Evil is a Problem for Atheism

In a previous post, I explained how various tenets of the Catholic Christian worldview fit with the facts of evil and suffering in the world. In this post, I consider how the facts of evil and suffering fit with atheistic worldviews.

I will examine two ideas directly related to atheistic worldviews .

  • The lack of a cosmic purpose in the world.
  • The lack of grounding for binding, objective moral facts.

Purpose

If atheism is true, there is no cosmic purpose for our lives or for anything. The world we inhabit consists of matter in motion and energy swirling around. As Richard Dawkins famously puts it, “We are machines for propagating DNA, and the propagation of DNA is a self-sustaining process. It is every living object’s sole reason for living.” (source)

As far as this point is concerned, atheism makes sense. There is no problem of evil and suffering, since nature is blind to us. Evil and suffering are mere byproducts of biology, physics, and particles bumping into each other. While this might be deeply unsatisfying, it is completely consistent with atheistic worldviews.

A typical reply to this sense of dissatisfaction is that humans can create their own, subjective meaning. Creating their own purposes and goals, people can find reasons for the things they do. Moreover, since they only believe in a finite existence, they are focused on accomplishing their own life purposes as best they can with the time they have. This video on optimistic nihilism aims to present this case in a positive light.

Real Evil

Do humans really commit evil acts? The atheist wants to say so, but in doing so he reveals the assumption that some acts are objectively evil. He does not think we are left with mere diversity of opinion, but rather that some things are truly evil regardless of what any other humans think.

We can agree with the atheist here. However, the existence of objective evils or objective moral facts poses a problem for atheistic worldviews.

Objective Moral Facts

The existence of objective moral facts presents a problem for atheistic worldviews. First, it serves to support a key premise in a famous argument for God.

  • If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  • Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  • Therefore, God exists.

If the atheist grants objective moral facts, then he grants premise two of that argument. If the theist can support premise one, then he has made a strong case against atheism.

Will the atheist grant that there are objective moral values and duties? Probably. He might bite the bullet and declare that nothing is truly right or wrong independent of what people think about it. But that’s a hard pill to swallow.

Is it wrong to be a racist white supremacist? What about executing homosexuals? Is it wrong to torture babies for fun? These obvious examples of immorality show the atheist just how difficult it is to deny objective moral values and duties.

So, the argument turns to premise 1: If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

Premise One

Is premise one plausible? What does God have to do with it? William Lane Craig defends the premise well in this debate with Sam Harris. Let’s examine the case for it.

By objective, Dr. Craig means “independent of human opinion.” It does not matter what some people think, or even the majority. Even if the Nazis won World War II and brainwashed everyone into adopting their ideology, their behavior would still be objectively wrong.

Why is that? Well, on classical theism, God issues divine commands in accordance with how he has created all kinds of creatures, such that they ought to act in a way which is good and avoid evil. It’s wrong to torture a baby for fun, because we ought to treat our neighbors as ourselves; they are not as instruments to be abused for fun.

Of course, this immediately raises the question of the Euthythro dilemma. It runs as follows:

(1) Does God issue divine commands because they are good independently of Him? If so, then God is not needed for objective morality, because the goodness of the commands is determined independently of God.

(2) Or are divine commands good only because it was God who issued them? If so, this seems to make divine commands arbitrary. In other words, torturing babies for fun could be good if God so commanded.

Dr. Edward Feser provides a solid answer to the Euthythro dilemma here. It suffices for our purpose to declare the dilemma false one. (1) and (2) are not the only two options. New options can be introduced to solve the dilemma. Here’s a popular one that Willaim Lane Craig defends:

(3) God issues divine commands that are good because He is good. The commands flow from His intrinsically good divine nature. So, they are not good independently of God, but rather good because of the goodness of God.

Once that dilemma is solved, we can present the atheist with his own tri-lemma:

  • Deny objective moral values and duties (very counter-intuitive).
  • Find some other fault with the argument.
  • Embrace theism.

Summary

While some tenets of atheistic worldviews fit well with the evil and suffering we experience, others do not. We have seen the problem objective moral values and duties pose for atheists. We have also seen how evil and suffering are consistent with the doctrines of the Catholic Christian worldview. All of this has served to dissolve the problem of evil and suffering.

However, I think many people have ignored the strongest solution to the problem. I have alluded to Brian Davies’ book on the subject in prior posts, but I have not yet explained his argument. His defense is powerful, and you may not like it at first. Atheists will definitely not like it. But it’s worth explaining and defending, especially if it’s true.

You can find my summary and review of Davies’ insights here.

