In the aftermath of one of the worst school shootings in American history in Parkland, Florida, America’s pre-eminent scientists have come up with a solution: stop believing in God and stop praying. This is the conclusion of the Most Brilliant Astrophysicist Ever To Walk The Earth™, Neil Degrasse Tyson; it is also the conclusion of Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker.
Pinker, the author of the new bestseller Enlightenment Now — a solid read, but rather light on the roots of the Enlightenment itself, which spring from both Greek thought and Judeo-Christian religion — says that the school shooting proves the absence of a benevolent God. Pinker stated that such events “cast doubt on the idea that there is a benevolent shepherd who looks out for human welfare. What was the benevolent shepherd doing while the teenager was massacring his classmates?... If you’re counting on God to make the world a better place you are probably going to make the world a worse place because he is not listening and we saw that yesterday.”
Tyson and Pinker are so ignorant of religious practice that they believe these points are dispositive — when, in reality, nobody has stated that prayer itself will prevent school shootings, and the problem of theodicy has been considered in turn by every major religious thinker for thousands of years.
Let’s start with Tyson. Prayer is not designed to “change God’s mind.” God doesn’t change His mind (see, e.g., Deuteronomy 32:4). Prayer is designed to change us. It’s designed to remind us who is in charge, to remind us that we must do more to perfect ourselves and recognize our responsibilities. The number of serious religious thinkers who believe that prayer is designed like a quarter to drop in a gumball machine approaches zero.
Now, Pinker. The Bible is filled with terrible things happening to good people. The New Testament is built on the sacrifice of Jesus, a perfect being, in excruciating suffering. Does Pinker truly think that the presence of evil in the world discredits the idea of a benevolent God? My own personal perspective is that human evil is part and parcel of God’s plan for us — free will allows human beings to do evil things to other human beings, which is one of the reasons we must inculcate virtue in our children and look to protect one another; if God were to preordain only good for the good, free will would disappear. But that’s just one answer. There are lots of others, provided by thinkers far deeper than Pinker.
But the point here is that for a lot of New Atheist types, snark substitutes for serious consideration of alternative viewpoints. Most religious people have seriously considered atheism — I know that I have, and that I continue to do so. But it’s disrespectful and nasty to use every act of human evil — evil that a relationship with God is designed to mitigate — as a dishonest attempt to discredit arguments religious people never made in the first place.