God vs. God

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Year Zero is a series of essays mixing my personal account of September 11 and its aftermath with reflections on ethical, legal, political, religious and other implications. The essays are all collected here. You can also subscribe to the Year Zero mailing list here.

At 8:48 a.m. on Tuesday morning September 11, God collided with Himself at the World Trade Center, and blew into shards.

Death certificate number 1 for that disaster was issued to father Mychal Judge, a much-loved Catholic priest who was a fire department chaplain, a recovering alcoholic, a chaste gay man, and ubiquitous in New York City. The story current within a day or two was that Judge had taken off his helmet to administer last rites to a firefighter hit by a falling body. This turns out not to be so. Judge died in the lobby of Tower One, killed by debris that fell when the other tower collapsed. Nonetheless, he was a hero: he was there and didn't have to be.

On September 10, Judge had spoken at the rededication of a firehouse in the Bronx:

Good days, bad days. But never a boring day on this job. You do what God has called you to do. You show up, you put one foot in front of the other, and you do your job, which is a mystery and a surprise. You have no idea, when you get in that rig, what God is calling you to. But he needs you . . . so keep going. Keep supporting each other. Be kind to each other. Love each other. Work together. You love the job. We all do. What a blessing that is.

When the towers fell, they also took down the tiny St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox church, which stood in the midst of a parking lot just 250 feet away. Built as a residence in the 1830's, the building became a church in 1922. The Reverend John Romas, St. Nicholas' pastor, said that he hoped to find relics of three saints, St. Nicholas, St. Katherine and St. Sava, in the debris, along with icons given by Czar Nicholas II.

Mohammed Atta, the man flying the plane which hit tower one and the supposed leader of the effort, had also been thinking about God. In luggage he left behind in Boston, Atta carried a letter handwritten in Arabic, with practical and religious advice to those planning to die in the mass murder:

Purify your heart and clean it from all earthly matters. The time of fun and waste has gone. The time of judgment has arrived. Keep a very open mind, keep a very open heart of what you are to face. You will be entering paradise. You will be entering the happiest life, everlasting life.

The letter recommends a prayer to say upon entering the plane:

Oh God, open all doors for me. Oh God who answers prayers and answers those who ask you, I am asking you for your help. ... There is no God, but God.

And the letter says how pleased God will be with the result, "because you are carrying out an action that God loves."

Atta also left a will with detailed directions on the handling of his body (it is not clear why he thought there would be a corpse left to bury):

. After that everyone should mention God's name and that I died as a Muslim which is God's religion. Everyone who attends my funeral should ask that I will be forgiven for what I have done in the past (not this action).

To sum up. On September 11, nineteen men, most or all devout believers in God, through ruthlessness and "luck" (if not through the direct intervention of their God) pulled off a mission of incredible difficulty, against tremendous odds, killing more than three thousand people. While Mychal Judge was just one highly visible and dramatic example, it is a safe assumption that numerous devout people of all faiths died that morning, unsheltered by their God, who, if not actively backing the Al Quaeda boys that day, was nowhere to be found.

There is a very simple explanation why the people eager to destroy the World Trade Center would see more satisfactory results than the people simply wishing to survive. Anyone invoking God on the side of the Second Law of Thermodynamics is likely to be more immediately pleased than someone calling on God to suspend the Second Law.

In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking comments that coffee cups frequently fall to the floor and smash but that the shards are never observed to spring back to the table and reconstitute themselves:

The explanation that is usually given as to why we don't see broken cups gathering themselves together off the floor and jumping back onto the table is that it is forbidden by the second law of thermodynamics. This says that in any closed system disorder, or entropy, always increases with time....An intact cup on the table is a state of high order, but a broken cup on the floor is a disordered state. One can go readily from the cup on the table in the past to the broken cup on the floor in the future, but not the other way around.

The universe slants towards increased entropy. That is the reason why it took years to build the World Trade Center and only minutes to destroy it. Like the coffee cup, the World Trade Center will not leap from the rubble of Ground Zero and miraculously re-create itself.

Mohammed Atta's God manifested Himself through destruction, Father Judge's through miracles. Destruction occurs often in our world, miracles never. When two people invoking God collide, it is consistent with what we know of our universe that the one invoking God in favor of increased entropy will prevail over the other.

We all learned in Philosophy 101 that our perception of a thing is not the same as the thing itself. The word is not the object; the map is not the territory. So, rather than talking about God for the next little while, let's talk about the idea of God. Most people who believe in a monotheistic God believe that God Himself is not vague or murky; if anything is it is our perception of Him, seen "through a glass darkly" ( 1 Corinthians 13:12).

