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.

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[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.