Every time I go to the supermarket there’s an African man selling socks in the parking lot. It’s not always the same man, but he always has the same approach: “Hello, my friend…” after which he goes on to coax handouts through a combination of smiles, hand gestures and appeals to the goodness of god.
Sometimes I give him spare change. Once I gave him a banana, for which he seemed genuinely grateful. I’m sorry for his predicament (he’s likely a refugee from a war-torn land), but I try not to let myself become an easy target for people begging for money, either. Maybe this is a holdover from my New York days.
Recently we had a brief conversation. It went like this:
“Hello, my friend!”
“Ah, god is good, is he not?”
“No, he’s not. Maybe you should thank people who have helped you out, not god.”
“But doesn’t god help you, my friend?”
“He’s never done anything for me.”
“Why don’t you believe in god?” he asked, puzzled.
“Because he doesn’t exist!” I said gleefully. I made sure to smile, too, so he could be sure that he was speaking to a happy atheist. Then we got in the car and drove off.
Later, I asked my wife if I’d been too hard on the man. She replied that he came from Africa and had seen who knows what horrors before embarking for Europe. He may have lost his family and possessions along the way. He’d probably come from a country where life was hell, and seen things that would make us shudder. My little quip wasn’t going to cause a breakdown in him.
Fair enough. I wasn’t going for that, anyway. I was just expressing mild outrage at the idea of a person who depends upon the kindness of strangers but can’t thank them directly. Instead, he thanks “god” — the same all-powerful god, no doubt, who surveys his perpetually war-trashed African homeland with such an approving grin.
One of the things that most galls me about religious faith is its willingness to attribute the good stuff to an omnipotent, benevolent god while completely ignoring the bad stuff. If a godhead is omnipotent, then it’s responsible for everything — good, bad and ugly — that occurs under its auspices. But benevolence doesn’t account for evil, or even for splinters. So what’s up?
To quote Dan Barker, author of Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists, “We may as well say that god is sshhffhgtyrh.” That is, senseless.
Now back to reality. Yesterday we had lunch at a restaurant in central Assisi. After a stunning finale of cannolo filled with chocolate mousse and candied kiwi fruit, we sauntered outside to find the car. The street was packed with people surrounded by their dogs, police and a group of priests. One man was dressed as a Templar.
“What’s happening?” I asked my wife. “Oh, they’re getting their dogs blessed.” “Their dogs?!” I snapped. “This is just too much.”
As we navigated the crowd to get to our car, I picked up on a few lines of the blessing. They were thanking god for all his great works, etc. I mumbled something incendiary. My wife elbowed me. I grunted. She sighed. We walked.
My wife and I had both had many dogs as pets while growing up. With one exception, not a single specimen of those docile animals died a natural death. Cars and poison wiped them all off the face of the Earth. I remember vividly the evening our dog Sasha was run over in the middle of a busy street about a mile from our house. It was in 1987, and I was twelve. She died of internal bleeding during the night. We never got another dog; losing them is too painful.
So excuse me if I can’t see the benevolence of a divine plan in all of this. (The same holds true, of course, for humans. A hundred may die in a plane crash, but the believer will thank god for a single survivor. It’s a twisted kind of logic.) I ask myself, “How can intelligent people let themselves think like this? Don’t they realize it either makes no sense, or else leads to a highly questionable moral stance?” I guess they train themselves not to think about it. They compartmentalize. This here, that there.
Reality is painful. Bad things happen to good people, and good things to bad people. Beloved pets die horribly beneath the weight of oncoming vehicles. Family members disappear from life before you get to say goodbye. Others wither away under pitiless diseases. Neither believer nor unbeliever is spared. In a sense, the only thing we know for sure is that we die.
Italian novelist Primo Levi, standing in the death-line at Auschwitz, felt it was petty to ask god to spare him if it meant sending another person to die in the ovens in his place. Such a request would be at the very least incoherent. Each time I reflect on that scene — one of near-absolute hopelessness and human evil — I smile at the courage of an honest intellect. A person may be degraded, stripped of property, livelihood and family, starved, turned into slave and then sent off to die in an oven. But still, that person will not cede to the intellectual crime of incoherence. He will not petition a personal god who would allow such a place as Auschwitz to exist.
God — the traditional, loving, bi-polar monstrosity of biblical imagination — can no longer afford the rent in our little world. I think it’s time we evicted him for good.