Pew Research: Sometimes Bad Things Just Happen

Pew Research: Sometimes Bad Things Just Happen November 23, 2021

Hi and welcome back! I spotted this story over at Religion News. It seems that Pew Research ran a survey recently. In it, Pew discovered that when bad things happen, as they inevitably do, most respondents thought those things had nothing to do with any imaginary supernatural agents. This entire survey represents excellent news, and today I want to show you why.

(Nick Fewings.)

(Today is a short overflow post so Disqus doesn’t cause issues for commenters. Overflow posts are always off-topic wonderlands. Also, the study I cite contains a WHOLE lot more than just what I talk about here — it’s worth the read just to see how Americans’ attitudes toward religion are shifting.)

Pew Research Asks: Why Do Bad Things Happen?

It’s been a rough year. We can all agree on that, right? So maybe this study from Pew Research comes at just the right time. Earlier today, they published their newest study:

Few Americans Blame God or Say Faith Has Been Shaken Amid Pandemic, Other Tragedies
Most U.S. adults say bad things just happen, and that people are often the reason

The question itself is very important. Ever since humans gained self-awareness, we’ve been wondering why bad things happen to us. The religions of eons past all tried to answer that question. And often, they punted to claiming that imaginary supernatural agents caused it, usually because people offended them somehow.

As religions go, Christianity is a rich source of this kind of victim-blaming. The religion is full of Just-So Stories that place human suffering in a context of divine retaliation — and its alleviation in a context of divine assistance or grace.

But as Americans escape from the cultural control of Christianity, their views have shifted about why suffering happens.

Pew Research Finds Less Reliance on Imaginary Supernatural Explanations for Suffering.

In this study, Pew Research discovered that 80% of American adults are Christians who still think that suffering mostly comes from people, not their god. Only about half of American adults think their god deliberately chooses not to alleviate human suffering. And only 44% of American adults think that Satan is responsible for “most suffering in the world.”

Here’s their graph about it:

Pew Research suffering survey

Some very interesting facts emerge from this graph.

For example, about 16% of respondents admitted that all the suffering they encountered has made them doubt their god is all-powerful, loving, or kind. And 14% admit that this suffering makes them think he doesn’t exist at all.

Also, only about 4% of respondents think that suffering represents a punishment from their loving, kind god. 46% think none of the suffering in our world represents divine punishment, while 22% think “only a little” does.

(See also: You’ve Got Mail!)

I was very interested in seeing how evangelicals responded to the questions, too. They are far from marching in lockstep to their tribe’s party line, so I reckon we’ll see some good hand-wringing in the days to come about this variance in beliefs.

Even more interestingly, almost 10% of the respondents in this study said they didn’t believe in the Christian god or any higher powers at all, so Pew Research didn’t ask them these sorts of questions. They wanted to find out how people who believed in imaginary beings engaged with suffering.

People who lack supernatural beliefs won’t be at any risk of blaming human suffering on imaginary beings. 

Pew Research Also Asked How American Believers ‘Often’ Feel When They Hear About Suffering.

I’m also very pleased to hear that Pew Research asked their study respondents how they felt when they heard about suffering.

Now, quite a few people in this country are still Christians. So theoretically, when they hear about suffering they should be springing up to do all that stuff Jesus told them to do: feed the hungry, comfort the mourning, clothe the nekkid, etc.

Instead, here’s how their study respondents said they “often” felt at such times. (It won’t add up to 100% because they were allowed to pick more than one option.)

thankful not to be suffering themselves, mostly

Notice that 71% of respondents felt “thankful for the good things” they had, while 62% felt sad for those suffering. Only 40% said they often felt like helping those who suffered. The rest of the responses are entirely self-focused. A focus on oneself when one hears about the suffering of others may represent self-care in times of enormous stress, yes, but again — it’s not what Jesus told Christians to do.

Why the Pandemic Might Not Shake Loose Too Many Christians.

Pew Research didn’t find that many Christians were actively rattled in their faith by the pandemic. As I mentioned above, 14% of respondents reported feeling that way. 16% questioned their god’s power or love. As well, 3% of believers said they “often” feel angry at their god for allowing so much suffering; 14% say sometimes they feel that way.

Those feelings can lead to a big awakening to reality, but they might or might not here.

In a lot of ways, this research really asks about how American Christians engage with the Problem of Evil.

The Problem of Evil asks how suffering can possibly exist in a world governed by an all-powerful, all-good, and all-loving god. It shouldn’t exist at all, and yet here we are, in a world full of suffering.

A popular meme.

We capitalize the phrase exactly because it’s such a dealbreaker for Christianity. Indeed, believers have never been able to adequately answer it or address it. All they can do is hand-wave and distract from it, or they demonize those bringing up this uncomfortable question.

Christian leaders and apologists have had centuries to attack this capital-P Problem. It’s very easy for their followers to make the mistake of thinking it’s done and settled.

(See also: The Problem of Hell, the other big dealbreaker.)

But there’s something else at work here that may be keeping most Christians’ butts in pews.

Reconciling With Reality: Pandemic Edition.

With the pandemic itself, Christians find themselves divided in two camps

More progressive people embrace the science around the pandemic. Meanwhile, their counterparts don’t, and they actively seem to want to end themselves and take everyone else they can down with them.

The first group can easily absorb the pandemic into their faith, because it was always resilient and flexible enough to handle the Problem of Evil. That group doesn’t get too weird about their Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game, and they worry about their counterparts, who in their opinion go overboard with it.

And the second group is stuffed so full of conspiracy theories, alternative facts, and thought stoppers that they can easily turn the pandemic into PROOF YES PROOF that their wingnut ideas are true. They also think that first group is all fakey-fake Christians in name only, while they’re the only TRUE CHRISTIANS™ on Earth.

As always, people construct the god and religion that works best for themselves. And as Americans get further and further away from Christian wingnuts’ cultural control, their views of suffering might be shifting as well.

That shift does not bode well for Christian salespeople, since their sales strategies center mainly around threats of suffering.

NEXT UP: Barna Group’s been trying to figure out how to reverse their religion’s decline — with Gen Z’s superpowers! See you tomorrow!

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This is an overflow post. Overflow posts are always OT wonderlands. Enjoy!

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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