The Suffering Atheist in a Meaningless Universe

“One of America’s most astute thinkers, Reinhold Niebuhr, has recalled to our consciousness a fact which both liberalism and Marxism have ignored with almost fatal consequences to our civilization. Evil, he points out, is something real, not an appearance only, and the proper name for it is sin. Its locus is not in institutions, which are but a reflection of human purposes, but in human nature itself. It is pride, self-righteousness, greed, envy, hatred and sloth that are the real evils and the ones from which social evils spring. When man is thwarted in his attempts to realize justice it is because he is thwarted by his own sinful predisposition. The recognition of this inherent predisposition to sin helps to explain why the best laid plans of men never quite succeed.”

John H. Hallowell, Professor of Political Science, Duke University.

Over three consecutive weeks I listened to a BBC4 production presented by John Humphries, who interviewed the Chief Iman of the UK, the Chief Rabbi of the UK and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Humphries asked them to convince him that God exists in spite of the suffering that exists in the world.

Of the three religious leaders, the Chief Rabbi, for me, made the best points,  but none of them made what I think is a crucial point in a discussion of God and suffering.

It is this: If suffering is a problem, it can only be a problem for a believer, because it arises as a result of faith. Thus it cannot logically be used to argue against faith/belief in God as John Humphries does in his BBC programme.

If you reject belief in God because it brings with it insoluble problems – such as suffering – you end up believing in a dying meaningless universe; a universe that comes from nowhere and is going nowhere; a cruel universe that is indifferent to your needs.

If there is no God, there is no point in resentment or bitterness, because in a Godless universe, there is no rhyme or reason for anything. There is simply no one to resent or blame. However, the notion of an evil god is not on the cards – for atheists and theists. Why would the existence of an evil god be a problem?  Because say we decide that there is a God, but that he is evil, whence did we get our idea of evil? We are appealing to a standard that would exist apart and ABOVE that of the evil god, which cannot be evil itself. Now, if this standard is above evil then surely it has more right to be called God than the evil god. Furthermore, we can only know good from evil, right from wrong because of the fact that we have the primordial idea of “good” and “right.”

If John Humphries – for whom “God” can only connote goodness  – rejects the existence of God because of the evil of suffering, it seems he is also rejecting the idea of  a meaningful universe. In a universe without God (a Creator)  the problem of suffering – or any other human problem – shouldn’t be a problem to Humphries. This is so because in a meaningless universe, human thoughts, hopes, fears, and sufferings follow the same Darwinian rules of nature, raw in tooth and claw. Things are what they – randomly – are.

Reject God; reject meaning.  The irony is this: Humphries believes in a meaningful universe. If he didn’t, why bother to do the programme? But perhaps I’m being a bit silly, for when someone says “life is meaningless,” he means that, though the bits of life have some meaning, when you put the bits together, they have no ultimate meaning – they lead nowhere. The issue, though is that If they lead nowhere, they come from nowhere. If we don’t know where we come from and where we are going, it follows – this is the way we think – that we  have no idea why we are “here.”  So, perhaps, I’m not being so silly, and thus my original question to Humphries stands: “Why bother to do the programme?” The answer, in a meaningless universe (that is, in a purely natural (mechanistic universe) is, naturally: Humphries was programmed to do it.

However, the notion of an evil god is not on the cards – for atheists and theists.


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