File photo of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin speaking to American Conservative Union's annual CPAC in Washington

The Newtown massacre and religion’s big problem of evil

Dec 18, 2012

For the last several days I’ve refrained from weighing in on the Newtown massacre. As abominable as it was, I’ve felt that the media, in all its varied shapes and sizes, together with observers on the right and on the left, have exploited the tragedy. There’s something about money being made in such times that positively rankles me, and so I remained silent. Well, call me a hypocrite, because I’m now throwing my two cents in; mostly because I’ve really had enough of the religious absurdity shooting across the ether from some politicians, religious leaders and a fair number of journalists and bloggers trying to make sense of the tragedy.

There is no making sense of what happened in Newtown, except to say that sometimes members of the human species lose control. A perfectly sane person can descend into violent madness—it needn’t be a person slowly slipping into mental illness. External factors come in to play, of course, such as social environment or economic strata; but we can never precisely get to the bottom of what drives a person over the edge because it’s impossible to truly know another’s mind. Indeed, even knowing one’s own mind is a struggle. At any rate, when people lose control, a combination of factors are at play.

But back to the sanctimonious talk of America’s politicians and religious clerics in these post-Newtown Massacre days.

A few days ago Mike Huckabee claimed that Adam Lanza’s violent actions were directly attributable to a lack of “God” in our public schools. Huckabee stated on Fox News: “We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?” Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association echoed Huckabee’s sentiment, stating, “[H]ere’s the bottom line: God is not gonna go where he’s not wanted … We’ve kicked God out of our public school system. And I think God would say to us, ‘Hey I’ll be glad to protect your children, but you’ve gotta invite me back into your world first. I’m not gonna go where I’m not wanted. I am a gentleman.’”

This is nonsense. What of all the massacres in God’s various houses throughout history? They are too numerous to list here. But the most recent of which was the shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Perhaps the divine artificer simply abandoned the Sikhs house of worship because they weren’t true American Christians? God works in mysterious ways, so we can be pretty certain we’ll never know. And we’re not even getting into the untold number of divinely-sanctioned acts of ultra-violence in religious history (skim the Bible for some nice examples), though we probably should in order to paint a more honest picture.

Back to Huckabee’s thoughts on the American school system and religion. Schools do not exist to proselytize faith on a given religion’s behalf. Two other institutions exist for such purposes: the family and the church (or synagogue, temple, etc). And it is for each family to decide if they wish to raise children in a religious household; one that attends Sunday School and church service. Schools are to educate and create an environment that is free of religion, so that all children, irrespective of their religious upbringing (or lack thereof), are on equal ground. In that way the public school is a microcosm of the Founding Fathers’ constitutional ideal.

Now to the massacre and religion’s big problem of evil.

When faced with personal tragedy or a larger atrocity like Newtown, we indulge in the existential terror of death—the awareness of complete annihilation of other beings. Even so, a spectacle like Newtown is different in that it has an almost simulated quality to it. There’s something unreal about it for the observer (which all of us outside the victims’ families happen to be). And yet there are political and religious figures, and everyone in between, weeping, finger-pointing, positioning, posturing and exploiting the spectacle. We can attempt to imagine the Newtown victims’ pain, but we really can’t know it on a similar existential level.

And yet in the Newtown aftermath, religion is using its usual spiritual mechanisms and platitudes to explain the problem and reassure the faithful. Rev. Matt Crebbin of Newtown Congregational Church, in an interview with NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, stated, “I think that the underlying message is one that God sustains us and that God’s love knows no bounds.” That it certainly one way of looking at the Newtown Massacre.

Then we have something like this from Ira Sutton, pastor at Cool Springs Baptist Church:

“I had actually shared in my main theme of my message that Christmas did not eliminate evil, Christmas did not eliminate suffering, but that what it did was it gave the eviction notice for evil and suffering… And I actually used two school shootings as an example of that and compared it to the passage in Matthew when Herod orders all baby boys under 2 years old to be killed. I said, ‘You know, even on Christmas 2,000 years ago, we had this kind of thing going on … and even when Jesus was born he didn’t end pain and suffering, but he will one day.”

And, naturally, it didn’t take long for Sarah Palin to weigh in on Newtown, claiming that politicians (Obama, probably, and the Democrats) and the media elite (read: the unfaithful, non-Evangelical horde) were to blame. “Those who let themselves be terribly disappointed in political leaders as they ignore real problems, aided along with a complicit media bombarding us with irrelevant distractions in order to avoid facing the reality of a fallen culture, should know those distractions are to hide from a finger pointing to the main contributors to much of our problem,” wrote Palin on her Facebook page. “We’ve learned our lesson. Don’t put your hope in Hollywood or Washington.”

Palin added, with no hint of irony, that “despite 24-hour news cycles with constant information flooding our eyes and ears with much white noise, TV’s talking heads really have nothing meaningful to offer.” It would seem that according to her own logic that she and her benefactor Fox News have nothing meaningful to offer? Quite right. But she again moronically implicates herself in the political and media cycle, saying “[A]ll truly is hopeless if your faith and hope are put in any politician or media elite. That is because the average person is more truthful and responsible than the average politician or media elite.” Palin’s total divorce from reality is not unique, but it is certainly amplified by the fame and money bestowed on her by the Tea Party and evangelical admirers.

All of this religious commentary got me thinking of the problem of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent supreme being allowing natural pain or evil to occur. Logically, it makes no sense.  As we’ve seen from Huckabee and Palin, there is a reduction of Adam Lanza’s violence underway, describing it (and American culture at large) as evil—the biblical sort. Is it not just an opiate for pain?

This sort of religious reassurance does seem to work for some people, but this does not validate it as an universal truth; which religion presupposes without evidence. It reduces acts of free will or loss of control to evil; and, as such, the work of the devil. With religion our actions are never our own. Personal responsibility is neutralized. And the only way to correct the imperfection of existence (the Devil, evil, original sin) is to supplicate one’s self before a divine plan, and in doing so admit that one’s will is not his or her own. That we are mere instruments in a cosmic game which we cannot possibly fathom, nor to which we gave any consent in the first place.

My use of “problem of evil” in this article’s title is not meant as a provocation to the faithful to explain how an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent god could allow the sort of violence as carried out by Adam Lanza at Newtown Elementary. Religious comfort may seem rather harmless, wending its way innocuously through the media, with pastors or rabbis merely trying to reassure the flock; or it takes the form of the Huckabees of the world: those who would like to enforce a theocratic vision on America and the world.

We must ask ourselves in a very open and uncensored way, what is more likely on a rational level: 1) some trickster god whispered in Lanza’s ear, 2) a benevolent, all-powerful god believes that a nice dose of pain would do the Newtown people some good for the hereafter, 3) as Huckabee suggested, it was all divine punishment for gays and abortion, or 4) Adam Lanza, for any number of reasons, simply lost control?

You decide.

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