A minister criticizes Susan Jacoby for cherry-picking religious arguments:
Why is there polio? Why are there diseases?” If there is a good God why are there these things? The answer of the religious person is “God has a plan we don’t understand.”
That is not the religious answer. That is a religious answer. It happens to be a bad answer. It is bad theology. Atheism is a rational rejection of bad theology – and more power to them. But there is also good theology out there – good religious answers which do justice both to our reason and to our spirits.
Why does God allow polio and disease and other bad things to happen to good people? Because God is not an omnipotent manipulator of the world. Because God works through the system, not over-powering it. Because we have free will that allows us to create justice and love, and also evil. God’s power is not coercive (“you must not do that horrible thing and I will stay your hand”) but patiently persuasive (“there’s a better way, make a better choice”). God’s “plan” was not to create polio, or human beings, but to set the conditions and watch what we do, and to use that “still, small voice” to gently urge all creation toward divine ideals of deep rich experience, consciousness, love, marvelous beauty, and thoughtful theology.
As any teenage theologian can see, the idea of a simultaneously all-powerful and all-loving God is impossible based on the evidence of the tragedies that befall us everyday. But there is better theology available. The churches should be better teachers. And atheists shouldn’t give up so soon.
Another reader views her youthful conversion to atheism as simply a step in her lifelong spiritual development:
During those early years it is not just typical but imperative for intellectual development to question all received wisdom. Everything that once made sense no longer does. Faith in God is a great example of that because it is taught to children when ultimately, to be authentic, it must be felt.
But the years after do something to us. We have hard times and unexpected joys and we begin to see nuance and complexity where everything had previously been so black and white. We’re humbled by this, by the sense that what we accepted may have been wrong, that we are and always will be a work in progress. For many people, that means discovering faith in a more mature and meaningful sense than what we were given as children.
I certainly followed that trajectory. As a teen and young adult, God just didn’t make sense to me. I couldn’t understand how anyone could believe that irrational nonsense. But at some point in middle age, as I negotiated the rough contours of my life, I began a kind of inner dialogue – sometimes accusatory and angry and sometimes grateful – with, I thought, myself. Eventually I realized I was engaging in a personal relationship with God. And once I understood that, fully grasped it, atheism just didn’t make sense to me anymore. Once again, everything that had made sense to me no longer did. I have a faith that I never thought I would have.
One reader takes issue with Jacoby’s tone:
My beef is actually with Susan Jacoby and the flippant way that she deals with the conversion of Paul. The problem with atheists has always been that they pride themselves on having discovered ‘the truth’ and hence also accord themselves the licence to belittle people of faith. In Susan’s words, ‘A voice appears out of the sky, you fall off your horse, you hit yourself on the head, and when you wake up you know Jesus is the lord.’ To deal with the conversion of Saul in such a disparaging way is why people of faith have no patience with the logic put forth by atheists. Saul didn’t fall down from his horse and hit his head and wake up a loony. I can take any text from any book and put forth the same derisiveness. All it requires is a little sarcasm and cynicism.
According to the Bible, you don’t need to worship stones and trees or have Gods with exotic names like Baal and Astaroth. When atheists are unwilling to entertain an opposing thought and are dogged about their determination to have converts, then it’s just another religion.
Another reader focuses on Saul’s conversion, and describes his similarly sudden conversion to atheism while visiting Mecca:
There I was in the middle of the teeming masses, observing an essentially pagan pilgrimage co-opted by Islam to gain the support of Mecca’s merchant class whose livelihoods had depended on it, a fact conveniently ignored/forgotten by most Muslims. And it hit me right there and then! None of this made any sense! NONE! Why are we going around this big black cube? Why do we have to pray five times a day? If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, surely he doesn’t need us to reaffirm our faith in him five times a day.
I left Mecca with the firm conviction that I was better off not worrying. I was already 40 years old, and I had a strong sense of right and wrong, and how to live the best life I could possibly live and how to be the best human being I could possibly be; a work in progress admittedly. I guess I had a Damascene conversion in Mecca!
Another points to Ricky Gervais (in the above video) as a similar “Damascene convert.”