Atheism, Catholicism, and Suffering: A Critical Response to Bad Catholic

Marc at Bad Catholic thinks that since atheists seem to only dwell on the ways that Christianity involves a failure of the intellect or the persecution of gays, we must not really grasp the actual reasons someone would be a Christian. So he is going to explain what Christianity is really about. Because, you know, if there is one thing we atheists need, it’s for a Christian to finally come along and explain to us what Christianity is really about.

And Marc wants to do this in a way that will safely prevent us hysterical atheists from, in his words, “freaking out”. Unfortunately, I’ve read the post and just replying to all that’s wrong with the first few paragraphs filled up a blog post before I knew it. So get ready atheists, if you’re anything like me, you’re in for a freak out.

Marc starts his explanation of Christianity with a semantic distinction:

Any philosophy that claims that there exists nothing supernatural cannot grant purpose to suffering.

If some natural, secular purpose could be granted to the man suffering, then his pain would cease to be suffering and begin to be useful pain. The athlete can point to the material purpose of fitness and strength to answer the problem of his sore muscles. The old man who wakes up ever day with inexplicably sore muscles can point to no such thing. Though the pain experienced is the same — down to the last, aching twinge — the old man suffers, and the athlete does not. Suffering, to be suffering, requires the lack of a natural, secular answer.

These are arbitrary and peculiar definitions of pain and suffering. But we had might as well grant them for the sake of argument. Essentially Marc seems to be saying that all pain in order to be psychologically tolerable must have a purpose by which we can justify it to ourselves. Pains which serve no direct further end are inherently intolerable. Suffering is to be explicitly defined as only these latter kinds of pains. All other pains, being tolerable for their usefulness, are not to count as suffering. On the flip side he writes as though merely contributing to a greater good is enough by itself to make any pain tolerably purposeful. But since some pains (supposedly) have no “material” or “secular” or “natural” use value to give them meaning, they represent irremediable suffering for the atheist who believes in no supernatural sources of meaning or salvation or redemption. The atheists alone, on this definition, seem at risk of true suffering. (Marc ignores the existence of those supernaturalists who do not believe that the supernatural necessarily redeems from suffering but might even cause it.)

It is when we consider Marc’s account of Christianity and suffering that we start to see his thinking muddle up a bit. Marc’s Christianity apparently gives meaning and purpose to all suffering. But that’s a contradiction since Mark defined suffering as qualitatively distinct from purposeful, useful pain. If a given pain is not purposeless and not a cause for despair–and it is not for either Jesus or for those who identify with His crucifixion—then, by Marc’s definition, it is not actually suffering at all but spiritually useful pain. In fact, from a supernatural perspective the suffering of Jesus and those who identify with Him surely must be the most useful of all pains since they have such spiritually redemptive power.

So, by the logic of Marc’s distinctions, held to more consistently than in his own piece, there can only be three basic kinds of pain: naturalistically useful pain, naturalistically useless pain (which alone can be called “suffering”), and a naturalistically useless pain that when actually supernaturally contextualized is redeemed as the greatest and most useful of all useful pains and so becomes the antithesis of actual despairing suffering.

So the only people, presumably, who will not have their naturally useless pains turned into useful ones are the thoroughgoing naturalists who refuse to accept supernaturalistic justifications for their pains and so will never have their pains redeemed—either on earth or, at last, in heaven.

What becomes of supernaturalists who are not Christians, who do believe in supernatural redemption of pain but not the Jesus kind, is rather murky. Presumably many of these people would get the psychological benefits of not experiencing their pains as useless while on Earth. Apparently, they would not suffer, in that they would not despair that their pain was pointless. In at least some religions anyway, it seems that they would have very effective rationalization narratives that would mean that they were able (at least as often as Christians are) to avoid experiencing their pains as useless. Why one needs Christianity in particular is unclear when any old supernaturalistic rationalization of pain just might have the palliative effect of not allowing it to be experienced as outright despair, and so might do the psychological trick effectively enough.

It is also unclear that atheists cannot find a use for any pain through our own processes of rationalization or, even better, through good reasoning (imagine that!). Who is to say that atheists have no skills at making genuine, high quality lemonade of our lemons?

