Rethinking ‘God’ (2) ‘The Dark Side of the Force’

It seems to me that the advance of science, with its thoroughly empirical basis, experimentally verifiable research, and massively impressive results, is one factor that’s led, in western Europe, to a steady decline in the relevance to most people of institutional religion. The latter has not assisted its cause, when it has mounted fruitless and futile opposition to some of science’s key findings and insights, because they don’t fit in with stories found in its ancient books, or contradict some of its traditional teachings. Increasing numbers of people appear to be identifying with Pierre-Simon Laplace when, on being asked by Napoleon why he had “written this huge book on the system of the world without mentioning God,” replied, “I have no need of that hypothesis”. I may say that I’m not necessarily persuaded that he was right, but that’s for another day.

The traditional image of God is of a superhuman being, who is all powerful, all knowing, and all good, and the creator of all that exists. This is an image which embodies and invites dualistic thinking. Such a God is separate from his creation, and is separate from everything that is not ‘good’. Something, or someone else must be responsible for the latter, and so the Devil arrives on the scene as the chief culprit and adversary. So we have the dualism of God over and against nature and the universe, and God’s forces over and against those of the Devil. In the religions and philosophies of the East, on the other hand, there is no such dualism, but that’s also for another day.

If a God who is all powerful, all knowing and all good, has designed, constructed and organised this universe, and is in charge of its day to day functioning, what kind of place might we most likely expect it to be? We might imagine that it would exhibit efficiently smooth running, and afford safety and security for all its living beings. But that’s not how things are!

Life can validly be pictured as awesome in its richly colourful and fascinating diversity, but it has a terrifyingly dark side. Organic life survives by feeding on itself. Each day brings the deadly interplay of predator and prey, and an ongoing worldwide horror story of danger, terror, suffering and death. If there’s a ‘designer’, here’s an example of what ‘he’ has to answer for – “Few parasitoids are more disturbing than the wasps whose females inject their eggs into living caterpillars. Inside, the larvae mature, feeding on the caterpillar’s body fluids before gnawing through its skin en masse, and emerging into the light of day. Despite the trauma, the caterpillar initially survives, but the larvae turn their host into a bodyguard that protects them as they spin their cocoons to finish maturing. Finally, the caterpillar starves to death, but only after the tiny wasps emerge from their cocoons and fly away.” Does this sound like the work of a creator God who is all powerful, all knowing and all good – or are caterpillars, unlike each hair on human heads, of no account?

Far from well planned, smooth-running efficiency, there is a history of horrendous waste. More than 99% of all organisms that have lived on Earth are extinct, mostly in five successive periods of mass extinction, and we may well be in the midst of a sixth. If there’s a great designer, constructor and maintainer, he/she/it needs to be called to account. Why are untold thousands of human and other creatures maimed or killed in volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis, mudslides and avalanches, droughts and floods etc. etc. Surely a ‘God’ of the traditional kind could have foreseen and forestalled such misery and depredation.

There is also the suffering and slaughter inflicted by human beings on one another, usually excused by their having been given ‘free will’. Leaving aside the debate on whether the latter is ‘real’, the question remains as to why a God who is all powerful, all knowing and all good, stands by and allows the worst of events to happen. How does such a God watch his ‘chosen people’ die horribly and totally distressingly, in their millions – fathers, mothers, children and babies – and do nothing in response? Is ‘he’ heartless?

I’ve yet to encounter any response to this which I feel is plausible, let alone explanatory. Once again, it seems to me that the traditional concept of ‘God’ has to be rethought, together with its accompanying dualistic thinking.

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