The Argument from Evil.

I had planned to post some counter-apologetics here in advance of discussing them on the podcast. Four episodes late, but I am now getting started.

Pure Evil

Pure Evil

Among the most popular reasons cited for atheism is the “Problem of Evil”. Like most positive atheist arguments it is not a complete argument for believing there are no gods. Rather, it is an argument against the essential attributes of some definition of a god. The problem of evil argues that there are inherent contradictions between the attributes of omnibenevolence, omnipotence, and the evil and or suffering we seem to observe. Christians typically believe God possesses these attributes, so if he could not, then the God they believe in could not exist. Another kind of god might, but it could not be all-good AND all-powerful.

In its basic, strong and logical form it goes like this:

1) if a god exists, it would be all-good, and would want to stop any unnecessary suffering or evil he could

2) if a god exists he would be powerful enough to stop all unnecessary evil and suffering

3) there is unnecessary evil and suffering

5) therefore no such God exists

There are only a few counters to this argument, the strongest being the skeptical theist response that all the suffering and evil observed is necessary in some way. In others words, god has perfectly good reasons for not stopping evil and suffering from occurring.

For example, a theist might argue that much evil and suffering are due to our own immoral and sinful conduct- wars, crimes, torture, and so on. That allowing humans the freedom to act this way and for the consequences to really manifest, is a greater good than preventing the evil, since it allows for a sensible moral creation with humans having to make meaningful moral choices. I don’t agree with this, but let us grant it for the sake of argument.

This is only a partial response , since not all human suffering is due to human actions. Disease and natural disaster are responsible for a great part, if not the majority of human suffering. Our free will is irrelevant to whether these events occur. So what reason could a god have for not intervening to prevent this suffering? Why do the prayers of most of the parents with children dying of disease go unheeded? I cannot imagine any legitimate reason.

"Mom, Dad, don't touch it, its Pure Evil!"

“Mom, Dad, don’t touch it, its Pure Evil!”

The best reason for theists to propose is “I don’t know, but that doesn’t mean the reasons aren’t there.” This may be true, but it seems out of keeping with the idea that we are born equipped, even partially equipped, to understand and apply objective morality. It would seem to mean that we are ignorant of many important moral facts about the cosmos, in fact we would be ignorant as to why or how some of the worst and seemingly gratuitous suffering is not stopped by one who can stop it, and does not want us to suffer. We should be able to speculate somehow as to why god might not intervene, if indeed there are perfectly good and intelligible reasons not to. This might even result in moral paralysis. Should we intervene to prevent or alleviate suffering? How could we know if doing so prevents this mysterious greater good?

After this analysis the argument survives quite well in its weaker form:

1) if god exists he would be powerful enough to eliminate all evil and suffering.

2) if god exists he would eliminate all evil and suffering unless there were moral reasons not to. Or, if god exists the would be no gratuitous suffering or evil.

3) much suffering and evil appears gratuitous. We can not imagine any reason why god would not intervene to eliminate it.

4) so much suffering and evil seems gratuitous because at least some of it is. If we are created by God with a divinely instituted moral sensibility, we should be able to come up with reasons why God would not intervene even if we can’t verify them.

5) therefore it is unlikely that god exists.

There are a few other, less persuasive counters, such as the speculation that all suffering, even disease and natural disasters, are caused by human sin. This seems to be an incredibly unfair and torturous cosmos, where young children are somehow responsible for their cancer, or worse, they suffer and die because of the wrongs of their ancestors.

Another weak response, in my view, is that the reason god doesn’t intervene is that he doesn’t want to deprive us of the opportunity to do good works of charity and healing in the face of disease and disaster. I don’t think the opportunity for good here outweighs the harm caused by natural disasters like the Haitian earthquake, or the Indonesian Tsunami. Even so, there are plenty of wars and human caused disasters for us to rally together and express these good intentions of relief and healing. We don’t need Altzheimer’s disease to have the opportunity to be good.


About Brian Green Adams

I am an atheist in Canada. I know something about law. "Brian Green Adams" is a pseudonym, taken from Brian Eno, Robert Green Ingersol, and Douglas Adams. Three of my favourite atheists. Not to mention The Life of Brian, Brian Green (physicist), Eno's "Another Green World", and Adam from Genesis in the Bible. The connection to Brian Adams is an unfortunate coincidence, though I was very fond of him when I was 12.
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7 Responses to The Argument from Evil.

  1. dfxc says:

    I was going to stay away from this but, since there are no other comments yet, here’s a couple of [related, if not direct] points that you might discuss:
    1) What theological propositions “Christians” will “typically” accept as true when presented [such as those offered here] and what those same individuals actually “believe” are arguably (and often demonstrably) radically different. At issue is how many “typical Christians” genuinely understand the terms, how many of those that do also have a functional understanding of logic, and how many of those with both have contemplated the topic in any detail… by which point we’ve long since left the realm of “typical” for any set of living humans of a comparable population size.

