Diary

Why suffer? A question for all atheists

I’m gonna start out this diary entry with complete honesty.  I’ve been suffering with a chronic digestive disease my entire life, and in recent years it’s gotten worse despite my best efforts to treat it, along with many doctors.  So the other day I woke up in a lot of pain and just asked God to get me through the day, because I felt I didn’t have the strength to bear my cross by myself that day.  Then this thought hit me out of nowhere-  how would I handle this suffering if I were an atheist?  I put myself in the mind of an atheist and couldn’t come up with an answer, so I decided to write about it.

It all boils down to a fundamental choice for both atheists and believers alike:  do we persevere through any kind of suffering, no matter how bad it is, or do we have a limit for pain and suffering whereby we say life isn’t worth it anymore, and we commit suicide?  Since I already know the answer to that question from the Christian perspective, ( that there really is no choice, since God gave us life only He can take it, and that suffering has value and reveals things about ourselves and life in general that pleasure and good times can’t) I thought I’d look at it from the atheist perspective, since it seems to me from that point of view there isn’t an easy answer to that question.

 

To begin to see how an atheist might answer it, let’s assume they don’t have a family so they can’t say they’re doing it for their family.  Then why wouldn’t you commit suicide?  If you don’t believe in an afterlife and this life is all there is for you before you go into the ground forever, why would you go on suffering indefinitely?  Furthermore, let’s assume you’ve been diagnosed with a chronic disease that there’s no cure for and only can be managed with drugs, but has many symptoms including chronic pain and fatigue.  You know you’re gonna have this disease for the rest of your life, barring a miracle, which you don’t believe in anyway.  If that were me, and I didn’t believe in the existence of a God who could heal me or at least give me strength and courage to live with such a condition, I would kill myself, no doubt about it.  There’s simply no reason to live a life filled with suffering if there’s no hope of that suffering being redeemed either in this life or in an afterlife by a God who loves us and has a plan for each one of us.

So if you think about it, that could explain why there’s so many more atheists in the wealthier countries, especially the US, compared to poorer countries like the Phillippines.  Atheism can really only exist and be feasible to a significant number of people when that group of people have relatively easy or carefree lives.  They don’t have to worry about how to feed their families every day and they don’t have severe medical conditions that require a strong faith in a higher power to get through.  But for people who are in situations that require strong convictions and beliefs, atheism just isn’t enough to get them through it, because it basically says that we’re all here by accident, and if that’s true, then there’s no purpose to our lives or anything in this world.  That outlook certainly doesn’t give any meaning to the lives of people who are suffering, which explains why the phrase “there’s no atheists in foxholes” came about.  It also explains why studies showed that prisoners in the former USSR who had a belief in God survived much longer than atheist prisoners (I can’t find the actual study but I read about it before, if anyone has a link for it let me know ).

What we’re discovering is that atheism is really a modern day phenomenon that has coincided with a kind of prosperity, abundance of resources and leisure time, lack of suffering, and almost complete reliance on and obsession with technology that is all a first in the history of mankind.  (I’ve known many people throughout my life, many who have severe illnesses and suffering as a result and many who have easy lives, and so far I haven’t met one atheist whose life is filled with suffering and trials, and vice versa, I haven’t met one person of faith who hasn’t had some intense period of suffering in their lives).  Back in the ancient days people believed in gods, and then christianity came with the arrival of Jesus on the earth, and that changed the world.  But back then there were few atheists, that was reserved for the kings and people in power because they were the only ones who could sit back and avoid all the suffering and sorrow of the masses.  For the average person back then, life was just too hard to go through without believing that there was some higher meaning or purpose for it.  Now an atheist might respond to that by saying that’s an argument for atheism because now that life isn’t so hard we no longer have a need for faith in God because we don’t have to overcome such great suffering, at least many of us don’t.  To that I’d respond that even though many americans don’t have the kind of poverty and daily struggles the masses had back then, we have different kinds of suffering that are unique to modern times.  We’re lonelier than ever before, have more mental illness and suicide, and we’re more stressed than ever because of our busy lives that we fill with many activities that aren’t necessary.  So there will always be suffering, whether atheists wanna believe that or not (many don’t, they have the delusional belief that one day science will advance so much that it will eliminate all suffering on earth and we’ll live like gods).

