God On Trial?

by Dr. Sam Heath

In one sense, there has never been a time in human history that God has not been on trial though it most often is confused with "worship." However, such worship is most properly viewed from the perspective of Emerson and his disciple Thoreau who rightly accused those in the churches of "blaspheming God in prayer, song, and sermon." My own experience of many years in the churches, including those supplying a pulpit, confirms the accusation. To my own deep regret, I was among the "blasphemers" though much of religious beliefs might charitably be called "earnest nonsense."

My defense is that I was raised to believe the things I did by people that loved me and certainly meant me no harm. Does this justify the preaching of myths and superstitions in the name of God? No. But I believed them and preached them, just as orthodox Jews and Moslems believe and teach the hating of each other in the names of Jehovah and Allah, making my own contribution to a "demon-haunted world" by doing so.

It is the most difficult of tasks to separate belief from knowledge. For the religious, especially, the two are confused. But if you study the Scopes Trial, you get a good idea of the difficulties as well as an understanding of what it is to put God On Trial.

The trial of teacher John Scopes (known both as the Scopes and the Monkey Trial) in Dayton, Tennessee began on July 10, 1925. It was assured notoriety because of the lawyers involved: William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow.

The ACLU had tendered an offer to support any teacher that would violate the Tennessee law forbidding the teaching of evolution in the schools. The governor signed this measure that made it unlawful to teach any theory of the beginning of life but the Biblical doctrine of divine creation into law on March 13, 1925. As you can see, it didn't take long for it to be challenged and brought to trial.

Bryan and his supporting fellow Bible believers did indeed call the ensuing event a "putting of God on trial." The trial was a main element of Nobel-winning author (though he refused the Pulitzer for Arrowsmith) Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry in which Christians horsewhip the character Frank Shallard nearly to death for doubting the Bible and entertaining ideas of evolution. And despite the many advances in science, in spite of the Monkey Trial and the work of people like Sinclair Lewis, this absurd law in Tennessee was not repealed until 1967!

Whatever the religion, each does in fact put God on trial. Not all religious views, most in contradiction with each other, can be correct. Though the calling of anything "correct" that is only a matter of belief is an error. And in the process of making claims for a particular religious belief in contradiction to others, the claimants do put God on trial.

Of course, disease, death, disasters are the "work of God" according to religious people. And in attempting to make him responsible is to put him on trial. Every act of violence, according to the religious, is "the work and will of God, Jehovah, Allah, Vishnu, and so on" though many attempts to "explain" it differently such as the distinction of the "permissive will of God" have been made through the often tortured and agonizingly convoluted apologetics of believers.

"Scriptures" of various kinds throughout history would make God a bloodthirsty tyrant and despot. In the Jewish Scriptures, the Old Testament to Christians, God commanding the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child in Canaan is a good example. One of my "favorites" is found in I Kings chapter eighteen where Elijah joyfully slays the false prophets (either 450 or 850 depending on how you read the account. Whichever, it was not a good time to be on the wrong side of Elijah).

Another real favorite is Psalm 137:9 Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones. The Israelites never did hold with the Babylonians and there was a certain holy delight in thinking of smashing out the brains of their babies against rocks. The imprecatory Psalms are replete with such holy delights. Not to mention the Apocalypse, which would make fun reading for the Marquis de Sade.

In any event, when the song Give Me That Old Time Religion is sung I can't help thinking of the wholesale slaughter of people commanded by the god of some religions. Nor can I help thinking of his approval of things like polygamy and slaveholding, the stoning of people to death because some particular day was "holy" to Jehovah.

No doubt the murders throughout history, and still ongoing, in the name of God are "God's will" as well to the religious' including the burning of "heretics" and "witches" by good Christians' apparently the bloodlust of God wasn't satisfied by the numbers murdered in his name before Jesus became the excuse for "holy executions." Many at the time of the Scopes Trial were more than willing to do murder in the name of God and Jesus for the sake of the "holy integrity" of the "Holy Scriptures"' and they still are. So it is that Jews and Christians are more than willing to abrogate the commandments concerning "idol worship" by making their "holy books" such idols of worship.

Didn't both North and South have the will of God on their side during the Civil War? Didn't the religious of the period put God on trial during this fratricide and attempt at national suicide? But as Lincoln so well pointed out, God's favor and will might not have been on the side of either those in the North or the South.

But to quote Emerson (Heroism) on the subject:

The disease and deformity around us certify the infraction of natural, intellectual and moral laws, and often violation on violation to breed such compound misery' insanity that makes (a man) eat grass; war, plague, cholera, famine, indicate a certain ferocity in nature, which, as it had its inlet by human crime, must have its outlet by human suffering. Unhappily almost no man exists who has not in his own person become to some amount a stockholder in the sin, and so made himself liable to a share in the expiation.

At this date one hundred and sixty years after Emerson penned these words, I have the advantage of seeing somewhat further into the wisdom with which he wrote better than he could have known. In the capacity of such a "seer" I have invited readers to consider "nature red in tooth and claw" as well. For it is nature itself that would bring God to trial if the beliefs of the religious were adhered to strictly.

It was Emerson that put the case so succinctly. And to paraphrase: The view of the "righteous" is that "sinners" get their reward now, the righteous in the hereafter. The righteous would sin now and be rewarded if they had the courage to do so. But they will aid and abet the sinners by withholding their efforts for justice now, by going to church and blaming God for the lack of justice in the world, bringing him to trial and accusing him for such a lack of justice and judgment now.

It does seem grossly unjust for the righteous to blame God and put him on trial for what is patently our responsibility. It is our responsibility, not that of God, to confront evil and overcome it. And it does seem God is used and abused on the part of "good people" as an excuse for not doing so.

But I would far rather see God in the role of Creator in the sense of brush and canvas, of hammer and chisel, the wheel and the clay, attempting through trial and error to bring about beauty and order; for even if the flight of the butterfly seems erratic, there is a pattern of reason to be discerned in its flight if known only to itself by instinct.

I have asked myself if such an "instinct" might not be an attribute of God? And if so, why should God ever be brought to trial by the illogical assumptions and beliefs of the religious? Though I would argue with God why he would put such a dainty and beautiful bloom on the cruel goat's head sticker plant, the bane of all barefoot children' trial and error? I do wonder?

If there be required expiation of sin, should not the guilt and expiation be solely the responsibility of the perpetrators? And as Emerson tried to explain, shouldn't it be a whole society when it is the "body of believers" that is in error, even if that body is composed of an electorate that refuses to be responsible in electing honorable people to positions of authority over them?

It is proverbial and commonplace that a person will die for the sake and in the cause of a lie. We in the West deride the ignorant superstitions of the fanatics of the Moslem religion who become "suicide bombers." But in so doing, we choose to ignore the same kind of fanaticism among those that call themselves "Christian" or Jews that are willing to kill those that threaten their religious beliefs. In all of this religious hatred and prejudice, it does not seem to occur to the multitude of such believers that they continually put God on trial before all of humanity.

To call anything "holy" or "sacred" and to commit murder or wage war over such things is a contradiction at best, and insane at the worst! And to commit actual atrocities in the name of God is to put him on trial, to pray for the destruction of those that are only enemies because they disagree with your own religious beliefs is to put God on trial.



Samuel D. G. Heath, Ph.D.

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