For centuries, philosophers and theologians have attempted to answer a vexing question: If there is a good and all-powerful God, then why is there so much suffering and evil in the world? This question takes on added significance amid a pandemic that has killed 5 million people and recent natural disasters including floods, hurricanes and wildfires. Against the backdrop of these events and others, most Americans say they have spent some time in the past year thinking about big questions like the meaning of life, whether there is any purpose to suffering, and why bad things happen to people, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Nearly a quarter of U.S. adults (23%) say they have mulled over these topics “a lot.”
In the new survey, the Center attempted for the first time to pose some of these philosophical questions to a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults, finding that 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.
The survey gave respondents multiple opportunities to express their views on why terrible things happen – both in their own words in response to an open-ended question, and by reading through a list of possible explanations for suffering and indicating whether each statement describes their views very well, somewhat well, not too well or not at all well. The answers to these questions were not mutually exclusive; respondents could assent to more than one statement, and many did.
For example, 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.”
Many Americans lay some blame for the suffering that occurs in the world at the feet of individuals and societal institutions. Roughly seven-in-ten adults (71%) say the following statement describes their views at least somewhat well: “Suffering is mostly a consequence of people’s own actions.” A similar share of all adults (69%) express support for the statement “suffering is mostly a result of the way society is structured.”
The new survey finds that nearly six-in-ten U.S. adults (58%) say they believe in God as described in the Bible, and an additional one-third (32%) believe there is some other higher power or spiritual force in the universe. The combined nine-in-ten Americans who believe in God or a higher power (91%) were asked a series of follow-up questions about the relationship between God and human suffering. (Those who do not believe in God or any higher power were not asked these questions.)
A large majority of U.S. adults (80%) are believers who say that most of the suffering in the world comes from people rather than from God. Relatedly, about seven-in-ten say that in general, human beings are free to act in ways that go against the plans of God or a higher power. At the same time, half of all U.S. adults (or 56% of believers) also endorse the idea that God chooses “not to stop the suffering in the world because it is part of a larger plan.”
Meanwhile, 44% of all U.S. adults (48% of believers) say the notion that “Satan is responsible for most of the suffering in the world” reflects their views either “very well” or “somewhat well,” with Protestants in the evangelical and historically Black traditions especially likely to take this position.
By comparison, relatively few Americans seem to question their religious beliefs because human suffering exists. For instance, 14% of U.S. adults overall (or 15% of believers) affirm that “sometimes I think the suffering in the world is an indication that there is no God.” Results are similar on questions about whether suffering has caused Americans to doubt that God is all-powerful or entirely loving.
In addition, fewer than one-in-five U.S. adults are believers who say they often (3%) or sometimes (14%) get angry with God “for allowing so much suffering.” And relatively small numbers view the suffering in the world as a punishment from God: Just 4% of U.S. adults overall are believers who say “all or most” suffering is a punishment from God, and 18% say “some” of it is. The remainder say that “only a little” (22%) or “none at all” (46%) of the suffering in the world is punishment from God, or they don’t believe in God or any higher power (9%).
Majorities of U.S. adults say that when they see or hear news about terrible things happening to people, they often feel gratitude for the good things in their own lives and sadness for those who are suffering. About a quarter say they feel the need to tune out the bad news “because it’s just too much to take,” and one-in-ten admit to schadenfreude, or feeling happy “if the person [who is suffering] seems to have deserved it.”
These are among the key findings from a new Pew Research Center survey of 6,485 U.S. adults, fielded Sept. 20-26, 2021, on the Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP). Although the survey was conducted among Americans of all religious backgrounds – including Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons and more – it did not obtain enough respondents from these smaller religious groups to report separately on their views. The margin of sampling error for the full sample of 6,485 respondents is plus or minus 1.9 percentage points.