    2) In its philosophical-theological form, the “Problem of Evil” is little more than a complicated version of Tic-Tac-Toe. With any two players of sufficient basic skills, the result is always a “tie.” Has anyone ever played this out and not come to a conclusion that confirmed h/er/is initial position?

    3) The “Problem of Evil” that does any effective work with regard to “deconversion” has nothing to do with logic and everything to do with personal experience and frustration of desire/expectation/will.

    4) If either are at all concerned with the alleviation of real suffering in the world, both apologists and counter-apologists would do well to abandon this argument in favor of activities that might have any chance of helping someone.

    5) Finally, though off to the side of all these points, it seems there really should be no “apologist” side to this argument from Judaism or Christianity. The book of Job is pretty clear about God’s view of theodicy as a human practice. Zophar, Bildad, and Eliphaz are not figures to be emulated…

    • Hey thanks so much for reading my piece and commenting.

      1) if people don’t believe the premises that is fine, this doesn’t apply to them. But I think you would be hard-pressed to find Christians, who will not believe God is willing and physically capable of eliminating all gratuitous suffering.

      2) I do not think it results in a tie, do you? This would mean saying there seems to be enormous amounts of gratuitous suffering, but it is just as likely that it is all necessary. “Seems” should count for something especially when the volume of evidence is so large.

      3) I am not so sure about this, I think many people deconvert because they cannot understand how a good and powerful god would allow such suffering to occur. My argument is designed to show that this actually makes some sense.

      4) There is no need to “abandon the argument” in order to engage in activities that actually have a chance in helping someone. One can do both.

      5) Don’t know what you mean. I guess you are saying Christians and Jews should not try to explain evil becasue God admonished Job for inquiring about this?

      • dfxc says:

        1) Again, there’s a difference between what people ‘say’, what they ‘believe’, and what they’ve ever actually thought about. What’s “typical” is philosophical ignorance.
        2) My point was/is: everybody who plays ends up confirming their own presupposition re:God. Do you know of more than one or two examples of someone switching sides through this argument?
        3) My suggestion is it’s the experience of evil and the resulting cognitive dissonance, and not the formal argument, that makes the difference.
        4) You can, sure, but a lot of thought and effort goes into this that seems counter to the point of engaging in it.
        5) Go read the end of Job again. He’s not the one who gets in trouble.

    • Thanks again for your comments. I don’t seem to be able to reply below your last remark. Your comments seem directed not at the argument itself but as to its scope and the utility in making it. I can fully recognize that this kind of argumentation may have little reach and I fully recognize that it does not deal with all theologies. But I am more interested in any flaws in the argument or defences to it.

      But as I said in my post, I do this because I enjoy the discussion. This is not a social justice or charitable endeavour, though I think there is some social benefit to it.

      I would not say that the problem of evil alone is persuasive. But imexpect it usually plays a part. I know Bart Ehrman cites it as a tipping point, here is a post in which the author notes it played a role among other things.

  2. Daniel Choi says:

    I think it’s worth mentioning that the problem of evil is only a problem for monotheism; it isn’t a problem for polytheism since you can attribute evil to a separate evil god (who is equal in power to a good god). In fact, I think the Abrahamic faiths sort of hints at this by attributing evil to Satan, but this doesn’t really resolve the issue since God is seen as omnipotent (why does an all-powerful God allow Satan to commit evil?). Also, the book of Job indicates that Satan inflicts evil as a test, but only with God’s permission (in which case the responsibility is God’s so it’s back to square one).

    The problem of evil is a problem created by monotheists by their desire to worship a certain type of god. Theists today desire a god that is all-powerful and all-good, even though the evidence does not support it. The Bible does not portray a god that is all-powerful, but a god that can make mistakes and is subject to human imperfections. It also does not portray a god that is all-good, ordering wholesale genocide and deliberately inflicting suffering on his own people for the smallest transgressions. Nature also does not give indications of an all-good god; the suffering in nature would indicate a god that is either indifferent to evil or who is both good AND evil (Bible passages like Isaiah 45:7 would support the latter). Frankly, I have no idea where theists get the idea that God is omnipotent and omnibelevolent (if they formed their beliefs about God from the Bible then the problem of evil wouldn’t exist).

    I think the problem of evil is in the same intellectual territory as Chalcedonian Christology (100% human and 100% God) and the Eucharist (the bread and wine become 100% the flesh and blood of Jesus, even though it still looks and tastes like bread and wine). It’s what theists want to believe about God conflicting with logic and reality.

  3. Thanks Daniel I thnk you have summarized what I am getting at quite well. This argument aims to reveal a contradiction between beliefs is in an all good and all powerful deity. Any existence of gratuitous evil denies one of these beliefs.

  4. Pingback: A Salmon of Doubt Episode 5 – The Problem of Evil. | Brian Green Adams' Blog

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