Tuesday, October 27, 2015

An Open Letter To Atheists Who Have A Problem With Suffering

Dear Atheist,

I'm not writing to pick a fight. I'm writing to provoke thought, and perhaps further dialogue.

I think I can say with fairness that all the atheists I've known or read have had a serious problem with the "problem of pain (or suffering or evil)." I'm guessing you are no different. If you are an atheist and have no problem with the suffering in this world, then go ahead and push along. I won't be offended.

When atheists lay their problem with suffering at the feet of Christians, the argument tends to go something like this:

If the God of the Bible exists, he is said to be all-powerful and all-loving. And yet, there is horrific suffering in this world. How can this be?
Is God not all-powerful? Is he unable to put a stop to all suffering?
Is God not all-loving? Does he not want to put a stop to all suffering?
If such atrocious and gratuitous suffering exists in this world, then either God is not all-powerful, not all-loving, or (your conclusion of choice), God does not exist.
The presence of such suffering and pain is a problem, you say. I agree. It is a problem. A big one. Theists of all sorts -- not just those who embrace the Bible -- have wrestled with this problem for millenia.

The problem, however, is this: only those who believe in a personal deity are allowed to have a problem with suffering. You atheists actually disallow yourselves this problem. And yet, you keep playing this card. Not a few outspoken atheists who recount the path they took to atheism include the problem of suffering as a key influencing factor.

Do you feel the thickness of the irony? The fact that you have a problem with suffering is the result of something very anti-atheistic. There is a problem with the problem you have with suffering. 

If you are an atheist, you believe there is no G/god. If you believe there is no God, then you believe we live in an impersonal, naturalistic universe. In other words, there is no personal, super-intelligent, super-powerful being behind the creation of this Universe. As such, there is no ultimate design or purpose for all that exists. Leaving aside the question of the origin of matter, you believe that all that exists on earth, including we humans and all we experience, came about by means of impersonal forces (like time, chance, random mutations, natural selection, etc.).

If we live in a world guided by random chance and natural selection and the survival of the fittest, why be surprised or bothered when powerful homo sapiens exterminate millions of other homo sapiens they deem inferior? Why does Hitler's rule bother you? Why does it seem so wrong? Why is it problematic? Isn't it natural? At least you have to say it's to be expected. It's simply humans acting out their evolutionary impulses. But it bothers you. What do you make of that feeling? Is it meaningful? Is it evidence of evolutionary weakness...or progress? Who's to tell? The one who "wins"? What if your crusade to rid the world of the intellectually inferior race of believers-in-God fails? Does that mean you are the evolutionary weak?

If this is a cold, impersonal, mechanistic world and female homo sapiens or young homo sapiens get chewed up in the cold, impersonal gears of sexually predatory behavior by more powerful male homo sapiens, why does that bother you? What did you expect? This is an impersonal universe that came about by impersonal forces, right? Of course the strong eat the weak. Of course male Australian redback spiders are, more often than not, eaten by the female after they copulate. Of course cannibalism happens. Of course genocide happens. What did you expect? It’s called natural selection. It’s called "survival of the fittest." It’s called "might makes right" (because there really isn't a transcendent "right," right?).

Consider also the havoc wrought by natural disasters. Why does the suffering that comes about seem unfair or wrong? Why are you so angry with the God in whom you do not believe? Does your sense of fairness and injustice against us helpless humans merely betray your evolutionary weakness? Again, are those judicial sentiments to be deemed evolutionary progress? How would you know? Who is the arbiter of such questions?

Maybe the Adolf Hitler's and conscience-less serial killers are harbingers of a more highly evolved human race. Maybe they are the most human humans. How does that thought hit you? Does it bother you? And yet, their behavior seems to be very unsurprising if cold, impersonal forces govern the universe and have gotten us this far.

