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Bethany Sollereder
 on December 06, 2018

Atheism and Animal Suffering

The freedom—such as it is—of the worm is certainly different from the freedom of the gorilla. But neither relates to the world around it, or to God, as a cog in a machine.


“I don’t believe in God because of animal suffering.” The comment came from the back of the room. I was hosting an evening talk about God, evolution, and animal suffering at a local church. We were thinking about different strategies theologians have used throughout the centuries to account for the violence in nature: the human Fall, the Satanic Fallthe only-way and so on. I like having audiences teach me about their own approaches too, so I encouraged discussion as we went along. Then came the statement.

There was no question for me to answer, no invitation to explore a wider a set of ideas that might contextualize the discussion. Just the brute statement of fact: “I don’t believe in God because of animal suffering.

How do you respond to people who have no questions? What do we do when the academic questions we ask in libraries suddenly encounter worldview-altering and faith-changing realities of suffering in the world?

Our understanding of who God is stops being just an abstract question. How God relates to the natural world is more than a set of propositions: it is often the underlying foundation for faith, for community, for family. Identity is built around these questions.

“I can understand not wanting to believe in God due to animal suffering.” I replied. “I’m not here to change your mind on that. But let’s talk about why others who see the same suffering come to other conclusions.”

Where would you go from there? How would you sketch out a theodicy in 30 seconds?

Would you build a cosmic weigh scale, trying to show how good outweighs the bad? Would you argue that animals don’t have the neural capacity to suffer in morally important ways? Would you argue that all dogs and dinosaurs go to heaven, and so all suffering will be compensated? Would you argue that evolutionary violence is simply a result of the Fall, that God never intended it in the first place?

If someone asked me about my stance on the issue, my approach would be that it comes down to the nature and work of love. God’s relationship to the world is not like a watchmaker to a watch (sorry, William Paley). God does not exercise meticulous control over carefully designed natural mechanisms, all manipulated to work out a careful divine plan. Think about how God is portrayed biblically: God is King (Psalm 47:2 and 95:3), God is shepherd (Psalm 23), God is husband and parent (Hosea 3 and 11). These are relationships of authority, love, and trust, but never of mechanism. The closest we get to that is the image of God as the potter, with people as clay. Even then, the clay is criticised for talking back to the maker (Isaiah 45:9)! God’s overwhelming portrayal in both the Old and New Testaments is of working in concert with people, making up for their mistakes, compromising with their limitations, and working towards their transformation.

God’s relationship is one of love. It is less like an engineer to a building, and more like a parent to a child. If a bridge fails to act as the engineer expects it to, we blame the engineer. If a child acts out, we know that it might just be the child. We understand that a parent who exercised complete and total control over a child would not be acting in love.

Remember the beginning of The Sound of Music when Captain Von Trapp calls all the children with a whistle? The children are controlled, disciplined, and are immaculately clean. But it is also cold and inhuman. Loveless. Later, when they are running around Salzburg dressed in drapes, they are wild, unpredictable, scraped up, and dirty. But love has re-entered the picture. Love allows freedom, even when that freedom sometimes leads to pain and suffering.

In creating the world, God was not a puppet master or an engineer. God was a lover. God empowered the world, gave it significant autonomy, and then accompanied creation through thick and thin, especially in the life of Jesus. God is not removed from the suffering of the world: God joined the suffering, took up the suffering of the world and died.

There is no weigh scale with this approach. No calculation that the good outweighs the bad. Creation was not a contract that stipulated the give and take of divine responsibilities. Creation was God’s statement of “I do”: a commitment of love to the better or worse of life’s precarious development. It is more like the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep on the hill unprotected to go after the one who is lost, or the person who has fallen in love with a hidden treasure and sells everything on the hope of buying the land with that lost treasure.

This “creation in love” approach leaves a whole host of theological questions unanswered. Does God act in the world? Can God act? Does God have any idea where this creation project is going? How can we trust in God if God is not controlling the outcomes of creation? Does prayer make any difference? Does God use violence and death? Do non-human animals have souls, and what implications does this have for their capacity for heaven?

It also leaves a whole host of biblical questions unanswered. What do we do with Genesis 1-3 and the passages in Romans that are frequently interpreted to say that death entered the world through human fault? Did Jesus die for more than just the human creation? If death was always part of God’s creation, why is death depicted as an enemy to be defeated? Why is God frequently depicted as using natural disasters to punish, judge, or otherwise work out divine intentions in the world?

Some of these questions are primarily of interest to Christians. They are in-house problems about how to interpret the Scriptures, or how to hold together various seemingly conflicting affirmations of faith. Some of them are outward facing questions. They ask how best to depict the God of the Christian tradition to those who do not share the basic assumptions of those in the community of faith.

Let’s take one common objection: my model relies on the freedom of creation. But is creation really “free”? Some think that to speak of the freedom of creation is inappropriate anthropomorphism—speaking of non-human things in human terms. I am not claiming that non-human animals have moral free will. I am not even saying that many of the creatures in the world have conscious decision making skills. Rather, it is more along the lines of behavioural plasticity. Behavioural plasticity is the ability of an animal to act in various ways given a certain set of environmental problems. Take the killdeer bird. If a predator is threatening its nest it has a variety of responses that it uses. It sometimes makes an aggressive display, charging the predator straight on. Sometimes the bird will fly away from the nest and pretend it has a broken wing, seeking to lure the predator away with the apparent promise of an easy kill. If its eggs have not hatched, it sometimes just quietly leaves the nest, trusting the camouflage of the eggs to do its work.

These are not big choices, but they are choices that could significantly affect survival, and therefore of evolutionary lineage and trends. When I speak of the freedom of creation I am talking about a whole range of different freedoms, according to the capacities of each organism. The freedom—such as it is—of the worm is certainly different from the freedom of the gorilla. But neither relates to the world around it, or to God, as a cog in a machine. When I speak of the “freedom of creation” it is shorthand for the numberless tiny expressions of living agency. Each on its own may not seem to affect much, but like snowflakes falling on a mountainside, eventually they can cause evolutionary avalanches that change the course of history.

At the BioLogos Conference in March, I will speak on the topic of natural evil. Why is there so much suffering in the world that cannot be attributed to human sinfulness? I’ll go more in depth with a variety of the questions outlined above, showing how different approaches have been used by Christian thinkers to address this perennial issue. I  intend to explore with you the rich possibilities given to us by the Christian worldview for understanding how a world shaped by violence, competition, natural disaster, and death could still be God’s good creation in and through the love of God. And there will be lots of time for questions. I hope to see you there!

About the author

Bethany Sollereder

Bethany Sollereder

Dr. Bethany Sollereder is a research coordinator at the University of Oxford. She specialises in theology concerning evolution and the problem of suffering. Bethany received her PhD in theology from the University of Exeter and an MCS in interdisciplinary studies from Regent College, Vancouver. When not reading theology books, Bethany enjoys hiking the English countryside, horseback riding, and reading Victorian literature.