The Corrosive Effect of Christian Excuses

Not doing God any favors

On 10 May 1941, Rudolph Hess flew alone in a Messerschmitt-110 fighter plane from Germany to Scotland. He was one of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle, and was “under the delusion that he could arrange a peace settlement,” according to William L. Shirer (The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich), who offered this assessment: “For a German who had got so far in the jungle warfare within the Third Reich, Rudolf Hess, as all who knew him could testify, was singularly naïve.” Hitler was outraged: “…he gave orders to have Hess shot at once if he returned…the Fuehrer hoped the bizarre episode would be forgotten as soon as possible…” The British didn’t take Hess seriously for a moment.

What was going on inside Hess’ head? The truth came out after the war, as Shirer explains:

Hess “…like some of the other Nazi bigwigs—Hitler himself and Himmler—had come to have an abiding interest in astrology. At Nuremberg he confided to the American prison psychiatrist, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, that late in 1940 one of his astrologers had read in the stars that he was ordained to bring about peace. He also related how his old mentor, Professor Haushofer, the Munich Geopolitiker, had seen him in a dream striding through the tapestried halls of English castles, bringing peace between the two great ‘Nordic’ nations. For a man who had never escaped from mental adolescence, this was heady stuff and no doubt helped impel Hess to undertake his weird mission to England” (see pp. 834-838 of Rise and Fall).

Hess’ behavior derived from his belief system, a blend of confidence in astrology and the predictive value of dreams; he succumbed to this system because mental adolescence blocked critical thinking. Widespread mental adolescence enables unevidenced beliefs to thrive—religion beliefs especially. Throw intense emotional investment into the mix, and beliefs may be locked into the brain forever. “Near the core of religious experience,” Carl Sagan once said, “is something remarkably resistant to rational inquiry.”

Despite the thriving theology industry—there are thousands of seminaries in the world—theology is no better off than astrology and dream interpretation in terms of reliable, verifiable data upon which to ground its beliefs. Astrologers: please show us objective evidence that the position of a planet against a configuration of stars impacts human destiny. Theologians: please show us objective evidence by which a god’s design or will can be known. Emotional investment drives the enterprise, probably more so in theology than astrology, because with the former, the investment is nurtured from infancy.

In a post on this blog a few days ago (18 May), John Loftus offered a splendid analysis of the damage caused by faith:

“Five ways faith makes the brain stupid:
1. Faith causes the believer to denigrate or deny science.
2. Faith causes the believer to think objective evidence is not needed to believe.
3. Faith causes the believer to deny the need to think exclusively in terms of the probabilities.
4. Faith causes the believer to accept private subjective experiences over the objective evidence.
5. Faith causes the believer to think faith has an equal or better method for arriving at the truth than scientifically based reasoning.”

This is real damage. Exactly what the world doesn’t need, especially now. It’s no surprise that anything that diminishes faith, that would undermine cherished beliefs, is blunted with excuses. Laypeople are convinced by preachers and priests that the proffered excuses—the clichés—do the trick. Let’s look at a few.

God works in mysterious ways

Those thousands of seminaries teach courses on what God is like, and some of that supposed knowledge is passed on the laity. We could probably compile a list of a thousand things that clergy are pretty sure they know about God; how could it be otherwise with a thousand pages of Bible to be mined for information? On top of that, for two thousand years theologians have been piling on their prayer-derived certainties. Karl Barth wrote a twelve-volume work (Church Dogmatics) about God and his relationship to the world. How impressive is that!

Yet, when we throw really tough questions at these Christian specialists—these God experts—they assure us that God is…wait for it: unknowable! They’re at a loss to answer the most baffling question: if God so loves the world, why is there so much pain and suffering? If he is so powerful, why doesn’t he intervene? The devout retreat to the mystery excuse; for whatever reason, God has declined to provide answers.

People in the deepest pain imaginable have looked their pastors in the eye, pleading for answers that make sense—if God is anything like he’s portrayed by the church. The answers aren’t there. In Chris Chibnall’s superb BBC drama, Broadchurch, about the murder of an 11-year-old boy in a small English coastal town, the parents sit with a young parish priest out of his depth trying to ease their anguish. The father stammers a few words: “Just need some answers, don’t we? We need some help. You have a line to the Big Man, why don’t you ask him? We’re downing down here.”

“Need some answers.” But we sense that most of the laity aren’t that bold. They settle for the mystery-excuse, not grasping that their elusive god is not rescued by shallow theological maneuvers. Christians, this does not make your God look good. But they move on to other excuses as well.