As Alfred Ayers pointed out in Language, Truth and Logic, all propositions fall into one of three categories: 1. Statements of logic or language, which are eminently proveable because they rely on rules we created ourselves (for example, the statement that "'irregardless' is not a word, because it contains two negatives and is therefore badly constructed") 2. Empirical statements which rely on outside phenomena and can therefore not be conclusively proven because of the unreliability of our observing equipment (statements about time, neutrons, quarks or black holes, or even, as Hume pointed out, the proposition that the sun will rise tomorrow because it always has in the past). 3. Moral statements (and he might have added, religious statements), which in Ayers' opinion have no content at all because they can be proved neither by reference to logic or to external phenomena. "The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content."

Am I right in saying that God is not an empirical phenomenon? On September 11, more than 3000 people died horribly, some by high speed impacts which tore their bodies to pieces, while others were crushed by falling steel and concrete, or fell from 1000 feet in the air, or asphyxiated from smoke, or were burned by flaming jet fuel. And, as I write these words on December 18 of the same year, I have just heard that New York's famous and venerable Cathedral of St. John the Divine is burning. When we try to understand the relationship of God to such events, the choices are very limited:

In fact, regardless of whether or not He exists, our world functions exactly as if there was no God. In a Godless world it is easy to understand how men invoking an imaginary God could fly fuel-laden 767's into towers full of people. In a Godful world, such events are impossible to comprehend.

This is why a primary message of religion is that we must not ask questions. In thousands of sermons after September 11, including those at funerals, religious men and women of every stripe preached that God is more mysterious than the quarks and that it is best not to doubt His wisdom. This is the use of God as a semantic stop-sign. In spite of this injunction against thinking, people tend to provide their own tentative explanations (often without believing them wholeheartedly). For example, one of father Judge's friends said at his funeral that the priest could not have tolerated the death of 343 firefighters. So he had to be the first to die, to greet them all in heaven. Note that this statement, comforting as it is, does not attempt to explain why God tolerated the death of the other firefighters, or all the other victims.

When challenged for empirical evidence of God, most believers can only resort to personal faith and mystical perceptions of a presence, intense feelings of otherwise inexplicable joy, etc. All I can say is: Mohamed Atta felt these as much as you.

I promised I would talk about the idea of God, not God Himself. I departed from this because it was necessary to answer the question whether God is an empirical phenomenon. If He is, He could, having chosen not to prevent the events of September 11, easily respond to the confusion about His role in them; He could intervene to promote correct ideas about Him and to dispel bad ones. As He does in an Onion humor piece published shortly after the events:

"Look, I don't know, maybe I haven't made myself completely clear, so for the record, here it is again," said the Lord, His divine face betraying visible emotion during a press conference near the site of the fallen Twin Towers. "Somehow, people keep coming up with the idea that I want them to kill their neighbor. Well, I don't. And to be honest, I'm really getting sick and tired of it."

At the end of the press conference, the Onion reports, "God's shoulders began to shake, and He wept."

If God cannot give a press conference of this type, or has chosen to hide Himself so thoroughly that there is no evidence that He can, then we are left only with our idea of God, which must be constructed non-empirically regardless of whether or not He exists.

The problem with the idea of God is that it is a wash. It can be invoked with equal authority on opposing sides of every proposition; but if God is everywhere, then He is nowhere, because he cancels himself out like the same number added on one side of an equation and subtracted on the other.

The debate on the death penalty provides many good examples. Religious adversaries of capital punishment are fond of citing John Chapter 8 in which Jesus says of the woman taken in adultery, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." Yet, in Wayne Bedau's comprehensive The Death Penalty in America, you will find an essay on the Bible and capital punishment by the devout H. Wayne House, who explains that Jesus was not really opposed to the death penalty at all; he was just lawyering, getting his client off on a technicality. House concludes:

Romans 13:1-7 endorses capital punishment as a valid option for contemporary governments in their exercise of divine wrath against sin.

Remarkably, Romans Chapter 13 is the one in which Jesus says, "Thou shalt not kill." But as other religious advocates of capital punishment explain, this really should have been translated "thou shalt not murder", because various kinds of killing are really fine, including killing killers. House concludes:

Capital punishment, then, is the ultimate compliment to the human dignity of both victim and murderer; it implies the most pro-human stance possible.

