Gregory Benford is a Nebula winner and a former Worldcon Guest of Honor. He is the author of more than thirty novels, six books of non-fiction, and has edited ten anthologies.
A SCIENTIST’S NOTEBOOK
by Gregory Benford
Evil and Me
Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko asked in his broken English: “You atheist?”
I replied, “It’s more that I hate Him.”
—Memoirs, Kingsley Amis
How can a scientist deal with the huge questions of religious thought?
It all started with experience, as most philosophical positions should. What’s an idea worth if it cannot withstand the rub of the real?
My mother taught English and my father taught agriculture in Robertsdale High in southern Alabama. Except for his three years fighting in the war. My twin brother and I were born in 1941 and sensed that he was gone, and only when he returned in August 1945 did why he went dawn on us.
I recall a big party with much celebration and I asked my father in the 1980s what that had been about. I expected that he would say it was for his return. But he told me it was because the bomb had dropped on Hiroshima and everyone knew he wouldn’t have to go to Japan for the invasion.
He was a forward observer in field artillery, fighting across France, the Bulge, and through Germany to Austria. I believe he was the only of the starting forward observers in his battalion to survive the war, and suspect that his farm boy field smarts made the difference. In 1945 he returned to teaching, developing an agriculture-training program for the whole state. Then in 1948 the Cold War called him with a regular army appointment, which he seized as a way up into a world he had glimpsed in the war. We went with him, first to his training in Oklahoma at Fort Sill (where in 1967 he retired as commandant), then to Japan for 1949–51. Into the world beyond blissful America.
My father served on MacArthur's general staff and we saw the range of Japanese life, hard and strange, with communists rioting in the streets and farmers working the rice paddies only miles away in a fashion unchanged by millennia. With my brother I lay in bed at night in our compound housing and listened to marines firing at communists trying to get inside, and realized that the world was a lot bigger and tougher and darker than sunny Alabama knew.
As the Cold War deepened and its chill winds blew the Benfords to Atlanta in 1952, then Germany in 1954, where I saw the colossal damage wrought by the Big One and the suffering that followed. That shocked me, coming out of my Episcopal upbringing. Both parents had firm religious faith. My brother and I were acolytes in the church and confirmed in formal ceremony in 1954. But my experience in devastated lands meant that more and more I thought about theodicy, or the problem of evil—if God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omni benevolent, then why do bad things happen to good people?
This is the “hellmouth” that can suddenly open before you, for no reason. There are three classical answers: we don’t understand what God’s justice is, and maybe it’s a lesson; or maybe we sinned without knowing it, so are punished; or true mercy is beyond human conception. There’s a crucial scene in Kingsley Amis’s The Green Man that captures these issues. The devil appears to a man taking a bath and simply says humans don’t understand the real issues at all. If God doesn’t halt suffering, he is cruel, and if he can’t he is weak. But maybe the game between God and evil is just more complex than we can fathom. Christ suffered on the cross to no end; maybe he, too, was deluded into thinking it would do any good to man.
Then there’s the free will argument. To be free we must be able to commit error, and from that comes pain. The Bible is full of Godly interventions, though, mostly shielding Jews or murdering their enemies. But…why has that stopped in the face of the Holocaust, etc.? (A televangelist argued recently that the Holocaust was God’s way of getting the Jews back to Israel.) Christianity needs heaven to explain evil and make up for it. Can anyone believe such pain will be made okay at the end time?
And what could heaven be like? Either it’s a place where we cannot sin (no free will) or we don’t want to sin.
But my teenage self couldn’t buy that. If heaven makes up for suffering, why wait? Why not make us suitable Godly companions right now—angels, as it were? This idea bothered me a lot. If heaven allowed continuity between our mortal selves and our states in heaven, why was heaven free of sin? I read Dostoyevsky and found he had the same worry in “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man.”
I came to the conclusion that either God is impotent or evil…or he’s simply nonexistent.
There the issue rested until the 1990s. If nothing else, the reality of death and the experience of losing loved ones punctures even the most gratifying and well-ordered life. My wife, Joan, died in 2002 after a long struggle with kidney disease and cancer. She suffered greatly for years and when the cancer returned she felt it. She told me to tell no one and bore it out. I collapsed two days after her death and left many of the details of her memorial service to our children.
Days later, coming out from an errand onto the street in Laguna Beach around noon, I looked up at our house and mused vacantly about Joan’s schedule, where she would be, calculating if we could meet for lunch—and suddenly saw that she was nowhere now, not in this universe anymore. In such moments the enormity of our lives hammers home. I realized the emotional conclusion of my loss of faith.
Life kept hammering. Three months later my father died. My mother’s faith carried her through. A few months later, as I walked with her through Fairhope, Alabama, where I grew up, we met an old family friend who had not heard the news. He asked how my father was. “Oh, he’s in heaven,” my mother said in a lively voice. But I could hear something darker under it.
In two more years she was gone as well. Indeed, she deliberately ignored an infection, refusing to take the antibiotic her doctor prescribed, and died within a week of sepsis. I believe she wanted to join my father. So religion proved to have a downside I had not foreseen.
Every religion with an afterlife theory has something that survives death or is resurrected—and that gets interpreted as the essence of what it means to be human. Often the strength of faith seems shaky, so you believe you must have the One Truth Religion to which others must convert or go to hell.
But indifference, not doubt, is the greater adversary of faith. The Europeans are in that slow retreat of the Sea of Faith that Matthew Arnold lamented in “Dover Beach.”
As I became a scientist I learned ways of accounting for how strong religion is among us. Through multilevel or group-level selection evolution has given us the many essential genes that benefit the group at the individual’s expense. Some are essential to a social species—genes that underlie generosity, moral constraints, and plausibly, religious behavior. Such traits are difficult to account for, though not impossible, on the view that natural selection favors only behaviors that help the individual to survive and leave more children.
So I now believe that evil isn’t a problem. It’s just a feature of our world. Perhaps many people cannot live meaningful lives without God. But I’m happy to now.
Copyright © 2017 by Gregory Benford