And the Christian bad habit of being OKAY with it
On Saturday, 10 June 1944—four days after the Allied landing at Normandy—the rural village of Oradour-sur-Glane, in Vichy occupied France, was surrounded by an SS Panzer division of German soldiers. They rounded up all of the residents, forced the men into barns and stables, the women and children into the church. Then, with machine guns and fire-bombs, they murdered all 643 of them: 462 women and children were killed in the church. The women had felt safe in the church, because, of course, that’s where God is paying the closest attention to those who worship him. So how could a caring, attentive, powerful, competent god have allowed this savagery to happen? “God is good, God is great, but since he works in mysterious ways, he allowed the German soldiers to do their job that day.” Such a response illustrates the all-too-common incoherence of Christian theology: it doesn’t make sense.
How to explain this god’s failure to act? These victims were in his church.
Fast forward 52 years: One of the first shootings at a school to attract worldwide attention happened in Dunblane, Scotland, 13 March 1996. Sixteen kids and their teacher were killed. A few days later, among the many bouquets of flowers left outside the school, one included a Teddy Bear holding a message: “13 March 1996: the day God overslept.” Not: “…the day we realized there is no god,” or “…the day we found out that god too is dead…”
Overslept actually made the point pretty well. There has been a meme floating around on Facebook for a while: “How did you sleep last night? Oh very well, thank you, just like God during the Holocaust.”
Belief in the Christian god took a huge hit in western European countries in the wake of two world wars. The catastrophe of Oradour-sur-Glane no doubt contributed to this trend. There were devout folks who regarded the few Oradour survivors as “miracles of god,” but…
“This is not to say that the survival of certain individuals is seen in an unambiguously positive religious light. If anything, the fact that God permitted women and children to die in a church caused a crisis and even loss of faith among many believers who lived in Oradour.” (Sarah Farmer, Martyred Village: Commemorating the 1944 Massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane, p. 103)
Louise Bardet was the mother of a schoolteacher who died in the church. She was interviewed in 1988, and was asked if she was a believer: “Oh, a little. But not like some you’ll find. But yes, at bottom I’m a believer. I’m Catholic, so to speak.” Did her faith help her cope with the death of her children? “No, I don’t think that it helped me. Because I really didn’t deserve that. Oh no, I don’t think that it helped me.” (Farmer, Martyred Village, p. 243)
Robert Pike’s book, Silent Village: Life and Death in Occupied France, includes many photos and profiles of those who lost their lives that day—and witness testimonies.
René Hyvernaud, a resident of Oradour who had escaped, described what he found the next day at the church:
“‘I was met with an horrific spectacle. Inside several meters from the main entrance, I saw the body of a woman laid out, completely unclothed. It looked as though her clothes had caught fire.’ Further into the church about 4 or 5m in, he saw a pile of bodies, around one and a half meters high and 2 to 3m in diameter. The whole thing was a reddish blaze from which smoke bellowed. You could still definitely make out the forms of bodies due to the skeletal structures. Other bodies, mainly children and half burnt, were strewn across the nave.’ He went further into the church where he saw two children both shot dead, legs intertwined. He wanted to separate them but he could not stand the thick smoke and the ‘nauseating odour which suffocated me.’ Before leaving he saw that ‘the floor of the sacristy had crumbled and that, below, fire was still blazing.’” (Robert Pike, Silent Village, p. 299)
Another survivor, Aimé Faurgeras, made a discovery in the toilet behind the church: “At the back of one of the stalls Faugeras found the body of a baby, wrapped in its swaddling. The baby, a boy, had received mortal gunshot wounds.” (Pike, Silent Village, p. 309)
The god worshipped at that church in Oradour-sur-Glane was the one derived from the Old Testament, and given a boost in the New Testament: a god who could be found above the clouds, able to spy on everyone, with a throne next to his own for Jesus. It is virtually impossible to reconcile this concept of god with what we now know about the Cosmos. There are hundreds of billions of galaxies, and trillions of stars with planets. No amount of theologizing—and, Oh how the apologists have tried! —enables us to accept that there is a god paying close attention to every planet and to every being on those planets. There are now eight billion humans on Earth: there’s a god monitoring each one of us? How can anyone make the case for this when 462 women and children were murdered in that village church? —where god should have been paying close attention.
Events such as these should prompt theologians to just give it up.
Maybe, on 10 June 1944, a god with billions of galaxies under management, was just too busy somewhere else, e.g. a few planets in the Andromeda Galaxy had collided, leaving a major mess to clean up. But that’s a lot to wrap our minds around. Let’s just accept that on 10 June 1944—as was the case on 13 March 1996—god overslept. God exists, but wasn’t paying attention. Perhaps this god isn’t even aware of what’s happening on the scattered cosmic debris that we call planets.
