….so implies Andrew Seidel, a prominent atheist lawyer, whose online comments have sparked the expected outpouring of emotion from both supporters and detractors.
“More religion is not the answer to this problem,” he says. Perhaps his motives are to be commended. Why bother praying if you don’t believe? Far better to do something more constructive like donate to those in need. “Prayers might make you feel good, but that’s all they are doing.”
Predictably, I disagree, though I imagine for all of us such senseless bombings make us ask: “Where is God in all this? Why didn’t he stop it from happening?”
Allow me to offer three thoughts:
It’s okay to doubt. Author and speaker Philip Yancey will often challenge his students to find a single argument against God from either the older agnostics (Bertrand Russell, Voltaire, David Hume) or the newer ones (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris) that’s not already in books of the Bible like Psalms, Lamentations, Job & Habakkuk. “Why, Lord, do you stand far off?” (Psalm 10:1) If prayer feels like a pouring out of doubt, fear, questions, anger – then you’re in very good company. Perhaps that’s part of the point of prayer: it’s a space to pour out our emotions. Maybe it’s also the reason why research shows that those who pray are happier and healthier than those who don’t. And given we live in a culture that so prizes scientific research, perhaps we should all take more note of such findings.
Andrew Seidel is both very, very wrong, and a little bit right. The fact that someone would use the horrific tragedies of the last week as a platform for their beliefs shows not only a startling lack of emotional intelligence and compassion, but also the lack of understanding and tolerance that makes him so angry in the first place. The scientist Robert Winston has been critical of the tone of books like The God Delusion for “causing very aggressive views from people who previously weren’t aggressive”. Whatever Andrew Seidel’s beliefs, his tone of voice will simply reinforce prejudices and certainly won’t win hearts and minds. It only fuels the ‘God-debate’ and creates hostility, rather than prioritising care for the needy. Whatever our beliefs we should hold them with humility. This isn’t the week to debate the effectiveness of prayer. It’s the week to care for the suffering.With that said, there’s a kernel of something very important in his words. Whether we pray or not, we must act as well. The primary reason Christianity has thrived over two millennia is because Christians have practised what they preached: generosity for the needy, comfort for the grieving, support, encouragement and solidarity for the fearful. It’s our collective responsibility to look out for those in need and be a source of strength in their weakness.
Easter is both the answer and an encouragement. I don’t have all the answers. I’ve not met anyone who does. But Good Friday is a powerful reminder that God isn’t some distant deity that’s immune from suffering. He’s experienced it personally. When I experience the doubt, fear, pain and loss that events like this week bring, I’m deeply comforted when my thoughts turn to the man on the cross who cried out: “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). If God is real, and He’s shown himself in the person of Jesus, then whatever I face He knows the worst of it.
Better still, Friday isn’t the end. I’m sometimes asked what I think of some of the evident contradictions in the Bible. My answer: it’s a story. Think back, if you will, to the Second World War. In the winter of 1944, the Allied forces were dropping bombs on Berlin. Twelve months later they were helping rebuild the city. Destroying a city one minute, rebuilding it the next: why such contradictory behaviour? Hitler had been defeated; the war was over; the story had moved on. When I have unanswered questions, when I’m confronted with pain and suffering, when the Bible offers up apparent contradictions, I need to remember the story, which not only weaves its way in spectacular fashion through the 66 books of the Bible, but still isn’t finished today. After night comes morning, after Friday comes Sunday, after death comes resurrection.
As we approach the Easter weekend, the high point of the Christian calendar, I hope the story brings your great comfort in this tragic of weeks – and I hope you catch the scent of the hope the story brings to all of us – whether you pray or not.