The problem of purpose

I want to continue looking at the Bad Catholic’s post at Patheos because there’s a lot of interesting stuff there. Like this introduction:

Any philosophy that claims that there exists nothing supernatural cannot grant purpose to suffering.

If some natural, secular purpose could be granted to the man suffering, then his pain would cease to be suffering and begin to be useful pain.

He goes on to compare the young athlete’s muscular aches and pains, endured for the sake of fitness, with the inescapable aches and pains of old age, as an example of useful pain versus pointless suffering. In order to be suffering, he says, suffering “requires the lack of a natural, secular answer.” And by “answer” he means “a good reason”—some overriding benefit good enough to justify the means used to achieve it.

In a way, he has a point. If we presume that the world owes us an existence of endless comfort and pleasure—not just that we would like more comfort and pleasure, but that the universe owes it to us as an ontological necessity—then I’ll grant you, Christianity does a better job of pandering to that presumption by promising a purpose for every speck of suffering endured by man.

The advantage of atheistic philosophy, on the other hand, is that only atheistic philosophy can clearly distinguish between “useful pain” and pointless suffering. The very “benefit” espoused by the Bad Catholic is, in fact, a serious moral and ethical problem, because if all suffering has a divine purpose, then it is unclear, at best, whether we should ever take any steps to try and reduce or eliminate suffering. If all suffering is God’s will, ordained by the perfect wisdom, love, and goodness of God, then those who oppose that suffering are opposing God’s will.

You can try and rationalize away the dilemma by supposing that maybe God has also appointed you to bring an end to some particular bit of suffering, but if you do, you’re just guessing. God doesn’t show up and call you over, and declare (in the presence of witnesses) that He has chosen you and appointed you to bring an end to this suffering. You have to appoint yourself, assuming that if you succeed, then it must have been God’s will. And even then, your best guide as to how and when to oppose suffering is to resort to the secular, atheistic understanding of the problem.

Secular philosophy is not burdened with superstitious presumptions of purpose, and is therefore morally and ethically free to approach pointless suffering as a thing devoid of merit, which can and should be minimized and eliminated wherever possible. Indeed, all suffering is intrinsically meritless—even “useful pain” is only something we endure because we lack an alternative that achieves the same results without the pain. If there were some kind of magical pill the athlete could take that would make him or her instantly fit, without the aches and pains of working out, there would be no benefit in choosing the more painful path to fitness. (Think about it: if you tried, I’m sure you could find a more painful way to, say, tie your shoes in the morning. But would that make you a better person?)

Purpose, as applied to suffering, is a problem. It’s a moral and ethical problem for the person (or Person) who is deliberately choosing to cause or allow the suffering of others, and it’s a moral and ethical problem for anyone who would then (sinfully) choose to oppose that purpose by seeking to end the suffering. Atheism does not suffer from such superstition-induced ethical dilemmas, and is free to directly address the problem of suffering itself. And in the end, even religious philosophy has to come down to the secular level, if it is to be any real comfort to the afflicted.


  1. had3 says

    I responded at patheos and I’ll respond here: in Christianity, suffering continues in heaven for those who are without their loved ones because their loved ones were not saved. They have no answer for the purpose of eternal suffering in heaven, yet that question gets a free pass from them even though that suffering is eternal and earthly suffering is only temporal.

    • bertilak says

      had3, could you please provide some citations? I’m not saying you are wrong, but I have never heard a Christian assert that there is suffering in heaven.

      I did a brief search and the only reference I found to this was concerning the Urantia Book, which is hardly orthodox.

      • says

        I believe the suffering in Heaven would stem from knowing my child/husband/mom/dad/anyone! is undergoing fiery torture while I am not. How can one be happy in heaven if one knows how horribly their loved ones are suffering?

      • bertilak says

        Yes, I sure many people hold such non-orthodox folk beliefs. My question is whether any Christian minister, priest, or theologian has said that there is suffering in heaven. In other words, has this ever been considered an orthodox Christian belief?

        As an example of orthodox belief, let me quote Aquinas: “That the saints may enjoy their beatitude more fully, a perfect sight is granted them of the punishment of the damned.” This does not exclude one’s family members. Then there is Luke 14:26 “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.”

      • says

        You do have a point, but then I’ve heard Matt Dillahunty (from TAE) argue that whatever that person is in heaven is not the same person as was on earth. He uses the example of his mother because there is no way she, as she is on earth, could be happy in heaven if he were not there (whether he be burning in an actual hell with fire and all or just “annihilated”). Whatever would be claimed to be his mother in heaven would not actually be his mother because her personality would have to be distorted beyond recognition…which I guess would be what Aquinas calls “a perfect sight.” You don’t have to have suffering, but then you won’t be you…which seems to defeat the idea of a heaven.

      • had3 says

        Buzzsaw is correct, and that’s my point. No orthodox Christian acknowledges suffering exists in heaven, yet logically it must exist if the heavenly person is actually the same as the earthly person in terms of who they are. As buzz stated, if I’m in heaven and don’t suffer for the absence of anyone I love, then that’s not actually me in heaven.

    • Bruce Gorton says

      you are making the mistake of thinking the kind of people who could get into heaven and have it actually be heaven would care.

      Considering that the entirety of Christian morality is essentially sociopathic (the essence of the story of Abraham and Isaac is essentially God could offer Abraham great rewards so Abraham was right to be willing to sacrifice Isaac) that heaven would only be for sociopaths naturally follows.

