and give everyone their lives and homes back.  But He hasn’t done that.

Maybe God thinks this is payback for Pearl Harbor too.

It was while reading around this notion of “Pray for Japan” that I came across the website of a Christian Apologist named Kevin Childs.  Kevin published a blogpost on March 15 titled “God and Japan“, asking where God was during the Tōhoku earthquake.

Who ISN’T asking “Where was God when tragedy struck Japan?”

I’m not.

I’ll be honest: Any attempt to offer comments, spiritual insight, or anything else seems cheap and intrusive. It’s a little like passing out church brochures to weeping families you don’t know at the ER. It doesn’t feel right. Thank the Lord that Pat Robertson hasn’t said anything stupid… so far. And I don’t want to do so either. A tragedy on this scale shouldn’t be used just to “make a point.” But here are some thoughts.

No comment.

Pray for Japan. If you’re like me, I’m not exactly sure HOW to pray. What do you pray for those who have literally lost everything, and don’t even know if their family is at the bottom of the ocean, or under mountains of debris, or anonymously cremated, or taking shelter?

Fortunately, Childs has some suggestions on what to pray for.

Pray that God would comfort them and find ways to provide for their needs. Pray that those in authority would make the best possible decisions about relief and rebuilding.

I’m fairly sure that those things are best achieved by people – who definitely do exist – and not a God – which may or may not. Real people should be in there, providing support and comfort, catering for the needs of those unfortunate enough to have been caught up in this.  And the decisions made by those in authority in Japan are their own decisions.  To suggest that any good decision is actually guided by God, or that without God’s help they may come to some sub-optimal decision, is a grave insult.

Pray that God would use EVEN this for His glory. Pray that Christians would shine in all this, and Japanese people would be brought to Christ through it.

This comment actually made me sick to my stomach. “Pray that God uses this event to glorify Himself.” Presumably He will do this by absolving Himself of responsibility for those injured and killed, claiming credit for the survival of the rest, while also claiming credit for any good decisions made by those in power.

Childs also asks that Christians should “wrestle with the deep questions”. He says:

Where was God? On His throne where He always is, ruling the world. The twitterverse and blogosphere are buzzing with the told-you-so’s of skeptics. Many of them seem delighted to insist that if there WAS a loving God, such things couldn’t happen.

I can honestly say that I didn’t see a single skeptic or atheist take delight in insisting that, if there were a loving God, such things wouldn’t happen.  I’m not saying those comments weren’t made, only that to use the word “buzzing” may be overstating it somewhat.

It is a long-standing philosophical problem, known as the Problem of Evil. The argument runs along the lines of: God is all loving; God is all powerful; God is all knowing; Shit happens.  These four statements cannot logically exist within the same universe. Either God didn’t know shit was going to happen – in which case He can’t be all knowing. Or God did know shit was going to happen, but did not have the ability to stop it – in which case He can’t be all powerful.  Or God knew shit was going to happen, could have done something to stop it, but neglected to.  In which case, He cannot be all loving.

Childs says:

My response: WE are the ones who brought sin into this world, and wrecked it. No sin: no tsumani.

Again, I find this to be an abhorrant view, not too dissimilar to those of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church.  Although Phelps and his ilk hang their hats on homosexuality being Root of all Evil™, and therefore the root of all tragedy, Childs takes a wider, though philosophically identical view.  The people of Japan – and presumably of the world – brought this upon themselves. Somehow this was just or right, because they were “sinners”. Whatever the fuck that means.

Childs admits:

And for those who reject God in favor of only “natural” explanations, some questions of my own:  Why do you care about this at all?

Me, personally?  I care because of this thing called “empathy”.  Innocent people are suffering and dying – an idea I find distressing.   I wouldn’t like that to happen to me, and if I were caught in a similar situation, I would like to think other people would care enough to help me.  It makes sense to foster an empathetic culture, where we look out for each other. It works out better for everyone.

