When I think back to why I once decided to be an atheist, there were two main foundations on which this was based.
The first was simply that it seemed like wishful thinking by people who understood no better. Once you understand the fundamentals of cosmology and evolution, there is simply no need for primitive fairly tales. The majesty of truly ancient cosmological, geological and biological processes slowly carving out our existance takes on a logical and explanatory power that wipes the floor next to some archetypal father figure in the sky lecturing us on morals. This one I can now see is easily corrected, but not easily heard, and so it must be left for when people are ready to listen. This is more true than ever in this age when we think we as a species understand so much, just as most previous ages have done. Essentially, once you believe in a creator god, its clear that he very deliberately made his existence implicit rather than explicit. As Jesus put it, “I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to little children.”
The other reason I became an atheist was suffering. It overwhelmed me as a teenager – not my own suffering but that of so many of the creatures living on the planet (this was probably not helped by my music tastes at the time which included the likes of The Cure). From the innocent causes of suffering; of predators hunting their dinner, or disease, or hunger – right through to the cruelty of snares and poaching, of violence and war and the cruelty of hatred and indifference. It seemed very clear to me at the time that there was only one sane conclusion about any supposed creator. Either god is weak and powerless to do anything about this, which makes him a fraud. Or he has the power to change it and chooses not to, in which case he is not loving and therefore – again – a fraud.
It was only later that I found out this was a well known argument. So do I now try to love a cruel god ? Am I relaxed about suffering ? The answer to both is no, but my perspective has definitely changed. Compassion and empathy are human traits, but they are also choices. And there are choices in how we respond to suffering and difficulties; whether we become hard as a protection, or more sympathetic to the condition in our fellow creatures.
I think this process happens regardless of our beliefs, although a belief system anchored in compassion and forgiveness has the power to affect choices. But we all struggle in these things, and we all equally know people of all faiths and of none can be both cruel and kind.
There does however seem to be a need for suffering, certainly when you look at this life as a brief preparation for eternity. Just like a body cannot survive without pain generated by its nerves, so the soul cannot truly understand love in a world devoid of suffering. The journey of the Buddha only started when the seals that kept out suffering failed. The archetypal spoilt child finds very little room inside their being for empathy.
When your worldview has changed such that you can actually think about why an intelligent and loving all powerful god would choose to create living sentient beings, beings he creates in his own image such that the temporal becomes atemporal, then there must be an aspect of this life which is a preperation. The bible has a quote where god says that he will take those he loves and “refine them like silver in the furnace”.
It can be difficult to accept suffering when confronted with it, especially when its raw and close. But maybe thats necessary in the big scale of things in a way thats difficult to see moment to moment. We can do our best to change it where we see a small opportunity. We can do our best to take our own challenges gracefully. I’m certainly not qualified to talk about any of this, I’ve had a very lucky life, and am naturally both lazy and selfish. But nonetheless I do believe that when we die we will see that its all exactly as it had to be, meaningless as that may seem at times. As Julian of Norwich put it, “all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”
update: The TV series Blue Bloods this week ended with a quote I’d not heard before, and it seemed maybe appropriate to quote here;
He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.