Apologists, in fact, must use the same excuses to account for other major lapses on god’s part. It can hardly escape notice that our brains are not perfectly, optimally designed—that is, for the pursuit of peace and love. The history of humanity is the story of ongoing warfare and barbarism. Aggression, territoriality, tribalism appear to be imbedded our brains. It was a delusional theologian who wrote Genesis 1:31: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”
Believers have a choice here:
(1) Accept that god created man from the “dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7), and did a pretty poor job of it, given what we know of the very dark side of human behavior. This wasn’t a matter of oversleeping. This was incompetence, which another theologian seems to admit in Genesis 6:5-6, i.e., the “very good” verdict didn’t hold up:
“Yahweh saw that the wickedness of humans was great in the earth and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humans on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” Well, wasn’t it his own damn fault that he had created such an inferior product?
(2) Accept that our brains are the result of evolution, which accounts for many of the flaws in our brains and bodies (see Abby Hafer’s book, The Not-So-Intelligent Designer: Why Evolution Explains the Human Body and Unintelligent Design Does Not). Some theists have accepted evolution as the “way god created life on earth,” but that doesn’t help much. Then god seems to have overslept over vast stretches of time: he wasn’t paying attention to the mess evolution was making of things, leaving humans endowed with aggression, territoriality, tribalism—and, by the way, mental illness, another grievous affliction that so often impacts our brains.
Our tribalism has wrought so much havoc. The countries that came to blows in World War I, e.g., England, France, Germany, Italy, the US, considered themselves Christian nations, worshipping Jesus as their lord and savior. But the leaders of these nations exploited love of country—tribalism—to rally their troops and citizenry to fight Christians in the enemy nations. So the Christian god just watched all this go on, with so much horrendous suffering for four years? Or maybe not: he overslept, or was caught up in business in other galaxies. The aggression and tribalism came out in extreme form on 10 June 1944 at Oradour. The brains of those who planned the operation and the brains of the soldiers—who did as they were told—were so badly damaged by biology, nationalism, tribalism, and propaganda.
Another common attempt to exonerate god for so much evil and suffering is the claim that he gave us free will, so the fighting and wars are the fault of humans. But this really doesn’t work at all for a god who is supposedly supremely watchful, aware of what is happening to every human being, every minute of the day. Folks go to confession because their god knows what they’ve been up to. There have been countless times when god should have overridden/dismissed free will, because the evil about to happen was too horrible. Surely god especially can see that the free will excuse makes him look bad. Didn’t god have options?
[Essential reading on Free Will: the article that John Loftus published on this blog, 26 March 2023: “I Seek to Prove: Free Will Is Impossible and Immoral.” For so long we have heard the human Free Will argument to moderate god’s accountability for evil, but our choices are not what we think they are.]
It is a very common Christian belief that there are countless angels who help with the divine workload, and thousands of saints who have assigned tasks as well. The Catholic Church is sure that the Virgin Mary appears in visions throughout the world. God could have assigned her to intervene whenever and wherever a priest is about to rape a child. As soon as his pants are down, Mary could into pop into view to scream threats and painfully disable his genitals. If there is a god—especially one who ordains priests—how is it remotely conceivable that he doesn’t intervene when children are being harmed by his priests?
And how is it remotely conceivable that this god couldn’t have found some way to rescue those women and children killed in the church on 10 June 1944? Couldn’t he have found a way to stop the Holocaust, to have softened Hitler’s heart in his savage hatred of Jews (the Bible tells us that he hardened the pharaoh’s heart), to have prevented the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 225,000 people—including newborns and toddlers?
“The massacre is, and in its own way and on a smaller scale, no less shocking than the Holocaust. The soldiers that came that day had no intention of leaving any survivors, so 643 people were killed, including 255 women and 207 children, locked in the church where some would still have been alive when the flames engulfed them. The remains were unrecognizable to family members who survived them…” (Pike, Silent Village, p. 342-343)
If you are a Christian who is okay with all of these horrors—because you’re confident, as the clergy have assured you—god must have his reasons, then you are worshipping a pathetically inept god. If you had been in that church, and god whispered in your ear, “I have my reasons for letting you die this horrible way,” would you have been okay with it?
Oversleeping doesn’t begin to explain it. It’s an alternative to admitting that there is no god, or that god is dead. The absence of god(s) is the best explanation for the world of massive, horrendous suffering we see around us.
David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available.
His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.