Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Trial of God

I was reading who-knows-what when I came across a provocative reference to a play and novel called The Trial of God by Elie Wiesel. It's hard to find a good summary of the story online, but here's one.

The story is based on one of Wiesel's real experiences during the Holocaust. He witnessed three Jews indicting God for all their suffering and giving him a trial. After several days, the verdict came: guilty. Afterwards, they prayed.

Wiesel's story takes place in 1649 in a Ukrainian village after a pogrom. I believe it is referring to the Khmelnytsky Uprising, one of the many, many Jewish tragedies throughout history. At the beginning, most of Jews have just been killed in the latest pogrom. Some traveling Jewish minstrels decide to put on a play in which they prosecute God. They say that God has no justification for the death and suffering he has caused. No one is willing to defend God until a stranger Sam appears. In the very end, Sam reveals that he is Satan. Satan commands a final pogrom before the trial can end.

My first impression is, "Wow, Jewish philosophy is mature!"

I've got an intriguing quote from an interview with Elie Wiesel on this story.
For a Jew to believe in God is good. For a Jew to protest against God is still good. But simply to ignore God--that is not good. Anger, yes. Protest, yes. Affirmation, yes. But indifference? No. You can be a Jew with God. You can be a Jew against God. But not without God.
Wiesel is making an argument about the Jewish identity. Now, I'm not from a Jewish tradition, so it isn't particularly important to me what the definition of Jewish is. But I imagine that many secular Jews would take offense to Wiesel's comment. In case my readers didn't know, it's fairly common for non-theists to identify as Jews, because in their minds, being Jewish is about their rich culture and heritage. Wiesel apparently disagrees, at least during this particular interview.

From an atheist perspective, Wiesel's comment is rather ironic.

There is a disturbingly common misconception that atheists are angry at God. No I'm not. "Indifferent" is a slightly more accurate description. I'm indifferent to God in the same sense that everyone else is indifferent to the invisible pink unicorn standing next to them--the invisible pink unicorn in which most of society believes, and on which society bases many decisions. And of course, being indifferent to God does not imply that we are indifferent to anything else. Atheists are more God-ignorers than God-haters (though they do occasionally accuse the hypothetical God of hypothetically being responsible for evil). Most people would be relieved to know we don't hate God.

And yet, Wiesel seems to have flipped this around. In his story, it's God's prosecutors who are portrayed positively, and the defender who is evil. And from Wiesel's comment, we know that he places non-theists at the bottom of the ladder. Funny how we end up below Satan, huh? At least we don't try to defend God's ways.

But I guess he got us there--if the problem of evil is our primary argument against God, why don't we just argue with God instead of denying his existence? Partly it's because no one wants to believe in a God that isn't benevolent, but also because the problem of evil is not the only argument against God's existence.

Just for fun, I'll link to an opposite perspective. It's the typical morality-requires-God refrain, if you care to know.


plonkee @ the religious atheist said...

I wonder if Wiesel's argument is related to the whole special people thing in Judaism. Like how can you think that you are set apart as a race by God if you don't believe in God.

On the other hand, that's not the halachic definition of Jewishness, there are plenty of Jewish atheists who don't find it a problem, and theists often struggle to understand the basics of atheist (not sure why).

DeralterChemiker said...

Thank you for the post; I had not heard of Elie Wiesel's play. I am an agnostic deist, because I am a scientist. I believe that the Big Bang occurred. If there were occurrences prior to the Big Bang, I can't see them, and so I can only assume that there was a tremendous power that brought about the Big Bang. Like the writers of the Bible and other religious texts, I am willing to call that ultimate power God. For clarity I call that God the God of the Universe. But I don't know what that God is like, and I don't believe that anyone else knows, and therefore I am also an agnostic. As a scientist, I am willing to say that I don't know---unlike most theologians, who feel compelled to provide a contrived explanation for everything. What I do know is that that God of the Universe does not interfere or get involved in the everyday lives of humans. Instead, the universe invariably follows natural laws that have existed from the time of the Big Bang. In that sense the laws of the God of the Universe are always followed. The benevolent God of Christian and Jewish theology does not exist, and is an anthropological characterization of the power that created the universe. Would the Holocaust have occurred, would the events of 9/11 have occurred, would the war in Iraq be waged, if a benevolent God had existed and been disposed to influence the affairs of men? No, and therefore it is as plain as the nose on your face that such a God does not exist. The good and the evil that we see is due to the works of men, played out in an environment that is the ordered chaos of our universe. So what does an agnostic deist believe? I believe that I owe an allegiance to the welfare of the human race. My allegiance to our species is not due to any belief in a reward or punishment in the afterlife; I don’t expect any. My allegiance to the human race is due to the genetic instructions that have been developed by evolution and implanted in me through my ancestors. Goodness is its own reward, because it is in accord with those genetic instructions.

miller said...

Alter Chemiker,

As I was hinting at before, benevolence is not the only property of God that is questionable. What about consciousness? Eternalness? Is God even an object to which we can ascribe such properties? Does it make any difference whether God exists? And to what extent can your definition of God be at odds with the definition accepted by the surrounding culture?

As for genetically based ethics, I think it is imperfect at best. For instance, if we are genetically predisposed to enjoy meat (because it used to be scarce, and humans needed to eat every little bit they could find), does it follow that eating as much meat as possible is good?

DeralterChemiker said...

Since I already said that I do not know the nature of the God of the Universe, I know nothing about his (her, its) consciousness and eternalness. I care about truth, and therefore I am interested in whether God exists, but otherwise it may make no difference to me. My definition is undoubtedly at odds with the definition accepted by the surrounding culture, but that is not particularly important to me. Nevertheless, since I owe allegiance to the human race, I feel that I should accept a gracious coexistence with the values and attitudes of the surrounding culture without unnecessary confrontation.

I think that our genetic composition is the base from which we live, work, and survive. We can survive without meat, but since we are omnivores that are adapted to survive more easily with some meat, it is best to have some meat. It does not follow that eating as much meat as possible is good. However, if we stray too far from the habits and the environment for which we are genetically best suited, we will either adapt genetically or have a lower chance of survival.

Anonymous said...

(I know this is old but I googled to it and figured I would comment anyway.

You said that a good God can not exist because of human suffering (Holocaust, 9/11, etc). You also said you believe in the cause of the Big Bang (the God of the Universe, in your words), but you can't know anything about him, so you are a deist. It seems that you can know something about him. He is absent and apathetic toward human suffering, just like the Judeo/Christian God. Wouldn't this lead to the conclusion that he is evil?

(I have different presuppositions so I would not personally draw this conslusion, but I was thinking about your comments and it seems you must admit this in order to be logically consistent. Also, I'm not trying to prove you wrong. I am genuinely interested in your response.)

Estolano in San Diego said...

It's an interesting concept- Satan as God's defender in a trial- I may have to buy the book.

I do think Wiesel's prejudice against atheists is alive and well in the United States. I can't imagine someone winning a major political office being an admitted atheist or even an agnostic.

It's interesting also to think of Chemiker's self description as an agnostic deist. I don't think you can really call yourself a deist without believing in an intelligent higher power. Admitting that there was a higher power that caused the big bang really isn't akin to believing in a God as I understand the definition of deist to be.

Good blog. If you don't mind, I may link to it on my own blog.

Anonymous said...

Wiesel is not an aetheist.

Anonymous said...

Can anyboody help me: i need to write aboout one of the characters ASAP but cant get a hold of the book. can someone give me a description of the role of each character and what they symbolize