Q&A on God and Suffering, a correspondence

By | February 17, 2014

Juan Bernal

A friend who corresponds on philosophical issues remarked on some things I had said about the problem of evil. The problem of evil, in nutshell, is the problem of explaining why a world monitored by God can have so much evil and suffering.

My correspondent can be called John.  John wrote:

You seem to say that the amount of suffering entails disbelief in God. A classic rejoinder is that in a world without suffering there would be no compassion, but would such conditions be better than the world we experience? Leibniz said no. As we know, he thought that this is the best of all possible worlds (for God’s purposes). If we want to produce “character” then challenges are needed, so danger is necessary to produce courage, etc.  This world is a spiritual boot camp to promote growth. Stretching our spatial limits beyond this planet, what evidence can you offer that there is more suffering than happiness? In temporal terms, how do you know the balance between joy and sorrow in the long term?

My reply to John went as follows:

I’ll take each of your statements and comment in turn.

First, I never asserted that suffering entailed disbelief in God as a general truth.  (I try to avoid such categorical declarations.)   It is true that the arbitrary suffering and injustice that some people experience would make it difficult for a logical thinker to continue believing in an omnipotent, perfectly good God, and some would assuredly reject belief in such a God.  But some people do not do so; they find some way of reconciling their suffering with their faith.  I did not state a logical entailment between suffering in the world and disbelief in God.

Second, your rejoinder is a puzzler, since those who indict God on the excessive, arbitrary suffering that afflict some people are not calling for a world absolutely devoid of suffering. (Such a world is just the dream of some romantic idealist.)   I surely never suggested that that this fantasy of a world (one devoid of suffering) is the only thing that would exonerate God.  Maybe, we (the critics) just call for a world in which suffering is significantly reduced, for example, one in which genocides don’t happen and children don’t suffer fatal cancer.  Yes, in such a world, conditions would be better.  Leibniz nutty claim about this being the best of all possible worlds is one that we can take seriously only if we pretend to assess the condition of the world from God’s perspective.  But that is just a pretense.  We can honestly assess the condition of the world only from a human perspective.

I don’t doubt that challenges are important and maybe even necessary in our lives, and true also that  challenges involve frustration and suffering, in some cases.  And I suppose you can say that meeting challenges helps to build character. (They surely are conditions for some of our greatest art!)  But tell me, what character is built for the millions whose lives were cut short by the holocaust, by total war, by early deaths due to preventable disease?   Is this the only way your God can “build character”?    That the world is a “spiritual boot camp to promote growth” is a nice sentiment for those who believe such things.  But it hardly answers the questions of suffering Job, or of Ivan in the Dostoevsky novel, or the Jewish prisoners awaiting execution at the hands of the Nazi.  In fact it sounds like an insult to those people.

It seems that “stretching our limits beyond this planet” is just an expression of some people’s aspiration.  Or it might be an attempt to see things from a supernatural perspective. But this perspective would surely result in very strange view of things, probably beyond any human understanding contrary to all your religious doctrines, stories, and ‘philosophies’ which pretend to tell us what things look like from that fantastic perspective.  But the main point is that such “stretching” is irrelevant to the problem of evil.  You’re simply asking me to provide evidence against some highly, speculative  -  even mystical – claim.

According to this highly speculative picture there is much more happiness than evil in the universe despite all appearances to the contrary in our real, earthly life.  This is just another statement of the “ultimate harmony” story, which many of us find incredible and not very relevant.

In order to raise the problem of evil (why does God allows so much?), I don’t have to know “the balance between joy and sorrow in the long term,” when the long term takes us to some imagined supernatural realm which some people dream up.  I only need some assessment of the balance between joy and sorrow for people here on earth, and some assessment of the great a disparity in this nonexistent ‘balance.’  Those conditions that hold in our earthly life are enough to raise the problem of evil.


John then responded by focusing attention on my comment that “we can honestly assess the condition of the world only from a human perspective.”

 Do you agree that our human perspective is limited, and therefore incomplete and possibly (probably?) mistaken in many ways? If so, then it is rash for you to leap to atheism. Your skepticism or agnosticism is appropriate for you at this level of understanding, but don’t you think that atheism is a bit too strong a claim for one who admits human limitations? Does not atheism entail that there is a correct point of view, namely the way matters actually stand independent of human limitations? It would seem that you are certain that there are correct points of view about some issues, such as the non-existence of God, but how does that cohere with your claim about our limited human perspective?

To which I replied:

I did not even know that the issue up front was between atheism or theism.   Do you think I have leaped to atheism?  I have not, but that’s another story for another time.

When I claim that we’re all limited to our human perspective on the world,  I argue that all of us, including you, all theists, theologians, mystics, great philosophers, etc. are limited in the sense that none of us can jump out of  our human perspective and really view and assess things from a different (non-human) perspective;  although many people like to pretend otherwise.  Yes, our human perspective is limited and can be mistaken in many ways (who would ever think otherwise?).   But, really now, do you seriously think anyone can really assess things and make judgments as to such things as good and evil, the prospects for a supernatural being overseeing human affairs, and other such issues from anything but a human perspective?   Yes, many people claim a transcendent perspective, some based on religious doctrine, or religious scripture, or even religious experience (e.g., a mystical experience).  But tell me which of these many contending claims to a transcendent perspective can legitimately claim to be a real perspective  -  relevant to the rest of us -  to the nature of reality?   Do you have a candidate?   Why is that one special?

Given that human claims to something other than a human perspective are suspicious, to say the least,  and given that a human perspective on things (by means of common experience, judicious use of reason, and the empirical sciences) do not yield a clear indication of a supernatural overseer, it does not seem fair or accurate to describe the non-theistic view as a “leap to atheism.”  If anything is a leap, it is the avowal in belief in such a Being, as Kierkegaard and other religious figures surely recognized.

Maybe agnosticism is a more comforting view for those of us who emphasize the limitations of the human perspective.  But some aspects of the agnostic view imply a suspension of judgment, a waiting to see how the evidence bears out.   This assumes that there’s more to reality than our human inquiries can ever discover,  and that more might justify belief in some supernatural being.  This simply assumes some realm beyond the natural, physical realm accessible to human inquiry which might make all the difference in the world.   Why should I grant you this assumption?   It is as much a shot in the dark as the belief in that supernatural being that theists simply cannot relinquish.

If I call myself an atheist, the atheism I have in mind is that which imply a view of reality without God.  It does not confidently states that there is no God, as the very concept of God is very much in question. (It is a vague concept on which there is far from general agreement).   I would not even have clear understanding of the proposition that there is a God (since there are so many different variations of this); I don’t have a clear understanding the confident assertion that there is no God.

But I hold that the traditional, Biblically-based notion of a God, cannot stand up to critical scrutiny.  I don’t find that anyone has ever made a compelling claim for this favored notion of God as really being characteristic of reality.  Now, if you have an example to the contrary, I would be curious enough to listen to you.

Respectfully and in good will,

I remain a philosophical friend.


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