So far as I can tell, there are four ways a religious narrative can explain the ‘Problem of Suffering.
- An Evil God. I believe that any sincere religious person should truly investigate the possibility of God being evil. “There is no true despair without hope” (Bane, The Dark Knight Rises). In this narrative, all the pain, disease and death are God’s goal. All the beauty is there just to lend subjective value to life and health so that death and disease can really give way to despair. The inverse of this doesn’t work: Life can be beautiful without pain. The fear of death cannot lead to despair without hope and value in life.
- A polytheism. Stephen Fry said he’s have “more truck” with a Classical Polytheism because the gods are admittedly “human in their appetites”. They were selfish and gave in to temptations and were vengeful and vindictive. But they never claimed not to be. Not only were they imperfect, but a world managed by a committee, each trying to fit their domain into the greater complex, would explain the imperfect universe we exist in.
- Freewill. This is limited in explanation. This can only explain the suffering caused by other people. But the argument goes: if we wish to forgo the suffering caused by other people we would have to forgo the freedom to choose to do others harm. It would be a limit to our freewill. This is problematic: give a man a gun and he can express his freewill; everyone else in the room cannot. We do not live in a world where freewill is equally exercised (if you believe it is exercised at all). We live in a world where freewill depends on force and being well equipped. Freewill is violated all the time, for the worse, and God does nothing to safeguard the well being of victims. Even nature―devoid of will―violated our will with force. We are not afforded freewill by a managing agent.
- The Fall. This is the most popular explanation. It is a prevalent narrative in Islam, Christianity and Judaism. It states that the first act of imperfection allowed all things to be imperfect. It doesn’t explain how the first act of imperfection could be allowed to happen, which is a problem. But it also doesn’t explain why biology is equipped with teeth and claws and defensive mechanisms. Why have teeth, if there is no such thing as death? What would we eat? Why would we eat it? Why would a wolf need claws? Why would a spider need venom? All of biology points towards death having always been an issue.
Nonreligious answers to the question of suffering are easy. Nature has “pitiless indifference”; it does not waver to preference or alter for moral reasons; the laws of entropy will not undo just because you are very sad someone is dead and neither will gravity switch off around you to lift you from a situation that scares you; the sun will not stop dead in the sky because you’re worried about your deadlines. The reason this is preferable is twofold: firstly, it’s demonstrably true, which is nice; secondly, it doesn’t posit that someone is behind all the pain and suffering. There’s no one to blame.
I have received criticism for this because the religious assume that I have no place to be making value or moral judgements. I call this position “religious nihilism”. I call it that because it assumes that all value and meaning is extrinsic; God imbues meaning to things, things do not have their own intrinsic value. Nietzsche called Christianity the “Ultimate Nihilism” (although his reasoning could extend to all monotheisms with an omnipotent God). The reasoning is the Christian (monotheist) must believe that this life doesn’t matter because it is already authored. The real purpose is in the unauthored bit: the “deathless death” (Heaven or Hell, or similar). My argument is slightly different. My argument is that many religious people claim to believe that nothing has any meaning, except with God. I don’t believe them.
I have never heard of a person deconverting and descending into hedonistic sociopathy because nothing means anything. I have heard of religious people doing it, and Peter Sutcliffe is a good example. But all the formerly-religious-now-atheist/agnostics I know, not one of them acts as if they believe “nothing has any meaning, except with God”. Nietzsche’s Madman is an example of what would happen if a person who sincerely believed this did deconvert. I do not believe religious people abstain from murder because they dear God’s wrath, but because they understand on some human level that it is wrong.
The other reason I don’t believe them is because they don’t offer a mechanism by which this works. To the external observer, this meaning “seems to be that if we don’t devote ourselves to slavishly hitting this god’s Like Button, that we will burn in Hell, forever” (Steve Ruis) It’s a “meaning” and “value” demanded through fear and force. That doesn’t seem like value to me. If a religious nihilist (as defined here) were to wake up one day with the realisation that God is a narcissistic sociopath, demanding our worship in exchange for safety, and were to keep their belief in God (because they don’t believe in God for emotional reasons, so this emotional shock won’t alter their faith), then they too should see the world through nihilistic eyes. The mechanism by which God imbues things with value is a subjective one that can be dissolved.
This has big implications on the Moral Argument for God’s existence. The Moral Argument depends upon God being the only possible author to objective moral laws. But, having value imposed on something does not create objective value. The imposed values are merely the values of an individual and are no less subjective than any tyrannical imposition. It is also entirely subjective on our part to accept what God decrees; sure we can be ultimately punished with Heaven and Hell, but that only shows that we value our own wellbeing, not that we value things or acts inherently. The entire Moral Argument for God falls apart under one or two renditions of trial-by-4-year-old: Why? (Why?)
I would like to ask readers to properly engage with challenges to their ideas they cannot properly account for and to jettison arguments they cannot defend. But experience tells me that isn’t going to happen. So, instead, I implore you to at least act as if you have read these criticisms instead of continuing to recite and recycle the same tired arguments. That is in keeping with the 9th Commandment.