Is He Omnipotent, or Isn’t He?
I am currently reading a fine book by Frank Lambert entitled Separation of Church and State: Founding Principle of Religious Liberty, (2014, Mercer University Press). In the book, Professor Lambert relates how some Bostonians reacted to Benjamin Franklin’s invention of the lightning rod. At a time when most structures were made of wood, this invention had the potential to save many lives (and of course, it still does today). But some Bostonians opposed the use of lightning rods. John Adams wrote at the time that he was alarmed that many religious persons in his home city thought of lightning as part of God’s supernatural arsenal used to punish those who stray from His laws, and that therefore the use of lightning rods interfered with God’s own use of nature, a belief that could prove fatal. To modern day sensibilities the objection to the use of such a life-saving tool may sound a bit silly, but this kind of thinking still exists among the very pious. Consider the case of HIV/AIDS. Particularly at the beginning of the epidemic, there were those who told us that HIV was God’s way of punishing gay people for their “immoral” sexual practices. (Never mind the fact that heterosexual people sometimes contracted AIDS too; when God throws a thunderbolt, sometimes there’s collateral damage). Many of those people opposed funding to find ways to prevent/cure HIV (or even the distribution of condoms to slow its spread) for the same reason that 18th century religious Bostonians opposed the use of lightning rods: because to do so would interfere with God’s display of righteous vengeance.
This raises an interesting issue beyond the dubious morality of allowing others to suffer needlessly in order to facilitate one’s own supernatural beliefs. To wit: is God omnipotent or isn’t He? Devout Jews, Christians and Moslems all believe their respective gods to be omnipotent, don’t they? If God is omnipotent, how could Benjamin Franklin or anyone else prevent Him from exercising His punitive wrath whenever He felt like it? Couldn’t God have prevented Franklin from inventing the lightning rod in the first place? Couldn’t He render all lightning rods inoperable, or at least those belonging to people He wanted to smite? Or couldn’t God simply choose another way to punish the wicked that wouldn’t be foiled by a lightning rod?
When the terrible Sandy Hook school massacre occurred, Mike Huckabee (don’t laugh, he could be our next president) blamed this tragedy on the fact that the American people had “systematically removed God from schools” which begs the question: how? If God is omnipotent, how could mere humans remove Him from anywhere? (I’m reminded of a story related by the late, great, George Carlin, who told of asking his parish priest “Hey Father, if God is all-powerful, can He make a rock that weighs so much that even He can’t lift it? Gotcha there Father!”). By simple definition, isn’t it impossible to thwart the will of an omnipotent being? So if God is omnipotent, why are believers constantly accusing non-believers of thwarting His will? It’s difficult to find an answer to this question, but perhaps at least some of these true believers are not so certain of their beliefs after all. If they truly believed, they wouldn’t worry about the wicked thwarting God’s will, because they would be secure in their knowledge that such a thing is impossible. Can a God be both omnipotent and in need of protection from heretics? I don’t think so. Perhaps the people who are so adamant about the need to protect God from people/practices/beliefs that defy His supposed will are not the ones with the greatest amount of faith, as they would have us believe, but instead harbor grave doubts that they are afraid to give voice to, or even acknowledge privately to themselves? It is my experience that those who shout their beliefs the loudest and try to impose them on others frequently do so in order to hide their own insecurities about those very same beliefs.