The Question of Suffering, or another way it’s referred to, the Problem of Evil, is the biggest thorn in the side of religion. It’s out there, constantly asking for an explanation. Religion dances around it, bending and twisting itself, pretzel-like, to rationalize suffering in the context of a purported omnipotent, omnipresent, omni-benevolent god. It does, to it’s credit, arrive at somewhat quiescent conclusions regarding that suffering caused by other humans, like crime, abuse, neglect, and other forms of suffering heaped on fellow humans for the benefit of the heaper, but ultimately, they are unsatisfying, because they depend of the existence of god for their truthfulness, and in posing the question of suffering, it is the existence of god that cannot, and should not, be presumed. The point of asking the question is to determine whether god exists.
Why is there suffering in a world created by an all-loving all powerful god? Why do such things as earthquakes, cyclones, tsunami and hurricanes rain death upon millions of people? Closer to home, why are there such diseases as Cancer, AIDS, Cystic Fibrosis, Ebola, Necrotizing Fasciitis, Rabies, and Bubonic Plague, among others? Why do children die of hunger every day in a world with ample food to prevent it?
On a more physiological level, I recently had cause to wonder why the human body is so , how shall I say it, imperfect. It causes, all by itself, untold suffering to the people who inhabit it, and not always because of the introduction of an outside agents, such as disease or virus. For instance, why does the human body have such a propensity towards addiction? Heroin addiction, prescription medicine addiction, nicotine addiction, even food addiction causes so many problems for society, and all because our bodies are imperfect. Wasn’t god supposed to have created us in his own image? Is he up there at this very moment, scratching uncontrollably, suffering through a bad bout of withdrawal? Is he wearing a nicotine patch, trying to shake his cigarette jones? Is he working out on a treadmill, trying to shed the weight he gained from overeating?
Worse yet, is he sitting in the drunk tank, or standing before a Judge, trying to explain why he had to break in and rob that old lady so he could scratch up enough for his next hit? Is he waiting for a new heart, because the old one was so overwhelmed by years of built up cholesterol plaque, that a bypass couldn’t keep him alive? Or a new liver because the old one is ravaged by the progress of cirrhosis? Does he have to buy two tickets for the Heavenly Air Express Shuttle, because he doesn’t fit in one seat?
There is a lot of suffering in the world caused by the imperfections of the human body. Spiraling health insurance costs and crime are just two indicators of this. If god created us, he could have created us without this propensity for self destruction. He could have created a vessel for our selves that didn’t get old, that didn’t get fat, that didn’t crave the things in the world that slowly kill us, couldn’t he? But he didn’t.
There are two explanations for this. The religious explanation is that he’s God, he can do what he wants, he works in mysterious ways, and who are we, mere mortals, to question his plan? The problem with that explanation is that it explains nothing. It simply posits either an arbitrary, somewhat malicious entity who says he created us in order to love us, but instead tortures us, or an entity that really doesn’t care, much yet loves us. That explanation simply says “Fuck you. Stop asking!”
The second explanation is that there is no god, no supernatural entity, nothing higher in existence than us (at least within the immediate vicinity of, say, this galaxy) and that all the suffering, all of what we call evil in the world, is a byproduct, and incidental to life itself. We are born to a harsh planet, and we do our best to survive on it. Shit happens.
The second explanation makes more sense. If the planet simply evolved to its present state, then there is no directed force that could guarantee an optimal state of existence. Both good and bad would evolve together, indiscriminately. We would have places on the planet that were well suited to the existence of life, and places that weren’t, by the laws of chance. And voilá, we do! There’s Antarctica, the tops of mountains ranges, Tornado Alley and various tectonic fault zones, all of which pose problems for survival and existence to the human form, not to mention untold suffering. On the other hand, we have stable coastal areas, flat plains and savannahs, verdant forests, tropical paradise islands and other habitable places more suitable to human existence. And then, ironically, many of the apparently optimal living spots on the planet can turn on the inhabitants with a vengeance, with little or no warning, such as we saw in the 2004 Tsunami, the recent Myanmar cyclone, and Hurricane Katrina.
With a god, those divergent places make no sense. Without him, they do.