The bottom line from all this is that atheism can really only exist in the mind of a person for more than a brief period in their life if they live in a relative vacuum that’s devoid of trails, tribulations, and intense suffering that tests that belief.  The problem for the atheist movement is that even with the advancement of technology, life isn’t getting any easier for the average american and suffering will always be with us. This leads to another problem, which is that it’s nearly impossible for people to live their entire life in a vacuum, which is one reason why there’s a lot more younger atheists than older ones, in addition to many other reasons such as naivete and lack of experience to name a few.  However, it can be done if one becomes rich and famous at an early age and leads an incredibly pampered and sheltered life.  We see this with many hollywood celebrities, which also explains why they’re so out of touch and completely unable to relate to the average american.  There are examples of people who’ve gone their entire life without the kind of suffering and trials that test their beliefs and who’ve lived in a bubble, such as Hugh Hefner, Bill Clinton, Bill Maher, and others.  But they’re a tiny percentage of the population and the exception that proves the rule.

Finally, let’s assume there is no God and that the atheists are right.  That leads to the question that still remains, which is what are the beliefs or ways of life that make this life worth living or at least give us the strength and courage to make it through the hardest times in our lives and unimaginable suffering?  Again, even if there was no God, atheism just wouldn’t cut it, because it still says there is no meaning in life and we’re all just physical matter, evolved animals with bigger brains but no souls.  If we’re just animals then we should act like animals, right?  That would be the logical thing to do.  But in the end atheism isn’t about logic, it comes from a place of emotional turmoil, often some kind of neglect or abuse as a child, and is a response to dealing with blow to the ego or not being loved.  It’s an emotional, cynical response to not being able to answer the tough questions in life or why some really bad things happened to that atheist or the ones he or she loved.  Therefore it doesn’t stand on its own merit because this ideology didn’t become as widespread as it is based on an honest attempt to explain the world around us or to find meaning in life, it was merely an attempt by agnostics to push back against people of faith because they didn’t have an answer to the “why” of life that people of faith have always had.  It was also a way to make atheists feel morally and intellectually superior to people of faith, which results from their own insecurities.

So going back to the assumption that there is no God, we as humans would still need a strategy or way of thinking or system of beliefs to help us figure out right from wrong and to give us the inspiration to make it through this life without committing suicide.  So I would argue that atheists should try to believe in God even if their minds tell them He doesn’t exist, just because their current beliefs won’t get them through the trials they might face later life.  In other words, even if God doesn’t exist in the mind of an atheist, living your life as if He does exist will make your life much richer and full of meaning.  It will take away your cynicism and replace it with hope and love, and allow you to reach outside of yourself to people who you might’ve overlooked in the past, and who knows, if you live your life as if God does exist, maybe He’ll talk to you and give you reason to believe with certainty.

Atheism makes the atheist God, which in turn inflates his ego immensely and makes everything revolve around him.  This leads to selfish behavior and makes it really hard to have successful long-term relationships since those require mutual sacrifice and a placing aside of the ego. Many of the atheists I’ve met have struggled with relationships and are alone for these reasons.  Maybe they’re fine with that kind of life, but I prefer a life filled with love and meaningful relationships, filled wtih purpose and a higher calling that explains why I have to go through the trails and obstacles I’ve experienced.  But that’s just me.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that americans are more prosperous than ever and have more advanced technology than ever, and have less faith than ever, yet are more miserable than ever.  As a society we’ve lost our faith, with fewer people going to church than ever and fewer belonging to any religion, and without that faith, we’re lost and have no meaning or purpose in our lives.  We bought into the illusion that all this new technology and entertainment would make us happy, but all we’ve done is replaced God with that technology and entertainment.  It’s been tried and found lacking, because it gets us through the easy periods of our life but it always leaves us feeling empty and wanting more, so we overindulge in a vicious cycle to continue to try and fill the void that only God and lasting relationships with others can fill.  And it can’t get us through the hard times in our lives, as we quickly find out when we develop a serious disease, the loss of a loved one, or experience some kind of failure or suffering.  We need a reason to go on and to keep fighting through all the crazy ups and downs this life will throw at us.  Atheism doesn’t provide that reason, but a belief in the existence of a loving and powerful God does.  That’s something we can all take comfort in.

