"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Monday, 7 June 2010

On Anne Atkins' thought for the day

I have conflicted feelings about BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day spot. It occupies a handful of minutes during the Today program and I hear it most days on the way to work.
Conflicted feelings, because part of me doesn’t see the point of having a dedicated spot in a current affairs program for religious apologists to tout their opinions, It’s not as if religion doesn’t have enough opportunity to belabour the myth of its own moral superiority. But on the other hand, it is sometimes a rich vein of material to mine for this blog.
Today was one of those times. . .
Anne Atkins, a fairly regular contributor decided to tackle the thorny old issue of the problem of evil. The platform for this was the distress of her son at unexpectedly losing a friend who had died suddenly. He found this inexplicable and was prompted, as would many of us in the circumstances, to ask “why him?”
Anne Atkins then went on to point out, quite reasonably, that many random unpleasant events happen to people all of the time, and that it is human nature to look to find reasons or ascribe blame for those events, when in fact there maybe no justification for doing so.
However she is not arguing that we should not ask “why me?” or “why now?” or “why them?” because some events truly are random, but because implicit in the question is “why has God done this?”
The question of why bad things happen to “good” people has troubled the religious mind for centuries, along with its corollary. But Atkins goes on to state this slightly differently.
Lottery winners don’t ask “why me?” yet this is just as much a random event.
Her conclusion is that we all have a sense of expectation that life is meant to be good, that love (from God) is the default position and that we all know deep down that there is a prescribed order in the world that is designed to nurture us.
However there is more than a little question begging here. What humans define as “good” at an individual level is anything that helps them meet the requirements of their lives. At a basic level this is shelter, food, sex, companionship and status. It is as true for us as it is for the simplest organism and when those needs are fulfilled we are not as stressed as when they are not.
Furthermore if left to their own devices, events are rarely on balance fortuitous for individuals. It is a truism that people “make their own luck” and this is partly because natural entropy will degrade any environment unless some work is put into maintaining it. If we have built a stable, balanced, comfortable life almost any random event that impinges on it is likely to be deleterious which is why we all want a bit of slack in the system; emotional and financial buffers to shield us from the disruption of outside events.
The lottery winner doesn’t ask “why me?” firstly because they know why, dumb luck! Secondly because it is not a threat to their well-being. The victim of disaster may well rant against the unfairness of it all and if they are of a religious bent, may look for reasons in their own lack of piety. But Anne Atkins cannot use this as an argument for God. Bad luck is not the counterpoint to a benevolent creation; it is the inevitable outcome of random events on a life seeking equilibrium.

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