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A Privileged View of Suffering

I haven’t posted on this topic for a while, and looking through old posts from five years ago, I came across this one.  I’ve edited it a bit from the first time, but my sentiments are pretty much the same now that I’m older and not much wiser…..

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Sometimes people get upset because I deal with the problem of suffering even though I don’t seem to be experiencing any severe pain and misery myself. Here is an example of the kind of comment I occasionally receive, this from someone commenting to me on Facebook a couple of days ago:

“Dude, in a world of suffering, you claim doubts in deity because you live the privileged life of a UNC professor. If you lived in a 40-year-old trailer in Tarboro, I’d take you more seriously. And you even charge people to read your self-indulgent crap. Just for the record, I’m a non-theist. But I’m not a hypocrite.”

I take comments like this very seriously. Even though I recognize that it is, well, a bit hostile, my sense is that a lot of people who feel this way are themselves experiencing real hardship and find it offensive that I would have the gall to talk about issues of pain and suffering.

But I do want to say a few things about this kind of comment. Before doing so, though, I should say that my *harshest* critics along these lines (the ones I know about) are actually people even better off than me who have castigated me for leading a privileged life and having the audacity to speak about suffering, with the assumption that they themselves have much greater insights – even though they also have much greater privileges. I won’t name names, but believe me, I can. And *that* is what I would call real hypocrisy!

But apart from people of that ilk, I think it is an important issue and worth addressing. When I first received this comment on Facebook I had a number of conflicted and conflicting responses.  I can say up front that I prefer not to go into the details of any of the ways I’ve suffered in life; but I can also say that it is absolutely true that however much I’ve suffered before, I do have a very good life right now and I am very grateful for it.

But in addition to that, here are some of my responses:

• It does seem to me that even people who are not suffering in extremis – for example, starving to death in a slum outside of Mexico City – have the right to think about people who *do* suffer and to ask what their suffering can tell us about the world we live in and about whether there is a caring and powerful God who is in control of it. All of us, whatever our personal situations may be, need (in my opinion) to think about what we believe about this world, and this life, and the existence of a divine being. And none of us can do so by being someone other than who we are. I am who I am, so are you, and so is this person registering a complaint. And I don’t think any of us should be disallowed from thinking about the world and life as a result of who we are.

•  In my debates on the meaning of suffering with Dinesh D’Souza, he sometimes would raise a point like this person on Facebook, and stress that people who suffer are precisely the ones who are more likely to turn to a divine being, so that it doesn’t make sense for me to think about their suffering and turn *away* from a divine being. I think it’s an interesting point. But even though I’m concerned about people who suffering terribly, I don’t think that they necessarily have to dictate what my views about suffering, or about a divine being, should be.

• I’ve tried to think of an analogy. The person who is suffering from gross economic injustice and is, as a result, living in poverty: is that person necessarily better qualified to establish the policy for the International Monetary Fund than someone else? Or to set governmental economic policy for his country? I’m not sure that the person suffering is the only one allowed to think about the solutions to the problem of suffering, or the implications of the problem of suffering with respect to the existence of God.

• I think my bottom line is that I absolutely do not think that my views of suffering should be imposed on those who have different views, especially if they themselves are suffering more intensely than me. But I do think that my reflections on others who are far less fortunate than I should dictate how I myself behave in the world. I do not know if I’m a hypocrite or not, but I certainly try not to be.

* My ultimate view of suffering is that we are much better served to have a *response* to suffering rather than a ready *answer* for it. I think we should all do what we can to help others in need. If I’m hypocritical, so be it. But I’m not going to stop responding to people in need, or to stop thinking about the religious implications of their being in need – for example, by pulling into my shell and enjoying all the good things I have without giving a damn about others – simply because someone might think that I have no right to do so as someone who has a very good life.

In any event, those are some of my reflections as of now. More will probably come as I think more about it.


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Comments

  1. Avatar
    bradseggie  March 16, 2018

    I can just as easily turn it around:

    A person who is suffering has no credibility to question the existence of God due to suffering; he simply has “sour grapes” that God has chosen a better outcome for others. Only a person free of suffering can judge the world’s suffering objectively.

  2. Avatar
    TallySkeptic  March 18, 2018

    Bart, the Facebook comment to which you are responding is really irrelevant and mean. Your own wealth or suffering status has nothing to do with the truth of your conclusion. Your conclusion as I understand it, that the evidence of immense suffering in the world is incompatible with the existence of God, is correct whether it is reached by a suffering person or a nonsuffering person, or a mean person or a kind one.

  3. Avatar
    Durkan23  March 21, 2018

    Hi Bart. I heard you say in a radio debate that evangelical Christianity is so far removed from the Christian teachings found in the New Testament can you explain briefly what you meant by that?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 21, 2018

      I mean lots of things by it, but among other things, the ideas that the New Testament is the inspired word of God is not from the New Testament (!), nor are the Christian teaching that when you die your soul goes to heaven or hell.

