A meme on an atheist Facebook group showed a picture of a crawling starving black African with the following caption: “People who think that their god grants them special favors, while that same god allows millions of people to suffer and starve, are not only delusional, they’re also especially arrogant, vain, and self-absorbed.”
I asked, “Why do the atheists allow them to suffer and starve?”
Justin replied: “Because we don’t all have the resources to help them. There are atheist foundations trying, plenty of them. They just aren’t as well funded or as old as religious organizations.”
I countered with: “It is no argument against God’s existence that He will not do your work for you.”
A woman named Jennifer continued the argument:
You’re missing the point here, Dmitry. Atheists don’t claim to be treated special because we believe in a higher power. I’ve met plenty of “Christians” who think if God wanted people to have food he would supply them with it.
The point of this meme wasn’t to say the religious are doing a bad job helping world hunger (they are), but to show how arrogant you are for thinking you have food because of your religion.
There is a genuine confusion here. I have food on the one hand because of the conjunction of numerous secondary causes, such as because I live in a capitalist society, because of the human mastery of the material world, because of my own usefulness to fellow men within social cooperation or other people’s charity toward me, and so on.
But as regards the first cause, I may have food to the extent that Jesus’ advise was true and sensible: “So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.” (Mt 6:31-33)
In other words, if you seek only food, then obeying natural laws, including the laws of economics and physics, is both necessary and sufficient for success at finding it.
If, however, you seek “God’s kingdom and righteousness,” then such obedience is only necessary and not sufficient. The promise of Christianity is that even if your main concern is not food but moral perfection, God will still, through whatever sneaky way He invents, help you find food. (What could those ways be? Well, they may take the form of surprising and welcome opportunities to escape danger or succeed financially.)
The important for us point is that, as we can see, prudent conduct is necessary in both cases. For example, it was only a relatively short while ago that people “learned with stupefaction that there is another aspect from which human action might be viewed than that of good and bad, of fair and unfair, of just and unjust,” writes Mises. “In the course of social events there prevails a regularity of phenomena to which man must adjust his actions if he wishes to succeed. … One must study the laws of human action and social cooperation as the physicist studies the laws of nature.” (HA, 2)
The reason why the African in the meme was starving is that one way or another, he failed to provide for himself. Now Jesus indeed fed 4,000 with 7 loaves and a few fish. But the purpose of this miracle was to authenticate Him as God. Miracle-working is not God’s usual MO. The error of Jennifer’s Christian opponents is that they think that God will provide even for those who are uninterested in learning the natural laws and harnessing the knowledge for their own profit. “The economic policies of the last decades have been the outcome of a mentality that scoffs at any variety of sound economic theory and glorifies the spurious doctrines of its detractors,” Mises goes on. “The blame for the unsatisfactory state of economic affairs can certainly not be placed upon a science which both rulers and masses despise and ignore.” (HA, 9-10) In reality, however, such contempt is a major sin, and God does not listen to sinners. It does not matter how much one strives for heavenly glory if he refuses to work and as a result dies from starvation. All divine grace builds on nature. The top will be torn down, if the foundation is corrupted.
Now it may be objected that the African’s plight is not strictly his own fault. Maybe bad government policies in his country have caused a famine. Very well, consider the following: “As he passed by he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him. We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day.'” (Jn 9:1-4)
Each of us is his brother’s keeper. So, do the works of God that Jesus spoke of and gave examples of and worry less about the theological problem of evil.
P.S. Jennifer then is right that the argument she’s heard from some Christians is grotesque. God will not up and “supply” the African with food through some miracle. The African’s miserable condition is not some punishment for a personal sin of his. Access to food is simply conditional on science, technology, capital accumulation, and well, hard work. The purpose of evil is to incentivize (1) human striving for happiness in general and (2) works of mercy in particular. There are failures even in these two, because the incentives are imperfect. There is suffering which does not get corrected. Human progress, making on earth as it is in heaven, is slow and unsteady. Nevertheless, on the whole, the world works, and evil is evidence for rather than against theism.