Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Why suffering?

I just listened to last week's Unbelievable show on the subject of 'Why Suffering?'

The show followed the usual format of a Christian, in this instance Sharon Dirckx, author of "Why?", and an atheist, Alom Shaha, author of "The Young Atheist's Handbook", but this week also featured two short interviews with Christians who have had to deal with great suffering in their own lives.

What the show failed to do was really engage with the 'Why?' question. Which is a big shame because that suggests to me that Sharon Dirckx's book also fails to get to grips with it. I have to say that Alom's issues against God, in the light of suffering, were far better expressed and thought through than Sharon's fairly standard apologetic arguments in favour of God. It became clear to me, in the final interchange between the two, that Alom had won the debate.

But anyway, what interested (and frustrated) me more in the programme was the two interviews with suffering people. 

The first was with a guy who had lost his wife and toddler son in a car accident (he wasn't in the car), but his young daughter (who was in the car) had survived unharmed. By his own admission he was a nominal Christian when the accident happened, but he turned to a much stronger faith following the accident, and spoke of the strengthening he experienced through God and the support he received from the Christian community. He also spoke of how he is blessed now with another wife and three more children.

The second interview was with a woman who has suffered with MS for the past 12 years, and has a fairly hard time looking after her daughter as a consequence. What seems to have helped her through all this is the help, support, and assistance from people in her Church, and a feeling of hope for her future - in heaven - which she believes comes from God.

The thing that struck me about both stories, was that they could both be retold in the context of a different deity and a different religion, and the stories would still ring true.

The guy, faced with death, thought "this can't be the end for my son", refused to believe the secular take on things, saw a religious symbol (in his case he saw a cross on the wall of the mortuary), and decided to investigate the faith of his ancestors, in order to find meaning. He found meaning, hope and support in a religious setting. I have no doubt that exactly the same process could happen for a nominal Muslim in Pakistan, or for a nominal Hindu in India, or whatever. All religions offer community, support, hope, and meaning. The problem is they cannot all be true. In this instance, there is no clear evidence that supports the Christian faith up against any other faith. Its great that the guy found the strength and support to carry on, but his story offers no evidence that Christianity is any more true than any other religious claim.

In the case of the woman, while her story was very different, the same could be said. For her it was the support of the religious community and the hope that her faith provides which has enabled her to cope. But I'm sure you could play out the same scenario in a Muslim, Hindu, or whatever, setting and the same processes would work. You don't need a 'real' God behind the system, what you need is the promise of hope and the assistance of friends. These are available in all religions. 

Of course, this is where 'secular humanism' fails. While it can (sometimes) offer the help and support of like-minded individuals, it has no promise of hope for the future.

But maybe we need the promise of hope, even if that hope is false. Maybe its the promise, not the reality, that enables us to continue through the tough times.

Oddly enough, I listened to this podcast just after reading a chapter in Valerie Tarico's book "Trusting Doubt" (proper review to follow, once I've finished the book) which was basically on the subject of the shared values of most religions. Which probably explains my thoughts above.
The 14th Dalai Lama apparently said:
"Every religion emphasises human improvement, love respect for others, sharing other people's suffering. On these lines every religion has more or less the same viewpoint and the same goal."
I'm not totally sure that's 100% true, I'm sure some religions are founded on other principles, but in general terms, the main, popular, religions all endorse these values. Generally religious people of all religions strive to be humble, charitable, and trustworthy. So in almost any religion, a suffering person should find a community to support them.

What these people have found, in their suffering, is not the love of God, but the support of humanity. Just because they have found it in a religious context does not mean that the religion is in any way true.

So the question remains. Why suffering? This show certainly didn't answer the question. And I'm unlikely to read the book that the show was promoting. But I still find it very hard to reconcile the Evangelical view of God with the fact of suffering. A God defined by love, and unlimited in power would do more to help those he loves. I have yet to hear a decent apologetic response to this.


LadyAtheist said...

Interesting stories. I am convinced the power of community is so strong that it alone keeps people from entertaining doubts or openly admitting them.

Hobbyists can become a community that will be supportive, though it probably isn't as binding as religious tradition. If you have M.S. and go to your old softball teams games do you get the same payback that you do when you go to church?

My stepdad had M.S. and as he got sicker he went to church less often. The good folks at church didn't call, didn't offer rides to church, or come to visit (though mom is a hoarder so nobody did eventually). My stepdad was Lutheran, and that may be part of it. I think the fundies do more in that way, but I'm just guessing.

If they help others out of a sense of obedience to a deity that is watching their every move and reading their minds, how much credit do they deserve, though?

Ian Boys said...

I listened to the same interview but had to turn it off near the end as the christian apologist was driving me nuts with meaningless platitudes and not listening to Alom Shaha, who was immensely patient with her.

The issue of suffering is massive (esp to me having worked in Somalia 93 and Rwanda 94 and elsewhere). And she failed to answer why, as you stated.

I think the short answer is that there just isn't a god in the first place.

Fernanda said...

An excellent review and an excellent example of being objective. This is the first time for me as a secular humanist to read an article of a religious perspective and I was not disappointed. Loved the statement that support is found in community , not in religion and does not prove the religion to be somewhat right. Gave a lot of mind candy to chew. Thank you.