Secular Right | Reality & Reason



The Pope visits L’Aquila

The Pope finally made it to L’Aquila today, the epicenter of an earthquake that killed 295 in Italy’s Abruzzo region on April 6.  Driving rain, cold, and mud continue to beset the occupants of the tent cities established for the 65,000 homeless victims. 

On the day of the quake, the Pope said that he was praying “especially for the children” killed in the tremors.  Two days later he assured the survivors that the “Pope prays for all, imploring the Lord’s mercy for the deceased.”  Today, in the medieval village of Onna, where the death rate was highest, he “encourage[d] everyone, institutions and businesses, to see that this village and this region are reborn.”  Later today, under a blue canopy in L’Aquila’s town square, with the green mountains of Abruzzo rising above, the Pope invoked a local saint and recalled his Easter Mass, performed after the L’Aquila earthquake.  The Italian news channel RAI raved about the Pope’s interactions with occupants of one of the tent cities: “We’ve never seen him so close to the people before,” said a reporter.  “He had a word for each person.”

The Pope is undoubtedly a caring, generous man who has brought much-needed solace to the stricken survivors of the earthquake.  Still, nonbelievers will be eternally puzzled by the logic of praising and praying to a God after a natural disaster that he could have averted.   If God is sensitive enough and powerful enough to respond to prayers now, why didn’t he intervene before?  And we know that he can intervene: see, e.g.,  the Bible and the daily priestly practice of asking for God’s protection against a whole host of human ills.  The Pope may pray to God to show his mercy to the dead children of Abruzzo.  Wouldn’t it have been more useful for God to have shown his mercy before they were killed?  Presumably, believers see proof of God’s love in the survival of quake victims rescued from collapsed buildings, leaving unexplained why other quake victims were not so blessed.  

But the need to feel protected by a supernatural power is so strong that it overcomes any logical difficulties entailed by the idea of a loving, just God who supervenes over the daily slaughter of the innocents.  And the belief in such a God provides people with strength in the face of unbearable loss. 

What does a non-religious world-view have to offer in place of irrational faith?  A celebration of human compassion as the source of every triumph over natural randomness and injustice.  An awareness that human ingenuity is all we have to save us from undeserved tragedy, but a knowledge that that is saying quite a lot.  Nonbelievers feel as much sorrow for the victims of the quake as any believer, but they look exclusively to human efforts to help them.  Since the earthquake, the Pope and the local archbishop have lauded civic solidarity, and rightly so.  The workers who have tried to help the victims have done so out of human empathy.  Most every engineer would do anything he could to prevent all loss of life from earthquakes; the same can’t be said of the divine engineer.  The rebuilding of L’Aquila, which the Pope called for, is already occurring, thanks to the Italian civil authorities.  It sure as heck isn’t God who’s rebuilding it. 

A secular perspective on suffering does not promise an afterlife, but it does focus our attention on the true source of the virtues which can lessen and sometimes overcome suffering.   For many people, that will not be enough and they will continue turning to the idea of a God.   The nonbeliever joins with them in their desire for a more just world.



  • Kelly · April 28, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    It might be that belief in a god takes the onus off the individual to actually do something to alleviate suffering. Not only does it comfort us in the face of tragedies we can’t do anything about; it also assuages our consciences when we there are things we can do and yet we don’t do anything.

  • Author comment by Steel Phoenix · April 28, 2009 at 7:39 pm

    So nice of him to step out of his giant gilded palace long enough to give the gift of his holy presence to the destitute, now that all most of the untidiness has been cleaned up.

  • Ron Guhname · April 28, 2009 at 7:44 pm

    “It might be that belief in a god takes the onus off the individual to actually do something to alleviate suffering.”

    If this were true, why did I find with GSS data just the other day that religious people are more likely to donate blood?

  • Mike · April 28, 2009 at 9:13 pm

    Heather: The Pope is not advocating prayer for the prevention of a disaster that has already occurred. As he himself said, the prayers are for mercy for the deceased- to get them out of Purgatory.

    Kelly: I find it curious that you suppose belief in God “takes the onus off [of the] individual to actually do something to alleviate suffering.”
    The Catholic Church is actually one of the world’s largest (if not the top) charitable organizations, responsible for a vast international network of hospitals, schools, shelters, food banks, and other humanitarian concerns.

    Additionally, it is a well documented phenomena that religious believers contribute to secular charities at a far higher rate than non-believers do. Perhaps non-belief in God takes the onus off the individual to actually do something to alleviate suffering.

  • Trent · April 28, 2009 at 11:10 pm

    You are missing the point of Biblical Christianity. The Bible makes it very clear that we cannot end suffering and that God does not intend to stop suffering on this Earth until Christ returns to redeem the earth for eternity. Then there will be no suffering. The point of being a Christian is not to end/avoid suffering. In fact the Bible promises that believers will suffer. After all, the greatest ‘Christian’ the world has known (Jesus), suffered more than any person ever has. 10 of the 11 remaining disciples (after Judas’ death) were executed for refusing to deny they saw the risen Christ. As a Jesus-follwer, we simply know that our eternal citizenship is in heaven, and this world is temporary. That gives us hope even in the midst of seemingly hopeless situations.

