Atheism, the Problem of Suffering, and Antinatalism

A couple posts on the Shadow to Light blog got me thinking about atheism, the problem of suffering, and antinatalism:

This post is basically me thinking aloud. Wikipedia defines antinatalism as follows:

Antinatalism, or anti-natalism, is a philosophical position that assigns a negative value to birth. Antinatalists argue that people should abstain from procreation because it is morally bad (some also recognize the procreation of other sentient beings as morally bad).

Michael, the author of the Shadow to Light blog, notes that most antinatalists appear to be atheists.

A major reason given both for being an atheist and for being an antinatalist is that life involves too much suffering. This has led me to wonder whether atheists who find the argument from suffering (or evil) a sound argument against the existence of (a good) God should be antinatalists. If it is wrong for God to have created humans in a world that contains suffering, how can it be right for a human to create another human in a world that contains suffering?

There must be millions of atheists who accept the argument from suffering but also have children. How do they justify this position?

Unbeknownst to me before writing this post, Wikipedia has a section on this very problem. Karim Akerma appears to be echoing my point.

Julio Cabrera considers the issue of being a creator in relation to theodicy and argues that just as it is impossible to defend the idea of a good God as creator, it is also impossible to defend the idea of a good man as creator. In parenthood, the human parent imitates the divine parent, in the sense that education could be understood as a form of pursuit of “salvation”, the “right path” for a child. However, a human being could decide that it is better not to suffer at all than to suffer and be offered the later possibility of salvation from suffering. In Cabrera’s opinion, evil is associated not with the lack of being, but with the suffering and dying of those that are alive. So, on the contrary, evil is only and obviously associated with being.

Karim Akerma, due to the moral problem of man as creator, introduces anthropodicy, a twin concept for theodicy. He is of the opinion that the less faith in the Almighty Creator-God there is, the more urgent the question of anthropodicy becomes. Akerma thinks that for those who want to lead ethical lives, the causation of suffering requires a justification. Man can no longer shed responsibility for the suffering that occurs by appealing to an imaginary entity that sets moral principles. For Akerma, antinatalism is a consequence of the collapse of theodicy endeavours and the failure of attempts to establish an anthropodizee. According to him, there is no metaphysics nor moral theory that can justify the production of new people, and therefore anthropodicy is indefensible as well as theodicy.

This once again reminds us that one’s atheism is not a belief neatly separated from one’s other beliefs. It is a part of a web of interrelated beliefs. The reason Michael finds atheism in “dark places” is because atheism is often closely related to “dark beliefs” (e.g., suffering isn’t worth it, nihilism, moral anti-realism).

12 thoughts on “Atheism, the Problem of Suffering, and Antinatalism

  1. The problem of gratuitous suffering coexisting with a tri-omni being is very different from the anti-natalists claim that life is more bad than good. Have I missed something about the proposed link here?

  2. The “link” I’m interested in is the creation of a new person in a world that contains suffering. Reading between the lines, I suspect your solution to the problem is (1) that gratuitous suffering exists and is incompatible with God’s existence and (2) at least some human lives, even with gratuitous suffering, are worth living.

  3. I don’t interpret the anti-natalists as objecting to the creation of new life merely because they will suffer, but because the suffering outweighs all goods. Conversly, the problem of gratuitous suffering is not dependent on a particular balance, but on the mere existence of gratuitous suffering.

    As an aside, it is a bit difficult to take the anti-natalists seriously when they are not also euthanizing themselves (not that I think they should). But there does seem to be an inconsistency there.

  4. I don’t see how you’re addressing why it’s okay for a human to create a person who will undergo gratuitous suffering but it’s not okay for God to create a person who will undergo gratuitous suffering.

  5. And they will also miss out on the good. That was my original point. If we (humans) think that a new life will experience more good than bad, then we accept the suffering on the expectation that it is outweighed by the good. A tri-omni God would be expected to setup a world in which suffering is either non-existent or in which every instance is justified (i.e., never gratuitous). It is not sufficient that the good simply outweighs the bad because the allowance of any unjustified suffering would be a moral imperfection.

  6. It is debatable whether an action is morally permissible solely because it will lead to more good than evil (e.g., someone might believe that the atomic bombings of Japan are immoral even if they believe the bombings were a net good). Some moral theory would have to be adopted that supports the permissibility of procreation.

  7. Sure, but every moral claim, including the impermissibility of procreation, is ultimately dependent on a moral theory for interpretation. So maybe the conclusion is just that a deontological morality cannot be consistently applied to both the problem of suffering and anti-natalism?

  8. Perhaps. And is the same moral theory being applied to both man and God? Would it be right to judge God with a deontological theory and man with a consequentialist theory, for example?

  9. Right. That’s another complication. I have previously argued that the problem of suffering is a critique of internal consistency within the theistic worldview, operating on the premise that gratuitous suffering is impermissible in whatever moral system applies to God, such that the objector’s opinion on the proper moral system for humanity is not really relevant. As I see it, this further weakens any argument about the inconsistency of supporting both anti-natalism and the problem of suffering.

  10. I understood part of this, but being one who speaks plainly (I used to be very intellectual, but after working with my hands and various fields, even a teacher for some time, I learned “understanding” and where the understanding is.), I’ve come to differentiate. A fellow came by the store, very intellectual but also searching. He shared something that made us look at arguments from a different position. Having grown up in an atheistic family, he also was an atheist. With time, he saw and learned about so much evil in the world. It was this that led him to realize, with all the evil, there must be good. And seeking the good, he found God.

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