An Open Letter to Susan Jacoby

Dear Ms. Jacoby,

I read with interest your article “The Blessings of Atheism” in the New York Times this week.  Following the tragedy of the Newtown shootings, you express quite eloquently and personally why you are thankful to be an atheist.

For as you say, “It is a positive blessing, not a negation of belief, to be free of what is known as the theodicy problem.”  Rather than being loaded down in the midst of tragedy with the problem of why an “all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen,” as an atheist you simply sidestep that concern.  Then in a compelling and thoughtful way, in a manner reminiscent (though certainly softer – to me anyway) of the recently departed Christopher Hitchens, you explained how atheists need not shy away from issues of expressing concern during times such as these but instead offer consolation to those in grief.

May I ask you to consider briefly a few concerns I have with the thesis of your article?  I admittedly am writing to you as a Christian pastor.  You may think then my design in addressing you is to score points or ridicule you.  Though you do not know me, please be assured that is not my desire.  I simply “felt” for you and those you are addressing as I read your article, and wanted to respond.  I thought of sending this to you personally, but was sure in the volume of correspondence you receive it would be set aside.  Plus, since your article was public, I thought writing in this forum would allow others to think through the things your article and this letter raise.

First, you have arrived at your worldview because of personal tragedies that have brought home to you the theodicy issue.  You stated that you tell students when asked about your beliefs “that I trace my atheism to my first encounter, at age 7, with the scourge of polio.”  You then tell the very sad story of your young friend stuck in an iron lung for eight years before his death, and how seeing that, combined with adults in your life expressing their own lack of faith in God, lead you to a commitment to atheism.  This story of your friend is indeed tragic, and I can only imagine how difficult it would have been to witness it.  The concern I would raise is that by your own admission it appears you came to your worldview through subjective feelings, not objective observations.   With all due respect, may I point out that this seems to be inconsistent with the atheistic worldview which rather prides itself on being scientific-based and research-oriented?  Perhaps you have established your position in this manner, but after reading your article several times it was appeals to emotion that you used to justify your atheism, not science.

That leads me to my next concern. As an author and researcher, have you ever looked carefully at the theodicy issue as presented not by unbelieving “Cinos” (Christian-in-name-only) such as the childhood priest you mentioned, but by sincere teachers of the Bible?  One whole book of the Bible, the Book of Job, is taken up with theodicy as one man struggles with horrible personal tragedy.   So it is a subject any true Christian has to wrestle through to find answers.   Honest Christians all admit our struggle with it as well, for theodicy has always been a difficult one for us.  In his ConfessionsAugustine wrestled with it like you once did, going on and on with questions such as these:

Where is evil then and whence and how crept it in hither? What is its root and what its seed? Or hath it no being? Why then fear we and avoid what is not? Or if we fear it idly then is that very fear evil whereby the soul is thus idly goaded and racked? Yea and so much a greater evil as we have nothing to fear and yet do fear. Therefore either is that evil which we fear, or else evil is, that we fear. Whence is it then? seeing God, the Good, hath created all these things good.  He, indeed, the greater and chiefest Good, hath created these lesser goods; still both Creator and created all are good. Whence is evil? Or, was there some evil matter of which He made, and formed, and ordered it, yet left something in it which He did not convert into good? Why so then?  Had He no right to turn and change the whole so that no evil should remain in it, seeing He is Almighty? Lastly, why should He make any thing at all of it, and not rather by the same All mightiness cause it not to be at all? Or, could it then be against His will? Or if it were from eternity, why suffered He it so to be for infinite spaces of times past, and was pleased so long after to make something out of it?

Augustine found satisfaction for his questions, and I would encourage you to read him if you have not.  If you would like to read a more modern and thoughtful work that would help to that end, I would recommend Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God.

I also must say to you, as one whose occupation means that I am often called on to comfort people in tragedy, that I do not think you can bring any true consolation to those who mourn.   Oh, you can offer personal concern, hugs, tears, a meal, etc.  But please realize that though your atheism may allow you to ignore the question of “Why?” when other people are traveling through dark valleys, their pain will not let them.

Please be honest, Ms. Jacoby.  Do you really believe that someone suffering through the senseless tragedy of having their child’s life snuffed out by a crazed killer will find help in believing that “our lives have meaning even if they do not regard death as the door to another life”?  That sounds like the platitudes, minus the eternity part, that too many non-thinking Christians offer on their sympathy cards.  So having made that statement about meaning, let me ask you this then.  What was the meaning of a six-year life that was ended when it was mowed down with bullets at school?  Remember that the “dicey” part of the word theodicy means “justice.” Just because you choose to remove God from the equation does not mean you have answered the question.  Where is justice when a suicidal maniac kills children before he kills himself?

