God may be dead, but suffering is still with us (SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

March 25, 2022   5 mins

“Jesus descends in dread array to judge the scarlet whore”. This was Charles Wesley’s hot take on the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. It was a terrible response even by 18th-century standards. Tens of thousands of people were swallowed up by the earth and drowned by the tsunami that followed. Wesley believed it was God’s punishment for the Inquisition.

Others had a different explanation. Voltaire satirised the Christian idea that the world was being ultimately organised by some benevolent Deity. In seeking to defend God in the face of human suffering, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz had claimed that this was “the best of all possible worlds”. In other words, of all the possible worlds that God could create, this one, with all its pain and suffering, was the best one available. No one really bought this argument. Voltaire took Leibniz’s phrase and turned it into a sarcastic attack on the naively religious. The Lisbon earthquake is often pointed to as the moment the European intelligentsia lost its faith in God. Atheism entered the Enlightenment during the period of its conception. Reason and God were no longer compatible.

But suffering and pain are still with us. Mariupol is being starved and bludgeoned into submission as if it were some medieval siege. The innocent are blown up in their beds, maternity hospitals are targeted with high-tech missiles. And dark talk of nuclear war has returned, with nightmares of a Third World War. Has the age of reason really served us any better than the age of faith?

Back when I used to teach Philosophy of Religion in Oxford, I spent many hours sitting in tutorials with undergraduates discussing the “problem of evil”. If God is all powerful and perfectly good, then why is there great suffering in the world? One can, of course, discuss the difference between natural evil and that caused by human beings. But whatever the cause, great suffering is often cast as the slam dunk of atheism. Now that God is supposed to be dead, and suffering remains, I wonder if humanism could be said to have an evil problem too? It’s not quite the same problem, but it is adjacent: if human beings are good and increasingly powerful, how come there is so much suffering in the world?

Scrolling through humanist websites on Ukraine, one of the interesting things is that you can find a kind of defence of humanity in the face of human evil that is not unlike the defence that Christians sometimes use to defend the existence of God in the face of human evil. Consider this, on Ukraine, from the explicitly “humanist” Gold Foundation website:

“Still, through the scenes of rubble and destruction, we see humanity. Humanity in the healthcare heroes dodging artillery as they work tirelessly on the frontlines of the conflict. Humanity in those rising to defend their homes, their country, and democracy at large. Humanity in the charitable donations and mobilization here in the United States and around the globe.”

Compare it to Rowan Williams answering John Humphrys asking “Where was God?” the morning after the Beslan Massacre in 2004.

“The short answer is that God is where God always is, and that is with those who are trying to comfort and bring light in any situation. 
 I would guess that there must have been older children putting their arms around younger children, you might see God there.”

These are remarkable similar responses, exonerating God or humanity by pointing towards what is best in the response of these respective actors. But this much is obviously true: evil and suffering have outlived the loss of faith. Once we had God to blame. But now that God has gone (
 other explanations are available 
) we have no one left to blame but ourselves. Not for earthquakes, but certainly for the horror of war. Humanists now own the problem of evil. So why don’t humanists more often experience some sort of loss of faith in humanity? Where is their existential crisis? I may be wrong, but it seems to me like it’s a dog that doesn’t often bark.

Yes, humanists disagree about the extent to which they think of human beings as intrinsically good. Though, in truth, they do dither on this. Nonetheless, they place human beings at the centre of their belief system. And indeed, why would you call your belief system after human beings if you didn’t think human beings are in some ways fundamentally good? For instance, I’m not sure that you could believe in some kind of secular equivalent to original sin and still call yourself a humanist, though I would be fascinated to be contradicted on this.

My own view is that the Enlightenment too often used human suffering as line in a handy argument against an all-powerful, benevolent Deity, but only feigned to be interested in suffering itself. Suffering was deployed as a part of a syllogism against God. But it felt existentially inert, absent of the kind of crisis that suffering created for faith. Humanist suffering always seems a bit too much like suffering at a philosophical distance. Indeed, the kind of crisis of faith that suffering causes for Christianity seems to be just the sort of perfectly appropriate response that suffering should create in all of us.

With Easter round the corner, it’s worth saying that for Christianity, the proper response to human suffering and evil — and by proper, I mean the response that is internal to Christian theology — is the cross. This is not the sort of answer that was admissible in Philosophy of Religion tutorials, because it presumes faith rather than holding it up for critical scrutiny. But when Christians talk of suffering, they are not so interested in trying to reconcile the all-powerful, good God plus suffering “problem” — because people being murdered by Russian bombs isn’t first and foremost an intellectual “problem”. It is a crisis, a collapse of faith, a desolation. The cross is where all of that is carried, and — for Christians – overcome. Humanists will scoff that this doesn’t answer the question, and they are right. For Christians, the “problem of evil” is a very different kind of question. To call it a problem is too cold, too detached.

Humanists have responded to the crisis in Ukraine with generosity, as many have. Of course, I applaud them for this. But what I can’t quite figure out, is whether humanists ever experience what might be called a crisis of faith? Do they ever wonder whether human beings are ghastly creatures and that it makes no sense to follow a philosophy named in their honour? And if they don’t, then it seems to me that humanism is all the poorer for it. What we see on our TV screens should quite properly rock us to the core. It should make us question our deepest commitments, there should be a dark night of the soul.

The British Humanist Association offers a downloadable primer on humanism and suffering. They conclude: “For humanists then, the answer to the question why bad things happen is simply, because they do: that is just the way the world is.” In other words, shit happens. What I find most objectionable about all this is not the atheistic cosmology so much as the kind of detached emotional shrug that accompanies it. A world view that has become intellectually insulated from a crisis of faith is not one that has properly exposed itself to the horrors of the world.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.