Field of Science

Suffering: Does god help?

One thing that is a "problem" we all deal with is the problem of suffering. This is not a topic I have spent much time thinking about in any detail, but after reading Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman I was looking for something else by him and stumbled upon God's Problem at my local B&N last year.

This is a wonderful book that I highly recommend to anyone that wants to give more than lip service towards thinking about their beliefs. Essentially what Ehrman does is give an overview to Christian approaches to dealing with the theological problem of "if there is an all powerful loving god, then why do we suffer?" What are the biblical responses to this obvious question that occurs in all cultures. Further, and I think most importantly, Ehrman hammers the concept that biblical writers were writing for their society and people not a bunch of yahoo's in the 21st century. Ehrman lays out some of the issues these biblical texts were addressing.

Basically there are four biblical viewpoints presented to deal with the problem of suffering.

1. We suffer because we pissed off god.
2. We suffer because people can choose to do evil upon us.
3. We suffer because....I dunno and neither does anyone else.
4. We suffer because of the devil, but he's going to get his any millennium now.

Each of these is presented briefly and the relevant biblical verses presented. Now I realize that the bible says anything you bloody well want it to, if you simply look at it one verse at a time. However, Ehrman is dealing with more than specific verse but entire psalms, chapters, and books. For example the book of Job basically hits on suffering rationales #3 and #4.

Now as a good American, and I expect most other Western countries are similar, I fully embrace example #1. We suffer because we suck. If I hadn't done X, then Y wouldn't have happened. Now I am a fan of looking at how my actions lead to the consequences that happen to me. I think its important and I am a fan of personal responsibility. If I smoke a pack of cigarettes a day for the next 10 years, then I realize I am at much greater risk for lung cancer, emphysemia, or other respiratory-pulmonary ailment. However, people have lung cancer, emphsema, and other respiratory-pulmonary ailments and have never smoked a cigarette in their life. So what's going on? Are these people deserving of these ailments? Proponents of "why do we suffer reason #1" say yes. And of course its possible to justify this position. Someone with lung cancer worked in a mine or asbestos plant, they should have known better. (Note: I realize this is completely hypothetical, but it won't take you long to find someone who blames the victim for their suffering. Take the gang-related shooting of some innocent victim, the victim should have moved from their housing to someplace this is supposed to happen is not clear, but that doesn't stop the believer.) UPDATE: Look at Pat Robertson and Haiti.....douchebag

So you don't smoke or work in a field that puts you at greater risk, but you have lung cancer. WTF?!?!

Is it the red meat you ate?
Is it your political party affiliation?
Is it your choice in life-style that doesn't agree with mine?

Regardless, its your own fucking fault!

Unless it isnt, and that brings us to reason #2. "Its free will baby"

Remember free will? If not, its the reason why fundamentalists are ok with entire civilizations to be cast into hell because the people in said civilization didnt agree with the whole Jesus thing. Think Native Americans, or more recently Muslims. These people heard about Jesus from missionaries or other sources and chose to maintain the beliefs they grew up with. Thus, its ok for them to suffer eternally. Why your fat white ass that was brought up in a christian household basically gets a free ride but not theirs is not a question we like to deal with.

Anyway, back to free will. See some people, like Hitler, do some really fucked up shit. Maybe they are in league with the devil, who knows. Regardless, they cause misery upon you through no fault of your own. They cut you off in traffic, make you feel uncomfortable by loving someone of the same sex (male only, actually we're ok with female-female love because that's hot), or throw men, women, and children into ovens. Evil is out there, no doubt. Since god gave us free will, and thus a one way eternal ticket to hell, people can choose to do evil. UPDATE: See Pat Robertson is happy to blame the 2010 earthquake in Haiti on the actions of 1790s slave revolters, however, ask him why 2 year old children were crushed to death, or dehyrated and starved slowly and alone maybe next to the dead bodies of their parents and he will backpedal and say the children didn't deserve it, it was the great great great great great great great great great great grandparents fault for choosing to make a pact with the devil. If these ancestors hadn't chosen to do evil and embraced their life of slavery (a biblical concept), this wouldn't have happened. Regardless, shit happens because other people are evil.

