Andrew Sullivan takes another stab at the theodicy question. His new gambit plays off of this heartbreaking report of a young child with CIPA (Congential Insensitivity to Pain). As a result of not being able to feel pain, the child is constantly hurting herself without realizing it. Sullivan’s take:
Maybe one can imagine a physical existence where pain does not exist. But not on this planet, where pain has helped organisms survive and prosper, and where suffering has often prodded humankind’s spiritual dimension. This complex interaction between good and bad – captured graphically in the Gospels’ Passion stories, where intense suffering is inextricably bound up with salvation – seems too much for the Coyne position. But it should not be too much for anyone capable of more than a sophomoric understanding of human experience.
Apparently a junior or senior level understanding of human experience shows that intense suffering is a gift from God, on account of it prodding our spiritual dimension.
No one is confused about the survival value of feeling pain and no one goes around wishing to be a CIPA patient. The problem of pain is not the problem of physical discomfort. I nicked myself shaving last week. It was annoying, but it did not leave me more convinced of my atheism.
The issue is the profligacy of pain and suffering. Why four bilion years of suffering, death and extinction, when God could have created everything ex nihilo precisely as the Bible says He did? Why the riot of awfulness that is evolution by natural selection? It is nice that people can use the suffering and setbacks of their own lives to rise to new heights and new understandings of existence, but do you really think that is an adequate answer for the child dying of leukemia, or the victims of monsoons or earthquakes? (Those are rehtorical questions, incidentally. I’m well familiar with the sorts of arguments people make in response to these points. I just don’t find those arguments very convincing.)
If you treat theology as a game in which you begin with the assumption of an all-loving, all-powerful God and then devise such arguments as you can to respond to seemingly contrary data, then you can come up with theoretically possible replies to the problem of evil. The trouble is that all such explanations must compete with the atheist alternative. If the universe seems completely indifferent to human needs and wants that is because it is. If our bodies can fall prey to all manor of crippling, awful diseases it is because evolution is a messy process that did not have us in mind.
If all of this suffering, pain and death seems so pointless that is because it is.