The Atheist’s Problem of Evil

This is my write-up paper on a project I did for my theology class on the Problem of Evil.

The Problem of Evil has plagued scholars and Christians for centuries, and many attempts have been made to solve the problem in order to explain the existence of God in light of the existence of evil. The Problem of Evil can be stated as follows:

God is omnipotent, omniscient, and moral perfect. Since God is omniscient he knows when evil exists. Since God is morally perfect he should want to do away with evil. Since God is omnipotent, he has the power to do away with evil. Evil does exits. Therefore, either God doesn’t know when evil exists — making him not omniscient — or God does want to do away with evil — making him not morally perfect — or God does not have the power to do away with evil — making him not omnipotent. Therefore, God does not exist.

Since the Problem of Evil is somewhat simple in its form and the arguments in defense are complex in their form, many Christians resort to conclusions of the problem that are insubstantial. What we fail to realize is that the Problem of Evil creates just as great of a problem, if not more of a problem, for the atheist as it does the theist. There is no question as to whether the Christian believes that there is objective morality. However, what will determine the way an atheist must articulate the Problem of Evil will be whether or not they believe in objective morality.

CAN SCIENCE DETERMINE ABSOLUTE VALUES?

And this is the essential question when considering the Problem of Evil: is there objective or absolute truth in regards to morality? In order for a person to use the Problem of Evil as a proof that God does not exist, then they must believe in an objective standard for morality and what is good. If one does not believe in objective morality and that morals are relative and merely preference, they cannot be in the position to call anything evil. The person who holds to this stance can only state that they do not prefer the evil that they are observing, and even still, they cannot call it “evil.”

This is why I appreciate the effort of Sam Harris to make a case for objective moral values as an atheist, however, his method and route to arrive at his conclusion that moral values can be explained by science is lacking in the first step. In his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, Harris says, “I am arguing that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want—and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible.”[1] What Harris fails to do is state how he knows what the best life possible is, or better yet, why living the best life possible is the standard for which absolute morality should exist as a guide.

In order to make assertions about human flourishing and living the best possible life, Harris hides behind his remarkable ability to appeal to emotion and pity. He frequently uses examples of tremendous human suffering to get his audience to agree that human flourishing is the best scenario versus human suffering and oppression. No one would disagree with Harris that human flourishing is good and human suffering is bad, but by what standard are we to measure human flourishing? The point is that Harris and others leap over the first hurdle to state what should be without giving a definition or standard to measure the way things should be. Science itself can never be a standard for morality since science must use rules and standards to arrive at conclusions. Therefore, science cannot make any claim on the way things ought to be when considering morals and values. If science is the tool that we use to gauge our morality and values, we should expect some very specific outcomes. Why are so many people divided on what is of value and moral? One of the goals of science is to weigh the facts and come to precise conclusions. If science is the tool we are to use to conclude what is moral and of value, then it is an unreliable tool because there is so much disagreement on what is of value. Plus, scientific conclusions are also based on how one interprets facts. A better explanation for the variety of positions on values is to say that there is a standard, but we as humans distort what we ought to do by our sin. Harris has a long up-hill battle if he truly desires all people to use science to determine their values.

MAKING JUDGMENTS ABOUT EVIL PROVES GOD EXISTS

In the atheist’s attempt to disprove God’s existence by using the Problem of Evil, they end up right back where they started by acknowledging that evil is not the way it is supposed to be. There is nothing that can suggest the way things ought to be besides one who ultimately says the way things ought to be. The atheist would have to explain where this feeling or compulsion of “oughtness” comes from. Harris tried to state that science is able to tell us what we ought to do, but once again, he fails to show where the compulsion of “ought” comes from. In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis describes what he calls the “Law of Nature” as being the thing that gives us our sense of right and wrong. It is not so much what we say is right or wrong, but that we say anything is right or wrong. Regardless of what one calls right or wrong, there is still a sense of ought that a person cannot ignore. Even a relativist who would make moral judgments on whether another society’s values are better or worse are comparing the two systems to a standard, and in doing so, they are saying that one system conforms better to that standard than the other. One would not be able to call the values of Nazi Germany evil; they would only be able to call it a difference in preference.

