A while back, I came across the moving story of an individual calling himself Real Live Preacher, whose faith was shattered when he saw a young mother die while working as a hospital chaplain:
30 something. Cute. New mother with two little kids. Breast cancer. Found it too late. Spread all over. Absolutely going to die.
Jenny had only one request. “I know I’m going to die, chaplain. I need time to finish this. It’s for my kids. Pray with me that God will give me the strength to finish it.”
She showed me the needlepoint pillow she was making for her children. It was an “alphabet blocks and apples” kind of thing. She knew she would not be there for them. Would not drop them off at kindergarten, would not see baseball games, would not help her daughter pick out her first bra. No weddings, no grandkids. Nothing.
She had this fantasy that her children would cherish this thing – sleep with it, snuggle it. Someday it might be lovingly put on display at her daughter’s wedding. Perhaps there would be a moment of silence. Some part of her would be there.
I was totally hooked. We prayed. We believed. Jesus, this was the kind of prayer you could believe in. We were like idiots and fools.
A couple of days later I went to see her only to find the room filled with doctors and nurses. She was having violent convulsions and terrible pain. I watched while she died hard. Real hard.
As the door shut, the last thing I saw was the unfinished needlepoint lying on the floor.
This terrible, heartbreaking tragedy, alas, is far from the only one of its kind. Even a world where suffering and disaster were rare, lightning-like events would pose a potent challenge to belief in a benevolent god. But in our world, such tragic stories are all too common. Misery and catastrophe strike virtually every life at some point, including both believers and nonbelievers, and many people live their entire lives in pain and need. As the proliferation of theodicies show, religious believers are very far from finding a satisfactory resolution to this problem.
Yet I’m not convinced that all the effort at theodicy truly helps at all. All religious explanations for evil and suffering have in common the notion that these tragedies do not happen at random, that God has ordained them for some reason of his own. And that, to me, makes the problem even worse.
In a recent column in On Faith, Susan Jacoby makes this point bracingly clear. Simply put, an atheist never has to ask why people suffer natural evil. We do not have to ask “Why me?”, because there is no “why”. We live in a natural universe with laws that do not bow to our will, or anyone’s. Thus, when natural evil strikes, there is no reason, no intentionality behind it. Like all natural phenomena, evil is a random phenomenon, admitting of no deeper meaning.
Religious apologists may think this cold and impersonal, but I find it strangely comforting. Knowing that the suffering we incur was not our fault, that we did nothing to deserve it, is a far more appealing idea than the logical opposite, that we were being deliberately targeted by God. Believers who suffer must inevitably ask if it was punishment for something they did, or if God wanted to teach them some sort of lesson. And this problem afflicts liberal religious believers no less than conservative ones, for they all believe that God orders the world in his divine providence. Atheists, by contrast, do not have to search for a reason justifying tragedy. We know that it is an unqualified evil that should be opposed without reservation, and that the only response that is required is for us to reach out and help one another in times of need.
Other posts in this series: