Why I’m Not An Atheist, pt. 4

(on morality and the Problem of Evil)

Last week I talked about the Euthyphro dilemma. This week, I want to talk about a similar charge that has been laid against theism’s view of morality. Known as the Problem of Evil, the charge is that the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, loving God is contradictory with our world, since this world has so many cases of suffering and pain. The way this problem is framed is, basically, as follows: There is evil in this world. Therefore, God cannot have all of the qualities of omnibenevolence, omniscience, and omnipotence. This is because someone who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving would know about the evil we have on our earth (omniscience), be able to prevent or rectify those problems (omnipotence) and have the desire to do so (omnibenevolence). Thus, since evil exists, the existence of a being with those three qualities is impossible. Epicurus has a famous quote in which he summarizes the logic of the Problem of Evil. Specifically, he talks about God’s ability to get rid of evil and suffering.

“If he wants to and cannot, then he is weak – and this does not apply to god. If he can but does not want to, then he is spiteful – which is equally foreign to god’s nature. If he neither wants to nor can, he is both weak and spiteful, and so not a god. If he wants to and can, which is the only thing fitting for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them?” (this can be found in Lactantius’ De Ira Decorum)

On the face of it, this logic seems to work. It doesn’t disprove the existence of a deity, but it does seem to call into question the probability of Christianity’s deity. For the record, I think that arguments from morality are theism’s strongest. However, I do sympathize greatly with the atheist here. I too hate that little children starve in Africa and God appears to do nothing. I too hate that innocents are killed in drive-by shootings, that unspeakable horrors occur on an everyday basis and it doesn’t appear that God is doing much to stop them. So I get it. I do. And I get that this argument is supposed to refute the internal logic of Christianity’s brand of theism. It is supposed to show that the morality of Christianity specifically is flawed and hugely improbable. I think this is a strawman argument, but I’ll get to that later.

C.S. Lewis claimed that this problem was his main reason for being an atheist (before his conversion, obviously). Read his work Mere Christianity to get a better history of that process if it interests you. Eventually, Lewis realized that this argument has no bearing on the existence of God. In fact, if anything it provides ammo for the theist! His reason for coming to this conclusion is that he saw that his moral problem with the way the world was being run rested on his underlying morality. However, if this morality was subjective (that is, if morality was simply his own personal feelings about the stuff going on) then it appeared that he had lost his argument against God – because why should a supernatural, omnipotent being bend to the will of a finite human? However, if he tried to get around this problem by saying that his charge against the suffering in the world was an appeal to an objective morality, then this seemed to imply a deity. See, moral laws are not like physical laws that describe what is. Moral laws describe what ought to be. Therefore, moral laws require a certain amount of intelligence—a consciousness. We don’t put lions on trial for eating weak or young sheep. This is because we recognize that the lion does not have the cognitive ability to think about his actions and weigh what it is he ought to do. The lion in this example does not have the intelligence required for moral laws to apply to him. So if Lewis’ argument rested on a universal objective morality—a morality that governed the universe and not merely his own personal preferences—well, then this seemed to require an intelligence behind the universe. In other words, a mind is required for a moral law. If that law governs the universe and is “behind” the universe in that sense, then it seems that a mind must be behind that law. Lewis took this dilemma so seriously that it eventually led to his acceptance of Christianity. And I think it shows why the strongest argument for the existence of God is the moral argument. However, let me now jump back and talk about why I think the Problem of Evil is essentially a strawman argument.

The Problem of Evil is essentially a strawman argument for two reasons, that I can see. First, it assumes (falsely) that the highest priority of the Christian God is to alleviate suffering. It is not. Upon reading through the Bible, one will see pretty clearly that the God of Christianity is most concerned with His own glory. This is difficult to countenance. I realize that. But at its heart this means that God’s “omnibenevolence” is misunderstood. The God of the Bible, while distressed at sin and evil and suffering, can be seen in numerous instances to allow such atrocities to build up over time until they reach such a point that the judgment of the society in question is deemed to be full (just read the entire old testament and you’ll see more than you can count). At this point, the God of the Bible usually steps in and wipes out entire civilizations “so that they will know I am the Lord.” Notice that. The reason behind it is His own glory (and, subsequently, sins are seen as refutations of God’s glory that need to be punished). People often talk about God as an omnibenevolent being in the sense that God just wants everyone to be happy doing what they’re doing, but I don’t see that in the Bible. God is incredibly merciful to His people, but He also judges people for sin—and these judgments are often really really devastating and drastic and involve a lot of suffering. So, since the Problem of Evil is supposed to refute the internal logic of Christianity, I accuse it of making up a false internal logic and refuting that. The argument would be devastating if Christianity’s internal logic worked the way that the argument assumes. But it doesn’t.