Personally I make it a regular practice to use my experiences with physically unproductive pain as opportunities to learn empathy with other sufferers. This helps me reason better about the good of other people and how I might contribute to their lives better and appreciate their struggles and virtues more greatly. I also use emotional and physical pains as chances to develop personal virtues of resilience and take pleasure in my abilities to withstand and, even better, overcome pain. I see the human good as the maximization of my power and so the only pains that are not an invitation to growth of internal resiliency are those which actually kill someone. But at the point at which pain kills, that irredeemable suffering is relatively short. Pains we can live with for any length of time can be opportunities to develop any number of strengths of character through our dialectical interplay with them.

Plus countless atheists may be among those people who are inspired by their own illness or the sufferings of their loved ones to proactively volunteer their time and energy to raising money for scientific research into cures. Or they might express their suffering through art and find intrinsic self-realization and happiness in that process. Or they might use impending death as a catalyst to live life more deliberately and fruitfully, and so waste their days less and savor their happiness more. They may be inspired to focus on how they might increase their legacy so that they might have powerful, admirable effects into the future through their work, through the institutions they advance, or through their children. Like Christopher Hitchens they might take the nightmare of terminal illness as a challenge to embody courage, stoicism, defiance, pride, and a tenacious commitment to live with every last breath they are afforded, as an inspiration to all who are on-looking and for the intrinsic value to oneself of all these virtues themselves.

Marc’s imagination is too limited to conceive of any of these alternatives for secular people to infuse genuine, objective meaning into pains that themselves are not inherently constructive apart from how we respond to them. He pats us poor hopeless secularists on the head instead:

The secular cannot answer the problem of suffering (as I’ve spoken in depth elsewhere), but suffering is still a problem we naturally want resolved.

So what? Just wanting something means we will be able to do it? Says who?

The only way to resolve the problem of suffering is to have resolve in the face of suffering.

(If you don’t believe it is, develop leukemia, have a close family member die, and then try being content with not having any answers, meaning, or purpose.)

I thought Marc wrote this for atheists. Does Marc seriously think that no atheists who say they are content without “any answers, meaning, or purpose” have ever made sufficient peace with the loss of loved ones or with personally suffering from a terminal illnesses? Have they all crumpled and crawled to the cross crying?

And is Marc implying that because atheists (allegedly) have no “answers, meaning, or purpose” for particular sufferings that we have no “answers, meaning, or purpose” generally in our lives? Or, if he would be so kind as to acknowledge the meaning and purpose generally in our lives, by what right does he assume that these are insufficient to compensate for those particular pains in our lives that might be “uselessly” terminal?

What Marc seems to miss is that for many atheists, our notions of meaning and purpose are bound up with our commitments to embracing reality honestly and to living as well, happily, and beneficially as possible within the constraints of the natural world. To many of us, retreating into wish fulfillment because of genuine suffering is a betrayal of the real world, of others, of ourselves, and of everything that actually gives our lives meaning. To many of us, the systematic denial of reality and submission to the unreal fantasies of religious beliefs is a threat to people’s happiness in the real world in a number of ways. We think that contributing to the flourishing of delusional thinking and to notoriously authoritarian, morally regressive institutions for the sake of selfish comforts is socially irresponsible moral cowardice. A lot of us would lose a major part of the very real purpose that defines our lives if we were to kneel down before those vampire charlatans of the soul who lick their fangs at human vulnerability and seek to exploit any existential anxiety they sense in a weak person as a chance to turn him.

To any number of atheists, the truth is viewed as too important to real world progress to sacrifice for personal psychological benefits. To many of us, the truth is even an intrinsic good, independent of its ability to palliate all suffering. One might say that commitment to truth can give a purpose to us that we would feel rotten and weak to pathetically abandon for fear. One might even say that we think truth is worth suffering for. But then that would give our suffering a meaning and purpose and no longer even be suffering on Marc’s definition. So maybe we do not despairingly suffer after all, despite what religious people imagine. Hard to fathom, right?

Truth is a good worth pursuing even if it increases sorrow in any number of areas for us. If there is genuine suffering (however defined), then we would rather know of it than hide our heads in the sand from it or fantasize it away with myths that it is “merely temporal” and supernaturally taken care of. And even if we accept Marc’s strange assumptions and believe that denying the supernatural is one of the only ways that there can be suffering, then we will take suffering. For many of us, this is a matter of intellectual honesty, spiritual courage, and moral duty. It is far nobler to face undeniable suffering than to deny reality.

