Suffering, Prayer, and God's Will - negating the excuses for god


The following is a summary of a discussion I had with a theist or two over at Rational Response Squad after I made by story known and opened a discussion on the subject.  I had been feeling that the load of crap served up to vulnerable people at their most painful moments was too crass to ignore as a subject. Deaths and funerals are used as a platform for evangelizing, using people's grief and fear to fill the pews on Sundays. 


I became an atheist during the period that my husband was dying.

Typical Theist Response:  It's too bad that you blame god for your problems and turned away from him. 

I didn't blame god.  Because any god incapable or unwilling to act on the situation was no god that I was interested in.  Once you stop giving credit to god for good things, expecting god to do something about the bad things, and blaming god for the shit that falls, all that's left is you.  You and your decisions.  You have no future.  You have today and it's decisions.  Each day is a gift (as hokey and trite as that sounds).  If I have a chance to reflect on my life before I do die, I want to be able to look back on a life that my children can be proud of.  And one that will contribute to their well-being.  Does that count as atheist morality?   


Typical Theist Response: You must be asking why this happened.  Why is important.  There must be a reason it happened, though we cannot presume to understand it. But blaming god is wrong because of free will.  People may be still responsible for this happening as a result of their action or inaction. 


In my late husband's situation, there was almost no chance that anyone would find a cure to his cancer, as it was extremely rare, fast and unusual.  I can wish there had been a cure.  But I would not 'blame' anyone else's action or inaction for his troubles.  I had to think about it in terms of that he had an earlier expiry date than most of us.  Basically he had a self destruct mechanism, which was likely there from when he was born.  The surgeon did all he could to help in four surgeries.  We used all the recommended therapies.  There truly is noone to blame.  And turning myself in knots trying to find someone to be the recipient of 'blame' seems to be the basis for much of the long mourning process.  By coming to terms with the futility of that line of thinking, I found a lot of peace.

As far as taking responsibility, I think it is only of any use to dwell on the things we can do today.  If I have done something I am not proud of, I can try to make reparations.  If there's nothing I can do to rectify my failing or it affects noone but myself, then wallowing in guilt or finding a god balm for that guilt is unhealthy. 

I think most of the need to place blame comes from feelings of personal guilt, whether reasonable feelings or unreasonable ones. I could have easily convinced myself that God took him from me because I wasn't committed enough to God and I loved my husband too much.  How unhealthy would that be?  And yet many people tie themselves in knots in their grief looking for the 'why'.  It's a trap. 

I am familiar with CS Lewis' argument about pain, suffering and the existence of god.  I skimmed his defense of god, denying that a god who exists is responsible to alleviate suffering.  I threw it in the pile with the other tripe that spent more literary effort defending god than giving me any helpful way of seeing my situation.  All this effort was spend defending god in the face of suffering.  I guess I decided god had enough defenders.  I would not be among them anymore.  My loyalty to that 'faith' was done.


Typical Theist Response: Why did you stop believing in god?


Once I allowed myself to open my mind just a little and start reading things not on the 'approved reading list', I started my reason moving with a momentum that I was unable and unwilling to stop.  As I said, I gradually and painfully peeled away all the layers of assurances and trust.  They dulled and confusticated the pain of reality, but I needed to think clearly.  It was like finally getting clean of a drug and being able to view things as they really are.  I needed to be able to think clearly in order to make plans and decisions. 

While intuition is not really a logical argument, my need to survive and function in the face of  horror and tragedy seemed to lead me to straighter paths of thinking than I had been used to.  I knew I did not have the extra emotional and physical energy to build up a defense for god at the same time as I was trying to hold my family together.  The 'why question' would have to fall to someone with the time amd energy for such trivialities and arguments.

There is a coomon contention that in our utmost extremity, the usefulness of 'faith' will be vindicated.  It was not vindicated.  It was like an umbrella with no fabric.  You can tell me that I was less wet with my faith umbrella.  I tried to convince myself of the same thing.  Ultimately I threw it away.    


Theist: It does not logically follow that an omnibenevolent, omniscient and omnipotent being would or could alleviate pain and suffering. Logically speaking, it is consistent with the omni-attributes of God that suffering and pain could occur.  [Insert standard Theodicy of Augustine of Hippo]


It appeared to me at the time (and still does), with my rather straightforward, untheological way

of thinking, that such a god would have to be omniarbitrary in order to really fit the description. You would not have anyone question god's 'decisions' or suggest that their apparent arbitrariness is contradictory to his omnibenevelence.

At least the greeks and romans had the courage to admit that their gods were arbitrary and capricious, which to them provided an explanation of undeserved suffering. They were polytheistic, so they could afford to have one or another god having PMS. There were still others to call on for help. The monotheistic religions place the blame squarely on humanity and on the 'fallen world' concept. 'God' is rubber and we are glue. Whatever bounces off of him sticks to us.

This is well worn defense of god's character.  I heard all of this while I was watching my husband face terrible suffering.  It struck a me like a note painfully out of tune at the time.  At the time it was delivered (repeatedly), it seemed disingenuous and dismissive of what was happening to my family.  It still does.

The argument is that somehow if you prove god is not responsible or capable of removing some particular instances of evil, such as AIDS, that he would 'logically' be removed of responsibility for every other objectionable thing that we encounter as humans by extension.  False I say.

As far as what god is capable and not capable of doing, there is certainly no theist consensus on what is possible for god.  It is not as cut and dried as you would like it to be.  I belonged to a church that believed in faith healing.  Many christians believe in the power of prayer to affect their physical well-being.  They believe in intercessory prayer.  There are certainly millions theists suffering and dying of horrible illnesses, even with modern scientific medicine.  Just as many as non-christians and non-theists.  Why are they praying for healing if there is no point? Are they just supposed to say 'Thanks God' and take their lumps?

Your position is that we, as humanity, are all responsible for the fact that health problems plague us and children go hungry.  I suggest that money spent on churches, preachers and theologians could be going toward advances in medical care or feeding the hungry.  Then perhaps we would be able to solve so many of the world's ills that you say are not god's responsibility to solve but rather fall on the shoulders of humanity.  We could surely reduce the amount of gratuitous pain and suffering.  Perhaps preachers could be retrained as nurses or counselors within the medical field.  It would certainly contribute more to the well-being of humanity than is the current state of affairs.  Whether or not a god exists, wouldn't this be better?


Frequent Response (theist or non-theist): I feel your reasoning has been hampered by your emotional tie to the situation, and ask that you think it through more (assuming you are in any way interested in philosophy or theology).


If experience has given me a rare perspective on on suffering, how is it a liability to bring that to bear on a discussion?  Is it because it makes discussions seem less trivial?  Less hypothetical?  That is the whole point of the discussion.  It is important.  It isn't trivial for the many people being fed this particular 'problem of evil' brand of theological horse shit.  It is of vital importance to those in the midst of suffering. 

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Comment by Lana on September 16, 2011 at 3:12pm

I think most people do hang on to religion for its utility in their lives.  And they are resistant to Occam's razor to a great extent until the balance of utility tips to the negative.

Comment by Loren Miller on September 15, 2011 at 6:47pm
Additional point if I may: suffering may happen in this reality as a matter of course, as a consequence of natural events or man's actions against other men.  Why do we have to superimpose a god (who may or may not be actively involved) onto the situation?  It adds NOTHING to the explanation and indeed confuses it further.  Occam's Razor states that we should not add unnecessary complications to any hypothesis.  Positing god as a possible causation of suffering explains nothing; therefore, it is not needed to understand suffering.

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