Who Sees Clearly?
The problem of evil is frequently cited as one of the most powerful arguments against religious faith. The existence of suffering, whether on the micro or macro level is seen as evidence against the existence of a benevolent and powerful deity. And yet, the empirical data around suffering and religious faith stubbornly refuses to fit into this view of how and why human beings believe what they believe about the world. Religious faith seems to be the highest in contexts where suffering is the greatest.
This phenomenon is the subject of a recent article analyzing the state of religiosity in New Zealand before and after the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch. New Zealand is a fairly secular nation, but it witnessed an increase in religiosity after the earthquake in and around the region affected. Suffering seemed, again, to have led to an increase rather than a decrease in faith. How to explain this? According to the author, the “religious comfort model” makes the most sense:
But, demographically speaking, personal suffering doesn’t actually seem to cause disbelief, at least in our day and age. In fact, the poorest and most deprived regions of the world tend to be highly religious (for instance, sub-Saharan Africa and India), while the richest areas are increasingly secular (for instance, Sweden, France, and the northeastern United States). This phenomenon – that people who suffer are more religious than those who don’t – has spawned a so-called “religious comfort model” in the social sciences that claims that religious faith gives people the psychological resources they need to cope with adversity. Those who don’t have many problems just don’t have much need for religion – hence the relative godlessness of most wealthy countries.
Now, we might debate how novel this “model” from the social sciences actually is. Certainly the idea that religion is a coping mechanism for the difficulties of life is a very old one indeed. Marx, Freud, Feuerbach and countless others have set forth something like the idea that religion is a crutch for those who are unable or unwilling to face reality as it really is. But whether this explanation comes from the intellectual giants of history or a “new model” from the social sciences, it is an idea that has a lot of popular traction, in my view. Religion is kind of like a security blanket or a teddy bear for a frightened child. It brings them comfort so we “allow” them their comforts (why burst their bubble, after all?). Of course, we know that ratty old blankets and beat up stuffed animals and religious beliefs don’t actually change anything about the world, but they make people feel better. And really, what else could we hope for? Whatever gets you through the night.
There are many things that could be said about this interpretation (I’ve written about it periodically on this blog—here, for example). But the question it brings up for me today is simply this: Who sees reality most clearly? Is it the secure, the wealthy, the educated, those who seem to skate across the surface of life untroubled my pain and misfortune? Or is it the poor and the broken, those who stagger under the burden of pain and tragedy? Is it the sociologist in the ivory tower who coolly and detachedly surveys the “data” from their comfortable office in Wellington or Auckland or is it the mother crying out to God as she sifts through the post-earthquake wreckage in Haiti in search of a child who may or may not have survived the storm? Is it the pastor of a middle-class church on the Canadian prairies or the kid from the reserve down the highway who has seen more human tragedy by his 10th birthday than many see in a lifetime? Is it those whose senses have been dulled by privilege or those who are not afforded the luxury of self-deceit when it comes to their need for comfort, protection, salvation?
Who most fully understands how the world works and what possibilities may or may not exist? Who has more insight into what suffering means and how a human being ought to respond to it? Who is closer to the God said to be most fully disclosed in the man of sorrows, the one well-acquainted with grief, the one who came to proclaim good news to the poor and the downtrodden?
Who sees clearly?