I read this story in an Indian newspaper some years ago. A mentally challenged young girl, who used to beg and live off scraps on the street, had been raped and brutalized, most possibly by many men. She had then been left on a garbage dump. For days, she had lain there, unable to move, crying out to passers-by in the best way she could, pleading them to help her. No one did. Not one. Till finally death ended the little girl’s agony.
As a purveyor of the litany of barbarities that pass for news, I have become hardened to what goes on in the world. But this one somehow just broke through. It may sound melodramatic when I say it but I had tears in my eyes. And I did ask myself “Why?”
In Arun Shourie’s new book (which I have not read) “Does He Know A Mother’s Heart?” and which has been reviewed beautifully by Pratap Bhanu Mehta here, he asks a similar question ” How can God let children pass through extraordinary suffering?” In looking for that answer, he questions every religion and many holy men. In the process, Mr. Shourie, one of the keenest minds of modern India and possibly the last of the truly great public intellectuals we have had in the country, tears through the logic religions use to justify suffering (“Your child suffers for your sins”, “Your child suffers for sins committed in a past life”, “Your child will enjoy great joy in his next life for the pain in this”). I cannot wait to read this book and I am sure, having read a few of Mr. Shourie’s past works, that it will be a worthy read.
The unquestioned believers will call the entire exercise of dissecting religious tenets futile. Religion, they will say, is the word of God (of course only their religion, the others are not), whispered to human representatives behind a burning bush, or through a dream or in a battlefield. Trying to find plot holes in His word is nothing but an expression of human arrogance, an endeavor doomed to failure. God (as expressed through THEIR religion) is always correct and if you found any “bugs”, it is your logical argument which has a problem.
I am an agnostic. That is I do not deny God’s existence nor do I doubt it. I simply believe it to be an unknowable question. As an aside, I am not an atheist because I find atheism to be dogmatic in its anti-dogmatism, because I have yet to encounter conclusive proof that God does not exist (I believe that a proof or a counter-argument can never be found). Because I definitely do not believe that God came down and told his words to men, I am sanguine that religions are human constructs. And since humans are fallible, their creations will also reflect their fallibilities. Hence it is not surprising that religions cannot provide a logically coherent answer to Mr. Shourie’s “Why” (and my also).
One must remember though that all religion grew out of “Why”-s. Ancient man figured out pretty quickly that in this world, there is cause and then there is effect. If a tiger sinks a tooth in you, you bleed. If you jump into the river, you get wet. But what about night and day? What about the rains? What caused that? The Unknown.God. That the Unknown was totally beyond human control and understanding was a rather disquieting idea. So causalities were created—if man did something, God would respond to that action. Which is why God needed to be kept happy through gifts and obeisance (in the same way humans become happy). Else if he became angry (for exactly the same reasons humans became angry), there would be Hell to pay. If you sacrifice an animal in God’s name, the rains will come on time. If you do not, there will be drought. Rituals thus came into being. And many of the “Why”s were supposedly answered.
At the same time, societies needed certain laws to be able to run efficiently. Do not kill people. Do not covet your neighbor’s wife. Do not pick her husband’s pocket. Thus humans sought to define a notion of “good” and “bad”. If you tell me “I am telling you that murder is bad” I won’t listen to you. But if you tell me “God commands you not to murder else he will make sure you lose your right eye”, you have my attention. Hence God became the final arbiter of good and bad. Along with that came the notion of justice—a system of positive and negative incentives that ensured their compliance. Some of the justice would of course be dispensed here on earth by humans but then there were a lot more that was going to be handed out up there or when the world shall end.
As the years passed, science answered many of the “Why”s? Most people realized that dancing around the fire won’t make the winters any milder. Or sprinkling ash on a man clutching his chest won’t make him better. But there were questions that remained un-answered, questions outside the purview of science. Why are we here? Where are we going? And why is their human suffering and why does merciful God do nothing about it? Men still turned to religion for these answers and religion obliged with a reply. Suffering happens due to causality (a concept even primitive men understood)—–its’ either something you did in this life (didn’t pray frequently or ate non-veg) or in the previous (murdered a few) that is “responsible” for your current predicament. This was a comforting realization, that suffering happens for a reason, namely your actions, and that you will not suffer if you stayed good. It was also beneficial for society as a whole too because many men, who otherwise would not fear human law, stayed to the straight and narrow from the fear of divine retribution in this life or the next.
One cannot escape the fact that the concept of “good lead to good and bad leads to bad” is purely a human construct. If you look at Nature as a whole, you will see that things are a bit different. It is rough, brutal, cruel and frankly, terrifyingly unfair.There it is the survival of the fittest and the meek not only does not inherit the earth but gets wiped out from it. Nature does not care how you survive—-whether you eat your own cub or attack a pack of lambs, all it cares is that you do and that you bring every bit of advantage evolution gave you to the party.
Which is why I believe asking religions “Why do children suffer” is like looking for a ring lost in the dark near the light of the lamp. Most religions use morality-driven causality to answer the question of suffering whereas Nature (or God if you please), once you look real close, does not really care for human notions of right and wrong and of justice.
That is why I personally have stopped asking “Why?” when I hear of children dying or suffering. It is like speculating why a dice face came down as “one” instead of “six”. The only question worth asking is “What we, as human beings can do about the suffering of our fellow humans?” That is only what lies in our hands.
God, should he exist, does not “care” for us or of our expectations from him.
Which is why, in turn, I shall never care for nor expect anything from him.