Over at Why Evolution Is True, New Atheist Professor Jerry Coyne has posted a letter he received from one of his regular readers, Ben Goren, regarding a major theological flaw which (he claims) undermines not only Christianity, but any religion that worships a God (or gods) who is both omniscient and good: why doesn’t such a being (or beings) assist the police, firefighters and ambulance workers by calling 911 whenever someone is in danger? Goren writes:
Imagine you find yourself in one of any number of calamitous situations — somebody you’re with clutches her chest in pain and falls to the floor; you hear, coming from the far end of a dark alley, the voice of a frightened old man crying for help; a tree falls as you’re driving down a lonely road, missing you but smashing the car following you.
In all such cases, the very first thing you — or anybody else — would do is call 9-1-1…
Now, imagine that it’s not just a single incident you observed and yet stood silently by, but every such case everywhere. Never mind the fact that you’d be a pervert for looking in everybody’s bedroom windows, but to look in a bedroom window, see a lit cigarette fall from sleepy fingers and catch the curtains on fire and then not call 9-1-1 to get the firefighters on the scene before the baby in the crib burns to death in uncomprehending screaming agony, well, that would go unimaginably far beyond mere perversion and move solidly into the worst brand of criminal psychopathy…
And that, at last, brings us to the question that nobody from any religion can satisfactorily answer — at least, not if at least one of its gods (however many there are) has enough awareness and ability to answer the simplest of prayers — or, for that matter, merely has a cellphone and the compassionate instincts of even a young child.
Why doesn’t Jesus ever call 9-1-1?
Goren is not impressed with theologians who respond by making “obfuscatory excuses” and by raising “obscure questions of ‘freedom of the will’ or placing the blame on an ancient ancestral maternal progenitor who procured culinary counseling from a speaking serpent.” Still less is he impressed by the claim that God dispenses justice in the hereafter – “as if post-mortem divine retribution is of any help to the person bleeding out by the side of the road after running into a falling tree, or of any comfort to the umpteenth victim of a serial criminal who enjoys continued success despite the desperate efforts of investigators hoping for a lead or even the slightest hint of a clue.”
Goren is particularly incensed at crimes committed by religious leaders against innocent members of their own flock – for instance, crimes such as child abuse. Goren expresses his astonishment at the fact that “not once in all of history has any deity ever alerted any civil authority to the misdeeds of one of its official representatives.” Crimes such as clerical child abuse, which are committed by God’s “official representatives,” would surely warrant a Divine telephone call to emergency assistance, argues Goren.
In this short post, I’m not going to put forward an answer to Ben Goren’s question: why doesn’t Jesus (or God) call 911? Instead, I’d like to identify a few background assumptions that Goren makes, in his argument. Remember that if even one of these assumptions turns put to be incorrect, then Goren’s argument collapses:
(i) the assumption that God’s responsibility to assist innocent human beings who are in distress is the same as (if not greater than) that of a passerby who happens to see them in distress and who hears their cries for help;
(ii) the assumption that, if God is responsible for alerting 9-1-1 whenever innocent people are in distress, He is directly responsible, and that He cannot delegate this responsibility to some lesser intelligence, such as an angel;
(iii) the assumption that God has no higher obligations towards the human race as a whole, which might conflict with, and over-ride, His obligation to assist individuals in distress;
(iv) the assumption that there are no “privileged members” of the human race who have the prerogative of deciding, on behalf of humanity as a whole, whether (and to what degree) God should offer assistance to individuals in distress who call upon his name for help;
(v) the assumption that anyone – in particular, anyone on 911 – would be capable of hearing the voice of God, if He wanted to leave an important message for them.
Finally, here are a few brief comments of mine regarding these “background assumptions” that Goren makes:
(i) God is not a mere passerby, but the very Author of our being. On the one hand, this fact increases His obligation towards individuals in distress: since He is all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful, God is obliged to dispense perfect justice. But on the other hand, the fact that God maintains everyone – good and bad alike – in existence may also prevent Him from dispensing justice now. (Think of the parable of the wheat and the tares.) Goren has not explained why a supernatural Deity with perfect knowledge, love and power, would be obliged to help each suffering individual right away. As far as I can tell, the only obligation that God has towards suffering individuals here and now is the obligation not to allow them to suffer irreparable harm. However, we should always bear in mind that what appears to be “irreparable damage” to us, may not appear so to God;
(ii) if God has delegated the responsibility for alerting 9-1-1 whenever innocent people are in distress to some angel (or some other super-human intelligence), then we have to consider the possibility that this intelligence – call it Lucifer if you like – has “gone rogue” and is working to sabotage God’s original plan;
(iii) if God’s always alerting 9-1-1 whenever someone is in distress would interfere with the moral development of the human race as a whole (e.g. by making them apathetic about assisting crime victims, leading to a hardening of people’s hearts towards suffering individuals), then it is at least arguable that God’s obligation not to hinder the moral development of the human race as a whole would over-ride His obligation to help those individuals who are in distress;
(iv) it is entirely possible that God, after revealing His existence to the first human beings at the dawn of human history, then asked them, as representatives of the human race as a whole, how much Divine assistance they would like to receive in the future. And it is entirely possible that these “privileged” human beings opted for little or no Divine intervention, thinking that it would give them more personal freedom and enable them to escape from the suffocating embrace (as they saw it) of a Deity Who loved them too much. It’s also entirely possible that God may have promised to comply with their decision, which would “tie His hands” until the end of human history, insofar as He cannot break a promise;
(v) finally, it may turn out to be the case that our ability to hear a message from God depends on our spiritual condition, and that bad or spiritually lukewarm people are simply incapable of hearing detailed 911 messages from the Almighty, due to their poor relationship with God. In that case, it would be our fault, not God’s, that we don’t receive 911 calls from Him, about individuals in distress.
Well, that’s about all I want to say, in response to Ben Goren’s question. The ball is now in his court.
Meanwhile, what do readers think?