One last big question religion pretends to answer is: Why is there evil in the world? We might consider "evil" to be synonymous with suffering, for the sake of clarity. Why do people suffer? Religious imagination actually makes this question more complicated that it needs to be.
Some answers offered through religion imagine a whole array of supernatural beings, good and evil, fighting for the precious commodity of human souls. It makes sense that if you're going to invent a supernatural to worship, you would also find it convenient to invent other lesser supernatural beings to answer other troublesome questions. That angels and demons and souls are not real things hasn't stopped religious institutions from perpetuating the idea that human suffering is caused by supernatural activity. Some religious communities even encourage people to invent their own personal stories of encounters with angelic or demonic forces, and the community accepts these inventions as fact in order to bolster a framework that is easily dismantled by thinking through how poorly it aligns with measurable, observable reality.
Other religious answers are less complex, keeping the supernatural involvement down to one entity who controls all things. In such a mythology, one god is responsible for all of the helpful and harmful experiences people have. The question then becomes why a god would cause harm to weaker, less capable beings. Some conclude that a god is punishing and rewarding people for their behavior, but this idea also becomes difficult to maintain unless the god in question is either capricious or outright malicious. In other words, the idea of an omnipotent supernatural punishing and rewarding people only works if the character of that supernatural makes it unworthy of adoration and admiration.
Observing that people who are devout in their practice of a religious tradition suffer just the same as heathens without a religious tradition should be a fly in the ointment. Some religions answer this complication by suggesting that their god tests the faithful by causing or allowing suffering, and that the reward for this testing happens in an afterlife. We've already dismissed the idea of an afterlife, but it is an easy last resort when a religious leader doesn't want to have to answer for promises of reward. Who can call a person to account when there is no way to verify or deny such a promise of posthumous reward for suffering? One can also perhaps bear the suffering of others more easily (or even callously) if one clings to a belief that an afterlife reward awaits those who suffer in their actual real life.
What all of this boils down to is that religions can't satisfactorily answer the question of suffering, but they are all equipped to make something up that can't be verified or falsified. Any valid attempt to refute answers that rely on supernaturals are met with nonsensical replies, like suggesting that one's faith must be strong in order to understand spiritual truths. Or, the oft-abused retort, from New Testament writings, "The wisdom of this world is foolishness to god." So, indoctrination in many religious traditions includes learning rebuffs to protect one from thinking through one's assertions with any sort of integrity to reality. Maintaining a particular religious mythology is more important to some people than finding an answer to human suffering that aligns meaningfully with reality.
One convenient facet of basing answers to suffering on supposed supernatural will or promised reward in an afterlife is that human beings are off the hook. If a god wants someone to suffer, then there is nothing for a human being to do, although perhaps the person experiencing the suffering should be told to straighten up and fly right so that their suffering would end. Likewise, if suffering now leads to reward in an afterlife, there is no reason to address human suffering. Human beings can ignore any suffering of others they find distasteful, confident that those individuals will be well rewarded after they die.
Even more convenient, when religious institutions connect human suffering with their concept of sin, they can justify the mistreatment or oppression of others. When you believe that an individual's suffering is directly tied to that individual's sinfulness or wrongdoing, then the individual can be blamed for whatever harmful experiences happen in their lives. While people within the religious tradition are seen as being tested by suffering, people outside that religious tradition -- experiencing the same suffering -- might be seen as being punished by a god for bad behavior. This allows religious leaders to use religion to encourage the dehumanization of other people. In other words, their answer to human suffering is to willfully cause more suffering.
For this reason, religion cannot meaningfully answer the question it poses regarding the existence of evil or suffering. Even though some religious groups imagine supernaturals that are benevolent and engage in practices that seek to create wholeness, the non-real foundation of their actions is easily corrupted and abused by those who imagine a different sort of supernatural or refuse to address their own culpability. We must look outside religious constructs to find meaningful answers.
Human suffering might be put into two categories: suffering caused by nature, and suffering caused by human action. Natural suffering would include all of the hardships people face that are not caused by human activity: weather events, genetic conditions and many diseases, attacks from wild animals, etc. Nature has certain features that are unpleasant for individuals to experience, but overall contribute to a balanced ecosystem. The suffering of human beings because of natural events has no greater meaning, although people can potentially learn things from the experience. Natural events are amoral -- there is no will or purpose behind them. Natural events are just things that happen, and human beings have to supply their own meaning as they recover and rebuild in the wake of such an event.
