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I was taught God exists. That is a lie — Here’s why

An actor playing Jesus Christ carries a cross in a procession of the 'Way of the Cross' on Good Friday at the Sanctuary of Kalwaria Zebrzydowsk, near Krakow in Poland, on April 15 2022.
An actor playing Jesus Christ carries a cross in a procession of the 'Way of the Cross' on Good Friday at the Sanctuary of Kalwaria Zebrzydowsk, near Krakow in Poland, on April 15 2022.
Image: REUTERS/Aleksandra Szmigiel

If God exists, why didn’t he or she or they prevent the hundreds of deaths in KwaZulu-Natal over the past few days? It doesn’t make sense to hold on to the idea of an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing God if natural disasters, like the KwaZulu-Natal floods, cause such untold suffering.

We are enjoying the Easter weekend, which marks an important period on the Christian calendar, and this got me wondering whether I was correct to abandon my Catholic roots after I had finished high school. Looking at the misery around us, I have no doubt my philosophical shift from theism to agnosticism remains justified. (The ongoing fight between me and atheists is not relevant in this context.)

I was raised in a staunch Catholic family, and the primary school I had attended, St Mary’s Roman Catholic Primary School in Makhanda, was a Catholic-run institution, complete with an Irish nun as the headmistress.

We started the day by singing “fun” children’s hymns such as “Good morning Jesus, good morning Lord. Good morning Jesus, good morning Lord. Good morning Jesus, good morning Lord, and I thank you for another day”.

Every Friday we attended weekly Mass, and when you were of the appropriate age, the school’s teachers prepared you for your First Holy Communion, including how to confess your sins to Father.

In confession I sometimes lied about sins I did not commit

I won’t  divulge awkward stories about one or two “Fathers” in my parish who committed sins themselves, and had to hastily leave town to avoid the apparent shame of being human and craving consensual intimacy with another adult.

I sometimes lied about sins I did not commit. I felt pressure to have something to say so Father would have reason to tell me how many Our Fathers to say, silently, on the kneeler in front of a pew outside the confessional.

Because we were kids, it was always safe to recycle such sins as “I was disrespectful to my elders” or simply “I lied”, even if I was lying about lying. Occasionally I would add “I did not do my homework”, which, as a teacher’s pet, was also a bald lie.

More than anything else, the idea of God instilled in us is of a God who has certain properties. God, we were taught, knows everything, has infinite powers and is perfectly loving.

In fact, one of our more popular hymns include the pithy assertion “God is Love.”

In case your critical faculties should lead you astray, you were also taught it is impossible to understand this perfect God of ours so it is pointless, and even dangerous, to doubt God’s wisdom, love, general perfection and good intentions.

Both at home and at school we were not encouraged to explore doubt nor scepticism. We simply recited incomprehensible Latin and English bits and pieces in accordance with the Catholic rituals and praxis.

Obviously, our home had a sticker on the window saying “This is a Catholic home” and, as you entered, there was Holy Water to dip your finger into and make the sign of the cross.

My aunt, the matriarch of our big family home, would famously tell us kids when it was bedtime: “It is time to go pee, say your prayers and go to sleep.”

You could not go to bed until you had thanked God for all His blessings.

The same aunt, who I love to bits, was distressed a few years ago when a newspaper for which I wrote a weekly column ran a poster to the effect “Eusebius: God is not special”.

It has simply not occurred to some adults that children should be raised to think for themselves, even if that means abandoning the most popular beliefs and values within the family. There is no such thing as a Catholic child, only a child raised by Catholic adults.

It is logically impossible for the floods in KwaZulu-Natal to have happened and caused so much suffering if God is all-loving, all-powerful and all-knowing. If He knew the floods would cause suffering and He loves us perfectly, why did He not stop the floods if He is all-powerful?

The only way to square the circle is to accept that God might know everything and might be loving, but he isn’t almighty. Or, He is an almighty God who knows everything but doesn’t love us.

Alternatively, He loves us and is all-powerful but doesn’t have perfect knowledge about what is going to happen.

Those who believe in God must pick which of the three characteristics they claim He has — all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing — but actually does not have.

The existence of natural evil such as the floods in KwaZulu-Natal is proof the God I was told about during my childhood never existed. If God does exist at all — and there are no guarantees — then He certainly is less than perfect.

You cannot stop the critical inquiry by suggesting God’s thinking is beyond human comprehension

The evidence in the world is decisive proof that many of the core beliefs people have about their cherished God are wishful claims rather than anchored in robust evidence.

And, by the way, it won’t help to appeal to God graciously giving us “free will” to cause disasters. At best that explains what we might call, say, moral evils such as murder or theft but not natural evils such as mudslides in which innocent babies are killed. It takes a pretty vicious God to stand by and do nothing to intervene in KwaZulu-Natal. The “free will” defence is not available in this case.

Also, appealing to mystery would be even more irrational. You cannot stop the critical inquiry by suggesting God’s thinking is beyond human comprehension.

For one thing, I have never heard someone explaining properly how they arrived at this mystical conclusion. It is simply asserted. This fails the basic requirement of reasoned engagement, that you should adequately explain and account for a claim you make.

If it is “beyond human comprehension”, how did you, fellow human, come to comprehend this insight yourself? Did you have a unique and never-to-be-repeated encounter with God you are sharing with me?

If it was a rare encounter of miraculous proportions, how do we rule out the possibility you should not have swallowed that Ecstasy tablet that night that occasioned the God illusion and delusion? The improbabilities are too many to venture down this path.

I don’t want you to have n existential crisis when you go to church this weekend and participate in rituals that add social meaning to your life. Some religious communities can also scaffold us in useful ways which, in a world full of evil and disappointments, can offer us a wonderful lifeline or two.

But if you are feeling like you have one or two critical questions to raise about your inherited beliefs, allow yourself the freedom to be your own person and think for yourself.

There is insufficient evidence that the God of my Catholic upbringing exists. If that God does exist, the features ascribed to God need to be revisited in light of how much preventable evil there is in the world. I suspect, on balance, there is reason to believe God is no more alive than your garden gnome.

Have a peaceful Easter weekend and remember being theistic is not a precondition for being a decent person. Be nice.

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