The second reason that I think this thing is a strawman is that it does not take into account the Curse. The story of Christianity is that God has cursed the Earth and everything on it so that we all die. Everything dies. Of course, the story doesn’t end there, but the Curse is an essential part of the story that sets up the need for Jesus’ atonement. But let’s look at what the Curse entails. Part of it is that we are born into sin, born with a sin nature. This means that we are born with the will to live against the laws of God (which, it is made clear, are good for us to follow). In other words, the way we live can do nothing other than lead to suffering. There is no alternative. Living with no sin would, in the internal logic of Christianity, lead to an absence of suffering. In fact, this is the hope and picture we see in Revelation (a book in which God restores things to their original purposes). Now, all suffering can then be seen to be judgment on original sin. We have diseases because we live in a world that breeds diseases because our forebears sinned and God judged the world and history. Of course, this can lead to other arguments regarding the justice of punishing all of humanity for our forebears’ sins. But my point here is to show that Christianity actually has within it solutions to the charge of the Problem of Evil. And so, taking this point with the previous paragraph, the problem can be seen to be a strawman argument refuting something that isn’t actually Christian theism.

Regardless, I have to hearken back to C.S. Lewis. I don’t think the atheist is in any position to gripe about the existence of evil. In the system of atheism, there can be only three options in regards to morality (at least, these are the options as I see them):

  • 1. Morality does not exist.
  • 2. Morality is relative/subjective.
  • 3. Morality is objective.

Let’s take the first option. Followers of this view would hold that when I say something like “Killing is wrong,” I am uttering nonsense. My sentence has no meaning whatsoever, as if I had uttered “Cheese milk hopping toad” or something else that just combined various words together. I’m not going to spend much time refuting this because it seems entirely ludicrous to me and against our collective human experience. However, I will say that someone who holds this view must hold it as a conclusion to their worldview and not as a reason. This view loses the argument against God (at least in the sense of morality), because the atheist cannot find fault with anything in the world. There are no faults to find. There is no “ought to be.” There is only what is. See, I told you it seems ludicrous.

The second option is that morality is subjective—that it is relative to our culture/society/feelings/etc.  This is, in my opinion, the most valid option the atheist has at her disposal. Or, at least, it is the one most in line with the assumption of atheism. However, there are significant problems with this view apart from Lewis’ problem that we discussed earlier. The biggest one, in my opinion, is that this view leaves no room for argument between differing opinions. Under this view, there are no arguments about morality. After all, when I say “Killing is wrong,” this view holds that what I am actually saying is “I dislike killing.” But when Person X comes up to me and counters by saying “No, killing is not wrong,” this view would have to hold that what he means is “I like killing.” What you should notice is that these two sentences are not at odds with one another. But there is a very distinct sense that both me and Person X have: we believe that we are in a disagreement. According to this view, though, we are not. Which seems nonsensical. Also, this view must necessarily hold that there is no way to judge between moralities. Let’s say that the morality of the USA comes up against the morality of North Korea. In one, freedoms and choice and liberty are all considered good. In the other, obedience and authority is considered good. In a relativistic sense, there is no way to say that one is better than the other. If I try to use anything to show that one is better than the other (let’s say I point out that more people are happy in the USA, or that society flourishes more when individuals are given liberties), then I must point to something outside of both moralities. But by using anything to judge between the two moralities I have to assert that whatever I use (say, happiness or societal progress) is objectively better. So any attempt by a relativist to judge between competing moralities is simply objective morality in a clever disguise. In my example, I would be forced to say that happiness or societal progress are themselves the moral law—that is, I would have to say that the underlying, objective moral law of the universe is to increase those things.

