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Religion & Secularism

Suffering & the Media

Ian Church queries the influence the media has on our perception of evil.

Over the past fifty years, the problem of evil – the problem that the amount or kind of evil or suffering in this world counts as evidence against an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God – has become the central argument against theism within the philosophy of religion. But when you consider that in today’s world, human suffering is, in the scope of human history, at an all-time low, how can we explain this argument’s recent rise to prominence? Wars, for example, are far less frequent than they used to be. Infant mortality is, in most countries, far lower than it was even a hundred years ago. Kids are, on the whole, safer now than they’ve ever been before; and the number of people brought out of abject poverty over the past half a century is truly a triumph and a point of celebration. Amidst all of this, however, the perception of the world as a dark and scary place is on the rise. The number of people who think that the world is so dark and evil that there cannot possibly be a God who would allow for it to be so, is on the rise too, at least in affluent Western nations. You’d think that the problem of evil would seem less problematic as global suffering decreased. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case. So what’s going on here?

Despite our best efforts to transcend the human condition, philosophers are still all too human, and our arguments are still subject to the biases and proclivities of human cognition. Here philosophers might benefit from the input of psychologists and cognitive scientists. Perhaps, then, it would be worth looking at what factors impact our perception of suffering – both personal suffering, and suffering within the broader world.

A number of hypotheses come to mind. For one, our perceptions of evil might be significantly shaped by the ever-evolving media we consume. The suffering we see and digest through social media and the twenty-four-hour news cycle, from plane crashes to natural disasters to criminal activity, is often hyped, even fetishized, and devoid of broader context. We might plausibly wonder if the relative contextlessness of the reported suffering yields a perception of it as pointless or irredeemably senseless. After all, without a broader context or narrative, could we even imagine what reason a God might have for allowing all the suffering we see? Additionally, given the human bias toward focusing on the negatives and ignoring the positives, we might easily imagine that the unsurpassed access we now have to (a surface-level understanding of) suffering around the world might leave us with an unjustifiably grim view of the world – an elevated perception of just how problematic the problem of evil really is. Bad news, after all, enjoys a disproportionate amount of media converge simply because bad news is typically going to attract far more clicks or views than the equivalent good news. This might dramatically skew our perception of the amount or proportion of evil we perceive to be in the world. Moreover, in most TV shows, great evils are often addressed and resolved in clean, thirty minute chunks; but in reality, the hardships and loss we endure can last a lifetime, and at no point does the suffering we bear simply cut to the next scene or pause for a commercial break. And if on social media you’ve ever tried to comfort someone who’s lost a spouse or a child, you know just how impoverished tweets, posts, or ‘crying emojis’ feel in response to such suffering. Moreover, if aspirational media commonly tells us that we not only have the right to pursue happiness, but the right to be happy – such that any unhappiness we experience must be an indicator that something is wrong or that someone has wronged us – then we might plausibly wonder if the suffering we endure is especially heinous in the larger scheme of things.

These are all empirical considerations. But in recent years philosophers have become increasingly interested in exploring how the tools and resources of the sciences might speak to philosophical problems. And while fruitful work has been done within epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and more, little attention has yet been given to exploring how such tools might be relevant to the philosophy of religion. The above considerations, however, seem to suggest that such research is greatly needed. They point to issues that could powerfully speak to philosophy concerning the problem of evil.

© Dr Ian Church 2020

Ian Church is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Hillsdale College, Michigan, and the principal investigator of the ‘Problem of Evil and Experimental Philosophy of Religion’ project, generously funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

• This article was written before the coronavirus outbreak.

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