And, frankly, I find the proposed consolations of Christianity insulting in the face of suffering. Few ceremonies have disgusted me as much as the Catholic funerals, wakes, and memorials I have attended as an atheist. The focus was persistently taken off of the person who should be commemorated and celebrated and mourned, and instead placed on a patently mythical godman and his “miraculous powers to conquer death”. I can think of few worse ways to show contempt for the ostensive subject of a sacred ceremony, in this case death itself, than to deny its very existence.

Right there, in communal ceremonies which should be occasions for solemnly and bravely confronting the terrible reality of death as it is made most personally unavoidable in the loss of a loved one… Right there in the presence of a casket containing a cadaver of someone whose life intertwined, in many cases quite impactfully, with our own… Right there to listen to a priest tell childish fairy tales about how the dead are not really dead is a profound insult to the profound losses suffered by both the deceased and the bereaved.

What should be a moment for taking the seriousness of death as respectfully as possible… What should be a moment for focusing on the beloved life now come to completion and for dwelling on the tangible legacy of ongoing good effects through which alone the lost will continue on, is all systematically undermined by the promulgation of reality-denying fantasies, the distracting greater emphasis on the broader Christian religion than the topic of death or the particular deceased person, the opportunistic exploitative advertising pitches meant to manipulate the excruciating grief of all those present to a create attachment to the Catholic faith, and (at least on some occasions) explicit, manipulative insults to unbelievers that we are supposedly hopeless and that we must only despair when faced with the reality of death.

Few people have treated me with such callous indifference and contempt as the priests who have taken the memorials for my own family members as opportunities to cavalierly slam and strawman atheism. Whether this was done from the erasing assumption that there were no atheists present or from the contempt that were we present that we deserved no respect—even as mourners–in either case it was all too typical of a religion that knows much more about its own self-promotion than either the truth or genuine compassion for suffering.

From those priests to Marc from Bad Catholic, Christian attempts to convince atheists of our supposed wretched hopelessness without their religion evince nothing of the love of enemies that Christians baselessly pat themselves on the back for. Anyone who will try to convince people who simply do not believe in a set of (frankly ludicrous) propositions that the only logical option for them is emotional despair is a callously sleazy salesperson, and not a person of constructive compassion or empathetic imagination.

Let me return to just a bit more of Marc’s ongoing pitch. Presuming to speak for humanity entire, denying the reality of brave atheists who doggedly and creatively turn all manner of otherwise pointless sufferings into opportunities to grow as people or to be inspired to give to others, Marc tells us what we are all “obliged to do”:

We are obliged to ditch the secular and take up the religious, as a man cutting wood ditches the fork and picks up the saw.

That’s right, because charity is pointless. Because honesty is pointless. Because personal growth in virtues through the confrontation with one’s limits is pointless. Because there is nothing of solace or meaning in art, in friendship, in family, in charity, in truth, in excellent achievements, in empathy, in creating a lasting legacy, or in making the most of every precious limited breath one is afforded. There is only religion. And so what if not all religions actually provide solace in the face of death but many actually heighten fear of it? And so what if the moral stagnancy and regressiveness and poverty of imagination fostered in modern religion hurts people in tangible ways? And so what if Christianity itself torments many a sufferer with spiritually debilitating fears of hell or cruelly inculcated fears that their earthly sufferings are “God’s righteous punishments”?

So what if the taunting, unfounded belief in a perfectly loving and omnipotent God shatters countless people when they are actually faced with the indisputable, emotionally destructive experiential evidence that He actually does not benevolently protect them or those they love—or even exist at all–when this was what they were manipulated into staking all their hopes on? Who cares what suffering is caused by such naïve expectations, vigorously nurtured by the Christian Church’s shameless mendacity, willful self-deception, spiritual and metaphysical hucksterism, and reckless disregard for the truth and for logic? Rather than deal with the truth that there is no omnipotent, omnibenevolent deity, Marc wants to twist the very existence of inescapable tragedies that we see nowhere fully redeemed into the evidence that they must be redeemed by a supernatural omnibenevolent omnipotent deity! His reasoning in this matter is beyond illogical, it is positively perverse.

