Suffering and the vain quest for significance

Question: Many have criticized Pat Robertson’s suggestion that the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti was the work of the devil or … Continued

Question: Many have criticized Pat Robertson’s suggestion that the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti was the work of the devil or a form of divine punishment. But if one believes God is good and intervenes in the world, why does God allow innocents to suffer? Why does God allow Haiti to suffer so much? What is the best scriptural text or explanation of that problem you’ve ever read?

It is the year 2010. Over the last three to four centuries we have amassed a huge amount of knowledge about the Earth and its place in the universe. There is much yet to learn, but the knowledge we have acquired would have astounded our forefathers.

Thanks to marvelously sophisticated technology, itself the result of an accurate understanding of the workings of the universe, humans have walked on the moon. We have landed explorer robots on Mars, and have photographed the nucleus of Halley’s Comet, the surface of Betelgeuse and new planetary systems forming in Orion. We know the approximate composition of the individual planets and comets, we know the approximate number of stars in our galaxy and of galaxies in our universe. We know the size of the universe, and its age, and the forces that drive its expansion. We know which stars are hot and which are cool, which ones are new and which are ancient beyond all imagining. We have detected planets in other solar systems, and know their size and the shape of their orbit, and whether it is possible that they contain any of the chemical prerequisites for life. Back on our own planet, we know how it was formed, and when. We can read its history, inscribed forever in the rocks. We know what forms its surface and the underlying mantle, and can make an informed guess at what makes up its core. We know how life evolved from its earliest, infinitely primitive forms into the staggering array of species we see around us today. We know what causes night and day, the seasons, and the tides. We can predict to the minute when the next solar eclipse will take place, and from where it will be visible.

And – crucially, in the context of this question – we know exactly what causes earthquakes.

All this knowledge is new to us. Our species, Homo sapiens, has been in existence for at least the last 100,000 years, perhaps more, and for the vast majority of our collective past, we had no proper explanations for any of these things. No wonder, then, that our forefathers imagined that storms and tempests, floods and droughts, famines and disease, volcanoes and earthquakes were caused by demons, or at the hands of divine beings whose wrath they themselves had been so unfortunate as to incur.

Our primitive ancestors – and even our more recent ones – had no knowledge of plate tectonics, of subduction zones or sea-floor spreading. How could they know of the pressures that build up along faults in the Earth’s crust, sometimes over hundreds and hundreds of years, but no less inexorably for that? To them earthquakes, when they came, were not just terrifying and devastating – as indeed they still are today – they were utterly mysterious, beyond comprehension, totally inexplicable. And yet humans have minds that seek explanations and so, in the absence of scientific understanding, they resorted to the supernatural. We can forgive them for that: any apparent explanation, no matter how preposterous, no matter how harsh, is comforting compared with the terror of unknowing. The idea of a cosmic battle between Good and Evil, or of natural disasters as the acts of a wrathful deity, must have seemed reasonable enough, in the absence of anything better.

But we have no such excuse today. The physical processes that cause natural disasters are well understood, and we know that they proceed in total blind indifference to us, our wishes, our fears, our hopes, our desires, our virtues or our peccadilloes.

To be fair, even most religious people acknowledge this (how could they not?). Indeed, it is this very realization that underlies the question of how a loving God could permit such suffering, a question that has kept generation after generation of theologians in a living. As ever, instead of looking at the reality of the world around them and drawing their conclusions about the nature – or even existence! – of the god they worship based on what they see, the theologians start with their desired answer – God is good! – and then contort themselves into ever more desperate intellectual non-sequiturs in order to twist the evidence to fit that answer.

The explanations (sic) that they come up with fall into three broad categories:

1. God wanted to create humans, and human life is only possible where there are plate tectonics and, consequently, earthquakes. (That life is only possible on Earth because of plate tectonics may well be true; but how odd that theologians should wish to claim that the all-knowing, all-good and all-powerful creator of the laws of physics could not have created them so as to permit life without the kind of suffering that plate tectonics cause.)

2. That God created the world perfect, and that such suffering was never part of his purpose for us, but that human rebellion opened the door to our suffering.

3. It’s a mystery.

The third of these can be dismissed since it just means, ‘Yes, you’re right, it really doesn’t make sense, does it? But I want you to go on believing it anyway.’

The first two are more interesting, because you will note that they put humans well-and-truly center stage. It’s all about us! Yippee! We are important! So important that the whole universe was created with us in mind! And so important that our misdeeds are enough to change all the laws of physics!

