A case study in the Problem of Evil
Background: The Problem of Evil, most commonly known through this statement by Epicurus has historically been deployed as an argument by atheists and has consequently been the subject of much apologetics. In everyday terms, this is the question, "Why would a merciful almighty god allow good people to suffer for apparently no fault of theirs?"

A case study: Recently, the Indian journalist, public intellectual and former cabinet minister Arun Shourie released an autobiographical work 'Does He know a mother's heart?' The book is about the author's attempts to cope with his only son's affliction with cerebral palsy, and his eventually futile attempts to seek solace from different religious traditions. The book is a scathing critique against attempts of religious preachers to downplay or explain away human suffering.

Here are some excerpts and reviews from the book:

"The weight of love", Arun Shourie's excerpts in the Indian Express, July 10, 2011

"Arun Shourie questions the tyranny of Gandhi's god of suffering", Firstpost, August 9, 2011

"The Wheel of God", M J Akbar's review in India Today, July 8, 2011

"Does He know a mother's heart? How suffering refutes religions", Back-cover description from Gopal books

For interested readers, here's a couple of video interviews with the author on NDTV and CNN IBN.

The apologists' response: The book has caused quite a flurry in the religious establishment, both old-school and New Age, and apologists have lost no time in rehashing predictable 'explanations' for suffering of the sort Mr. Shourie identifies as the reason for his inability to take religion seriously.

Here are two examples:

From Puranic tales popularizer Devdutt Pattanaik
From Islamic scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan

An exercise for freethinkers: Freethinkers can examine and evaluate the above apologist arguments for how human suffering is compatible with an almighty merciful God.

More usefully, this serves as a reminder of the need for 'reason-based alternatives' for coping with personal tragedy and loss. For too long, the religious establishment has been claiming indispensability in being sources of solace in tragic situations of loss, injury and bereavement.

As freethinkers intent upon promoting a culture of reason and compassion, what do we have to say to people in Mr. Shourie's situation who have found all religious responses worse than useless?
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Excellent question Arvind. Always thought how feebly religion tries to explain away the problem of evil, but never thought how rational approach could comfort somebody suffering from chance injustice.

I think there is a kind of solace in realizing that nobody and nothing really is to be blamed and the most constructive approach would be to accept reality and learn to live with it.
Here are some more notes on the Problem of Evil and on different attitudes towards human suffering.

"Show me the meaning!" :

As a species, we are 'infovores' and in 'explanation-seeking creatures' and seem constitutionally unable to view 'chance injustice' and 'freak accidents' as just that: random. It seems as though people find misfortune coming from a consciously malicious agent easier to rationalize and accept than misfortune coming entirely by chance. In other words, it may not just be the notion of benevolence that draws people to concept of God, but the usefulness of this concept as one single answer to every unnerving "Whodunnit?". People, therefore, bizarrely seem to find the idea of a capricious even casually malicious God more acceptable than the idea of no God.

In the formulation of the famed 20th century psychiatrist Viktor Frankl
Quote:Desperation = Suffering - Meaning
In this 'arithmetic of desperation', suffering is something that may well be a matter a chance, but the meaning we endow it with remains a matter of choice and this choice can be exercised by us to prevent and cure despair. That remains the central thesis of Logotherapy, which almost literally means 'Meaning Cure'. The founder of Logotherapy was not averse to finding meaning in 'Providence' while freethinkers over the ages have been. Prof. Dawkins derides the question of whether there is a uniquely ordained 'purpose of life', as about as ridiculous as asking "What is the colour of jealousy?". 'Purpose' is a human construct and a worthwhile project is to devise one that is free from theological fictions and at the same time genuinely useful in times of distress.