Lewis is also helpful in addressing the objections a person could raise based on the injustice of the universe. A person who uses an argument like the Problem of Evil can’t see how God could exist because of the cruelty and injustice in the world. But, where does a person get the idea of something being unjust? They are comparing an evil event or idea to a standard that demands things to be a certain way. Being the master of analogy, Lewis says, “A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.”[2] On the other hand, a person would not have anything to say in a situation where there is nothing to compare it to. In an analogy on this idea, Lewis says, “A man feels wet when he falls into water, because a man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet.”[3] If there were no Law of Nature then we would not have anything to say in regards to evil, cruelty, and injustice. We would be like the fish swimming around in the ocean completely unaware of the fact that it is wet. But, we know the fish is wet because we have something to measure its wetness against, much in the same way we can make moral judgments on evil, cruelty, and injustice because we have the Law of Nature to measure it against. A person could say that they aren’t making any judgments based on any law but on their own ideas. If this is the case, Lewis says that their whole argument against God crumbles. On this he says,

“Of course I could have given up on my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God would collapse too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense.”[4]

What Lewis does here is drive home the point that the complaint against God in the Problem of Evil could not be made without a law to measure evil by, and in this way, God will be found to be the one who gives the law to measure evil by, and thus, showing that the Problem of Evil makes a case for God’s existence instead of against it.

HOW DO WE ANSWER THE PROBLEM?

There have been many attempts to solve the logical Problem of Evil at a great expense to the character and attributes of God. It is still possible to explain the existence of evil while still maintaining the integrity of God’s attributes. There have been responses made to the problem of evil in complex form by scholars like Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, and others. But for a more simple explanation I will go back to Lewis. He says,

“God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either right or wrong. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong; I cannot. If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love goodness or joy worth having.”[5]

What this shows is that the existence of evil in the world is compatible with the existence of God. What we realize is that the atheist is sawing off the branch they are sitting on. They need God to exist in order to call anything evil while they are making the argument that he doesn’t exist using the Problem of Evil.

EXPLANATION OF PROJECT

For my project I created a series of photos using a technique called “forced perspective” where the creator uses optical illusions to make objects appear to be out of sync with reality. Often times it is done by scaling objects using different camera angles and vantage points. My desire was to create something where there is no standard or measurement that can be used to orient the reality of the photo. When looking at the photo, a person takes immediate issue with the objects in the photo because they get a sense that it is not supposed to be the way that it appears. When a person looks at the picture long enough, they use the standards for the objects that they already have in their minds to make sense of the picture. This is not a perfect example, but when you take away anything that would orient the objects in the optical illusion, it leaves a person searching for something to give them a frame of reference for how things are supposed to be in the picture. This goes to show that we can only make sense of the picture by bringing in things that we already know in order to orient the objects. In the same way, we can only know values and moral meaning when we bring in something (the Law of Nature) as a standard to orient us to the way that things are supposed to be.

sunmoon

 

[1]             Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York: Free, 2010. Print. 1.

[2]             Lewis, C. S. The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002. Print. 41.

[3]             Lewis, 41.

[4]             Ibid, 41.

[5]             Ibid, 49.

Author: Brandon Imbriale

I hold a B.A. from California Baptist University and a MDiv from Gateway Seminary. I also think I'm a photographer who loves to takes pictures of anything ocean related and landscape. In real life I'm a teacher.

6 thoughts on “The Atheist’s Problem of Evil”

  1. There’s nothing wrong with deciding as an individual what is right and wrong. Because an individual identifies right and wrong by their own judgments, that doesn’t somehow point to any supernatural entity. Lots of people have different moral beliefs- what makes one person more right than another? Morals are relative so it’s up to a society of individuals to make these decisions. Evil isn’t real in the sense that you can point to it; it’s just what a bunch of people agree is evil, and this changes over time. Is the correct god changing his mind when this happens? How do we know that whatever the Christian (or any) church puts forward as “right” at this moment is what their god wants? People thought this same philosophy about evil and supernatural deities towards the existence of Zeus and Ra. There’s still no evidence for what is right and what is wrong objectively. You can’t even say that people naturally know right from wrong because people obviously have different beliefs that change from generation to generation.

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    1. Hi Travis, thanks for the comment.

      First, your argument crumbles in your first sentence. On what basis do you say there is nothing wrong with an individual deciding what is right or wrong? Is that objective? If it is relative like you say moral judgment is, then it’s merely your opinion and I don’t have to listen to you. I actually agree with you though, and that there is nothing wrong with an individual deciding what is right or wrong as long as they use the correct standard.

      You also say,”Lots of people have different moral beliefs- what makes one person more right than another?” Just because people have different moral beliefs doesn’t mean they are all equally correct. And by your own view, you would have to say that my view is equally valid as yours. But, my view says that yours is wrong. So, who’s right? Based off of what you said above, you can’t say that I’m wrong.

