Losing Your Faith After Seeing So Much Suffering

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Several years ago, this reader grappled with the age-old question of theodicy—why would a benevolent God allow for so much suffering in the world?—and decided to leave religion behind:

Four years ago I lost my faith. I grew up a passionate Christian, and this lasted most of the way through college. Following graduation I moved to a new city and stopped going to church because I couldn’t find a congregation that appealed to me, and, frankly, I liked having the extra free time. Although I was no longer as religious, it was still important to me to find a partner with faith. When I met my now-husband, one of the qualities that I admired was his devotion to his Lutheran church.

Then, when I was in my mid-twenties, I spent several months abroad volunteering in Central America.

This provided a monumental shift in all aspects of my life, but the biggest change was that I found that I was able to admit that I was no longer a Christian and didn’t believe in God in general. The sticking point for me was that I could not reconcile how a higher power could allow for so many people to suffer so greatly when (s)he had the power to alleviate suffering, which is so vast and unending in the world. I also saw how religion could be used to manipulate people by those in power, and while I recognized that it was a source of much good in the world, it could also be used to create drifts between people and distract from real issues.

What has surprised me is that I don’t feel that different in my day-to-day life or in my interactions with people. Growing up I always assumed non-religious people looked down on people of faith. However, rather than having contempt for the faithful, I find that I still have great respect for many people of faith. I never thought that I could be with someone who has a different belief system than I do, but our religious differences have never been a point of contention in my marriage because, at the end of the day, we both love and respect each other.

I could very well become religious again, but the last few years as an atheist has taught me that the absence of religion does not mean the absence of morality.

If you’re interested in the sticky subject of theodicy, Dish readers—back when The Daily Dish was part of The Atlanticdebated the question at length with bloggers and among themselves. Here’s how Andrew Sullivan, the former Atlantic writer and life-long Catholic, responded to atheist blogger Jerry Coyne during a substantial back and forth:

I wonder how much of my writing Coyne has ever read, how much of my wrestling with doctrine and theology and faith he has perused before he dismisses one side of an ancient debate as “insulting to anyone with a brain”. Obviously, my case of letting go to God reflects a Christian understanding of what one’s response to suffering could be. This does not deny suffering, or its hideous injustices, or the fact that so many in the animal world suffer without any such relief or transcendence.

For me, the unique human capacity to somehow rise above such suffering, while experiencing it as vividly as any animal, is evidence of God’s love for us (and the divine spark within us), while it cannot, of course, resolve the ultimate mystery of why we are here at all in a fallen, mortal world. This Christian response to suffering merely offers a way in which to transcend this veil of tears a little. No one is saying this is easy or should not provoke bouts of Job-like anger or despair or isn’t at some level incomprehensible. The Gospels, in one of their many internal literal contradictions, have Jesus’ last words on the cross as both a despairing, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” and a letting go: “It is accomplished.” If you see this as less a literal error than a metaphorical truth (i.e. if you are not a fundamentalist), you realize that God’s only son experienced despair of this kind as well. And resolution.

My own reconciliation with this came not from authority, but from experience. I lived through a plague which killed my dearest friend and countless others I knew and loved. I was brought at one point to total collapse and a moment of such profound doubt in the goodness of God that it makes me shudder still. But God lifted me into a new life in a way I still do not understand but that I know as deeply and as irrevocably as I know anything.

If this testimony is infuriating to anyone with a brain, then I am sorry. It is the truth as I experienced it. It is the truth as I experience it still.

If any other readers want to share their own experience with theodicy, especially if it let to a major religious choice, let us know. The above video, by the way, was featured by our video team earlier this year:

A large portion of [photographer Robin Hammond’s] work has focused on documenting victims of abuse and sexual violence, especially in the Congo. “The real conflict for me is the conflict between those who care and those who don't,” he says in this short film, We're All Complicit. “The world is a brutally unfair place...

Update from a reader, Peter, who has some really eloquent thoughts on the subject:

Thank you for the opportunity to discuss theodicy. I am not an active member of any church, but I feel that religion is a honest response to the world. The point in the end is that we are not God’s children; we are God’s adults. Sort of a good news / bad news thing: The good news is that we were given hope and love and courage, the bad new is that we are going to need it.

It is a child’s view to think that someone will come and make everything good and better. It is also a tool of political power to keep people thinking that way. But when you become a parent, you realize that now it is up to you to provide that service, and that sometimes you can’t do it. When you yourself can’t take the suffering away, there is no doubt that you would gladly trade your adulthood for a world where everyone is a child of a benevolent God.

The ultimate pain is the argument that suffering is the price of our free will. Again, the only honest response is that it was very bad of God to have forced such a choice upon us.

Faith doesn’t mean “you win in the end.” Faith means that even at the end, you still have an ability to be honest. If that honesty means that you have to call something out as irredeemably bad, then at least you can do that. You can curse God for having put you in such a position, but you can also thank God for the fact that there is one part of you, your honesty, that is indestructible.

Christ on the cross is meant as a statement that in the end we can always at least serve as a testament to suffering. At the end of the novel 1984, the ultimate failure of the protagonist is that his honesty is beaten out of him. The purpose of religion is to help us not loose that one thing that we should have left.

Couldn’t God have made a nicer world? You damn sure would have hoped so. If you think this world is heaven, then it is shocking to find how hellish it can be.

But how come no one asks the opposite question? How do you know this world isn’t really hell and the devil is in charge? It would certainly explain a lot.

But if it is, then the devil did a very bad job. It is the opposite of the theodicy question. The failure of the devil is that I still have my hope. The devil may run the world, but I still have my heart. And I can be thankful for that, even if having hope makes it worse. It is not a nice view of the world, but it is one that fits the facts.