A New Argument From Suffering in Light of COVID-19

By R.N. Carmona

This will likely be as close as it gets to a personal post from me. I recently tested positive for COVID-19. At the moment, I do not know whether I am still positive. I will be getting another test on Wednesday. My hope is that I can go back to business as usual. I need to work; bills have to be paid. My focus here is a new argument yes, but it goes beyond that as we will see. Rather than the string of symptoms I have encountered, I want to focus on the mental aspects of my experience.

I have two lovely children that I have not been able to hug for almost six days now. I have not been able to kiss them. I have not been able to show any affection to anyone I love. I have not been able to receive any affection either. Because of this, I have been dealing with a lot of loneliness.

My father, who passed away in 2017, although no longer the voice of my conscience, is someone I think of often. I miss him dearly. His lessons still weigh on me and not a day goes by without me thinking whether he would be proud of the man I am today. One of the lessons that I consistently observe is to not get in the habit of letting myopia set in. In other words, yes, I tested positive and I am dealing with symptoms, on top of anxiety, loneliness, and grappling with questions about my mortality; however, other people have had it much worse. It is these people this argument has in mind.

I can easily imagine waking up last Thursday morning at 3am to the same cold sweat and terror I felt. Moreover, I can imagine the object of my terror turning out to be my experience. My mind was racing. I asked, what if I get pneumonia? What if I have to be intubated? What if there is an underlying issue that will pull the rug from under me? In all of this, I could not turn to a loved one. I needed a hug but could not get one. I needed someone to sit close to me and help me relax. Turning to a loved one at this time would put them at risk, so I had no such option.

Over the past few days, my symptoms have gotten progressively better. I am not a priori grateful. My gratitude is after the fact. I am grateful that I will probably have more days with my loved ones. I am seeing the light at the end. Soon I will be able to give my kids a warm embrace. I will be able to feel them in my arms again. My life has, for now, been prolonged and I can be a father to them. But the thought has occurred to me: what if my symptoms got progressively worse? I have not been able to show or receive affection for six days; six days could easily have been 15 to 30, or however long a hospital stay would have lasted.

Then it dawned on me. For many people, including Christians, this was their exact experience. They were isolated at home, probably hoping to be better within a few to several days; the Christians, no doubt, prayed to God for healing, to keep them company in their time of isolation and loneliness. For many of them, the prayers fell on deaf ears. Their symptoms got much worse, many developing life-threatening pneumonia. They were rushed to ICUs and intubated where they would spend more time away from their loved ones. The lucky ones, got back to their families. The Christians, thankful to God, were happy to be back with their families. But what of the people who had not embraced their loved ones for a month and never regained consciousness? What of the people who passed away? Where was God? Where was his comfort when they prayed? Where was his omnipotent power, fully capable of delivering them from a virus some of them did everything in their power to prevent? Why didn’t God answer?

I cannot imagine being my daughter, at an age where my affection can get annoying but also at an age where they are able to appreciate my love. I cannot imagine the fear they would feel seeing me stretchered out the door, to hear news that I had to be intubated, to have to wrestle with the idea that daddy won’t be coming home. They are at an age where losing a parent will be a lucid memory, an enduring pain, a massive loss. This would shape my daughter for the rest of their life. While I am grateful that they will likely not endure this pain, I think of the children who have. Good parents are not replaceable. I do not care if they are a Christian parent and while I am firm in my belief that they teach their children erred beliefs, I know that there are Christian parents who provide for their children, love them deeply, take care of their emotions, protect them, nurture them, and help them grow. I cannot imagine the pain of being orphaned in this way, especially when believing that God has all the power, mercy, and love to ensure that such suffering does not happen.

This is when one hears the old adage that sometimes God puts us through things so that we can better relate to people who go through similar experiences. I ask, how many people have to endure the same experience so that we can better relate to others? It was enough for me to deal with six days of this, to feel as though I was at the brink, to have more than enough time to contemplate my own fragility and mortality. It was enough to realize that others have had it worse and that for many, their story did not end the way they hoped; what’s worse is that the stories of their loved ones continue without them. For the many who survived the people we have lost, they have had to actually live through the devastation I had the privilege of merely worrying about.

