In these episodes of St John’s Extra we are wrestling with the problem of suffering. Last week we acknowledged that suffering is a real problem but not everyone would agree with this. For an atheist suffering is not a problem at all because it is just the way things are in a materialistic universe and there is no point trying to grapple with it and explain it.
This is the way that the prominent atheist Richard Dawkins puts it:
‘In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and we won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice.’
Dawkins is telling us to get over it. Don’t try and explain it, don’t try and find a pattern in it, don’t rail against injustice; it just happens. Now I do admire Dawkins’ honesty here, at least he is not trying to have it both ways. He is following through his intellectual position to its logical conclusion. If there is no God, if the universe is produced and run merely by blind physical forces then there is no basis for saying that people ought not to suffer or be oppressed.
Indeed, the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection depends on death, destruction and the strong overpowering the weak. These things are perfectly natural and so there is no point objecting to the injustice of the world or claiming that things are not as they should be.
Now that might be possible intellectually but I’d question whether it actually works emotionally and in practice. Many Atheists who hold such a theoretical position have found themselves crying out in the midst of pain ‘Why?’ or railing against the injustice of it all. Something in their makeup as human beings draws them to ask the question even though their intellectual position says it is the wrong question to ask.
The well-known author C. S. Lewis grappled with this very question as an atheist but it was this very grappling that led him to reject his atheist beliefs. This is how he put it:
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of ‘just’ and ‘unjust’? … What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? … Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was just a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too – for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies … Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple.
It was Lewis’ recognition that the suffering in the world was wrong and unjust; that this was not the way that things ought to be, which showed him that he couldn’t simply reject belief in the existence of God. So you either have to reject the notion of wickedness, injustice & moral obligation or you have to grapple with the problem of suffering in light of the character of God.
So let me urge you not to abandon God because you are struggling with the problem of suffering in the world. By abandoning God, at least for a materialist atheism, you can ‘solve’ the problem but the very thoughts and emotional struggles about suffering which led you to do this in the first place betray you. Suffering is a real problem. Injustice is wrong. It is not enough to just ‘get over it’. Something has gone terribly wrong in our world and we are right to protest against it. Next week we’ll explore what the bible says this problem is.