The meaning of suffering

I've been having a conversation with some regulars on Randal Rauser's blog about the problem of natural suffering. Frankly, I see it as being utterly devastating to theism. All theodicies attempt to resolve the problem of suffering by suggesting that God has morally justified reasons for allowing (causing?) suffering, in that it is ultimately a step toward a greater good. My take is that it's logically impossible for theodicies to be valid, because an omnipotent God – by definition of his omnipotence – could always achieve his aims without natural suffering. If a theist claims that natural suffering is in any way necessary for God's plan, they've tacitly conceded that God is not all-powerful.

In my comments, I referred to an eight-year-old girl I encountered while working as a physical therapy tech during my college years. She was afflicted with terminal brain cancer, and had lost most of her physical and cognitive functions. I remember thinking that there was another problem with theodicies: that the end does not justify the means – which, when you think about it, is precisely what theodicies are arguing. But there was no reward that could possibly await me in the hereafter that would, for me, justify that child's suffering (not to mention that of her parents, watching their child slowly wither away).

Tracie Harris of The Atheist Experience once rebuked a caller by saying, "If I could stop a person from raping a child, I would. That's the difference between your God and me". While the problem of evil is important, the problem of (natural) suffering is even more so, because there can be no argument that it was an act of malice or cruelty, or that the victim was receiving some just punishment. If I could stop a child from suffering and dying of a terrible ailment, I would.

Coincidentally, this story popped up tonight on Huffpo, and it's a heart-wrencher. A four-year-old child named Eliza diagnosed with an incredibly rare terminal illness that will kill her slowly and painfully: she'll lose the ability to speak, to walk, develop seizures, and eventually die.

At the risk of being crass, while her story is tragic, it's also just one millions; children suffer and die every day – of famine, disease, exposure, natural disasters, and many other things that are of no fault of their own. If we could all stand before the god of Western monotheism, would we not declare that this kind of collateral damage was not worth whatever logically problematic eternal bliss awaited us? And would we not wonder why, if God was really all-powerful, he couldn't have gotten us there without all that collateral damage in the first place.

My deconversion was accelerated by a shift in perspective – what if, I asked myself, the reason I can't make sense of this is not because there's some ineffable answer or that I need more faith, but because it's not true? Looking at suffering through the lens of naturalism is liberating: the reason natural suffering looks random and meaningless is because it is random and meaningless. No one is being punished, and it's not anyone's fault. This child, who will die far too soon, did nothing to deserve her ailment and there is no god for whom we must make excuses and rationalizations.

If you wish to donate to help Eliza, click here.


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