I’ll stop here for now. There is much more that is contradictory and spiritually shallow and conceptually muddled in the rest of the piece. I hope to dissect some more in a future post.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://songe.me asonge

    I had the same reaction to his piece earlier. He clearly needs to have pointless suffering on the agenda, but so poorly defines it that the piece seemed nonsensical. I’ve heard arguments about solving the problems of existential suffering, etc, through Christian religions *as well as* the use of suffering to bring one closer and empathize with Christ. I never thought I’d see those 2 arguments put out in a piece as if they were poured from the carafe a blender.

  • Ashley

    Marc’s piece is a great example of how religion can serve as a mind-killer. His need to see Christ as the one and only solution to suffering blinds him to every other possibility. Marc’s imagination isn’t just limited, it appears to have been annihilated by his Catholicism.

  • Tony D.

    Wow! Thank you so much, Dan! Your words are still washing over me, and I’m overwhelmed literally to tears with the wisdom and dignity of your response and your elegant defense of the beauty and courage of an atheistic worldview.

    Most of my family is religious, and so one thing that concerns me a great deal is that I will be given a Christian funeral, despite my living protest to such an abomination. I’m compelled to summarize much of what you’ve said here (along with other words of wisdom) into a eulogy to be read at my funeral on my behalf; not intended or formulated to pour salt on the wounds of my religious loved ones, but to reaffirm my life and my identity, and to assure people that a godless cosmos is…was well with me.

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

    I saw this commented on elsewhere and had some of the same thoughts. It often seems like theists who write pieces to show atheists how wrong they are and that they should become theists have no idea what atheists actually do and don’t believe, or how we live our lives, or anything. I mean, he says we can’t grant suffering any “purpose,” like that’s a slam dunk against atheism or something, and all I can think is, “yes, so?”

    • Kodie

      You know, if the argument isn’t persuasive, it’s your fault for being too stubborn to believe in it, not the argument’s fault or the arguer’s fault for making leaps and assumptions on things that can’t be assumed. If suffering doesn’t mean anything then everything should be great, smooth, pleasant and blue skies forever. It’s not like we’re occupants on a planet or anything, trying to solve all our own problems, just getting through the list takes a while.

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      It seems that it’s the rare religious apologist who doesn’t rely on making things up about atheists as an opening gambit. In this case, it’s the “no atheists in foxholes.”

      Curiously, I came to atheism through the process of mourning my grandparents, one of whom went through a great deal of suffering due to childhood abuse leading to serious mental illness as an adult. The probability that my grandmother’s suffering came to an end is more comforting than the theory that her pain now places her in a realm further removed from enlightenment. (The disposition of my saintly grandfather raises a different set of paradoxes.)

      Most apologists seem to confuse disagreement with ignorance and “freaking out.” Nothing in Barnes’ post was especially new to me. I disagree that god is simultaneously universal and estranged from humanity, omnipotent and dependent on the historical circumstances of Roman Palestine. I’m an atheist because I’m skeptical of atman, Christianity is several more steps removed.

    • Lee

      “Any philosophy that claims that there exists nothing supernatural cannot grant purpose to suffering.” This is just a wordier way of asking why there is suffering. And as useful as some “why” style questions can be – especially in the sciences – in philosophical discussions I’ve found that it can just be the opening of an endless maze of speculation.

      Instead of asking why there is suffering or trying to use suffering in an odd attempt to prove up God, it might be more useful to ask more pragmatic questions, such as how did my particular episode of suffering arise, and how could I adjust my thinking or life to address the causes of my suffering. This approach won’t prove up a God and it likely won’t save the world, but it might be more useful in the long run.

  • RobMcCune

    Thanks, that is excellent refutation of about a quarter of that blog post, I had tried to read that post last week but quit a little less than half way through. Marc is my favorite blogger on the Catholic channel because can be so entertaining in being wrong, the part where god negates himself, creates an uber-paradox, and reboots made me laugh. From what I have seen playing fast and loose with logic and definitions, as well as a stream of emotions masquerading as logic aren’t uncommon over among the Catholic bloggers.

    Here is my favorite Bad Catholic post, I think it’s very illuminating as to his mindset, and hilarious to boot.
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/badcatholic/2012/05/converting-to-paganism.html

  • TychaBrahe

    When I think of suffering, I don’t really think of muscle pain after a workout. I tend to think more about people starving in famine; people dying in fires or natural disasters; people being victimized in rape, slavery, tyranny, abuse.

