“Combative provocative, engaging live debate” is how the BBC describes it.
I was delighted to be on Radio 4’s Moral Maze on: Why did God allow the Turkey earthquake? It went out live on Wednesday night, and is now on BBC Sounds.
If this is new to you, each week, the Moral Maze considers the ethics around a topical news story. There is a panel made up of four people of different faith and no faith, This panel “calls in expert witnesses”, or, in my case, someone who might have something to add anyway!
I was called as a “witness for the defence” (of God as it turned out). Witnesses are grilled for 7 minutes, alone, and then leave. Witnesses answer direct questions from the panel so it’s not easy to crowbar in what you really came to say! As well as myself, the witnesses consisted of a Muslim scholar and two distinguished atheist professors.
Combative? Well it was VERY lively but, to be fair, there were many smiles and it’s all done in a spirit of good discussion!
The program begins around 2m in. If you have time it’s well worth hearing the whole thing. My bit begins around the 21m mark:
What do you say to that? …
First, to state the obvious, with 45,000 people killed and rising, there can never be an adequate response for them or their families or the millions now homeless. There is no “answer” for them. We pray for some comfort in this and we should be moved into giving aid. But the problem of suffering is not one for glib comments.
Having stated the obvious, here are a few of my thoughts on the questioning of the other 3 witnesses.
Dr Ramon Harvey, Muslim scholar and lecturer
We anchor into the idea of God’s wisdom, (Dr Harvey)
In response to “why did God allow this” Dr Harvey spoke mainly about the wisdom of God, which seems a strange place to start this discussion, and an unfortunate choice of words, with so many in despair. It was met with a robust response:
What is the wisdom of a 5‑year old being crushed to death by a concrete block? What are they supposed to learn? (Ash Sarkar, Novara Media)
But, his point “ultimately we can’t know”, was honest.
Dr Harvey also spoke of finding virtue in bad situations. Again, I would agree, but again I might choose different wording: God doesn’t cause suffering (it’s a fact of our world being damaged), and yet he may bring good from suffering in the form of courage, persistence, endurance and so forth. And (also again) these thoughts are not appropriate to people in the midst of suffering.
Prof Louise Anthony – professor of Philosophy, University of Massachusetts
Hope in God is massively irrational, (Prof Anthony)
There was a surprising to and fro here between Prof Anthony and the panel member Giles Fraser, Anglican priest.
Prof Anthony criticised the idea of how anyone could believe in an omnipotent God who allows such tragedies. In response, Giles Fraser repeatedly questioned the premise that “God is omnipotent”. (Yeah that is odd for a Christian Minister).
What is it about a man hanging on a cross that you think is omnipotent? (Giles Fraser, Anglican Priest)
His point was that “the central images of the Christian faith are of powerlessness not powerfulness”, referring to the manger and the cross. He could have explained that, or even gone on to say this conflict of vulnerability and omnipotence lies at the heart of Jesus being man and God. So, this is not “omnipotence” in a Zeus or Apollo style – an angry man throwing lightning bolts around. Rather, this is the all-powerful yet all-vulnerable image of Christ.
But he didn’t say any of those things, so Michael Buerk’s comment, “you seem to have re-invented part of Christianity”, was appropriate.
Susan Blackmore Visiting Prof of Psychology, Plymouth University
The most religious countries in the world are the least happy, (Prof Blackmore)
Prod Blackmore’s statement that the most religious countries in the world are less happy than non-religious is very misleading. The reason for this is that those countries are almost all developing nations. To compare developing countries with happiness measures in secular Scandinavia is absurd.
There have indeed been many surveys on happiness and well-being including the annual UN report of World Happiness. But going beneath the surface, these surveys point to religious people being happier, healthier, more resistant to depression and, even, living longer lives. Religion provides a framework for people and enables communities to thrive. So, church communities, for example, are an infrastructure that believers lean on in times of trouble.
it’s in spite of evil and suffering that we believe in God – so what keeps people feeling that faith is important? (Mona Siddiqui, Prof of Islamic Studies, Edinburgh University)
Furthermore, in situations of suffering, religiously minded people actually give more. They give more money and more time to charities, (including secular charities) than secular-minded people.
Why is that? Of course, there are millions of incredibly generous atheists and agnostics. However, faith-based people, overall, give substantially more. Firstly, because every major religion inspires us to love your neighbour (or do unto others as you would have them do unto you). Secondly, faith groups are already tooled-up with the organisation needed to give, from physical premises and community links, to bank accounts and gift aid forms.
I wrote more on this in Can atheism deliver a better world? (spoiler alert- the answer is “no”). And an interesting final comment from Ann Mcelvoy:
To be a believer is to invite more discomfort and tension than to be a non-believer …. It’s much easier not to engage, (Ann Mcelvoy, Politico)
I hope you enjoy the show half as much as I enjoyed taking part!
If you enjoyed this post, try reading Why does God allow bad things to happen?