When the news of the terrorist attacks in Paris reached New York where I currently live, I started receiving many touching messages from my American friends. I realised that as a French citizen now living in New York, I was very much the lens through which they see my people, and I was pleased to see how much they cared for me and hence for France. I was also pleased to announce to them that my family and friends in Paris had been spared, but that my country had been seriously hit.
This is a time to grieve and process events emotionally, but as a theologian, I was also asked how, intellectually, these attacks would be processed in such a secular (and thoughtful) culture as that of my beloved France. In fact, within hours of the attacks French atheist and Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Joann Sfar attacked religion and disparaged the '#PrayForParis' hashtag that soon emerged.
The way I see it, there are only a couple of ways to think through this evil.
The only option for French atheists (among whose ranks I used to count myself), is to maintain that there isn’t really any such thing as evil. When one denies the existence of God as a transcendent creator of the universe who ordains how humans ought to live their lives, one is left only with conflicting opinions about what individuals like and dislike. If there is no God then there is no objective truth about the good and the bad.
In the end, to deny God is to deny objective good and with it, objective evil. In fact, this is the route explicitly taken by popular French atheist philosopher André Comte-Sponville. In his book L’esprit de l’athéisme, he says: ‘good and evil do not exist in nature, and nothing exists outside of it’.
The French atheist contends that the only morality that exists is a human construction, and one must keep in mind that it is ‘illusory’. He concludes: ‘This is what I call relativism, or rather, its positive side: only reality is absolute, every judgment of value is relative.’
To be a consistent atheist one must affirm that the Islamic terrorists in Paris didn’t do anything 'wrong'
In all likelihood, few ordinary French atheists think about where their denial of God leads as thoroughly as Comte-Sponville impressively does. But in reality, to be a consistent atheist one must affirm that the Islamic terrorists in Paris didn’t do anything 'wrong', as such. They only acted out of line with our personal preferences, (and in line with theirs). If there's no ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, that's all we are left with.
Maybe that way of reasoning about good and evil strikes you as crazy. 'Of course the terrorists were wrong and their acts were evil' the atheist says. I agree, which is why I think the reality of the evil we just witnessed makes atheism so implausible.
Instead, we all sense there is something really, deeply, objectively evil about this. That intuition can only be true if there is a transcendent God, a moral lawgiver, who gives good and evil a moral reality. Even André Comte-Sponville himself, in the very same book, says that one of the reasons he doesn’t believe in God is that men are too evil, (which presumably isn’t worthy of a divine being’s creation)! I leave it up to Comte-Sponville to harmonise those two beliefs, but for now, let’s just note that denying the existence of God, and with it the objectivity of evil, isn’t attractive.
But of course, maintaining the existence of God in the face of such evil isn’t without its difficulties. If he exists and is perfectly good, why didn’t God prevent this evil? More than that, on the Christian view, God isn’t just passively letting history unfold - he is in providential control of all that happens, both the good and the bad. While my sweet Paris is grieving, the Bible states that God 'works all things according to the counsel of his will' (Eph 1:11)
What this means is that the biblical God, if he exists, must have righteous and just purposes behind even the evil we witness. That is both an entirely challenging and entirely hopeful thought! Of course what these purposes are we rarely get to know, but the positive side is that one can trust that God is good even when it hurts, and one can truly ‘#PrayForParis’, knowing that God is in control and can in fact bring justice in response to our deepest longings.
Hearts are heavy, and thinking objectively is difficult when it hurts
In the end, neither option is easy. Hearts are heavy, and thinking objectively is difficult when it hurts. But ultimately, as the French face this seemingly purposeless evil, one side must deny that it’s evil, and the other must deny that it’s purposeless.
As a former-atheist-turned-Christian-theologian there’s no hiding which option I favour. I’m hoping enough Christian believers will be found in France, ready to offer the biblical option, so that my fellow French would, as I did years ago, find life in Christ, repenting of their sins and placing their trust in Jesus. In a culture that is so post-Christian that the Gospel is almost entirely foreign and hardly ever proclaimed, I say ‘the harvest is plentiful, and the labourers are few’ (Lk. 10:2).
Guillaume Bignon is a French theologian currently living with his family in New York