    Religion is a piss-poor answer to suffering precisely because it attempts to find a purpose in it. Atheism can sometimes find reasons for suffering—for example, changing weather patterns, deforestation, and poor choices in agricultural techniques can lead to famine—but we don’t find purpose in it. Purpose assumes there is some justification for this; God wants you to hurt and hunger, God wants your children to die, God wants their emaciated corpses for some reason. Stop complaining about the tragedy in your life, stop mourning your lost children, because God wants it this way for some reason we humans are too small and puny to understand.

    It’s a disgusting attitude.

    It’s a worse attitude when its used to justify the continued suffering. Prosperity gospel, for example, which teaches that wealth and success are the rewards of God to good Christians, so that people who do not succeed, who have bad luck, must be sinners in some way we cannot observe, otherwise God would have blessed them, too, is one of the worst ideas to spring from the mind of humanity. Those people in Africa, with their AIDS and ebola, their drought and devastating poverty, well surely they must have done something to deserve that, so there’s no point in relief, in developing medications, in food aid.

  • Azuma Hazuki

    This argument he made was dead out of the gate. The old Epicurean formulation of the logical problem of evil kills it stone dead.

  • Ariel

    I will try to give Mark a charitable reading. Although I’m an atheist, I find a lot in what he wrote that is congenial to me and in what follows I’m going to stress just those aspects, while suppressing the rest. (That’s charitable, isn’t it?) Let’s start with:

    This is my attempt to explain why I am a Christian.

    As I take it, he is not trying to provide a justification of Christianity. He takes a more personal approach and he discusses rather motives than reasons for embracing religion. (In addition he seems to suggest that his own motivation is in fact fairly common. I don’t know whether it’s true.) That explains also his supposition that it “might not freak the atheists out” – on this reading, what he gives us is not another failed attempt to prove the existence of God, it’s not even an attempt to prove the rationality of religion. It’s all about motivation. It’s about the state of mind which makes religion attractive to some (many?) people, Mark in particular. And at least in my own case he is quite right: such an approach doesn’t freak me out.

    What is this state of mind? I would call it “despair” for the lack of a better word. It starts perhaps with a horrible incident in your own life, which leaves you completely powerless and kicked out of your superficial comforts. Or maybe – if you are lucky – just with reading too many newspapers and history books :-) No matter how it starts, in an acute form it ends with – oh my, imagine yourself in your own room, safe and comfortable on the face of it, familiar surroundings and so on, but you are afraid to get up from your bed, because all you see around are the sharp edges, impersonal and indifferent, ready to harm you. You see pain everywhere. Unjustified, with no purpose, paralyzing, and scary. The distance between the “safe and normal” and the “horrible and hellish” is amazingly short – I guess we all know it. But in this state of mind it’s not a theoretical knowledge any more. It becomes your reality; in your mind you started crossing the line and you cannot help it, you are moving to and fro, to and fro, unable to break the circle.

    It seems to me that Mark is saying that despair – even in its less acute forms – is one of the powerful drives towards religion. Perhaps he has been there himself. Or maybe he is just contemplating the possible outcomes of his own confrontation with absurd suffering. I don’t know.

    I don’t think the real issue is that “atheists cannot find a use for any pain through our own processes of rationalization” [through whatever, indeed]. Some of them will be sturdy enough to shrug at such “problems” between two bottles of beer (those I admire most). Others – as Daniel was so prompt to stress – will engage in countless rationalizations, which in their special cases might even turn out to be psychologically effective. But Mark’s approach is personal (I’m trying to be charitable – remember?) and he could (should?) answer:

    Whatever. You can even eat spinach three times a day if that helps you. As for me, when I hear about a child tortured and mutilated, spinach doesn’t help. Using the child’s horror as an “opportunity [for sooo precious me] to learn empathy with other sufferers” also doesn’t work. As long as I move within the confines of the naturalistic framework, the horror remains: I shrink at the thought that nothing – completely nothing – can be done for the victim. And here religion enters, with the compensation for the victim, not for sooo precious and enlightened ‘us’. No naturalistic framework can offer such a compensation. Call it ‘wishful thinking’ if you want; the fact is that no naturalistic framework can keep my private demons at bay.

    Mark, if by any chance you read this and if that’s what you are aiming at, then my only answer is: I’m an atheist and I don’t have any answers for you. Sorry. Try spinach once again.