We humans cannot even survive in the vast majority of the conditions prevailing on our own planet. The Earth’s atmosphere extends to about 60 miles above us, but we can only breathe at altitudes lower than roughly one and a quarter miles above sea-level. 70% of the surface of the Earth is covered by water, an element in which we are unable to survive unaided for more than a few hours. The deepest point of the oceans is nearly 36,000 feet; but if we venture unaided more than about 180 feet down, the pressure will crush us. Too hot and we die. Too cold and we die. Too high and we die. Too low and we die. And humans have only been around for less than one-hundredth of one percent of Earth’s history. And this, on a planet supposedly created for us!

It gets worse. This tiny planet is not even a pinprick on the scale of the universe, a universe which is something like 40 billion light years in size. What is that in miles? The distance traveled by light in a single year is 5.87 trillion miles, so I’ll leave you to multiply that by 40 billion and find space for all the zeroes.

The idea that any of this has anything at all to do with us, that it was created with us in mind, or that our ‘sinfulness’ has had any effect whatsoever on the majestic, monumental and utterly indifferent laws of physics, is egotism of the highest order. Not bad, for a religion that preaches humility!

It would be comical, hilarious, side-splittingly funny – but for one thing. This obsession with human behavior and the ugly conviction that there is some kind of link between suffering and sin, whether individual, national or original, leads to the kind of repugnant, sickening, disgraceful attitudes voiced by Pat Robertson this last week. Just when the rest of the world is overwhelmed with compassion, with the urgent desire to help those whose suffering is beyond our capacity to imagine it (with initiatives such as Non-Believers Giving Aid, for instance), Pat Robertson and others like him are saying, ‘They brought it on themselves’. It is not enough, apparently, that they should be traumatized, grieving and in pain. They should be feeling guilty as well. It is not enough that we should help them. We should judge them too.

Give me the indifference of the laws of physics rather than the hubristic self-righteousness of the religious any day.

Paula Kirby
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  • NMcC

    Great piece. Not only well worth reading a first time, but well worth printing out or saving for future quoting.”And so important that our misdeeds are enough to change all the laws of physics!”I’ve never thought of the old nonsensical “fallen creature” claim in that way before. Nice one!

  • Rationalist1

    Or the 4th option suggested by Christian Science and some Eastern mystics, the unreality of the material world. Just for completeness, not an endorsement of this position.

  • GMartin-Royle

    At last, a sensible post. Having read the christian apologist posts it is wonderful to read such a succint rebuttal to Mr Robertson.

  • frank52

    An impressive display of scientific knowledge, Paula, but of little relevance to the people of Haiti, and your final sentence is offensive to those of us who happen to be religious and very serious about our giving to those in need, and see no need to advertise it.

  • cornbread_r2

    frank52:Ms. Kirby’s remarks were relevant to the question posed to the panel. In that she never addressed the issue of motivation and charitable giving, the fact that you would invent that objection and then personally take offense to it perhaps demonstrates why her choice of words in that final sentence seem entirely appropriate.

  • Ali8

    Thank you Paula. We need more reasoned thoughtful posts like this in our national papers. I am so sick of the airy fairy nonsense!

  • kalex1975

    Bravo Paula! It is mind-boggling how certain folks just disregard so much of the evidence because they are ignoirant of it or it doesn’t match what a book of fables written in the bronze age says.

  • chuckgoecke

    Spot-on Paula! The degree to which the earth’s and universes natural forces are indifferent to humanity can’t be stressed enough. We are but lichens clinging to a steep rock wall on a huge windswept mountain. It is ironic that climate change deniers will bring out this fact, to reinforce their points. The earth, its life and even humanity, will survive man-made global warming. That’s not the issue. It’s the dirt-poor Bangladeshi peasant squatting in his hut one foot above sea level; it’s the Sudanese subsistence farmer scratching at the concrete hard dirt; it’s the Maldivian fisherman watching the water lap at the bottom of his stilted hut, wondering if it will make it through the next tropical storm season. It’s the Haitian earthquake refugee, house leveled, wife and 2 of his 4 kids with it, living in a UN-issued tent, with a looming Hurricane season just around the corner.

  • GMartin-Royle

    @frank52So you are offended. So what?

