Why Bad Things Happen to People, According to 6,500 Americans

On the problem of evil, Pew’s pandemic philosophy survey finds few blame God or doubt God’s omnipotence, goodness, or existence.

Sorry Job, Epicurus, Augustine, and Hume: On the “problem of evil,” most Americans don’t think much of God’s role.

Long before Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People got Americans talking about theodicy in the 1980s, these famous thinkers wrestled with explaining why an all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God would allow suffering.

Amid the pandemic and its 5.2 million reported deaths, the Pew Research Center surveyed 6,485 American adults—including 1,421 evangelicals—in September 2021 about how they philosophically “make sense of suffering and bad things happening to people.”

The most common explanation: It happens.

“Americans largely blame random chance—along with people’s own actions and the way society is structured—for human suffering, while relatively few believers blame God or voice doubts about the existence of God for this reason,” concluded Pew researchers in a new study released today.

Yet many Americans do see purpose in pain, as researchers noted:

The vast majority of U.S. adults ascribe suffering at least partly to random chance, saying that the phrase “sometimes bad things just happen” describes their views either very well (44%) or somewhat well (42%). Yet it is also quite common for Americans to feel that suffering does not happen in vain. More than half of U.S. adults (61%) think that suffering exists “to provide an opportunity for people to come out stronger.” And, in a separate set of questions about various religious or spiritual beliefs, two-thirds of Americans (68%) say that “everything in life happens for a reason.”

Among the survey’s main findings:

  • 7 in 10 American adults agree that suffering is “mostly a consequence of people’s own actions.” Yet also 7 in 10 agree that suffering is “mostly a result of the way society is structured.”

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