A recent Pew Forum Poll of 35,000 respondents found out something fascinating about agnostics and atheists. Half of all agnostics actually believe in God, at least in terms of a universal force or Primal Origin, perhaps “within.” And 21% of those who call themselves “atheists” also believe in God. It seems, Pew reports, that these believers in the philosophers’ God really only reject the conception of God as a person, in the Judeo-Christian manner. One who has insight and understands, who chooses and decides.

Is that why atheists and agnostics take morose delectation in the existence of evil? Because, for them, evil disproves the existence of a good and caring God?

Let’s suppose there is no God. The same evils still exist. Are atheists suggesting that the nonexistence of God and the existence of evil fit neatly together in a logical argument? That, if little children, beaten into submission, sob in the night, it is somehow a telling argument for atheism?

Christopher Hitchens has argued that before our time human beings suffered 98,000 years of disease, cataclysm, bloodshed, and famine without intervention by any Creator. If a human creator had deliberately chosen to put hundreds of millions of his fellow humans in such a parlous state, he would be regarded as a monster. It follows that if God willed that long, bleak, agonizing history, God in his omniscience and omnipotence is an even greater monster.

Could it possibly improve things to believe that the long pain of human evolution was set in motion by chance alone? The atheist view of the world is actually rather bleaker than that of Jews and Christians: Suffering under the weight of evil is meaningless, and so is any struggle against evil. Everything in the atheist’s world begins and ends in randomness and chance.

Few atheists seem to be as rigorously honest as Friedrich Nietzsche, who warned that if God is dead, it is wishful thinking to hold that reason alone can confer “meaning” on life. Reason has been outmoded by chance.

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There are, of course, “secular saints,” such as the heroic Dr. Rieux whose story Albert Camus tells in The Plague . Many atheists today toil in hospitals, clinics, and laboratories, attempting to reduce the suffering that humans endure from dread diseases, auto crashes, horrific storms, and other physical vulnerabilities. Other atheists labor to reduce the pains of the psyche. Thus, not a few atheists practice a form of saintliness.

And yet, as Camus also pointed out, many of these secular saints look very much like those religious saints who have throughout the ages worked to ease suffering, to bring healing and comfort, and to make this world a bit more loving, truthful, just, and sane. What do secular humanists lack but synagogues and churches, he asks, to distinguish them from Jews or Christians?

Similarly, nearly all of these secular saints find great meaning in their work for suffering humanity. They, too, fight during long hours under the grand old flag of “compassion,” first planted in this world by Judaism and Christianity (much to Nietzsche’s dislike).

Under that banner, St. Thomas Aquinas posited the striking thought that for this world to be as good as it is, the existence of evil is necessary. Evil is not a “thing”¯no substantial thing at all. Against the Muslims, Aquinas flatly rejected the centuries of Eastern philosophy that divided the world into good and evil, as if they were equal contestants, equally substantial and active and potent.

Not so, Aquinas reasoned. Everything that the Greatest of all Goods has created is suffused with good up to the brim of its capacity. But for the world as a whole to be good, it must be populated by the most beautiful and god-like creatures of all¯creatures capable of insight and deliberate choice. It requires the liberty of human minds and wills. Only at this peak of nature can human creation be considered made in the “image of God.”

The Jewish Creator offered every woman and man in his creation his friendship, and in this way treated each as a free person, not as a slave. Such human liberty required God to create a world in which human beings can of their own deliberate choice turn away from the good. This is how Aquinas defined human sin: a considered and willful deviation from the good, an absence of the good, a deficiency.

“The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time,” Thomas Jefferson wrote. The leaders of the Anglo-American Enlightenment believed that liberty was God’s underlying purpose in creating human beings, and in shaping the rest of creation accordingly. They believed that in the war between the Americans and the British in 1776, though both worshiped the same God, the God of liberty would favor those who fought for freedom, not against it.

A world in which liberty can flower must be a world of laws, regularities, and probabilities, but also a world of contingency, happenstance, serendipity, surprise, and suspense. All the stuff of a good story depends on creation being not just a world of iron logic and inflexible arithmetic, but also a world of immense crisscrossing variation and “blooming, buzzing profusion.”

Even the “angelic” light of advanced mathematics (so highly abstract and removed from corporeality) must in a world of liberty be constituted not only by arithmetic, geometry, and deductive reasoning, but also by the statistically random.

In such a world, there cannot be human freedom without the possibility of falling away from the good. Various forms of refusal and irresponsibility, and even the surrender of reason to spontaneity and passion, must with some high probability come into play. “If men were angels,” such probabilities might be nonexistent. But men are not angels, and therefore a free republic, built for men as they are, must be built for those who sometimes sin.

As Aquinas observed, if we begin our reflections with the world as it is, we learn that without human evil, the world’s goodness could not achieve the heights of nobility and compassion and love that it sometimes actually does.

From what we know of the world we live in, the Creator, it would seem, was no utopian, and his purpose was not to make a world solely for human pleasure, painlessness, and comfort. The world instead provides a tapestry of human experience, times of joy and times of trial¯even a vale of sorrows¯in which the golden thread of history is liberty.

That is, at least, the Judeo-Christian story, and I’m sticking to it.

Michael Novak, a board member of First Things , holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair at the American Enterprise Institute. His website is www.michaelnovak.net . His new book, No One Sees God will be published by Doubleday on August 5, 2008.

Articles by Michael Novak

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