The Pope announced during his Angelus broadcast last Sunday that he was “imploring God to relieve the pain” of the survivors of a recent flood in Sicily and of the recent earthquake in Indonesia, according to RAI International. Such an expression of sympathy after a tragedy by appealing to divine solace is a vital and noble function of religion.
But the paradox of religious belief, it seems to me, is that the need to believe in a loving, sheltering God is strongest at precisely the moment when such a belief is most counterfactual: after a particularly devastating tragedy that a loving, sheltering God could have averted. This paradox does not much trouble believers: after a collective disaster, they troop off to church to worship and request assistance from the God who has allowed the devastation to occur.
A heaven stocked with at least two deities would help solve the logical contradiction, however. The good god could always finger the bad god to explain particularly egregious human loss. The philosophical problems attendant on polytheism or Manichaeism do not strike me as any graver than those attendant on monotheism.
But a simpler solution to the still unresolved challenge of reconciling divine omnipotence with the idea of a loving God would be to recognize that both before and after collective tragedy, humans are all we’ve got. We try to relieve the sorrow of survivors by sharing their grief. We apply our dazzling and ever-improving technological resources to alleviating their physical loss, but more importantly we work daily to prevent large-scale tragedies through engineering prowess and medical research. The Pope is expressing human sympathy, tricked out in divine trappings. Remove the divine garb, and the sentiments are just as valuable.