In your article you quote Ingersoll, who stated that atheists and agnostics believe it is “impossible for anyone to ‘know’ whether God existed or not.” However, God himself has become involved in the theodicy question with convincing proof.  May I ask you to take an honest look at the cross of Jesus Christ?  We see there that God made himself known by becoming flesh and entering into the sufferings of this world, then showing by his resurrection from the dead his ability to conquer the awfulness of sin and death.  At the cross not only is comfort offered for those who grieve, but the promise of justice that mourning hearts also yearn for.  You see, God the Father understands heartache.  He watched his own Son die.

Ms. Jacoby, you said very confidently that “the dead do not suffer.”  Have you observed this?  By this statement you are making a claim about something that only God himself could know.  Think about that.  When people are truly hurting, adding false and empty solace to the pain creates more despair and confusion, not less.

I hope you may read this.  Please think upon these things.

Sincerely and hopefully,

Barry York

19 Comments

  1. Aaron Sams January 10, 2013 at 11:47 am #

    Barry,

    Great letter. Just wanted to point out a typo in the 3rd paragraph from the bottom to help your letter bear greater weight. “For please be honest, Ms. Jacoby. Do you really believe that someone suffering through the senseless tragedy of having their child’s life snuffed out by a crazed killer will find help in believing that “our lives have meaning even if they do not regard death as the door to another life”?

    I’m guessing you did not plan to start the sentence with the word “for”.

    • Barry York January 10, 2013 at 12:17 pm #

      Thanks, Aaron. I nixed the “for.”

  2. Holly January 10, 2013 at 1:54 pm #

    I wonder why, in an indifferent universe in which no ultimate values exist, we feel the right to assign our own subjective values (which at the basic level are mere opinions) to events like shootings of children. If anything, we should call it a neutral act of a neutral human being living in a neutral universe… and we should definitely stop imposing our religious ideas on the event by calling it evil.
    As a Christian, I am also thankful- that “evil” isn’t just an opinion but that we can identify it with confidence. I’m also thankful those lives lost won’t just fade away into nothingness when they are no longer in the memory of society, or when organic life is utterly extinguished someday. I’m thankful that there really is a true resolution to the problem of suffering and injustice… it isn’t just irrational, wishful thinking.

  3. phtasmagoria January 10, 2013 at 3:40 pm #

    “I also must say to you, as one whose occupation means that I am often called on to comfort people in tragedy, that I do not think you can bring any true consolation to those who mourn.”

    Aside from the entire pompous and arrogant nature of this letter, this quote alone is enough to exemplify how religious attitudes seek to dehumanize “others” so as to prop themselves upon pedestal of morality.

    The letter sounds very loving and is written with a concerned nature, and that seems nice, but it is founded on condescension; and to mention the story of Job in correlation to the Newtown Massacre is plain sick.

    • Barry York January 10, 2013 at 4:29 pm #

      Aside from your, ahem, condescending remarks, I do just want to be clear about your last concern. I’m not sure why you think the story of Job does not correlate here. He lost ten children on one day of horrible violence.

  4. phtasmagoria January 10, 2013 at 8:55 pm #

    You are to be commended for allowing my post to go through.

    I don’t believe there is anything condescending about denoting a person’s need to put down others in order to gratify the self-esteem they gain from being successful in their careers. Your letter paints Ms. Jacoby as incapable of providing “true consolation” because of her Atheism, which is not only an assault on her character, but is a round-about way of marginalizing Atheists as incapable of grappling with complex issues of the human condition.

    As for the Book of Job, the horrible violence you mention is based on a deal in which God instructed the Devil to inflict harm, just to make a point.

    • David John Webber January 11, 2013 at 12:43 am #

      However, from the standpoint of Job, the heartache was just as real as that of the parents in Newtown.

      And as far as marginalizing atheists, whether or not they grasp the complex issues is not the point. The point is: can an atheist offer true and lasting comfort that satisfies the heart to the agonizing questions that arise in situations such as these without ignoring the very problem from which they come.

    • Vic January 11, 2013 at 4:48 am #

      The whole book of Job proves the point that God can turn wickedness, which the wicked people and the Devil Himself were responsible of, into something good for His people and for His glory as He displayed His power and sovereignty over evil. Atheists do not see the ultimate purpose of God in letting pain, suffering, and yes, wickedness, in this world. But the Bible, including the Book of Job, shows that God can turn evil for the good of His people and for His own glory and honor, as one could see ultimately in the suffering and death of His sinless Son, Jesus Christ.

      The story of Job also proves that God’s people are not into serving Him just because of the blessings, as Satan has accused Job of, but because of gratefulness for His grace and mercy for undeserving sinners like Job, and me.

