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Why bad things happen to good people 18.I.2005 16:24
And God said unto Job, 'there's just something about you that pisses me off.'

In Denys Arcand's Les invasions barbares, which I recommend you all see, there is a dialogue that deals briefly with Poland. Paraphrased, it is said that for Poles, every misfortune of Poland is proof of the existence of God. While rather sarcastic, this is certainly an accurate criticism. The Virgin Mary is revered nationwide as the protector of Poland, despite the fact that Poland is one of the least successfully defend nations in history, having ceased to exist completely no less than three times. The story of Virgin Mary as protector comes from one battle wherein Poland's holiest city did not fall to a much larger Swedish force several centuries ago. However, the Polish persist in their faith that they are one of God's most loved nations (what nation isn't?), despite massive evidence to the contrary. The exception is said to prove the rule, even though what is being cited as the rule is in fact a unique event, isolated in a sea of so-called 'exceptions.'

In Poland, the most frequent inscription on gravestones is 'Bóg tak chciał', which means 'God willed it thus.' Similarly, in the wake of the asian tsunami disaster, there were many features on the news talking about how one can maintain ones faith having witnessed such devastation. Not one of these reports showed people who had lost their faith in the face of the cruelty of the world. No, in fact, every religious person's faith had, in fact, been strengthened by these extreme circumstances. This is more understandable with religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, but in the Abrahamic religions, which have an omnibenevolent God, this should bring about rather large crises of faith. Where is the benevolence of God when he slaughters thousands of his Children?

I have always regarded the story of Job as simultaneously the most infuriating and ingenious book of the Bible. It's like a disclaimer, a catch-all absolution for God, allowing the believer to instantly dismiss any suggestion that evil disproves God's omnibenevolence. Good things happen? God loves us. Bad things happen? God loves us, we mortals merely cannot comprehend His plan right now. There are no falsificators, there is no possibility for error. God pours needless suffering on Job, yet loves him. Faith must be maintained even in the darkest of circumstances. God can do no wrong.

Personally, I have always treated the world as apathetic, except in my weaker or less rational moments. I know there is neither a force protecting nor hindering me, and even my comments about my luck, which can be on occasion ridiculous, are not meant seriously. It can be difficult, sometimes, to accept that a tragic event is forthcoming and the only things allowing for hope are the deeply impersonal laws of probability, but nonetheless this is the state of the world. It is the apathy of the world, I find, that is hardest for people to deal with. The Greek Gods are a perfect example of this: they can be whimsical, they can be cruel, vengeful, petty. However, for every tragedy there is at least a reason and people, for some reason, take comfort in this. There is blame to be allotted, and there is a target for that blame. People have a tough time coming to terms with events that happen that are without meaning, behind which there was neither driving force nor justification. And yet, I feel this is how humans must view their environment, an apathetic, indifferent set of circumstances, neither good nor evil, one that can be neither swayed nor appeased. 150,000 people died in the tsunamis because there happened to be a tsunami, not because God was punishing, nor even because he was testing them. I understand, to a degree, why this is difficult to accept, but that does not mean it is not true.

This attitude is, in my opinion, tied to another harmful myth of modern society: that to understand is also to forgive. There is a very interesting debate about determinism and free will involved with this, but that's not point at the moment. The point is that our society, as soon as it finds causes for behaviour, tends to excuse that behaviour. People who were abused as children not being held responsible for their crimes is a typical example of this: we understand why he did, so we try to eliminate those causes rather than punishing for what they've done. Comprehension is forgiveness. I do not agree with this, because I believe almost all behaviour can be traced to some root cause, and also because it frees the wrongdoer of responsibility.

As an example, I watched The Hamburg Cell on Sunday, a dramatisation of the Sept. 11th hijackers' lives before the attack. The film itself awas fairly unremarkable, though it did give a strong impression of verisimilitude, but more important are the reactions to it. Like many films about Hitler, it is criticised for making the hijackers seem 'too human.' My first response to this is 'guess what? they are human, just like you,' but this isn't taking the arguments quite for what they mean. Because of the correlation between comprehension and absolution, many people feel that if they understood the hijackers actions, if they seemed reasonable (and, by the way, they do), then that would be tantamount to forgiving them. It's not. Their actions are as wrong as they ever were, but that does not mean that there cannot be a perfectly reasonable explanation of why they did so. All wrong acts are manifestations of poor judgement, nothing else, yet we want to believe they are monsters.

To truly blame, we seem to require some intangible, often referred to as 'evil', sometimes (inaccurately) as 'sociopathy', that would propel people to these acts. We want to believe they are monsters largely, I think, because we do not want to believe that we could act that way. If a battered wife murders her husband, we know who to blame, but we know she is also to be forgiven. It is acceptable. That is why we require a benevolent God: so we can blame him for the seemingly random ills, but also, knowing that he did it for our own good, forgive him. The apathetic world, with no one to blame, deprives us of this.

God, in this case, is once again a tool for lessening our own tragedies, as a target for our recriminations, but also absolved by them. God's motives are unimpeachable, and therefore His transgressions, however seemingly senseless, are forgiven. The apathetic world - the real world - is too difficult for many; they cannot accept that events, even massive life-changing events, are driven by mere statistics, probabilities without the restraining had of the Benevolent, or even the comprehensible hand of the minor deity. We can only react, and we cannot have faith that someone is protecting us, but this is the faith to which so many cling in the wakes of disasters.
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