Grove Patterson on Faith

Grove Patterson, a once well-known newspaper man, writes about faith.

I was fortunate to be friends with the great psychologist Seymour Sarason, who said that when he came to the end of his days, he knew it would make him sad to reflect that there were still books in the Yale University library that he hadn’t read. I have the same frustration; there are just more good books than there are hours in a life. And because so many more are published each year, good books of the past I might enjoy are forgotten and therefore I will never even hear of them.

There is however one redeeming pleasure in this situation, which is the discovery of a promising book of which we have never heard, even if it was popular in its day (The comment thread generated at RBC when I posted about reading The Worm Ouroborus remains one of my favorites). I found just such a book yesterday, oddly enough on my own bookshelf. I assume some visitor left it at our home years ago.

It’s an autobiography entitled I Like People by a Midwestern newspaper editor named Grove Patterson. The inside front cover is autographed with “Mitch, I like you too — Grove”. Never having heard of Patterson, I went on line and found out that — gasp — he has no Wikipedia entry. But there are apparently some schools named after him. I did though find an short essay on faith which was intriguing enough to make me want to dig into his autobiography:

“If God is so good”, my friend asks me, “why does He permit evil in the world which He created?” It is a stupid question. Man, from the day he developed into man, was given freedom of choice. Otherwise he would have been a mere puppet of God. With that freedom of choice, he has gone on through the ages, making bad choices. He is responsible for evil in a universe which God created. He has violated- natural law. He has made a mess of things but the more he senses his privilege of contact with the Supreme Power, the better he will do, the less evil he will produce.

Because I believe the universe is governed by natural law, I think it useless to pray that natural law be set aside for anyone’s personal reason. Devout men sometimes pray for rain, but rain will come only when proper atmospheric conditions bring it about. Men seek by prayer to have their loved ones spared from the consequences of the violation of natural law. Such prayer is not the prayer for courage and for strength, in which I believe. The most pious person is as likely to be burned to death with his family in a tragic fire or destroyed at the railroad crossing as is the most worthless tramp.

Rest of Patterson’s essay here.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

18 thoughts on “Grove Patterson on Faith”

  1. We don’t have freedom of choice because of any God. We have it (or the illusion of it) just as all sentient animals have it. Positing a god makes people feel better, but the simplest explanation for observed evidence is that we are of no importance whatsoever to any creator or governor of the universe. God doesn’t have to be evil (although the Judeo-Christian one is a torturer unworthy of worship), but She doesn’t give a crap about us, nor is She obligated to.

    1. Well, Dilan, that opinion is not yours alone. Over the years it has been shared by some pretty bright folks. OTOH, there have been some other bright folks who held very different views. And certainly, as the sub-title of this blog states, when there is no fact in dispute, opinions may differ.

      BTW, when I am stating my opinion that I know to be controversial, I tend to avoid absolute statements.

      Excepting, of course, when dealing with Republicans. 😉

        1. Dilan,
          You’re coming dangerously close to an ad hominem here. “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”

    2. We can state with confidence that the Universe is self aware. This is due to the undeniable fact that WE and hence our awareness are a subset of the Universe.
      If the universe is self aware then what possible harm can come from choosing to address it by a name? It’s quite possible to believe in God without believing in magic. In fact I highly recommend it.

      1. “We can state with confidence that the Universe is self aware. This is due to the undeniable fact that WE and hence our awareness are a subset of the Universe.”

        This is a near-textbook example of the fallacy of composition.

        1. You misunderstand me. I’m not claiming anything about the Universe other than the fact that it contains self-aware beings. The fallacy comes from trying to pretend that our awareness exists OUTSIDE the world that we observe.

  2. It’s nice to know that everything’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

    I’m sure Grove Patterson was quite well satisfied with his homily, which puts him in the company of eminent theologians from St. Augustine to Leibniz to C.S. Lewis; but it still makes no sense. If evil and suffering are due to the inevitable operation of natural law, who made the natural law? Was an omniscient God unaware of the consequences of the world He created? Did a benevolent God not care? And if evil is due to the misuse of free will, who is responsible for the life experiences and mental illness that guided the evil choices? The Sandy Hook killer didn’t have more free will than you and I; he undoubtedly had much less.

    And a very merry Bah! Humbug! to you too, Keith Humphreys.

    1. Keith B wrote “And a very merry Bah! Humbug! to you too, Keith Humphreys”

      From my recent post on the zero sum view of life, the full text of which I strongly recommend to you.

      A woman at a party says that she likes the new Italian restaurant in town. She and her husband ate there last week and really enjoyed it. Before she can finish her account, a guy overhears and snorts “HA! The BEST Italian restaurant in town is X” and then goes on to explain in boring detail why his favorite Italian restaurant is in all ways superior to the one she liked. The woman lapses into stunned silence.

      1. Keith Humphreys wrote: “From my recent post on the zero sum view of life, the full text of which I strongly recommend to you.”

        Thank you, I read it when you first posted it. The “Bah Humbug” was self-mocking recognition that at least some reference to the Christmas spirit was needed.

        Anyway, the commenter who noted that the passage is deistic has a good point. If you think that the operation of natural law governs everything, you don’t really believe in a God who is directly involved in the Universe. Miracles are ruled out, for instance. But asking why a benevolent God permits evil seems to presuppose a personal God, so the deist’s answer isn’t really responsive. It certainly doesn’t explain why it’s a “stupid question.” The explanation doesn’t extend to why natural law isn’t more congenial to the happiness of the creatures who are subject to it. Of course if your God isn’t all powerful, or His purpose isn’t necessarily benevolence towards His creation, there’s nothing further to explain. In that case, though, you haven’t really answered the question, you’ve just denied its premise.

        The free will argument may be harder to dismiss, although its pattern is the same as the other. Supposedly human evil is a regrettably necessary consequence of this glorious gift of free will that we’ve been given, just as natural evil is a consequence of the benefits of natural law. What the argument doesn’t acknowledge is the degree to which bad choices are the result of the absence of free will, not its exercise. Cruel, malicious, and destructive behavior is often due to prejudice; or ignorance; or mental illness; or maybe environmental factors like lead, whose reduction over the past few decades may have been partly responsible for the decline in crime rates. These factors may not completely eliminate an individual’s free will, but they surely do diminish it. How much evil is done by people who are really in command of their own free will? I’d say it’s rather rare. So if God values free will so much, He ought to have given us more, rather than arranging the world to take it away at every opportunity.

        Unfortunately Mr. Patterson is no longer available to defend his view that the problem of evil is a “stupid question.” Maybe some of the people here can take a shot at it.

      1. There’s a new development (to me, at least) in theology: Apatheism, “acting with apathy, disregard, or lack of interest towards belief or disbelief in a deity.” As an agnostic by reason and an atheist by belief, I find apatheism the best practice in everyday life of what I believe. So many atheists let their opinions about gods rule their lives. What an odd idea of freedom!

        I mention this in connection with Stoicism because the best early expression of apatheism I know of is Marcus Aurelius on gods, the afterlife, and their relevance to living a virtuous life.

        1. I’m not sure why the word isn’t “Apathotheism,” from the Greek a-, pathos, theos, and -ismos. But the form you have seems to be the one that’s in use.

  3. The argument does not deal with the problem of animal pain – including that of long-extinct dinosaurs. John Hick, in his fine Evil and the God of Love, has a shot at this too.

    A Deist theodicy without Incarnation – “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself” – looks as infeasible to me as the painless kindergarten cuddly-toy universe supposed by God’s critics as the alternative to the one we have, governed by natural laws, including natural selection and predation.

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