      I think you missed a major point of my post. You say, “Morals are relative so it’s up to a society of individuals to make these decisions.” Even if this were true, where does the sense of oughtness a person has to make moral decisions come from? It’s not so much WHAT you say is right or wrong, it’s that you say ANYTHING is right or wrong. What demands us to say something is right or wrong?

      I don’t know if you realize how badly you contradicted yourself here, “Evil isn’t real in the sense that you can point to it; it’s just what a bunch of people agree is evil.” If people agree something is evil, aren’t they pointing to it as something that is real? If it’s not real, then evil doesn’t exist and people wouldn’t point to it.

      You say, “How do we know that whatever the Christian (or any) church puts forward as “right” at this moment is what their god wants?” Because God has revealed it to us and it doesn’t change. We may say it changes, but it doesn’t mean it actually changes.

      You say, “There’s still no evidence for what is right and what is wrong objectively.” Come over hear and let me punch you in the nose, and try to tell me I’m wrong for doing so. Also, like I mentioned in my post, don’t even begin to say that what Nazi Germany did was wrong because they, as a society, declared what they did to be right.

      You say, “You can’t even say that people naturally know right from wrong because people obviously have different beliefs that change from generation to generation.” Just because people have different moral beliefs and that they change does not mean there is no standard. It just means they move closer to or further away from the standard.

      I still think you missed the point of the post. My goal isn’t to debate about relative or objective morality, necessarily. It’s that if a person is going to call anything evil, they have to believe in objective morality. If moral judgment is relative, you can’t call anything evil because then you are comparing it to something outside of yourself. And this is where the argument for objective morality comes from. In order to make moral judgments, you have to use a standard outside of yourself. Even though individuals may decide what they deem is right or wrong, they still have to appeal to an outside source.

      Merry Christmas!

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      1. To my understanding your post asserted the idea that making moral judgments must mean that there is an outside moral standard, something objective. I can call whatever I want evil, but those are standards I come up with on my own (or more likely they are learned from others and accepted by the individual). I still don’t see the connection to a god.

        I’m familiar with the natural law theory that you bring up in your post, but there’s no evidence for it. Other civilizations currently and throughout history (long before Christianity began, even) have held different moral beliefs, a sense of what is right and wrong. Are they all wrong except your group? Is it an abomination to be gay? For a long time, people believed so, but we are overwhelmingly seeing a cultural shift in this question. It’s how civilizations work. Who is to say WHICH group has the true, objective morals (be it from a god or otherwise)?

        I would think, as would most people, that if you punched me in the face (or if you partake in the agenda of Nazi Germany), that you are committing an act that is wrong because I, along with most people, believe causing such pain is wrong. Humans came up with this moral belief, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t see the connection to some deity. I do NOT have to believe in objective morality to think, personally, that something is right or wrong (or evil). I also don’t feel like I need some adherence to religion to tell me how to live what I believe is a morally just life, but I suppose that’s not the point we’re discussing.

        Sorry if my tone seems rude; it often tends to come out that way with “big question” discussions. Merry Christmas to you too! 🙂

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      2. Hi Travis, I have been away from my blog for a while and just had the opportunity to respond to your comment from a while back. I appreciate your interaction. Anyways, I was making the assertion that you cannot have objective moral standards without an absolute object giving the stand, and yes, I call that objective standard God. But, I am getting at something much deeper. The very idea of right and wrong, regardless of what you say is right and wrong, cannot exist without God. This is precisely what the moral law is, and the fact that the idea of right and wrong exists is evidence of the moral law.
        Yes, you can call things evil, but you have to borrow from my worldview in order to do so. If you are going to hold to a relativistic moral system, you can’t call it evil, you can only say that you, personally, don’t like it. It simply becomes a preference, which you might argue is perfectly fine. But, if that is the case, you can’t call me punching you in the face or the atrocities done by Nazi Germany evil, you can only say that you don’t like it.
        I like the fact that you brought up what society has called right and wrong in the past, and the cultural shifts that are happening in regards to certain issues because it completely undermines your argument. Lets go back to Nazi Germany. Obviously, there has been a cultural shift in Germany on the idea of racial purification by killing millions of people. But, according to your worldview, you cannot call that evil, all you can say is that the moral preference has shifted, which actually doesn’t make it any less wrong. The Germans decided for themselves at the time that was right. Just because “most” people would say it is wrong does not make it actually wrong. Think of your example on homosexuality. For a long time, most people said that was wrong, was it actually wrong? If you say no, then you can’t say the same thing about “most” people saying Nazi Germany was wrong.
        I am not saying at all that you need to belong to any religion to make moral judgments, it’s something that has been inherently given to everyone regardless if you believe in God or not.
        I also appreciate the concern you had for your tone. I don’t think you are being rude at all. I love having discussions like this. But, let me use that against you for a moment. Whose standard are you using to gauge your rudeness? Or better yet, why is being rude wrong? Obviously, you’re not trying to be rude. So, why would it be an issue, if according to your standard, you are not being rude? You seem to be appealing to some higher standard for rudeness, if so, what is it? Clearly, we have somewhat of a shared standard for rudeness. But again, what I am getting at is not what the standard is necessarily, but the fact that you have an innate sense in you to say that something, or anything, is right or wrong.

