An Ecclesiastical Basket of Deplorables

Prey experts pounce during the pandemic

One Bible text that can stop the God-Is-Good crowd dead in its tracks is Genesis 15:13-14:

Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.”

Was this promise of “great possessions” tacked on as an enticement? Back in Abraham’s day there were many tribal gods, so why would he choose a god who promised that his descendants would become slaves and be oppressed for four hundred years? Why wouldn’t that be a deal-breaker—no matter how many possessions? Moreover, how does any sound, respectable theology absorb, adjust to, this concept of God: A deity who allows such suffering, whose plan encompasses inexplicable delay.

In light of this text, it might be appropriate to suggest that this God deserves a new title: The Great Procrastinator. Why do today what can be put off for centuries?

He was still at this game in New Testament times. Both Jesus and Paul expected the arrival of the Kingdom of God in the near future, “before this generation passes away” according to Jesus. Paul promised one of his congregations (I Thess. 4) that they all—himself included— would meet Jesus “in the air” coming on the clouds of heaven.

But the Great Procrastinator hasn’t budged. Jesus even taught his disciples to urge God on, in the prayer he recommended: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come…” Jesus seemed eager to speed its arrival, but here we are, 2,000 years later, with no evidence whatever that earth has been blessed with any such Kingdom. Human history has played out so horrendously: What is God waiting for? What is the purpose of prolonged human suffering?

Massive human suffering disconfirms the God Christians wish for: the high rate of infant mortality for millennia, thousands of genetic diseases, mass starvations, genocides, slavery, serfdom, poverty, plagues, tsunamis, volcanoes, hurricanes, earthquakes. This magnitude of suffering is evidence that a good, powerful god, with a caring eye on humanity, is not a reality.

Theologians Specialize in Bluffing

All manner of excuses have been developed by Christian apologists to explain the mess we’re in. We really can’t blame them for trying so hard; they’ve been at it for centuries. But this takes an even uglier turn when slick theologians claim that suffering provides evidence for God...if only we have the eyes to see it.

This headline caught my attention last week:

“Cardinal Dolan Exults That COVID-19 Survivors Probably Saw Evidence of God”

In an article on The Friendly Atheist blog, author Terry Firma wrote: “The other day, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, mused on patients who survived a dangerous brush with COVID-19. It occurred to him that they may have come to appreciate the divine.”

Churchmen who say such things have become immune to the deception they practice. After all, theology specializes in deflection: diverting attention from the god-crushing realities of our world. And since they’re so good at it, the clergy know they have compliant laity who accept the mystery of God’s ill-treatment of the world; the biggest mystery is why people take them seriously.

Somehow believers are stoked by pious nonsense: “The Lord is my shepherd…yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.” The folks in the pews are lulled by collective amnesia, forgetting how many millions of humans haven’t survived so many valleys of death: the Black Plague, the 1918 Flu Pandemic, the Holocaust, mass starvations—the list, of course, is endless. The Cosmos was fine-tuned for human well-being? Not a chance.

But the laity seem fine-tuned to welcome the spiel; they have gown accustomed to the shallow comments from pompous Cardinals. Mr. Firma elaborated:

Dolan explained that it can take an act of faith to see that God is there and that “…sometimes we don’t notice that except in the rearview mirror…As these people who have made it get through, they begin to reflect—gratitude is a reflective virtue — they begin to reflect and they say, ‘Ah, He is there, He got me through. Remember the nurse with the soothing cold towel, the doctor who grasped my hand and said you’re on the way back, you’re going to get better.’ They saw those as divine messengers,” said the cardinal.

This is diversion, a despicable way of dodging the question that may be on many minds: what about the thousands who died, who didn’t get the chance to look in the rearview mirror? This is a landscape of tragedy. Mr. Ferma has no patience with the Cardinal’s propaganda:

“I would hope that the monsignor—who ministers a large chunk of New York, a state that tallied its 10,000th COVID death today—convinces no one by talking about that ‘rearview mirror.’ The terminally ill New Yorkers who, in mounting panic and distress, possibly craned for a glimmer of hope, for salvation even, got bupkis from God. If they fixed their final gaze on the cardinal’s metaphysical mirror, all they saw was the Almighty’s absence and dereliction.”

Why shouldn’t we assign God as well to the basket of deplorables?

