The Problem of Suffering

It’s a big conundrum for many theists, particularly monotheists like Christians, Jews and Muslims: if God is good, why is there suffering in the world?

Such folk will go through incredible gyrations to try to resolve this dilemma. Thousands—perhaps tens of thousands—of pages have been written in attempts to address it. Everything from blaming a demigod “devil” to chalking it up to bad choices made through human free will has been put forward as an explanation for tragedy and hardship.

Polytheists may not think their gods are necessarily “good”, which solves the suffering problem but raises another: then why worship them?

As Atheopagans, we have a much easier and more sensible approach: in a naturalistic Universe, there is no invisible force which “wants” things to be “good” or “just”. There is only the unfolding of the insensate Universe through the laws of physics. It doesn’t think, doesn’t feel, doesn’t care one way or the other.

Living in this context presents its own challenges. We must come to grips with the idea that the Universe does not care about us and that justice or progress are not inevitable long-term outcomes of history. If justice is to be achieved, if suffering is to be reduced, it is we who must do the work of making them so.

How to orient to the nature of reality is an important philosophical question in every religion. Some simply punt: “It’s God’s will,” or “God works in mysterious ways.” Others, like many Buddhist traditions, have elaborate cosmologies in which all suffering is supposedly balanced out in the end.

My approach is simpler—and, I believe, much better grounded in factual truth. I have three elements in my personal orientation to reality, which I call “The Big OK,” “The Big Thank You,” and “The Big Wow”.

The Big OK is acceptance of the Universe as it is. It simply is that way. There is nothing right or wrong about it. It is as it manifests itself, and that’s all there is to say about it. Hard though losses and tragedies are to embrace, they are a part of the fabric of reality, and we must accept this without resistance. If we want what we see as good to flourish in the world, it is on us to create it.

The Big Thank You is gratitude. This is embodied in Atheopagan Principle #3. It is a humble thankfulness for life itself, for the experiences of living and the many blessings that it brings upon us daily, from air to water to food to sleep to love to beauty.

Finally, The Big Wow is about awe at the magnificence of the world as it is. Hard though some aspects of it are to swallow, the Universe is simply, unimaginably beautiful. That humble sense of reverent awe is a major driver of my spirituality and a feeling I seek to cultivate.

Within these three simple concepts, a peaceful and joyous orientation to living can be found. At least, it has been so for me.

To the Universe—to Life itself— I say,

OK.

Thank you.

Wow.

 

Doubt

It’s the Enemy Voice in our heads: you’re stupid. You’re crazy. You’re weak. You’re sinful. You’re damaged.

You’re wrong. About everything.

That voice is the Enemy. It is the soul-killer.

We inherit it from parents and teachers and classmates, from religious leaders. We internalize it, make it our own, until it almost seems it is there to help us.

To protect us from harm.

And so we start to listen to it.

Stop.

Stop stop stop stop stop.

That voice is a LIAR.

That voice is malicious and it is not on your side.

HERE IS THE TRUTH: You are luminous and beautiful and creative and full of stars.

That is reality. That is the fact of this world.

I sat down to write this piece about doubt. About how doubt is a useful thing for us.

Because doubt, combined with critical thinking, is the best way to figure out what is most likely to be true. Ye Olde Razore of William of Ockham, right?

But somehow what came out as I started to type was about self-doubt. And that is entirely a different thing.

We must ask ourselves hard questions now and again, just to keep ourselves honest. We must ask ourselves about our conclusions, our beliefs, our philosophies.

But we must separate that process from the vicious, vindictive, cruel voice whose only purpose is to make us small and afraid and self-questioning.

Go forth, Atheopagans. Love yourselves. Ask hard questions, and answer them.

But remember always: you are, each one of you, a unique miracle of the Universe’s manifestation.

You shine.

Never doubt it, and never let anyone tell you otherwise.

 

Imagine

Ours is a vision of a better world. So let’s imagine it.

In the world we seek to build, kindness is paramount. None are “Other” or “lesser”, be they queer or disabled or poor or differently colored in skin tone. And those who are unfortunate are helped: our society leaves no one behind, guaranteeing a minimum, livable standard of living in all the ways that matter, including housing, food, clothing, health care and access to transportation and education.

Because we care about one another.

In our world, intellect is valued and thinking and reason are considered to be good things.  Expertise is respected, and all learn to think critically as they grow up.

In our world, the sacredness of the biosphere is not subject to debate. We rely on it, we come from it, and it is to be cared for with the deepest of scientific rigor and reverence. We celebrate its many magnificent creatures, and cast our eyes up to wonder if up there is more Life Up There, among the stars.

Needless to say, we have left fossil fuel production far, far behind.

In our world we celebrate the passing of the seasons, not least because we have a relationship with our food and with food production. We understand that our food comes from the Earth, and we watch for the changes and ritually acknowledge them. Our rites are joyful and happy, most of the time, saving our solemnity for times of sorrow and grief.

Happiness is a value in our world: it is how we measure our society’s success, and meant to be a baseline for human experience. We actively cultivate happiness and wisdom in ourselves and in others, and we appreciate one another for how we help to bring it about. In our world, people will simply be warmer towards one another.

Now, by not exploiting poor labor, this means that consumer goods will be more expensive. So we will have less stuff. In fact, consumption will reduce such that we will come into harmony with our planet’s carrying capacity. But that’s okay, because we do not measure people by their affluence or their accumulated possessions. We judge them by their character, with compassion and understanding to as great an extent as possible. We understand the desire to pile up money or possessions as a pathology, and meet it with both compassion and firm economic rules against too much of such hoarding.

Those who are too damaged, cruel, or sociopathic will be cared for kindly but firmly, ensuring that they are in no position to hurt others.

Our lives will be simpler, and we will spend more of them in contemplation, in enjoyment, in creativity, in exploration, and in celebration.

We will look to one another and see love shining in our eyes. We will look to the Earth and see abundant generosity and miraculous processes that keep us alive.

We will look to the stars and know that, tiny though we are, in this Universe we are unbelievably blessed.