Sunday, May 19, 2013

Randy Alcorn on Suffering

“While Western atheists turn from belief in God because a tsunami in another part of the world caused great suffering, many brokenhearted survivors of that same tsunami found faith in God. This is one of the great paradoxes of suffering. Those who don’t suffer much think suffering should keep people from God, while many who suffer a great deal turn to God, not from him.”

—Randy Alcorn
If God is Good, p. 102 [HT: Truthbomb]


  1. Anonymous May 19, 2013

    That one lives in the west and doesn't believe in God does not entail that one does not or has not suffered "much." That's a lazy generalization.

  2. janitorialmusings May 20, 2013


    In the case of Stockholm syndrome we think agents are irrational for partnering with their captors because we think the captors have no good motives. To barrow a term from Anonymous, it's lazy to generalize that anyone who takes comfort in an agent responsible for their plight is suffering some psychological deficiency. For instance, a child who takes comfort in the parent that sends her to the dentist isn't suffering a psychological deficiency like Stockholm syndrome.


    Randy Alcorn didn't say that if your an atheist living in the West this entails you have not suffered much. That's a lazy reading of Alcorn.

  3. Anonymous May 20, 2013

    There's nothing lazy about picking up on an implication, dear janitor.

  4. Don Severs May 20, 2013

    When people seek comfort from the same agent responsible for their plight, it's known as Stockholm syndrome.

  5. janitorialmusings May 20, 2013

    its not implied either.

  6. janitorialmusings May 20, 2013

    Was your own somehow more illuminating? You just assserted it was implied. Illuminate us all and draw out your conclusion by citing premises from Alcorn's words

  7. Anonymous May 20, 2013

    What an illuminating response.

  8. R Lidster May 20, 2013

    Actually though… if we really want to get picky about it, Anonymous might be right. Alcorn states that "those who don't suffer much think suffering should keep people from God." That use of "suffering" isn't qualified or contextualized; it's used as an abstract, general noun, and I could see how that would be objectionable. That makes it unclear whether or not "those who don't suffer much" is meant as a general statement as well. If he had said "those who don't suffer much [from a tragedy] think that [the] suffering [it causes] should keep people from God," it would have been clearer. As it is, he might have been overstating his case.

  9. janitorialmusings May 21, 2013


    It's simply a matter of logic. Anonymous's statement was that "That one lives in the west and does not believe in God does not entail that one does not or has not suffered much." In other words, Anonymous thinks Mr. Alcorn is giving the following logical conditional: If you are an atheist living in the West you have/do not suffer(d) much.

    So which of Mr. Alcorn's words give us that conditional proposition? None. But Anonymous says Mr. Alcorn's words imply the conditional. So then we should be able to come up with a syllogism concluding with Anonymous's conditional. So then, which of Mr. Alcorn's words are the premises entailing the Anonymous's conclusion?

    Mr. Alcorn's first and second sentences seem irrelevant to producing such a conclusion. The best bet is to go with the first clause of his third sentence:

    "Those who don't suffer much think suffering should keep people from God."

    We can uncharitably translate this (roughly) into a well-formed formula:

    All N is E (All non-sufferers think suffering should keep people from God.)

    We can more charitably translate this:

    Some N is E (Some non-sufferers think suffering should keep people from God.)

    Or, rather,

    All W is E (All Western-atheist non-sufferers think suffering should keep people from God.)


    Some W is E (Some Western-atheist non-sufferers think suffering should keep people from God.)

    We can translate anonymous's statement (roughly) into the following well-formed formula:

    If Q then N. (If you are a Western-atheist you are a non-sufferer.)

    Now I shouldn't have to spell this out anymore. I don't see how it's possible that you can arrive at Anonymous's conclusion from Mr. Alcorn's statement, even if we understand Mr. Alcorn uncharitably. (You're free to try.)

    Anonymous was just being sloppy or, rather, lazy.

    As for your own observations on Mr. Alcorn's remarks:

    The atheist has two tools or stories that he can tell to account for the relevant behavior no matter the result. (1) If a suffering person turns from God because they are suffering, it is because the suffering person realizes that suffering rationally undercuts the existence of God. (2) If a suffering person turns to God because they are suffering, it is because the suffering person uses God to explain the unexplainable.

    If atheism "predicts" (2), as you say, that's not very impressive. Of course Christians can also account for both types of behaviors and therefore "predict" the results too. To actually get valuable information out of this sort of data, in terms of weighing which view better fits reality, we'd have to do a more controlled experiment that would be almost impossible and probably unethical to conduct.

  10. Anonymous May 21, 2013

    Thank you for the thorough and rigorous response, ser janitor. My response was indeed kneejerk and sloppy, but I'm not convinced I was entirely wrong. I've often seen atheism painted as a philosophy only for the privileged elite by Christians–this is the specific lazy generalization I should've delineated clearly in the first place–and I still feel as though that's what Alcorn's getting at in this quote. I haven't read the book, so I could certainly be wrong; and since I'm not going to read the book, I'm content to drop the issue.

    Thanks again for the helpful reply. I'll try to be more thoughtful and precise with my language in the future.

  11. R Lidster May 21, 2013

    Janitor, you're making something really simple unnecessarily obtuse.

    First, I wasn't talking *at all* about which model would be a better predictor. I was arguing with Alcorn's assertion that the phenomenon he describes is "one of the great paradoxes." I don't think it's paradoxical; I think it's to be expected, and I gave an explanation for why. That's where my point begins and ends.

