The amount of suffering in the world is one of the greatest challenges to belief in God, and one aspect of the problem that is occasionally overlooked is the amount of animal pain. An uncountable number of the creatures here below have been tearing each other apart on a daily basis for millions of years in a horrific theater of cruelty . It’s important to be shaken out of our stupor to ponder these things now and then because I doubt that most people really process the magnitude and extent of animal suffering, and instead become numb to the violence that exists all around us. My goal in this post is to paint a picture for you, as well as make a few observations about how all of this relates to theism.
First, brutality appears to be built into the fundamental blueprint of our world. Margays mimick the calls of baby monkeys in order to lure their concerned, and soon to be captured prey. The North American short-tailed shrew paralyzes its victim not to kill, but to allow for a prolonged feeding experience. “A tiny shrew can infect a mouse, for example, and then graze on it for days and days until it eventually succumbs to its physical injuries.” The sea lamprey, “a primitive vertebrate that resembles an enormous leech…often kills the fish it attaches itself to” by continuously feeding on its blood. Parasitic wasps use host organisms to lay their eggs, which are subsequently eaten alive from the inside by wasp larvae . Predators like bears “often begin to feed immediately, without waiting for the prey to die — an event that’s merely incidental” . I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture. Just try and imagine the incomprehensible amount of suffering that has taken place since life began – and somehow skeptics are expected to think that the existence of a benevolent being is the most obvious explanation for what we see?
Some Christians will try to downplay the severity of this situation, but for those who want to be taken seriously I wouldn’t recommend it. Given the world that we live in, it’s patently outrageous to suggest that animals don’t undergo tremendous suffering. The problem for theism comes when we realize that animals are moral patients – “sentient beings who can be harmed from their own point of view, but are not responsible for their actions” . In other words, it doesn’t even make sense to suggest that these creatures deserve to suffer. Unless a theist wants to develop a doctrine of “animal sin” and contend that they are guilty of real or “imputed” transgressions, the idea of animals meriting extreme suffering seems most implausible. But hey, maybe a perfect being likes to punish billions of animals with agonizing deaths because a naughty couple ate a fruit. Makes perfect sense, right? Yeah, not to anyone who hasn’t already drank the fundamentalist Kool-Aide. I would suggest that billions of animals dying agonizing deaths makes more sense if the universe is fundamentally indifferent – but what do I know?
Another issue is that most prominent theistic religions appear to lack a theology of animal compensation. Take Christianity for example – throughout the ages, a common view has been (so far as I understand it) that animals do not have souls – and so will not be resurrected en masse for the new heavens and new earth. This is not to say that the new earth will not have animals, but only that there will not be a one to one correspondence between animals that have lived, suffered, and died and those that will populate paradise. This is a problem, because how can extreme suffering be justified if a creature doesn’t deserve it and isn’t compensated? One way out of this is to posit some theistic picture that includes an animal afterlife, and I know if I were a theist that’s what I would be forced to affirm. While I still find that the extreme pain around us seems to suggest an indifferent universe, I would be more than happy if I could help move theists to a position that takes the severity of this problem more seriously.
Let’s formulate what we’ve discussed so far into an argument:
- In order for extreme suffering to be justified, a creature must either deserve it or be compensated 
- Non-human animals experience extreme suffering, do not deserve it, and are not compensated
- Therefore, the extreme suffering of non-human animals is unjustified
And if you think this argument works, consider what consequences that admission might have. It is quite easy to take what we have established here and turn it into an argument against the existence of God. I won’t spend time defending that sort of argument, but it isn’t a large leap from accepting the existence of unjustified suffering to skepticism about the existence of God .
- Stephen Law, God, Evil, and Theodicies
- Felipe Leon, The Problem of Teleological Evil, The examples and quotations in this paragraph prior to the citation are all from Leon’s post.
- George Dvorsky, 9 Predators With The Most Brutal Hunting Techniques
- Jeffery Jay Lowder, In Defense of an Evidential Argument from Evil: A Reply to William Lane Craig
- Why accept this premise? The most basic answer I can give is that it seems highly plausible given our moral intuitions. This may seem weak initially, but if we think about what would be entailed if one were to deny this premise, the argument is strengthened considerably. To deny premise 1 would be to sever the connection between culpability, recompense, and suffering. What are the implications of this? Imagine that God created Adam and Eve upright, but rather than allow for a trial he simply subjected both of them to eternal conscious torment immediately upon creation. Would this be fair? Well, obviously not. But notice that if you deny premise 1, it would be fair. After all, extreme suffering can be visited upon creatures legitimately without them having had to deserve it or be compensated for it. Or consider that God creates an animal (your favorite one preferably) solely for the sake of torturing. How could you object if you deny premise 1? I don’t see how. Because of this, I submit that premise 1 is intuitively obvious and that denying it leads to absurd moral consequences. Clearly it must be true.
- Here I want to preempt some objections to the argument. The most obvious one that I want to debunk right away is the infantile suggestion that variations of the problem of evil actually prove God’s existence by presupposing him. No they don’t. And even if problems of “evil” did that, the language can be changed to “suffering” (as it is here) to accomplish the same goal without using loaded language. The premises in this argument are plausible even on a theistic worldview, so it is on the theist to explain which premise they reject and why.
*This is an update of a previous post entitled “Christianity and the Problem of Animal Suffering”. This occurred on 7/12/2020*