      • Avatar
        HawksJ  March 21, 2018

        “I mean lots of things by it,”

        If you really want to sell lots of books, write one about that. It would be a blockbuster.

  4. Avatar
    williamsmg11  March 21, 2018

    Thanks for reposting this, Dr. Ehrman, and for treating your critic’s comments seriously and respectfully. Your insights here are helpful.

  5. Avatar
    pjamato8  March 23, 2018

    Hi Bart – Today is my first day on the blog (I started with a year membership) and I have not scanned its entirety (yet). I would love for you to write a post that describes your view on Buddhism. As others have mentioned here, suffering is the first of the 4 noble truths. From what I understand (I heard it on the recent Fresh Air show), one of the reasons you lost faith is due to “the problem of suffering.” No good god could allow it. My firm stance as an atheist (in a capricious part of my life, I claimed to be agnostic, but came back to my roots after a few years) has always been for the same reason. When I explored Buddhism I was delighted to see that suffering is the very first premise! And there is no god. I wonder if Buddhism has ever appealed to you and if you have ever thought about practicing Buddhism (secular or otherwise).

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2018

      It’s a great idea — but I’m not an expert on other religions, just (somewhat) Judaism and (more so) Christianity. I try not to talk about things I don’t have any expertise on. If I had more lives or could clone myself, I’d know so much more!

  6. Avatar
    ailith  March 31, 2018

    Given that we (in the US) live in a culture that presupposes a zero-sum existence (it’s relevant if that supposition is true, but I let’s put a pin in that) your first point strikes me as the most important: “It does seem to me that even people who are not suffering in extremis . . . have the right to think about people who *do* suffer” I’d go one further, I think that everyone has the *duty* to do so. If we really are a zero-sum game then it is literally and directly the fault of each that has more than they absolutely need for all suffering that stems from that wealth imbalance. If we don’t, then it is still the responsibility of those with power to use that power to create something good, and to uplift others in whatever ways their abilities allow.

    I mean, I hate to go full-on cliche, but there’s something to the idea “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” Just don’t go all totalitarian with it — besides, the reflexive fear/hatred of communism hides that all our power structures in the US, public and private, are arranged into Totalitarian Diets (e.g. a Board of Directors and an Executive, with subordinate bureaucracies and lawyers/jurists). We seriously might want to do something about that.

    But my general point would go something like this: You’re dramatically wealthier than I will ever be, but the suggestion that you aren’t suffering economically so you can’t care about mine is. . . insane. Are you just supposed to ignore poverty outright? I really do think this is exactly what people who make that argument want; they want an end to poverty and other forms of suffering by choosing not to see them. We’re in 8 wars right now, and not one person I know knows that we’re in even one. Hear no Evil, See no Evil and, especially here, Speak no Evil. But I’ll tell ya, I may be American poor but I’m pretty well off in pure dollar terms (tho there is a very long discussion to be had about what purchasing power parity even could mean when ‘Market’ is two countries are so very different, or you’re talking about a EDZ with no laws at all) for the global level and I refuse the idea that I can’t care about a sick kid in Thailand. I also refuse the idea that I’m on some upper plane and separate of that kid. I’ve been to Thailand, helped out a charity event with a school a relative taught at — hanging out with those kids wasn’t any different than ones in the US and that should really go without saying. I care, I sure as hell have the right to care, and further I demand the *duty* to care, because if we don’t, this just keeps getting worse. I won’t accept that.

  7. Avatar
    Apocryphile  June 28, 2018

    A great series of videos covering a wide range of topics on some of the ‘deep’ questions in science and philosophy. Here’s a series on the problem of suffering, for anyone interested: https://www.closertotruth.com/series/can-god-face-evil

  8. Avatar
    ftbond  March 26, 2019

    Suffering. It’s great if you can avoid it.

    Only God is perfect. Nothing else is. God would have to create a clone of Himself in order to create something perfect, but, even then, the “clone God” wouldn’t be perfect; it would have a dependency on the Creator God for it’s existence. Perfection, in this created universe, is simply not a possibility. And, being imperfect, every sentient creature in nature can be subject to some level of suffering. It’s unavoidable, because it’s not perfect.

    I figure most of the suffering in this world is man-made. I checked some stats: in Wisconsin, some 49% of the annual deaths of deer are caused by humans, mainly hitting them with vehicles. Seven percent are killed by predators. Take out the “human factor”, and that would mean that about ninety-three percent of the deer population would just live out their natural lives, not getting killed by cars, or eaten by coyotes.

