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A Humanist Perspective on Suffering

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Suffering is as much a feature of human life as the inevitability of death. The reality of suffering presents a problem for some religions who cannot account for why an all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful creator would make and sustain a world in which people, particularly the innocent, suffer so terribly. For humanism, suffering presents no such problem. Clearly however, the notion of suffering raises some difficult questions for humanists as much as anyone else. For instance, in accounting for what suffering is, there are questions. Can we measure suffering? Can it ever be a good thing (perhaps as a punishment or challenge)? Is a world that is completely devoid of suffering possible or desirable?


What comfort can the humanist offer?

It is more practical questions, however, that are the concern of the humanist and there are two main ones. What can we say to people who are suffering terribly that would offer them comfort? And what can we do to minimize suffering?


It is precisely that first question which may make humanism look unattractive, since it is thought that under a humanist world-view, nothing comforting can be said. The great Danish writer Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) expresses this thought very well:


If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, ... if one generation arose after another like the leafage in the forest, if the one generation replaced the other like the song of birds in the forest, ... if an eternal oblivion were always lurking hungrily for its prey and there was no power strong enough to wrest it from its maw–how empty then and comfortless life would be! But therefore it is not thus (Fear and Trembling).


Kierkegaard could well have stuck something about suffering in there for good measure. However, his conclusion, that ‘therefore it is not thus’, clearly does not follow on logically (as he himself must have known full well). Just because something is comfortless does not mean that it is not so.* It is precisely in response to such seeds of despair that Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), amongst others, said ‘we want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world’. The idea being that, whether or not it is palatable, the truth ought to be sought. Truth is more important than palatability. This sort of thought is often softened by quickly going on to mention that other sorts of consolations are in fact available, such as happiness in the here and now.


Truth versus happiness

At the same time as being committed to searching out the truth, we humanists are committed to ensuring the human happiness. This can present us with a dilemma: truth v happiness. If someone is about to die, is it better that they die comforted by a falsehood or despair in the face of truth? Scenarios falling under this general description are probably best considered on a case by case basis, but two thoughts are generally pertinent. The first is that keeping the truth to oneself can seem authoritarian and patronizing. The second is that the dilemma is not always one between happiness and truth, but often between happiness and what one perceives to be the truth. Indeed, there are no knock-down arguments and certainties in areas such as this. All that can be achieved is a relatively open discussion which is perhaps not appropriate conversation for the deathbed – rather the wishes of the dying person are what we ought to pay attention to at this point. Indeed the same form of dilemma might occur for a Christian torn between wanting to convert a dying atheist on the one hand yet respect their beliefs on the other.


Richard Dawkins (1941 - ) has said things like ‘be thankful that you have a life, and forsake your vain and presumptuous desire for a second one’. And this may be an appropriate comment to make to some people; the thought is that they are lucky enough to be alive as it is. However, this may not be an appropriate comment to make to everyone, indeed humanists tend to agree that in some cases death is preferable to continued life and for that reason they champion a right to voluntary euthanasia.


For some people, suffering has been their condition since birth. In such cases, while there are no promises of supernatural compensation to offer, telling them to be thankful for their life of suffering and cease all desire for compensation in the hereafter might seem insensitive. One doubts that Dawkins would say it in such a case, indeed he has said elsewhere that ‘I would not compromise with my public speaking ... But if I was visiting someone who was recently bereaved, I might dissemble somewhat in what I said’.



While humanism offers no heaven-shaped consolations, there may be individual features in the lives of the people which do offer comfort and compensation from within a secular worldview perspective. That might include having children who outlive them; having made good friends; having found love; having contributed to a long term, collaborative project which will survive them and so on.


I should not like to identify the importance of any given thing with how long it will last. Longevity is simply one good to be weighed up against another. Suppose one had to choose between a short, exciting life with stories would echo into eternity or a long life with children and grandchildren. Which would you go for? There is no obviously right answer. In sports it is said that players are ‘only as good as their last game’, yet commitment to their sport is not undermined by the belief that older performances no longer count towards how good they are.


Some people have suggested in an atheistic world-view, the world will eventually come to an end and it will be as if nothing ever happened. Suffering does not really matter because of this, indeed, nothing really matters because of this. In Blade Runner (Ridley Scott 1982), a runaway robot on the verge of death reflects:


I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.


Whether the actions and experiences of humans are pleasant or unpleasant, they are not undone by the passage of time even if they are forgotten. There is at least one point of view from which it would not be just the same whether or not they happened: the point of view from which they can be seen, namely ours. The work of philosopher Bernard Williams (1929-2003) explores the relationship between the meaning of life (purpose, excellence, ethics and so on) and the point of view of the universe (the absolute conception of the world):

[The absolute conception] can make people feel that human activities are absurd, because we invest them with an importance which they do not really possess. If someone feels about human activities in this way, there is never much point, it must be said, in telling him that his feelings involve a muddle … All the same, they do involve a muddle. It is a muddle between thinking that our activities fail some cosmic test of significance, and (as contrasted with that) recognizing that there is no such test (The Human Prejudice)

Clearly some people are more fortunate than others, for instance people born in the West are born into a relatively privileged position with less exposure to terrible suffering.


How can suffering be reduced?

This brings us on to the second practical question. What can we do to minimize suffering? Whilst Humanists are committed to wanting things to be otherwise and try to bring this about, they do not cultivate contentment with how things are. They are committed to progress; to maximizing an individual’s freedom to flourish as they themselves see fit, provided they avoid causing harm (or suffering) to others.


* We should also note that just because something is attractive, this does not immediately rule it out as impossible even though popular wisdom is often cynical saying ‘if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is’.