Questionable Motives

February 21, 2010

Does suffering improve us?

Filed under: belief,Christianity,God,Religion,Suffering — tildeb @ 3:01 pm

One of the old canards about explaining suffering in a world with a omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and benevolent god is that suffering is somehow good for us, a necessary condition if we are to come to god with free will. It’s a very silly explanation about a very serious and all too real condition. Ophelia Benson takes a crack at answering the question here. I’ve included a few excerpts for your consideration:

Whether or not suffering improves us depends first of all on how we define “suffering”. Real suffering – pain, disease, thirst, starvation – don’t improve us; they don’t leave us room to improve. “Improvement” is an activity for healthy people in tolerable circumstances; when things are desperate improvement becomes a luxury.

The idea that hardship improves us looks like a rationalisation of an old superstitious fear that too much prosperity will trigger the opposite. The gods are jealous, and if we don’t have any suffering, they’ll see that we get some – and they always overdo it, the bastards, so it’s much better if we do it to ourselves first so that they don’t come along and wallop us. It’s a good bargain if it works: I give up chocolate for a month and the gods don’t drop an asteroid on my head.

There are some sick views on all this in Christianity, doubtless thanks to its preoccupation with torture as atonement. (Before you swell with outrage, remember that it’s Christianity that has an implement for execution by torture as its central symbol, worn as a necklace and decorating the covers of hymnals.) There is “Mother Teresa” for example. Dr Robin Fox, editor of The Lancet, visited her hospice in Calcutta in 1994 and reported, “I could not judge the power of their spiritual approach, but I was disturbed to learn that the formulary includes no strong analgesics.” This was not for want of money, it was policy. It is notorious that she once said in a filmed interview that she told a patient suffering the agonies of the final stages of cancer, “You are suffering like Christ on the cross.”

Ultimately this has to do with the obvious fact that the world is full of suffering, so people who want to believe in a benevolent God have to reconcile the two in some way. Claiming that suffering improves us is one such attempt.

But it’s still silly.

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12 Comments »

  1. It is notorious that she once said in a filmed interview that she told a patient suffering the agonies of the final stages of cancer, “You are suffering like Christ on the cross.”

    These are the same types of people who think euthanasia is immoral, yet they are quite happy to sit by someone and not give them drugs because the suffering is doing them good.

    I find that disturbing.

    But then, I found it disturbing when I heard some of the stuff about Mother Teresa – just makes me shudder to think about it.

    http://www.atheistfoundation.org.au/articles/missionary-position-mother-teresa-theory-and-practice-book-review

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — February 21, 2010 @ 9:08 pm | Reply

  2. So you have never met anyone that has suffered that is changed? I ask this because I know a few. One man suffers greatly from a disintegrated disc in his back with severe nerve damage. He will not take drugs for the pain because he does not want to become addicted. No, he’s not a practicing Christian or any other religion. He suffers daily with pain, sometimes his leg will give out and he will fall. However, this man used to be very self centered and angry. He is now one of the most giving, loving people I have ever known. Many people suffer and their lives change. Another example, is when children die and the parents are left behind. These amazing parents go on to build foundations to raise money to help children in the future that are suffering from the same terrible illness. Everything happens for a reason and if you look at it you will see where many have changed and go on to live different lives.

    Mother Teresa gave her life to help the poor. The article above is full of vicious nonsense. Do real research. It just floors me when I see stuff like this because you claim to have great morals and values without needing God in your life yet you go on to publish articles and make comments that are far less than scholarly. You criticize someone who spent her life with the poor…what have you done? http://www.motherteresa.org/layout.html

    Comment by 4amzgkids — February 21, 2010 @ 9:22 pm | Reply

    • From Nicholas Everitt’s essay How Benevolent is God?:

      The initial line of argument is easily stated: if god is omniscient, he knows all about all the evil in the world; if he is omnipotent, he has the power to prevent evil from occurring; and if he is perfectly good, he would wish to prevent all the evil. But there is evil; therefore, there can be no god. We see here the importance of having in place a relatively exact specification of what we mean by the word “god.” The proof of his non-existence depends precisely on the properties which would have to have, were he to exist.

      Exactly the same argument can be made for suffering in place of evil.

      Comment by tildeb — February 21, 2010 @ 9:52 pm | Reply

      • But if God controlled everything….we would be like robots tildeb. That makes no sense! We have free will, we can do as we please, why do you think there are so many religions? Why do you think there are criminals and good people? If God controlled it all, what would be the purpose of that?

        Comment by 4amzgkids — February 22, 2010 @ 12:39 am

      • If, according to doctrine, we have free will, then god’s omniscience negates it. What’s the point in exercising choice if god already knows which choice we will make? So we either have free will and god is not omniscient, or we don’t have it and god is omniscient. You cannot have it both ways so you must decide which it is.

        Comment by tildeb — February 22, 2010 @ 4:26 am

    • Where, precisely, is the “vicious nonsense” in that article? What would you define as “real research” in this case?

      And this book: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Missionary_Position_%28book%29 elaborates further on many of Mother Teresa’s unpleasant (to say the least) activities. The facts speak for themselves. There’s no “vicious nonsense” involved in it, just like there’s no “vicious nonsense” involved in Ophelia Benson’s article.

      Comment by Miranda Celeste Hale — February 21, 2010 @ 11:33 pm | Reply

  3. Why would you go to a website that hates Christianity to read about someone and what they did and stood for? She’s a swindler? She tells people to forgive (clearly Christian) no matter the crime. What a joke. She has a hospital for HIV men that are unhappy there? Then why do they go there if that is the case….this is all nonsense. Look to real sources. When you see something like this for example: A Woman that dedicated her life to helping the poor and you see an article like the one above stating she was a swindler, the hospital situation etc….it doesn’t add up. So why wouldn’t you look to other sources to see what they say? There are a bunch of hateful loons out there. I don’t understand why people don’t look!

    Comment by 4amzgkids — February 22, 2010 @ 12:37 am | Reply

    • First it’s the unsubstantiated charge of “vicious nonsense,” then it’s “hateful,” all because Benson quite legitimately points out that christian atonement is often closely associated with torture and unnecessary suffering as if undergoing it ‘improves’ one’s soul.

      Like Miranda Celeste Hale, I utterly fail to understand how pointing out the obvious is either vicious nonsense or hateful.

      Comment by tildeb — February 22, 2010 @ 4:15 am | Reply

      • where is the proof….that’s what I’m saying….he just lists his opinion….back it up!

        Comment by 4amzgkids — February 23, 2010 @ 6:27 pm

  4. If, according to doctrine, we have free will, then god’s omniscience negates it. What’s the point in exercising choice if god already knows which choice we will make? So we either have free will and god is not omniscient, or we don’t have it and god is omniscient. You cannot have it both ways so you must decide which it is.

    Tildeb, this makes no sense at all. Because God knows past, present and future there is no hope for us? We can’t make decisions on our own? WHAT??? He knows what you will choose but you have the right to choose as you please. He just knows what it’s going to be ahead of time. He’s not controlling you.

    Comment by 4amzgkids — February 23, 2010 @ 6:30 pm | Reply

    • But we are not ‘free’ to choose if the choice is already determined.

      Comment by tildeb — February 23, 2010 @ 7:13 pm | Reply

  5. “But we are not ‘free’ to choose if the choice is already determined.”

    I am waiting for a creationalist to say – that’s because God lives in the quantum world so he can be both omniscient and not omniscient at the same-time – a bit like Schrödinger’s cat….

    🙂

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — February 23, 2010 @ 9:39 pm | Reply


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