A new survey cracks open a window into how we cope with crisis, especially in light of the COVID pandemic.
For centuries, philosophers and theologians have attempted to answer a vexing question: If there is a good and all-powerful God, then why is there so much suffering and evil in the world? From the biblical Book of Job to the 18th-century satirist Voltaire, the 20th-century Christian writer C.S. Lewis and the 1981 bestseller “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” both great literature and popular culture repeatedly have tackled this “problem of evil.”
The question takes on added significance amid a global pandemic that has killed 5 million people and recent natural disasters including floods, hurricanes and wildfires. Against the backdrop of these events and others, most Americans say they have spent some time in the past year thinking about big questions like the meaning of life, whether there is any purpose to suffering, and why bad things happen to people, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Nearly a quarter of U.S. adults (23%) say they have mulled over these topics “a lot.”
Americans largely blame random chance – along with people’s own actions and the way society is structured – for human suffering, while relatively few believers blame God.
In the new survey, the Center attempted for the first time to pose some of these philosophical questions to a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults, finding that Americans largely blame random chance – along with people’s own actions and the way society is structured – for human suffering, while relatively few believers blame God or voice doubts about the existence of God for this reason…
…The vast majority of U.S. adults ascribe suffering at least partly to random chance, saying that the phrase “sometimes bad things just happen” describes their views either very well (44%) or somewhat well (42%). Yet it is also quite common for Americans to feel that suffering does not happen in vain. More than half of U.S. adults (61%) think that suffering exists “to provide an opportunity for people to come out stronger.” And, in a separate set of questions about various religious or spiritual beliefs, two-thirds of Americans (68%) say that “everything in life happens for a reason.”
This finding was especially interesting:
Respondents who expressed belief in heaven were asked about who they think will be allowed to go there. Four-in-ten U.S. adults (39%) say they think people who do not believe in God can enter heaven, compared with about one-third (32%) who say only believers can gain access. (Again, 27% of adults do not believe in heaven at all.) Catholics are far more likely than Protestants to say that people who do not believe in God can go to heaven (68% vs. 34%). Evangelical Protestants are especially restrictive in their view, with just 21% saying that people who do not believe in God can get to heaven.