    This has already gotten too long, so one last, quick comment

    To any number of atheists, the truth is viewed as too important to real world progress to sacrifice for personal psychological benefits. To many of us, the truth is even an intrinsic good, independent of its ability to palliate all suffering. One might say that commitment to truth can give a purpose to us that we would feel rotten and weak to pathetically abandon for fear.

    There were some old debates where I presented my views on this more fully; here just a quick remark. I don’t believe in truth as a real life motivating force. I’m inclined to treat the remarks like the above as a part of mythologies of mass movements. It just looks very good on the standards, with all these ‘truth lovers’ being in fact as quarrelsome and tribal as the guys next door. But that’s for a longer discussion, and this post has already gotten too long. Cheers.

    • RuQu

      The answer to his question of how to face that is not a new one, it was stated by the Roman Stoic (and slave) Epictetus. He is projecting in the wrong direction. He sees suffering and asks “How would I feel if that was me?” and then feels that way for others. Instead he should reverse it, “How do I react when I see this happen to others? I should react so when it happens to me.” To quote Epictetus directly instead of paraphrasing:

      “We may learn the will of nature from the things in which we do not differ from one another; for instance, when your neighbor’s slave has broken his cup, or anything else, we are ready to say forthwith that it is one of the things which happen. You must know that when your cup is also broken, you ought to think as you did when your neighbor’s cup was broken. Transfer this reflection to greater things also. Is another man’s wife or child dead? There is no one who would not say, this is an event incident to man. But when a man’s own child or wife is dead, forthwith he calls out ‘Woe to me, how wretched I am.’ But we ought to remember how we feel when we hear it has happened to others.”

      Choose how you view the world, choose how you respond to what you see. No gods needed.

  • Steve Schuler

    Like Ariel I find myself empathetic to the possible emotional motivations of people who, like Marc, embrace one religion or another. Indeed, a naturalistic worldview does not provide any refuge from the problem of suffering in our world. Ultimately I believe that there is no higher purpose or meaning to the existence of pain, both physical and mental, that will eventually be redeemed by one version of God or another and, in my mind at least, I think that this perspective entails embracing a world and life less palatable in many respects than what some religions may afford. Still, as much as I might prefer otherwise, I can find no compelling evidence or reasons to believe that there is a God, at least in the classical sense, or that there are ultimate truths revealed in the religions that I have investigated, including Catholicism. I remain open to the possibility that my perceptions and thoughts on these matters are incorrect and often hope, in fact, that there is a God of some sort who will someday right all of the wrongs in this world. But in the meantime I can only continue to live the most worthwhile, compassionate, and moral life that I am able to without relying on fantastic beliefs in supernatural beings or assuming the veracity of revelations of truth that many believe are contained within the pages of ancient texts. This entails no disregard or disrespect to those who do find solace, purpose, or meaning through their religious beliefs and I would like to think that each of us is doing the best that we are able to in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

    By the way, Dan, I am happy to be able to continue following your thoughts here at Patheos and hope that you are able to reach a wider audience than you accessed at Freethought Blogs. Keep up the good work, amigo!

  • Andrew EC

    Well, there’s at least one light at the end of the tunnel: if Catholics are willing to define “sin” as “suffering” then we can get rid of pretty much all of the objectionable “sins” they’ve made up over the years (blasphemy, homosexuality, masturbation, etc.) on the grounds that those have nothing to do with suffering.

  • ewok_wrangler

    Thanks to RuQu for mentioning Stoicism as one non-theistic, formal, substantive and respectable treatment of pain. There is another: Buddhism. Buddhism is atheistic, at least in relation to the Abrahamic god, yet it has deep, consistent, and coherent teachings on the relationship between pain and suffering. There are interesting parallels between Buddhism and Stoicism, but either gives a more coherent and constructive account of of suffering than christian dogma.

  • John Moriarty

    Even if the bible was 100% historically accurate, that wouldn’t excuse the terrible moral examples; which is why personally I couldn’t even be bothered to discuss JC or for that matter Mo’s life details at all at all. Why do we argue about the logical integrity of items on the 37th floor when the building’s foundations are palpably rotten? Would we not be better off constantly attacking religion’s most basic premises, rather than engaging every topic of their choosing? I think it dissipates the force of argument against falsehood.

    When you stand back away from all that preaching you got loaded up with as a youngster, you realise the moral absurdity it all entails. Heck even if he did rise from the dead, I would go up to him and demand a response to his endorsement of all the OT atrocities, and tell him to his face he was disqualified from being God on that very account.

