Ok, one more post on purpose, and then I’ll be done (for a while at least). There’s all kinds of nice, alliterative lessons we can learn from looking at the Bad Catholic’s post regarding purpose. For example, after suggesting that we develop leukemia and then watch a family member die, in order to appreciate how hard it is to “be content without … answers, meaning, or purpose,” he then goes on to state this:
CLAIM 1: Suffering is the result of sin. … When we sin against others — when we steal from them, malign their names, or harm their bodies — we cause them suffering. When we sin against our nature — when we isolate ourselves, or demean our bodies — we cause our selves suffering. Suffering is the result of sin.
Behold the poverty of purpose. It’s fine to notice that yes, we can cause each other to suffer, but what about suffering that’s not caused by people? Blaming the victim is such a poor excuse, don’t you think? Why did you get leukemia? Because you deserved it, you sinner. Why did your three-year-old develop a brain tumor and waste away over the course of the next 18-months before finally dying? Because you (and/or your baby) deserved it, you sinners. And guess what? No matter what you do, Christianity is going to find something you do that it calls a sin. You can’t say, “I’ll just stop sinning, and then I won’t suffer any more.” Blaming the victim is intellectually impoverished: it neither knows nor cares what the actual, material causes of your suffering are, and it provides you with nothing you can use to reduce or avoid such suffering. All it gives you is an extra load of guilt on top of your suffering. Thanks a ton.
There’s a certain perversity in purpose as well. If suffering is the result of sin, why do greedy and ruthless bastards so often live lives of luxury and pleasure? It’s other people who suffer as the result of their (the bastards’) sin. And you can say, “Oh, but the sinners who live lives of luxury will suffer forever in hell.” And the purpose of that suffering would be…? Most people are doomed to hell anyway, according to what Jesus said, and quite a few of those will be people who were raised in Christian homes but lost faith in God because of all the evil and suffering they see in the world. What kind of perverse purpose allows the rich and powerful to cause the sufferings of the poor and powerless, only to send both to endless, pointless suffering? How is it that the same purpose both blesses us (allegedly) and also dooms us to hell?
What makes it worse is that this is all pointless. You can try and make excuses like, “No pain, no gain,” and “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” but those are all materialistic observations. We need strength of body and of character because we are material organisms living in a material world. Pain, and our bodies’ response to pain, derive from the physical necessities of a world where life itself is a process of atoms and molecules and the transfers of energy that happen through building and breaking biochemical bonds. We need that kind of strength because our life is a struggle for continued existence in an environment that would otherwise destroy us.
Now how does that prepare us for heaven? Is heaven, too, an environment that will be trying, for all eternity, to destroy us? Do we need to be raped in the ass by our priest in order to be prepared for what Jesus has in store for us in heaven? Do we need to know how to patiently endure the slow, relentless ravages of Alzheimer’s so that we can withstand the endless worship service God has scheduled for us in the next life? Is there something about watching your entire village die of disease and starvation, including your family and you yourself, that’s necessary in order to make heaven look good by comparison?
What makes it all so pointless is that there are so many other, better ways to achieve whatever benefits we’re supposed to gain by experiencing sin and suffering and evil and death. An omnipotent Creator would not need to resort to such things. For instance, you can build strength and character through ordinary sports and friendly competition. (Even the Bad Catholic uses this as an example of “useful pain.”) That’s a trivial example, obviously, but it’s a good one. There’s nothing inherently difficult about living a life of eternal bliss that would require you to be tortured by enemy soldiers in order to be strong enough to be prepared for heaven. (And by the same token, no matter what you suffer on earth, it won’t prepare you for hell!)
There’s lots more we could say about this notion of “purpose,” but I think this horse is sufficiently dead that we can stop beating it. As the Bad Catholic himself inadvertently admits, “purpose” is an idea that springs from the emotional needs of those who are suffering. It’s a psychological reaction, an escape fantasy, a denial of reality—not an insight into any kind of real world truth about God. Like the “blame-the-victim” ploy, it’s an impoverished, irrational and irresponsible rejection of unwelcome reality. We can sympathize with it at times, and take pity on those who are suffering from it. but it exists only inside the head of the victim, and has no counterpart in objective reality.