Search this site

powered by

this page last updated
August 9, 2008

All Rights Reserved
Text: World Copyright

Copyright of pictures acknowledged where known

Having problems viewing this page? It performs best in Mozilla Firefox.

This page is archived; some links may not work. Clicking on home will bring you back to the active site.

Column 105
Pain and loss

The inevitability of suffering

By © Martin Foreman
Word Count: 797 words
Publication date: April 29, 2007

Suffering is universal to sentient beings. In fact, suffering – a physical or psychological reaction to actual, perceived or potential harm – cannot exist without awareness of oneself.

As far as we can discern, the extent to which any being is capable of suffering is directly related to the extent of its self-awareness. More complex beings are probably subject to much greater suffering than simpler beings and simpler beings are almost certainly unaffected by pyschological suffering.  

An insect’s reaction to the loss of a leg is therefore considerably less than a primate’s reaction to a similar loss. A young puppy or kitten suffers when suddenly deprived of its mother but it is unlikely that baby fish or spiders notice the absence of either parent.

Among animals, humans appear to have the greatest capacity for suffering. We not only feel physical or psychological pain when a distressing event occurs, but we may experience suffering on others’ behalf.

We can also anticipate suffering. It is that vulnerability which makes the threat of torture particularly effective. “If you do not tell me what you know, we will hurt you or your loved ones.”

Although at root all suffering is the same, each of us suffers differently. And the likelihood that we will suffer depends very much on where we are. In comparison to the hundreds of millions of people who live in misery, threatened by starvation, warfare and disease, most of those reading this column live in relative peace and comfort.

We are unfamiliar with starvation or prolonged pain; we have not witnessed either man-made explosions or natural disasters, nor seen our family or friends slaughtered by mad gunmen or soldiers acting in the name of some government or insurgency.

We can only imagine – and perhaps our imagination fails us – the plight of a woman in Darfur living in a refugee camp whose physical needs are being met, but whose husband was murdered, whose eldest son has disappeared and whose youngest child is crying endlessly from malaria.

That does not mean we do not suffer in our own way.

The woman in Columbus, Ohio, who is on the edge of a nervous breakdown because her husband is emotionally cold, the business she runs is facing bankruptcy and her eldest son is experimenting with heroin is undoubtedly suffering,

On an objective scale, the African woman has undergone much more trauma than the American and her suffering may indeed be greater. Yet it may be the American who suffers more because she is less capable of enduring the emotional pain that overwhelms her.

However much we suffer, and whatever the cause, at the end of the day, we know that between our first birth cry, or possibly earlier, and our last breath all human beings inevitably suffer.

It is this inevitability and the fact that it has no rational cause, which allows religion to co-opt suffering and make it central to its false promise.

According to the two most popular religions, Islam (which means “submission”) and Christianity suffering is God’s will. Practicing Jews are less likely to see God’s active hand behind suffering and are more likely to be of the opinion that the deity’s decision to allow suffering can never be understood.

Hindus see suffering as punishment for misdeeds in past lives. Buddhism, which evolved from Hinduism, does not reject this view but places additional emphasis on the idea that suffering comes from attachment - if we were not attached to our family, our wealth or our physical selves, we would not suffer when deprived of them.

Of all these viewpoints, the most rational is the Buddhist: suffering only ceases when our sense of self ceases. The least acceptable viewpoint to the rational mind are the fundamentalist Christian and Muslim.

The idea that suffering is God’s will – and in its most perverted form, that God’s love is expressed through physical or psychological pain – allows Islamic terrorists to kill with impunity and Christian meddlers to deny the right to die to those who wracked by incurable painful disease.

Those extremes aside, it can be argued that the illusion of faith brings comfort to those who suffer severely – the parent whose child has died young, the individual who is severely disabled. The promise of paradise provides compensation and anesthetizes the pain.

But that argument is patronizing. If we are to reach our full development as human beings we have to accept the reality that suffering will always be part of our lives and most of the time there is neither consciousness nor reason behind the pain we feel.

Suffering is integral to the human condition. But only fools or sadists welcome it in the name of a mythical deity. As rational beings our response must be to minimize it whenever possible, in ourselves and others.

previous column
next column

Custom Search

Do you have a question / comment about this page?
Email us, pasting the URL into your letter with the comment
This account is protected by Spamarrest.
You will receive a one-off request to verify your email before it is delivered.

If God existed, he would...

admire the beauty of a universe that he did not create

recognize that eternity is meaningless

deny both heaven and hell

disown all men and women who speak in his name

denounce the harm caused by religious "morality"

help the human race to thrive without him

If God existed, he would be an atheist.

What is the difference between science and faith?

science is certain of nothing and requires proof of everything

faith is certain of everything and requires proof of nothing

Which do you trust?

"I know there is no God"
"I believe there is no God"

Check the answer

wear the Scarlet letter

Supporting advertisers helps to provide an income for The Atheist God. Clicking on advertiser links may allow these companies to gather and use information about your visit to this and other websites to provide you with advertisements about goods and services presumed to be of interest to you.