  5. Eric January 11, 2013 at 4:17 am #

    There are just a couple things I’d like to point out. You claim that “God himself has become involved in the theodicy question with convincing proof.” You go on to give overwhelming evidence of this claim by simply asking people “to take an honest look at the cross of Jesus Christ.” This is clearly not sufficient evidence for such an extraordinary claim.

    Secondly, I’d like to address this statement; “Ms. Jacoby, you said very confidently that ‘the dead do not suffer.’ Have you observed this?” Which leads me to ask you, did you observe the crucifixion? The resurrection? Have you observed heaven and hell? No. Thus making your claims equally unsupported by evidence.

    Logic is a wonderful thing, embrace it.

    • Barry York January 11, 2013 at 9:53 am #

      Eric,

      I can answer your first concern by responding to your second one.

      Every day you read accounts in newspapers or history books that you did not observe firsthand, but you accept them based on the eyewitness of others. So though, no, I did not witness the crucifixion or resurrection, many did (more than 500) and several of these witnesses left carefully written accounts of them in the Gospels. It is through careful study of the Biblical writings, which are validated by prophecies written centuries earlier in the Old Testament forecasting these events, that I base my claims.

      Regarding heaven and hell, no, I have not observed them either. Yet Jesus, who created them, has told us what we need to believe concerning them. So just as you might trust an astronaut to tell you what the moon is like, I trust him as the Son of God to tell me about these places where I have never been.

      So regarding your first concern, that is why in my letter I was encouraging Ms. Jacoby and others such as yourself to look at the cross by studying the Bible and teachers of it. I was not trying in the brevity of my letter to offer sufficient evidence but rather point her to where it can be found. What seems illogical to me is that atheists demand proof, but then ignore the very book giving it to them.

  6. Rut Etheridge III January 11, 2013 at 10:29 am #

    Dear Phtasmagoria,

    It seems you’re exempting your words from the category of condescending, but it also seems that they are indicative of that for which you chided Pastor York – a personal belittling of people couched within an argument against ideas they express. I mention this not because Pastor York needs me to rise to his defense :-) nor to be snarky. I mention it because the self-exemption which you’re exercising seems typical of many accusations against Christians who publicly speak to the tragedies of the day, sometimes to counter other commentaries (as did the atheist author of the article in question.) Granted, I wish that some Christians would avoid the televesion cameras and blogs, given what they say and how they say it, but I think that the open letter above is a great example in both tone and content of sincere, substantial and respectful interaction with someone who has commented publicly on tremendously important matters.

    The self-exemption I mention also happens among some proponents of political correctness when they proclaim the value of socio-religious tolerance while spewing verbal venom against anyone who dares to disagree with their definition of that attribute. It’s the same self-exemption claimed by some atheists and agnostics who express offense at the dogmatic nature of Christian claims while they themselves are every bit as unyielding in their unproven, self-referentially justified assumption that God either doesn’t exist or that if He does, He either has not or cannot communicate to us in a manner commensurate with truly reasonable, consistently applied standards of “proof.” Veiled insults are still insults, and veiled dogmatism is still dogmatism.

    Pastor York was simply, and knowing him personally I can attest to this, sincerely expressing his heart’s concern for those on the giving and receiving end of bad advice given at the worst possible times. You may believe that atheistic advice is actually very good advice, and dialogue or friendly debate along those lines can yield helpful, mutually instructive conversation. Isn’t it better for people to challenge the truthfulness one another’s claims, rather than to challenge the personal integrity of the other person in making those claims? If interaction among people with varying beliefs sidesteps the substantial to pursue distracting and disdainful personal diatribe, then what we have is not conversation, but mere catharsis – and unhealthy catharsis at that.

    If you’ve not done so, I’d urge you and any other reader to seriously consider the claims of Christ in Scripture. The Bible is a book which, regardless of your personal feelings about it, is not lacking in rich interaction with the deepest and most perplexing problems humanity faces in every age. Whether it’s the book of Job (my personal favorite book of the Bible), the Psalms, the words of Christ in the gospels as He spoke to mourners in times of great grief (see John chapter 11) – the Bible is replete with some of mankind’s most substantial interaction with heart shattering matters. That interaction comes from and is centered upon – to use a description many atheists and agnostics would surely agree with – one of history’s most influential people – Jesus Christ.