God has a bigger plan that we don’t know about

Thus, what looks really bad to us probably fits into God’s scheme for the universe. We just have to trust in his goodness. Be patient, he knows that he’s doing. His perspective is eternity—and humanity is but a tiny speck in the expanse of galaxies. But that won’t work when real people are suffering real time. What about the scheme for each individual person?

Would those who voice this excuse have been willing to show up at Auschwitz or Dachau and assure the wretched victims of Nazi sadism that they need not worry? All is well, this horror fits snugly into God’s Big Plan. Those on this mission would have to remain on duty, proclaiming this message month after month, year after year, as the millions of victims were murdered. How can God not be complicit, allowing this colossal madness? If he’s stubbornly holding to his Bigger Plan, then the goodness of God takes a big hit.

One spinoff of the God’s-Bigger-Plan thinking is the confidence that God has a plan for everyone. Many Christians are sure God has his eye on them—as he does on sparrows—and that he knows the number of hairs on our heads. There must be a reason for such close monitoring—and what else but that he guides our destinies? Just type, “God has a plan for you” into Google and see what pops up. Many people have gotten carried way by this mental adolescence.

Of course, there are Bible texts that feed this thinking, e.g., Jeremiah’s message to Jews in exile, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11) and Paul’s assurance to the Philippians, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

This is fine for those savoring an insular piety, loving their Jesus, but the unfolding of history shatters this theology. If God has a plan for everyone—is he so easily thwarted, unable to carry through on his plans for all seven billion of us? Theology hits a brick wall—and it isn’t hard to come up with examples:

When the Nazi siege of Stalingrad ended in failure, 2 February 1943:

“…91,000 German soldiers, including twenty-four generals, half-starved, frostbitten, many of them wounded, all of them dazed and broken, were hobbling over the ice and snow, clutching their blood-caked blankets over their heads again the 24-degrees-below zero cold toward the dreary, frozen prisoner-of-war camps of Siberia…they were all that was left of a conquering army that had numbered 285,000 men two months before. The rest had been slaughtered. And of those 91,000 Germans who began the weary march into captivity that winter day, only 5,000 were destined ever to see the Fatherland again.” (Shirer, Rise and Fall, p. 932)

Christians: are you out of your minds that a caring God is looking out for us? That this deity monitors the minds—that’s how prayer works, after all—health, and well-being of every human? No less a Christian thinker than Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, suggested that God wants fellowship with humans and “can handle the challenge of interacting with 6 million of us currently on this planet [that was the headcount when Collins wrote in 2007] and countless others who have gone before us…” (The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, p. 71)

Was it a comfort to the 91,000 German prisoners that God was “interacting” with them? Please: unless you can give us reliable, verifiable evidence that God has a plan for everyone—that he has any plan at all—remove this excuse from your arsenal. It does not make your God look good. Despite his subtitle, by the way, Dr. Collins failed to present objective evidence for anything close to a “language of God.”

Everything happens for a reason

This aphorism commonly flies under the theological radar, that is, the word “God” is missing, but the folks who say it seem to mean that there is purpose—maybe even a guiding spirit—underlying our lives. A common everyday event that baffles or disappoints us turn out, after all, to work in our favor. Ah ha—it happened for a reason. It’s a comforting thought that life is engineered with our well-being in mind—with the assumption that God is pulling the strings (or perhaps a god-surrogate, e.g., a saint or guardian angel).

This thinking helps rescue us from the scary thought that life is random. But the inclusive “everything” undermines this theology—if that’s what it is. Benevolent purpose is disproved—as is Christian theism specifically—by human experience:

“Horrible occurrences such as the Indian Ocean tsunami that downed 100,000 children prove clearly that the universe isn’t administered by an all-loving invisible father. No compassionate creator would devise killer earthquakes and hurricanes—or breast cancer for women and leukemia for children” (James A. Haught, Religion Is Dying: Soaring Secularism in America and the West).

The day after the tsunami, I commented to a devout Catholic colleague that God had overslept again. He was speechless, but his look of panic and anguish said it all. Any belief in a good god should have vanished along with those 100,000 children. Such overwhelming, inexplicable tragedies do not make your God look good. Nor does pretending that such events don’t shatter theology. Somehow—this also is inexplicable—my devout friend was able to work around the tsunami to maintain adoration of his god.

The God excuses are camouflage. They are created to divert attention from the incoherence of theism; they actually diminish the concept of God. John Loftus put it bluntly in the same article cited above: “Faith stops the brain from working properly. Faith is a cognitive bias that causes believers to overestimate any confirming evidence and underestimate any disconfirming evidence.”

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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