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15 Responses

  1. There is no such thing as evil. That would require libertarian free will, which does not exist.

    Moral nihilism is just the truth. Even if it were false, that doesn’t change the fact that people are raped, tortured, work crappy jobs, are exploited. So what exactly is the difference between a world where moral nihilism is true and moral realism is true, if the same crap happens in both worlds?

    Instead of wasting time labeling things as ‘evil’, if you care about reducing suffering…go out and reduce it instead of defending Catholicism, which hurts people incredibly with its teachings on sexuality and Hell.

    • John DeRosa says:

      Raphael,

      You make a lot of unsupported assertions. I don’t deny you have evidence and reasons behind what you say, but I would like to here them. Preferably the ones most relevant to the post you are commenting on.

      However, I see you are willing to “bite the bullet” of moral nihilism, which I explain in the post is indeed consistent with your atheism.

      Re: So what exactly is the difference between a world where moral nihilism is true and moral realism is true, if the same crap happens in both worlds?

      Well, many would argue (as I suggest in the post) that a world where moral realism is true entails a theistic world.

      • What bullet have I bitten? Moral nihilism doesn’t mean I don’t care about suffering, and moral realism doesn’t change the fact that there is suffering. I have no emotional difficulty whatsoever in affirming moral nihilism.

        “a world where moral realism is true entails a theistic world.”

        And that theistic world is still a world where rape and murder exists.

        • “Even if there were a god, it wouldn’t matter.” -Albert Camus

          • John DeRosa says:

            Raphael,

            Re: “What bullet have I bitten?”

            Perhaps you don’t consider it a bullet. If moral nihilism is true, then it’s not a fact that, for example, raping children for fun is wrong. Most people think this is a fact (i.e. not just a matter of opinion or consensus). But you don’t? Right?

            Also, do you agree with that statement from Camus? If so, what does he mean? If there is a God, then that seems to be of ultimate importance.

  2. “Most people think this is a fact…” Then they haven’t really considered the issue. What does it even mean to say “rape is wrong”? It still occurs anyway. Where was moral realism when the child was raped? Where mas moral realism when the Jews were being thrown into gas chambers? Where was moral realism when Adam ate the fruit? Where was moral realism when blacks were kept as slaves?

    Moral realism is a let-down. It labels things as evil, but so what? They still happen. In what sense is X wrong if X still occurs? At least moral nihilism doesn’t make promises.

    So go ahead and try to make me look sick for not believing in morality. You’ll fail. Moral nihilism is not incompatible with caring for the suffering of others. I could flip that around and say you’re sick for worshiping a God who allows children to be raped for fun.

    “If so, what does he mean?” If there is a god, so what? There is still slavery, exploitation, animal abuse, rape, torture, genocide, war, disease, cancer, etc. So a god makes no practical difference from no god at all.

    • John DeRosa says:

      Raphael,

      Re: “So go ahead and try to make me look sick for not believing in morality. You’ll fail.”

      This is not my intention. I don’t think you’re sick.

      Re: “If there is a god, so what? There is still slavery, exploitation, animal abuse, rape, torture, genocide, war, disease, cancer, etc. So a god makes no practical difference from no god at all.”

      This begs the question. Assuming atheism or some form of deism is true, there are still tons of evils and God makes no practical difference. However, if Christianity is true, then even the greatest evils will be overshadowed and outstripped by God’s goodness in the long run.

      One purpose of this post was to show the difficulty of affirming moral realism and atheism simultaneously. Since you affirm moral nihilism, this point does not count against your worldview. There are many people who do not affirm moral nihilism, and this is a relevant point for them.

      I appreciate you taking the time to visit and comment on my website.
      Peace,
      John D.

      • “then even the greatest evils will be overshadowed and outstripped by God’s goodness in the long run.”

        How? ‘Evil’ will not be undone. And is it really okay to allow evil (when you could easily prevent it) just because you will “overshadow it” (whatever the heck that means) later on? “Oh, daughter, I will let you raped, but I’ll give you a nice house and an ice cream later on…even though I could do that now instead.”

        And you’re ignoring the evil committed by your Deity: torturing people forever. Compared to torturing someone forever, raping someone for fun is almost nothing.

        • John DeRosa says:

          Raphael,

          Re: How? ‘Evil’ will not be undone. And is it really okay to allow evil (when you could easily prevent it) just because you will “overshadow it” (whatever the heck that means) later on? “Oh, daughter, I will let you raped, but I’ll give you a nice house and an ice cream later on…even though I could do that now instead.”

