I normally don’t pay much attention to religion. On my best days I follow a Buddhist philosophy and on my worst I slip into the pit of nihilism that comes with atheism. Yesterday I was chatting with a coworker of mine who seemed surprised to learn I wasn’t Christian and didn’t celebrate Christmas. “Are you Jewish?” He asked – a pretty good guess given the odds. I explained that I left the Roman Catholic faith I had been born into during my teens and never looked back, and that the issue I had the most difficulty with, the one preventing me with accepting even the possibility of the existence of a Judeo-Christian G-d was the Suffering of Innocents.
I’ve heard a lot of excuses for the allowance of such suffering in my time. That G-d has a plan and suffering is part of the plan. That G-d gave us free will, and suffering of innocents derives from our choices, or that G-d will reward us in Heaven for the suffering we endure on earth. Honestly, they all suck. I personally can conceive of an all-powerful G-d who can create a universe and independent beings populating it having free will and the ability to learn whatever lesson G-d wants them to learn without requiring the innocent to suffer. I am therefore left with three choices: G-d exists but He is not all-powerful, He exists and is all-powerful but is a sadist, or He doesn’t exist at all. None of these are intellectually satisfying, leaving me struggling in a no-mans land between hope and nihilism.
Then there’s atheism. Atheists seem to enjoy tormenting people of faith especially the Christian and Jewish faiths that spawns atheists the way pot mixed with college freshmen spawns the mistaken belief Dave Mathews is a misunderstood genius on par with Jim Morrison. I’ve never understood why atheists are so smug towards believers. There is no 100% conclusive proof that they are right and a Christian or Jew is wrong. Atheists thrill themselves pointing out the suffering caused by religion, whether during the Crusades, the religious wars of the Renaissance in Europe, or the persecution of women and gays today. But they seem to conveniently ignore the 7 million killed by Stalin in the Ukraine and an additional 1-2 million killed five years later during the purges, and the 36 million killed by Mao’s Great Leap Forward, as well as the 2 million victims of Pol Pot’s Killing Fields. All these men were great atheists, and killed many, many more than all historical religious leaders combined. Add in your petty communists like Tito, Castro, Ceaucescu, Kim Il Sung and the death toll creeps even higher.
Then of course there’s the problem that any true atheist should rationally kill himself or herself to avoid suffering, or perhaps go to the other extreme and turn the world into your personal playground like a psychopath, but that merely delays the suffering. Camus, Sartre, and Nietzsche did their best to provide answers to this conundrum but nothing works. A true atheist should be a dead atheist, which is why I suppose they have to entertain themselves by banning creches or prayers at high school football games.
It would seem that there has never been as of yet a true secular code of morality, and the existence of such may even be an impossibility. We may not be born with a sense of right and wrong but without religion it may not be possible to instill a conscience or similar repository of moral values that are we are able to rely upon through all of life’s circumstances. So instead we are stuck with religions that are thousands of years old to navigate our increasingly complex modern lives. Yet aren’t absolute truths timeless? If we respect long-dead Greek philosophers for their astute observations on human nature regarding politics, why shouldn’t we trust a bunch of wondering tribes in the desert to set our moral compasses by?
Which leads us back to the suffering of innocents. The closest that any major religion has come to explaining it is Buddhism which elevates suffering to the first of the Four Noble Truths. But it’s the 2,500 year old equivalent of “it is what it is,” a saying I hear a lot more as I get older and struggle with. I can’t accept that answer. It doesn’t feel right and isn’t intellectually or emotionally satisfying.
What else is there? For agnostics like me there’s nothing except a yearning for a better answer, and the hope that if there is indeed an afterlife I can at last learn the reason why innocents suffer and the wicked prosper in our world.