Man is born free, but everywhere he is in pain. Or more appropriately, humankind is born free, but everywhere she is in pain. This is, indeed, the central argument against the existence of God, as well it should be. The tremendous amount of suffering in the world comprises a substantial proportion of the argument for atheism. And the tremendous amount of suffering caused by religion is no insignificant part of that.
Yet every monotheist argues that this stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of God. How so? Different arguments are employed by different traditions. My own argument might be expressed thusly: Consciousness is goal-oriented. God is the source and base of consciousness. All conscious beings inflict some pain upon themselves in the pursuit of goals at certain times. We are the body and soul of God in physical expression — God feels all our pain. Therefore, God, in the pursuit of goals which may surpass our present capacity of imagination, has inflicted an unimaginable amount of pain on the world (which is merely the physical expression of Godself) in order to achieve ends which It believes will be worth the effort.
In other words, God has a personality. This is perhaps the basic disagreement between “Abrahamic” traditions of monotheism (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, to name a few) and “Eastern” traditions of religion (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism to name a few). In those traditions which believe that God is not an individual conscious being, but rather a personality-less force which pervades the universe, suffering is merely (as so succinctly expressed by Buddha) the result of desire. When a human being becomes like the universe, utterly desire-less, suffering ends. In monotheist traditions, however, God has desires. This complicates the picture tremendously. Why? Because if the universe has goals for itself, they must necessarily be arbitrary. And how can the universe be arbitrary?
The answer provided by a monotheist, I believe, is that the proof is in the pudding: the universe does actually appear to be arbitrary. People, animals, and plants are killed or wounded in the pursuit of manifestly foolish ends (see the present war in Ukraine). Justice is constantly thwarted. Paradoxes are constantly manifest. The arbitrary nature of the universe is one of the great frustrations of existence for anyone who has spent a moment contemplating the nature of their existence.
Life need not be arbitrary, of course; there is an intellectual alternative. It is that of the multiverse. In multiverse theory, the universe is not arbitrary because it is simply one of a near-infinite number of universes, each of which is the expression of a different set of possibilities. If a butterfly in Indonesia had turned right instead of left in August of 1886, thereby preventing the Indianola Hurricane, that possibility is actually reflected in another universe. In other words, the left turn of the butterfly caused an instantaneous split in the multiverse and the creation of two different universes, one of which manifested the Indianola Hurricane, the other of which did not.
The multiverse appears to be an intellectually coherent tradition, as far as modern knowledge is concerned. But modern science fiction has explored some of its weaknesses. Perhaps the best exploration is the adult cartoon ‘Rick and Morty’, which follows the misadventures of a boy and his grandfather who have discovered the secret to inter-universe time travel. One need not watch the show to understand the basic premise: if the multiverse exists in physical space and time, it seems inevitable that someone will eventually discover the secret to traveling between universes, which will eventually lead to an absurd unification of the multiverse. A universe of multiverses, causally connected to itself, which negates the entire premise of the multiverse.
At this point, the conversation becomes a bit esoteric. Thank you for bearing with me. I only wish to point out that reasonable alternatives to an arbitrary universe exist, but they are also problematic. So I return to the point: an arbitrary universe, like that we appear to inhabit, can best be explained by a Creator which has a personality.
Now, that personality appears to prioritize a few things, primary among them being, as far as I can tell, love, justice, and freedom. How do I reach this conclusion? Love appears to reflect the power most capable of motivating action in animate creatures; a plant which is given love in the form of time and attention grows better than a plant which is ignored. Justice appears to reflect the order which animate creatures expect from the world; if a fox observes me kick a moose, it will be very surprised if the moose does not kick me back. And freedom appears to govern the relations of all animate creatures; if I tell a child what to do, I would be very surprised if that child does not do the opposite.
These are arbitrary values. It is not impossible to imagine a universe which prioritizes other values, such as greed, competition, or growth. Those are real values, after all, which are prioritized by many human beings. But it appears that the One which created this universe prioritized love, justice, and freedom, among other values.
Unfortunately, it appears that an element of that freedom espoused by the One who originated all things is that we have the the responsibility and opportunity to figure out some of these things for ourselves. As a result, there is a great deal we do not know yet. In quantum physics, in neuroscience, in ethics, in politics, in philosophy, in many respects, we are still “flying blind.” You and I, as separate but equal components of the One, are tasked with furthering this pursuit of truth. Postmodernism opposes us, in the great tradition of opposites proving invaluable to the discovery of truth. Paradoxes, challenges, and obstacles await at every turn, as they have throughout history. But if we believe there is One who watches over and sustains and governs all, we may yet have a chance.
So let us come together, right now, over We. We are Jews, Christians, Muslims. We are Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists. We are atheists, agnostics, spiritual-but-not-religious souls. We are One, and we are many. We embrace our desires, our personalities, our differences and our similarities. We seek unity, and diversity, and truth. Monotheists of the world, unite!
‘The Physics of God’, by Joseph Selbie, an intriguing exploration of what science has to say about monotheism to date:
‘Journey of Souls’, by Michael Newton, an intriguing exploration of the nature of the individual soul and its relation to the universe (2 parts):