That leaves us with the third option: objective morality. I hold, with C.S. Lewis, that objective morality strongly implies the existence of a deity. For me, being left with this option is a strong reason to believe in theism (though not one specific brand, of course). However, atheists who want to hold that morality exists and is objective (which is, I think, the only option that fits the evidence—as seen in the preceding two paragraphs) must hold that morality is ingrained in the universe. But notice that this does nothing to help the Problem of Evil. The atheist must explain what she means by moral law being ingrained in the universe, since the whole point of the Problem of Evil is that things don’t seem to behave in a moral fashion. If the atheist merely means that the moral law is there but requires consciousness to learn and adhere to, then she must explain how she thinks such a moral law could have arisen without consciousness behind it. Surely something that requires consciousness to understand and only effects conscious beings must have originated with something that was conscious…

In any case, I think the three options that the atheist has are not logical or adequate. There is a tremendous leap of faith that must be taken if one assumes the third option. But the other two options do not make any sense and leave no room for disagreement or judgment between societies. I can’t even say that we’re fortunate to live in a society that favors liberty and kindness, because such a statement has no meaning in that kind of reality. Now, it is obvious that my refutation of the Problem of Evil does not necessarily lead one to a specific theistic system. But I hope that it has shown that the Problem of Evil itself does not refute or even call into question the internal logic of theism, and especially not the internal logic of Christianity. That’s all I have for now, and that might be all I have in this series. Is there anything in particular you guys and gals would like me to write a post on that pertains to the a/theism debate?

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18 thoughts on “Why I’m Not An Atheist, pt. 4

  1. Impressive! I like your arguments. You should share ideas with some atheist that I have come across who conclude that there is no God because of the evil and suffering, and because there is “no evidence”. I love C.S. Lewis writings as well. By the way, I have an old post in my blog with this same exact title. I invite you to check it out.

    • Yes. I think you did miss something. A few things:
      1. According to the Christian system, they happen because either God allows them or makes them happen (depending on one’s views re: determinism and moral responsibility, etc.).
      2. My main point in this article was to show that even finding fault with those things leads, in my mind, to an objective moral stance that can only be supported by the existence of a deity.

      I’m not trying to prove to you that a deity exists. I’m trying to show that an argument from morality does not (perhaps even cannot) disprove or even really cast doubt on God’s existence.

      • Absolutely. You still haven’t given me any basis upon which you claim morality. What do you mean by good and bad, right and wrong? Is it merely your preferences that guide you? Then how do you expect anyone (much less an all-powerful being) to bend to your puny will? Or is it an ingrained law? Well, then I fail to see how a moral law can be deduced from nature, and if it requires a certain type of consciousness then where did it come from if not a consciousness behind the universe?

        More to your point: I have said elsewhere that I think Christianity operates on a “might makes right” basis, and it is simply that God is the mightiest and therefore determines morality. This is no different from the logical conclusions to your system (if what I gather from you is an atheistic materialism). It is simply that, instead of the human with the most guns or power, in Christianity God is the one who makes the rules. Even if that means they our own lives and sufferings are not the priority.

      • I don’t see the point in having a conversation with someone who has such a poor grasp of language that he can conclude that genocide, dictatorial tyrannies, global floods and hypocrisy can be “moral”.

        I also can’t imagine that I’m going to have a constructive conversation with someone that thinks that the problem of suffering is a strawman argument; is God not loving and all knowing and omnipotent? Has He, in His love for us, found something more important than our wellbeing? If so, is it His self-aggrandising and arrogant need to be worshipped? In which case, God is petty and capricious and omnipotent… and you don’t get your foundation for morality there, at all.

        I will make this point, though: The Problem of Suffering is an argument about the consistency of -your- worldview. If I cannot account for objective moral values in a Godless world, it does not matter. Because you think you can account for them. And in the world where you can account for objective moral values, you get it from the tyrannical, genocidal dictator.

        But, for the record, I agree with Sam Harris’ thesis in ‘The Moral Landscape’. And also, for the record, you have terrible reasoning for not being an atheist: ‘I want there to be objective morality and I can’t see how else there can be objective morality without a God.’ You can assert that objective morality needs an author all you like, and you can assert that objective morality exists all you like. That doesn’t make either claim correct.

