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.
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.
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.
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.
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.