To Believe or Not to Believe (an atheist view of suffering)

Writing this article is definitely stepping out of the comfort zone for this Bible-believing, born again Christian. But over and over, I’ve learned that whenever there’s an uncomfortable task or situation…this is God’s way of stretching and growing me.

My assignment for this issue was to do a one-on-one with another faith I am totally unfamiliar with, or a belief that is not my own. I chose atheism (I learned the “a” isn’t capitalized). So I set out to try to understand the reasons why they believe or don’t believe. Since I have a rare form of Muscular Dystrophy, I was specifically interested in how they address the subject of suffering.

I surfed the internet for answers, visiting atheist website after atheist website. My research told me that most atheists live in the “here and now” and take on a “live and let live” attitude. They don’t lend credence to God or any deity…living in the complete absence of belief. God(s) are no more real to them than are tooth fairies and Easter bunnies. When we die, it is the end of the story…period. We cease to exist, like when the burning flame on a candle is snuffed out.

 

Then it hit me:

 

I need to chat with true atheists, and try to find out exactly what it is that makes them tick. So I logged onto atheistforums.com, and registered myself to chat with some authentic atheists in the “Christianity” section of the forum (this section is not necessarily composed of Christians, but mainly for atheists who want to discuss or debate Christian “things”).

When I first posted, I was actually invited to ask anything I liked, and to stick around for a few days to hear what other atheists have to say. For that I am truly grateful. Keeping this in mind, I want those that commented and gave me good information, to know that I respect and appreciate their willingness to give me their views on how they approach things.

The problem of human suffering is the most powerful argument atheists can oppose theists with.

The first question I posted was:

How do you address the subject of suffering?

As I was typing this question, my thoughts immediately went to those I’ve known in my life who struggled with suffering; people who grew frustrated and incredibly bitter…and as a result, determined that God is evil or even deny His existence.

 

“An all loving, all powerful God could have made the universe without suffering.” – posted by Baddogma

“____ happens. There is no rhyme or reason. Nobody invented cancer, or tornadoes, or Michael Jackson. ____ just happens.” -posted by Hillbillyatheist (Administrator)

I have gotten quite a few responses from this question, and I have concluded that the general feeling is that some will get hurt, and some will get lucky. There’s no justice. Suffering is neither morally good nor morally bad, and it certainly doesn’t take human needs into account.

 

“Suffering is a result of DNA forming more and more complex organisms. The more complex a nervous system, the more an entity can suffer. Life lives off life. Life must die in order for life to continue. Unfortunately, that leads to suffering.” -posted by Baddogma

I think the fundamental atheist message is that there is no higher designer to blame, and suffering is the natural response of the breakdown of our bodies (the marvelous products of evolution that they are). Atheists feel that we can only rely on our own logic and reasoning, so we must find ways (use science) to cure ourselves. We must work for the outcome that is desired. As far as having any purpose or meaning of life – it’s up to you to make one.

 

“The only way I can address it is… that it is what it is, and we do what we can to fix it. I find the idea of evolution being kind of a “blind builder” to be a good way of describing why there are diseases/suffering. We had no grand designer. You’re given the cards you’re dealt, it’s up to you to play them as well as you can.” -posted by Rock (Forum Leader)

Is it not true that we gain some of our noblest character traits through suffering and hard times? Don’t good things ultimately come out of the bad?

Next I asked, Can suffering be beneficial in any way? (Ex: develop character, patience, compassion for others who suffer…etc.) Or is suffering simply pointless?

 

“In my concept of suffering, suffering is completely needless, useless, destructive and unproductive. Pain, discomfort, etc…DO have a place and a use. Without them, we could incur greater harm, or be so complacent as to not budge or grow. However, to me, suffering is a completely negative thing.” -posted by Moloth

“While the concepts and definitions of suffering are certainly man-made and can vary from one person to person, I would certainly say that it is not pointless and that it has to have some biological value. From a strictly Darwinian sense, suffering must provide some benefit. Perhaps it strengthens or enhances the biochemical process that involved kinship and love. This in turn fosters behaviors like: strength in numbers (clans) and cooperation. Or could it be that my suffering allows me to better relate to others who are suffering…

I am of course speaking of suffering due to natural consequences, not because of the result of malice. That type of suffering is pointless and I feel it deserves its own definition and treatment.

Then there is the more ambiguous use of the word: suffering. Before she died, my grandmother suffered from dementia. Did she really suffer, or did the rest of us suffer who watched her slip away? It certainly had no benefit to her, but it brought our family closer.

Or when I was 13 I had mono. I couldn’t play hockey for a whole season. To someone in Minnesota, that’s suffering! It did, however, make me want to compete that much harder the next season.