      • says

        To be a bit pedantic, I’m not sure that’s entirely correct. The emphasis is not on whatever blessings god might bestow, but on pure obedience for its own sake. That’s the point of the Job story (or one point of it, anyway); the truly righteous praise god even if he takes away everything they have.
        It’s not so much a question of selfishness as it is complete, blind, unquestioning obedience to the god, no matter how rotten he treats you.

        It’s not a gang member who does what the boss says because he’ll get a cut of the profits. It’s more like a battered wife, who is beaten every day, yet still insists that he really loves her and it was probably her own fault after all.

      • Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

        I’ve seen that summed up as:

        Love God? You’re in an abusive relationship.

  2. B-Lar says

    Atheism does not suffer from such superstition-induced ethical dilemmas, and is free to directly address the problem of suffering itself.

    Yes. The pickle that you get yourself in when you assume a grand ineffable plan is that everything must have a purpose conductive to success of the grand ineffable plan. You can easily tie yourself into knots by making such a massive unwarranted assumption.

    There is always a cause, and therefore, a reason for suffering to exist, but I think its fair to say that there is very rarely a purpose to its existence other than perhaps sadistic/masochistic pleasure or exploitational profiteering.

    Very human explanations.

  3. says

    I have never heard a Christian assert that there is suffering in heaven.

    Isn’t boredom a form (albeit mild) of suffering?

    Eternal boredom might build to the level of agonizing. Add to that a steady diet of platitudes and no dogs or cats to hang out with, and I could see going eternally postal or begging for a mild waterboarding in a mere hundred or two hundred years.

    • busterggi says

      Boredom in Heaven? Impossible!

      Between singing the praises of god and chanting the glory of god and praising the all-mightiness of god and adoring the virtues of god and exclaiming the radiance of god and humbling oneself before the grandeur of god and groveling at the feet of god…

      How could anyone get bored with an eternity of that?

      • mikespeir says

        You really needed a smirky smiley ( 😉 ) for that one. Or maybe not. It is kinda obvious.

      • Brian M says

        The novelist Brian Stableford actually had a little thought exercise in which the transdimensional entities who were the antgonists in his novel actually tempted the protagonists with various versions of heaven. They found every one of them horrific.

        (Werwolves of London trilogy. Awesome novels!)

  4. Kevin K says

    A couple of things.

    1. There is no “purpose” to an athlete’s soreness after exercise. It’s an indication of the build-up of lactic acid. There’ no “purpose” to lactic acid. It’s a toxic byproduct that the body doesn’t want. Soreness doesn’t indicate exercise is working or not, that the muscles are getting stronger or not. It’s an indication of lactic acid. No purpose. If you stretch some and do light warm-up, you’ll eliminate lactic acid faster than not — but that’s NOT the purpose of lactic acid. Stop acting as if a chemical substance has a “purpose”. Doesn’t.

    2. The use of the word “purpose” in every other context is theist code. It means “the size and location of my after-death apartment”. More suffering apparently is meant to earn one an apartment on a higher floor in a nicer neighborhood with the kitchen upgrade. Problem with that is — levels of attainment aren’t supposed to exist in heaven. It’s a one-room flat overlooking the garden for everyone.

    3. Christians believe one goes to heaven for believing in Jesus. Even Catholics believe this. That’s the primary qualification. The Catholics add “good works” into the mix because the ancient Romans waited to convert until they were on their death beds — can’t tithe from your death bed. Hence “faith without works is dead.”

    There is NO requirement for suffering in order to get to heaven. Believe and do works (Catholics). Believe (just about everyone else). That’s it.

    THEREFORE, suffering is completely unnecessary for salvation, and serves neither an earthly NOR a heavenly “purpose”. Suffering just is.

  5. hexidecima says

    I really do want to see a Christian who espouses the nonsense that all suffering has a godly purpose answer that question: “then why do you do anything to ameliorate suffering?”

    but they never do sicne it would make them actually realize what liars they are.

    vapid nitwits.

    as for suffering continuing in heaven, well, that depends on the myth each Christian tells themselves I suppose. C.S. Lewis was quite sure people in heaven forget their loved ones. Other vicious Christians (for some reason I’m thinking of Augustine who is a nasty brute) are sure that Christians in heaven would cheer on the suffering since it meant that those in heaven were “right”.

    • roundguy says

      I have known some Hindus and even a few Wiccans who felt that lessening suffering in others interfered in allowing them to work out the implicatons of karma (or something like that–it wasn’t too clearly defined). I’ve also known some people in 12 step groups who espouse the idea of not interfering with someone’s bottoming out in hopes the suffering will lead them to quit drinking or using drugs.

      I’ve asked a lot of Christians about the whole relatives going to hell thing, but from a slightly different angle. I wonder if they’ll be able to praise god for sending their unbelieving relatives to hell–it is after all a sign of his perfect justice, is it not?

      Never really heard a good answer.

      • Corvus illustris says

        From the Wikipedia article on Mother Teresa:

        … in [Mother Teresa’s] Homes for the Dying, one could “hear the screams of people having maggots tweezered from their open wounds without pain relief. On principle, strong painkillers were not administered even in severe cases. According to Mother Teresa’s philosophy, it is ‘the most beautiful gift for a person that he can participate in the sufferings of Christ’.”

        You see, suffering has a purpose. Endured by others (of course), it gets you recognition as a wonderful humanitarian, Nobel prizes, canonization, and other good things.

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