Pain and Suffering

Yesterday I went to the beach for the first time in years, excluding visits during which I simply walked along the sand or the pier, and I paid the price for spending so much time in the midday, summer, Florida sun. I completely forgot to apply sunblock to my feet and failed to sufficiently cover the backs of my lower legs, resulting in severe sunburn, primarily on the tops of my feet. In addition, I had to walk back to the vehicle barefoot over sand which was absolutely scorching, the hottest I have felt during my entire life. My feet are still in constant pain more than twenty-four hours later despite my use of multiple cooling, soothing and healing agents. I'm sure that I will recover soon enough, but all of this pain reminded me of the change in my approach to suffering from when I was religious.

As a believer, none of this pain would have seemed pointless because I could have offered it to God. I believed this would reduce the amount of time I would spend in purgatory after my death and perhaps even gain me some merit in the eyes of God. It didn't matter that the causes of suffering didn't always seem just; the offering itself gave it meaning and perhaps made it easier for me to accept. This response to suffering has most likely played a major role in allowing religion to largely sidestep the problem of evil, which even believers acknowledge as the strongest argument against their faith, and is just one way in which religion makes life easier for believers by making unsupported promises.

As an atheist, now I have to accept any and all pain as essentially meaningless. It's true that it will teach me to more carefully apply sunblock before spending hours in the merciless sun, but this is a lesson which I could have learned without pain and which has no real moral value. The same is true of much greater suffering such as major illness, accidents or even death. We have to face cold hard reality without any promise that everything will be all right in the end and that everything will balance out. It's not easy, but it still seems better than comforting fantasy.


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