God and Suffering, Again

Peter Singer

The conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza is on a mission to debate atheists on the topic of the existence of God. Challenging all the prominent ones he can find, he has debated Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Michael Shermer. I accepted his invitation, and the debate took place at Biola University. The name “Biola” comes from “Bible Institute of Los Angeles,” which tells you what the predominant religious orientation of the audience was. (Biola now occupies a suburban campus south of Los Angeles.)

I was debating an experienced and evidently intelligent opponent, so I wanted to stake my position on firm ground. I argued that while I cannot disprove the existence of every possible kind of deity, we can be sure that we do not live in a world that was created by a god who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. Christians, of course, think that we do live in such a world. Yet a powerful reason for doubting this confronts us every day: the world contains a vast amount of pain and suffering. If God is all-knowing, he knows how much suffering there is. If he is all-powerful, he could have created a world without so much suffering. If he is all-good, he surely would have created a world without so much suffering.

Christians usually respond that God bestowed on us the gift of free will and is therefore not responsible for the evil we do. This response fails to deal with the suffering of those who drown in floods, are burned alive in forest fires caused by lightning, or die of hunger or thirst during a drought.

Sometimes, Christians attempt to explain this suffering by saying that all humans are sinners and so deserve their fate, even if it is a horrible one. But infants and small children are just as likely to suffer and die in natural disasters as adults, and it seems impossible that they could deserve to suffer and die. Yet, according to traditional Christian doctrine, because they have descended from Eve, they inherit from her the original sin of their mother, who defied God’s decree against eating from the tree of knowledge. This is a triply repellent idea, for it implies first that knowledge is a bad thing, second that disobeying God’s will is the greatest sin of all, and third that children inherit the sins of their ancestors and may justly be punished for them.

Even if one were to accept all this, however, the problem remains unresolved. Humans are not the only victims of floods, fires and droughts. Animals, too, suffer from these events, and since they are not descended from Adam and Eve, they cannot have inherited original sin.

In earlier times, when original sin was taken more seriously than it generally is today, the suffering of animals posed a particularly difficult problem for thoughtful Christians. The seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes solved it by the drastic expedient of denying that animals can suffer. They are, he maintained, merely very ingenious mechanisms, and we should not take their cries and struggles as a sign of pain any more than we take the noise of an alarm clock as a sign that it has consciousness. That claim is unlikely to convince anyone who lives with a dog or a cat.

Surprisingly, given his experience in debating atheists, D’Souza struggled to find a convincing answer to the problem. He first said that, given that humans can live forever in heaven, the suffering of this world is less important than it would be if our life in this world were the only life we have. That still fails to explain why an all-powerful and all-good god would permit it. Relatively insignificant as it may be from the perspective of all eternity, it is still a vast amount of suffering, and the world would be better without it or at least without most of it. (Some say that we need to have some suffering to appreciate what it is like to be happy. Maybe—but we surely don’t need as much as we have.)

Next, D’Souza argued that since God gave us life, we are not in a position to complain if our life is not perfect. He used the example of being born with one limb missing. If life itself is a gift, he said, we are not wronged by being given less than we might want. In response, I pointed out that we condemn mothers who cause harm to their babies by taking alcohol or cocaine when pregnant. Yet since they have given life to their children, it seems that, on D’Souza’s view, there is nothing wrong with what they have done.

Finally, D’Souza fell back, as many Christians do when pressed, on the claim that we should not expect to understand God’s reasons for creating the world as it is. It is as if an ant should try to understand our decisions, so puny is our intelligence in comparison to the infinite wisdom of God. (This is the answer given, in more poetic form, in the Book of Job.) But it is an abdication of our own powers of reason, and, once we do that, we may as well believe anything at all.

Moreover, the assertion that our intelligence is puny in comparison with God’s presupposes just the point that is under debate—that there is a god who is infinitely wise as well as all-powerful and all-good. The evidence of our own eyes makes it more plausible to believe that the world is not created by a god at all. If, however, we insist on divine creation, the god who made the world cannot be all-powerful and all-good. He must either be evil or a bungler.

Peter Singer

Peter Singer is DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. His books include Animal Liberation, How Are We to Live?, Writings on an Ethical Life, One World, and, most recently, Pushing Time Away.


The conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza is on a mission to debate atheists on the topic of the existence of God. Challenging all the prominent ones he can find, he has debated Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Michael Shermer. I accepted his invitation, and the debate took place at Biola University. The name “Biola” comes from …

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