We still feel grief and pain at this kind of suffering, and that grief and pain can connect us with other human beings or isolate us. We can better manage our grief, though, when we are honest about the source of our suffering.
Suffering caused by human action is different. Sometimes, suffering is the result of human ignorance or negligence, but people are still accountable for their actions. A person might say that they never knew there was a connection between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer, but their actions are still a contributing factor to their suffering. There is some evidence to suggest that even some "natural" events like wildfires are exacerbated by human activity. The answer to this sort of suffering caused by negligence is two-fold. First, we must learn to more accurately predict the consequences of our actions. Second, we must choose to act in such a way that minimizes suffering and increases well-being for the greatest number of people. There is nothing supernatural in any of this. This way of thinking places responsibility squarely on human beings. This is less convenient than most religious responses to suffering, but it is more realistic.
Again, our pain and grief at this kind of suffering is also very real. Recognizing human responsibility is not a way of alleviating that grief. We need one another for that very reason; expressing grief and caring for one another in times of suffering is one of the functions of meaningful, authentic community.
There is another category of suffering caused by human action, however, and this is the most challenging to address because it seems closest to a traditional definition of evil. Some suffering is caused by human beings willfully and knowingly doing harm to other human beings. When a human being uses a weapon to hurt another human being, there is no question of ignorance or negligence. When human beings willfully use chemicals or artillery or biological agents to cause harm, there is no question of ignorance or negligence. There may have been a time when human beings could claim ignorance when they oppressed or marginalized a population, but that time has passed. Human beings have a propensity for willfully and knowingly causing harm to other human beings, and this suffering requires a different response that either natural suffering or suffering caused by actual ignorance or negligence.
We cannot blame supernatural forces for the harm that human beings perpetrate on one another. We must look to ourselves in order to find meaningful answers and solutions. The most succinct answer as to the cause of this suffering is that when people experience fear, they react. Fearful people often create suffering. This may seem overly simplistic, but the solution to irrational fear is rather demanding and counter-cultural. When people are accustomed to reacting to their fear (and justifying or dismissing any harm done as a result of their reactivity), suffering is guaranteed. The only way to address human suffering caused by human fearfulness is to address the root fear. While this would ideally become a societal practice, it's more likely that change will begin (and is beginning) with individuals committed to living more intentionally.
There are countless examples regarding how fear connects to human beings causing suffering. People are afraid of all sorts of things. We fear scarcity of resources and power. We fear being ignored or taken for granted -- being invisible. We fear being oppressed or exploited. We fear being unlovable or unacceptable because we fear being ostracized and cut off and alone. We fear not having our needs and wants met, and we fear being unworthy of having our needs and wants met. Human beings live in an environment of constant fearfulness. It take real work to recognize what fears are driving us, what we actually want, and how we can move toward what we want in a way that creates wholeness. This is the most meaningful answer to suffering that we can possibly embody, and it will take some time to learn to do things differently, especially if we are accustomed to reacting to fear on a regular basis.
As we proceed beyond clarifying the right questions, the goal of dismantling irrational fear, decreasing suffering, and increasing well-being will be a primary topic. For now, it can suffice that we have a viable way of asking questions about suffering that don't resort to religious imagination or the invoking of supernatural will and afterlife rewards. Moreover, we actually have a more meaningful question than Why is there suffering? It is much more potent and evocative for us to ask What fears are prompting me to create suffering instead of creating wholeness? and What am I going to do differently? If a growing number of people are willing to ask the right questions, we can find more meaningful and transformative answers for our lives and for our world.
To summarize the interrelated questions we can meaningfully ask and address in the weeks ahead:
How do I live in such a way that I'll be satisfied with how I influence the world around me?
What am I passionate about? What is my personal life dream that creates greater wholeness in the world?
Where do I find a genuine sense of belonging? Where do I find authentic community?
What fears get in my way? How can I dismantle those fears and understand what I actually want?
How can I get what I most deeply want and need by creating less suffering and greater wholeness?