  • khote14

    It appears that frank52 wants everybody to know that he’s giving to charity, and even more wants everybody to know he’s not advertising it. This faux outrage about being offended gives him the opportunity to announce to everybody that’s he’s not announcing this charity.Oh, and he’s self-righteous about it.I don’t know that Paula could have described these kind of people better than frank52 has done for us, right in front of us.

  • frank52

    A number of respondents responded to my post but failed to note Ms Kirby’s reference to the Non-Believers Giving Aid (or the debate regarding it). Nor did they refer to my first point. Seems that I have had the desired effect on both counts. They also failed to accept that most Christians, (certainly those outside the USA) are not like Robertson and find it repugnant to be tarred with the same brush.

  • BlaiseP

    “When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allotted to me? The religious struggle with the silent universe but at least find some solace meditating upon the Christ. Studies show true religious lead happier lives than the non. Who then is the wiser when confronted with

  • BlaiseP

    What the religious seek from suffering is not significance.What they seek is solace.

  • mbee10

    Re comment by Blaisep.If believing that some deity created it all happens to make you feel better than that is OK for you, but it doesn’t make it true.

  • FH1231

    “You” can’t imagine creating a universe where plate tectonics are necessary for life on earth…talk about hubris. “The mass of the universe (actually mass + energy, since E = mc2) determines how much nuclear burning takes place as the universe cools from the hot big bang. If the mass were slightly larger, too much deuterium (hydrogen atoms with nuclei containing both a proton and a neutron) would form during the cooling of the big bang. Deuterium is a powerful catalyst for subsequent nuclear burning in Stars. This extra deuterium would cause stars to burn much too rapidly to sustain life on any possible planet.On the other hand, if the mass of the universe were slightly smaller, no helium would be generated during the cooling of the big bang. Without helium, stars cannot produce the heavy elements necessary for life. Thus, we see a reason why the universe is as big as it is. If it were any smaller (or larger), not even one planet like the earth would be possible.”

  • persiflage

    Thanks for an excellent column Paula. Reinforcing ignorance and a widespread belief in the supernatural obviously benefits only evangelizing con men like Pat Robertson. There’s money to be made trading in human gullibility. Religion is big business. Too many folks don’t consider that education is a personal responbility, even with all the informational resources at our disposal these days. Even so, there are an abundance of individuals with educational credentials that leave common sense at the door when it comes to religion. Humans are past masters at compartmentalization in order to avoid psychic conflict.Science and religion conflict in too many ways to enumerate…….

  • persiflage

    Thanks for an excellent column Paula. Reinforcing ignorance and a widespread belief in the supernatural obviously benefits only evangelizing con men like Pat Robertson. There’s money to be made trading in human gullibility. Religion is big business. Too many folks don’t consider that education is a personal responbility, even with all the informational resources at our disposal these days. Even so, there are an abundance of individuals with educational credentials that leave common sense at the door when it comes to religion. Humans are past masters at compartmentalization in order to avoid psychic conflict.Science and religion conflict in too many ways to enumerate…….

  • persiflage

    ‘On the other hand, if the mass of the universe were slightly smaller, no helium would be generated during the cooling of the big bang. Without helium, stars cannot produce the heavy elements necessary for life. Thus, we see a reason why the universe is as big as it is. If it were any smaller (or larger), not even one planet like the earth would be possible.”‘What this tends to indicate is that on a cosmic scale, what can happen will happen, or possibly that this universe is only the most recent of an infinite number of self-replicating universes, or that there are an infinite number of ‘parallel’ universes that possess every conceivable combination of characteristics….and we find ourselves in one of those. What it does not provide is evidence for a Supreme Being…….

  • persiflage

    ‘On the other hand, if the mass of the universe were slightly smaller, no helium would be generated during the cooling of the big bang. Without helium, stars cannot produce the heavy elements necessary for life. Thus, we see a reason why the universe is as big as it is. If it were any smaller (or larger), not even one planet like the earth would be possible.”‘What this tends to indicate is that on a cosmic scale, what can happen will happen, or possibly that this universe is only the most recent of an infinite number of self-replicating universes, or that there are an infinite number of ‘parallel’ universes that possess every conceivable combination of characteristics….and we find ourselves in one of those. What it does not provide is evidence for a Supreme Being…….

  • GMartin-Royle

    @frank52

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    The worst of Robertson’s proclamation was how hateful it was. It’s increasingly odd to me how the Christians continually proclaim theirs the Religion of Love. It’s gone beyond delusional. It’s hallucinatory.

