I have been doing this blog for a little over a month now, and I have been thoroughly enjoying it. I decided to expand things a little bit and I have a few ideas on how to do it. One thought I had was to do a "why I am an Atheist" post in the same fashion as PZ has been doing over on Pharyngula. The problem I had with that was I can't summarize why I am an atheist in short post, I am an atheist because I thought about it...a lot...for like 10 years. So I decided to focus on one thing at a time that I thought about while in my transition to atheism. I figured a good start will be the first thing I can remember that got me thinking about this, the simple question "why do bad things happen to good people?" This is a fairly simplistic question to ask, perfect for me as I was not quite 10 years old when I started asking it. Not quite so simple to answer.
It is probably evident at this point that I am talking about the Christian God here. A God who is all knowing, all powerful, and all loving. He cares for us, wants the best for us, and answers prayers. This is the God I grew up with.
The first answer I ever got to this question was during a sermon of some sort. I was pretty young so the memory is fairly fuzzy, it might have been during a regular church service but I think it was during a youth group meeting. Anyway, he used an analogy of baby bees (or wasps maybe? whatever). Anyway, the larva are put into a little container and sealed, and the babies have to fight their way out, in doing so they gain strength from their struggles and they can be strong adults. On the other hand, if the box was opened for them, they would be weak and useless.
The point of the story is that going through hardships can help you in the long term. Through further discussion, we talked about how God has a much longer view than we do, and even if we can't see the benefit of a hardship we have to suffer, it doesn't mean it isn't there. So I thought about this for a bit, and it basically made sense. It certainly goes a long way toward explaining the kind of hardship a 10 year old is going to suffer through (at least in an average middle class family in america). I was satisfied for a while.
But then I started to think about things on a larger scale. What about something as big as the holocaust? I suppose it is possible that there is some larger tragedy that is avoided by it. Perhaps people saw the holocaust and then were more on the side of Jews afterwards, if it hadn't happened Jews would have been exterminated 100 years later or something. Perhaps in some round about way it kept something worse from happening. Anyone who has seen a time travel movie can imagine some complicated series of events like this. But God can do anything, it is hard to imagine that for whatever his ends, this was the best method.
One answer that I have heard to this problem is free will, God loves us and wants us to love him, but he doesn't want to force us to love him so he gave us free will. This is an attempt to explain away things like the holocaust. Free will is a complicated and difficult subject, which I don't want to go into much here, but even supposing for the moment that free will could explain away man made atrocities, it still does not explain natural disasters which kill millions of people. A big earthquake or whatever. It is similar to the above except the free will answer is off the table.
I remember another sermon about this topic. It was at a youth group while I was in high school. (strangely, I don't remember the pastor, but I remember the room we were in, which narrows it down to high school. Memory is such a funny thing) We were talking about this topic, and he was addressing the fact that I mentioned up above. That it seems crazy that God would use such extreme measures as the holocaust. That it is hard to imagine it being better than some alternative, and that this is the best way to do things. He said "I don't want a God that fits inside my head." I remember him saying it, I had an immediate revulsion to the idea, and I still do today. Not only is he saying that he doesn't understand God, he doesn't want to be able to understand God. The message is "shut up and do what you are told", the message is "understanding is overrated, you just need to have faith." For someone who loves science, loves understanding how things works, and likes to know the reasons behind things, this was possibly the worst answer he could have given me.
Now, as I said up top, this is not the reason I am an Atheist, but it did play a part in getting me here. It is the first thing I can remember where I started to really question things. A few times I got answers that satisfied me and placated me for a while. But I always came back to this topic later on, and really feel like I have never gotten a good answer.