We are on our own. If God existed, the extent of periods of isolation, loneliness, depression, anxiety, in addition to having horrible symptoms (in my case, losing most of my sense of smell, a fever, congestion, a loss of taste), would not be necessary to help us relate to others, i.e., soul-making theodicy. For human beings, the thoughts alone are horrifying enough. For a parent, to die too soon, to not see their children become adults, to not dance with their daughter at her Sweet 16, to not walk her down the aisle, to not attend their son’s next baseball game, and so on, the mere thoughts are terrifying enough. The thought of my absence in their life sends shivers down my spine. I do not need to experience the reality of it; I do not need to develop life-threatening symptoms and to settle on my life likely being over. More importantly, my children do not need to experience a reality in where I am dead. They do not need to see me in a suit, hands folded over my stomach, lifeless in an open casket that cost the people who survived me x amount of hundreds or thousands. They do not need to see me lowered into the ground.

Yet this was the reality many, including Christians, faced. Where was God? Where is God? The idea that God would create a social species to “test” them with periods of isolation, loneliness, anxiety, depression, and for some, suicidal thoughts, is puzzling. Especially when considering the damage these things do to people’s mental health, it is more perplexing still. Even if I granted the idea of sin, unrepentant sin is recompensed in Hell; whether eternal conscious torment or something else is for the theologians to argue over. A punishment for sin would not risk impairing someone mentally. What good is someone’s piety if they have lost their sanity?

I am not interested in formalizing this argument. I think the force of it is stronger rhetorically, written informally for readers to take in and think over. I think COVID-19, as Rieux in Camus’ The Plague conveyed about the Black Death, brings theism to its knees. A god that permits pandemics to take so many lives indiscriminately, leaving so many other lives in peril after such loss, either does not exist or is not the god theists so desperately want to exist. This is not about whether atheists/naturalists have an ontologically objective standard of evil because this argument does not focus on the existence of evil. This argument focuses on suffering, specifically mental health. If your beliefs are so biased that your first reaction is to change the topic or overlook the suffering of fellow human beings, including some of your own brethren, you may have to wonder whether you are a sociopath. Only a person with a severe lack of empathy will overlook what the last two years has looked like for our species as a whole. God is not powerful enough to replace a loving father or mother, to replace a son or a daughter.

Ultimately, I think this new angle on the Argument From Suffering is forceful and makes a powerful case against theism, but if it has not been clear, that has not really been my focus. My focus has been to humanize the experience of so many people throughout the pandemic, to get us to think about the severe pain some people are going through and have gone through over the past two years. A theist might respond that everyone will be reunited in the afterlife and while that may be comforting for some, that does nothing to change the reality some people are facing. The holidays just passed and a chair usually occupied by a loved one was empty. Somewhere in the world, a father enters his daughter’s room wishing he could kiss her goodnight and tuck her in. Elsewhere, a wife sleeps in a queen-sized bed hoping that the emptiness beside her is just a bad dream. I might be one of the lucky ones. Time will tell. But I am not taking this for granted and I am not taking it lightly. People have suffered a lot over the last two years. I mourn for them and I wish I could do more to bring them comfort.

The self-righteous will overlook this and find solace in the notion that atheism/naturalism offer no hope. At least with theism we can imagine life after death and seeing our loved ones again. In response to this, I maintain that this leads to one taking one’s short days for granted. One might as well procrastinate on affection, on spending quality time with loved ones if eternity is guaranteed. On naturalism, it is incumbent on us to be more mindful of how fleeting time is; one morning your daughter, just born, is being fed her first bottle and it feels like a blink before she’s in middle school. A defeater for this belief in an afterlife is that it allows some, if not most, believers to forgo finding ways to be there for people who are suffering; it is enough to give a person false hope and move on. A naturalist knows that more can be done and love in the present goes a longer way than a false promise in the future. If only I can sit in that empty chair next Thanksgiving and hope to remind a person of their deceased loved one; if only I can be there to wipe their tears away. People do not need the promise of comfort tomorrow; they need help today, a lot of them being suffocated by their pain at this very moment.

I’ll end with this. While your loved ones are here, hug them, let them know you love them, try to put into words why you value them so much. Belief in the afterlife is a lofty expectation that regrettably will not be met with a loftier disappointment. “Better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy.”

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