To visit a former center of human suffering is to walk into one of atheists’ most significant objections to God’s existence: how can a benevolent God allow such pain. Such thoughts flooded my every step when I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. Stories of children stripped from parents and, on occasion, thrust into the crematoria alive, a Nazi uniform woven out of human hair, and a million other terrors make it difficult even walk without collapsing under the weight of the atrocity.
Today, at a plantation complete with eight authentic slave cabins, I expected to experience a similar sense of nihilistic emptiness. It didn’t linger, though I’m not quite sure why. I ran my hand along the brick that, two hundred years ago, would have been one of the many elements imprisoning human beings solely because of the amount of melatonin in their skin, and I felt sorry, I felt emptiness, but I didn’t find myself thinking, “Why would God allow this?”
Both asking and withholding the question seems to cheapen the experience. Going around asking, “Why does God allow this?” and pointing to things as proof of the nonexistence of God means making every atrocity into a bullet point in a philosophical treatise I’m finding increasingly less meaningful. These awful things that humans do to one another are not fodder for an atheistic screed any more than they are for divine punishment theories. The atheist holds no higher moral ground for rejecting God and saying, “It’s just the way that things are,” then challenging the nearest theist to a debate about theodicy. In the end, neither approach answers the question, because it is merely unanswerable.
I feel this realization, when began developing as I thought about the earthquake in Haiti, represents a theological plateau for me. In the end, for both the atheist and the theist, it matters little what we say when faced with evil, natural or man-made. It only matters what we do.