In March of 1993, unknown South African photojournalist Kevin Carter, while covering the famine in southern Sudan took a photo of a dreadful reality which made the world weep. The infamous photo is of a hooded vulture preying upon an emaciated starving Sudanese toddler near the devastated village of Ayod. The dying child was crawling toward the UN feeding center for help. By his own admission, Carter waited about 20 minutes, hoping that the vulture would spread its wings and make a move on the child. It did not, Carter snapped the haunting photograph, chased the vulture away, then left the scene. At the time, the parents of the little girl were busy collecting food brought over by the same UN plane that Carter took to Ayod.
The photograph was soon after sold to the New York Times where it appeared for the first time on 26th of March 1993 as “metaphor for Africa’s despair”. The photo immediately re-appeared in many other newspapers around the world. It is reported that overnight thousands of people contacted the New York Times to inquire whether the child had survived or not, leading the newspaper to run an unusual special editor’s note saying the girl had enough strength to walk away from the vulture, but her ultimate fate was unknown. Journalists in Sudan were told not to touch the famine victims, because of the risk of transmitting disease.
Carter eventually won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for this iconic photo, but could not enjoy the prize and the overnight fame earned for what he captured in his photo. Carter also faced harsh criticism for not helping the abandoned little girl, but rather heartlessly concentrating on taking an ideal picture for his self-interest. In the wild, many animals such as buffalos do risk their life to save their own kind when attacked by predators. Elephants and monkeys are known to help their young ones in trouble. Should less be expected of humans? What were this man’s priorities, to remain unhelpful being only a few feet away from his fellow human child in misery? “The man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene,” as one critic blatantly put it. “I’m really, really sorry I did not pick the child up,” he confessed to a friend. A year later, consumed with the violence he witnessed during his career, and haunted by the questions as to the little girl’s fate, he committed suicide. On July 27th of 1994 Kevin drove away to Parkmore, a suburb of Johannesburg, taped one end of a hose to his pickup truck’s exhaust pipe, running the other end to the driver’s side window. He tragically ended his own life at the age of 33 by carbon monoxide poisoning. In a note he left in his car he said: “…. the pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist.”
The legacy of Kevin Carter’s revealing iconic photo is that he resiliently rejuvenated the centuries old philosophical discourse on the so-called “problem of evil”. How could the good loving God allow this innocent child to suffer and be eaten by a bird of prey? Why did God not intervene to save her? Why would He allow a young professional photographer be overwhelmed by depression for impartially doing his job?
Many theists have become convinced of atheism based on the fact that bad things regularly do happen to good people. Particularly, when their prayers for help seemed unanswered. I acknowledge that this is a very emotionally charged issue, and people’s experiences of pain and suffering are real, and often long lasting. I too have deeply entertained these questions in my mind and heart. Yet, I did not allow my frustration, subjectivism and lack of sufficient knowledge to blur my vision, at least not for long.
Pain and suffering are not unique to humans, in nature every species experiences pain, be that nature created for a purpose, or uncreated with no purpose and goal. This is exactly what maintains the balance of nature, and ecology at check.
Thus, why should pain and suffering pose a problem only for the theists, but not for the devotees of natural selection? If there is no First Cause, the issue of the “problem of evil” is still on the table, for natural selection has to explain why among all options it favours the strong and allows the weak to vanish. Why it allows innocent children to suffer, i.e. be born with genetic birth defects, etc. In fact, the “problem of evil” is more problematic in the materialistic ideology than in the theistic, since a believer in the Divine is aware that his belief in the Almighty does not give one special immunity from life’s usual ups and downs and one will be tested by the Divine in one way or another. Nor does being good 24/7 shield one from natural disasters and sickness; a believer is required to be steadfast and mindful of the Hereafter. Yet, in a naturalistic world suffering makes no sense, particularly in absence of the Hereafter an atheist has nothing to console with in a temporal earthly life.
Let’s analyze Carter’s powerful picture and see what it really tells and tells not.
One cannot even for a second blame the Divine for this child’s death or circumstances leading to her death. To depreciatively ask “where is God” when adversities such as famine strikes is a false comfort to cover up the most pivotal question which ought to be asked: Where is Man? We presuppose that in the state of existence, it is the Divine who is on trial not man, and the Divine is subject of Man’s judgment for approval. Further, there is an underlying assumption that man has no individual and collective responsibilities while freely walking on this planet.
Calamites are either natural or manmade. Civil wars, population displacement and food scarcities are manmade phenomena. We assume that deviation from natural laws has no socio-environmental consequences and are indifferent to concomitant effects of interrupting the inherent balance of nature which lead to famine. Centuries of hegemonic socio-economic policies, unjust trade rules and mismanagements have devastating tolls that are gradually surfacing: drought, global warming, hurricanes, etc. Man is often a victim of his own transgression, individually or collectively. We wipe out an entire rainforest to use the land for cattle farming as though the forest is there merely as a decorative functionless item. The hell with all other “redundant low-cast” species that are destroyed, we are the chosen species, and certain elite groups within the chosen species are the chosen-class that must rule the world. Nature must be subservient to the elite. Over 80% of world’s resources are being consumed by less than 20% of world’s population in the Northern hemisphere at the expense of all other human and non-human cohabitants of this shared planet. Even so, still all earth’s renewable resources seem not enough to satisfy their never ending insatiable appetite.
Man is the only species with responsibilities and freewill. And when he exercises his freewill the possibilities can be endless. The course of reckless action taken may result in destruction of life, properties and natural environment. Nevertheless, as one engages in act of senseless destruction, others have the obligation to stop him and prevent the annihilation. Sadly, the world often turns a blind eye to atrocities and genocide committed by a single man or by one nation to another, leading to tragedies, one after another. And when calamity strikes, many stand facing sky blaming the Divine. We live in the universe of cause and effect, everything in this universe obeys this law and nothing can deviate for this principle. When natural laws and basic manmade social laws are tampered with, what kind of logic dictates that the Originator of the universe ought to intervene like the Superman, particularly when despite all early warnings signs, the optimally balanced natural laws set in motion, as well as the rudimentary moral laws and justice are arrogantly violated?
The confused and disillusioned atheist philosophers selectively focus on the “problem of evil” to argue that there can be no “God”. Their anthropomorphic concept of “God” in this context resembles more like a celestial Superman, Santa Claus or Genie leading to ill-conceived expectations and conclusions. Even, if there is any validity in their line of reasoning, then they should not be ignoring the existence of good, which causes the “problem of the good” for the atheists. The atheists totally miss that according to their own logic the overwhelming existence of good, love and pleasure ought to lead them to the opposite conclusion. For example, the existence of countless healthy, happy, well-fed growing children demonstrates that there is a Merciful Divine.
It is puzzling that one keeps on insisting that the universe is uncreated or self-created because of pain and suffering, while our experiences of joy, laughter, love, beauty outweights pain and suffering. Where is consistency and fairness in this assessment? Clear thinking should indeed lead everyone to the opposite conclusion made by Kevin Carter that “…. the joy of life truly overrides the pain to the point that pain does not exist.”