          One main problem with this approach is that it puts God on our level, as if he is just one more human alongside us but with greater superpowers. That is not the view of classical theistic thinkers. So, you cannot simply judge God as if you were judging just one more human moral agent. You can attempt to, but inasmuch as the judgment rests on a false view of God, it will not prove successful. I know you’re familiar with Dr. Feser. See this article of his of a brief rundown on some of the differences between classical theism and theistic personalism.

          As far as the argument for evil being overshadowed and outstripped, Catholic philosopher Alexander Pruss fills in some details here. I also write more about it in this post. Suffice it to say that all evils in this world are finite, and if our existence is infinite, then such tiny excerpts of the past (no matter how grave) will look like a spec of dust in comparison to eternity.

          Lastly, Re: And you’re ignoring the evil committed by your Deity: torturing people forever. Compared to torturing someone forever, raping someone for fun is almost nothing.

          This begs the question by presupposing that God commits evil and that you can successfully judge that he commits evil. According to the Catholic Christian worldview, God’s particular judgments and His judgment at the end of time will be perfect.

          • Moral realism is incoherent. I was simply borrowing the language to show that God’s actions would be evil if anything was evil. But it’s not necessary to use such language. I need not morally judge God. I can simply point out that benevolence and preventing unnecessary would be a logical entailment of God’s nature (no “oughts” required). For God to allow suffering would be wasteful, and rational, compassionate beings do not inflict/allow suffering when it could be avoided.

            Alexander Pruss and the blink of an eye. Any amount of time would be “a blink” compared to eternity. By that sadistic view, it would be okay for God to allow a girl to be raped for 800 years as long as it’s foreshadowed by infinite Heaven. It would be okay for God to allow a Jew to be starved and tortured for 5,000 years as long it’s foreshadowed by Heaven. One thing you’re overlooking in this callous attitude of human suffering is the fact that time slows down when you’re in misery. It’s easy to say Heaven “makes up for suffering” when you’re not the one living in poverty and living in intense fear of Hell, or any number of things. In pain, time can seem to drag on forever. Clinical depression is an example.

            God, again, is all-powerful. He DOES NOT need to allow pain.

            “This begs the question by presupposing that God commits evil and that you can successfully judge that he commits evil. According to the Catholic Christian worldview, God’s particular judgments and His judgment at the end of time will be perfect.”

            You’re basically saying that if Christianity is true, then Christianity is true. Of course God’s judgment would be just if you presuppose that it is just. But Christianity is what’s under dispute. Torturing someone forever is sadistic, and sadism (“evil”) is not compatible with God’s loving nature.

          • John DeRosa says:

            Re: Moral realism is incoherent.

            Why do you believe that? How did you come to that conclusion? Some atheists like Sam Harris would disagree with you. Some may agree that moral realism is false, but still find it coherent. What’s your argument for why it’s incoherent?

            Re: For God to allow suffering would be wasteful, and rational, compassionate beings do not inflict/allow suffering when it could be avoided. I think this type of language suggests that you’re thinking of God on the model of a human being. But instead of just a regular human being, he’s a super-powerful, really smart, and really loving one. That’s not the right model for thinking about God.

            Re: One thing you’re overlooking in this callous attitude of human suffering is the fact that time slows down when you’re in misery.

            You state in passing that Pruss’ line of thinking is callous. This assumes that one cannot be empathetic about human suffering and also believe in Heaven which will outstrip all temporary suffering. Christians maintain that both of those premises can be simultaneously affirmed.

            Re: It’s easy to say Heaven “makes up for suffering” when you’re not the one living in poverty and living in intense fear of Hell, or any number of things. In pain, time can seem to drag on forever. Clinical depression is an example.

            How difficult or easy something is to say has no bearing on its truth. Your reply here seems to indicate that you think Christians must say, “Who cares about your suffering! We don’t care about your suffering, because in the end Heaven is going to be so much better.” Such an attitude reflects unfamiliarity with the great saints of the Catholic tradition. People like Mother Teresa and Fr. Damien of Molokai who cared intimately about the suffering of others and spent their life loving those who suffered.

            Re: God, again, is all-powerful. He DOES NOT need to allow pain.

            Here, I agree with you. He did not need to allow pain, but He chose to allow pain. You might try to draw a sweeping inference from this, “Therefore, He’s evil. Therefore, He’s not good or loving.” That conclusion does not follow from the premise.

            I should add that one need not take a position on Pruss’ thoughts in that post (or any other theodicy) to dispel the logical version of the Problem of Evil. One might just say that God has morally sufficient reasons for the evil and suffering in the world and we do not know what they are. And, if there are good reasons to think that God exists, then those are also good reasons for thinking the logical problem of evil fails.

