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March 7th, 2012

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03:26 am - Musings on Suffering, Modern Life, and Religion
I ran into an interesting series of posts on a study about why people cease being Christians. There seem to be three primary reasons – other Christians responding badly to the person expressing doubts, prayers not being answered, and also people having theological issues with Christianity. Many of the examples of the later involved dealing with the idea that God allowed or inflicted suffering, and I found that very interesting, while also not terribly surprising.

Christianity, like all of the other pre-modern faiths, evolved in an era when many children died in childhood, when relatively minor injuries could easily be fatal, and where significant suffering was not merely universal, but also entirely out of the ability of anyone to predict. In one person, a bad scratch might heal in a week, in another, they might get blood poisoning and be dead in six days. In addition to the world seeming far more random than it does now, everyone had far more experience with death. If you made it to 30, you had likely buried your parents, at least some of any children you had, at least one of your siblings, and very possibly your spouse. People were far more inured to the deaths and suffering of others, and especially to those of people they didn't know well. You can see this in the popularity of watching public executions and of various horrific sports like bear baiting and dog fighting. Insanities like dueling or lethal gladiatorial games were also widely popular in various eras.

All this changed in the 20th century, first with antibiotics and vaccinations, and even further with vastly improved trauma medicine. For much of the 20th century (at least in the developed world) people dying before they become elderly had become far rarer than it was a century or more before. Because of these changes, attitudes have changed. Huge number of people died in pre-modern wars. Even in the last century, 10 million soldiers died in WWI and relatively few people called for these wars to stop because so many people were dying in what a relatively pointless war. In recent equally pointless wars, people all across the developed world get exceedingly upset about wars that kill a few thousand people. I even recently saw that less than a third as many stray cats and dogs are being euthanized in the US was were 40 years ago. The drop in the murder rate has been equally clear.

In the developed world, and to a large degree all across the planet, people have become are a whole lot less tolerant of others dying from accidents, violence, or any other cause other than old age. These feelings include strangers and even pets that they don't know. However, Christianity is a faith from another far grimmer and bloodier era, and all of the basic theology was written by and for people whose life was unimaginably horrible, violent, and death-filled by the standards of every resident of the first world.

It doesn't surprise me that answers about the question of suffering and of God stopping it or causing it that worked for people in 1,200 CE or even 1,850 CE do not work for many people today. In fact, that change pleases me greatly for reasons that have nothing to do with my attitudes about any particular religion, because a world where people are more generally compassionate and far less willing to accept the deaths of others is IMHO an unqualified good. The fact that issues relating to how theology deals with random suffering and death are one of the more common reasons for people to leave Christianity seems to me to be yet another proof of my idea that as life becomes less random and less violent, overall religiosity declines, which is one reason why organized religion is in such swift decline all across the social democracies of Western Europe.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

(10 comments | Leave a comment)


Date:March 7th, 2012 03:03 pm (UTC)
Sure, makes sense. As we learn more about life and how to prolong it and make it better, and that it really isn't random in many ways, we stop having to make excuses.
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Date:March 7th, 2012 03:09 pm (UTC)

Christianity is an eschatology

The continuing issue for Christianity is that it is, and always has been, an eschatology. People forget that Jesus believed that the end of the world was imminent; many of his contemporary followers believed that they would see "the end of days". Christianity struggles because it was created without much in the way of a theological or philosophical structure outside of eschatology. The people who came after Jesus and shaped the church have tried to scaffold on these missing elements over the years, with varying degrees of success.

I think it has to be very difficult for any religion to look for "the end" for approximately 2000 years, while it can only tell antsy followers to "be good" and keep waiting.
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Date:March 7th, 2012 03:27 pm (UTC)
Why is there no *like* button on here (I ask for the thousandth time)?

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Date:March 7th, 2012 04:08 pm (UTC)
Thank you for explaining the disconnect between what I was taught and the real world! As an overly sheltered child and adolescent, I learned that life was a "vale of tears" and that people were inherently evil. Since I grew up in an intellectual, white middle-class family, the disconnect was all the more absurd.

Only in the last few years am I realizing that the world is nowhere near as grim as Christianity taught me it was. I am still learning that people are, for the most part, decent and not inherently sinful. I'm now thirty-seven and have not been Christian for fifteen years.
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Date:March 7th, 2012 04:57 pm (UTC)
Now I'm wondering if there's a connection between "world where people are really averse to killing" and "negative reaction to a religion starring a guy being torture to death as 'sacrifice'".
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Date:March 7th, 2012 08:04 pm (UTC)
Modern life also introduces the question of scale. As a western industrialized nation people around us enjoy us longer, healthier, lives but we're aware of natural disasters, famines, and genocides in other parts of the world. When dealing with suffering on that scale, it's impossible to see how that somehow serves a Great Plan or the Greater Good. The life of one individual may be cut short because the Lord works in mysterious ways and you can imagine the ripple effect in the lives of others. However, if you look at something like the 2004 Tsunami that killed 230,000 people, how can that possibly balance something more?
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Date:March 8th, 2012 05:01 am (UTC)
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Date:March 7th, 2012 08:07 pm (UTC)
This doesn't seem to bother anyone else, but I have doubts about a benevolent God who hands out rules for daily life, but neglects to mention boiling the drinking water.
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Date:March 7th, 2012 10:35 pm (UTC)
That's a good point.
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Date:March 8th, 2012 04:43 pm (UTC)

atheists in foxholes

The sad downside of this cultural shift, however, is that we live in denial about the inevitability of death and its remaining randomness. We're not given many other tools for dealing with it when it does happen... and a lot of people go back and cling to such faiths for the context they provide. Sometimes I'm just glad something gets them through mentally; sometimes I'm downright galled, depending on the bits they focus on.

(Yes, this is prompted by well-meant commentary I've received in the past few weeks dealing with greiving family. I, er, well, more proof I'm some kind of emotional alien to these people :P )

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