  • smrnda

    The belief that suffering has a purpose, to me, is something that makes you take a step away from compassion since it turns suffering into something good. Instead of just being able to honestly say “this SUCKS” you have to say “well, there’s some good in this.” Pull that bullshit platitude on anyone really suffering and I you get a much deserved hostile response.

  • NakedAnthropologist

    When I think of suffering, I think of my mother who has arthritis in her spine and fibromyalgia. I also think of my grandmother who had 8 children, a mentally ill husband, and two full-time nursing jobs. My mother treats her pain with a highly regulated medication regimen, healthy eating, and exercise. She engages her life in activities she enjoys (such as volunteering) so that her life is enjoyable – “life is what you make it” has always been her axiom. My grandmother was a very devout Roman Catholic, and how she suffered – from poverty, from depression, from working her fingers to the bone. Even though my grandparents were poor by the time they had their fourth child, they still had four more. Why? Because the Catholic Church said so. I love my aunts and my uncles – I absolutely adore my parents, my brother and having my own life to live. But if my grandmother had questioned the theology she ascribed to, would she have taken birth control? Would she have lived a happier life is she had gotten help for her depression instead of “emulating the Blessed Virgin by bearing her burdens silently in perfect submission to God? I think, I hope that she would have.

    That’s the thing with suffering – there are reasons why we suffer, but the purpose ascribed is our own. If you want to think that God is testing you by causing immense pain because that helps you make it though? Be my guest. As a person who has had a degenerative and chronic illness since early childhood, I can emphasize. But individual people give their own meanings to suffering – as fits the contextualizations of their lives. My suffering does not prove god(s) to me – it just proves that yes, I still have Sarcoidosis and I’ll need another surgery – again. What Mark is saying is absurd taken as generalities. If, however he wants to qualify his own suffering to a divine purpose, then that is his purposing. As a side note, I always find it slightly absurd and amusing that Christians (at least, to me it always seems to be Christians) can’t conceptualize that nonbelievers are happy without their religion and their god; they always see it as some grave loss – whereas I have more existential peace and happiness now that I am nonreligious than I ever had as a believer.

  • Kevin

    While this is a great explanation of why atheists are okay with their world view, it misses the point of Barnes’s article, to a degree. As Christians, we’re not saying that our understanding of suffering helps us cope with it, and we’re certainly not saying that we’re happier because of it. The goal of this sort of examination of suffering is not to make suffering more tolerable, but to make it something we understand. The point is, this rebuttal focuses on asserting that atheists can live happy lives and find meaning in them every day. We’re not doubting that! All Barnes is trying to say is that Christianity gives the world an explanation of WHY people suffer, an answer that atheism by its very nature cannot give. Don’t get me wrong—we Christians respect atheists A TON for the fact that you’re cool with not having an answer. The difference between us is that we Christians are NOT cool with that. As Christians, we believe that if we are intellectually honest with ourselves, it doesn’t make sense that a fundamental desire of mankind (the desire to not suffer) is not satisfied by the natural world. And that’s what Barnes is arguing.

    • Dorfl

      “As Christians, we believe that if we are intellectually honest with ourselves, it doesn’t make sense that a fundamental desire of mankind (the desire to not suffer) is not satisfied by the natural world.”
      I don’t understand why that is. Why would you expect the natural world to satisfy any of your desires?

  • Darren

    Nicely expressed, thank you.

    Suffering is pointless, and no, I am not content.

    Suffering is pointless, the only thing it can (positively) accomplish is to make one better at enduring one’s own suffering, or to empathize with the sufferings of others. And were there not sufferings to endure or empathize with in the first place?

    Yup.

  • http://pcyandel.posterous.com/ Phil Y

    I truly hate it when I hear people say “God causes all things to work for good…” or “There must be some reason for this to happen”. They imply that some supernatural force has everything under control and we are just to stupid or blind to understand. If you read the book of Job, you see that sometimes things just happen and we have to learn to accept that they did and move on. It also teaches people that accept the Bible as the Word of God, that their God is very sadistic and capricious with taking care of his faithful followers. IMHO, the ‘purpose’ of suffering is first to teach us that no one is exempt from it (even if you think you have God on your side) and secondly, to take what helped us to emerge from the suffering to help someone else get through theirs.


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