In an earlier blog on the subject of Stephen Fry’s blasphemy, I pointed out that he was only highlighting something that Christians have struggled with for two thousand years – the problem of suffering. That is, the problem for religious belief posed by the existence of suffering in a world created by a loving deity. Believers have over the centuries tied themselves in knots trying to justify the apparently malicious ways of god to man. Apparently, suffering arises from evil which in turn arises from the ‘Original Sin’ of Adam and Eve, tempted by Satan who continues to be responsible for evil in the world. God can’t be blamed for any of it. The Gnostics thought that we suffer because this world is run by a sort of local god – a demiurge – who is not the great creator of the universe and does not share his infinite goodness. But either devil or half-god, in this way god gets to have his cake and eat it – demand our worship as a god of infinite love, while at the same time sponsoring pain and suffering throughout his creation. Outside of the Judaic tradition, Buddhism was founded largely to deal with the problem of suffering. The Buddha searched the world for the answer until enlightened by the realisation that if we don’t want to suffer, we need to learn not to care. So far, so obvious I would have thought, and rather to miss the point. Love is what makes life most worth living and to reject such attachments may well serve to avoid much suffering – but it renders life itself hardly worth living. Presumably that is why Buddhism evolved from a philosophy into a religion – you have to believe in future lives and eventual nirvana to make sense of living this life without actually engaging with it in any meaningful way.
As atheists of course, I and Stephen Fry have the advantage that we expect suffering to exist in a universe indifferent to mankind, so are not surprised by the infinite number of repellent ways by which nature brings us to the brink of despair. But we are also free to reject the believer’s passive acceptance of ‘God’s Will’ and to engage in the great human project to ameliorate, relieve and at some future time, eliminate the causes of suffering from human lives. Personally, I am optimistic about the project, as are many rationalists and scientists. A few years ago, I published an article about a now largely forgotten 20th Century novelist, Neil Bell. A lifelong atheist, he was in physical pain for much of his life, yet wrote:
Consider the happy things in life: eating, drinking, making love, music, flowers, laughter, books, pictures, travel, friendship. . . . Surely that is life’s purpose and meaning.
The world is indeed full of suffering, but not as much as it used to be. Primitive man may have lived a simple hunter/gatherer existence, but his life was nonetheless short, nasty and brutal. Extreme prophets of environmental apocalypse often seem to be advocating some return to such a simpler existence, mistaking simplicity for paradise. I for one would not be without modern medicine, dentistry, housing and diet. And I believe that with goodwill among nations and a commitment to scientific progress, we can do even better, and spread the benefits even wider. A lot of things get in the way of that, and high on the list of negative influences on the advance of civilised life, is religion. Religion that values future existence over present life; that encourages fatalism rather than a persistent determination to understand and improve; that praises the cloister and the retreat rather than engagement and struggle; that looks for supernatural answers to natural problems; and that seeks to blame suffering on anything other than our own failure to conquer it. The world causes but is indifferent to our suffering. God apparently regrets our suffering but declines to do anything tangible about it (I know, I know, He gave his Son up to the Cross for us; try telling that to the parents of a child dying of leukaemia!). If we want an end to suffering, we had better do something about it, because no one else will.