Overview:

Despite the world's intractable suffering, most Americans still embrace the idea of an all-merciful divine.

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A recent Pew Research Center survey on U.S. attitudes toward the so-called “problem of evil” (and implied divine impotence) brightly underscores how the perpetuating power of religious indoctrination continues into the 21st century to corrupt believers’ perceptions of reality.

In its latest study, released in late November 2021, Pew asked a nationally representative sample of Americans to prioritize and categorize the “meanings and causes of suffering,” and to answer the question, “Why do you think terrible things sometimes happen to people through no fault of their own?”

Half of all U.S. adults (or 56% of believers) also endorse the idea that God chooses ‘not to stop the suffering in the world because it is part of a larger plan.’

Pew Research Center

Surprisingly, while more than 91% of Americans still believe in “a higher power or spiritual force in the universe” (58% believe in the biblical God and 32% in a nebulous “higher power”), they simply give their deity a hard pass on any responsibility for evil, according to Pew survey data.

God unaccountable for human evil

A large majority of U.S. adults (80%) today are religious believers who blame most of the world’s suffering—the paradox of evil and faith—not on divine imperative (or divine impotence) but on the destructive actions of people using their free will “to act in ways that go against the plans of God or a higher power” and also on the unequal structure of society. Pew adds, disturbingly, that,

“At the same time, half of all U.S. adults (or 56% of believers) also endorse the idea that God chooses ‘not to stop the suffering in the world because it is part of a larger plan.’

“Meanwhile, 44% of all U.S. adults (48% of believers) say the notion that ‘Satan is responsible for most of the suffering in the world’ reflects their views either ‘very well’ or ‘somewhat well,’ with Protestants in the evangelical and historically Black traditions especially likely to take this position.”

What this all means is that believers—vastly dominated by Christianity in the U.S.—embrace a religious dogma that, no matter what evil happens in the world, even if committed by themselves, leaves their belief in the all-merciful omnipotence of invisible, inaccessible deities unshaken.

How convenient.

This is how religion can massively degrade the human capacity to reason objectively.

If you’re an atheist who rejects the idea that gods exist, you understand that, of course, evil is a completely man-made problem, and that most other human catastrophes are generally caused by random powerful acts of nature or unfortunate accidents beyond moral blame, which is to say the man-made Holocaust was evil but nature’s virulent COVID-19 is not.

God does not need to be a part of any of it. Evil and catastrophe, and even goodness and joy, exist despite our dreamy beliefs.

But, clearly, most Americans haven’t got there yet. They still insist on clinging to their “sacred” divinities and then granting them an escape hatch—wholly unearned absolute immunity—when things go south.

In the survey, Pew asked respondents to answer questions in their own words, and to read through a list of potential explanations for suffering and indicating that most closely match their own views.

U.S. believers: Random choice, not God, cause suffering

It’s good news for reason that the survey indicates a “vast majority” of Americans “ascribe suffering at least partly to random chance” rather than divine intercession or purposeful inattention.

But, still, so many religious believers exist in our supposedly secular democracy—and so much fantastical self-delusion in the name of faith.

Pew data shows that many Americans—descendants in a long historical line of Christian apologists—still embrace the God of Abraham shared by Christianity, Judaism and Islam, harboring the conceit that, according to the Pew report, “God has reasons for allowing evil that humans cannot understand, or that human free will [which the divine supposedly cannot counter] inevitably makes suffering and evil possible.”

An omnipotent deity that cannot control the free will of its loftiest creation?

What kind of omnipotent deity is that?

And how does giving such an imagined being an undeserved moral pass lessen the continuing evil on our planet?

Younger Americans more unbelieving

The Pew survey data revealed some surprising tendencies among Americans regarding God, religion, and suffering.

  1. While most recent studies on U.S. religiosity show sharply less devotion in younger Americans, the Pew survey revealed that young adults age 18 to 29 (22%) are “nearly twice as likely” as seniors age 65 and older (14%) to see God influencing everything in their lives, according to a Baptist News Global report on the survey.
  2. The Pew data found that in learning news about the suffering of others some 62% of Americans felt twinges of sadness, yet 71% also felt “thankfulness” that they had avoided a similar fate.
  3. And among those feeling thankfulness, a mere 40% felt an urge to actually aid sufferers. According to survey data, the  most likely Good Samaritans are Black Protestants (50 percent) and faithful who attended church at least monthly (49 percent).
  4. In recent years, interest in Calivinism has resurged in the U.S., along with its doctrine of predestination, which holds that God knows in advance who will or won’t ultimately be saved. This complicates the Christian doctrine of “free will.”

Sadly, the survey revealed that despite all the suffering in the world, including the current misery wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, few Americans blame God or have lost faith. Reported Pew:

“A plurality (48%) said they never get angry with God, while 26% said they ‘rarely’ get angry with God. Only 3% said they ‘often’ are angry with God. There is little variation among Christian subgroups here, although Black Protestants (68%) and evangelicals (59%) are the most likely to say they never get angry with God.”

The net result is that three-fourths of Americans have not stopped believing that the God of Abraham actually exists and that He is all-powerful as well as universally loving and kind.

Evil and suffering? Meh.

Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...