        Is it too late to wish you a happy new year? haha.

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      3. Hey Brandon,

        The idea that for moral standards to exist at all that they have to come from god is a misguided notion, and I’ll try and explain my point a bit further as well as lay out the evidence that you’re failing to provide. Your argument is one that’s pulled out of thin air, as we can actually point to how morals have developed over time through various reasons (some of those reasons having to do with religion, actually, but none of them having to do with the existence of a god).

        Again, human societies over time have developed morals which we now agree upon. This is something that you can actually track throughout history. There is data; it’s a huge part of sociology. What do you think about the homo erectus stumbling around trying to survive millions of years ago? Was he (and all others like him, or for that matter, any other animal throughout history) bounded by these “absolute morals?” He didn’t have the brain to understand such ideas or the concept of a god. When was the first human bound by these morals? What about those that came before?

        I’ll tell you where morals actually came from. Let’s think about Hobbes’s state of nature. Human beings first began in an anarchic system without government or concepts of private property. Life was “nasty, brutish, and short” as Hobbes called it. Through natural selection, we developed certain psychological responses during this state of nature. Stealing someone’s stuff triggers a negative response (and it still does today). It’s how people survived.

        As our brains developed, this sense of right and wrong developed out of self interest. It’s better for both of us, and society as a whole, if we agree that nobody steals anyone else’s stuff. This is how morals progress, and we have measured this throughout recorded history. Through the development of our brains, but mostly just through societal conditioning (how we’re raised) teaches us that there are things that are right and things that are wrong based on what benefits society the most. Sociologists have studied it very carefully, and any sort of actual supernatural entity has nothing to do with it. (The concept of gods developed for other reasons, and there have been thousands of them, each with different “absolute morals.” Is a man who made human sacrifice to Zeus now in Hell, for instance? He believed just as fervently as you do that his god was the right one and he was doing his god’s will.)

        To your whole point about Nazi Germany, tell me: What evidence can you point to that what Nazi Germany did was objectively wrong? I sound like a real jerk by saying this, of course, but I think that’s what you’re going for. As I’m sure you understand, I believe the Holocaust was wrong because I have a certain moral standard, as do you, which we gained through societal conditioning. I’m sure our moral standards line up in a lot of areas, and in some they likely don’t. People always make the argument: “Well then, if it’s all relative, Hitler wasn’t wrong.” It’s pretty much your “gotcha” here, and it’s something I hear a lot. But that rhetoric is more of an emotional argument, and you haven’t found any flaws in my logic. No, there’s nothing magically letting us know what’s right or wrong. Where’s your proof for this supernatural entity? And what about morals in the Bible? Are those the ones that were given to you with absolute validity? Is it true that if you were to rape a woman, you should then be forced to marry her? What about laws condoning slavery, murder, and all kinds of atrocities committed in the Bible by your god’s will? Do you get to pick and choose when there are contradictions, or simply ignore something that seems ludicrous to believe in today? Do you explain it away or simply not talk about it at all (as most religious services do)?

        I think I’ve outlined the dominant theory, which makes a lot of sense, for how morals develop. We can track it through science. Why do different societies have different morals? Because people in those societies are raised differently with different sets of values. Why are there morals at all? Because people don’t like having their stuff stolen. Where is any sort of evidence that the morals you believe in, the ones you feel were given to you by a god, are unquestionably superior to any laws given by Zeus, Ra, or Odin? I don’t have an answer there.

        Thanks for your discussion, as always.