      • Ok. I don’t see why you commented on the post at all if you are not interested in having a conversation, other this just to be argumentative and to try to make character attacks. I guess such antagonism and failure to be civil counts as being moral in your scheme. But anyway, obviously we disagree. And for the record I have said multiple times that these posts were probably titled inaccurately. A better title would have been “why I don’t think atheism escapes the problems it finds with theism.” But that doesn’t sound as good. In any case, I don’t think this conversation is going anywhere. I have shown in the post why the problem of evil is a straw man argument (not because suffering doesn’t matter, but because its existence is not contradictory to the Christian system). You have yet to show me any basis for you saying that genocide or cancer or whatever is wrong. Or even bad. Such a statement is either objective or loses its meaning. Why should anyone care what you think? What reason does anyone have to behave in a moral way toward anyone else? Because it’s better for everyone? That definition uses the concept of goodness to define goodness, first of all, and secondly it equates selfishness with moral actions, which many philosophers would find fault with. How can something I do be moral if I do it solely because it’s better for me personally? If you don’t want to answer these questions or provide constructive dialogue, please don’t bother responding. I certainly won’t respond to anything else.

  2. I have learned that we humans have a limited understanding of morality. Most people agree that cancer and tsunamis are “bad”. Others would argue that these scenarios are viewed as bad because they interrupt or destroy what has already been considered by humans as “good” (growth of communities, increase population, etc) so therefore, anything that would interrupt or stop what has been considered advantageous is then considered “bad”. However, I also see that, by nature, we all tend to want to survive, and survival is not something we learn, it is already implanted in our system. Therefore, we already know what is good from birth (survival) which I believe is an objective morality. Anything that interrupts this “God given” sense of survival (tsunamis, cancer, rape, murder, etc) is actually “bad”. In addition, there are still situations that makes us question the “morality of God”, which we are still challenged to understand further (natural disasters), but they also remind us of how limited we are in understanding all there is to understand about morality. I believe we will understand it all one day, but not yet. Because of this limitation we all have, the existence of God cannot be dismissed.

  3. Ariel says:

    Sorry to be that awkward like-every-post guy, but I think you’re voicing your arguments better with each entry in this series. I rather wish they’d been broken up into smaller sections, only because I keep wanting to post comments and can’t decide where to begin.

    Here is something to consider: Maybe God does not “punish” sin, as we understand it. As Christians, we believe that all things exist through God and in God. And yet God created the universe as an entity capable of existing outside himself, separate and yet inseparable from him — in the same way, perhaps, that the Trinity is both three separate parts and a single unit. The separation is necessary for relationship, which we are told God desired from the creation, but oneness, or synchronization, remains the desired end.

    Perhaps God does not punish sin so much as sin is self-punishing. The acts we describe as sinful are those that take advantage of the universe’s innate separation from God. However, since God is the one who brings order among the chaos, when we choose separation, we also allow the conditions of our lives to revert to disorder. And since humanity has repeatedly chosen to exercise our independence of this absolute order, the disorder of death has been given free reign on this earth.

    To put it another way: If you step off a bridge, gravity doesn’t punish you by bringing you to the ground. Gravity just is. It is possible that morality, like gravity, is merely a word describing the force which dictates how things are.

    Does that make sense? This is complicated. I will blog about it eventually.

    • I think I can agree with most of this. It makes sense to me that living apart from God’s will (I.e. sinning) will result on bad consequences not simply as a result of punishment but more because it is going against the morality that we have been made to follow. I think that’s part of what it means for people to “delight” in God’s law in the sense of the OT. The law is there to show is what actually brings happiness and joy.

    • However, I do think the end still implies a judgment/punishment of sin, since at the very least God still allows the consequences to reach us despite vein able to intervene. So I think in a sense it is at the very least a tacit punishment.

      • Ariel says:

        This is true, and it leads into the extremely messy topic of free will. I think for me personally, the biggest question attached to my faith is not “Why do bad things happen?” but “Why in the world would a loving God allow free will?” Some days I can almost justify it from a philosophical perspective, but philosophy is a far cry from its immediate, real life ramifications, and I would be lying if I said I was completely satisfied.

        However, as you point out, atheism offers no better answers (to me). If I were to be an atheist, I would be forced to accept a short life without answers. As a Christian, I can at least believe in the existence of answers and the eventual possibility of illumination. “Choose hope,” as they say.

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