Handle Effect

There’s a platitude that believers like to use to comfort each other in the face of adversity: “God only gives us what we can bear.”

I shudder every time I hear that.  Like Søren Kierkegaard’s mouthpiece Johannes de Silentio, I skip whatever solace believers find in that idea, and go straight to the horror.  It’s poetic shorthand for a longer thought: “This is happening to you because God thinks you’ll eventually come out okay.”

Think about that.

This is happening to you because God thinks you’ll eventually come out okay.

Out there somewhere, a cosmic calculator has determined that I have some threshold of suffering I can endure without breaking, and has responded to that information by burning my crops and giving my mother cancer.

Imagine what this conversation would look like if it was not God we were talking about, but just some very powerful person.  If a powerful person inflicts suffering on people just because xe can, xe’s a cartoon villain, too unrealistic a monster even for comic books.  If xe doles out that suffering in proportion to what people can “handle,” xe transcends from “run-of-the-mill psychopath” to “abusive parent.”  Add in the idea that we’re supposed to thank and praise this monster for not being even worse than that and we’ve got “abusive psychopathic egomaniac with a fondness for Stockholm syndrome.”

And the comfort I am supposed to derive from this scenario?  It supposedly comes from the fact that the sadistic demiurge deigned to calculate my adversity threshold first and stop sometime before meeting it.

Many versions of God in the popular imagination have the creature surrender jurisdiction over the world’s horrors without saying so.  This might be the most common version that instead explicitly gives God credit for them.  But unlike more shamanistic iterations, which imagine God’s actions primarily as punishments for broken taboos, this version expects us to derive hope from these harms.  Because they could have been worse.  Or we are to read a kind of perverse honor into receiving plagues and speeding tickets: God thinks so highly of us that he is putting obstacles in our way, because he knows we will overcome.

No force binds the powerful person (especially an omnipotent one) to inflict suffering on those below hir.  This person not only doesn’t haveto do these things, xe could easily spare his victims from all suffering.  Some say that these trials prepare us for something or help us grow into better, more resilient beings…but what are we growing into, and why?  Whatever the trial God could want us to become resilient enough to escape, xe could simply make us so, without cancer and earthquakes.  Or xe could simply not require that future trial at all.  But xe does none of these things, and that makes hir evil.

And what does all of that say to someone teetering on the edge of starvation or suicide or spending the last of their strength fighting floodwaters?  If God never gives people more than they can bear, what should they conclude from how close they are to bearing no more?  Those people face the tragic specter not only of their own sad mortality, but of letting God down for not “bearing” what xe clearly thought they could.  And they are among millions who either received more than they could bear or who failed to bear something that God thought they “could,” who get conveniently left out of this truism every time an enterprising Christian needs to make another Christian feel like their having any difficulties at all means God thinks highly of them.

We barely think it’s cute when children torment each other in the name of puppy love.  Why does the being at the top of the Abrahamic pyramid of seniority get to act so childish?

When zebra longwing butterflies (an official symbol of Florida) are handled too often in one area, they avoid it for days thereafter.  They do not congregate where they are regularly disturbed.  They do not assume that any capture they experience is one that they will survive.  They do not hope that the Cosmic Entomologist will recognize and honor their ability to survive being captured and examined by capturing and examining them more than their fellows.

Zebra longwing butterfly

Would that we were all at least that sensible.

I derive far more comfort from the knowledge that I have the power to overcome adversities in my life, and that should I ever fail, I have friends, family, and a well-woven social safety net to catch me and keep me from falling through, than I would from trusting an entity to which people routinely attribute catastrophic plane crashes and famines and plagues and earthquakes to stop wrecking things for me after I’ve reached some predetermined quota of unnecessary pain. But that’s just me.

Mallet, J; Longino, JT; Murawski, D; Murawski, A; Degamboa, AS. 1987. Handling effects in Heliconius—where do all the butterflies go?  Journal of Animal Ecology 56(2)377-386.


  1. Yeah, ancient religions didn’t consider their gods and spirits to be 1) All knowing 2) All powerful nor 3) All Good. Because this world really makes no sense if you have all three true at once, so you get flimsy excuses like the above.

    You *could* have a god who is all knowing and all powerful… but then clearly they don’t care. Afro-American religions do it that way. The creator is remote and uncaring. They have smaller gods who are less powerful, less knowing and who do care. But they can’t fix everything. The same goes for most of the ancient religions, except their creator is not all good (the shit Zeus does? Man!), not all powerful, and only cares about some things. Really, the best argument I’ve heard for polytheism is that this world makes more sense if you think of it as having been designed by a committee. 😛

    Atheism works too. The shit we have is mostly the shit we brought onto ourselves. And if it’s not that, it’s others dumping their shit because they can. We’re responsible for doing it, so we’re responsible for fixing it. I respect that a lot. “Because we deserve it” only sort of works with humanity as a whole, not on an individual level. We suffer for the mistakes of others, often long dead others. Fixing that is hard.


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