That living things suffer undeservedly is undeniable. All wild animals do, if only at the end of their lives, which is usually brutal. And many animals are conscious and feel pain. All of this non-human suffering, and innocent human suffering, is undeserved.


For what are called deists, undeserved suffering is not a problem. Their fantasy creator-god has no interest in the universe it created. It is indifferent to suffering, deserved or not, which may explain why believers have repaid it with indifference in return. Deism was always a niche hobby.


But for monotheists, undeserved suffering is problematic. The personal god they imagine created the universe and all life on earth, directly or by means of evolution, and who supposedly sustains all existence, is therefore responsible for, or at least fails to prevent, the undeserved suffering of creatures for whom life is nasty, brutish, short and violently terminated.


The older meaning of the word apology was justification, so that to apologise for a god or a religion meant to explain and justify it. The fact of undeserved suffering is such overwhelming evidence against there being a good, loving and omnipotent god, that there is a whole branch of theology, called theodicy, devoted to getting this god off the hook. Believers have always known undeserved suffering can be a deal-breaker.


Apologists for monotheism have to apologise for their imagined god in the modern sense of the word apology. But this they cannot do, because their god is supposedly perfect and perfectly good. So they have invented spurious explanations for undeserved suffering. Religious ingenuity in defence of indefensible beliefs is a wonder to behold.




The god moves in mysterious ways argument is one possible fall-back. We do not know why there is undeserved suffering, but a good and loving god with a plan is in charge, so we must have faith that all shall be well. The advantage of such an empty explanation is its inexhaustibility. Because it explains nothing, it can explain anything. Supernatural causation serves the same purpose.


God-talk is irrational, so consistency is unlikely. But the contradiction here is staggering: we are confident there is a god about whose nature, power, motives, words and deeds we know a great deal – but undeserved suffering is a mystery. Faith is a virtue, and the more ridiculous the belief, the more virtuous we must be to believe it.




Another depressingly popular explanation for undeserved suffering is that it is not undeserved. This is the man brought sin into the world argument. To their credit, not all Christian sects flog original sin, the idea that we inherit Adam’s fallen nature and so deserve punishment from the moment of conception – still the purest racist myth we ever invented.


But the Abrahamic faiths share the flood and Sodom and Gomorrah stories, in which a psychopathic god inflicts collective punishment with Nazi efficiency. Of course, none of it happened, but the stories we tell both express and reinforce our attitudes and values.


If our god inflicts punishment, so can we. And collective punishment is indiscriminate – hence undeserved suffering. Harsh that the whole of nature should suffer for human disobedience. But it will all be fine in the end. This god moves in mysterious ways. And for those of us with the right religion there is pie in the sky when we die.




The fact that a god does not prevent undeserved suffering does not mean that it therefore does not exist. It may just mean that it is not loving and caring, but rather indifferent to us and the rest of its creation, or even cruel. If there were a god, there is no rule that it must be what we say it is. Of course, such a god would not deserve praise or worship, but rather loathing and defiance.


But this is a waste of energy. It is much simpler and more obvious to dismiss this god as a fiction invented by our ancestors. Then the way things are becomes evident, explicable and ameliorable. In an entirely natural universe with no creating or supervising god, and with life forms evolving by natural selection, undeserved suffering is completely explicable. Like the rest of theology, theodicy is a waste of time, energy and ink.


We would condemn anyone who had the required power as criminally negligent if they failed to prevent undeserved suffering. But we are supposed to judge our invented gods by a different standard. At our best, or even our ordinary, we are much better than the gods we have invented. So to hell with them.


Peter Holmes

31 January 2017