An Open Letter to Susan Jacoby
Dear Ms. Jacoby,
I read with interest your article “The Blessings of Atheism” in the New York Times this week. Following the tragedy of the Newtown shootings, you express quite eloquently and personally why you are thankful to be an atheist.
For as you say, “It is a positive blessing, not a negation of belief, to be free of what is known as the theodicy problem.” Rather than being loaded down in the midst of tragedy with the problem of why an “all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen,” as an atheist you simply sidestep that concern. Then in a compelling and thoughtful way, in a manner reminiscent (though certainly softer – to me anyway) of the recently departed Christopher Hitchens, you explained how atheists need not shy away from issues of expressing concern during times such as these but instead offer consolation to those in grief.
May I ask you to consider briefly a few concerns I have with the thesis of your article? I admittedly am writing to you as a Christian pastor. You may think then my design in addressing you is to score points or ridicule you. Though you do not know me, please be assured that is not my desire. I simply “felt” for you and those you are addressing as I read your article, and wanted to respond. I thought of sending this to you personally, but was sure in the volume of correspondence you receive it would be set aside. Plus, since your article was public, I thought writing in this forum would allow others to think through the things your article and this letter raise.
First, you have arrived at your worldview because of personal tragedies that have brought home to you the theodicy issue. You stated that you tell students when asked about your beliefs “that I trace my atheism to my first encounter, at age 7, with the scourge of polio.” You then tell the very sad story of your young friend stuck in an iron lung for eight years before his death, and how seeing that, combined with adults in your life expressing their own lack of faith in God, lead you to a commitment to atheism. This story of your friend is indeed tragic, and I can only imagine how difficult it would have been to witness it. The concern I would raise is that by your own admission it appears you came to your worldview through subjective feelings, not objective observations. With all due respect, may I point out that this seems to be inconsistent with the atheistic worldview which rather prides itself on being scientific-based and research-oriented? Perhaps you have established your position in this manner, but after reading your article several times it was appeals to emotion that you used to justify your atheism, not science.
That leads me to my next concern. As an author and researcher, have you ever looked carefully at the theodicy issue as presented not by unbelieving “Cinos” (Christian-in-name-only) such as the childhood priest you mentioned, but by sincere teachers of the Bible? One whole book of the Bible, the Book of Job, is taken up with theodicy as one man struggles with horrible personal tragedy. So it is a subject any true Christian has to wrestle through to find answers. Honest Christians all admit our struggle with it as well, for theodicy has always been a difficult one for us. In his Confessions, Augustine wrestled with it like you once did, going on and on with questions such as these:
Where is evil then and whence and how crept it in hither? What is its root and what its seed? Or hath it no being? Why then fear we and avoid what is not? Or if we fear it idly then is that very fear evil whereby the soul is thus idly goaded and racked? Yea and so much a greater evil as we have nothing to fear and yet do fear. Therefore either is that evil which we fear, or else evil is, that we fear. Whence is it then? seeing God, the Good, hath created all these things good. He, indeed, the greater and chiefest Good, hath created these lesser goods; still both Creator and created all are good. Whence is evil? Or, was there some evil matter of which He made, and formed, and ordered it, yet left something in it which He did not convert into good? Why so then? Had He no right to turn and change the whole so that no evil should remain in it, seeing He is Almighty? Lastly, why should He make any thing at all of it, and not rather by the same All mightiness cause it not to be at all? Or, could it then be against His will? Or if it were from eternity, why suffered He it so to be for infinite spaces of times past, and was pleased so long after to make something out of it?
Augustine found satisfaction for his questions, and I would encourage you to read him if you have not. If you would like to read a more modern and thoughtful work that would help to that end, I would recommend Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God.
I also must say to you, as one whose occupation means that I am often called on to comfort people in tragedy, that I do not think you can bring any true consolation to those who mourn. Oh, you can offer personal concern, hugs, tears, a meal, etc. But please realize that though your atheism may allow you to ignore the question of “Why?” when other people are traveling through dark valleys, their pain will not let them.
Please be honest, Ms. Jacoby. Do you really believe that someone suffering through the senseless tragedy of having their child’s life snuffed out by a crazed killer will find help in believing that “our lives have meaning even if they do not regard death as the door to another life”? That sounds like the platitudes, minus the eternity part, that too many non-thinking Christians offer on their sympathy cards. So having made that statement about meaning, let me ask you this then. What was the meaning of a six-year life that was ended when it was mowed down with bullets at school? Remember that the “dicey” part of the word theodicy means “justice.” Just because you choose to remove God from the equation does not mean you have answered the question. Where is justice when a suicidal maniac kills children before he kills himself?
In your article you quote Ingersoll, who stated that atheists and agnostics believe it is “impossible for anyone to ‘know’ whether God existed or not.” However, God himself has become involved in the theodicy question with convincing proof. May I ask you to take an honest look at the cross of Jesus Christ? We see there that God made himself known by becoming flesh and entering into the sufferings of this world, then showing by his resurrection from the dead his ability to conquer the awfulness of sin and death. At the cross not only is comfort offered for those who grieve, but the promise of justice that mourning hearts also yearn for. You see, God the Father understands heartache. He watched his own Son die.
Ms. Jacoby, you said very confidently that “the dead do not suffer.” Have you observed this? By this statement you are making a claim about something that only God himself could know. Think about that. When people are truly hurting, adding false and empty solace to the pain creates more despair and confusion, not less.
I hope you may read this. Please think upon these things.
Sincerely and hopefully,