Friday, January 15, 2010

Gods and Dictators

In some belief systems, people will tolerate a lot from a god.  If a god orders people to go to war, they go.  If certain people must be tortured, killed, or exiled by order of the god, it is done without question.  The people do this out of fear for their personal safety, not wanting to be the next ones to anger the god, but also out of a sense of true duty and morality.  They believe that the god made them in the first place.  The god owns his people the way you would own dolls you made out of clay.  If you choose to smash your dolls, who are they to complain?

However, a religion that's all smashing and being owned for no reason is usually quickly abandoned by people encountering a slightly upgraded version, the idea of a good god, one that, although he still has the right to, never would randomly smash his dolls, because he cares for them and loves them very much.  This type of god wishes he could never smash any of them, but sometimes he has to because they deserve it, or because it's important for the unfolding of great historical events in a majestic tapestry of human advancement.

This introduces a lot of practical problems into society.  Now you can still kill people, but they have to be duly designated combatants or lawfully condemned convicts.  Although some people must still be rounded up and punished, you have to treat them humanely while you are imprisoning them.  You can confine them and prevent them from having free access to those they love and long to be with, but it's no longer okay to torture them or starve them or let them die of medical neglect.  Beating them to death in the street is right out.

That's obviously better, but still doesn't explain random natural disasters or the existence of evil people.  Great earthquakes, fires, and floods tear the hearts out of millions of good people, and evil people make a hurricane of bullets and batons even where weather is fair.  If the god loves his creations so much, why does he let these things happen to them?

Despite the vast libraries devoted to this topic, it really comes back to the same answer as before.  If the god is what's really alive, and the people are just creations, then it doesn't matter what happens to the people.  Although we may find it distasteful that the god would choose to tell such abominable stories of torture and pain with his dolls, we have no right to question his mysterious ways, which must be somehow for the best in the long run, because the god can see things that his creations can't.  Some religions add a little flourish, that there is something really real inside the dolls that escapes and lives on when the doll is broken and smashed, so again it doesn't matter what happens on Earth.

But that doesn't match how people feel.  Inside, each person knows they are really alive and not a clay doll.  In fact, each person is only sure that he or she is really alive, really experiencing the universe.  We see all these other creatures rambling about, but we really only know ourselves for sure.  Each one of us has a unique viewpoint, a memory of a life lived on this world that is the only one like it in all the universe, and can never be replaced or copied.  Isn't that worth something?  Surely that is not the description of a mere doll.  Surely it matters very much if that precious memory is cut short or twisted into a nightmare of pain and injustice.

I don't know what the answer is to the problem of evil, but I know it's not that people don't matter.  Maybe the answer is, as some have said, "Evil exists because we let it."  When it comes to dictators who abuse people because they say a god told them to do it, they can only get away with that for as long as the majority of the people believe they really do speak for the god.  This means the dictator has to maintain an aura of holiness at all times.  If he allows any admission that he is a human being like everybody else, and was not, in fact, imbued by the god with infallibility, then all his previous decisions are up for debate.  And some of them were very, very nasty indeed.  If the god didn't order those things, then the dictator is a bad, bad man.  This realization dawns on the people, and that's the end of that dictator.

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