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.

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