Sam Harris versus God and the Japan Earthquake

Sam Harris has considered the comments frequently heard about God and the Japan Earthquake and is quoted as follows:
“Either God can do nothing to stop catastrophes like this, or he doesn’t care to, or he doesn’t exist. God is either impotent, evil, or imaginary. Take your pick, and choose wisely.
The only sense to make of tragedies like this is that terrible things can happen to perfectly innocent people. This understanding inspires compassion.
Religious faith, on the other hand, erodes compassion. Thoughts like, “this might be all part of God’s plan,” or “there are no accidents in life,” or “everyone on some level gets what he or she deserves” – these ideas are not only stupid, they are extraordinarily callous. They are nothing more than a childish refusal to connect with the suffering of other human beings. It is time to grow up and let our hearts break at moments like this”

The Sam Harris quote is a good one, but when he talks of an impotent, evil or imaginary God maybe he refers to an imaginary God of the sort some think “Him” to be. In other words Sam Harris has in mind a God of a popularist yet implausible nature. Wasn’t there also a Mark Twain quote that says “Man cannot make a worm yet will make gods by the dozen” ? If we are talking about the set of mysterious creative processes which make the entire universe why would we be so egocentric to assume that such a set of forces were alterable on a whim and should be altered for human convenience? If even Einstein couldn’t figure the forces out, what makes us believe we understand enough not only to be certain we understand the creation forces, but to then go further and see them as a product of what we therefore know God to be. To then go to the extent of thinking that therefore nature can be altered to stop us having a bad day seems a tad arrogant. This is the equivalent of assuming it must not rain tomorrow because a couple of ants have planned to marry and the ant guests might get wet.

But surely if this is indeed what Sam Harris thinks of as religious faith inhibiting compassion, it is not the only form of faith inspired conceivable compassion. I was at a Church meeting the other day where the decision to send more than $25 000 to assist the victims of the Christchurch earthquake was approved on behalf of a relatively small Methodist Parish.

Surely this doesnt mean that these folk of faith have lost their sense of compassion?  To the extent God is a limited human concept, why not settle for God being a metaphor for Compassion or Love, in which case God is found in an earthquake as the victims are offered compassion by those able to do so.
Although I find much to provoke thought in Sam Harris’s statement, his criticisms are misdirected if the faith of some I know is his intended target.

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8 Responses to Sam Harris versus God and the Japan Earthquake

  1. Andrew G says:

    Sam is certainly aiming at the easy targets. But there is a deeper issue here. If every religious person (or group) was amazingly altruistic and selfless and acting without judgement, then critics wouldn’t bark so much. They would simply be happy to live amongst such awesome people, right?

    I may be wrong about this, but I think Sam wants to change the minds of those people that seek power and authority and explanations by invoking God, and not so much the people that feel compelled to act with compassion. He’s being too general with his terms, but then again, why haven’t the progressives made the “progressive compassionate Christian invocation of God” the most popular or loudest Christianity out there?

    And, to stir the pot a little here, his three options still stand up to examination.
    Love can be impotent (especially if not acted upon). Love can become evil (if misguided or blind or simply ignorant). And Love can be imaginary (which can be heart-breaking).

    Just sayin’.

    • peddiebill says:

      A colleague recently attended a service billed as an ecumenical service to pray for the people of Japan. One speaker prayed that the people of Japan would now realise how Godless they had been. Perhaps this represents an example of the very situation that Sam Harris had identified.

  2. Bill Peddie says:

    A useful comment. I cant find anything to fault – although that wont stop me from trying if something later occurs to me!

  3. Andrew G says:

    Hey again Bill,

    I’m glad to see my comment was taken well. I was worried it might come across as a little too harsh.

    Your colleague’s ecumenical experience made me think of a possible approach to provoking a change of mind in those more power-seeking, non-compassionate Christians. Did your friend mention how the group responded to this “prayer”? If everyone else there showed discomfort, embarrassment or outrage at this attitude, it might plant those seeds of self-doubt. If they see that not all Christians pray that way, if they see that maybe they don’t own the definition for Christianity, they might be inspired to change. It may not be the intended goal of ecumenical activities, but a little bit of peer-pressure might do them some good and quiet their righteousness. 🙂

  4. Bill Peddie says:

    As it happened my colleague walked out of the service at that point. The organiser of the service saw her leave and sent her an apologetic email saying sorry the service was so long! I suppose that might count as a beginning of a rethink. However you are correct in that my colleague’s reply to that email outlined exactly why she had left, so feedback was achieved.

  5. JE Misz says:

    It’s really fascinating that you brought me to this site. I was just discussing this same issue with some people today. I think that it is dangerous to assume a God who loves to see death and suffering, or to assume a God who is incapable of stopping tragedy.

    Though I can’t speak for all viewpoints of God, I think that a Christian world view might look at this tragedy through the lens of the Fall. Sin entered into the world, and the world got messed up. Death entered, and God allows it to be so, as it is the result of our choice. Tragedies are not ordained by God, and I certainly don’t think He gets His jollies from seeing suffering Japanese. However, God works to redeem that which was broken and restore the disasters (whether natural, moral, or political) brought out by the Fall.

    I, like you and Mr. Harris, am outraged by those who claim this to be the vengeance of God. And responses like “This is all part of God’s plan” and “There are no accidents” are tragic and especially damaging. I believe that is can also be just as damaging for someone like Mr. Harris to use these tragedies as a platform for his message instead of engaging in the tragedy at hand. I think that by doing that, he put himself on the same level as the pastor who spoke at the service your colleague attended. You are so correct that our response is to mourn with these people and find a compassion that compels us to action. It is not the time to push ideologies. Great stuff!

  6. Bill Smith says:

    As a Christian pastor, I get annoyed when I hear other Christian leaders attach God’s judgment to disasters. For that matter, I get annoyed when they attach their presumptuous beliefs about God in anything. I believe in God. But I also believe that God has not fully disclosed himself. He can’t. Nor can he disclose every reason for everything on earth. He can’t do this anymore than a parent can reason with a 3 year old about why they must move. God is not powerless, impotent, or imaginary to me, but there’s a lot I don’t understand. However, I live with peace and hope because I believe God is in control and has a reason for whatever happens.

    • peddiebill says:

      Hi Bill Smith,
      My problem is not so much that I cant understand a God in control allowing the awful to happen. My problem is that I am not always certain what I even mean by the word “God” particularly when others who use the word appear to understand something different to what I thought I was beginning to find words to describe. Since science has not yet brought us to the point where we can be certain how matter was created (or even if there are other universes) to describe God, as creator, in human terms (eg calling the creative force “He”) seems a tad arrogant. However I appreciate the feedback. Perhaps you would also like to look at some of my other articles since I find I learn much from those who comment.
      Thanks for dropping by, Bill

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