    Second, are you really saying that it's not reasonable to assume that "those who don't suffer much" refers to "Western atheists"? You seem to like algebraic notation, so let me do my own paraphrase of Alcorn's statement. "While Xs do A, many Ys do B. This is one of the great paradoxes of suffering. [To summarize,] Xs do A while many Ys do B." X = Western atheists = those who don't suffer much. It's really that simple. If it's reasonable to assume that, how has he not then said that Western atheists don't suffer much?

    Alcorn does *not* qualify his assertion about atheists with "many." Many refers to the sufferers.

  12. MaryLou May 22, 2013

    Last night, on CNN, Wolf Blitzer interviewed a woman in Oklahoma who grabbed up her baby and drove away from the tornado bearing down on her home as fast as she could. She maintained that, if she had remained in her house, huddling in her bathroom, she and her little boy would have been killed.

    After she had described her ordeal, Blitzer said she must be praising the Lord for her escape and safety. She hesitated and then said, "Actually, I'm an atheist". At that point, Blitzer hesitated as if uncertain how to respond. She added to her statement, saying, "But it's all right if people do want to thank the Lord."

    I expect the atheists who lost their homes or loved ones in the face of that natural disaster as well as the ones who have lived through other tragedies feel their suffering is just as great as anyone else's in the world. Therefore, I think Alcorn is dismissing the suffering of atheists in the Western world too lightly.

    What I take from his quotation is this: In the face of death, loss, disaster and grief, we have two choices: We can turn TO the Lord or turn AWAY from him. Atheists use tragedy as a reason not to turn to God. The rest of us look to God for comfort, strength and healing.

  13. janitorialmusings May 22, 2013


    Actually I made it really simple.

    Concerning your first point: You're the one who brought up what atheism would predict about responses to suffering. I was simply responding to your own observation that atheism would predict a certain type of response. I pointed out that atheists have two different stories they can tell to say that, no matter what the outcome is, it's expected. If you're objecting to casting this in terms of prediction language I don't know why you used it in the first place…

    Concerning your second point: Anonymous's claim, following your own framing, is : "If you are X then you are not Y." Go ahead and draw out that conclusion with a syllogism and using your own framing of Alcorn. I'll make it easy for you by giving you a basic form to work with from your own paraphrase:

    All X is A
    Some Y is ~A
    Joe is X

    That Alcorn doesn't qualify his assertion about atheists with "many" is irrelevant to my modus tollens.

    I think you're confused over a strict logical framing of the issue and a more natural, fluid understanding of Mr. Alcorn's point. You're trading between these two in order to try and catch Mr. Alcorn in some false assertion.

    It's obvious that Mr. Alcorn intends those who don't suffer much to stand in for Western atheists. But that's a general, relative statement that *cannot* be taken to logically entail Anonymous's point. In that respect, Mr. Alcorn is right. It would be just as true to make a statement like "Western Christians don't suffer much." If Mr. Alcorn had said that I seriously doubt you or Anonymous would have taken him to mean something like "If you are a Western Christien you have not suffered much." Rather, you would have understood that general statement of relative suffering and one that is undoubtedly true.

    What Anonymous did was take that general, relative observation and try to deduce a strict logical conclusion that everyone would recognize as false: If you are a Western-atheist you have not suffered much. But Alcorn isn't trying to make that kind of statement and that kind of statement can't be logically deduced from what he has said.

  14. janitorialmusings May 22, 2013

    As I lay sleeping just now it occurred to me that if Mr. Alcorn's second clause in the last sentence could be translated:

    All S is T (All sufferers think suffering is a reason to turn to God)

    or something like this then we could derive Anonymous's implication:

    If S then T

    Where all atheists would affirm ~T and this would imply their not suffering. But since Mr. Alcorn qualifies this with *many* then you simply can't derive the implication.

    …I'm going back to bed.

  15. R Lidster May 22, 2013

    Could I suggest that you both are wrong and right? In the first sentence, Alcorn contrasts "Western atheists" with "brokenhearted survivors." He then parallels that in the second sentence by contrasting "those who don't suffer much" with "many who suffer a great deal." That's a pretty straightforward implicature. It is implied that "Western atheists" are "those who don't suffer much." On its own, that would be insensitive and inaccurate, yes, but the thing is, I think there's another implication that Anonymous has overlooked.

    Alcorn mentioned this in the context of a tsunami (he probably even means a specific exemplar like the Great Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 or the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011 since he's referring to some specific thing with "that same tsunami"). Alcorn isn't saying that Western atheists don't suffer much in principle or haven't suffered much in their lives. He's saying that, in the context of a single, traumatic event, many who didn't suffer directly from that specific incident drew radically different notions than many others who did, and that this is indicative of a pattern.

    It's a very interesting point. I personally don't think that's surprising or paradoxical. Many atheist scholars argue that humanity posits a God as justification for the otherwise unjustifiable. We desire for things to have a purpose, a reason, and for their to be justice and balance. In an atheist model, it is specifically the desperate, the downtrodden, and the vulnerable who turn to belief in God because the world would otherwise be overwhelmingly cold and remorseless. The alleged fallacy of that leap of faith would be more visible to those that are distanced from the tragedy than to those embroiled in it. That might superficially appear paradoxical, but it's precisely what an atheist would predict.