Fifty years ago I enjoyed arguing with people of religion about the existence of god, but nowadays I find it to be a singularly unprofitable exercise. The believers and the atheists are so entrenched in their positions hat no one ever convinces anyone of anything. Moreover, the faithful are so damned touchy that it's no fun to talk to them! They are easily offended, I think, because the weaker their evidence and logic, the more intense their compensatory passion.
I give thanks that at this my moment in history and geography, the true believers may be angry with me but they don't have the power to bludgeon me into obedience. (In general, the less intelligible the religion, the greater its reliance and economic and corporeal sanctions to compel allegiance.)
These philosophical musings are inspired by a New York Times article that has received an ungodly amount of attention. Maureen Dowd, who has made a career out of cracking wise at figures of authority, especially Clintons, has given over her space this Christmas week to a column on theology (or, as it is sometimes called, the Subject without an Object). She endorses the argument of a priest-friend. He (the priest) makes an end run around the classic Problem of Evil -- which is, that inasmuch as the world is very obviously a thoroughfare of woe, then an omniscient god must be either powerless or malicious. Here's Dowd's priests's formulation: "If we believe, as we do, that God is all-powerful and all-knowing, why doesn’t He use this knowledge and power for good in the face of the evils that touch our lives?"
A very good question indeed and one that believers in a beneficent deity have failed to resolve yea all these many centuries. Dowd's priest's answer (which is loaded with a bunch of transparently obvious smuggled assumptions) is that "for whatever reason, God has chosen to enter the world today through others, through us.... We are human and mortal. We will suffer and die. But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether God’s presence is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not."
Let me try to understand this argument. This new twenty-first century god, the "dowdgod" let us call him, has entirely disappeared. He doesn't actually do anything at all. He's so hidden -- absconditus, in the traditional language of theology -- that he permits all kinds of suffering and instead chooses to manifest himself merely as a comforting presence.
Is that the argument that Dowd thinks is worth a column of valuable newsprint? Yes, so it seems to be. Astonishing.
Faith," the priest continues, "is lived in family and community, and God is experienced in family and community. We need one another to be in God’s presence...." (No god for the solitary, then.) "When my younger brother, Brian, died suddenly at 44 years old, I was asking “Why?” and I experienced family and friends as unconditional love in the flesh.... The many ways that people reached out to me let me know that I was not alone. They really were the presence of God to me. Suffering isolates us. Loving presence brings us back, makes us belong." His animating idea: the love of friends is a manifestation of the deity. Wow. How shallow, how trivial, how wrong!
No one would disagree with the notion that suffering isolates us and that friends and family console us. I can't argue with such a proposition. It's plainly obvious. But what in the world does such an observation have to do with the existence or the nature of a supernatural being? It's not evidence for god, it's not proof of god; if anything, it's the contrary of a proof. Human beings console us, not "god"; the god part, the theology part, is utterly supererogatory and unnecessary. What Dowd's priest has done is to change the word "compassion" into the word "god." But we know that compassion is not supernatural; it's entirely and essentially natural.
So the dowdgod turns out to be no more than a feature of human nature that "soothes broken hearts." But what does it mean to believe in, or worship, the dowdgod. Not much. All a person has to do is to notice that it helps to have some folks around when you're in pain -- and then to re-label the good feelings that emanate from friends as god. It's so very easy, so undeniable. And utterly meaningless.
And what a nice old friendly god it engenders. Whatever happened to Augustine, Calvin, Luther. Those tough old guys are turning over in their graves. The dowdgod is a far cry from from Jehovah, from Allah, and certainly from the demanding Jesus who came to bring not peace but a sword. Those were gods to reckon with. But now, out with Jupiter Tonans, the thunderer, and in with Jupiter Manus-tenens, the hand-holder. Or Jupiter Sussurans, the whisperer.
It hardly matters whether one believes or doesn't believe in a god so weak-kneed and thin-blooded, so positively humane.
Maureen Dowd might say, if she were surrounded by compassionate friends "You make me feel god." In the same situation, I might might say, "You make me feel good." The difference is only one minuscule "o" vowel, which, honestly, is very like a zero. And zero is all that this new theology offers.