On Pain and Purpose
I love Catholic Answers Live. I am a radio club member who supports them financially in a small way every month, and I would encourage all Catholics to do so. I love Steve Ray, a frequent guest on the program. He is one of my favorite apologists and I especially enjoy his participation when Catholic Answers Live does one of their programs for non-catholics only.
On the August 31 broadcast, Steve and host Patrick Coffin took a call from an atheist, and self-proclaimed secular humanist, named Carlos who took exception to a comment Steve made that life has no purpose if there is no God. Paraphrasing Steve’s comments, “without God there is no such thing as good or evil.” “Morality becomes transcendent.” Citing Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Steve said, “if there is mortality, then anything is allowed.“ Steve went so far as to say, if we are just an assembly of molecules put together by time and chance, then there is no reason to help the elderly lady across the street. “Does it really make any difference whether I help her cross the street or whether I just run over her and rearrange her molecules?”
Carlos replied by saying it is very meaningful to help the lady cross the street. “The millions of years it took life to get here -- we see it even more precious.” Steve interrupted by saying, “Why? We see evolutionary processes . . . taking place. Why does it matter if I save the rain forests? . . . Why not just let humanity destroy itself because that is also part of the evolutionary process?” Carlos accused Steve of taking a very dark and pessimistic view and certainly not the view of most atheists he knew. According to Carlos, most atheist care deeply about life because to them, it is the only life we have.
Patrick interjected that Carlos is appealing to a foundation that he proclaims to reject. “The whole concept of right or wrong is dependent upon a transcendent God to whom we must make an account. Otherwise, Carlos, objectively speaking, you have no reason to forbid the opening of the doors of all prisons and letting all criminals out into society.” Carlos objected vehemently saying society has learned .. . . The remainder of his comment was cut short.
I found myself in the awkward position of thinking the atheist was making more sense than my much respected Catholic apologists. I agree that right and wrong is determined by God, but I believe a sense of right and wrong can be derived naturally from the notion of good and bad. The problem with this, of course, is that good and bad is based on experience, so the perceived right and wrong is no longer absolute.
This got me to thinking about how a godless society develops its pseudo morality, and I believe it comes from our ability to feel pain. In our weekly faith enhancement sessions at our parish, our priest often chastises the secular humanist impetus to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, but doing so is a characteristic of our nature. Even a fly tries to avoid being swatted and appears to enjoy a daily dose of dung. Absent this survivalist tendency, how would we as human beings behave differently? If we ourselves never suffered from illness, anguish, sorrow, loss, loneliness or injury, would we ever feel empathy for others? Does God allow us to feel pain as a means to learn compassion?
Our Catholic faith teaches us that pain is a result of original sin. Is not compassion a result of knowing the pain of suffering and not wishing others to experience it? If we never felt compassion, how would we treat others? If we never felt compassion, would we think nothing of running over the elderly lady or letting all prisoners loose to wreak havoc on others?
Knowing pleasure and pain, and the much-desired preference for one over the other, provides an impetus to treat others as we would like to be treated. Experience shows us that the way we interact with others can cause pleasure or pain, and we can enhance our own pleasure by giving enjoyment to others. Similarly, knowing another person is suffering arouses empathy when we know what that person is feeling through our own experience. In our quest to criticize the secular humanist, are we arguing against traits bestowed on us by our creator for a reason?
With pain comes compassion. With compassion comes charity. These are natural manifestations of the human experience whether one acknowledges the origin in God or not. Suggesting that an atheist might just as soon run over an elderly lady or open the doors of all prisons seems absurd to me. It certainly does little to convince him that his life lacks purpose.
I am reminded of a rather depressing song Peggy Lee sang in the late 1960’s called “Is that all there is?” The lyric expresses the point of view of a person disillusioned with life. The last stanza refers to death as being the final disappointment. While we might think the songwriter held an atheistic belief, most atheists probably do not hold such feelings of despair. Their hope lies in making the best of this life on earth because, to them, that’s all there is.
Near the end of the call from Carlos, host Patrick Coffin switched gears by mentioning the historical evidence that Jesus lived, was crucified and raised from the dead -- a much better approach to take with the atheist. Realizing historically that Jesus walked this earth, claimed to be God, worked miracles that defy natural explanation, died and rose again, and promised eternal life beyond the grave, can cause any atheist to rethink his position.