The heartless massacre in Newtown has many believers crying in agony, "God, where were you?" That in turn has prompted many nonbelievers to growl, "Nowhere!" And so, the ancient arguments over the Problem of Evil sputter to life and spin once again.
Thanks to the advance of knowledge and compassion, we are at last in a position to end a seemingly endless cycle. It won't be easy. Turning off the engine of pointless argument requires two keys. I have no power to compel anyone to accept either, but I have hopes that reconciliation will prevail.
The first is for believers to accept that God does not intervene in humans affairs. Not now, not ever. Prayer may have benefits, but one of them most definitely is not that God reaches down from the heavens to make things better. The occasional survivor of a plane crash is hardly evidence of divine intervention by a just and caring deity -- quite the contrary. Claims that God lets children die in terror for some alleged hidden higher good, however well meant, are a contemptible dodge. Even worse are those who tout God's retribution in the act.
Let's face it: The stories in whatever Scripture your religion may hand down are myths. That is to say, they are stories laden with powerful meanings, but they are not literal accounts of events in this world. Faith does not require literal belief, and breaking free of the trap of Scriptural literalism is a crucial step for the advance of religion. Not least, because it allows for a rational solution to the Problem of Evil. Here is where the dual lock appears.
The second key is for atheists and agnostics (myself included) to accept that God is real and plays a powerful role in the world. This is neither a paradox nor a trivial truth. To be an atheist is, above all, to reject the traditional claims about the world being owned and operated by a Supreme Being who is said to have all perfections to the ultimate degree. Such claims are plainly nonsense, and we are justified in rejecting them.
That does not, however, exhaust all possibilities. For instance, I have caused much dyspepsia among the choleric class of atheists by suggesting that the Universe may have had a natural creator. It's not my intention to rehash that argument here, but rather to set the stage for a minimalist acceptance of the reality of God.
Beyond all dispute, God exists as a cultural construct in the minds of believers. As such he has an enormous influence in the world. God may be more than that, but there is no evidence that he is.
This brings us back to the question of intervention. That question should have been settled eons ago. The Greek philosopher Epicurus put it succinctly: "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent."
History demonstrates that there is no morally intelligible divine intervention in human affairs. Working backward from the present moment, you have only to look at the Japanese tsunami, the Haitian earthquake, the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Darfur in genocide, the Rwandan genocide, the Bosnian genocide, the Cambodian genocide, Mao's genocide, Stalin's genocide ... and we still haven't gotten to the Holocaust. Only the Westboro Baptist Church can find a consistent meaning in these events, and it prompts them to picket the funerals of Newtown's slain children. Talk about moral madness.
There is yet a deeper reason to disbelieve in divine intervention. The knowledge we have gained through science gives us a comprehensive if still somewhat incomplete picture of our Universe. Science is more than a collection of granular facts; it generates coherent, tested explanations of how things work. While there are still open questions, one is settled: the conservation of energy holds universally true. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed but only changes form over time. Any external intervention would destroy the delicate balance that characterizes our entire sphere of being.
Of course, you can make up stories about a supreme being overcoming the laws of physics, but there is no reason to believe that they are true -- unless you regard the preservation of belief itself as a reason. That surely accounts for the continuing argument over the Problem of Evil: believers fear that to let go of traditional beliefs about God is to embrace atheism.
It is a needless fear. There are plenty of theologians who have adopted new views of God. Rabbi Kushner responded to the hideous death of his son from a genetic disease called progeria by dropping his belief that God is omnipotent. Paul Tillich famously suggested that God is not the bearded giant of Michelangelo's fresco but the ground of all being. In these pages, Diana Butler Bass suggests that God is hidden. I have offered the possibility of natural deism: a creator much like ourselves who gave rise to our universe in hopes that we would arise, imagine, invent and keep life alive until the end of time and beyond.
I do not know which, if any, of these answers is true. I do know this, however: The answer to the Problem of Evil is simple. It is up to us to use whatever influence we can, whether secular or divine, to promote peace, justice and good will in the world. No deity will do the job for us. We can, and must, save ourselves from the worst impulses within us.