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      4. Hey Travis, thanks for the reply. Let me first address your claim that my argument came out of thin air. I have studied philosophy and logic, and this by no means makes me an expert, but when I use what reasoning I have, I cannot reconcile the existence of moral law without a moral law giver. I say this because my inherent human desire is that I don’t want God to exist because I actually don’t like the idea that I am accountable him. My point is that this is not merely wishful thinking because, like I said, my wish in human terms would be that I am not accountable to an ultimate law-giver, but I can’t get around it. Is it possible that my reasoning is wrong? Of course, it’s possible, which is why we are having this discussion.

        Simply posing a theory as to how societies decide what is moral does not prove where the sense of morality came from. You attempted to explain this by using the example of the negative feeling that happens when someone steals something from another. But, that’s not adequate even in terms of survival. Let’s ask an even more foundational question; why is it good or better to survive? And if we are to make that judgment, we are using a standard. And if we are going to use a standard, which one are we using? But even still, let’s assume that morals were instituted for survival. What if stealing something from you was going to make my survival situation better? That’s why people steal anyway. Stealing something from you, in this case, would generate a positive response for me. So, why should I care if it creates a negative response for you? You even said that we develop a sense out of right and wrong out of self-interest. My self-interest would be to steal from you. Why would I care if it’s better for both of us? If it’s purely out of self-interest, I only care if it helps me. If morals were truly relative and are formed out of self-interest, then I would be murdering and stealing because stealing enhances my chances of survival, and murder would create less competition. This is exactly how morality would play out in a truly evolutionary model. I don’t disagree that we can be conditioned to think what is right and wrong, but what I am getting at is where the very idea of right and wrong comes from regardless of what we are conditioned to think what is right or wrong.

        As far as your questions about first humans, I believe that the moral law is something that everyone already has, and the sense of right and wrong proves that. So, yes, everyone is accountable for moral law, even absolute morals laws. We have been given a conscience as a guide to make moral judgments. So, yes, they were accountable. What evidence do we have that first humans had diminished moral capacity?

        Just because sociologist study something doesn’t mean they are right. The sociology I have read says there is no biological explanation for a sense of right and wrong. Also, even though someone may be sincere and fervent in what they believe, they can be sincerely and fervently wrong.

        You asked what evidence I have that what Nazi Germany did was objectively wrong, and you kindly proved my point that you can’t say what they did was objectively wrong, therefore, you cannot make a moral judgment on it because it was right for them. Same thing with any social issue. You can’t advocate for any sort of justice because you would be imposing your morals on someone else. And yes, our morals line up in this area with most other people because they are objective. And yes, it sort of is a “gotcha”, and I know you hear it a lot because it’s the prime example of making someone with relative morals take their worldview to the most extreme degree. Call it rhetoric, or whatever you want, but you still have to deal with the reality of it. The proof of the supernatural entity is in the moral law itself. I know nothing magically tells what it right or wrong because it’s the conscience that tells us.

        I am really glad you brought up morals in the Bible because I am going to use it to point out the flaw and inconsistency of your worldview. First, I have no problem talking about anything the Bible says. Slavery in the Bible, for example, was not the same as slavery in early America, but I am sure that is what comes to mind for you. Slavery in the Bible was a good thing in most cases and was more of an employer-employee relationship. If you owed someone a debt you couldn’t pay, you would work for them as long as needed to pay it off. That’s why there are laws for how people are to treat slaves. Not at all the same as the slavery you are thinking of. But besides that, let’s just say I believed in slavery and rape. Allow me to remind you that you believe that morals are relative and are decided by the individual based on self-interest. Because it is in my self-interest to satisfy the natural cravings I have as a human. You then have no moral ground to make judgments about what I say is moral. If you do, then you are using a standard. If you are using your own standard for morals, then I don’t care and don’t have to listen to you. So, even if the Bible advocated for those things the way you think they do, you are in no position to call it wrong.

        As far as your claim for science showing how morals come about, that can’t possibly be true. I am sure you are familiar with the scientific method because you seem like a smart guy, but if societies come to different conclusions about what is moral, then that would actually be bad science. The evidence for my sense of morality and the morals I believe in have been proven by all people who make moral judgments. If morals were actually relative, no one would make moral judgments.

        Let me finish by saying that it would actually be better for you to let me believe in objective morality because if you were to convince me that morals are relative, there’s no telling what I would do. Because if I am wrong, I’ve done nothing wrong morally, and I can’t do anything wrong because there’s no objective morality. And no matter what, one of us is wrong. Either God exists and we are accountable to him, or he does not exist and we are not accountable. Are you content dealing with the consequences if you are wrong?

        Cheers

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