    Worried about “fawns caught in wildfires”, and their suffering? According to the National Park Service, “As many as 90 percent of wildland fires in the United States are caused by humans.” That means, 90% of those fawns suffer because of what humans do.

    Overwhelmed by those in famine circumstances? Send some food. What do you think you’re here for? To make some big point about God not fixing everything, so you don’t have to? Whatever.

    Throw in the human propensity for selfishness, power, insatiable envy, self-absorption, and whatever else, resulting in wars, theft, murder, and so on, and I figure most of the animal kingdom would be happy if we weren’t here.

    Asking “why does God allow suffering” is just another way of asking “why did God create sentient beings”, because any sentient being in an imperfect universe is going to be subject to some level of suffering (and, non-sentient beings wouldn’t know about suffering). God “allows” a certain level of suffering because God “allows” sentience.

    But, he doesn’t “allow” the level of suffering that humans *cause*. That’s why we read stuff like “thou shalt not steal” and “thou shalt not commit murder”, or “leave a corner of the field for the poor”.

    Maybe God should have stopped with the creation of plant life. Then, there wouldn’t be any suffering. But, then, neither could someone sell a million books by complaining he’s not a cabbage.

  9. Avatar
    Zak1010  May 16, 2019

    Great seminar at UC Berkeley about suffering, I felt like sharing this. Suffering is a topic that can be best understood by examining its opposite. Generally, its opposite is happiness or good. However, one of its meanings is Blessing. You mentioned at UC Berkley that God is All Powerful and All Loving. God has lots of names and attributes of them are the All Knowing, All Wise and All Forgiving.
    Suffering has many forms. Most are human controlled and avoidable ( poverty, hunger, helping orphans/needy, famine…ect, some are not explainable and out of our control( earthquakes, tsunamis, floods…ect ) These calamities are a test upon us and the response we humans choose is the ultimate purpose of the calamity itself. God does not love evil. God loves the good that comes out of evil. God created us with intellect. How we respond to the calamity is the test itself. Do we pass the test by doing good helping alleviate the calamity or do we fail the test with bitterness? I believe the choice in our response is our salvation along with repentance prayer and patience. Our wealth, our patience, our relationship with God is tested. Do we share our wealth? Do we have patience? Do we repent / supplicate/pray? The biggest test in life is money and patience. We want all the money but won’t share; have very little patience if none at all.
    In a weird way there is some sweetness in suffering. When one gives to the hungry, help an orphan or help those afflicted by disaster, one discovers a special and unique connection with The Creator, the All Wise, The All Forgiving. If there were no pain and suffering, there wouldn’t be any need to give, no need to repent and reconnect with the Almighty. It’s a reminder for us to reconnect with the All Knowing and All Wise. Amazing! We seek out the All Powerful in times of distress and forget remembering Him when things are going well.
    In your session at UC Berkeley, you mentioned a class you taught in the northeast. You said the students were upper class and had no notion/clue about the concept of suffering. They probably also had very little thanks and connection with God in that respect.( continued )

  10. Avatar
    Zak1010  May 16, 2019

    ( continued ) …You mentioned that the Bible failed to deal with the concept of suffering. Of course, it didn’t mention it. The Bible as we know it today is incomplete. You, more than anyone knows that there were deletions and additions to the current Bible. However, I believe the original Bible did deal with this subject and it probably went something like this: You (man) remember me (God), in return I will remember you. We remember God by praying, thanking, repenting, helping the needy, standing by and supporting our fellow man in times of distress, being patient to see the wisdom behind the event.
    We are all tested in different ways, fear- hunger- illness -death- transgression- famine -war ect.. We choose to respond with sweetness or bitterness (our choice) just like yourself Mr. Ehrman, I am sure you feel sweetness and good when you write that check every year from the revenue of your blog to help the less fortunate. You are answering to a higher calling.
    The wisdom in suffering is, we humans should compete with one another and race to do good in order to pass the test for the Real Life. Unfortunately, for centuries we have competed with one another for fame-wealth-social status and worldly pleasures and believe we are entitled to the ‘all good’ (right now – impatient) not remembering to thank the one who gave it to us.
    Death is not the end of this life. It’s the Afterlife that we should be competing for. Do we pass or fail the real test? Our response in helping those who suffer and our relationship with our Creator is salvation. Suffering will pass.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 17, 2019

      Thanks for your thoughts. I don’t think I ever said the Bible didn’t mention suffering. On the contrary, I think almost the entire Bible is dealing with the problem of suffering.

      • Avatar
        Zak1010  May 20, 2019

        Dr. Ehrman, I apologize if I mis-quoted you. I agree with you that ‘I think almost the entire Bible is dealing with the problem of suffering’. However, the Bible doesn’t guide us as to how we should deal with suffering. I don’t believe God left that out.
        Thank you. I truly enjoy your passion and scholarly work.

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