            I see you have presented an argument on another post regarding your version of the logical problem of evil. I will take a look at this there and reason. Suffice it to say here that for that argument to go through, one would have to show that God could not possibly have morally sufficient reasons for the evil and suffering in the world. This heavy burden, theists speculate, is what leads J.L. Mackie (and other famous atheists) not to insist on the logical version of this argument.

  3. Moral realism is incoherent because it depends on libertarian free will. Your actions can’t be good nor evil if you could not have done otherwise.

    I’m not thinking of God as a human being. I’m thinking of Him as an all-powerful pure spirit as most religious people do.

    One problem I have with religion is that it promotes speciesism and becomes an excuse for factory farming and eating animals.
    ‘Humans matter, but animals are our playthings.” I don’t care about human suffering; I care about all suffering.

    To allow any suffering is wasteful when God could have just put us in Heaven right away. Loving beings do not waste suffering. The theist attitude is insulting to human suffering because it implies that it’s ultimately justified for God to allow it, just because of a later paradise. Of course, it isn’t, because God could just give it to us now. A loving parent, capable of making his child happy, would not be showing love if he allowed his child to be tortured first.

    Mother Teresa? Give me a break. She campaigned against birth control and abortion. Watch Christopher Hitchens’ documentary about her. You could also watch the Dimond Brothers’ documentary, which shows that she wasn’t even a real Catholic.

    “One might just say that God has morally sufficient reasons for the evil and suffering in the world and we do not know what they are.”

    This is just saying that God has God-like reasons for the evil, for God is morality itself. It’s slimy equivocation. God has no morally sufficient reasons given the fact He could have put us in Heaven right away. Any significant morally sufficient reason would have to involve reduction of pain that would inevitably result from His not putting us in Heaven right away. But of course, God and His creatures would be perfectly happy if He put us in Heaven right away.

    Logical, loving beings don’t waste suffering.

    • John DeRosa says:

      Raphael,

      Re: Moral realism is incoherent because it depends on libertarian free will. Your actions can’t be good nor evil if you could not have done otherwise.

      This conclusion only follows if it’s true that “depending on libertarian free will” automatically makes something incoherent. You have not shown this is the case but rather assert it. This is question begging.

      Re: To allow any suffering is wasteful when God could have just put us in Heaven right away. Loving beings do not waste suffering.

      This is an informal riff on your more formal logical argument from evil. I respond to it in the other post where you spell out the premises.

      Re: The theist attitude is insulting to human suffering because it implies that it’s ultimately justified for God to allow it, just because of a later paradise.

      Here you ascribe Pruss’s point related to theodicy to theists in general. As I explain elsewhere, one need not hold to a particular theodicy to see that the logical problem of evil fails. Atheists like J.L. Mackie and William Rowe agree that the logical problem of evil fails. They are quoted in this video put out by Dr. Craig at Reasonable faith.

      Re: A loving parent, capable of making his child happy, would not be showing love if he allowed his child to be tortured first.

      What about if he allowed his child to suffer pain or anguish when he could stop it? Does this necessary imply the parent is not showing love? I think we can think of several examples when it does not imply this.

      Re: Mother Teresa? Give me a break. She campaigned against birth control and abortion. Watch Christopher Hitchens’ documentary about her. You could also watch the Dimond Brothers’ documentary, which shows that she wasn’t even a real Catholic.

      This assumes that someone who campaigns against birth control and abortion cannot be a person of great love, compassion, and charity. It begs the question. Also, telling someone to go watch something does not refute her years of charity and work for the poor. Moreover, she is only one example. You can ignore her if you want. The point is that Catholic saints who care for the poor and downtrodden show how believing in Heaven is compatible with compassion for those who are suffering.

      Re: This is just saying that God has God-like reasons for the evil, for God is morality itself. It’s slimy equivocation. God has no morally sufficient reasons given the fact He could have put us in Heaven right away. Any significant morally sufficient reason would have to involve reduction of pain that would inevitably result from His not putting us in Heaven right away. But of course, God and His creatures would be perfectly happy if He put us in Heaven right away.

      Logical, loving beings don’t waste suffering.

      This is another riff on your more formal argument from evil (though with more asserting rather than arguing). I respond to your formal argument in the combox of this post.

      Peace,
      John

  4. “And, if there are good reasons to think that God exists, then those are also good reasons for thinking the logical problem of evil fails. ”

    On the contrary, the fact that God would not allow suffering proves that He does not exist, and so the arguments for theism fail in one premiss or another. Most of the arguments for theism have been refuted and/or are not really arguments for theism, but for supernaturalism. One can be a supernaturalist without being a theist. I’m a supernaturalist atheist.

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