Magazine article Free Inquiry

Humanism and Suffering. (Faith and Reason)

Magazine article Free Inquiry

Humanism and Suffering. (Faith and Reason)

Article excerpt

In one of his more melancholy moods, the great philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote:

The life of Man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach, and where none may tarry long....Very brief is the time which we can help them, in which their happiness or misery is decided. Be it ours to shed sunshine on their path, to lighten their sorrows by the balm of sympathy, to give them the pure joy of a never-tiring affection, to strengthen failing courage, to install faith in hours of despair. Let us not weigh in grudging scales their merits and demerits, but let us think only of their need. (1)

It is not my intention here to discuss whether Russell was correct in his somewhat pessimistic worldview, but rather to consider suffering from a humanist perspective. What should the humanist response to suffering be? Does humanism have a credible and adequate response to suffering? I hope to show that humanism has the resources for an adequate approach to suffering that is very much along the lines suggested by the above quote from Russell.

First, I should make clear what I mean by the word suffering. When I speak of suffering, I mean the state or experience of pain, grief, despair, distress, and so on. I shall also take it that prima facie suffering is a bad thing, something to be avoided, prevented, and alleviated if possible, although sometimes overriding reasons may make it necessary.


Why does humanism even need to address the question of suffering? Isn't it perfectly obvious that humanism ought to be against suffering, that humanists ought to seek to minimize it? What more is there to say?

Humanism needs an adequate perspective on suffering for a number of reasons. First, the humanist response to suffering is almost bound to be significantly different from religious responses. Second, critics of humanism might argue (and in fact have argued) that humanism has no adequate response to suffering. This might be because of the alleged poverty of the humanist worldview, or perhaps because humanism has no adequate ethics. Suffering is unfortunately so widespread and so prominent a feature of our world that humanists simply cannot afford not to have a rational perspective on it.


The humanist worldview differs from religious worldviews in important ways. Humanism is this-worldly rather than otherworldly. Humanism does not believe in God or supernatural beings of any kind. Humanism regards the notion of an afterlife as at best a comforting illusion, at worst a harmful falsehood. Finite lives can be productive, fulfilling, happy even exuberant-but the meaning of life is found here and now, not in some elusive hereafter. Furthermore, life has the meaning that humans, as individuals and in communities, give it, not what someone thinks a deity has decreed from on high.

It follows that many typical religious responses to suffering are unavailable to the humanist. The humanist cannot say that the universe is governed by God's providence, and thus all suffering eventually will he redeemed or outweighed by some future good. The humanist cannot appeal to karma and say that those who suffer deserve to suffer because they acted wrongly in a past life. The humanist cannot say that suffering is not real, that it is in some sense a human illusion. To the humanist all these responses are just so much ignorance and insensitivity If humanism is to have an adequate response to suffering, it will have to be along other lines.

Here we must touch upon humanist ethics. A critic might argue that humanism has no adequate response to suffering because of the poverty of secular ethical philosophies--for example, that secular ethics can give no reason why people ought to do good rather than evil, that is, why people ought to be moral. …

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