Isn’t this just evolution culling the herd?

By “evolution” I assume Childs is referring to natural selection.  And to some extent, that argument could be made. The people of Japan will survive if they’re strong enough to survive, etc. But while natural selection does accurately describe the diversity of life on the planet, that doesn’t mean that it’s a sensible philosophy to live by. “Is” does not imply “ought”, and just because I accept that natural selection is the most likely mechanism to explain the diversity of life on our planet, that doesn’t mean that I think it should be applied as a social or foreign aid policy.

Alternatively, it could be argued that the very empathy and social nature of our species is in itself a phenotype, albeit one which is perhaps partly memetic rather than purely genetic. The fact that our species expresses empathy is one of the reasons that we have survived, and continue to survive. We help each other out. Human instinct and empathy are just as much a a part of natural selection as tsunamis and earthquakes. If we survive because we help each other survive, there is nothing anti-evolutionary about that.

In a purely materialistic universe, there is no meaning or purpose. Even love and grief are sentimental illusions resulting from chemical processes. Right?

Wrong.  In a purely materialistic universe (which, incidentally, I don’t claim to be the case — the most I would claim is that the material universe is all we can demonstrate to exist), there is perhaps no “ultimate” meaning or purpose; and no meaning or purpose imposed upon us by some external entity.  However, we bring our own meaning and purpose to our own lives.

My purpose, right now, is to try and contribute in some positive fashion to the world we live in. In whatever small ways I can, I want to make this a better world for everyone. Not because I think there is some ultimate purpose or ultimate reward, or even some ultimate punishment if I don’t. I just think its the right thing to do.

I was once asked – specifically of the 10:23 Campaign – “Why do you do it? What’s the point?”.

“Because people are dying,” I replied.

“Yes,” she said “but aside from that?”

I was stunned. “There’s an aside from that?!

What more reason do you want? People are suffering and dying, and maybe I can do something about it. So I’m going to try.

Leaving that to one side, however, even just recording our podcast is a contribution. I shouldn’t think that we change many minds on the show, or save any lives.  It’s a skeptical show aimed at a skeptical audience, and most of the audience will already agree with everything we’re saying.  Maybe we will tell them something they didn’t know.   Maybe next time they encounter some quack or some religious evangelist, they’ll have just a slightly better grasp of the arguments they’re likely to encounter. Maybe some people will have their ideas challenged.  Maybe I’ll challenge a few of my own. But even if all we can do is make some people laugh every couple of weeks, even if all we’re capable of is brightening someone’s day by talking bollocks about bullshit, that’s something positive that we’re contributing.

That is the meaning and purpose that I bring to my life. It might not be good enough for Kevin Childs and his friend Jesus. But it’s enough for me.

Please take a few moments to make your own positive contribution, by donating to the Japan Tsunami Relief Fund.

  1. #1 by Sion on April 1, 2011 - 10:38

    Perfect.

  2. #2 by Margaret Nelson on April 1, 2011 - 12:16

    Nothing about this surprises me.

    Oh, and if you’d like to help Japan in another way, please donate to my appeal for Shelterbox: http://www.justgiving.com/Margaret-Nelson1. It’s totally god-free.

  3. #3 by Niki M. on April 1, 2011 - 16:23

    Freaking beautifully put, Mike.

  4. #4 by Michael on April 2, 2011 - 11:20

    The sins of the father. This Childs guy should be strung up.

  5. #5 by Johan™ Strandberg on April 3, 2011 - 02:28

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for posting this even though you had already used in it episode #42. Not only does it capture the outrage so many of us felt… [dang. I just spent 15 minutes trying to tell you how well you captured my own thoughts about this. I guess it comes down to:] Well said Sir.

    –j

    PS This also saved me from having to go back and transcribe your succinct summation of the Problem of Evil. It is distilled down to its essence. Now I get to put it in my File of Quotes for future use.

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