The Problem of Suffering: Why and When to Use It

Suffering is an inevitability of the human experience. We spend so much of our finite lives trying to minimize it or postpone it, but we can never truly escape it. That’s why the problem of suffering remains a potent issue for the religious after thousands of years — it’s a universal question that lacks a universal answer.

Many atheist hobbyists deal constantly with apologetics, logical arguments, fallacies, and high-minded philosophical nonsense. As a result, we forget that most believers don’t care about any of that! The old lady on the frontmost pew doesn’t know what tu quoque is — she probably thinks it’s a new Tex-Mex dish. Her reasons for belief may not be swayed by a logical syllogism, because she doesn’t know what that is.

But she knows pain. She knows heartache. She’s been sick. She’s seen people die – perhaps before their time, perhaps after a long, sad decline. She’s seen hurricanes in the news from Andrew to Katrina to Harvey. If she’s from Texas like me, she’s seen dozens of small towns flattened by tornadoes. And she’ll deny it to your face, but she’s had doubts about God’s goodness through it all. Even if she doesn’t dwell on it, there’s a part of her at least a little aware that what she’s read doesn’t match up with what she’s lived.

We pride ourselves as atheists for our logic and supreme rationality, and we tend to laugh among ourselves at the blind faith of many believers, guided by raw emotion. But these people still vote. They still work to influence public policy and affect the lives of others, and so it behooves us as non-believers to engage with them on matters of faith.

When having these discussions, it’s important to tailor your arguments to your interlocutor. An argument that you find compelling may not always be compelling to someone else, even if your argument is 100% correct. As we know from the steady supply of charismatic televangelists over the years, there’s a difference between being right and being able to convince people you’re right.

This is why the problem of suffering remains a problem for the faithful. A person’s beliefs may be informed by their hearts more than their heads. As Westerners in a first-world country, we have the luxury of being isolated from the difficulties faced by the less fortunate on the other side of the world. It can be jarring for even the most intellectual apologist to come face-to-face with a deformed child, supposedly hand-crafted by God in their mother’s womb.

That’s why theodicies exist — the best attempts of believers to reconcile a good and loving God with the evil and suffering in the world. Their answers are not designed to convince you and me. They’re meant to be just convincing enough for apologists and the rest of the flock who will grasp at something, anything, that seems to reinforce their existing assumptions of God’s goodness. A thoughtful atheist can easily poke holes in these paper-thin rationalizations.

I do want to add one caveat: as atheists, we don’t want to be tragedy vultures. Believers are trained to prey on people in their moments of weakness. I was a Christian in the suburbs of New York City when 9/11 happened, and it sickens me to remember how my fellow believers thought it was wonderful that so many people flocked to churches in the wake of that tragedy. Aren’t we supposed to be better than them? Atheists face enough unfounded distrust and disdain in society without going up to mourners at a funeral and scoffing, “Where’s your God now?” I would suggest that these times are better used instead to show how, contrary to their preconceived notions, atheists can be caring and compassionate human beings without a God telling them to be.

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