Privilege of birth: Atheism vs. Divine Providence

Last Sunday, I pointed out that there will be some who enter into this life in a more privileged condition, whether as regards health, or wealth, or access to education, or nationality, or social standing, or any other factor that bears upon the goods of this world. I suggested that this was not inherently bad, even if sometimes there is some past injustice that will be involved. Indeed, that past injustice cannot automatically be regarded as the decisive factor.

Suppose a man acquires vast wealth through unjust means and then passes that wealth on to his heirs. Next, suppose that over the course of several generations his heirs increase that wealth (by just means) and make good use of that wealth for the upbuilding of society. So, after 100 years, for example, is all the good that has come through that wealth, wrought by people who did not directly share the injustice of their ancestor, to be characterized solely by the injustice of the ancestor? In the end, did it not result that men who were born into privilege on account of an injustice, nevertheless fulfilled well the responsibilities that came with their privilege. They acquitted themselves nobly, even if their forbear was a rascal and a criminal.

Of course, it can go the other way as well. One man, through hard work and honest industry amasses a fortune that he leaves to his children. After his death, though, his children, lacking in gratitude and judging their fortune to be their entitlement, end up either squandering their fortune or abusing the power that it brought them.

Such are the ups and downs of human life.

Now, one thing to observe here is that the atheist, who cannot rightly believe in any sort of providence nor even any benevolent ‘luck’, must despair in the face of these inequalities. He can see in this type of inequality nothing but a sort of cruel impersonality. Actually, that must be how the atheist sees the world and life in general – cruelly impersonal, or impersonally cruel. Human life becomes nothing more than an unending game of ‘King of the Hill’.

The problem goes even deeper. Consider that every single human being is individually, from an atheistic perspective, nothing more than a most improbable accident. Without even considering the accident of human existence itself, the existence of an individual, say Winston Churchill, required the improbable accident that his parents met and united at the right time in the right circumstances so that of the father’s countless sperm the one that would produce Winston fertilized the mother’s ovum. Then between the time of his conception and the completion of his first year there probably any number of close calls (many completely unknown to his parents) that could have put an end to little Winston. The same was true, by the way of Adolf Hitler. The same is true of each one of us. In our conception, birth, and survival, we are each the result of an extraordinary set of coincidences.

From the atheistic perspective the magnification of this improbability of our existence makes life all the more meaningless. Our faith, however, assures us not only that God exists, but that he governs all things by his mighty, wise, and loving providence. This transforms all these accidental circumstances of our individual existence into carefully planned expressions of God’s love, of which we are the personal beneficiaries.

The perspective of divine providence, however, introduces a new perspective on privilege, together with one great equalizer.

The worldly perspective of privilege prioritizes such things as economic and social standing. Since the goal of divine providence is not a person’s temporal well-being, but eternal salvation, those are most truly privileged by birth who enter the world in circumstances that most equip them to recognize and respond to the goodness of God, revealed above all in the salvific work of Jesus Christ. (To be continued)

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.