    In the mean time, we want to help those who suffer (because Jesus is our model), but that is not the end goal. Furthermore, the Bible says death only exists because Satan (the god of death) has power right now. Death and destruction does not come from God, but from Satan. Satan’s power, however, has an expiration date and that is when Jesus returns for His ‘Second Coming’. Finally, yes, the other posters are correct that Christian groups and individuals give way more time and money to help those afflicted with natural disasters and other misfortunes.

  • Trent · April 28, 2009 at 11:18 pm

    I meant to mention that I am not defending anything the Pope or the Catholic Church does/says. I don’t believe the Catholic Church practices Biblical Christianity.

  • A-Bax · April 29, 2009 at 8:01 am

    As my uber-Catholic attorney father has said: Catholic Charities, at least in the USA, are neither Catholic nor a charity”…(discuss!!)

    What he means by this is that an overwhelmingly huge portion of the funds that go to CC basically come from government-sponsored entitlement programs. CC is an administrator of these entitlements, and has “won” their bid to be an administrator due to their low-cost efficiency.

    From a purely “relief of suffering” perspective, one can understand why CC would opt for this. But to call (a huge chunk of their work) “charitable” is misleading, since the beneficiaries of their efforts are entitled to their goodies, and CC just happens to be the retailer.

    As to the not-Catholic part, I understand his position to be something like: Since these are gummint-driven entitlements, CC is obligated to distribute them in ways that are blind to Catholic theological/social beliefs (re: abortion, morning-after pill, etc.). That is, CC cannot “take a stand” on Catholic principles when retailing gummint entitlements, and thus are not truly acting as an arm of the Church.

  • Ivan Karamazov · April 29, 2009 at 8:03 am

    Ron Guhname :

    Ron Guhname

    “It might be that belief in a god takes the onus off the individual to actually do something to alleviate suffering.”
    If this were true, why did I find with GSS data just the other day that religious people are more likely to donate blood?

    Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because (1) it’s easy – they frequently come to where you work now, and (2) it is somewhat public, and thus your fellow citizens can see what a good person you are! Remember to leave the band-aid on all day, for maximum effect.

  • j mct · April 29, 2009 at 9:22 am

    Just to help Ms. Macdonald out, in the Bible, Jesus replaces the Torah with two commandments, the first one being to love God, and the second one being to love one’s neighbor as oneself. When asked how to follow the first commandment, he says to see the second commandent. However, loving one’s neighbor as oneself, caritas, means being concerned, and acting upon one’s concern, for one’s neighbor’s well being as well as one’s own well being, or welfare. Also, it must be added that Jesus is a big delegator in this, the Christian God wants men to do the Lord’s work. In order to do this, one must have a theory of what human welfare is.

    The first thing one must understand about the Pope is that unlike Ms. Macdonald, he is not an Epicurean in his views of what human welfare is, he is an Aristotelian. An Epicurean thinks that human welfare is defined by pleasure (endorphin rush?), with pain and suffering being negative pleasure, while an Aristotean thinks that human welfare consists of the possession of virtue (vice or sin being negative virtue), two of the traditional one’s being fortitude and temperance, which taken together, means being at least being somewhat indifferent what an Epicurean thinks of as human welfare itself.

    Sometimes an Epicurean and an Aristotelian can get confused when they get into an arguement about stuff like this due to the fact that virtuous behavior doesn’t necessarily lead to agonizing suffering, sometimes it leads to quite pleasant outcomes, and that some virtues, though gratification will usually be delayed, can lead to pleasant experiences. They are diametrically opposed though if one keeps one’s end and means straight, which often time is not the case, and as far as moral reasoning is concerned, lead to profoundly different outcomes.

    An Aristotelian doesn’t think that pain and suffering are bad at all, in and of themselves, if a painful experience leads to virtue it’s good, though for an Aristotelian pain and suffering are a ‘toxicity is in the dose’ sort of thing, sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not. In fact, when one thinks that the infliction of suffering would lead to virtue on the part of the sufferee (ordered to virtue in the traditional way of speaking), one should inflict it. Parents do this all the time. Per the Aristotelian, only someone who really hated mankind would completely eliminate pain and suffering.

    Ms. Macdonald is right that if human welfare is all about pleasure/pain/suffering, that God seems to pretty indifferent to it, and that therefore he is not benevolent, restating Epicurus’s original arguement, which was sound, Epicurus being a smart guy. Voltaire made the same arguement, and Voltaire was a through and through Epicurean, though I could be wrong about this, I don’t think he realized it, he seems to have thought that he’d thought it up himself, very ‘Enlightened’ that Voltaire.

    Though it might take a bit of explaining, if one thinks that virtue is human welfare, which the Pope does, the problem of evil, which isn’t what the Epicurean thinks is the problem, for an Epicurean it’s the problem of suffering, goes away.

  • John Scotus Eriugena · April 29, 2009 at 10:13 pm

    Would Miss MacDonald grant that faith can be non-rational rather than irrational? Pascal, Galileo, Dante, Job?



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