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    CONTINUED:# Jesus advises his followers to mutilate themselves by cutting off their hands and plucking out their eyes. He says it’s better to be “maimed” than to suffer “everlasting fire.” 18:8-9# “And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors.” 18:34# In the parable of the marriage feast, the king sends his servants to gather everyone they can find, both bad and good, to come to the wedding feast. One guest didn’t have on his wedding garment, so the king tied him up and “cast him into the outer darkness” where “there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 22:12-13# Jesus had no problem with the idea of drowning everyone on earth in the flood. It’ll be just like that when he returns. 24:37# God will come when people least expect him and then he’ll “cut them asunder.” And “there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 24:50-51# The servant who kept and returned his master’s talent was cast into the “outer darkness” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 25:30# Jesus tells us what he has planned for those that he dislikes. They will be cast into an “everlasting fire.” 25:41# Jesus says the damned will be tormented forever. 25:46

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    Barferio:Good points. HOwever, recall that NT is far more important to Robertson and his offensive ilk than Tanakh. Look at all the “hateful” material he draws from in Matthew, alone.Matthew# Those who bear bad fruit will be cut down and burned “with unquenchable fire.” 3:10, 12# Jesus recommends that to avoid sin we cut off our hands and pluck out our eyes. This advice is given immediately after he says that anyone who looks with lust at any women commits adultery. 5:29-30# Jesus says that most people will go to hell. 7:13-14# Those who fail to bear “good fruit” will be “hewn down, and cast into the fire.” 7:19# “The children of the kingdom [the Jews] shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 8:12# Jesus tells a man who had just lost his father: “Let the dead bury the dead.” 8:21# Jesus sends some devils into a herd of pigs, causing them to run off a cliff and drown in the waters below. 8:32# Cities that neither “receive” the disciples nor “hear” their words will be destroyed by God. 10:14-15# Families will be torn apart because of Jesus (this is one of the few “prophecies” in the Bible that has actually come true). “Brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death.” 10:21# Jesus says that we should fear God who is willing and “able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” 10:28# Jesus says that he has come to destroy families by making family members hate each other. He has “come not to send peace, but a sword.” 10:34-36# Jesus condemns entire cities to dreadful deaths and to the eternal torment of hell because they didn’t care for his preaching. 11:20-24# Jesus will send his angels to gather up “all that offend” and they “shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” 13:41-42, 50# Jesus is criticized by the Pharisees for not washing his hands before eating. He defends himself by attacking them for not killing disobedient children. So, does Jesus think that children who curse their parents should be killed? It sure sounds like it. 15:4-7

  • barferio

    Is Pat merely a hateful, disgusting animated carcass of a human being, or does he have something here?I don’t mean I agree with him, certainly not. I mean from his perspective, delusional as it is – his statements are perfectly accurate.Here: Look at all the truly evil things his god has done to humanity. If Pat spends all his time reading Leviticus, Joshua, all those reprobates …. and if he truly believes this stuff, how can he come to any other conclusion than the one he so proudly announced?I swear, you Christians who say your religion comes from a loving god, you must not spend any real time reading your bible, the

  • NorwegianShooter

    EDITORS: Great article Paula. Supernatural believers need to understand that the cosmos’ indifference does not require that human lives are meaningless. They are completely independent of each other. Like Rick Warren says, “It’s not about you.” Now if he could just get that it’s not about a fatherly sky god either.

  • frederic2

    “Studies show true religious lead happier lives than the non. Who then is the wiser when confronted with eternal silence of these infinite spaces The atheist or the believer?” Religion = wellnessPeople are NOT interested in truth: It is too dangerous and too mind boggling. They prefer to construct a cozy picture of an anthropomorphous god, who has all the good and all the atrocious, low qualities they also find in themselves. This god is easy to handle intellectually. The cosmos is not. Therefore they stick to the former and prosecute the courageous searchers for the latter, who might disturb their intellectual coziness and laziness.

  • Athena4

    Thanks, Paula! I may be a Pagan and believe in Mother Earth, but I realize that she gets cranky once in a while, and Her children suffer for it. If someone would say that Poseidon Earth-Shaker was upset at Haiti, they’d look at you like you’re a nut. But Pat Robertson can get away with saying that Yahweh caused the quake. Plate tectonics, subduction zones, etc. are all part of this planet that we live on. The tragedy of Haiti was in the making years before this happened – abusive colonialism, crushing debt, income disparity, lack of infrastructure and building standards all contributed to this disaster.