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Is God another name for chance?

Updated on: 29 June,2020 06:13 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Ajaz Ashraf |

Evidence suggests that the pandemic has strengthened people's faith in God, proving that now more than ever the human mind needs this emotional crutch amidst the incomprehensible situation it is faced with

Is God another name for chance?

India has not had a poll tracking the impact of COVID-19 on our belief system. There have been media reports, though, of people turning the novel Coronavirus into a goddess and propitiating her

Ajaz AshrafThe novel Coronavirus has deepened the faith of the American people in God, evident from the findings of a poll recently conducted by the University of Chicago Divinity School and the Associated Press-NORC Centre for Public Affairs Research in the United States. Of the 86 per cent of Americans who are believers, 26 per cent said their faith in God has grown ever since the Coronavirus began to ravage the world, in contrast to one per cent whose faith has weakened.

Less than one per cent said they no longer believe in God today, but did so earlier. But God gained support of two per cent of Americans who did not believe in him earlier. As many as two-third of believers think the virus is a message from God to humanity: Change or perish. More blacks (47 per cent) than whites (27 per cent) are likely to say that.

We do not know why the faith of some has either weakened or died completely. Perhaps they are shocked at discovering that their God, in whose omnipotence they believed, is disinterested in smothering the virus. For them, God is either callous or he simply does not exist. Could it be that more and more people, like philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, will declare that "God is dead"?

India has not had a poll tracking the impact of COVID-19 on our belief system. There have been media reports, though, of people turning the novel Coronavirus into a goddess and propitiating her. Almost everyone I spoke to thought the pandemic had deepened India's famed religiosity. A friend who recently underwent the COVID-19 test said, "I prayed and prayed and prayed until the test report came." It was negative – which will certainly bolster her faith.

Even the most religious know their prayers alone cannot save them from COVID-19, and that they must undergo medical treatment. They also take the precautions recommended for ensuring they do not get infected. They simultaneously repose faith in both the evidence-based science and God, largely because they have seen some, even without co-morbidities, die despite undergoing the best treatment for COVID-19.

They have also seen many, who were as cautious as they are, contract COVID-19. Presumably, in a moment of carelessness, they touched their mouths with unwashed hands. Or they bumped into an asymptomatic carrier, who exhaled a plume of virus at the time they had momentarily taken off their masks.

Indeed, the factor of chance seems to impinge upon what are the unchangeable laws of nature. Or is what we call chance simply a measure of our incomprehension? Albert Einstein, arguably the greatest scientist of the 20th century, rejected the notion of a God who altered the destinies of people. An interviewer once asked him: Was he then an atheist or agnostic? He replied, "The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds."

Einstein asked the interviewer to imagine a child entering a library stacked with books, arranged neatly, written in different languages by someone whose name he does not know. The child discerns a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books. Einstein said, "That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, towards God. We see a universe marvellously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly."

Viewed from Einstein's perspective, chance is merely a manifestation of our incomprehension, which condemns us to live in confusion. We seek God's intervention to negotiate our confusion. He is destined to live until all the laws of universe become known to us. A question, however, arises: If chance is a function of laws we cannot comprehend, then why do we seek a social and economic transformation of the world?

In the manner of Einstein's child who discerns an order in the arrangement of books, even though he cannot fathom the rules followed to do so, we know, for instance, that thatched huts will get blown away in a cyclonic storm, although some might not. Why? That is because of chance. But what is known to us is that all pucca houses will not collapse unless, say, a tree falls on them.

In today's context, eight people living in a room are more likely to contract COVID-19 than a family of three in a three-room apartment, where physical distancing can be easily practised. It is only rational for us to strive to a level of development where every family can afford to live in a pucca, commodious house. Yet the factor of chance will ensure that some will, nevertheless, fall to the novel Coronavirus.

What we know as chance, from Einstein's perspective, is merely an outcome of the mysterious working of universal laws we cannot comprehend. Unlike the scientist, we treat chance as the conscious working of God, who we think can be petitioned to save us. This provides us hope and lessens our anguish, reasons good enough for many to turn to God for maintaining their sanity and equipoise amid the looming uncertainties of life.

The writer is a senior journalist

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