Update- the question that I focused this diary on also begs another question, which is this: As an atheist, why should you do good things for others or make any sacrifices?  Why give to charities?  Again, let’s take away the initial response many atheists give, which is that it makes the world a better place for their children, and assume that the atheist we’re talking about in this hypothetical situation is an adult who doesn’t have any children and doesn’t plan to.  What’s the reason then?  The atheist might say, “cause it’s the right thing to do”.  But that leads to the next logical question, which is, “Where do you get your sense of right and wrong from”?  The atheist might respond by saying that as humans we have an innate sense of right and wrong, so we just know certain things are right, like helping others.  To that I’d say that first of all, assuming that innate ability isn’t subjective, which I don’t except now for the sake of argument,just cause something’s right, that doesn’t answer the question of why we should do the right thing.
But let’s go back to the assumption that we all have an innate ability to know right from wrong. I would point out that this is evidence of the existence of God, because no other animal has this ability.  Atheists believe that it’s just because we have bigger brains. I believe one of the reasons we have those bigger brains was to have this ability to be moral, so we can live as God has asked us to live since we’re made in His image and likeness.  But beyond that, this innate ability is highly subjective and is influenced by genes, how we’re raised, and who we spend time around both as kids and as adults . So you might think doing one thing is right, but I might think that same thing is wrong or at least morally neutral. So which one of us is right, and how do we as a society choose to believe in all the things that we as a whole can agree are right and wrong?  Without a higher power than gives us a uniting set of principles and a moral framework to understand and agree on right from wrong, everything is subjective and based on the differences between individuals, and therefore everything is relative.
Now an atheist would probably respond to that by saying that we can come together as a society and agree on a common set of things that we deem to be good and bad, but that’s not logical and can change as society changes, it has no foundation or values that are unchanging and set in stone. Society is just a group of individuals, and if enough of those individuals are divided in their beliefs of right and wrong, then society as a whole will be divided, which is exactly what we’re seeing now in America. Half the country thinks abortion is ok, the other half thinks it’s a grave evil.  Half think it’s good to take more money from the rich to put in the hands of gov’t, the other half thinks the private sector should be in charge of how that money is spent, and the list goes on.  This is no way to determine right from wrong, and it clearly isn’t working.
So that leads me back to my original question, which is why go out of your way to help someone say in Africa, if you’re an atheist?  Those people are strangers to you, you have no incentive to help them, and you have no ties to them so when you die you can’t say by helping people in Africa I made the world a better place for my family, cause they aren’t your family.  You’ll be buried under the earth and will no longer exist, so even if helping them makes their lives better and the lives of their future generations, that won’t help you in any way, and you won’t see the results.  So why do it?

Christians have an answer, which is because we’re commanded to do it, as Jesus points out many times throughout the Bible. For us it’s doing God’s will, it’s making sure we get to Heaven, and it’s reflecting the love and joy we already have inside of us from our relationship with God. With the amount of love God has given us that has transformed our lives, we can’t keep it in, we have to spread it to others.  Plus, we believe in an afterlife, so we will be able to see the results of the things we do here on Earth, therefore we better live for others instead of ourselves, otherwise we’ll have to live with the results of our words and deeds for all eternity.
The closest atheists have gotten to an answer, one that’s not satisfactory at all, is “do what makes you happy or makes you feel better about yourself”. well, if that’s your rationale for helping others, what if we reach a point in this country where everyone is so complacent and consumed by their riches and technology that they already have everything they think they need to be happy?  Then nobody would do anything to help anyone less fortunate than them, especially in other countries.  So that doesn’t work.
I’m still waiting for an atheist’s answer to this question, cause in all my conversations with them I haven’t heard one yet.