    If giving true comfort in the midst of almost unbearable pain is the goal, then the consolation offered must be based on knowable truth. What we have in discussions between atheists and Christians (and others) are competing claims about knowable truth. Even the agnostic is sure that certain metaphysical realities cannot be known. I know I speak for all the authors and contributors on this blog both in thanking you for your contribution. Let’s all be encouraged toward constructive dialogue along the trajectory of the competing truth claims in question. These are matters too serious and personally significant to treat otherwise. Thank you! And yes, I’m a pastor, too :-)

  7. phtasmagoria January 12, 2013 at 1:48 am #

    Mr. Etheridge III,

    Tones of condescension have their roots, the letter published here being the source. My words are characterizations of what I have read, blended with a little heat as I, too, am an Atheist. To suggest that this letter is not belittling is folly because the comment is clear:

    Susan, you are not fit for consoling because you are an Atheist.

    The comment is an assault for what I’ve already pointed out, but also suggests that Christianity has the market cornered on humanity, that Atheists need not apply. Would it be fair if I said, “This scientific experiment requires a person who knows science, Christians need not apply”? The news here is that, at universities and clinics across the globe, psychologists are perpetually on standby for the job of consoling, and I assure you thousands of them are Atheists. This is aside from the fact that in Atheist families, well, people die there too, and I see no reason to believe they are not capable of consoling each other.

    As for whether or not I have ever considered the Claims of Christ in Scripture, I have, many times over. The Bible is probably the best book for becoming an Atheist that I can think of. What is problematic is that if I were to reconsider, the “Scripture” of which you probably speak of is probably not the same as the scripture of the Catholic Church, the true church of Christ; so which text would you suggest I read? (Please don’t answer that, it’s rhetorical.)

    On pursuing the exchange of constructive dialogue, I wholeheartedly agree; it is much better than open war. With regards to this letter to Ms. Jacoby and the aspect of dialogue, I see it is difficult not to brush upon condescension, personal attack, marginalization and the problem of stereotyping. It would be nice if we could all go through and iron out the wrinkles so human beings could just get along already, but as long as the fundamental nature of religion remains in question, that of its supernatural claim, then there will always be problems. Saying that it’s all in a book is not enough.

    Additionally, though, I see why this site let my comment go through. Ya’ll are are team, pastors and apologists in your way. Nothing like team work to get the job done, and a job well done it was. Peace to you and your staff.

  8. George January 12, 2013 at 2:07 am #

    You lost me at Christian pastor….

  9. D January 13, 2013 at 2:15 pm #

    Briefly, some comments:
    1) The consolation of Christianity goes beyond atheism in that it offers an eternal life after death, free of suffering and in community with God and other people (including potentially family and friends), for whom God has chosen.

    2) Christianity’s only hope for the end to all evil is the return of Christ and the end of this present world. At that time, God separates those whom he has chosen to perfect and live with him eternally from everyone else who are destined for punishment.
    a. I reject the notion that Christianity’s secondary hope to end all evil is to overtake the majority of the current world with Christianity. Christians now and until Christ’s return must strive to coexist gracefully with people of other religions or no religion at all.

    3) The Christian framework of creation and the existence of evil coexist in a manner that requires faith and submission. Does anyone want to have evil or suffering happen to them, even when believing it is truly for their benefit? And if evil and suffering are beneficial in some way, would anyone not choose to produce that same benefit in a different manner if possible? For the Christian, God’s permission of evil requires submission to God’s sovereignty over all things and faith in his care for his people.

  10. msauret January 14, 2013 at 10:04 am #

    This article really embodies the tone of gentle reformation, written with true compassion and a regard for truth without compromise. Well done.

  11. Essentially good? Oops what's this evil gene they talk about. January 15, 2013 at 7:11 pm #

    I would like to point out that the death of Jesus is noted in Josephus’s history. I cannot see how looking at your child and saying to yourself, in a stoic, philosophical way, “well, there goes another piece of dirt. Gee. I really feel like sushi. That mass of cells I bore and raised was good’un.”

    I think it indicates a disease of the head, common to the narccisitic socio-paths who believe all creation and all of man kind are there to serve and amuse themselves.

    As a person who has worked with the elderly, I have watched many final battles with death. I can only describe the end of a life long atheist as a descent into hell, clawing and grappling with an unseen terror; as if it was only the beginning of the end.

    There is a reason we have the expression “Ad absurdum”, connected to logic.

  12. Kip N. Nash January 27, 2013 at 3:16 am #

    96:4-5 For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Check out | HeadHeartHand Blog - January 14, 2013

    [...] An Open Letter to Susan Jacoby Barry York responds to Susan Jacoby’s NYT piece, The Blessings of Atheism. [...]

  2. The Existence of Secular Comfort in Times of Grief: a response to Barry York, concerning Susan Jacoby’s “The Blessings of Atheism” | The Eternal Bookshelf - January 22, 2013

    [...] through blog posts tagged with her name, so see if anyone had written about her book, I came across Barry York’s open letter to Jacoby[1] concerning an article of hers called “The Blessings of Atheism”[2] that was published [...]

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