Does that make any sense? It all comes down to the definitions one attributes to the label.” -posted by Lazarus (Intern)

Ok, some agree that the adversities of life can help fashion behaviors and help us grow, AND some don’t. Sometimes it can bring people closer together, but for some it just really depends…

 

“It depends on the situation and what is causing the suffering and how much. The suffering caused by exercise is certainly beneficial, but the suffering of cancer isn’t.” -posted by Hillbillyatheist (Administrator)

So how do you find comfort in difficult circumstances? What do you do when you feel hopeless?

 

“I have dealt with all sorts of difficult circumstances in my life and never relied on comfort from faith. I was born an atheist and have been my entire life. Mental toughness isn’t for everyone.” -posted by Baddogma

 

 

My faith brings me comfort. I found out all about God and His goodness because of my feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness. However, it’s really interesting to me to see how a complete nonbeliever finds hope and comfort in this world where crazy things inevitably happen.

 

“I find comfort in…hugs, advice, jokes, distractions, etc, whatever is needed for that situation. When I feel hopeless…I find a reason to have hope again, and enjoy the little things in life, even if it’s the smell of flowers on a spring day, or music on my ipod, or creating noise on my fiddle that kind of reminds one of music.” -posted by Hillbillyatheist (Administrator)

Ok, one more response, and then we’ll go to my last question…

 

 

“I stop, stand back, and look at the big picture of life…of MY life. I realize that all things change and no matter what horrible thing is happening at the time, there will be a time when I feel differently. “Zooming Out” helps me a lot. I keep zooming out from my life, until I can no longer see my problem, enjoying cosmology and theoretical astrophysics helps me do that. lol…

In bad times, my credo is this: as long as there is life, there is a way. As long as I am still alive, there is a chance for happiness and hope for a better outcome.

Cogito Ergo Sum…”i think, therefore i am”, helps me feel capable and strong during bad times.” -posted by Moloth

When I say the word “persecution,” what comes to your mind? Martyrdom? Christians and missionaries? The Holocaust? Minorities? For my last set of questions I asked,

Do you get persecuted because you are an atheist? Do you find that people try to shove God down your throat, and how does that make you feel?

 

Do you get persecuted because you are an atheist? “Not as much anymore, because I tend to simply avoid people who would persecute someone based on religious views. Not easy to do in a small town in the south.”

Do you find that people try to shove God down your throat, and how does that make you feel? Not as much as before, if only because I now know to politely (or rudely, depending on how I am approached) end that line of conversation.

However, I am still bombarded, everyday, in every medium, by religious (especially Christian) dogma. The insinuation that if you’re not a Christian you are not a good person still runs incredibly deep in this country and it certainly colors most peoples opinion of you once they know you are an atheist.” -posted by Moloth

“Generally, I steer clear of this topic in day-to-day conversation. Unless somebody specifically asks me (or it becomes unbearable), they will not know my religious beliefs. However, I have a family who has had great difficulty coming to terms with my views. My mother is a very strong fundamentalist Christian, and has been trying to reconvert me for the last five years of my life. The worst part is, I know that she honestly believes that I’m going to spend eternity in a lake of fire, so she is constantly stressed out about it. I regret ever telling her for her own sake.

Even outside of my family many of my acquaintances are very strongly Christians, but as I said before, I usually try to avoid the topic of religion.

Do you find that people try to shove God down your throat, and how does that make you feel? That pisses me off!” -posted by Joshuas3521

By asking this question about persecution, I think of Christians, whether I’ve known or seen them in real life or on TV- or even myself, who at times have tried to “shove God” on people. And yes, sometimes they (or we) can be obnoxiously irritating! However, my Bible tells me to “Love my neighbors.” Or are we perhaps annoying them so much with our preaching that they become indifferent and push us out of the way? As I write this, I’m thinking of the old adage which says, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

The Bible tells us, “And if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way.” 1 Peter 3:15-16

We shouldn’t be obnoxious in sharing our faith. Trying to force others to believe anything is pointless and divisive. I believe the best way we can witness is to tell others what Christ has personally done for us. Who can argue with that? We can let His light shine by letting our lives do the talking.

 

Now for my own two cents on suffering:

 

When bad things happen to us, we may feel defeated. I know firsthand, that God can use them to make us stronger and develop qualities in us, preparing us for things in the future. He can take what seems meaningless to us and open our eyes to see things differently. The proof of this is written in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus so we can do the good things He planned for us long ago.”

I’ve known and spoken with people (myself included), who have been through the crucible of suffering…and we all can acknowledge we are infinitely better for the experience – bitter as it may have been.

Could it be that maybe the reason we feel lost and hopeless sometimes is because we’re looking everywhere else but to God for deliverance and guidance?

 

 


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