The fact that you have such a problem with suffering is a problem. It's incompatible with what you believe to be true. The fact that suffering bothers you should bother you. You are not being consistent. Do you really believe there is no G/god? Maybe you are a nominal atheist. Maybe you should stop carrying your card.

You lay the problem of suffering at the feet of theists and Christians. Fair enough. But it seems a bit disingenuous. I lay at your feet the problem of your problem with suffering. Your problem with it betrays what you really believe.

I understand there are probably many reasons for your atheism. I am not claiming this is the only one. What I am saying is that when you bring up this issue, you lay it at our feet and say (something like), "If there is this much suffering in the world, how can there be a G/god?!" But why does that seem like such strong evidence in your favor? Because suffering is so intolerable to you?

Why is suffering so intolerable to you? Why haven't you accepted it? Why do you rage against it? That reaction only makes sense if there is some design and purpose for this world that appears to be short-circuiting when we suffer.

I can understand that you want the God who is "guilty" of all this pain, dead. I understand that if you could, you would kill him. And since you can't, at least you can "believe" he doesn't exist. That's the best you can do.

If there is no personal God in whose image we are made, from whom our emotional and judicial sentiments arise regarding human dignity and the evil of evil, then, ironically, we lose the opportunity to have a problem with suffering. If you pull the plug, your saw stops cutting. If you believe there is no God, you aren't allowed to declare suffering metaphysically or morally problematic.

And yet the stubborn facts remain. You don't live like a consistent atheist. Some have been courageous enough to be fairly consistent. They sound something like this (Bertrand Russell, the famous atheist philosopher):
That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built. (Free Man's Worship)
Any "Amen's"?

I believe atheism is a form of suffering -- self-imposed, yet real, suffering. What is it like, for intellectually honest and consistent atheists, to have to suppress the appropriate outrage at evil and suffering, and coldly, impersonally call that evil and suffering natural?

Woody Allen, who has described himself as a "militant Freudian atheist," gave voice to some of that suffering like this (“Adrift Alone in the Cosmos,” NY Times, 10 Aug. 1979):
More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray (?!) that we shall have the wisdom to choose correctly. I speak, by the way, not with any sense of futility, but with a panicky conviction of the absolute meaninglessness of existence.
May I end by posing some intentionally rhetorical questions? I'm most certainly not trying to force-feed you any spiritual placebo pills. I'm just asking that you honestly consider an alternative worldview.
  • What if the thing that brought about all this pain and suffering in the first place was the desire to be god, to determine for ourselves what is good and evil, for no one else to set those boundaries for us? If you saw off the branch upon which you sit, you will inevitably crash to the ground. Why then rage at the tree for growing that branch up so far in the air?
  • What if godlike control and invulnerability are really what you want? What if you hate that you are so vulnerable; that you can't remove all the evil that threatens you and those you love? Is that why you try to condemn and execute God -- for not preventing or removing all of the pain and suffering, on your terms, according to your timing? Is it because you know, deep down, that the evil out there, lurking the shadows, just might eat you up...and you're scared? Or, is it the roaring maw that sometimes emerges from the shadows in your soul that scares you even more?
  • What if what you really need is your desire-to-be-god impulse to die?
    • What if, -- please consider this for just a moment -- what if your cosmic treason, that deserves to be crushed, led God to humble himself and take on human flesh and be crushed in your place? And what if the God who was not guilty of perpetrating all this pain willingly suffered and literally went through hell on earth so you could be healed and given ultimate security -- a love and a hope that can't be severed or killed by suffering or death?
    • And what if one day -- after this God has patiently given merciful opportunity for innumerable rebels to be reconciled to him -- what if he will then return to end all suffering and pain and set the world to rights and make all things new?
    If these things are true, then there just might be an explanation, and even a purpose, for all the pain and suffering. The problem of suffering is still a problem. No rose-colored religion glasses here saying pain don't hurt. But if these things are true, then God took our problem, and made it his.

    Yours sincerely,

    Chris McGarvey

    No comments:

    Post a Comment