Why do bad things happen?
We humans are very much like most other animals in our curiosity. A dog will sniff around everywhere to find out who else has been around. A cat will approach a new object in the house and try to figure out what it might be – give it a sniff, a taste, a scratch.
But we are unique animals because we go beyond the ‘what’ and ‘who’ questions. If you’ve ever interacted much with a young child, you’ll recognise that this trait emerges early in our development.
The magic and often repeated word in this context is ‘why’?
It’s time to put on your shoes honey. Why?
Because we need to leave and you need to wear shoes to walk today. Why
Because the ground is cold. Why?
Well, it’s cold because it’s winter. Why?
Ummm... because the earth turns on its axis or something... I don’t know exactly. Why?
Well, I wasn’t that good in science in school. Why?
I guess I didn’t really apply myself to that subject, but it could also be a lack of innate ability. Why?
Well, our brains are all different. Why?
Honey, it’s time to put on your shoes!
Now, sometimes when we ask ‘why’, we are really asking ‘how.’ And ‘how’ is the domain of investigation and of science. Science tells us exactly how the earth turns and tilts and how that affects our climate – even if very few of us can remember the details.
But what science cannot and does not try to tell us is ‘why.’
And this is one of the reasons we have places like this – why we have religion and philosophy. We are creatures who crave some kind of sense and order and purpose in the universe. And so, we ask why?
Near the top of the list of the difficult ‘why’ questions of our lives is the one we are taking on today: ‘Why do bad things happen?’
There are a few assumptions built into that question. The first is that there is - or should be a reason when bad things happen – or perhaps when anything happens. We will come back to that one.
The second assumption is that what we see as bad things are, in fact bad.
As a child, I thought going to the GP and getting a jab was a terrible, horrible thing. I lived in fear of it and even driving by the road that led to the surgery made be incredibly anxious! But those jabs were for a greater good. So, some bad things are actually not bad when seen in a larger sense.
But some would actually say that none of the things we call bad things are actually bad. This conservative religious view suggests that everything bad is really something good but we just don’t recognise it as such. This includes the most terribly bad things you can imagine – the worst things that ever happened to you and those you love.
The holders of this view believe that there is a plan for everything that happens. That plan is designed by God – an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing being that intervenes in the events of our lives.
We heard this way of thinking in its gentlest form in the story of the King who lost his thumb. In the story, everything that happens, happens for a reason. There is a purpose and a plan. Everything works out for the best.
It’s a comforting thought. When something painful or disappointing happens, we can ease our pain by believing that something good will eventually come out of it.
My grandmother – despite being an atheist until her death at 103 – always said that everything happens for a reason. She was a lovely person, a great cook, a wonderful grandmother. I learned so much from her and I miss her terribly. But she was a lousy theologian!
Where does kind of thinking lead us? Was there a purpose to the natural disasters that have killed so many thousands just in recent years?
Is there a purpose to the HIV virus or Ebola or Flu or Polio?
My grandmother would have to say no. She would admit that “everything happens for a reason” is comforting but not acceptable in any kind of general sense.
But the most conservative religionists would continue to say yes – there is a reason for even the worst of apparent tragedies.
The conservative explanations for such horrors fall into three categories:
1. God is punishing us and we deserve it
2. God is testing us
3. God is giving us trials to shape and form us
Let’s take these one by one
God is punishing us: This assumes we deserve punishment. The history of the suffering of innocents is far too large and terrible to begin to accept such a thing unless you believe that humanity is essentially sinful or perhaps that you are being punished for something from a past life.
After every natural disaster, there have been some who will blame it on human sin. Tsunamis have been blamed on the sex trade and on a failure to accept Christianity. Hurricanes have been called a consequence of an acceptance of homosexuality.
But if there is a God who is all-powerful and all-good, would that God create a world where the inhabitants are so terribly bad that they need to be tortured and slaughtered by the millions. That notion defies any semblance of reason.
2 - God is testing us: If there is any entity worthy of the name God, such God already knows how we will respond. Testing makes no sense if you already know the outcome!
3 - God is giving us trials to shape and form us: Two problems with this. Again, a God worthy of the name would not have to make us suffer to be good. And second, these so-called trials destroy human and other lives. It’s hard to see how that can be seen as in any way a growth experience.
And finally, when each of these possibilities falls, the believers that everything is according to God’s plan reply that God is beyond human understanding and we should simply accept that. This is what is called a non-falsifiable hypothesis. There is no way you can disprove it. There is no kind of logic or reason can that even be used to explore it.
There was a tongue-in-cheek religion created explicitly to point out the absurdities of this and other conservative religious notions. It’s called Pastafarianism and its deity is a flying spaghetti monster – a knot of noodles with two meatball eyes. The flying spaghetti monster is posited to be invisible. It defies all attempts to detect it by using its invisible noodly appendages to interfere with all measurements and instruments.
Oh, and Pastafarians claim that pirates are considered the original Pastafarians and assert that the decline in the number of pirates is the true cause of global warming.
Ridiculous? Maybe, but these “beliefs” are completely non-falsifiable. Just like the argument that God has reasons but we can’t understand them. Any claim that can’t be explored or tested is a meaningless assertion. It simply doesn’t stand up to the use of reason, so there’s no use in even considering it.
So, why do bad things happen? We come back to the assumption that there is a reason... that there is an answer possible to the ‘why’ question of suffering.
Is there? Does the suffering of a child help somewhere else in the grand scheme of the universe? I think not, but none of us can know.
The important things to realise are first, that bad things do most certainly happen – very bad things and second, that we do not always get what we deserve.
An essential notion of the conservative view is that we do get what we deserve – that there is a God who measures us, judges us, and metes out rewards or punishments based on that judgement.
And this notion is nonsense. This life is clearly not one where we always get what we deserve. Kind people may get cancer while heartless people may not. Cruel people may get wealthy while loving people live in poverty.
Let’s call it ‘cosmic unfairness.’
It matters that we understand and accept this. Those who believe we get what we deserve use that belief to justify their own abdication of responsibility for others.
They conclude that the poor are lazy. They conclude that the disabled are sinful. They conclude that the victims of natural disasters have done something to offend God.
And then they look away without any sense of guilt or compassion and they get back to a self-righteous focus on their own personal, selfish, benefit.
It matters what we understand about cosmic fairness or unfairness. It matters what we believe about why bad things happen.
I know that it would be comforting to believe that there is a plan. It would be comforting to believe that everything has a reason and that everything happens for the best.
I want you to believe in cosmic unfairness. I want you to see every joy and wonder and moment of beauty not as earned, but as an undeserved gift – a true blessing. I want your heart to sing whenever such a thing happens because in this cosmically unfair world, you did not earn what you have.
And I want you to understand that the torments you and others suffer are also undeserved. We are not being punished. We do not have to feel guilty on top of our pain. And we do not have any justification to turn away from the suffering. Accepting cosmic unfairness means that the responsibility to comfort and support and bind up falls to us.
I do not believe in the God of the conservatives. I do not believe in the God that judges and punishes and doles out rewards to his favourites.
The God I believe in is not an all-powerful, all-knowing being. My God is the compassion that can fill us when we find a brother or sister in pain. My God is the love we find when we look deeply into another person and see the sacred there. My God is the strength we find to face another day when all seems lost.
This God is in us and it is among us. It is for us to create and strengthen this Godness in the world.
Why? Because this is the only way to be truly and deeply human
Why? Because we don’t get what we deserve
Why? Because the future is in our hands
May we accept that responsibility with humility and with love.
Why do bad things happen?