God is dependable

I heard part of an old Wire Tap the other day, about a family of atheists deciding to have a religious funeral for an atheist relative (for a social reason). They find the church the late atheist relative had once occasionally attended, and talk to the preacher there, who seems very relaxed and human and understanding, including of their atheism – then at the funeral itself he confounds them by shouting about eternal torment and flames of hell. They were angry but too cowardly to confront him, but on Wire Tap the storyteller (Adam Davidson) phones him to ask some questions. They are important questions, which don’t get asked enough. He asked if he had it right – the preacher really believed that people who don’t believe in this god will burn in hell for eternity; the preacher affirmed that he did. So Davidson asked (paraphrasing from memory) ‘If you really believe all that how can you be so calm? You should be screaming at me, telling me to save myself.’ The preacher says he stays calm because it is God who decides. Then the preacher goes off on a little rant, not of the ‘repent or burn’ variety but of the ‘how do atheists do it?’ variety. He can’t even conceive of it – it must be so bleak – if this is all there is – with no one to turn to. Davidson says, mildly, ‘We have each other.’ The preacher says, in a pitying voice, ‘But human beings are not…dependable.’

And at that point I turned it off, in the familiar exasperation. Now I kind of wish I’d heard him to the end, partly because I’m curious whether Davidson managed a decent response.

But what interests me about the preacher’s view is how incredibly back to front it is. Oh poor atheists, with no one to turn to, lucky theists, having dependable old God to turn to.

But what are they turning to? What is this dependable God that theists love and worship and can turn to? It is one that burns people forever because they don’t believe there is such a god. It is a monster – a worse monster than any human has ever been. It is grossly unjust, and cruel to a degree that we can’t even wrap our heads around. Yet the preacher thinks this God is a source of comfort and the absence of it is so bleak that he can’t even imagine doing without it.

That’s a terrible thing, properly considered. Most people who believe in God believe in a god of that kind, and they love and worship it. That’s both tragic and frightening.

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