Part of the problem, of course is that the Bible is a very messy book; even without House's logic-chopping, you can usually find vague support for any proposition, in the Old Testament if the New seems to say the opposite. The Old Testament, after all, is full of directives to commit rape and murder and all kinds of other mayhem. "Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished." (Isaiah 13:16) "Slay utterly old and young, both maids and little children, and women..." (Ezekiel 9:6) When people talk of the "clash of civilizations" and say the Qu'ran is a very violent book, they probably haven't looked at the Old Testament recently. Even the New Testament, with its messages of peace and love, ends with the psychotic violence of the Book of Revelations. I really question the judgment of the editor who decided that Revelations belonged in the same volume with the Gospels, or with the chapter from Corinthians cited above: "And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing."

The main problem I have with the idea of God is that it has become inextricably linked with the act of murder. The Jews in ancient times killed many in service to (ostensibly at the orders of) their warrior God. Most ironically, despite Jesus' absolutely stark and unambiguous message of nonviolence, millions have been murdered by various Christian elements in His name. And the Islamic world also knew how to eliminate the unfaithful. In the recent videotape, bin Laden quoted Sura 9:14, "God will torment [nonbelievers] by your hands, cover them with shame". In Medina, an arbitrator appointed by the Prophet ordered the killing of all of the men of the Bani Qurayza Jewish tribe, which had opposed him; the women and children were sold into slavery.

Dostoyevski created the electric parable of the Grand Inquisitor, who tells a returned Jesus that men are not equal to the challenge of the freedom He created for them. The Inquisitor, a cardinal, sees that the only way to make "any sort of tolerable life" for Jesus' flock of "feeble, unruly, incomplete" creatures is by following the precepts of the devil, "accept lying and deception, and lead men consciously to death and destruction". The Inquisitor has intended to kill Jesus, but the latter, who never speaks, suddenly kisses him on the forehead, and the cardinal, moved by a rare pity, sets him free, warning him strictly never to return. "The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man holds to his idea."

Just paragraphs later in The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha expresses the idea which panicked Dostoyevski more than any other: Without God, "everything is lawful". But as Mohammed Atta can explain, the opposite is true. Without God, murder is forbidden by human law; it is only for those acting on behalf of God, that everything is permitted.

The idea of God is a dangerous one because it encourages gross certainty in a world where humility and doubt are called for, and encourages an inappropriate disregard for human law when it conflicts with the artificial certainties attributed to divine command. Without God, Mohammed Atta would have ended his sad life a discontented and lonely man, not the murderer of three thousand people. It took the idea of God to transform Mohammed Atta from a malcontent to a monster.

There are of course many humble and tolerant people who firmly believe in God. Since I first published an essay in 1995 saying that God does not exist, I have received sad but affectionate mail from such people every week. A good example is Phil Sevetson, whose letter appears in the November Spectacle:

You don't, apparently (obviously), have to believe in God to be a mensch -- you're managing the latter quite well without the former. On the other hand... by the degree of heart-pain which you are enduring, by your conviction that you need to be contributing more than you are, and by your apparent resolution to act on your conviction... it's pretty clear to me that _God_ believes in _you_.

Even though I am an agnostic (no empirical evidence there is a God, and Occams Razor telling us the Second Law of Thermodynamics is the simplest explanation) I find this kind of thing inexpressibly moving. When people tell me they have prayed for me, I respond to their kindness, even though I do not believe in the efficacy of prayer.

I receive a minority of mail of the other stripe, like the individual who wrote me recently that the Holocaust ocurred because the Jews offended God.

From a utilitarian standpoint, you could argue that the idea of God has been a net benefit to mankind, inspiring more Mychal Judges than Mohammed Attas. This would be very hard to measure scientifically, but you can arrive at a possible answer via a sort of thought experiment. If God is a wash, as I postulated above, then killers and compassionate people alike are motivated by Him (just as there are also atheists in both categories). Since religion is just one of the numerous elements in nature and nurture that form our character, it is likely that most people would have the same basic character--the same predilections--if the building block of religion were removed. Without God, Mychal Judge would still have been a kind and loving man, and Mohammed Atta an empty sociopath.

But there is a way in which the idea of God might be a net drain on the system. People do not need much encouragement to be violent in a small way, but it took a concept of God to encourage the murder of thousands. The mixture of anger, certainty and self-righteousness, all glued together by the precept that God loves mass murder, was a necessary component in the events of September 11. By contrast, it is not obvious that the idea of God was inextricably involved as a motivation for Mychal Judge's deeds. Compassion may not need glue to the same extent as mass murder.

Whether God does not exist, or is hidden and noninterventionist, we fill His vacuum with human law and moral rulebooks. Rulebooks promoting values such as tolerance, humility and charity are possible without reference to God. Such rulebooks, founded both in logic and compassion, are the best anchor we humans have. The idea of God, rather than encouraging us to cling to that anchor, may lead us to drift from it; and once we cut loose we may drift anywhere, even to an awful, violent and completely illusory certainty.