As a secular humanist, I no longer believe there’s an omnipoent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being watching out for me and orchestrating every event to ensure it works out for my ultimate good. This means I can no longer look at everything that happens to me as good; there really are some bad things that come my way, things I wish hadn’t happened, things that have no silver lining, no redeemable value. This doesn’t mean I can’t seek to make the best of a difficult situation, to “turn lemons into lemonade,” so to speak. It doesn’t mean I can’t use my experiences of adversity to comfort others who are going through similar adversity. It doesn’t mean I can’t allow hardships to soften my pride and sharpen my character. It just means I can accept the reality that life would have been better if certain things hadn’t happened or that some things just suck, end of story.
On the downside of this secular realism, I can no longer take emotional comfort in the certainty that every difficulty I face has a reason that will make it worthwhile in the end--indeed, that will make it so that life will be ultimately better when anything unimaginably awful happens than if it had never happened.
On the upside of this secular realism, I have more of an impetus to redress wrongs in this life. We have some Christian friends whose twenty-something son died several days after the mast of his sailboat struck a 14,000-volt power line above a Minnesota lake, necessitating the amputation of his legs before he eventually succumbed to the effects of electrocution. As a father, I can’t imagine anything worse happening than to lose my son in his prime like this. If this were to happen to me as an unbeliever, I would see it as purely and utterly bad, and I would not seek any silver lining in the incident; rather, I would investigate why a 14,000-volt power line was hanging so low over a lake where sailboats roam, and I would sue to the maximum extent of the law whoever was responsible for it--not to profit financially but to help prevent such an unmitigated tragedy from ever happening again. I would not be able to bring back my son from the grave, and I wouldn’t have the comfort of knowing I could see him again in glory, but the least I could do would be to take measures to see that this couldn’t happen to anyone else. I would not allow Christian meekness, forgiveness, or the desire to be a good Christian example to get in the way of my pursuing like a bulldog as much justice in this matter as the law permits.
Several years ago I was discussing with a Christian the issue of slavery in the Bible. Unlike some disingenuous apologists who deny that the Bible supports slavery (see, for example, Exodus 21:20, Leviticus 25:42-46), this individual acknowledged it but reasoned that this life is so short that, despite the hardships of slavery, it’s like a drop in the bucket compared to eternity, which is really what matters in the end. I can’t think of a better example than this of the downside of seeing a silver lining in everything: it dulls our sense of justice, potentially opening the door for us to accept as God’s will all manner of carelessness, inhumanity, or injustice, or at least to give us less incentive to fight for redress.
I can’t say for sure, but I wonder if this “all things work together for good in the end” outlook is at least partly responsible for the historical tendency of fundamentalists to be more concerned with doctrine and evangelism than with social justice. Note that I don’t have this view of all believers; moderate and liberal Christians (and, to be fair, some fundamentalists) have championed the rights of slaves, women, and racial and other minorities, but historically it was the fundamentalists who fought to keep slavery in the South, to prevent women from voting or from working outside the home, to fight environmental protections, and to maintain the status quo of racial segregation and economic inequality, all the while championing fundamentalist doctrine, evangelism, and the inerrancy of the Bible. But if this life is the only one we have, and if this earth is our only home, and there’s no supernatural being to make everything work out in the end, then we are responsible in this life for seeking justice, for redressing wrongs, and for preserving this planet for our posterity, knowing there is no “new heaven and new earth” coming to wipe our mess clean.
No, not everything works together for our good--neither for believers not for unbelievers--but I hope we can all agree for the need to work together to improve the world we share, to reduce the things that don’t work for our good and to increase the things that do.