Ok, so what if it isn't your own fault and you can't blame someone else?

Easy! Answer #3. Shit happens. Actually the biblical way this is framed isn't quite so vulgar, but it did predate this catch phrase by 3-4000 years. See, no one really understands why some shit happens, and some of these people are really smart. So you are left with the big old catch all of, well it happens we dont know why but remember to send in your check to your representative of your all loving all powerful all knowing god. Do we really need a better reason to leave the god concept by the wayside than the "shit happens" excuse? I mean, if a theologian is pulling this out of his/her ass and then telling me I should worship a god that allows shit to happen in order to make it seem like they don't exist and shit happens. Well, Im just going to complete the circuit and assume said god doesnt exist.

#4 is actually kind of cool. Although the current fundamentalists have screwed it all up. See in practice for normal people everywhere reasons #1 and #2 do not hold up. Sure you can find specific examples (Hitler) where you can say "Look that's #2!" But only the most dense, cannot easily come up with exceptions to #1 and #2. As noted above #3 is a big cop-out that really just allows someone with a better rationalized god to come in and fill the gap. Christians generally dont seem to like to think much beyond that of a stone age goat herder, so what can they do?

I got it! #4. Sure a lot of shit happens and that sucks, but don't you worry about it. God has got it all figured out. See shit happens and that sucks for you, but don't worry god is comin' and gonna make those fuckers pay. It'll be awesome, trust me. If not tomorrow, probably next week, definitely by next month, I mean we dont have to put up with this shit more than a year or so. Look god is busy, but I promise you before you die, god will avenge you, or your children, or grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, or your great great great great great great great great great great grandchildren. Unless you grew up in a different culture under threat from your own gods and didnt dare listen to the morons in the brown robes who didn't know not to eat the poison fruit, if you didn't listen to them and were enslaved, beaten, forced to toil under near starvation conditions for life, well that's your fault and if you tried to rectify the situation, then you'll have to be crushed to death under a pile of rubble. But don't worry white poor people, Im comin' real soon. So why is this cool? Well its not, until you realize the history. These concepts arose at a time of great suffering for the Jewish people (remember the bible was originally for them). Reasons #1 and #2 were not holding water, so that left #3. One can only tolerate #3 for the short term. So in order to keep the sheep in line, let's start discussing the possibility of #4. Hmm, this seems to be working. YEAH! #4!!!11!eleventy!!!11! Now just keep those donations coming, because we have a lot of work to do before god comes back for payback. This is one of the best marketing campaigns ever, rivaled only by the don't worry about cigarettes, you'll be cool campaign.

Ehrman is not as rancid as I am, but the argument is about the same. See for yourself and think about it. This is a real issue and a real problem religious folks have. You want us to believe in an all powerful, all loving god. Please explain evil.

H/T einekleinenachtblog for the video


Caleb said...

#5. We suffer because god wants us to. Not necessarily because we have done anything wrong (cause and effect suffering) but simply because it fulfills some global or universal purpose. Personally, I feel this may be the most true based upon our limited human perspective. And it pisses me off. I still believe its partial truth, but it doesn't mean I like it, in the same way that someone falling 30 stories might hate gravity.

I look forward to reading more thought provoking posts. Glad I stumbled upon this.


The Lorax said...

Caleb, the 4 I stated I took from Ehrmans book. But I wonder, how is your #5 any different than there is no god and shit happens? For instance, in he herd a gazelles, one is getting eaten by the lion, hey don't straws, they run for it. The weak or old often gets eaten (sucks for them, but no universal purposes needs to be invoked just statistics. But the smartest, fastest gazelle might trip over a branch, step in a hole, be fighting a cold and get eaten. God may have done it, or maybe shit just happens.