It was nice of the Cardinal to mention nurses and doctors, but he plowed ahead with his bad theology, cheerleading for God to advance the faith, as Ferma notes:

“Props to His Eminence for at least not stealing credit from the medical staff. As for the rest of his contemplation, Dolan’s barely suppressed delight over the recruitment opportunity the pandemic has gifted the Christian religion appears just a tad unseemly to me. The Catholic Church is like a washed-up but still-ravenous corporate behemoth—mistaking its own hackneyed marketing come-ons for relevant messaging, and obsessively chasing new customers, untrammeled by self-knowledge or propriety.”

Its own hackneyed marketing come-ons. The church has specialized in these since the apostle Paul zealously championed the eternal life gimmick, which was a big selling point in other ancient mystery cults as well.

Firma added more to his thought that the Almighty was absent and derelict:

“God did not take the wheel; and if He did, He crashed the car. To continue the automotive theme: What if a car company reasoned the way the Catholic Church does? Let’s take Ford (rhymes with Lord). Could you imagine the company’s top brass saying, ‘Well yes, our Pinto did cause the early deaths of thousands of drivers; but c’mon, look at all the Pinto owners whose fuel tanks ruptured and who didn’t die! They should be grateful to us. All hail Pinto!’

“Anyone, I think, would see the abominable lunacy of that statement. It seems to me that religion isn’t a rearview mirror so much as a funhouse mirror (and I’m not sure about the fun part). Its effect is to distort, to deceive, to make you see things that aren’t there. It’s also meant to inspire amusement, and on that score, I do recommend that we collectively point and laugh at it—and then laugh at it some more.”

“To make you see things that aren’t there.” What a surprise: we’re back to the faith trick, or as Dolan put it, “…it can take an act of faith to see that God is there.” This has been Item Number 1 in Religious User Manuals since priests began plying their trade long ago. Unevidenced beliefs of astounding diversity have been urged on the followers of religions—hence they’re called The Faithfull—in full knowledge that there is no evidence. At least the kind that stands up to critical scrutiny: theists specialize in denying the authenticity of the scriptures, visions, prayers, and revelations of other theists.

I suspect Dolan doesn’t want his target market—specifically his Catholic parishioners—thinking about a couple of things:

• Those who have “survived a dangerous brush with COVID-19” and “may have come to appreciate the divine” would include, we can be sure, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, and members of dozens of other faiths. So the divine they appreciate will look nothing at all like the idiosyncratic Catholic version. The Cardinal’s approach calls to mind the enthusiasm that some devout Christians display for Near Death Experiences: “So, you see, heaven is real, it has been visited in real time for sure!” But those who have experienced NDEs come from a wide variety of religions, undermining the claim that Jesus-born-again-Christians alone are heaven-bound. Better to leave NDEs—and appreciation of the divine—in the realm of brain chemistry.

• Nor does Dolan want his flock dwelling on the appalling landscape of human tragedy; maybe if they can glimpse God at work, even duirng the pandemic, all will be well. But that doesn’t quite work. One hundred thousand babies and toddlers crushed and drowned in the 2004 tsunami excludes totally the benevolent divine reality he advocates. The Faithfull cope with the problem of suffering by ignoring it, pretending it away—and by accepting banal theological excuses.

Of course there are others in the basket of deplorables—probably a lot more—but these are worthy of mention:

• Pat Robertson will have none of this talk about God being absent or derelict. He sees no mystery, no theological distress whatever. The ancient televangelist is confident that God has not shed the ancient Yahweh side of this personality, but can be given credit for the pandemic. It’s America’s punishment especially for allowing gay marriage and abortion. Robertson is okay with the idea that God doesn’t have very good aim: just bring wide swaths of suffering and death to people who played no role whatever in gay marriage and abortion. Robertson’s bad theology sells, and that’s all that matters.

• Tony Spell, pastor of the Life Tabernacle Church in Louisiana, made the news this week—among other things for getting arrested—but also for asking that people donate their stimulus checks to the church.

“Pastor Tony Spell launched what he called the #PastorSpellStimulusChallenge, asking Americans to donate their government stimulus checks to evangelists, missionaries and music ministers who he said have not received offerings in over a month. He said he, his wife and his son have all donated their cheques, and added that those without a church can donate through his website.”

Through his appeal, “those without a church can donate,” this prey expert seeks to expand his habitat.

I have no doubt whatever that the pandemic brings out the best in many religious people. Maybe they could give some coaching to those in whom it brings out the worst.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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