False consolations and white lies:
Religion's palliative to help people unable to cope with the finality of death is the consolation of an afterlife. A contemporary example of an avowed atheist facing impending death and yet unconvinced of the utility of this consolation of an afterlife is Christopher Hitchens and he offers a take on why an endless afterlife isn't much of a consolation at all, in this video. While most atheists share this sort of intellectual conviction that the afterlife myth is a crutch we will discard, there remain atheists facing dilemmas like "Would we lie about heaven to comfort a dying child?"

Parting as friends and being friends during departures:

Solidarity in times of ailment and bereavement is something which ideological differences should not stop well-meaning believers and non-believers from offering across the fence. Christopher Hitchens says that the one thing ideologues must avoid is conniving to engineer death-bed conversions and recruiting born-agains when their opponent lies low, and also magnanimously commends the efforts of Francis Collins who did not let his evangelical persuasion come in the way of offering therapeutic advice to perhaps the best-known atheist debater of our times.

Giving credit where it is due, longtime debate opponent of Hitchens, Rabbi David Wolpe too agrees that it is out of form to press ideological differences during times of distress. Quoting from here:

Quote:Despite our shtick, there are real principles at stake each time. That is Hitchens's gift: a dance between mockery and erudition. In his world, God is a fabrication and a cudgel. In mine, God is a solace and a guide. I was reminded of this distinction when I heard the sad news last week that Hitchens is about to undergo treatment for cancer. I have no doubt that he will face it with the same stoic courage with which he has met other challenges. There is no reason to suppose it will change his convictions; I have undergone neurosurgery and chemotherapy with my faith unshaken -- why assume he could not emerge with his unbelief unchanged as well?

Even if we maybe people attempting to practice atheism in one's life under all circumstances, this need not stop us from tempering our critiques of those who do not share our convictions out of deference to the human need for a silent pause in times of bereavement.

Freethinkers' farewells :

Rabbi Wolpe continues in his article:

Quote:In the meantime, on we battle; Hitchens challenges me with how much evil happens in a good God's world. I talk about religion's contributions, its spur to altruism, and point to the mystery of consciousness and the wide testimony of religious experience.

We can address the omissions in the learned Rabbi's narrative by adding that freethinkers too are spurred on to altruism through simple empathy rather than any religious injunction, and that disbelief in an afterlife brings to freethinkers more eagerness and urgency in savouring the mystery of the one life we do have. We acknowledge the need for meaning and insist that it must built on less insecure foundations than Bronze Age myths and we also acknowledge the need for human solidarity which we believe can be maintained without positing any heavenly parentage or 'heavenly plan for humanity'. This well over an hour-long podcast "Grief without God" by Thinking Atheist features many personal tales from atheists on how they found meaning and solidarity in times of distress.

As for the inevitability of death, Prof. Dawkins in the passage he has chosen to be read at his funeral says that the very fact that we are going to die is a testimony to the fortune we have been endowed with. Neil deGrasse Tyson, in this moving reply to a query about his attitude towards death, says that he seeks no entry to Heaven but only a return to the Earth and instead of seeking an 'afterlife' we would like to offer up his remains to Life.

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Parenting about pain:

The course of life presents its share of painful experiences that are not always direct, personal or immediate but also witnessed, shared or impending, which may call upon us to respond appropriately sensitively. That pain is just something that happens to other people, or that it matters only when it happens to us, are ready myths which an untrained mind all-too-often can lapse into and responsible parenting involves scrupulously avoiding such myths. In the second edition of Ask Sam Harris Anything, author Sam Harris speaks about the need to acknowledge even to children how suffering is part of the human condition and how education about this must begin at home, and how a good upbringing involves knowing when and how to grieve with feeling and dignity.