Thanks for posting!

Caleb said...

*With the caveat that a blog comment wall is not the best place for a discussion of a somewhat philosophical nature*

In my mind, a large difference exists between "my" #5 and the idea that "there is no god, and shit happens". Fundamentally, my #5 represents the idea that suffering, evil, etc. happens because it somehow fits into god's plan. Take the book of Job for example. While the book may have been written as an analogy to the suffering the Jewish people were facing at the time, rather than as an account of a particular individual's suffering, it often makes me pause and think "Well what about Job's kids?" ( fell on them if I remember right) Now, the kids had sinned (we are all human, and all deserve a collapsing house...) but so had Job, and he wasn't killed outright. At the end of the day, I come to the conclusion, that the death of his family served to emphasize God's power, humble Job, etc., not to punish the kids themselves. So their suffering had a place in God's global plan.

Is this discernible from the idea of "shit happens and there is no g/God?" Probably not, at least when viewed by our limited imagination and intelligence.

Wow that got longer than intended, and is not as eloquent or informative as it could be...

Thanks for the response.


By the way...anyone who believes in an omnipotent and omniscient god and does not believe that "evil" (as we view it) starts with Him is an idiot.

The Lorax said...

I have to admit up front that from my perspective evil is strictly a social construct. People are social creatures and our overall survival has depended on us being successful in our social interactions. We aren't special this way, ants are social, so are wolves, and gazelle, and chimps, and numerous fish, and an uncountable number of microbes, etc. etc. etc. What we do have is a big brain that helps with these social interactions.

Murder is bad, dare I say evil. This was true for people before a fictitious Moses brought down some fabled stone tablets. (If it wasn't true, then how did all those non-Jewish and pre-Moses Jewish people survive?). In a tribe, if a member starts murdering other members then other members might decide it is in their best interest to remove the murderer from the tribe (big rock to the head works well).

Other "evils" are societally dependent. In the US, a large number of people think that homosexuality is evil and should in fact be an imprisonable offense. In other societies, fear of the gay is not such a big deal.

Polygamy, evil not evil? Pick a society.

Slavery, evil not evil? Again pick a society. Mason-evil, Dixon-not evil

Vandalism, evil not evil? Pick a society. Chrissy Saterfield thinks its heroic if it backs up her religious bigotry. Others think its a crime.

Now that being said. I find the "god's plan" response to be a cop-out. There is no way to support or refute that position. In your description of Job's kids you go immediately for reason #1 They pissed off God aka its was their own damned fault by using "they were sinners" response. The problem being as you note that Job was too, so why did he live? Why weren't the people down the street killed instead? Regardless, the book of Job is fairly clear, the kids died because God made a bet with one of his buddies (often referred to as Satan), not because they sinned or even because Job sinned. In fact, they whole came about because Job was so damn pious not because of anything he did wrong.

The idea that God killed the kids to teach Job a lesson. You do not see the problem inherent in that argument? God saved me from that fiery plane wreck and not the other 165 people for some as yet not understood reason. People like that make me nauseous. What about the kids or the other 165 people? I guess they are just fodder for the lucky bastards. Maybe that's why God favors the greedy thieving take advantage-of-others people. They get the best health care, live in the best neighborhoods, etc. Now if God can only provide us with a few thousand more sweatshop employees, I feel like I deserve some new cheap sneakers.

Again thanks for putting your opinion/thoughts out there!

Caleb said...

Without a doubt, many of the "evils" that some are so quick to condemn are considered "evil" due to society and thousands of years of conditioned response to certain behavior...and this can be different in different societies.

Question: Does the idea of God allowing one person out of 100 to live (or killing/allowing 99 to die) nauseate you more than 99 dying of random chance in a plane crash?

Yes, "Gods plan" is a cop-out in that it cannot be proven/disproven. However, I fail to see how "shit happens" is any different, though it could be due to my lack of understanding, naivete, etc.

Thanks for forcing me to think.