The poverty, perversity, and pointlessness of purpose

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.


  1. Yellow Thursday says

    I noticed that Bad Catholic also changes the definition of “sin” between Claim 1 and Claim 2. In Claim 1, sin is harm caused by one person against another or against hirself. In Claim 2, it is not just humans who are sinful, but the entire universe. Which makes me wonder: is a tornado a sinner for destroying somebody’s house? Is a tsunami a sinner for killing people?

    That’s where I had to stop reading, in order to save myself some sanity.

    • Brian M says

      To me, the answer to Sin Type 2 is that it is GOD, or Yahweh, that is the “sinner” for deliberately, knowingly creating a “sinful universe”. Ultimately…who is to blame for this state? I answer the all-knowing, all-powerful, but certainly NOT all-good deity. If one believes in such an entity. If one does, then The Rebellion is correct and moral, not the all powrful, all evil dictator.

  2. A Hermit says

    Just want to say how much I `ppreciate this parade of purposeful posts…

    I often run into the argument that suffering is necessary for us to internalize moral lessons, but this argument fails to account for suffering which is unrelated to moral choices. The suffering of someone dying alone in the dark in the rubble of an earthquake bears no relation whatsoever to any moral choice and is therefore, from the point of view of the “moral lessons” argument utterly pointless.

  3. wholething says

    No amount of suffering could prepare the hell-bound for eternal torture so their suffering must be for the benefit of the heaven-bound, too. No pain or agony could ever enhance sexual ecstasy so suffering can’t be to prepare anybody for a heaven that is as pleasant as sex. Therefore heaven is better than pain but not as good an orgasm.

    So heaven is eternity in a place where nobody can use the “I have a headache” excuse but you still can’t get laid.

  4. leftwingfox says

    Yikes. I just made a similar argument over at Camels with Hammers at Patheos to Dan’s reply there.

    This is an area where the entire muddle-headed arena of “spirituality” is culpable; tying material causes to material effects by supernatural means, and interpreting those invisible cords through the lens of a just universe.

    Whether we call it “sin”, or “karma”, “The Secret”, or even “Murphy’s Law”, the true danger of this is inaction or mis-action in response to “Acts of God”. It can lead to actions which are at best useless, and at worse, actively harmful. Pray for rain, promote abstinence and demonize condoms in AIDS-ravaged regions, punish homosexuals, burn the witch. Worse, there’s no inherent correction mechanism; just find a differing interpretation, which might be texturally or dogmatically shakier even though the materialistic evidence is greater.

    Turning to science to find cause and effect ultimately challenges the idea of a just universe, and that much happens completely indifferent to the existence of humanity, or can be solved by material engineering, not personal faith.

  5. mikespeir says

    “For instance, you can build strength and character through ordinary sports and friendly competition.”

    The only reason we value strength and character is because they’re what are needed to get us through a life of adversity. Without adversity, we would have no need of the concepts “strength” and “character.” If someone tried to explain them to us, we’d probably never understand, because nothing in our experience would prepare us to relate to them. Even if we could, we wouldn’t see anything noble about those qualities.

  6. says

    When reading the “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” part, above, I flashed back on reading Hitchens’ last book “Mortality” in which he discusses this in detail from the view of a person who is progressively being eaten to death by cancer. He does not agree.

    I am also reminded of a piece by John Humphrys, I wrote about yesterday, in which he describes an experience he had as a child:

    … The glory of the night sky had yet to be lost to light pollution and on cloudless nights the stars went on for ever. That was what troubled me. How could they go on for ever? And if the universe was everything, what was it all in? And how could it be in anything because that would have to be in something else and . . . and . . . and so on. And what was there before any of it existed? And how did it all come into existence? And finally — the really, really Big Question — why?

    He goes on to work on why he thinks we need an answer (to believe) to the question:

    What’s interesting is that you get much the same answer to that question whether it comes from a philosopher/vicar like Giles Fraser or a theo-logian/archbishop like Rowan Williams or an old lady who has never read a book on theology in her life and wouldn’t know the difference between an ontological argument and a pork pie. Why should she? Theology, as Fraser says, is not the foundation of faith.

    The Archbishop of Canterbury and the little old lady might use a different vocabulary to try to explain why they believe, but it comes to the same thing in the end. They believe because they believe. This is not about intellect or learning: it’s more basic than that. It is both more profound and more simple.

    I suspect that on the most primitive level it is not all that different from the little scrap of blanket that so many small children rely on. They need it whenever they get tired or life looks a bit threatening.

    I think looking to the neuroscience of how our brains generate our feelings of needing an answer will tell us vastly more than theology trying to backfill an answer they want to be true.

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