The consolations of philosophy:

Philosophers over the ages have not been entirely indifferent to the common human pre-occupation with tirelessly seeking pleasure and with wearily seeking solace when distressed. In the acclaimed television series "A Guide to Happiness" based on his book "The Consolation of Philosophy", philosopher Alain de Botton speaks about different philosophers' views on human suffering. Seneca the Younger views suffering as resulting from unrealistic expectations about a pleasant world and advocates a stoic acceptance of the world's inevitable unpleasantness. Schopenhauer views the all too common suffering resulting from unrequited love or nostalgia for a more romantic past as a result of overly romanticizing what in Nature's terms are merely reproductive functions endowed with a character of companionship and affection only through human constructs. Nietzsche advises us to welcome suffering and calls upon us to recognize hardship as a pre-requisite to accomplishment and greatness of any kind.

It is hard to not notice that far from recommending any remedy for suffering, philosophers instead counsel more examination and forethought, and even an acceptance and embrace, of suffering. Consolation has never as much been an object of Philosophy as Understanding is. In contemporary freethought circles, there is a lot of discourse devoted to finding 'reason-based alternatives' to the traditional functions of religion. Since freethought too is concerned more with evolving Understanding founded in fact than in offering consolation traditionally demanding faith, there are some functions of religion which freethought obviates rather than being under obligation to find a replacement for. An apt illustration for this is offered by Sam Harris in this debate with Rabbi Wolpe. Quoting from around 50 min 40 sec.

Quote:Harris: ...We are terrified to lose the people we love in this world. That is an objective fact if there is one in this area. And religion is the strategy we have adopted to keep that terror at bay.

Moderator : If not religion, then what do you have?

Harris: It's not that you necessarily have a replacement for everything Religion does on every question. I mean, you don't replace the belief in Santa Claus with something that does exactly what the belief in Santa Claus did; equally consoling, equal motivating on Christmas morning. It doesn't happen.

An endnote from Epicurus:

It is the Riddle of Epicurus that still sends religious apologists scurrying for cover under the supposed 'ennobling nature of suffering' or 'inscrutable ways of the divine' when confronted with the apparent arbitrariness and pointlessness of so much human suffering. What did Epicurus himself have to say about suffering? Like so many other philosophers before and after him, he too seems to have held that suffering results from an incomplete understanding of and unrealistic expectations about the real nature of the world. His riddle itself is a consequence of religion's manifestly unrealistic narrative of Providential harmony and the onus of coping with its cruel incompatibility with lived experience is therefore upon religions. Epicurus had this to say about suffering: All pain is only for a time, after which it is either overcome or ends. The recognition of this impermanence is itself the understanding and consolation we need to cope with suffering. Sam Harris, a contemporary thinker who in many ways belongs to the Epicurean tradition, adds that the fact that most pleasures are impermanent too does not render them worthless.

Quote:"This notion of eternity, this notion of nothing matters here, but matters only over the long haul, in the afterlife, because the bulk of our experience is after we die; this religious idea actually robs life of its meaning. It doesn't bring meaning to life. It renders meaningless all of the precious moments we have while alive. This is the only life we are certain of. And it is continually ending. It not only ends in death but it ends in each moment and things change. And that makes each moment precious.

You take an experience like...you are a new parent and you are carrying your child. You pick your child hundreds of times a day it seems, and you never think that there is going to be a last time you do that. At a certain point your child is going to be too heavy to pick up. You don't pick up 15-year olds for the most part. At a certain point, you would have picked your child up for the last time. We tend not to go through life thinking in those terms, but if we did, if we realized that is is as though we are standing in front of a ticket machine at a deli counter and just pulling tickets not knowing how many are in there...and at a certain point we pull and have the last one we have for every experience. There will be a last time you would have picked your child up and you would not have noticed it is the last time. That makes life very precious and certainly death, the final ticket at the end of life makes it all incredibly precious. It could not be any more precious and its preciousness is not predicated on it lasting forever."

The poet William Blake in a single quatrain echoes the philosophers' contemplation of impermanence:
Quote:He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sun rise.

The advice fit for every change and chance, that 'Even this will pass away' remains perennially relevant.

Edit (19/09/2013) : Replaced old Google videos links with live Youtube ones where available.
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